Jesus—His Life and Message: Miracles (Part 3)
February 28, 2017
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Miracles (Part 3)
Healing and Forgiveness
The story of Jesus healing a paralyzed man is told in each of the synoptic Gospels (Mark 2:1–12; Matthew 9:1–8; Luke 5:17–26). While it is a healing story, it is also a story of controversy, which reveals important information about Jesus to the reader. Let’s take a look at the story as told in Mark:
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”1
We read that on returning to Capernaum, Jesus was “at home.” Most commentators consider “at home” to mean at the house of Simon Peter, for in the preceding chapter Jesus was at Simon’s house, where He healed Simon’s mother-in-law and the whole city was gathered together at the door2 as He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.3 Other commentators believe that Jesus had His own home, due to verses such as And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea;4 and … as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.5 Either could be accurate, and there’s no way to know for certain.
Just like the previous time Jesus was in Capernaum, people filled the house and crowded outside the front door to hear Him teach. In emphasizing the size of the crowd, Mark alludes to Jesus’ growing fame and popularity. Four men arrived carrying a paralyzed man on a bed or mat. It was impossible for them to get inside the house due to the crowd, so they headed up to the roof. Many houses in Palestine in those days had a staircase at the side of the house that gave access to the roof. Roofs were generally flat and made of mud and straw. The Greek text literally says they “unroofed the roof.” They pulled back the straw covered with mud, made a hole, and lowered the man through it, bringing him into the presence of Jesus. Mark tells us that Jesus saw their faith. Their faith that Jesus could and would give healing must have been strong, considering they dared to unroof the roof of a house that wasn’t theirs, and Jesus recognized this.
In response to their daring faith and bold actions (one wonders what the owner of the house thought about his roof having a gaping hole in it), Jesus said: Son, your sins are forgiven. Had He simply told the man to stand up and walk, that would have been the end of the story, but these words bring controversy into the story. The mention of sin alongside healing wasn’t out of the ordinary, as in first-century Palestine, sin and disease were intimately associated. What raised questions was Jesus forgiving the paralytic man’s sins.6 He wasn’t saying that the Lord God had forgiven the man’s sins, but rather that He, Jesus, was personally forgiving them. This becomes clear when we read about the reactions of the scribes.
To place the scribes’ thoughts into context, it’s helpful to have a little background on who the scribes were and what they did.
In the time before the Jewish people were exiled to Babylon, scribes were professional secretaries. They were employed to keep accounts, transcribe legal information, write personal correspondence for those unable to write, and they served as recorders for temple affairs. After the Babylonian captivity, when some of the Jews returned to Israel, the term “scribe” began to be associated more narrowly with those who gathered together, studied, and interpreted the Torah (Jewish Law). They became a profession of teachers who were able to accurately preserve and interpret the law of Moses. By the second century BC, the scribes were a fairly distinct class in Jewish society. It was around that time that the scribes started to become linked to the Pharisees, who had also started to become prominent in Israel at that time. Initially, after the return from Babylon, the scribes were generally from priestly families, but later scribal training became open to members of all classes; and by Jesus’ time, scribes from non-priestly families were numerous and influential.
Because of the changed conditions after the return from Babylon, the written laws of Moses needed to be interpreted in a manner which could be applied in the Jewish people’s new circumstances. This resulted in the oral interpretation and application of the written law being promulgated by the scribes. This “oral law” eventually was regarded as equal to the written law, and was equally binding. Because the scribes were experts in the oral law, some of the leading scribes were included in the Sanhedrin, the supreme judicial council of Israel. As they were authoritative instructors of the Law within the temple, as well as in synagogues, they were greatly respected. They were addressed as “rabbi” or “master” and were given a place of honor at worship as well as at social affairs.
Within the Gospels (though scribes are only mentioned once in John) the scribes are seen as those who are concerned with the keeping of the Law, both written and oral. Luke also refers to them as lawyers, as their chief function was to interpret Jewish law. Because Jesus viewed the Law, especially the oral law, in a different manner, the scribes, when they were part of Jesus’ audience, were critical, often accusing Him of violating the Law. He healed on the Sabbath, didn’t follow their ceremonial washings, ignored their practice of fasting, and mixed with the unclean and outcasts of Jewish society. They often posed questions about the Law in order to trap Him. They demanded that Jesus make His identity clear and reveal the source of His authority to perform miracles. With some exceptions, the attitude of the scribes was hostile toward Jesus and His message. His popularity posed a threat to their authority.
They were also hostile because Jesus often exposed their hypocrisy and corruption. He accused them of being inwardly corrupt while appearing to be outwardly holy. He attacked the oral law, calling it a heavy burden which led people astray and which the scribes themselves didn’t follow. He accused them of emphasizing minor points of the Law while ignoring the more important concerns of justice, mercy, and faith. He claimed that if the prophets of old were alive in their day, the scribes would have killed them. All that Jesus taught and did posed a threat to their position and authority within the community, and therefore they joined forces with those who were normally their opponents (the high priesthood) to bring about Jesus’ arrest. They helped build a case against Him so He would be executed, and they participated with other members of the Sanhedrin in mocking Jesus on the cross.
Throughout the synoptic Gospels, the scribes are sometimes mentioned together with the Pharisees. Some of the scribes belonged to the group of Jewish believers who were known as the Pharisees.8 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors…9 The Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples…10 While the phrase “scribes and Pharisees” is used 16 times, the scribes are mentioned as being with the chief priests and/or elders 24 times, and they are mentioned 15 times without connection to anyone. So while some scribes were Pharisees, not all were, and when Jesus spoke about the “scribes and Pharisees” He was referring to two different groups of people.
Upon hearing Jesus pronounce that the paralytic’s sins were forgiven, the scribes who were present had internal questions, due to their training and understanding of Scripture. “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” From the standpoint of the scribes, Jesus was clearly claiming to do something that was only God’s prerogative. Jesus doesn’t offer any explanation; He doesn’t say, “Oh no, you misunderstood. I was just pointing out that God has forgiven his sin.” In fact, we read in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus said the very same thing to the woman who washed His feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.11 The scribes didn’t misunderstand what Jesus was claiming. They saw His claim to forgive sins as blasphemy, because He was acting like God. They saw Jesus as no more than another Galilean who was a normal human, and for such a person to forgive sins was blasphemy. The charge of blasphemy was very serious, as if it was proved, it could result in death. In fact, it was a later charge of blasphemy which brought Jesus the sentence of death:
Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.”12
Immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves… Bible commentators have differing opinions as to what “perceiving in His spirit” means in this context, since it indicates that Jesus knew what was going on in their minds and yet doesn’t say exactly how. There are generally three points of view: 1) Some argue that this is natural insight, that Jesus observed the scribes’ response and that He is just being perceptive; however, in the context, it seems like more than natural perception. 2) Others consider it to be prophetic understanding. 3) Still others believe that divine insight is alluded to here, that Jesus had divine knowledge or is revealing His divinity.13 While it’s not completely clear, elsewhere in the Gospels we read of Jesus having what would seem like divine knowledge. For example:
Jesus said to her [the woman at the well], “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”14
As they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be sorrowful and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me.”15
Understanding what they were thinking, Jesus asks them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?” Here Jesus uses what is known as qal wahomer (Hebrew for light and heavy), also known as an “a fortiori” argument. A fortiori (ah-for-she-ory) statements are a type of logical argument that makes a case that if one thing is true, then it can be inferred that a second thing is even more certainly true. It was a teaching technique used by Jewish rabbis to teach from “the lesser to the greater,” meaning that if a conclusion applies in a lesser case, it also applies in a more important one. This lesser-to-greater argument is recognized when the text says something like “If … how much more ….”16
Jesus asks: Is it easier to say something that can’t be visually verified, or is it easier to say something which can be? Obviously it’s easier to say “your sins are forgiven,” which can’t be visually verified, than to say to someone who is paralyzed, “Rise, pick up your bed, and walk.” Having made that clear, Jesus does the more difficult thing. He shows by the act of healing the man that His claim to be able to forgive sins isn’t an empty claim. By His action of healing the paralytic, He shows that He also possesses the unique authority to forgive sins. “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all.
This is the first use of the phrase Son of Man in both the Gospels of Mark and Luke, and its only use in connection with a specific miracle. The title Son of Man, which Jesus used for Himself throughout the Gospels, was a non–messianic title from the book of Daniel.17 (A fuller explanation about the title Son of Man will be given in the next article.)
Jesus commanded the man to rise, to pick up his bed, and to go home, and he did just that, attesting to his healing. His being able to do these three things at Jesus’ command caused wonderment: They were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” Jesus’ goals in performing miracles were to show compassion on those in need, to change their circumstances for the better, to demonstrate God’s power working through Him, to show the Father’s love and generosity toward those in need, and in this case to show that He was empowered by His Father to forgive sins.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Mark 2:1–12.
2 Mark 1:33.
3 Mark 1:34.
4 Matthew 4:13.
5 Mark 2:15.
6 Stein, The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings, 118.
7 This section about the scribes was condensed from David C. Carlson’s article in Elwell, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, 1913–15.
8 In Jesus’ day, there were a variety of Jewish religious groups within Israel. The most well-known were the Pharisees, who came into prominence about 130 years before Jesus’ birth. They weren’t necessarily a large group, but they were very influential. The name Pharisee comes from the Aramaic word meaning “separate,” and the Pharisees were seen as separated ones. They based their religious views on both the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the oral traditions, which they generally considered equal in authority. The Pharisees opposed Jesus because they saw Him as being lax toward their laws; they disapproved of how He interacted and ate with sinners, of His contact with Gentiles; and not least of all, they rejected the claims He made about Himself and His relationship to God.
9 Mark 2:16.
10 Luke 5:30.
11 Luke 7:48.
12 Matthew 26:65–66.
13 Bock, Luke Volume 1: 1:1–9:50, 484.
14 John 4:16–18.
15 Mark 14:18–20.
16 Peter Amsterdam, Jesus—His Life and Message: Teaching Methods, 2015. Other examples of Jesus using an a fortiori argument are: Matthew 12:9–14; John 7:21–24; and Matthew 7:11.
17 Daniel 7:13–14.