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. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 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?” 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.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. (John 5:1-9)
For many years I was a minister in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. My church was located in an area that bordered the largest Hasidic Jewish community in the world. The Hasidic men and boys usually dressed in black suits and wore big hats or yarmulkes (skullcaps). Most of them had long beards and long side curls. The women wore long dresses and wigs. They dressed that way because of their interpretation of the Law of Moses. Their interpretation of the Law also dictated how they behave on the Sabbath. Even though they cite the 10 commandments as the main source for their rules which forbade all work, down through the centuries the Jews developed very strict and detailed rules that defined what work is and what can be done and not done on the Sabbath.
We may laugh at such things or think that they are weird or strange. But they are dangerous. For one thing they deprive people of their freedom to rest in God and worship Him, to be refreshed by His beauty, His truth, His grace. For another, following rules gives people the idea that religion is matter of their own works. Following religious laws and rules makes them think that just by doing certain acts or not doing others they can please God and make it into heaven.
If we Christians look at our lives, we would find that we too have our own laws about the Christian life. These rules often deprive us and others of the freedom to enjoy God’s grace. We seek to earn His favor by laws, regulations, observances and lists of dos and don’ts, what a Christian can and can’t read, how a Christian should dress, what kind of music a Christian should listen to. Rules can be good if they help us grow and enable us to fight temptation. Nevertheless it is quite easy to think that following rules can earn us favor with God. They make us feel we have control of our life. They give us a sense of growth and accomplishment. They allow us to exalt ourselves, become proud and self-righteous over our neatly ordered life. Rules are a lot easier to keep than God’s Law, which as Jesus told us, is the Law of love. We don’t need God’s help to keep rules, but we cannot carry out the law of love without His help. We cannot love our enemies and those who hate us or bother us without God’s strength. That is why we would prefer rules and solid measures that reassure us that we are growing. Rules are easy. Love is difficult.
Very often God defies our religious regulations and rules, just as Jesus did when he healed this poor man at the pool of Bethesda, for He healed the man on the Sabbath. In doing so, He showed us that salvation is not by works or laws and rules, but by faith in the Him alone, by His grace, not by our religion or our works of piety.