Following the Bible’s teachings on the Sabbath can be exhausting.
Seeking the freedom of scripture can lead to bondage.
Drawing near to the teachings of scripture can lead us further from God.
This is the paradox Jesus faced in the Gospels. It’s a tension that runs throughout the many stories where ordinary people, experts in the law, and religious/political leaders rejected the allegedly “heretical” teachings of Jesus in favor of their take on the Law.
They had an air-tight systematic theology that was supposed to keep them from error. They never thought that their greatest barrier between themselves and God would be their reading of Scripture itself.
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The story of Jesus healing the crippled man in Jerusalem is particularly illuminating about the ways scripture can be used to obscure God.
The people of Judea knew this crippled man. They’d walked past him for years as he begged by a popular pool just outside the city walls. When Jesus healed him and he walked down the street, carrying his mat on the Sabbath, they chose to overlook the miracle that had just happened. In fact, the restoration of this man was the last thing they cared about. A supposed Messiah had broken the Law, and they had to shut him down before he further threatened their teachings.
Now if we saw a well-known cripple in our neighborhood get healed, you’d think we’d all rush to his side to hear the story. We’d throw a party. We’d brew the finest fair trade organic coffee in town. We’d order a big cake—the kind that’s actually good, like a cheese cake.
What gives? Why would the people of God reject the work of an apparent prophet?
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The short answer is that they were devoted more to the Scriptures than to the God of the Scriptures.
The Jewish leaders had systems for interpreting and obeying Scripture, and as they tried to be faithful to the commands of God, their focus shifted from, “How can I become a devoted follower of God?” to “How can I become a devoted follower of scripture?”
The shift is subtle but unmistakable with the results it produces.
The Sabbath itself wasn’t used to find God. Following the Sabbath itself in a particular way became the means AND the end. Never mind one’s spiritual condition during the Sabbath. Never mind the healing that should take place. Never mind God’s concern for those who are broken and hurting. So long as you were resting properly, you were considered faithful.
The people existed to fulfill the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath existing to fulfill people.
I could be wrong, but I think Jesus asked the man to carry his mat in order to confront the Jewish leader’s obsession with properly obeying the Sabbath. He forced the religious leaders to choose between their allegiance to God or their interpretation of Scripture.
What did they care about more: healing a man or keeping the Sabbath perfectly?
It’s striking to think that Jesus wanted everyone around him to believe that he was breaking the law. On several occasions in the Gospels he made similar challenges where he left no doubt that he was flaunting the standards of those around him. He didn’t enter into a nuanced discussion about what it really meant to break the law or to observe the Sabbath. He didn’t quibble. He took action that drew an unmistakable line in the sand between the way he read the Bible and the way others read the Bible.
The question wasn’t if he was keeping the Sabbath checklist perfectly. The question was whether he was using the Sabbath for restoration, as intended by God. The Sabbath was made to benefit people. In and of itself, the Sabbath did them no good if they simply obeyed the teachings of Scripture that governed it.
The Sabbath only benefits us if we use it to draw near to God. That’s the larger lesson that looms over the Gospel stories.
So many people preferred to make obeying the Bible an end in and of itself without actually seeing it as a means to find God. They weren’t able to rest in God because they were too busy arguing over what you could carry, how far you could travel, and how to prepare a meal.
They wore themselves out trying to rest “biblically.”
I don’t see Jesus telling us to slack off in our scripture reading or to make up our own rules. Rather, he’s calling us to keep the purpose of Scripture in mind. Is our reading of Scripture leading us closer to love of God and love of neighbor? Is our reading of Scripture leading to spiritual restoration or exhaustion on the Sabbath?
I like knowing that I’m right about the Bible. I want to know that I’m taking the right course of action in my life, that I’m living “biblically.” I’m the one asking, “Am I doing this right?” More times than not, Jesus pointed people away from questions like that.
Jesus wanted the former cripple and the Jewish leaders to see the work of God around them. He challenged them to move beyond their “insider/outsider” categories and their obsession with getting every detail of the Bible right.
The Spirit of God is present among us today with the power to heal and to restore. For years I struggled to see that. I was too busy trying to follow the Bible that I failed to see Jesus reaching out beyond the words of Scripture, asking, “Do you want to get well?”
Learn more about the doubters of Jesus and what their stories mean for us today in Ed’s book Unfollowers: Unlikely Lessons on Faith from the Doubters of Jesus.
Ed Cyzewski is the co-author of Unfollowers: Unlikely Lessons on Faith from the Doubters of Jesus and The Good News of Revelation. He shares his imperfect/sarcastic thoughts on following Jesus at www.inamirrordimly.com and lives in Columbus, OH with his wife and son.