From John chapter 5:
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed (some manuscripts say) waiting for the moving of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Not all manuscripts include the fourth verse of that passage about the angel of the Lord stirring the water. This is another of those instances where certain translations of the Bible came about before earlier manuscripts were discovered. And for that reason, some theologians believe that the the stirring of the water by the angel may have been more of a local legend than fact. Whether an angel stirred the water or not, the people laying around that pool believed the water had healing power whenever it had been stirred. According to the tradition, the first person in the pool after the water was stirred was healed. Basically, they were operating under the Law. According to Hebrew beliefs in Old Testament times, God’s mercy either had to be earned by works or by performing some sort of tradition or ritual. In this account, God’s mercy was earned by being first in the pool.
The question however is this: How many died while waiting for the water to stir? The scripture doesn’t say, but I suspect many died while waiting.
Therein was the problem with the Law and its traditions and rituals: What if, for some reason, you’re unable fulfill the requirements of the Law? What if there is something that prevents from fulfilling its requirements, like a physical handicap of some sort? What then?
In the case of the invalid, he was physically unable to drag himself into the pool. Had Jesus not intervened, he would have surely died without ever having been healed. He was healed therefore, not by keeping a tradition or by performing a deed, but by Grace.
That’s the difference between the Law and Grace. The Law brings death, but Grace gives life. On our own, we can never do enough to earn mercy and forgiveness. Even if we’re in top physical condition, we’re no better off than the invalid. Even when done with the best intentions, rituals and good deeds cannot take the place of the Grace of Jesus Christ.
People really haven’t changed that much in 2000 years. Some think they can tip the scale in their favor by doing good deeds and good works with the hope that the good will outweigh the bad.
Take church attendance for instance. There are many good people who attend church faithfully every Sunday. But it’s still more of a ritual to them than anything else. In their minds they must earn Grace by showing up for church week in and week out. But people with that sort of mindset really don’t have their hearts set on the things of God. Their hearts don’t belong to God. This isn’t just true for individual Christians. There are entire church bodies that think that way. They’re caught up in legalistic thinking. They follow a doctrine of Christ plus works. They believe they must continually earn God’s favor even after professing Christ as their savior.
Don’t get me wrong. Going to church is good. We’re supposed to assemble regularly with other believers. Reading the Bible is good. Serving in the church is good. Teaching a Bible class is good. Putting our offering in the collection plate is good. Giving to charity is good. Helping someone in need is good. Volunteering your time at a children’s hospital is good. All these things are good. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do them. But in and of themselves, they’re not good enough without a personal relationship with Christ. None of those things can save the eternal soul, even if you do them every day. It takes a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the good news is, that’s all it takes. Works and rituals cannot save us, and they’re not necessary.
Without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we’re as helpless as the invalid at the pool. We cannot be healed, or cleansed, or forgiven of our sins on our own. We cannot be saved by our own strength or merit, but only by the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ!