The Letter or the Spirit?

Sabbath Study, Part 26

A couple chapters after healing the lame man by the pool (John 5:1-18), Jesus brings this incident up during His interaction with a Jewish group on the Feast of Booths.

Jesus answered and said to them, “I did one work [the healing of the man by the pool], and you all marvel. Moses therefore gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath, so that the law of Moses should not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made a man completely well on the Sabbath? Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment.” (John 7:21-24)

Jesus answered.
“The sabbath day (which is here set before us as a standard of all ceremonies) was not appointed to hinder, but to further and practise God’s works, amongst which the main one is the love of our neighbour” (Geneva Bible Notes).

I did one work.
According to commentators, Jesus had healed the man at the pool eighteen months prior, and yet the Jewish leaders viewed this act with such hatred that their memory of the event remained vivid. That being the case, Jesus used the incident as a reference in order to make His words all the more impactful.

You circumcise a man on the Sabbath.
The command in view was the mandatory circumcision of a male child on the eighth day after birth. “If that day happened to be the Sabbath, yet they held that he was to be circumcised, as there was a positive law to that effect; and as this was commanded, they did not consider it a breach of the Sabbath” (Albert Barnes). In this case, the Jews rightly interpreted the law. Jesus made His appeal using this same interpretation.

Are you angry with me…?
“The argument is this: You blame me for healing an impotent man on the Sabbath; yet you break the Sabbath to circumcise a child if the eighth day after its birth falls on the Sabbath. You say that the law of circumcision was given to Abraham, is older than the Sabbath law, and must be kept if the Sabbath is to be broken. Now the law of love and mercy is older than Moses; why find fault if it is kept on the Sabbath? They should judge righteously, instead of by outward appearances” (B. W. Johnson).

Do not judge according to appearance.
Adhere to the spirit, and not just to the letter, of the law. “In appearance, to circumcise a child on the Sabbath might be a violation of the law; yet you do it, and it is right. So, to appearance, it might be a violation of the Sabbath to heal a man, yet it is right to do works of necessity and mercy” (Albert Barnes).

Whereas the Pharisees were prone to adhere to the letter of the law so rigidly that they violated the spirit of the law, modern-day Christians seem to err in the opposite regard. That is, in an effort to avoid the sin of the Pharisees, we throw out both the letter and the spirit of the law, leaving nothing but an empty command, devoid of meaning, purpose, or application.

Commentaries Cited from
Hall, Kay.
Online Bible. Beersheba Springs: Ken Hamel, 2000. CD-ROM.

Commentaries Used
Geneva Bible Notes (1599 Geneva Bible)
Notes on the New Testament, by Albert Barnes
People's New Testament Commentary, by B. W. Johnson