Jesus came to proclaim a new message. Whereas Old Testament Judaism, like all other religions of its day, involved a number of ceremonial rites, Jesus taught such remarkable ideas as “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). This would strike the Jewish mind as contrary to their religious tradition. Jesus taught that the welfare of those for whom such ceremonies had been devised was more important than the ceremony itself. When a woman caught in the act of adultery was brought to Jesus he didn’t join with her accusers but told her she could leave, however she was “not to continue in her sinful ways” (John 8:11). Christianity was a new era in redemptive history in which former religious rules and regulations no longer played a central role.
It is against this background that we consider a rather matter-of-fact remark by Jesus, “Sometime later I went up to Jerusalem to take part in one of the Jewish festivals” (John 5:1). But wait. He had come to establish a brand new alliance with mankind, but now seems to deny it by stepping back into the customs of yesterday. He was going up to Jerusalem to take part in a religious festival! That seems to be out of step with his healing of a crippled woman on a Sabbath? The synagogue leaders objected, noting that there were six days of the week for that sort of thing and the Sabbath is for worship not work. Jesus reminded the “hypocrites” (his title for them) that since they cared for their livestock on the Sabbath, should not this woman, bound by Satan for eighteen years, be set free even though it happened to be the Sabbath? (Luke 13:10-17).
I believe that Jesus decided to attend that particular festival simply because he wanted to. There was nothing essentially wrong with the ceremonies of Israel. After all, God established them. It is only when ceremony takes the place of what it is supposed to accomplish that it is wrong. Jesus could enjoy the beauty of ceremony as well as that which it represented in the new reality of God’s continuing presence in the hearts of believers.
Is there a lesson here for us? I believe so. Fortunate is the person who can embrace the fullness of spiritual reality all the way from ceremonial expression to personal experience.