Jul 1, 2012

The Authority to Forgive

Luke 5:17–26

When several men carried their friend to Jesus, Christ healed him of much more than his paralysis. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke to display the divine authority of Jesus to forgive people of their sins.


We are continuing our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading Luke 5:17–26:

Now it happened on a certain day, as He was teaching, that there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, who had come out of every town of Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was present to heal them. Then behold, men brought on a bed a man who was paralyzed, whom they sought to bring in and lay before Him. And when they could not find how they might bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the housetop and let him down with his bed through the tiling into the midst before Jesus.

When He saw their faith, He said to him, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”

And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, He answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise up and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”

Immediately he rose up before them, took up what he had been lying on, and departed to his own house, glorifying God. And they were all amazed, and they glorified God and were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen strange things today!”

In this text, Luke has isolated a particular incident in the ministry of Jesus. He could have included thousands of such stories, but he set our focus on this one among others. The record you have just heard is given to us not merely by Luke the physician but by the superintendence and inspiration of God the Holy Spirit so that it is indeed God’s Word itself. Please receive it as such. Let us pray.

Our Lord, we invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit, asking that He may stoop to our weakness and our frailty, that He might illumine this text for our understanding and the application of it to our lives. For we ask these things in His name. Amen.

What I Learned from Writing a Screenplay

About thirty years ago, a small production studio in Hollywood asked me if I would write a screenplay for a book that I had written so that they could produce a full-length motion picture. I kind of giggled at the invitation because I didn’t know the first thing about writing screenplays. They said: “That’s alright. We’ll help you and show you the basics of what you have to do.” So, I agreed, under duress, to make an attempt. As a result of that exercise, I was awarded an Oscar for best screenplay. No, I’m kidding—it is a terrible thing to lie from the pulpit. The screenplay was finished, but the movie was never produced for lack of interest in the story.

In writing that screenplay, I learned that I had to imagine the story through the lens of the camera. Every shot of the camera had to have a particular perspective, what the Hollywood people called a POV or point of view. As I read this strange incident in Jesus’ life, the healing of the paralytic, it occurred to me that there were a lot of different people involved. So, I want to look at this narrative from the various points of view of those who participated in it.

They Would Not Be Denied

Let me begin with the point of view of those who brought the paralyzed man to where Jesus was teaching the crowds. They were men who not only had compassion for their friend who was paralyzed, but they went out of their way to do something about it.

I had a bit of an existential response to this story. While I was still in high school, my father, who had been a very popular man in the community, was stricken with a terminal illness. All he could do was sit in a chair for three years without being involved in any external activities. During that three years, not one of his friends came to the house to visit him, and I was disillusioned by that. I couldn’t understand it. I asked my mother: “Where are dad’s friends? Why haven’t they come?” Trying to calm me down, she said, “You have to understand that it’s difficult for them to see your father in this condition.” I responded, “It may be difficult for them, but it’s far more difficult for him to be in this condition and have no one come to see him.”

That my dad’s friends wouldn’t visit him bothered me. In stark contrast, the man who was paralyzed had friends who did more than just say prayers for him. Sure, they said, “God, bless this man,” and sent over meals or other such things. However, they went out of their way to do something to help him. They heard about Jesus. Perhaps some of them had even seen the miraculous healings He had performed in their region. So, these fellows got together and said, “We have to take our friend to Jesus.”

The men found a stretcher and placed the paralyzed man on it. They didn’t take him in an ambulance because they did not have them back then. Unless they rigged up an oxen-drawn cart, they probably walked. Nevertheless, they were able to transport the paralyzed man to the house where Jesus was teaching. You can imagine how their hearts sank when they saw that not only was the house in which Jesus was teaching filled to capacity, but there were large crowds milling around outside. There was no possible way they could get near Jesus to seek His healing power for their friend—but they would not be denied.

Homes in ancient Palestine were very small for the most part. They had flat, tiled roofs where much of the family activity took place because the rooms they slept in were very small. Traditionally, access to the roof came from outside stairs attached to the walls.

Since nobody was standing on the roof, the men reasoned, “Let’s take him up to the roof.” So, they had the difficult task of carrying the paralyzed man on the stretcher up the stairs to the roof. When they got to the roof, they set the stretcher down on one side, then they began to take the roof apart. They had to take away a large portion of the roof, not just a little slot to slide the man under, but enough room to lower the man on the stretcher, with ropes, down into the presence of Jesus.

Hopeful Apprehension

One could also view this story from the perspective of the man who was paralyzed. His friends came to him one day and said: “We’ve got good news. There’s a man in the land who is healing all kinds of disease. The blind see, and the deaf hear. We want to take you to Him because we believe that He can and will heal you,” which is what Jesus had done most recently in the case of the leper. I am sure the man was afraid to believe, afraid to try one more possible remedy that might free him from his paralysis and give him the opportunity to walk and be productive again. However weak or strong his faith was at that moment, his friends said: “We’re going to take you on a stretcher. Whatever it takes, we’re going to bring you to this man, Jesus.”

Hope rose up in the paralyzed man, and he allowed himself to be lifted up and placed on the litter. One wonders what was going through his mind as they bumped along, carrying him on the stretcher. Surely, when they came to the house where Jesus was, he could see that the place was teeming with a multitude of people, even from his vantage point. It was so crowded that he must have thought: “This was a wasted trip. There is no way I am going to be able to see this man called Jesus.”

Then you wonder what was going through his mind when his friends started carrying him up the stairs. They would have had a difficult time keeping the stretcher balanced so that he would not slide off the back or front of it. He rode on this stretcher until they got to the roof. They set him down on the roof, in the midday sun, and he had to be thinking: “What good is this? I still can’t even see Jesus, and He can’t see me.”

Then the man saw his friends start to take tiles from the roof. He saw them take ropes and attach them to the four corners of the stretcher. He had to take a deep breath and trust the strength of his friends as they picked up the stretcher with the ropes and began to lower him down through the roof in front of all these people. I doubt this man had ever been more self-conscious in his life than he was at that moment, as he was being lowered in front of everybody.

What Were the People Thinking?

What about the point of view of the people who were there? They were listening to Jesus teach, hanging on every word, when, suddenly, they saw some dust falling down from the ceiling. They looked up, and before they knew it, a little hole that appeared in the ceiling. They wondered what it was while trying to return their attention to the words of Jesus. Then, more debris started to fall down from the ceiling. They looked up again, and the hole was bigger. It continued to get bigger and bigger. At this point, they couldn’t even pay attention to Jesus—everybody was looking up at the ceiling. Then they saw a man on a stretcher being lowered in their midst. People were scrambling to get out of the way of the man who was being dropped down in front of them and Jesus.

Jesus Shows Compassion to the Paralytic

Then there is Jesus’ point of view. We don’t know exactly what He was thinking, but He had to be thinking something like: “I’ve seen people go to desperate measures to come into My presence. The kingdom is being taken forcibly by these people who are pressing into it, but I’ve never seen faith like this in all of Israel.” His eyes were on this poor, paralyzed man as he was lowered down from the ceiling in front of Him.

We are told so often in the New Testament that when Jesus looked upon people who were suffering, He did so with compassion. So it was when He saw this man on the stretcher in front of him. Jesus knew that the people in the room and those who could peer through the windows were watching to see what He was going to do. He knew that the scribes and Pharisees gathered there were also watching carefully, not only to see what He would do but to hear what He would say.

We read in verse 20: “When He saw their faith, He said to him, ‘Man, your sins are forgiven you.’”

Can you imagine the ripple that went through the crowd because of what Jesus said? They must have thought, “He said the man’s sins were forgiven. This man didn’t come here to get his sins forgiven—he wasn’t coming to confession. He was coming to be healed.” Nevertheless, Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Only God Can Forgive Sins

What about the point of view of the scribes and the Pharisees who were gathered at the house? They had come from Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem to examine the work of Jesus, to catch Him in some unlawful act. We know that they were skeptics and that they were hostile towards Him. They saw the spectacle of the man being dropped down from the roof, and I’m sure that they thought it was an insult to proper decorum.

When they heard the words of Jesus, they must have thought: “What did He say? He just told that man that his sins are forgiven. Who does this Jesus think He is? We know that only God has the authority to forgive sins.” At least their theology was sound on that point because, ultimately, it is true that only God has the authority to forgive sins. He may delegate that authority to His representatives to speak in His name, but the ultimate authority rests with God Himself.

Even during the time of the Reformation when the sacrament of penance was in dispute between Rome and the Protestant Reformers, the point of dispute was the sacrament’s call for works of satisfaction and merits of congruity. The Reformers did not dispute that the priest could give absolution and say, “Te absolvo,” after somebody made a confession of sin. They recognized that the Roman Catholic Church taught that the priest does not have the authority to forgive sins inherently but that only God can ultimately forgive sins. Rome also acknowledged that Christ, the Son of God, had said to His disciples, “Whatever sins you remit on earth will be remitted in Heaven.” It is Jesus who delegates authority to the church to forgive sins. When the church gives the assurance of pardon or forgiveness, it is not doing it on its own authority but only on the authority of Christ, to whom all authority was given by the Father in heaven and on earth.

Is It Easier to Forgive than to Heal

I recently talked to a woman who grew up in Eastern Europe in an Orthodox Church. It was her family’s practice to go to confession on a regular basis. She told me that her priest was kind and compassionate, but that it always bothered her to have to go to confession. One day, she asked her mother: “Why can’t I confess my sins to God? Why do I have to confess them to a man?” She eventually came to the conclusion that she didn’t have to confess her sins to a man and that she could have direct access to God, or at least indirect access through our Mediator and High Priest in heaven.

In verse 21, the scribes said:

“Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, He answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise up and walk’”?

If you asked me why Jesus said that, I couldn’t say. He was, however, responding to what they were saying and thinking. He said, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise up and walk?’” What’s the answer? Jesus doesn’t tell us the answer.

All the commentaries are divided about which is easier to say. In one sense, both are easy to say. Anybody can say, “Your sins are forgiven,” and anybody can say, “Rise up and walk,” but that doesn’t make it happen. On the one hand, it’s easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” than to say, “Rise up and walk.” Why? It is easier to say because there’s no way anyone could prove that what you’ve just said is true, nor could they refute it. Forgiveness is something that takes place in the invisible realm—it’s hidden from our view.

On the other hand, if a preacher says, “Rise up and walk,” you’re going to know very quickly if what he says is true or false because the proof will be in the pudding. If Jesus had said, “Rise up and walk,” and the man was not able to do it, then Jesus would have been in a real dilemma. In one sense, it would be much easier to simply say, “Your sins are forgiven.” However, for Jesus to say, “Rise up and walk,” was not a difficult thing. He had done far more difficult things in the past. But to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” in front of the Pharisees and the scribes is to risk your life. I personally think, given the circumstances, that Jesus did not take the easier tack but the far more difficult one when He publicly pronounced that this man’s sins had been forgiven.

Jesus said in verse 24: “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power or authority on earth to forgive sins . . .” In effect, Jesus was saying, “I did this so that you might know that the Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins,” which means that the Son of Man is also the Son of God. The Son of Man who descends from heaven, from the throne of judgment, who will judge the earth, is also the One who has the authority and the power to pardon the sinner. Jesus wanted them to know that.

Continuing in verse 24, Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” The second Jesus said that, the paralyzed man’s legs were filled with strength, and he got up from the stretcher. He didn’t need his friends to carry him, nor did he need the stretcher. Instead, he took the stretcher that had been his bed, and he started to walk on his own, free from the paralysis, free from sin.

What about your own viewpoint? I don’t want to spiritualize this text because this man wasn’t spiritually paralyzed; he was physically paralyzed. But each one of us who deals with unforgiven guilt suffers the most paralyzing force there is on this planet. Nothing paralyzes people more than guilt that has not been forgiven. If you suffer from that kind of paralysis, if there’s a sin that has haunted you for years and has spoiled your liberty as a Christian, this text tells you what to do about it. There is only one cure for guilt, and that is forgiveness. This text describes the One who has the power and the authority ultimately to say, “Te absolvo—I forgive you.”

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.