Dec 18, 2005

Healing the Paralytic

Mark 2:1–12

Four desperate men stopped at nothing to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the book of Mark to reveal that Christ had the authority to give this man something far greater than miraculous healing.


We continue our study now with the gospel of Mark, already beginning the second chapter. I will be reading Mark 2:1–12, and I would ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

And again He entered Capernaum after some days, and it was heard that He was in the house. Immediately many gathered together, so that there was no longer room to receive them, not even near the door. And He preached the word to them. Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying.

When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.”

And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

Beloved, this is the unvarnished, inspired, infallible Word of God. May that Word pierce our souls. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father, as we look at this text and get another glimpse of the person and work of Jesus, we ask that You give us understanding, that in understanding these things, our affections may be kindled to a flame of passion in our love and devotion towards Jesus. For we ask it in His name. Amen.

A Disturbance During Jesus’ Teaching

In this text, Mark continues his narrative. He told us earlier that Jesus made His headquarters in Capernaum, but the crowds had so pressed against Him that it was no longer possible for Him to continue the mission the Father had sent Him to perform there—to preach the coming kingdom of God. We remember that Jesus then withdrew from Capernaum and took His ministry to the other villages around the Sea of Galilee.

In our text, we read that Jesus returned to Capernaum and “it was heard that He was in the house.” Another way of translating the text is that He was at home, which adds more credibility to the notion that Jesus made His home in Capernaum after His family moved away from Nazareth. It is also possible that this was Peter’s home and he was sharing it with Jesus.

In any case, Jesus came to the house, and no sooner did He come into the house than once again a huge multitude pressed together to enter to hear Jesus teach and watch Him perform His powerful works. Mark describes the scene in this manner: so many people were pressing about that the whole house was filled with people, and not only that, but they were crowded outside at the door so people could not even get close to the entrance.

On a couple of occasions so far in our study of Mark, I have asked you to use your imagination to visualize the scenes in which Jesus operated in the first century. Once again, this morning, I ask you to imagine yourself being one of the people who made it inside the house. You are in a posture of rapt attention as you listen to the teaching of Jesus.

While Jesus is speaking and you are listening, you look up and see some dirt falling from the ceiling. You think to yourself: “What’s happening? Is there an insect up there disturbing the roof?” You try to keep your attention on Jesus, but your curiosity has the best of you because this disturbance continues at the ceiling. You look up and see pieces of the ceiling being removed. Now you can look up and see the sky, and the hole in the ceiling gets bigger and bigger.

I know that there have been disturbances and distractions in congregations where I have been preaching, and it is difficult for a speaker to have everybody’s attention directed away from the one speaking. I do not know what Jesus felt like when everybody in the room started looking at the ceiling. My guess is that our Lord Himself looked at the ceiling and the disturbance that was taking place.

Through the Roof

Let me give a little word of background. In Palestine at this time, the normal structure of a house was one story with walls and a flat roof on top. Roofs were normally constructed with beams set across the walls of the house, then between the beams were interlaced sticks and reeds. Within the reeds and sticks was woven a kind of thatch, like we know of thatched roofs.

If you go to Disney World, to Animal Kingdom, you can see buildings there with authentic thatched roofs. The thatch was woven on top of the sticks, and on top of the thatch was several inches of mud. The mud was packed down hard against the thatch, and they would use a kind of roller in the ancient world to roll out the mud until it was very hard and stable.

There were stairs that went outside the building up to the roof because the roof was the place people would go for fresh air. They would often eat their meals or receive company on the roof. So, the roof served like a deck we might have on our houses today.

There is one technical problem in this scenario. In Luke’s version of this story, he gives us a detail that Mark does not. He tells us that the men who began to disturb the roof did this by removing the tiles from the roof, and some critical scholars say, “Luke has made a mistake here because homes in Palestine did not have tiled roofs like we find throughout Europe.”

There are a couple of things I want to say about that. First, the Greek word Luke uses, translated by the word “tile,” can simply refer to any kind of hard, baked clay, ceramic, and so on. We also know that Capernaum was an upscale village along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and that there were European settlements in Capernaum. There were places in Palestine, particularly among the upscale communities, where tiles were used. So, either this home had real tiles or hard, sunbaked mud that had the effect of ceramic tile.

In any case, Mark tells us that while Jesus was teaching, four men came carrying a stretcher or a pallet upon which a paralyzed man was lying. They were obviously seeking healing for this afflicted gentleman, but they could not get anywhere near Jesus. The entrance to the building was blocked by the crowd.

Pressing on with their mission to get the suffering man to Jesus, the four men carried him up the stairs to the roof and began digging—taking apart the tiles, cutting through the thatch, breaking the sticks—to make a hole big enough for them to let the paralyzed man down so that Jesus might touch him.

I must ask questions. When I use my imagination, I look up at the roof and think: How big of a hole? Did they make the hole big enough that they could let the man down on the stretcher horizontally, with room for the whole stretcher and the man? That would be a big hole in the roof. Or was it just a small hole that they let him through feetfirst on ropes? I certainly do not think they were going to drop him headfirst into the room.

My guess is the men made the hole big enough to let the man down on the stretcher. It is amazing to me how determined the men were to bring relief to their friend. They destroyed, at least temporarily, somebody’s roof and interrupted the teaching of Jesus. They were doing anything they could to bring their friend to Jesus.

Radical Forgiveness of Sin

Mark says that when Jesus saw their faith, He spoke to the paralytic. He saw the wretched man on the stretcher, looked at him in compassion, and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” There is nothing in the text that suggests the man was looking for forgiveness. He was looking for healing.

Notice, Jesus did not say, “Sir, your sins are forgiven.” He addressed him as an adult would a child, and this was not a child. Jesus addressed him as one in a superior position of authority would to a subordinate. He called him “son.” He said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

That statement was so radical that it occasioned a reaction from the theologians and the clergy of the day, who were part of the crowd listening to Jesus, paying attention to every word. They were already trying to trap Jesus if they could. The scribes were there, and we read that when they heard Jesus say to the man, “Your sins are forgiven,” some of them were reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this?”

Why were they thinking of blasphemy? All Jesus said was, “Your sins are forgiven.” Why would that be blasphemy? Because every scribe knew the principle in Old Testament Judaism that no man, not even the Messiah, would have the authority to forgive the sins of human beings. They took and tenaciously held the position that God and God alone had the authority to forgive sins. What does Jesus say? “Your sins are forgiven.” They were thinking: “Blasphemy. This man is acting as if He had the authority of God Himself.”

One fascinating thing in the New Testament record of Jesus is that some people, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, argue that the New Testament does not really teach the deity of Christ, despite the explicit teachings of the text of the New Testament. Not only does the New Testament explicitly teach the deity of Christ, but we see in narratives like this the clear implication of Jesus’ claim to deity.

The point that the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, and Mormons fail to understand, the contemporary Jews of Jesus’ day understood clearly. They understood that Jesus was claiming divinity. That is why they were so exercised. That is why they were thinking inside themselves: “Why does He blaspheme? Why does He presume to forgive this man of his sins?”

Jesus read their minds. He knew what they were thinking. He perceived in His spirit that they reasoned this way. Notice the method of debate in antiquity of answering a question with a question. They were saying: “Why does He blaspheme? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus raised the question to them: “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’?”

Which Is Easier?

Let me just stop there for a second. Jesus posed a question: “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Get up and walk’?” How would you answer that question? This is a difficult passage because on the one hand, the easier of the two options would seemingly be to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” because nobody can test whether sins are forgiven. There is no visible, evidentiary test that can verify or falsify the truth of what Jesus pronounces. But if Jesus says, “Arise, get up, take your bed, and go home,” then He is putting Himself to the test.

People were going to know whether Jesus had the power to heal the man because if the man went back out on the stretcher the way he came in, except through the door instead of the roof, that would prove Jesus did not have the power to heal him. If he got out of the bed and walked home, that would prove Jesus did have the power to heal him. So, manifestly, it would seem at least at first glance that the easier option is to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” not, “Arise, take up your bed, and walk.”

I do not think Jesus had in mind that it was easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” In that culture, in that context, in the presence of the scribes and the presence of His enemies, it would have been far easier for Jesus to say, “Get up and walk.” Jesus knew that if He said, “Your sins are forgiven,” the gauntlet would have been laid down, because He would be claiming to be divine, and that was not an easy thing to claim in that particular instance. So, Jesus was not saying, “I took the easy way out.” No: “I took the hard way out.”

Now, the plot thickens. Remember, you are still there listening to this exchange, and you are wondering what Jesus means by, “Which is easier?” He tells you why He did what He did, why He chose the words that He did. Listen carefully: “But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins.” In other words, Jesus was saying: “I said it not just to heal this man thoroughly, body and soul—I went deeper than his paralysis. I went to the deepest need he had: his relief from guilt.”

This is not to say that the man’s suffering was directly a result of his particular sin. It could have been, but the New Testament makes clear that we are never to draw the conclusion that our suffering in this world is on an equal basis with our guilt. It does teach that suffering enters the world because of sin, but Jesus was not suggesting the man’s problem was that he was paralyzed because of his sin.

Jesus did recognize that the man had a deeper problem than his paralysis, and it was the problem of sin. Jesus said, “I did this not only to heal this man body and soul, but I did it that you may know that the Son of Man has the authority”—the exousia, the power that we have talked about already—“on earth to forgive sins.” This is like saying, “I said this that you may know that the Son of Man is God incarnate.”

Son of Man

Two titles are frequently used for Jesus in the New Testament: Son of Man and Son of God. We might tend to say that we believe Jesus has two natures—a human nature and a divine nature—and the title Son of God describes His divine nature while the title Son of Man shows His solidarity with us in His humanity. But if we make that assumption, we miss a significant point that the New Testament makes about Jesus.

Let me just take a moment to explain this. The title Son of Man is used for Jesus eighty-three times in the New Testament, and in every single case except two of them, the title Son of Man is used by Jesus for Himself. In the New Testament, if you look at the frequency of titles used for Jesus, the number one title is Christ. The number two title is Lord. The number three title is Son of Man.

But what I find astonishing is that even though the title Son of Man is number three overall in terms of frequency, it is far and away number one in terms of Jesus’ self-designation. When Jesus tells who He is, the favorite title He uses for Himself is the one that He uses here for the first time in the gospel of Mark, Son of Man.

Who is the Son of Man? If you go back to the book of Daniel, to the seventh chapter, it describes in graphic detail the appearance, description, and character of the Son of Man. The Son of Man is a heavenly being. It is the Son of Man who is appointed by the Ancient of Days to be the Judge of the earth. It is the Son of Man to whom the Ancient of Days gives the kingdom forever. It is the Son of Man who descends from heaven and then ascends into heaven.

When Jesus calls Himself the Son of Man, He is not practicing humility. He is not saying, “I’m just a poor country human being.” Rather, He is saying: “I have descended from heaven. I am heavenly, not from this earth.” That title is pregnant with theological significance regarding the deity and office of Jesus.

Jesus said: “That’s why I said, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ so you may know that the Son of Man has divine authority. I have the authority, the exousia, the power and authority to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ When I say your sins are forgiven, your sins are forgiven.” Then He looked at the man and said, “Arise, take up your bed and walk.” The man did, and he went home. But the greatest thing that happened to the paralytic that day was not the healing of his body; it was the forgiveness of his soul.

Authority for Absolution

At the heart of the controversy that erupted in the sixteenth century between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church was the church’s understanding of the sacrament of penance. There are many factors to that, but part of the sacrament of penance was confession and priestly absolution. The penitent church person would come into the confessional and say, “Father, I have sinned, and it’s been so long since my last confession.” He would recite his sins, and he would have to go through his act of contrition and so on.

The highlight was when the priest would use the words te absolvo, “I absolve you.” Some Protestants get really upset when they hear about that, and they say, “What right does the priest have to say, ‘I absolve you’?” Well, for centuries the church was very careful to point out that no priest has the inherent authority to forgive sins. Only God can forgive sins.

When the priest says te absolvo, he is saying in shorthand, “In the name of Jesus Christ, who does have the authority to forgive your sins, I declare you absolved by your repentance.” So, the problem with the Reformation was not with what the priest said there; it was with other aspects of the sacrament of penance, which we can treat on another day. Luther kept the confessional for this reason. He said, “People need a word of assurance that they are being forgiven.”

Twenty-five years ago, a psychiatrist who had a prosperous practice in South Florida seriously asked me to come on his staff. He offered me what, at that time, would have been a princely sum of one hundred thousand a year to join his team. I said: “I don’t even have a degree in psychology. Why would you want me?” He said: “Because, R.C., 95 percent of my clients don’t need a psychiatrist. They need a priest because their lives are destroyed by unresolved guilt.”

Would it not be great if Jesus came in this room this morning, walked up to you, put his hand on your head, and said, “Your sins are forgiven”?

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.