Law and Order (and the Gospel) (John 5:16-47)

No one likes disruptions.  Routine is the nectar of the civilized man.  But the gospel isn’t very civilized, nor is it reserved for the dignified.  Jesus had just healed a man’s lifelong illness.  But the religious community was outraged that in doing so, He violated the carefully manicured Sabbath traditions:

John 5:16-47   16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath.  17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”  18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

When Jesus faces His accusers, things go from bad to worse.  Not only is He violating their Sabbath traditions, He is claiming to be equal with God Himself.  The religious community was incensed over such arrogance.

There are some people who thrive in an environment of order.  In many ways, this is how the religious leaders had come to view God’s Law.  By carefully adhering to their traditions—those of God and a few they made up—they hoped to maintain some measure of order and civility in a fragile political and religious climate.  Jesus threatened all of that.

As much as we like to think we’d be on the side of Jesus, there’s a good chance we’d join His opponents.  We’ve come to rely on law expecting order to follow.  We deeply desire a society of morals, of righteousness—and rightly so.  Problems emerge when we—like Jesus’ opponents—hope to engender morality through our own obedience.  Years ago a Christian leader posed the question: “What would it look like if Satan took over a city?”

“Over half a century ago, Presbyterian minister Donald Grey Barnhouse offered his own scenario in his weekly sermon that was also broadcast nationwide on CBS radio.

Barnhouse speculated that if Satan took over Philadelphia (the city where Barnhouse pastored), all of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No ma’am,” and the churches would be full every Sunday…where Christ is not preached.” (Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church)

The gospel isn’t just an assault on our immorality.  It’s also an assault on our righteousness—or, more specifically, our self-righteousness.  The gospel tells us that no sin is so great that the cross cannot cover it, but it also proclaims that no sin is so small that our religious obedience alone can cover it.  So, in a way, the paralyzed man had an advantage over the religious crowd: he knew he was sick.  The religious community had spent so much time clothed in their own self-righteousness that they failed to recognize that they were afflicted with a profound spiritual sickness.

Jesus responds with an extended speech designed to defend His right to perform miraculous works on the Sabbath.  There are three distinct elements to this speech.  First, Jesus insists that His authority comes directly from God.  This means that He can grant healing and life to those He wishes:

19 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.  20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel.  21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.  22 The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son,  23 that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.  24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.  26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.  27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.  28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice  29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

Second, Jesus brings forth “witnesses” to testify on His behalf—including John the Baptist, but most significantly God Himself:

30 “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.  31 If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not deemed true.  32 There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true.  33 You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth.  34 Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved.  35 He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.  36 But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.  37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen,  38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.

Finally, Jesus turns the tables on His opponents.  The problem isn’t with Jesus; the problem lies with them:

39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,  40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.  41 I do not receive glory from people.  42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you.  43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him.  44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?  45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope.  46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.  47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

Do you see what Jesus is saying?  The Bible isn’t a moral code.  It’s a story about Jesus.  Everything they’d been searching for is now standing among them: this is God up close.  If we treat the Bible as if it is a rulebook, we become angry when those rules are threatened or broken.  Jesus says that the book is about Him, about His power to save.

Jesus is therefore more than just another teacher.  Other religions have holy books: the Qur’an, the Gita, the I Ching, etc.  But whether or not I find their poetry moving, the books offer little more than moral guidance.  Jesus is saying that the Bible is more than that.  Other religious teachers point to the authority of the book.  In Christianity, the holy book points to Jesus Himself.  While religion is largely about “teachings,” Christianity is about a person.  This is why, as C.S. Lewis so famously insisted, we can’t simply dismiss Jesus as another moral teacher—another Ghandi.

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 56)

Jesus can never just be your “teacher” because that’s simply not what His life was ultimately about.  He came instead to reveal God’s character, and pay the penalty for our sins so that through His guidance, we can be conformed to this same character.  That’s a goal that good intentions can’t meet.  That’s the power of the gospel.