The True Sabbath-Giver: Finding Eternal Rest in Our Superstitious, Secular Age (John 5:1–18)

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The True Sabbath-Giver: Finding Eternal Rest in Our Superstitious, Secular Age

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

Photo by Joshua Hurricks on Pexels.com

Working Smarter: Five Personal Reflections from David Murray’s ‘Reset’

resetLast week our family took time to decompress and visit the beautiful mountains around Gatlinburg, Tennessee. While there I read Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David Murray. For those in ministry or committed to serving in the local church on top of work, family, and all else, this is an important book. In ten “repair bays” Murray gives practical steps to recovering from burnout and finding rest in the midst of serious labor. I commend the book as a whole and found a number of things particularly applicable. Here are five of them. Continue reading

A Brief Meditation on the Minister’s Rest

farmerWhen I lived in Indiana I was surrounded by fields and farmers. From spring planting to fall harvesting, these men and women worked hard to bring fruit from the soil. As Paul indicates in 2 Timothy 2:6, “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.” In Paul’s day, like ours, farmers are known for their hard work. The same is true for those who sow and water with the word of God. Like the farmer, early mornings, long nights, and constant concern for the Lord’s harvest are a heavy burden.

Fortunately, God gives seasons to farmers. In the winter months, hard-working farmers receive a time of rest and recovery. But at the same time, these hard-working farmers take time to plan for the next year, for the increase of the harvest. I remember talking to them in the winter months as they would be making their seed orders, learning more about new techniques, and equipping themselves with the latest machinery. Sure, there were trips to the beach, holiday celebrations, and the ability to take an afternoon nap. But far more, these men and women spent their time preparing for the upcoming harvest.

This imagery is helpful when we think about a sabbatical. In the Old Testament, Israel was commanded to take a sabbatical from the land every seven years (Exodus 23:10–11). Following in the footsteps of their heavenly father (Genesis 2:1–3), they were called to rest. Rest in the Bible is never a time of inactivity or lethargy. Rather it is a time when God and his people enjoy one another. Such is the background for ministers of the gospel who occasionally take a season of rest and refreshment. The goal is not to pull away from the church, the Lord, or his work. But rather, it is a time of reflection, rest, and refreshment for future ministry.

Indeed, Charles Spurgeon spoke of the necessity for “holy inaction and consecrated leisure.” In his Lectures to My Students, the London pastor said,

It is wisdom to take occasional furlough. In the long run, we shall do more by sometimes doing less. On, on, on for ever, without recreation may suit spirits emancipated from this ‘heavy clay’, but while we are in this tabernacle, we must every now and then cry halt, and serve the Lord by holy inaction and consecrated leisure. Let no tender conscience doubt the lawfulness of going out of harness for a while.” (161)

This principle of rest is true for all Christians, and especially those who labor to feed and tend the flock.

Personally, rest is a difficult practice for me. That being said I am growing to see my need to schedule “holy inaction” and “consecrated leisure.” Though my go-go-go mentality fights against it, taking time to periodically unstring the bow and sharpen the axe does not steal away from productivity. It actually does the opposite—it ensures that I trust in God to give the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7), even as I labor in the strength he provides (Colossians 1:28–29). Yes, he gives spiritual strength, but such grace is not divorced from our responsibility to care for our physical body’s.

While the work of the ministry is a spiritual endeavor, it is not immaterial. Lest we deny our own created-ness or become neo-Platonists who pit the spirit against the flesh, we must learn how to pace ourselves as we run God’s race. This includes scheduling physical rest, sometimes even a prolonged sabbatical like we recently gave to one of the pastors at our church. Because we are vessels of clay, we must establish a rhythm of work and rest, lest we invite physical exhaustion and spiritual/emotional collapse.

Therefore, as we strive to abide in his rest (Hebrews 4:11), may God grant us strength through the appointed means of holy inaction and the spiritual discipline of consecrated rest. May we find Sabbath rest in Christ (Hebrews 3–4) and take time to let our physical bodies recover for more fruitful service.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds