12. The Authority To Forgive Sins (Matthew 9:1-8)
In our studies in the Book of Matthew we have been seeing how the evangelisthas been emphasizing the authority of Jesus.1 Now, in the beginning of Matthew 9, we have an account of an event that shows that He has authority to forgive sins.
In our method of studying the text we have been noticing how the dialogue in a passage is the critical element for interpreting the events. This will be very important again in this short narrative as Jesus offers a detailed explanation of the connection between healing and forgiving.
We have also been noting how in studying the text we have different participants in the stories--Jesus, His followers, those He helps, and His enemies. It is important in studying the text to note to which of these the speeches of Jesus are directed, and then in turn to whom the whole event is directed. The words may be a corrective teaching or a rebuke to those who opposed Him, but they and the whole incident are intended to convince people of His authority. So when we come to making applications from the lesson, it is easy for us to think in these groups for points of reference, that is, how we should respond to Jesus and how we should not, based on the representative characters in the story.
And as always we have to see these things against the backdrop of the Old Testament, for Jesus came to fulfill it. The subject matter in this passage, the forgiveness of sin, is an enormous issue in that regard, for the Old Testament made it very clear that only God could forgive sins. This will help us understand the response of the teachers of the Law, and the reason for the authenticating miracle.
Reading the Text
Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. 2 Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”
3 At this, some of the teachers of the Law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”
4 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? 5 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6 But so that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sin . . . .” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.”
7 And the man got up and went home. 8 When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe, and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.
Comparison with the Other Synoptic Gospels
The event is recorded in Mark 2:1-12. Mark tells us that when people heard that Jesus was coming into Capernaum that they packed into the house so that there was no room left, not even outside. And Jesus preached to them. Four men brought the paralytic, but since they could not get in, they went up on the roof, made an opening in the roof, and lowered the man to Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Mark has more of what the teachers were thinking as well, explaining the blaspheming in view of the belief that only God can forgive sins.
Mark concludes the passage very much the way Matthew does, with Jesus’ words and then the miracle. Mark closes with the people’s amazement over this miracle, but he does not include the words of Matthew’s explanation that God had given such authority to men.
They both have the same teaching of Jesus and the same point to the story. Mark focuses a good deal on the persistence of the faith of those who brought the man to Jesus; Matthew focuses primarily on the demonstration of Jesus’ authority.
The story is also in Luke 5:17-26. Luke explains that not just teachers of the Law but also Pharisees had come from all over Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem and were sitting there. Why were they there? Well, obviously to see for themselves what had been going on in Galilee. How did they hear as far away as Jerusalem? Well, if you look at a chronology of the life of Christ you will discover that what actually took place just before this was the cleansing of the leper (Matt. 8:2-4; Mark 1:40-45; and Luke 5:12-16) where Jesus instructed the healed leper according to the Law of Leviticus to go to Jerusalem and show himself clean to the priest. That would be a public announcement by Jesus that He could cleanse the leper and thus fulfill the requirements of the Law. The effect of that would have been like a personalized invitation--and so they came to check Him out.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law usually were together in their efforts. The Pharisees were devout people. They were largely what we would call blue collar workers, ordinary people in society; but they were passionate for the faith, especially for the rules on purification, washing, sabbath observance, and tithes. They loved God, believed in miracles and angels and the resurrection, and tried to follow Scripture in their tradition. They were completely at odds with the Sadducees and much of the Temple hierarchy. But it was the teachers of the Law (some of whom would have been members of the Pharisees) who were the authorities in these matters; and so Matthew is more interested in noting that they were there.
Structure of the Passage
Once again the structure of the passage follows a clear pattern. There is the meeting with the paralytic, the response of the teachers, the teaching-reply of Jesus, and the completion of the miracle. In the first part Jesus speaks to the paralytic. In the second part the teachers speak to themselves. In the third part Jesus speaks to the teachers. And in the last part Jesus speaks to the paralytic. We can chart it this way:
Paralytic is brought to Jesus Jesus says, Your sins are forgiven
Teachers are upset by this They say, This fellow blasphemes
Jesus rebukes their thinking Jesus says, Son of Man has authority
Jesus heals the man Jesus says, Take up your mat
If you get in the habit of charting or diagraming the flow of a story, you can see more clearly how it is put together. In this case, it is a story within a story. The main event is Jesus’ speaking to the paralytic and healing him. But in the middle of that event there is the response to the evil thinking of these opponents in order to explain the point of the miracle. Jesus used the miracle, and their accusation of blasphemy, to declare that He has authority to forgive sins. And He did this to show the primary need was forgiveness of sins, not the healing.
And this, of course, is the central theme or message of the passage, that Jesus has authority to forgive sin. How do we know that? Part of the answer, and the answer given here, is that He has the power to heal.
Now this will raise a fundamental theological issue that will have to be dealt with somewhere in the study, probably when Jesus is speaking to the teachers of the Law. What is the connection between healing and forgiving, or, more basically, what is the connection between sickness, disease, and death, and sin? This could become a rather involved study, but one that you need to do sometime. Good biblical theologies will provide you with basic discussions on the subject.
In sum, the Bible teaches that all sickness, disease, pain, contamination, pollution, and death is the result of the presence of sin in the world. In the beginning when sin entered the world and the curse was announced as the natural result of rebellion against the living God, the world and the human race was from that point contaminated. Death and dying now reign where life was created. And all sickness and disease, physical or mental, is part of this dying. The human existence is characterized by pain, conflict, disease and death.
Now that does not mean necessarily that one person who is a cripple is a bigger sinner than those who are not. No, it does not work that way, as the Book of Job demonstrated. It is a simple fact of life that we all suffer with illnesses, that we all have pain of one sort or another, some major and chronic, and that we all die eventually. None of this would have been present if sin had not ruined the race. But it has. And Jesus came into the world to solve this problem by becoming the curse for us and taking all of our sins and infirmities on Himself. This was prophesied by Isaiah in the important 53rd chapter. He would give His life an offering for sins, and in the process as the sins of us all were to be laid on Him, He also took our infirmities (Isa. 53:4).
The point is that if Jesus can take care of the effects of sin--by healing a paralytic or a leper, or by raising a dead person--He can therefore also take care of the cause of the illness--by forgiving the sin. For Jesus the forgiving of sins and the healing of diseases are two sides of His mission, with the forgiveness of sins being the most important.
The Analysis of the Text
There are different ways that the passage could be divided and outlined. I have chosen to divide it into three sections, putting the above middle story all together as one point--their accusation and Jesus’ explanation.
I. Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic (Matt. 9:1-2). Matthew begins the narrative by stating that Jesus took the boat across the lake and stepped out at his home town--Capernaum (as Mark and Luke remind us). That is all the detail Matthew gives.
If you want to bring in the background of the other gospels to picture this, it was in a very crowded house. We are not told what house that would be, but since Jesus was not a homeowner, there is every good reason to believe it was Peter’s house. Jesus may well have lived with Peter when in Capernaum. But wherever it was, these houses usually had roofs made of logs and branches packed with earth. Repairing the roof was a regular task for the homeowner, as rain and wind would wash the dirt away and water would in time leak into the houses. If that is the case here, and we cannot be completely certain, but if it was it is easy to see how the men would have gone up onto the flat roof and begun to pull up branches and logs to make an opening in the roof.2 It is also easy to imagine some of this debris falling down on the assembled crowd in the room of the house before the man was lowered to Jesus. But these men were determined to get the paralytic to Jesus, believing that if they did he could be healed. Jesus marveled at their faith. But this is a point that Mark makes.
Matthew simply tells us that some men brought the paralytic on a mat, and that Jesus saw their faith in bringing him to Him. Their act of belief is evident in the fact that they laid this man at Jesus’ feet. The implication is that the four men and the paralytic had the faith that Jesus could heal him.
The response of Jesus to their faith is in His words: “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” There are two things here that have to be probed. The first is the initial greeting: “Take heart, son,” or as the older translations had it, “Be of good cheer, son.” One might say just at the look of things that he had nothing to be of good cheer about. But more significantly, no Pharisee or teacher of the Law would have said that to a paralytic. They would have simply considered him as a “sinner” because of his malady. In their thoughts they would have concluded that had he been righteous, or a man of faith (as they were) he would not be like that. And they probably would have been very put out that these men ruined the lecture.
But before we come down to hard on the teachers and Pharisees, it is worth thinking that we are so often the same as they in our thinking. We are so religious, that had we been there that day we might have responded the way they did. Even today we often see someone suffering and think in terms of their lack of faith or sin that has caused their misfortune. And “Be of good cheer” would not be the thing we would think of saying.
But Jesus followed it with, “Your sins are forgiven.” What a statement! What a dramatic moment in which to make it! No one in the room would have imagined that Jesus would have said this. If it were true, then of course there was plenty of reason for the young man to take heart, or be of good cheer. But the words were designed not only to bless and encourage the paralytic, but to render all opinions about his condition void. If they thought he was a paralytic because he was a sinner--well, he was now forgiven.
In the Old Testament a priest in the sanctuary could communicate God’s forgiveness when the atoning sacrifice was made. But Leviticus simply says that when the worshiper confessed the sin and made the sacrifice, the sin was forgiven (4:26). It was God who forgave (see also Psalm 32); the priest could only communicate that good word to the genuine penitent after he saw the contrition, the sacrifice, or the restoration to health. At other times a prophet would come and announce to the sinner that God had put away the sin (see 2 Sam. 12:13). But here Jesus, seeing their faith, announces that the man’s sins are forgiven--before he was healed, before he offered a sacrifice in the Temple, and before he even said anything, if we can assume that in the account he did not say anything else. The basis for the forgiveness from the paralytic’s side was faith. It was his faith that saved him; it was his faith that made him whole. He believed in Jesus and wanted to be set before Him. And yet the text says that Jesus saw “their faith”; it is possible for people to show faith as they help another man’s faith, for that is what has happened here.
But we cannot miss the dramatic significance of this. At that precise moment Jesus chose to do something that everyone in the room knew only God could do--declare the forgiveness of sin.
II. Jesus defends His authority to forgive sins (Matt. 9:3-5). First, we have the report of what the teachers were saying to themselves--”This fellow blasphemes.” It will be helpful for you to read up on the range of meanings for “blasphemy,” which you can do in any good word study book. The word basically means to speak or represent God in an evil or irreverent way. One way this is done, and this is what is meant here, is to appropriate or claim to appropriate the position and prerogative of God. Here Jesus was claiming to be able to forgive sins--to be divine. They thought that He was saying something easy, a word that was not capable of demonstration, a divine claim that no one could challenge, and so not true. To them this was blasphemy since only God could forgive sins. To them Jesus was claiming something that He should not have claimed, and certainly could not have done--so they thought.
Second, we have Jesus’ rebuke of their thoughts and defense of His actions. His rebuke was straightforward, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?” That would have been sufficient to make them pause--He knew what they were thinking. It probably would not have been too hard to guess what they were thinking since He knew their teachings and the reason for their presence. But by this question, a rhetorical question meant to say that they had no reason to think evil of Him, Jesus put them off balance.
And then He posed the question: “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Get up and walk’?” The question immediately made them realize that there was a connection between sin and suffering. Matthew (8:17) has already reminded the reader of the famous passage in Isaiah 53, that Messiah would pay for sins and infirmities by His death. But as Isaiah 53 makes so clear, the mission of the Messiah was to deal first with the cause of suffering, sin, and then secondly, the healing of disease.
What Jesus was doing in healing people was not simply performing miracles, which is usually defined as violating or nullifying natural laws, but rather He was showing by these healing miracles that He was restoring a lost order. Disease and death were not natural to God’s creation, they were violations of it. The natural order was what God had created but had been ruined. Jesus was able to get behind the problem and deal with sin first, and then its effects. And as we said before, these individual miracles that He performed in His earthly ministry were signs of what He would do at the second coming when He restores the lost order of creation in full.
So how should the question be answered? Well, Jesus asked many questions that were meant to reveal truth, and this is another one. In the practical and obvious sense it would be easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” Who would know? Almost anyone could say that, and yet nothing else would have to be done to prove that the sins were forgiven. And in the theological sense it was easier to say that as well, for it would take care of both the cause for the illness and the illness itself. But if someone said “Take up your mat and walk,” then the paralytic better do it or the one speaking would be seen to be a fraud.
But on the other hand, the teachers of the Law and Pharisees would have seen the statement that the sins were forgiven as a very hard saying. They stumbled over it, for no mortal would dare say that. It would be easier for them if Jesus simply healed the man, even though it would demonstrate that He had the power of God.
But Jesus was not catering to their unbelief; He was responding to the faith of the paralytic. It was easier for Jesus to say “Your sins are forgiven” because He has the authority to forgive sins--as the miracle would immediately show.
III. Jesus demonstrates His authority to forgive sins (Matt. 9:6-8). Jesus said to them, “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . .” then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” The statement is in contrast to the question of which was easier. It was easier to say He was forgiven, but that these people might know that Jesus has this authority, He told the man to get up and take his mat and go home. It is clear that the miracle of healing was designed to show them that He has the authority to forgive sins.
Interestingly, Jesus uses the title “Son of Man” to refer to Himself. Rather than deal with this later we may simply say at this point that this is a Messianic title that Jesus used for Himself (check this title out in the biblical theology books, for there is a lot of material on it). The title comes from Daniel 7:13,14. In that passage Daniel saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days, God the Father in the vision, and was given absolute authority over all creation, so that all people would worship Him. Now these details are significant in this description. He is clearly deity if the whole world is going to worship Him. And as deity He can do the works of deity, including forgive sins. But according to the vision of Daniel He is coming in the clouds, which in the Bible is evidence of divine judgment. If He is coming with judgment to establish the kingdom of righteousness, He has the authority as Judge of the whole world to pardon or to condemn. So on both counts the prophecy of the Son of Man shows that Messiah has the authority to forgive sins.
Interestingly along these lines we shall see at the end of the Gospel of Matthew that the high priest put Jesus under oath to tell them whether or not He was the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus answered, “Yes, it is as you say. But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). At this the high priest tore his clothes and they charged Him with blasphemy. Jesus was affirming that He was indeed the Messiah, the divine One from the prophecy of Daniel. But, taking it a step further, if we can paraphrase it, He was saying, “You may be my judge today, but when I come with the clouds I will be your judge.” All judgment has been given to the Son (John 5:22). It is the prerogative of divinity. And as Judge, He has the authority and the power to forgive sins.
So Jesus healed this man to show that He, the Son of Man, has the authority to forgive sins. If He could heal the disease, He could also heal the cause of the disease, the sin. If He had simply forgiven the sin, people would not have known if the man was forgiven or not. Now they knew.
And Matthew reports that the man got up and went home. At this everyone was filled with awe and praised God who had given such authority to men. They still did not know that Jesus was divine; they still thought of Him as a man, which is certainly understandable. But He clearly demonstrated that He had this authority. The man was made whole. And for that they praised God. We do not know if the teachers and Pharisees joined the praise, or left disgruntled. The latter is more characteristic of them, although some, like Nicodemus (John 3), would have pondered these things carefully.
Correlation with Scripture
I will just repeat here the key passages that have been discussed above. The mission of the Messiah recorded in Isaiah 53 must be studied fully to see that the Messiah was to offer His life for the sins of the world--and for the infirmities as well. The death of Jesus not only paid for sin but made it possible to remove all the effects of sin from the world. He took care of the sin question at His first coming; He will take care of the curse at His second coming.
Daniel 7 is also important for an understanding of the Son of Man vision. This can be connected other Messianic passages such as Daniel 9:24,25 which link the divine plan of making atonement for wickedness and bringing in everlasting righteousness with the cutting off of the Messiah, and certainly Isaiah 9 which gives the titles of the Messiah, including “Mighty God, Everlasting Father.”
For New Testament connections we would also want to look at other passages that record the claims of Jesus to be divine, passages like John 10:30 (for which they tried to stone Him), and John 8:58, one of the “I Am” claims of Jesus (for which they also tried to stone Him). But one of the clearest evidences that Jesus claimed to be divine is the crucifixion itself, for the charge was blasphemy.
We can also look in the New Testament for passages for forgiveness of sin in Christ Jesus to correlate them to this account. The whole New Testament is filled with passages that teach how in Christ we have forgiveness and salvation and the hope of glory. Standard places to begin would be in passages like 1 John 1:9 and Romans 3:22-26 and 1 Peter 2:22-25.
And for teachings on healing we can look at passages that instruct us to pray for healing, such as James 5:13-18, and for passages that tell us how the full benefit of the atonement will be experienced in the resurrection, such as 1 Corinthians 15:35--58, 1 John 3:1-3, and Romans 8:22,23.
Once the key teachings of a passage are identified, then there will be a whole string of related passages in the Bible that can be studied to fill out the doctrines that are introduced in the narrative. You can actually continue in this step of the process as long as you wish, for there is so much to study.
Conclusion and Application
The point of the story is clear: Jesus has the authority to forgive sins. The implication of that point is also clear: because He is the divine Son, He is God in the flesh, Immanuel. The teachers of the Law knew that is what it meant, so they knew full well what He was claiming. If they did not believe in Him, then they had to go with their judgment that He was blaspheming. But, if He is the divine Son of God, then their accusations against Him, here and later, are blasphemy.
A related point that the story establishes is the relationship between sin and suffering. I have already dealt with this and so only need at this point to mention it in passing.
And finally, the way to avail oneself of full healing (spiritual forgiveness and physical healing, whether now or in the life to come) is faith. These men believed in Jesus and His power to make whole. They knew if they could get the paralytic to Jesus all would be well.
On the application level we would certainly have to identify with the men and the paralytic who came to Jesus by faith. The application is that for the forgiveness of sins one must come to Jesus by faith, believing that He will forgive and make things well. And, for the restoration to health and wholeness, spiritual and physical, one must also pray in the name of Jesus. He may answer our requests and heal us and our loved ones for whom we pray in this life; but the ultimate healing comes with the resurrection. Jesus did these miracles as evidence of His power and as a pledge of things to come. We who believe in Christ Jesus and have had our sins forgiven through Him know that in the age to come He will indeed restore the order of creation by removing the curse and making whole all who are in Him. That is the full effect of the atonement; that is the hope of glory.
1 The word “evangelist” is related to the word for “gospel” and so in biblical studies of the gospels is used to refer to the writers of the gospels. It means one who presents the good news, and so also is used later for the spiritual ministry of evangelism.
2 Mark simply says that they “unroofed the roof,” but Luke says that they lowered him through the “tiles.” The house may have had a more complex structure than most simple houses, unless Luke is simply using terms that his gentile audience would readily understand.