Long before our story begins, Moses stood in the presence of God on Mt. Sinai. When he came down from the mountain, he had two stone tablets with ten commandments on them. One of those commandments ordered the Israelites to “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” God would later explain more about that command. They were not to do any work on the Sabbath day. For the Israelites, that was Saturday. For us, that’s usually Sunday. We’re supposed to take one day a week where we don’t do the work we do the rest of the week, and we are supposed to rest. As the years passed, the Israelites took this command very seriously. The priests eventually became known as the Pharisees, and they made up a bunch of laws to make sure that they obeyed the commandments from so long ago. They went way overboard on the whole lawmaking thing. In the case of the Sabbath commandment, they decided that not only would they not work, but they set up markers around the towns to show how far they were allowed to walk on the Sabbath. Walking any farther than that was considered work. Carrying anything was work. People cooked their meals the day before so they wouldn’t have to work by cooking on the Sabbath. It got pretty ridiculous.
The city of Jerusalem had a wall around it, and several gates. Near what they called the Sheep Gate, there was a pool called Bethesda, which means “house of mercy.” They didn’t have hospitals at the time, and this was one place people who were sick or wounded could come to get healed. Every once in a while, an angel would stir up the water, and it would start bubbling. The first person in the pool after that happened would be healed! So lots of people came there and wait for the water to start bubbling. All kinds of blind, lame, sick people were there hoping to be healed.
There was one man there who had been paralyzed for 38 years! With no wheelchair or anything, all he could do was lay on his mat and hope he would somehow be able to get into the water when it started bubbling. But of course, when you have trouble moving by yourself, it’s pretty hard to beat others to another place, even if it’s nearby. So he waited, hoping that someday he would get his turn.
So one day, during one of the Jewish festivals, a visitor to the pool got talking to the paralyzed man. As he told his story, he could tell that the new guy looked concerned. The visitor said, “So do you want to get better?”
So he explained how frustrated he was. Every time the water moved, he would try to get over there, but someone would always beat him! Of course he wanted to get better!
So the stranger said, “OK, pick up your mat and walk!”
Well, that wasn’t what the guy was expecting to hear! He might be able to help him into the water when it got stirred up the next time, but to say “Pick up your mat and walk”? He was even more surprised when he discovered he could actually do it! He sat up, picked up his mat, and walked! Whoa, this was awesome!
One problem. It was the Sabbath. As he left the pool, some Pharisees walked by and couldn’t believe their eyes. Here was a man who was *gasp* carrying his mat on the Sabbath! That was clearly against the law that the Pharisees had made up! They couldn’t have that! This guy was in trouble now!
But the man explained that some guy had told him to pick up his mat and walk.
“Who told you to do that?” they asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. The healer was nowhere around any more, so he couldn’t ask, or even point out who it was.
Later, this guy was at the temple, and his healer found him and introduced himself. He also warned the man to stop sinning.
So now the man knew his healer’s name. He went to the Jewish leaders and said, “Jesus healed me!”
So the Pharisees marched over to Jesus and said, “You know the law! You know you aren’t allowed to heal people on the Sabbath!”
“Whoa now,” Jesus said. “My Father, God, is always working on the Sabbath. So I do too!” That got the Pharisees really angry. Not only was Jesus working on the Sabbath, but now – oh horror! He was claiming to be the Son of God! For a man to claim to be equal with God is blasphemy! That was a crime in their culture. Punishable by death. If Jesus’ claim hadn’t been true, He would have been guilty of blasphemy. But it was true, and He never once blasphemed God.
Blasphemy: claiming to be equal with God, cursing God, saying bad things about God