When He had come back to Capernaum several days afterward, it was heard that He was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room, not even near the door; and He was speaking the word to them. And they came, bringing to Him a paralytic, carried by four men. Being unable to get to Him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Him; and when they had dug an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic was lying. And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
I’ve heard this passage taught many times and every time, the speakers have emphasized the faith of the paralytic (and his friends) in believing that Jesus could heal the paralysis. But if this is all their faith consisted of, then how is it that this is a saving faith? How is it that Jesus, seeing their faith, can say, “Son, your sins are forgiven”? No, their faith had to be more than simply in Jesus’ power to heal… But what was it exactly?
To answer that question, we must first understand the context in which the paralytic and his four friends lived. They lived in a highly theistic society, under the teachings and traditions of the Old Testament law. Yet this law had been greatly twisted, so that one of the teachings of that time was that physical suffering was a direct result of personal sin. If someone became blind or leprous or blind, the explanation given was that this was a punishment from God for some terrible sin that they (or their relative) had committed. We see this kind of thinking when the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (John 9:2) You can imagine the anguish that this must be for an afflicted person who grew up in this theistic society, being rightly taught about a holy, perfect God and His righteous requirements. He would interpret these afflictions to mean the worst possible thing in the world… that God has rejected him. Not only is he doomed to a life of poverty because of his sickness or disability, but now that the temple (and the society) considers him unclean, he is unable to keep God’s laws for sacrifices and is also doomed to an eternity of hopelessness and suffering. This is the plight of the paralytic.
But now, his friends have brought him word of a Jesus of Nazareth, who has come in the power of God, fulfilling the messianic prophecies. And by the grace of God, the paralytic and his friends believe that he is none other than the promised Christ, who has come to take away the sin of God’s people. If anyone can save this paralytic, it is him. Indeed, the faith of the paralytic and his friends was not merely that Jesus was someone with great healing powers, but that Jesus was none other than the Son of God, the Messiah, who has come to deliver the people of God. And these five placed their hope in Jesus Christ to save them from their sin, determined to do whatever it would take to meet him in the hope that he might somehow restore the paralytic to God.
This is why when Jesus sees their faith, he can say, “Your sins are forgiven”. Imagine the tremendous joy of the paralytic in hearing these words for the first time in his life… God has not rejected him but has forgiven his sins!
But some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” Immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, “Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts? “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say, ‘Get up, and pick up your pallet and walk’? “But so 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, get up, pick up your pallet and go home.” And he got up and immediately picked up the pallet and went out in the sight of everyone, so that they were all amazed and were glorifying God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.” – Mark 2:1-11
Again, we have a tendency to see the healing as what is amazing about this story, but notice two things here:
1) The healing of the paralytic was performed only to confirm that the he had the power to forgive sins. The forgiving of sins is primary. The healing of the body is secondary. One day this body will get old and crippled and die, but our souls will live forever*, either in the presence of God in joy, or away from His presence in misery. On that day, the forgiveness of sins will be infinitely more precious than a lifetime of health. Jesus’ power to heal exists primarily to help us to believe in his power to forgive sins.
2) Yes, healings are amazing, but nothing is more amazing than the fact that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins. Think about it… It means that Jesus has the power to absolve sinners of guilt from a lifetime of sins performed against an infinitely holy and wrathful God. It means he has the power to cancel the debt of eternal suffering owed by the sinner for trampling on the infinite value of the glory of God. Of course, the only reason this authority is possible is because Jesus himself paid that debt with his own life.
It is because of his sacrifice that we are amazed and can glorify God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.”
*Note: My friend Dan pointed out to me that we believe in a physical resurrection in a new heaven and new earth, and that is totally right. I indeed affirm the Biblical teaching that we will not be etherial spirits floating around in heaven, but that we will experience a physical resurrection and once again have physical bodies that will be glorious and immortal. But what I want stress is that we are not to look for those bodies here today. Rather we are to wait for them in faith in the coming age. And by then, this body of dishonor (1 Cor. 15:43) will be long gone.