So He got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own town. Just then some men brought to Him a paralytic lying on a mat. Seeing their faith, Jesus told the paralytic, “Have courage, son, your sins are forgiven.”
At this, some of the scribes said among themselves, “He’s blaspheming!” But perceiving their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why are you thinking evil things in your hearts? For which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then He told the paralytic, “Get up, pick up your mat, and go home.” And he got up and went home.
When the crowds saw this, they were awestruck and gave glory to God who had given such authority to men. (Matthew 9:1-8)
In the last few weeks, we have encountered Jesus the healer, the prophet, and the storm-stiller. We have seen him rebuke disease and drive out demons.
But it’s this encounter, here in Matthew 9, that most affronts and challenges the people of Jesus’ day.
It’s also a profound glimpse, for us, of what most consider to be the very heart of the gospel — the power and willingness of Jesus Christ to forgive our sins.
A Strange Response?
It might seem odd to respond to the arrival of a paralytic the way Jesus does. Here is a man who clearly needs to be healed. He can’t even come on his own; he has to be carried to Jesus by his friends.
When Jesus encountered the leper, he said nothing about forgiveness. Neither did he respond to the Roman centurion with an injunction to repent and be forgiven. When he came to Peter’s house and found his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever, he did not say a word about sin, judgment, or forgiveness.
There are a few things to be learned from this.
One is that contrary to some popular claims, Jesus didn’t have a consistent “healing method.” He rarely treated any two people the same way.
Every encounter with Jesus in the gospels is a unique encounter. In every case, Jesus sees the need of the individual, the need of the moment, and sometimes the need to make a particular prophetic statement.
Here we see all three. This man needs healing, that much is obvious, but it’s just as clear to Jesus — maybe more clear — that this man needs to be forgiven.
Perhaps in this case, his paralysis was directly connected to sin. Perhaps the man was particularly aware of his state of separation from God or of nagging, gnawing guilt.
Jesus spoke to that need first.
Again, this wasn’t a consistent method. He didn’t always do this, even though all people arguably need to be reconciled to God at least as badly as they need healing!
This man needed to be forgiven, and he needed to be forgiven first. That was the need of the individual and the need of the moment.
And besides, Jesus had a serious prophetic statement to make.
The Yahweh Claim in Jesus’ Words
It’s clear from the reaction of the scribes to Jesus’ healing — “He’s blaspheming!” — that they understood something profound in his words and actions that is not immediately obvious to us.
A little background information might be helpful here.
First, in Jesus’ day and culture, there was a clear, God-given process for seeking forgiveness. Under the Old Covenant, a man needing forgiveness from God would bring an animal sacrifice to the temple, lay his hands on its head, and have the priests ceremonially slaughter it. This would “atone” for him (see Leviticus 1, 4, 16, et al).
This had to be done inside the temple by specially sanctioned Levitical priests. Anywhere else, the ritual would not be valid (and would actually be seen as rebellious).
Of course, the sinner also had to ask God for forgiveness. It wasn’t automatic upon sacrifice, as though forgiveness could be bought. Sin was a transgression against the covenant with Yahweh himself.
King David’s impassioned prayer after his adultery expresses this:
Be gracious to me, God,
according to Your faithful love;
according to Your abundant compassion,
blot out my rebellion …
Against You—You alone—I have sinned
and done this evil in Your sight.
You do not want a sacrifice, or I would give it;
You are not pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit.
God, You will not despise a broken and humbled heart.
When he tells the paralytic “Your sins are forgiven,” Jesus does two controversial things.
First, he circumvents the temple. With no sacrifice, no ritual, and no priests, Jesus “lets this man off.”
The Greek word for “forgive,” aphiémi, is literally “to send away.” Before the paralytic stood up and walked away, his sins did. Jesus dismissed them. Whatever this man had done that had bound him spiritually and physically, Jesus simply released him from the power of the past and sent his spiritual debt away.
By doing this without any involvement whatsoever from the temple establishment, Jesus implicitly claimed that he had authority greater than that of the priests, and that wherever he stood was holy ground.
Second, Jesus in this scene stands in the place of Yahweh and does what only God can do: he forgives sins done against himself. He forgives the breach of covenant with God.
The implication is clear. In some powerful, startling way, Jesus is claiming the right to act on God’s behalf. In fact, he is claiming to be Yahweh.
If that wasn’t enough, Jesus cements his claim with a phrase the scribes would recognize with electric force.
“The Son of Man Has Authority on Earth”
When the scribes accuse him of blasphemy, Jesus reads their minds and offers a riddle: “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then He told the paralytic, “Get up, pick up your mat, and go home.”
This is Jesus’ second use of “Son of Man” in the gospel of Matthew. The first time he used it, he was also speaking to scribes. This is not accidental. These men had studied the Scriptures in depth and knew exactly what he meant.
The phrase “Son of Man” is interesting, because it can have two meanings.
The first meaning is basically “Joe Schmoe” (apologies to my friend Joe). It denotes an average guy, down on his luck … “just a son of man.”
The first time Jesus used the phrase, in Matthew 8:20, it could almost seem that he meant the phrase in that sense. But he didn’t. And it’s here, shortly after, that his meaning becomes unmistakable.
You see, the other use of “Son of Man” is found in the visions of the prophet Daniel, circa 533 BC.
Daniel had a vision of four great monsters, representing four empires that would conquer and oppress his people.
This was followed by another vision:
And I saw One like a son of man
coming with the clouds of heaven.
He approached the Ancient of Days
and was escorted before Him.
He was given authority to rule,
and glory, and a kingdom;
so that those of every people,
nation, and language
should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that will not pass away,
and His kingdom is one
that will not be destroyed.
In calling himself “the Son of Man,” Jesus ties himself directly to Daniel’s prophecy. Without question, he is the king — and right now, even as the people of Capernaum watch, he is using his kingly and priestly authority on the earth.
He is using the authority and power of God himself.
And he is using it to forgive sins.
“Son, Your Sins Are Forgiven”
From the first moment Jesus began to preach “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!”, he made it clear that the long-awaited coming of his kingdom was good news.
Daniel’s vision indicated that the Son of Man’s appearance would mean the days of tyrants were numbered.
But rather than sweep down on his enemies in wrath and judgment, Jesus’ first acts of authority were to bless, to heal and deliver, to give the kingdom to outsiders and to the poor in spirit, and to offer clemency to anyone who wants it.
In one breathtaking moment, Jesus forgives a man’s sins and gives him back his health.
And one more thing: He calls him “son.”
“Have courage, son, your sins are forgiven.”
In Jesus, Yahweh reveals himself. And he does so first and foremost in forgiveness and embrace.
The Son of Man has come. He has authority upon the earth. And he uses that authority to make us whole and to make us his.
I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!
This is Part 112 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
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