In the fifth chapter of John, Jesus visits a man who has been crippled for thirty-eight years, and is waiting with a crowd of others by the side of a sacred pool called Bethesda. Whenever an angel touches the waters of the pool, it is said, the first person into the water is healed of lameness. But whenever there is an angelic visitation, the lame man can’t beat the crowds into the water because he is so badly crippled. So Jesus tells the man to “rise, take up thy bed, and walk,” and he is healed.
Local Jews get wind of this story and come after Jesus, for two reasons. First, because he has told the man to pick up his bed and walk and it is the Sabbath, when work is forbidden. And second because he has explained that he is the son of God, and therefore equal with God, which is a terrible sacrilege. The Jews become so enraged, in fact, that they begin contemplating killing him. Jesus enrages them even further when he attempts to explain himself. Whoever hears his words, he says, and believes in the Father who sent him, will have everlasting life.
This parable of the lame man has to do with two bodies of law—the law of man and the law of God. Strictly speaking, Jesus was in violation of man’s law by commanding a cripple to walk on the Sabbath. But he was simply obeying a far grander, far more merciful law—a law, in fact, of eternity—by healing a lame man and imparting to him the knowledge of eternal life. Two systems of law are in bitter conflict. The Bible story is also reflected in Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s great story of justice and injustice. Jean Valjean spends nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, and when he breaks parole, he is hounded relentlessly by the policeman Javert. Yes, Jean Valjean broke petty laws by stealing bread and breaking parole. But the manmade French legal system was not the only system of jurisprudence at work. The divine and immutable laws of human kindness, mercy and forgiveness were also at play, and—most important—they superseded the laws of man. In the end, Javert, despairing and empty, throws himself to his own death.
Believing in Jesus, and the higher law that he represents, is profoundly transformative, because as Jesus says (John 5:24), “he that heareth my word, and believeth in him that sent me . . . is passed from death unto life.”