Religion is often seen as something as oppressive and it certainly can be. We have already noted that the phrase the fear of the Jews (i.e. the Jewish religious leaders) appears throughout John’s gospel, indicating the way the religious authorities were ruling by fear. By contrast the teaching of Jesus was life-giving and setting people free.
The Pharisees were trying to kill Jesus, but why? John 7:21 gives us a clue, Jesus said to them, “I did one miracle, and you are all amazed.” Jesus was referring back to the healing miracle at Bethesda in Jerusalem which was done on a Sabbath (John 5:9). We know the Pharisees were very annoyed Jesus didn’t submit his claims about being the Messiah to them! They had therefore decided Jesus was not the Messiah. At the same time Jesus was doing amazing miracles, such as the healing at Bethesda, and becoming increasingly popular among the ordinary people. We might have thought the Pharisees would have been pleased a man had been healed. But no! It seems that in their plotting to kill Jesus, they felt accusing him of Sabbath breaking was a way to begin to discredit his ministry before the people.
In John 7:19-24 Jesus confronts the Pharisees in a way which was both gracious (considering they were trying to kill him,) and clever. In any system of law, laws sometimes clash (e.g. a conflict between religious freedom and human rights,) and one law must take priority. The same was true in Biblical law (the Law of Moses.) According to Biblical Law a baby boy had to be circumcised on the 8th day after birth. But what if the 8th day was a Sabbath? Circumcision, which was work, would mean breaking the law that said no work was to be done on the Sabbath.
In this situation the Pharisees believed circumcision took priority. This was because circumcision was a sign of the covenant and it was believed that circumcision made the baby boy whole. In other words, being in a life-giving covenant with God took priority over ceremonial law.
Jesus agreed with the Pharisees on this point. What angered him was their lack of consistency and hence their hypocrisy. Jesus said,
Now if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath? Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly (John 7:23-24).
Jesus was showing the Pharisees that even according their own methods of Biblical interpretation he was not breaking the Sabbath by healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath. Here we see how true Biblical faith is life-giving because God is a life-giving God. We also see how the religion of the Pharisees, which was supposedly based on the Bible, had degenerated into something oppressive.
Of course we are not under Jewish law and our culture is very different from Biblical times. But we can still apply the same principle and prioritise our lives in such a way that puts people first.