The Most Difficult Thing of All


Luke 5:12-26

Remember, we are working our way through a section of the Gospel that provides the reader with a summary of the Lord’s ministry. Representative events are recorded that provide us with an idea of what it was like during those heady days in Galilee.

Text Comment

v.12     The lack of precise chronological or geographical data confirms the representative character of the events about to be recorded.

Leprosy was a name given in biblical times to a set of diseases, some curable, some not. It included the modern definition of leprosy or Hansen’s disease, a disease both disfiguring and usually eventually fatal. It was a terrible scourge and greatly feared. The ancient world’s only defense against it was quarantine. Sufferers were forbidden from approaching healthy people and had to call out “Unclean” as they approached. Indeed, this man either ignored the prohibition on entering a town or met Jesus on the outskirts. As you can imagine it was a fearfully isolating disease. Lepers had no way of earning a living because they couldn’t take their place in the ordinary concourse of human beings and so depended on the support of their families and the charity of others, as they do today in places where leprosy is still common. Its psychological toll was as great as its physical. [Morris, 135] This particular man obviously was suffering from an advanced case. Luke says, “full of leprosy.” He’s the only one to use that phrase and commentators wonder if it was because of his medical background that he described the man’s condition in this way.

v.13     Probably no one but another leper had touched this man in years. It would have been for this man a signal mark of Jesus’ compassion that he touched him.

v.14     He was not to broadcast his healing – again this is probably the Lord’s attempt to dampen public excitement for the wrong reasons – but was quietly to observe the requirement of the law to show himself to the priest, who served in such cases as a kind of public health inspector and who would pronounce the man free of the disease. The priest well might not know anything about how thoroughly advanced this man’s case had been or that he had been miraculously healed, but he would know that his skin was clear of leprosy. With the priest’s blessing, after offering sacrifice, the man might return to a normal place in the community. As for whom the proof was intended, there is debate as to whether it is the authorities or the people who are meant. After all, the people might be slow to return the man, a known leper, to their society. It is perhaps meant as a safeguard for the man himself, to assure others that he was in fact no longer a threat to public health.

v.16     The Lord’s command to keep silent about the healing wasn’t heeded – Mark adds that the man himself took the lead in publishing the news of his deliverance – and the crowds became all the more enthusiastic. One result is that the Lord had to withdraw to uninhabited places to find any opportunity for rest and communion with his heavenly father.

v.17     The Lord’s reputation was obviously spreading as clerics and religious leaders from as far away as Judea had gathered to take his measure. The statement that the power of the Lord was with him again reminds us that in the Gospels it is of Jesus the man that we are reading. He could in his manhood no more perform a miracle than you or I, but he could by the power of God granted to him.

v.18     Mark tells us that there were four men and that all of this took place in Capernaum.

v.19     I wonder what the homeowner thought when he saw and heard his roof being taken apart!

v.20     The pronoun “their” is significant. It wasn’t the man’s faith alone that secured the healing and the forgiveness, it was their faith. Parents, your faith in God’s promise to be your children’s God can bring God’s saving grace to them!

v.21     The Pharisees have had such bad press in the Gospels and in Christian history that it is important to remember that they were the Calvinists of the Judaism of their day. They were the serious minded believers in the Judaism of their day. The Lord agreed with much of their teaching. If he had aligned himself more with one group rather than another it would have been with the Pharisees. He certainly was closer to their viewpoint than to that of the Sadducees who represented the kind of liberal, humanist thinking that we are accustomed to in Protestantism today. So the Pharisees were right, only God can forgive sins. Their mistake was in failing to recognize Jesus’ unique relationship to the Father..

v.22     There is nothing to suggest that the Lord’s perception of their thoughts was supernatural knowledge. He could not have been unaware of the inevitable objection that would arise to his claiming authority to forgive sins.

v.25     Many Jews of the period thought that all sickness was due to sin and that cure would follow forgiveness. Consistency would require them to believe that the man’s sins were forgiven because he had been healed.

            This is Luke’s first use of “son of man,” which was the Lord’s favorite term by which to refer to himself, almost certainly because it was a biblical term referring to the Messiah that was not in common use among the Jews and so was not loaded with political associations as were the titles “Son of God,” or “Messiah.” It will appear some 26 times in Luke and more than 80 times in all four Gospels. Interestingly after the Gospels it’s not used to refer to Jesus. The term he used most frequently to refer to himself falls completely out of use by everyone else. After the Gospels is not used as a title for Jesus in the rest of the New Testament. After the resurrection, after his ascension to the Right Hand, after the completion of his great work of redemption, it was no longer necessary to use a title that was, after all, somewhat ambiguous.
            The great Bengel comments this way on the statement that the man picked up the bed upon which he lay and carried it home. “Delightful expression. The bed had carried the man; now the man was carrying the bed!” [Gnomon Novi Testamenti (1855), 231]

In those days leprosy, especially leprosy of the more serious kind, was the most dreaded of diseases. There was no cure, no one ever recovered from it, and it was not only a sentence of slow death but the infliction of every kind of degradation and insult to one’s humanity. The rabbis said in those days that it was as difficult to cure a leper as to raise the dead! But paralysis was also debilitating and humiliating. One could go nowhere without the help of friends. This man could not even navigate with crutches. He was helpless, bed-ridden.

The first and primary purpose of the Lord’s miracles was to accredit Jesus as a man with the authority to speak and act on God’s behalf. The miracles were his prophetic and messianic credentials as surely as the working of miracles had been the prophetic credentials of Moses and of Elijah and Elisha, and as they would be of the Lord’s apostles later. But miracles served other purposes as well and chief among them was this: they powerfully and beautifully illustrated the salvation that Jesus was bringing to the world.

For example, near the end of his ministry, Jesus would use the occasion of his raising Lazarus from the dead to declare that he himself was the resurrection and the life and that all who believed in him would live, even though they die. The fact that he had just brought a dead man back to life was the demonstration not only of the fact that he could raise the dead, but that it was his mission to raise all those dead in sin who looked to him in faith. To all who trusted in him there was life after the grave. Lazarus coming from the tomb was an enactment of salvation and eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Both of the miracles of which we have read this morning highlight this exemplary role of the Lord’s miracles. In the first case, the cleansing of the leper was effected by the Lord’s words “Be clean!” Leprosy was a defilement; it rendered a person unclean for worship in the temple or even for contact with healthy human beings. In the Bible sin is not infrequently represented under the image of disease or sickness and here we find Christ, the great physician, healing a man who had faith in him. Earlier in the service this morning in our confession we asked the Lord to cleanse us from our sins. In the Lord’s “Be clean,” we hear the overtones of spiritual deliverance from sin. In those days leprosy was a disease like syphilis, gonorrhea, and genital herpes are in our day, a disease closely associated in people’s mind with the consequences of a sinful life.

This is even more obviously the case in the healing of the paralytic. The man was brought to Jesus because he was paralyzed, but the Lord did not heal his body right away. The first thing he said when the man was lowered through the roof and placed before him was “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” Now, the friends hadn’t brought this man to get his sins forgiven; they had brought him because they had heard that Jesus could restore his legs. But the Lord as much as said to this man, “Let me heal you first in the way that matters most. The afflictions of the body no matter how grave, no matter how discouraging, demoralizing, humiliating are temporary, but the judgment of God lasts forever.”

And then, when the Pharisees and the teachers of the law objected that Jesus was claiming authority to do what only God can do – forgive sins – Jesus responded, “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven” or ‘Rise and walk!’” And then to demonstrate that he indeed had the authority to forgive sins, he healed the man and in the midst of that crowded room, the man got up, picked up his bed, and started praising God! He had no doubt that God had delivered him; only God could. Jesus obviously was exercising God’s power. No other explanation was possible.

Now, what exactly did Jesus mean by asking, “Which is easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Rise and walk’? Some have thought that Jesus meant that it is easier to say “Your sins are forgiven” because who is to know whether it is so. No one can see God forgive sins. But if one claims the power to heal a paralyzed man, everyone will know whether or not he can do it. The man will either rise and walk or he will stay on his back. Therefore, it is easier to say “Your sins are forgiven” because no one can disprove the claim. [cf. Morris, 138]

But I’m quite sure that the Lord did not mean that. Neither the Lord nor the Pharisees and the teachers of the law thought it possible for a mere man to forgive people their sins. They both understood that only God had the prerogative to forgive sins committed against him, and all sin is first and foremost an offense against God. That is a universal, biblical outlook. It would have been shared by the Pharisees and by the Lord alike. You may be sinning against once another but your sins are first and foremost sins against God. David had committed adultery and murder and yet in his great Psalm 51 in his confession of sin he said “Against you, you only have I sinned and done this evil in your sight.” Jesus would never have imagined that the men he was talking to would ever have taken seriously a man’s claim to have the authority to forgive another man’s sins.  Remember, Jesus wasn’t forgiving the sins this man had committed against him; he had never met the man. He was forgiving the man’s sins, all his sins, his sins against God and against man. No mere man has such authority.

What Jesus meant, I’m quite sure, is that both things – the forgiving of sins and the healing of paralysis – are things only God can do. Such things lie beyond the reach and the power of men. And so, if Jesus could do the one thing, heal the man of his paralysis, it would be evidence that he had the power and authority to do the other, pronounce his sins forgiven.

What is more, both Jesus and his religious antagonists would have also agreed that forgiveness is the greater thing, for it delivers a man not temporarily from a physical condition but everlastingly from the judgment of God. Therefore, the Lord’s argument, an argument with its conclusion unstated, is in form an a fortiori argument. That is, it is an “all the more” kind of argument. If he has authority to forgive sins then, all the more, he should have authority to heal a man from a debilitating physical condition. If he can do the greater thing, he can surely do the lesser thing.

Now it is this connection between the miracle and the forgiveness of the man’s sin that is the centerpiece of this episode. We are particularly to ponder that as we read this account of a great miracle. And what it demonstrates is this: it is a stupendous thing to have one’s sins forgiven, a greater thing than even this jaw-dropping miracle that Jesus performed that day.

It would take our breath away – as it took their breath away – to see even one of the miracles that Jesus performed. Imagine being here and a man standing before our young brother Isaac Aown and telling him to rise and be well, and to see Isaac stand up like anyone else and begin talking to us and laughing with us like any other twenty year old young man. Our hearts would sing and we would feel the chills running up our spine, and some of us, I suspect, would get weak in the knees, and there would be tears running down all our cheeks, and we would praise God with full hearts and then we would talk about what we had seen for days on end and never forget it until the day of our death. It would rock and change and gladden our world to the end of our days.

But hear the Lord tell you, “That would be an easier thing, that would be less of an accomplishment, that would take less power and less authority than to forgive your sins. And surely we are to feel the force of this truth: how great, how difficult, how impossibly powerful it must be to forgive sins. Only God can do this. It is a power like the power by which he created the heavens and the earth by the utterance of his voice. We cannot; we never could. We could no more achieve the forgiveness of our sins than we could heal ourselves if we were lepers, or grant ourselves sight if we were blind, or raise ourselves from the dead.

I want to draw two simple and inevitable conclusions from that fact.

  1. First, the fact that forgiveness is such a great thing such an impossibly great thing, and yet that it is available to those who will seek it, surely means that everyone ought to seek it, ought to seek and neither cease nor desist until he or she has received it from the same Jesus Christ who forgave this man his sins.

 

Surely this is the lesson we are meant to carry away from these wise men who brought their friend to Jesus. They certainly understood that the paralysis that had darkened the life of their friend was beyond their power or the power of anyone to remove. Whether it had originated in an accident or a disease, all hope had been long since abandoned that their friend would ever walk again. And then, suddenly, came the news, no doubt carried by some breathless witness of the Lord’s miracles, that there was a man in Capernaum who could heal the sick by the mere utterance of his voice.

These men didn’t hesitate; they didn’t delay. They dropped whatever they were doing and carried their friend to Capernaum. How far they had to walk with their burden we are not told, but it wouldn’t have made any difference to these men. But when they reached the town where Jesus was, there was such a crowd pressed around him that they couldn’t get into the house, much less get in carrying a stretcher. Determined as they were, they did some study of the situation, found the stairs to the roof, dug through the tiles and opened a hole large enough to accommodate the man and his bed. Then they lowered him down with ropes. They didn’t ask permission, they didn’t wait until the Lord had finished speaking and was ready to leave; they simply lowered their friend until his bed was forcing others to move out of the way. They didn’t care that they were interrupting the proceedings; they didn’t care that people were shouting angrily at them from below; they didn’t care that they were going to have to deal with the homeowner later. Apparently they didn’t think about any of this.

They knew their friend’s situation was hopeless and they knew that there was one man who could do something about it. And so they did what had to be done to get Jesus to pay attention to their friend. Now this is a state of mind far too little found among people today in regard to the forgiveness of sins. Sin is not something people are desperate to escape. People think, “Everyone makes mistakes.” Only the gravest sorts of crimes and actually only some of those render people lepers in our day, people we don’t want to associate with in any way. Only a few sinners have to register so that everyone in his neighborhood knows that he lives there and what crime it was that he committed. Our whole society has come to think about forgiveness as the French philosopher who said that “Of course, God will forgive me. C’est son métier, that’s his job!”

There is a popular training film for counselors that features a famous therapist in conversation with a divorced woman who is troubled by the problem of whether or not to tell her daughter that her mother is sleeping with the men she dates. On the one hand, she wants to be honest with her daughter. On the other hand, she feels ashamed. At one point in the conversation she tells her therapist, “I want you to help me get rid of my guilt.” And that, of course, is exactly what he does, assuring her that there is nothing wrong with what she is doing. He has, in effect, granted her forgiveness and, apparently, he can do that and do it quite easily. At the end of the film the therapist observes that “this woman has moved from not accepting herself to accepting herself.” [Psychological Seduction, 75-76] But was the woman forgiven? Let the therapist give sight to the blind, or cause the lame to walk, or heal a leper. Then let him tell the woman that her sins are forgiven!

It has always been one of man’s favorite ways of keeping God at a distance to domesticate sin and forgiveness. God is kept at a distance because he is not needed. We can do it ourselves or with the help of others. Whether it is by therapy, or by some elaborate system of confession to a priest and by works of penance – in which forgiveness becomes something we can achieve and so no miracle of divine grace and power is needed – or by modern forms of Protestant antinomianism, according to which we take much less seriously our violations of God’s law because we take our forgiveness for granted. Any way of thinking that minimizes sin and the absolute necessity of obedience to God’s law inevitably diminishes God’s achievement in forgiving our sins. When we don’t take our sins seriously, we will never think that it is the most astonishing thing of all that God has forgiven them.

This was, as we will see as we proceed further in to the Gospel of Luke, the Lord’s most fundamental objection to the thinking of the Pharisees. Their doctrine of God was fine by and large, so was their doctrine of obedience but they had domesticated sin, made it something manageable by an elaborate theory of repentance and countervailing merit. They knew men sinned, but they figured there was a way to deal with it and remove it. It was not the deadly threat that was leprosy, the incurable scourge of life, the slow death and the disintegration of life that leprosy was and that paralysis was. Sin, in their view, was manageable. Forgiveness lay in man’s hand to achieve even if it came from God. None of those men who scoffed at Jesus’ claim to have forgiven the man’s sins imagined that forgiveness was a titanic achievement, a work of divine power and solely of divine power. They never imagined that forgiveness would require the incarnation of God the Son and his cruel death on a Roman gibbet. It was easier to deal with than that!

But it is not so. There is more amazing power and divine authority in the forgiveness of any one of our sins than in the most stupendous of miracles. Only God can give it to us, only he has the means to obtain it on our behalf, and so human beings ought to be, like these four friends, taking themselves and their friends to Jesus and refusing to take “no” for an answer until they are sure they have been heard and have been forgiven as this man was.

Look at Jesus here. He isn’t unwilling to forgive. He offered it to this man, no, he gave it to this man unasked. He loves to forgive sins. It is the great business of his incarnate life, the forgiveness of sins, and he is ready to give it to anyone who asks him, who really asks, believing. There is forgiveness, but it is a very great thing and only God can give it to you. You find God when you find Jesus. That is the first lesson.

  1. The second is this: forgiveness being so great a thing, to receive it ought to make us happy and grateful people.

 

See what this man did. He went home praising God. I suspect every few steps he clicked his heels. He’d start to run just to rejoice in the fact that he could. He’d jump just to test his new powers. He’d try to reach the rim on every basketball hoop he passed on the way home! And all the while his heart was lifted to God in love, joy, and thanksgiving. Such a great thing and it was granted to him! Imagine the smile on his face as he entered his house on his own legs and feet for the first time and greeted his wife and children, or his parents!

We see some real wisdom and goodness in these men who brought their friend to Jesus. Had this man’s friends only been able to get close enough to hear some of the Lord’s teaching they strike me as the kind of men who would have been impressed by it. Had they seen some others made well, they strike me as the kind of men who would have been grateful to see such power worked even if it were on behalf of others and not their friend. Had they got their friend to the Lord and he had only comforted the man and given him hope that God loved him still, they might have gone home very grateful even though disappointed.

But to have gone there on a stretcher with legs stone dead and perhaps arms as well, and to go home running and jumping and laughing and crying and shouting his praise to God, to have a completely new life stretching out before him, that was happiness and gratitude and the praise of God of a wholly different kind. And I think that that man knew full well that great as was the healing of his body, he had gotten something greater still from Jesus, the forgiveness of his sins. Such a man to whom the Savior had said such things and for whom he had done such things could not have missed that point.

That is why so many throughout history have had this man’s joy and gratitude to God who never had his illness or his healing. William Cowper, the poet and hymn-writer, friend of John Newton, was very like this man. He tells us that one night he was in his room in an agony of conviction. He knew he was a great sinner and he knew he could not escape either the guilt or the power of his sin. He was near total despair. He was pacing his room in hopelessness. His spiritual condition was akin to that of this leper and paralyzed man. He sat down at a table by the window and there happened to be a Bible lying there. He opened it and began to read. His eye fell on Romans 3:25-26, that great statement of the Apostle Paul that in Christ and through his death in our place we receive forgiveness of our sins.

“The passage that met my eye was the twenty-fifth verse of the third chapter of Romans. On reading it I received immediate power to believe. [What had it felt like in the limbs of that paralyzed man when the Lord said, ‘Rise and walk.’ He must have felt power just coursing through him.] The rays of the Sun of Righteousness fell on me in all their fullness. I saw the complete sufficiency of the expiation which Christ had wrought for my pardon… In an instant I believed and received the peace of the gospel. If the arm of the Almighty God had not supported me I believe I should have been overwhelmed with gratitude and joy. My eyes filled with tears; transports choked my utterance. I could only look to heaven…overflowing with love and wonder.”

Cowper hadn’t got the lesser thing, a sudden, miraculous healing of the body; he had only got the greater thing, the forgiveness of his sins. We Christians ought to be happy, happy people, so great a thing as God has done for us and given to us, which he alone could.  We ought to be as happy and as grateful and as full of praise as was that man who carried his bed home to show his wife and grab her up and give her a big hug.

Confess your sins often, dear people. Hold nothing back. Tell the Lord that you know you have many sins and that only God can forgive you. Tell him that if you are to die the second death, as many will, and as you richly deserve to die, you will die on Christ’s doorstep, straining all the while to get his attention and ask him for the forgiveness of your sins. Tell him that if Christ says “no” to you, it will not be because you did not come to him to get from him what only he can give.

And yours will be the discovery of countless multitudes of men and women before you, men just like this paralyzed man and his friends. Your discovery will be that Christ keeps his promises, all of them, and chief among them this:

He who comes to me, I will never drive away.

And this:

“You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

No one can see this happy man and not want to be him!