Gospel of John (8) — Grace and Legalism

This morning, we continue in our study of the gospel of John. In just a little bit, we’ll get to our text in John chapter 5. But first, a little bit of science.

Sir Isaac Newton is credited with discovering the third law of motion which says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is the principle that explains, among other things, how jet engines work, or why guns will kick back when you fire them.

This third law of motion has a lot of scientific applications, but I think the basic principle can be seen in everyday life because every idea has an “opposing force”— something that pushes back in the opposite direction.

For example: There is democracy and there is communism. There is loyalty and there is betrayal. There is faith and there is fear. There are the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins. For every action, there is an opposing force.

And I bring all of this up because in our text this morning, we’re given an example of this. John told us back in chapter 1 that Jesus came into this world “full of grace and truth” bringing “grace upon grace” (John 1:14,16).

But grace has an opposing force. And so, it’s not surprising that throughout the ministry of Jesus, there is this constant struggle between grace on the one hand and legalism on the other. In our text this morning, we’re going to see where that struggle began.

Let’s watch this video together. If you have your Bible and would like to follow along, we’ll be in chapter 5, beginning with verse 1.


“After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades.” (John 5:1-2)

Near the northeast corner of the walls of Jerusalem, there was a gate known as the Sheep Gate, because this was the gate that was used to bring sheep into Jerusalem that were going to be sacrificed in the temple.

And near this gate, there was a pool called Bethesda. In the late 19th century, archeologists found the ruins of this pool and it was right where John said it was. In fact, further excavations showed it to be exactly the way that John describes it in our text.

Here’s a model showing us what it would have looked like in Jesus’ day. If you’re picturing something the size of a swimming pool, you need to think bigger. This was a huge pool, about the size of a football field, 315 feet long and about 200 feet wide.

The pool was divided into two parts with four colonnades (or covered porches) which served as walls all around the outer edge and one colonnade which ran across the middle that separated the two pools.

John tells us that in these covered porches, there was “a multitude of invalids — blind, lame, and paralyzed.” (John 5:3).

A few translations include verse 4, which says, “for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.” (John 5:4, NASB).

Now, this verse is omitted from most translations because it was not in the earliest manuscripts. Apparently it was added years later by a scribe, who felt like he needed to explain why all of these sick people were there.

I don’t believe that there was actually an angel that was involved in stirring up the waters to heal people. Not only do we not have an example in scripture of any sort of healing taking place like that, but it seems very much out of the character of God to hand out healing by having sick people compete against each other and race in order to be healed.

But that was the legend. That’s what people believed, and that’s why all of these sick people were there at the pool. They truly believed that there was a chance of being cured if they could just be first into the pool when the water was stirred.

Nobody knows exactly what it was that caused the disturbance of the water. Some scholars think there was a spring that bubbled up occasionally. Others think there was some water that was piped into the pool from somewhere else, maybe the temple, and when that happened, the waters were agitated. We don’t know.

But it does appear that there was something that caused the waters to bubble up at unpredictable times, and that was interpreted by the people of Jerusalem as meaning that an angel came and gave the sick a chance of being healed.

Imagine what this place must have been like. It was filled with very sick people: blind people, crippled people, people with paralyzed and withered parts of their bodies. There were hundreds of these pitiful human beings lying all around these pools in physical and mental and emotional despair. They sat there day after day. Then the water would bubble up and when that happened, this mass of sick humanity would come to life and race each other to try to get to the water first.

Can you imagine what that must have looked that? This pitiful race of invalids dragging themselves…hobbling any way they could? And think of what the emotional atmosphere must have been like around that pool. Every one of those invalids had the same hope for a cure — a hope that was based on getting into the water before their neighbors did. So, I can only imagine that every one of those invalids spent day after day plotting about how they could beat out the rest of the sick people. Everybody trying to edge closer to the pool to get a head start. Everybody focused on getting what I want.

John tells us that lying in this crowd of people was a man who had been an invalid, a cripple, for 38 years. He may have been born with deformed legs. Or perhaps, as an infant, he was the victim of an accident. But, whatever caused it, his condition was all he had known for 38 years. Can you imagine how many “races” to the bubbling pool he must have lost over the decades? This was his life.

“When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’” (John 5:6). It might seem like the answer to that question is obvious. Of course, this man wanted to get well. Why else would he be in this horrible place? Why else would he lay here competing in this pitiful race time after time?

But we need to understand that Jesus never asked questions because he needed to find out the answer. He asked questions to make people think. And by making them think, he revealed their true character.

The truth is, the answer was not all that simple. A man who had been disabled for so long had settled into a routine. He knew what his disability allowed him to do and what it kept him from doing. He was most certainly a beggar, since there was no other way he could make a living. People would know him and know where to find him if they wanted to help him.

But, if he was made well, he would lose all that. He would have to move into the realm of the unknown. He would no longer be able to depend on other people, but he would have to take responsibility for his own life. He would no longer be a beggar, so he would have to earn his own living. But how? He hadn’t been trained to do anything; he had no special skills. People might help a lame person, but who’s going to help an able-bodied man? To be healed meant to enter into a completely new life — a life with wonderful possibilities, but also with some unknown difficulties. So, what did the man really want? “Do you want to be healed?”

And you would expect the man’s response to be, “Yes, I do! I want to be healed more than anything else!” But that’s not what he said. He is what Michael Card calls a “man of excuses”.

“The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going, another steps down before me.’” (John 5:7).

He may have even said this while pointing his finger at his neighbors, “Those people, they keep pushing me out of the way. It’s their fault that I’m not already healed. And nobody will help me. If I had someone to help me, at least I would stand a chance.” You can hardly blame him if the bitterness that had been building up for 38 years began to spill out.

But Jesus ignored the man’s excuses and said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” (John 5:8). This “bed” was really not much than just a mat, a bedroll. Just something to make life a little more comfortable.

“And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.” (John 5:9)

Once again, we see the power of Jesus in just speaking a word. Jesus said, “Get up and walk” and immediately – immediately — the man was healed. Jesus instantly re-created this man’s body and got rid of the paralysis that had lasted for 38 years. And the man did what Jesus told him to do — he picked up his pallet and walked.

As a side note, keep this miracle in mind when someone tells you that Jesus only healed people who had sufficient faith. This man not only didn’t have faith in Jesus; he didn’t even know who Jesus was. Now, it is true that Jesus often acted in response to people’s faith, but that was not a necessary precondition of the power of God being at work within him.

Now, so far, everything that has happened in this story has been exciting and full of joy. But in last half of verse 10, the tone begins to shift. You know how, when you’re watching a movie, you can often tell when something bad is about to happen because the music changes to a more sinister tone? Well, we don’t have music here in John’s gospel, but we can tell that something bad is about to happen because of these words: “Now that day was the Sabbath.” (John 5:9)

John writes this as if he expects the reader to say, “uh-oh” because anyone who knew anything at all about the Pharisees understood the significance of that simple statement. It was a statement that foreshadowed a twist in the story.

In verse 10, “So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.’” (John 5:10)

These “Jews” are the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees. And if there was one thing they were concerned about more than any other, it was how people behaved on the Sabbath. Now, it’s true that the Sabbath was a very important day to God, and he gave instructions to the Jews that they were not to do any work on the Sabbath.

But, the Pharisees decided they needed to be the ones who got to decide what was work and what wasn’t. And so, they drew up a list of 39 different categories of things they considered to be work. The problem was, most of the things on that list weren’t really work at all.

For example – The Pharisees said that a Jewish man was not allowed to go out on the Sabbath wearing one sandal, unless he had a wounded foot. You may wonder, like I did, how wearing one sandal counts as work. Their reasoning went like this — If you’re only wearing one sandal, then people might think that you’re holding the other sandal in your hand under your cloak, and so people might think that you’re working (because we all know how much work it is to carry a sandal in your hand!). But, if your foot was wounded, it was OK, because nobody would even consider that you might have another sandal with you.

Imagine hundreds and hundreds of these kinds of rules. They may have been established with good intention, because the Jews wanted to be careful about observing the Sabbath. But, the problem was these weren’t God’s rules; they were man-made rules.

So, the Jewish leaders rebuked this healed man for carrying something on the Sabbath, which was strictly forbidden by their rules. Keep in mind, it wasn’t forbidden by the law of Moses. I don’t know of any reasonable person who would think that a healed man carrying his bedroll was “work”. But it was forbidden by the Pharisees’ tradition.

And while this healed man probably didn’t know all the rules and regulations regarding the Sabbath, he did know that there were all sorts of things that were forbidden. And he also knew that these men were in a position to do him harm if they judged him guilty. He was in a difficult position.

So, he did what came natural. And we see that while his body had been healed, he was still pretty much the same on the inside. And so, this “man of excuses” defended himself by saying it wasn’t his fault; someone else was to blame.

“The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” (John 5:11)

He said, “Hey, it’s not my fault. The man who healed me, he’s the one who told me to pick it up. I was just following instructions.”

“They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take up your bed and walk”?’” (John 5:12)

It seems absolutely incredible that these Jewish leaders were so focused on their interpretation of the law that they totally ignored the miracle that was standing right in front of them. I would think that any normal human being would have been at least a little bit fascinated by this man’s instant healing, but the Pharisees ignored an opportunity to celebrate the grace of God, so they could deal with what they saw as a potential threat to their authority.

It would be like this. Suppose you have a next-door neighbor who was in a car accident over 30 years ago, and ever since then, he’s been paralyzed from the neck. One Sunday morning, around 6am, you’re wakened by the sound of a lawnmower. You go to the front door to find out who in the world would make that kind of a racket so early on the Lord’s day. You look out and you see your formerly paralyzed neighbor with a big smile on his face mowing his lawn in perfect health. What do you suppose you would say? Well, if you’re a Pharisee, you would scream, “Hank! It’s Sunday morning! Turn that thing off!”

How could you not be utterly amazed at what you’re seeing? But John tells us that when the Jewish leaders saw this man who had been an invalid for 38 years walking through the temple, instead of praising God for the miracle that had obviously been performed, they went in search of someone they regarded as a troublemaker.

But the man was no help at all because “the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.” (John 5:13).

But then, in verse 14, “Jesus found him in the temple.” (John 5:14). If Jesus found him, that tells me that Jesus was looking for him. It wasn’t enough that Jesus healed this man of his paralysis. Jesus didn’t come just to give healing. He came to restore relationships with God.

So, he said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” (John 5:15)

Now, I don’t know what sin this man had in his life. Maybe it was his tendency to make excuses and blame others. But whatever it was, Jesus knew what it was and he told him to get rid of it.

And, at this point, this man should have gotten down on his brand-new knees and thanked Jesus and asked Jesus to forgive him for his self-centeredness. He should have asked Jesus to cleanse his sinful heart, just as he had his deformed legs. But he didn’t do that. Instead, in verse 15:

“The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.” (John 5:15). He was a finger-pointing blamer to the end.

Now, as I said earlier, I think this miracle marks the beginning of the opposition toward Jesus that would increase over the next couple of years and eventually lead to the cross. And here’s where I see Newton’s third law of motion. From this point on, Jesus — who was full of grace — would fight an ongoing battle with the opposite of grace — legalism.

And so, in the time we have left, I want to talk just a bit about legalism. Because it’s something we all struggle with. And we’ve all seen the effects of it in the church. The list of things by which we judge other people’s spirituality is a rather long list. We can be legalistic about the translation of Bible people use, or the clothes they wear to church, or by whether or not they wear tattoos, or anything else that doesn’t fit into our boundaries of acceptability.

We can be legalistic about people raising their hands in worship. Or about what political party people affiliate with or what news network they watch. And I could go on and on, because the list of things we use to judge people’s spirituality, the list of things we use to determine how “faithful” someone is, can be a rather long list.

We need to understand, though, that holding people accountable to a Biblical standard is not legalism. It’s not wrong to call sin what it is. If someone actually worked out in the field on the Sabbath, that was a sin. Because that what God’s Word said. But the Jewish leaders took it one step further.

Legalism is when we enforce our own man-made rules instead of, or in addition to, the standards which God has given us in His Word. I’ll talk more about that in just a moment. But first, let me share with a few things about legalism.

(1) First of all, LEGALISM leads to HARASSMENT.

Legalists tend to become joy-stealers who take pleasure in burdening people with endless lists of their rules.

In his book Grace Awakening, Charles Swindoll tells a story about a missionary couple who encountered this in the mission field. They got so much criticism from their co-workers that they eventually quit and came back to the States..

All because of that “sinful substance” — peanut butter. You see, where they were missionaries, they didn’t have access to peanut butter. But this family happened to enjoy peanut butter a great deal. And, so, they made arrangements with some of their friends to send them peanut butter every now and then.

The problem was that the other missionaries considered it a mark of spirituality that you NOT eat peanut butter. And I suppose their line of thinking went something like this: “We believe since we can’t get peanut butter here, we should give it up for the cause of Christ.” And so, one of their standards of spirituality and faithfulness was living without peanut butter.

But, this young family didn’t agree with that line of thinking. And they kept getting regular shipments of peanut butter. They didn’t flaunt it, they just enjoyed it in the privacy of their own home. But the legalism of their co-workers was so petty, and the pressure got so intense, that this family eventually had enough of that nonsense. And so, they packed up and went home.

We wonder how anyone could be so petty. But, let’s be honest – hasn’t there been a time in your life when you were that petty about something else? A time when you looked down on another Christian because they didn’t measure up to your standard of what you thought was right? A time when you criticized someone else over a non-essential?

Legalism leads to harassment.

(2) Legalism leads to HYPOCRISY.

The rules that legalists want to enforce can be overbearing at times. So much so, that they often don’t even keep the rules themselves. But, for the Pharisees, it was enough for them to pretend to keep the rules and present a good image.

And one of the things they did was to look for a loophole. For example, the Jews said that you couldn’t travel on the Sabbath, and so the Pharisees made up all these laws that specifically said you could only walk up to half a mile on the Sabbath.

But, sometimes they wanted to walk more than a half-mile, so they came up with a loophole. On Friday afternoon, before the Sabbath started, they would mark off a Sabbath’s day journey and put a plate of food there and built a little shelter. That way they could call it their second “home”. So now, they could travel another half mile past that. And if they set out enough plates of food at enough different places, they could walk anywhere they wanted to.

They did that sort of thing because legalists have no concept of the intent of the law. They are only interested in the letter of the law. And when you’re only interested in the letter of the law, then you’ll do everything you can to find a loophole.

This issue always comes up when youth ministers talk with teens about dating. Young people want to ask the question: “How far is too far? Is this too far? Is that too far? Give me specifics! What can I touch and what can’t I touch?” But that’s adolescent legalism — and legalism will look for a loophole.

A much better approach is to hold a biblical standard and encourage holiness. Purity. Honoring God with our lives and bodies. Purposely, intentionally fleeing temptation. Not looking for loopholes.

(3) Legalism is HERESY.

That may sound a bit extreme but, as I said a moment ago, legalism places a man-made standard of conduct on people that does not exist in Scripture. Think about this. The Pharisees criticized Jesus for saying he was equal to God, but when they made laws that they said were equal to God’s written Word, that’s exactly what they were doing. That’s what legalism does. It equates man’s rules with God’s rules, man-made preferences with God’s standards.

Whenever we elevate our own rules and preferences such that they are equal to God’s written word, it’s sin. It’s playing God. Or to put it another way, whenever we say that our standards of behavior get us closer to God, we’re denying the need for his grace.

No amount of legalism can produce the kind of holiness and righteousness and perfection that God requires. If anyone could have done it, the Pharisees would have. By all appearances, they lived good lives. But Jesus called them white-washed tombs. They looked good on the outside but they were dead on the inside. Because living as a legalist can do nothing to change your heart. Only grace can do that.


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