For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ. [John 1:17 (NLT)]
Legend had it that an angel of the Lord occasionally would come into the pool at Bethesda, stir up the water, and that the first person to enter the pool would then be healed. Jesus, however, simply said to the crippled man lying there: “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” and the man did just that. Since it was the Sabbath, the man later was stopped by the Jewish leaders and condemned for carrying his mat and working on the day of rest. According to the law, either he should have stayed and watched his mat or left it behind and walked away. When he explained that the man who’d healed him told him otherwise, they wanted him to identify his healer. Their curiosity, however, had nothing to do with knowing who had performed this amazing miracle; they wanted to know who’d broken the law!
It was on the Sabbath that Jesus gave sight to a man born blind. Out Lord spit on the ground, made mud with his saliva, applied the muck over the man’s eyes, and told him to wash himself in the pool of Siloam. After the man did as directed, he could see. Stunned by the change in him, people who’d known him as a blind beggar took him to be questioned by the Pharisees. Again, Mosaic Law had been broken, not just by the healing, but also by the spitting (considered digging or plowing) and mud making (combining wet and dry was kneading). Sure that a healer who so flagrantly broke the Sabbath could not be from God, the Pharisees wanted to know who it was.
On another Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in the temple when He saw a woman so misshapen by her disease that she couldn’t even stand up straight. After calling her over, He touched her and told her that she was healed. Instantly, the woman stood erect and praised God. The synagogue leaders didn’t have to question the woman as to who healed her that time; they saw it for themselves.
In all these instances, the synagogue leaders believed Jesus had broken the law by healing on the Sabbath. Unless it was a critical life-or-death situation, healing was considered work and was to be delayed until after the Sabbath. Since the crippled man had been that way for thirty-eight years, the blind man sightless since birth, and the woman’s body bent and broken for eighteen years, there was nothing urgent about their conditions. After Jesus healed the woman, the Pharisees indignantly told Him to come some other day to do His healing! Another day meant nothing to the Pharisees. Of course, they weren’t the ones suffering! When in pain or distress, even an hour can feel like an eternity.
When questioned by the Pharisees, Jesus reminded them that the main principle behind the treatment of animals in Jewish law was tza’ar ba’alei chayim: preventing the suffering of living creatures. Even though a donkey or ox could not be untied to go out to work, it could be untied and taken out to be fed and watered so that it wouldn’t suffer all day. Moreover, an animal was to be relieved if it was suffering from carrying too heavy a load. The load those hurting people were carrying was exceedingly heavy and stopping the suffering of God’s creatures was all Jesus was doing when He healed! In their obsession with keeping to the letter of the law, the Pharisees seemed to forget the spirit of God’s law: that we are to love the Lord and love our neighbor. That wasn’t a legendary healing angel of the Lord standing right in front of the Pharisees, it was the Lord himself! Sadly, instead of recognizing Him, they persecuted Him.