you had a neighbor who had been paralyzed from the neck down by an accident more than thirty years ago.
One Sunday morning, just after six o’clock, the sound of a lawnmower jolts you from a deep, satisfying sleep. Annoyed, you bolt to the front door to see who would be so insensitive as to rattle every window on the block with that infernal noise so early on a day of rest.
Upon seeing your formerly paralyzed friend gleefully mowing his lawn in perfect health, what do you think you would say?
If you’re a normal person, you’d say, “Hank! What happened? How are you not paralyzed?!”
But if you’re a Pharisee, you’d scream, “Hank! It’s Sunday morning! Turn that thing off!””
—Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary
photo from resource, originally taken from holylandphotos.org
THE POOL AT BETHESDA
John 5:1-18 tells the story of Jesus healing a sick man at the pool of Bethesda. When the man stands and picks up his mat after 38 years of illness, the religious leaders do not rejoice with him. The Pharisees rebuke him.
Why? Because it was the Sabbath.
This is a classic representation of legalism, which Chuck Swindoll calls a “subtle, silent killer” in his New Testament Commentary. Before diving into the text, Swindoll takes time to describe legalism, how it appears, and why it is wrong. Here are his thoughts:
WHAT IS LEGALISM?
Legalism is the establishment of standards carefully selected by people for the purpose of celebrating human achievement under the guise of pleasing God. Legalism is righteousness as defined by humans, who frequently cite God as the source of the standard. In reality, the standards come from culture, tradition, and most frequently the personal preferences of those who maintain positions of power or influence.
Legalism is based on lists (legalists love their lists!). If you do keep every item on the list of dos and don’ts, you’re deemed spiritually acceptable. But if you don’t follow the prescribed standard, you are judged unworthy of God’s favor and others’ approval. Naturally, legalists always think they know how God judges and they are more than willing to act on His behalf.
HOW DOES LEGALISM APPEAR?
Legalism almost always adorns itself in the regal robes of religious garb, and it brandishes the credentials of religious organizations.
This is not to condemn Christian organizations or the clothes they wear—I am merely pointing out that legalists are drawn to them and have successfully infiltrated churches, missions, parachurch organizations, charities, and schools. When they do, they use religious trappings to convince others that their own agendas have God’s approval.
Eventually, followers begin to fear the disapproval of the leaders, who become more and more visible and controlling as the Lord fades into obscurity.
WHY IS LEGALISM WRONG?
Legalism denies God’s grace and presumes to earn His favor through deeds. It is a man-made righteousness that exalts humanity rather than the Lord. Legalism produces either pride or depression in the people under its spell—pride for those who keep the list to their own satisfaction, depression for those who recognize their utter inability to keep the list perfectly. Criticism is the primary motivation.
The goal of legalism is to give as much criticism as possible and to avoid receiving it at all costs.
Legalism is wrong because it produces in people what the Lord desires least: pride, self-loathing, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness.
—Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary
After describing legalism, Swindoll goes verse-by-verse through the passage. It’s jam-packed with great information (and even pictures!) to help you understand Scripture in context. Here are 10 facts that we really enjoyed:
1) When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, He apparently visited the sanitarium that lay in the shadow of the great temple built by Herod. The temple authorities, especially the Pharisees among them, would never have entered the place and probably rebuked any Jew who did. (5:1-2)
2) The name Bethesda is a kind of play on words, meaning “house of grace” or “house of outpouring [water].” A curious blend of Hebrew religion and Greek superstition held that an angel of God periodically stirred the waters and promised healing to the first invalid able to pull himself into the pool. (5:3-4)
3) As Jesus visited weary patients who were vainly trying to heal themselves, He found a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years, which was longer than the average life expectancy for a male in the first-century Roman Empire. He had been sick for literally a lifetime. (5:5-6)
4) The Koiné Greek language often used word order for the sake of emphasis. In this case, the man stressed the word “man”—he did not have a man to help him. He clearly recognized his own helplessness; however, the object of his faith was confused. (5:7-8)
5) Just as the reader might begin to celebrate the man’s healing, John’s aside drops like a wet blanket. He says, in effect, “Oh, by the way, it was the Sabbath.” Anyone who knew anything about Pharisees understood the significance of that simple statement. (5:8-9)
6) The Pharisees strictly applied the words of Jeremiah, “do not carry any load on the sabbath day” (Jer. 17:21), but failed to recognize the context. Jeremiah complained because the seventh day in Jerusalem was business as usual, like any other day. Later, Nehemiah would take the same stand by ordering the doors of Jerusalem to be closed on the last day of the week, “so that no load would enter on the sabbath day” (Neh. 13:19). (5:10)
7) Jewish theology of the day correctly taught that sin deserves punishment; however, the rabbis incorrectly attributed physical illness to God’s wrath. The true and ultimate punishment for sin is eternal torment after death. (5:11-14)
8) The Greek word rendered “went away” is better translated “went after” and usually indicates purpose. It’s a common expression in the Synoptic Gospels for discipleship. One “goes after” a mentor in order to learn from him. The man turned away from following Jesus and affirmed his allegiance to the Jewish leaders. (5:15)
9) This particular healing begged the question, “Who owns the Sabbath?” The religious authorities claimed ownership of the Sabbath by objecting to Jesus “doing these things.” (5:16)
10) Having refuted the faulty theology of the religious leaders, Jesus equated His act of grace with God’s continuing “work.” This was an outright claim to ownership of the Sabbath. (5:17-18)
3 STEPS TO WAGE WAR ON LEGALISM
Here are Chuck Swindoll’s three application points:
“FIRST, we must expose legalism. The truth of the gospel—the good news of God’s grace received through faith—must refute the claims of tradition, custom, or any other standard of righteousness not explicitly taught in Scripture. And where Scripture is clear, it must be applied to call people to celebrate the Spirit of God living within them through joyful obedience.”
“SECOND, we must combat legalism. Legalism is an enemy that cannot be met with violence; however, like in any war, we must fight with courage and conviction, recognizing that combat requires toughness. Without setting aside kindness, we must be willing to confront the legalist with his or her lies.”
“THIRD, we must overcome legalism. We do that by proclaiming grace louder, more often, in more places, and to more people than the false prophets of legalism. People only choose bondage when they fear that freedom is unreachable, impossible, unaffordable, or unreal. Once people experience grace and learn that it can be theirs, legalism doesn’t stand a chance.”
Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary (7 Vols.) is a fantastic resource that not only delves deep into word studies, ancient history, and cultural study… but it also applies Scripture directly to your life. Visit our website to learn more.