In his book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor takes a long time to make a simple argument: Five hundred years ago it was impossible not to believe in God. Whether it was Christianity or some other religion, the world was filled with the divine. Today, however, the influences of science, technology, modern life and postmodern thought, have made belief in God nearly impossible. Or at least, it has become impossible to submit to a view of God and the world that is transcendent over places and true for all people.
Recently, we have seen this denial of God and his world in national news. When a highly educated supreme court appointee doesn’t know what a woman is she – a woman – is feigning ignorance of biology in order to not offend the masses. Clearly, our civilization is not the same as it was when the light of Christ was brighter. Yet, darkness of the world does not diminish the spiritual need that humans have. Indeed, our secular age is not less religious. Instead, people just worship things that don’t deserve worship.
To say it differently, where the worship of a true and living God is lost superstitions abound. This is true for individuals, families, nations, and churches. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the human heart. And if this is true today, it was equally true in Jesus day.
In John 5, we find something odd. Sitting just outside the temple was a group of invalids waiting for the waters to be stirred up in the pool of Bethesda. According to verse 7, and later clarified by the addition of verse 4, we find that many in Jerusalem sought healing not through prayer but through practices associated with other pagan mysterious religions. Clearly, something is wrong!
Indeed, entering a new part of John’s Gospel, the reader is brought back to Jerusalem, but instead of finding people in God’s city awaiting Israel’s restoration, like we see in Luke’s Gospel. We find a multitude of invalids waiting for a miracle that will never come. As Edward Klink notes,
With the abundance of evidence [around the Mediterranean] that pagan religion regularly used healing shrines with water as a regular component, it is not unlikely that [the tradition reported by John] is rooted in folk legend, possibly even a popular Jewish tradition. (John, 269–70)
Wherever these pagan ideas came from, superstition has gripped a large number in Jerusalem. Even worse, the Jews – i.e., Jewish leaders – have done nothing about it. Rather like the priests condemned in the Old Testament, these guardians of the temple have permitted false worship and errant superstition. Even more, as they patrol the city watching for Jews who might be violating Sabbath, they have no care or compassion for those who are truly suffering.
So that’s the situation we find in John 5, and it will continue until John 11. For seven chapters, Jesus will be confronted by Jewish leaders even as he exposes their hypocrisy. In John 5:1 we read “After this [i.e.. the second sign in Galilee] there was a feast in Jerusalem.” The feast is not named, presumably because John wants to focus on the Sabbath, which is named in verse 9.
So in John 5, Jesus enters the scene on an unmarked Sabbath day. And in all that follows he is going to expose the weakness of the Sabbath under the old covenant, and he is going to give Sabbath rest to the man in ways anticipating the new covenant. That is to say, he is going to heal this man and send him to the temple, so that he can truly come to know the God of Israel (see John 5:14). And for us reading John 5, we come to learn something about superstitions, our Savior, and the Sabbath.
On Sunday, I preached on John 5 and you can find that sermon here. And in that message you will find the good news of Jesus Christ who is our true and better Sabbath-giver. Check back tomorrow too, where I will try to show why John 5, among other passages, does not permit me to be a Sabbatarian. Until then you can read this and leave comments below.
For now, may we give praise to God that the Son invites us to find rest in him and that such rest is not contingent upon our works but his.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
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