One of paganism’s distinguishing marks is the desire to control or manipulate gods and nature. Yesterday we looked at the unusual story of the Sheep Gate pool (5:2), where diseased people would try to receive healing by hustling into the waters. Today we see that some Jews had to face the disturbing truth that their approach to God resembled paganism much more than they would ever admit.
Their reaction to the healing (v. 16) surprises us until we realize that this dispute stemmed from the threat to the power of Jewish religious leaders. Pharisees and others put a great deal of stress on obedience to certain regulations in order to receive God’s favor. Right Sabbath conduct (as defined by them) served as a guarantee of God’s blessings on Israel—as if God could be controlled by their actions.
Christ challenged the religious leaders by first tackling their interpretation of the Sabbath. In the background is Jeremiah 17:21, which prevents bearing a burden and bringing it within Jerusalem. The context there discourages mixing worldly cares with their worship, but in John 5 the religious leaders had extrapolated this principle to forbid carrying anything for any purpose.
Jesus wanted to liberate them from a view of God that missed the entire point of the Sabbath, which was "made for man" (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath reflects completion and wholeness. It was meant to give life, not to restrict it (cf. Gen. 2:2; Heb. 4:9–10). Jesus wants to end the reign of religious leaders who gained power at the expense of others (Luke 11:46). He framed much of the context of His words in terms of the life He came to give (vv. 21–25).