We read at the end of chapter 1 that Jesus had to remain in the lonely places because of the clamor of the crowds that were following him and, especially to forestall a confrontation with the authorities should it be widely proclaimed as he knew it would be that the Messiah had appeared. But after waiting some time for the excitement to die down, he returned to Capernaum, apparently slipping into town unnoticed. When people discovered that he had returned, however, the general excitement immediately revived.
It appears that Jesus was in the house, that is almost certainly Peter’s house, and that the room was jammed with people, with many others at the door and out on the street listening to him as best they could. The homes from this period that have been excavated in Capernaum were not large, with rooms seldom as wide as 15 feet. They were single story structures with a flat roof accessible by an outside stone staircase. The roofs served as the equivalent of our modern backyard deck or patio.
In any case, in the Gospel of Mark it is important to observe that the crowds who are always gathering around Jesus are, spiritually speaking, almost always either only curious or passive, however excited or impressed they might be at the moment by Jesus’ teaching or the miracles he performed. They usually in the gospels serve more to obstruct access to Jesus by seriously believing people than as proof of the Lord’s success in reaching the people. Being part of the crowd gathered to hear or to observe Jesus is very clearly not the same thing as being one of his followers or disciples. [Edwards, 75]
It would have been no simple matter to “dig through” the roof. The roof was used for working and sometimes for sleeping and so was not flimsy in construction. Beams were cross-hatched by smaller poles and sticks which were then covered by thatch which, in turn was daubed with mud. All of this would have to be removed: a major demolition job. [France, 123; Edwards, 74] We are left to wonder what Peter and the others thought about the damage done to his house!
“Their faith” indicates that these men had no doubt that Jesus could heal their friend.
The opposition between Jesus and the religious leadership in Galilee had not yet publicly surfaced. Here no accusation is spoken; they are simply thinking these things to themselves and Jesus discerns that they are. It would, in fact, be this incident that would bring their opposition out into the open. Indeed, the four short paragraphs that follow this one concluding chapter 2 and the first part of chapter 3 all concern Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees taking issue with one another. Here begins the clash of two incompatible religious principles.
In any case, the scribes would never have presumed to forgive someone’s sins and resented the effrontery of Jesus who showed no hesitation in doing so. They regarded it as blasphemy, a sin against the majesty and glory of God, precisely because Jesus was taking an authority to himself that belonged to God alone. In fact, in the Jewish thought of the period, even the Messiah was not imagined to have the authority to forgive sins. The forgiveness of sins is a divine prerogative; there are no exceptions. [Str.-B., i, 495] This statement on the Lord’s part, forgiving the paralytic’s sins in his own name, is, therefore, an important piece of evidence in the gospels for the deity of Jesus Christ. The syllogism is very clear here and Jesus will actually draw our attention to the logic of it in a few verses time. Only God can forgive sins; Jesus forgives sins; therefore Jesus is God.
This is the first use of what would be a favorite way for the Lord to speak of himself; “the Son of Man,” He chose this title, it appears, in largest part because it was not in use as a designation for the Messiah in the Judaism of that day and so did not come loaded with nationalistic and militaristic misunderstanding as did the title “Messiah” itself. In other words, he could use the term without worrying about the baggage it carried in the minds of the people he was talking to.
Already in our study of Mark 1 we have had occasion to consider the purpose of the Lord’s miracles. We said they accredited Jesus as a man sent from God with the authority to speak and act on God’s behalf. The people are immediately impressed with Jesus’ authority. He had authority even over demons and diseases! In this way they served as did the miracles of Moses or Elijah or the Lord’s apostles. The greatest worker of miracles in history was Jesus precisely because he was the one who with the greatest authority spoke for and acted for God in the world. Further, they revealed Jesus as having great sympathy and compassion as well as limitless power. The miracles are never parlor tricks. They are always acts of great kindness and produce wonderful deliverance for people who were suffering terrible bondage. That is, they reveal Jesus as a worthy object of our faith. They remind us of what power and what compassion Jesus possesses now and how wise, therefore, that we should commit our lives to him. But we also said that the miracles, his miracles, were illustrations of the salvation that Jesus came to bring. He came into the world not really first and foremost as a miracle worker but as a Savior to save his people from their sins and to give his life a ransom for many. These miracles are pictures of that salvation and of the deliverance that comes through that ransom. They are visible embodiments or representations of the salvation of the soul, a divine work of still greater love and power. Such was the healing of the leper at the end of chapter 1. Because leprosy was defilement as well as a disease, the healing of this man is a thinly disguised picture of the cleansing from sin and guilt that is realized by all who trust in Jesus.
Many of the Lord’s miracles have this character. They are enacted lessons in salvation, pictures of the spiritual deliverance that Christ gives his people. They are images in the physical realm of the spiritual realm, images in time of the issues of eternity. This is especially true of the Lord’s healing miracles.
This is natural enough for we often use physical or bodily images to describe the states of man’s inner life or whole life. We say sadness is a broken heart, addiction is a disease, and bitterness is a cancer in the soul. So does the Scripture. In the Old Testament, in many passages, “healing” and “forgiveness” are interchangeable terms. In Psalm 41:4, for example, we read:
“O Lord, have mercy on me; heal me, for I have sinned against
And when we remember that it is only because of sin and man’s fall that resulted from sin that there are such things as sickness and death, it is all the more appropriate that the healing of the sick should be a natural image for the purification of a man’s soul and the granting of eternal life.
As a result the Lord’s miracles are regularly lessons in the nature and way of salvation. The raising of Lazarus from the dead prompts him to say “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me will never die.” The granting sight to the man born blind results in that happy man telling everyone who would listen, “Whereas I was blind, now I see,” a perfect description of the dawning of light in the soul of a man or woman who comes to believe in Jesus. The feeding of the 5000 offers Jesus the opportunity to say to his disciples that he is the Bread of Life and that those who feed on him will live forever a man lives forever.
Well we have another such miracle and another such illustration or picture of salvation in the healing of the paralyzed man in Peter’s house in Capernaum. The Lord obviously intended to make the man’s physical healing a lesson in salvation because when the man was placed before him he spoke first not about his paralysis which everybody could see but about his sins which nobody could see and, when he finally healed the man, it was in demonstration of the fact both that Jesus had the authority to forgive sins and that the man’s sins were in fact forgiven.
It was as if the Lord were saying to that crowded room of people and those who were straining to hear in the street outside, “You see this poor man, unable to walk, and you immediately think of his tragic circumstances. You pity him because of the many things he cannot do. You know how disappointed he must be about the circumstances of his life. When you see him you cannot help but think of anything worse than to be paralyzed. Your heart goes out to him and you would rejoice to see him healed, able to use his legs again, able to walk about as you can. All of that is well and good and perfectly understandable. I feel that way about this man myself Jesus said. My heart goes out to him. But it is essential that you understand that lame feet and useless legs are not this man’s or any man’s chief problem. The darkest shadow hanging over his life is not his paralysis, hard as that must be to bear. You look only at the outward and the immediate condition of this man. I look much deeper and find far more serious and dangerous handicaps than that he is unable to walk. His legs will make his life hard in this world but his sins will ruin it in the next. His useless legs keep him from walking and running; his sins expose him to the judgment of God! Indeed, it is far better to be paralyzed in this world and go to heaven in the next than to have sound legs and a sound body in this world but find oneself in hell in the next. And so, caring for this man as I do, I say to him not first “Rise and walk,” but “Your sins are forgiven.”
“What is more,” the Lord as much as said, “you think nothing could be more exciting, more exhilarating, more breathtaking than to see a crippled man suddenly and miraculously made well. But you are not measuring things correctly. Nothing more is required of me to heal this man than that I speak the word, such is my authority over illness as you have already seen. If I should say, “Get up and walk,” he would no doubt rise up and not only walk but run and dance. That would be a miracle, no doubt. No physician could bring such a thing to pass. It would also be my certification as a prophet of God, that I should be able to perform such a miracle.
“But to forgive this man’s sins requires so much more than the mere utterance of a word. It will require the greatest thing that has ever been done by God himself. It will take more to forgive this man’s sins than it took to create the entire universe, to hang the stars in their places, than it takes now to govern the immeasurably great forces that hold this universe together, from those in the interior of every single atom to the swirling vortices of black holes hundreds of thousands of light years distant from the earth. When God created the whole world he had only to speak a word and it was so and recreating this man’s legs is a mere bagatelle compared to that. But to forgive this man’s sins required the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to do far more difficult things: to undergo terrible suffering, grief and loss. It will require nothing less than the incarnation, the ignominy, the suffering, the humiliation and, finally, the crucifixion of God the Son. All of this is required to forgive even this one man his sins.”
You see the Lord’s point. It is a far, far greater thing to be forgiven by God than to be healed of even the worst condition known to men in this world and until a man or woman understands that he or she does not understand sin and certainly does not understand salvation.
We understandably marvel at man’s achievements. We stand in wonder before the pyramids or the Taj Mahal. Michelangelo’s David or his Pieta or Rembrandt’s Night Watch; it still takes our breath away to see the footage of men walking on the moon. We sometimes pinch ourselves to realize that we can call up loved ones on our cell phone and talk to them even though they are half-way round the world or that we can watch world events unfold live on our television sets. It simply amazes us what modern medicine can accomplish and achieve, how they can stick a line in one part of your body and run it up to your heart and inspect it and alter its circumstances and watch what they are doing while they are doing it, and if you are up to it they will let you watch it too. The power of the atom has been harnessed to provide electricity. These are accomplishments indeed.
But all of this undoubted human brilliance, ingenuity, and power remains utterly insufficient to obtain for a single human being the forgiveness of even one, even the least one of his or her sins! We still, with all our vaunted progress in medicine, cannot say to the paralyzed, “Rise and walk!” we cannot say to the dead, “Lazarus, come forth!” or to the blind, “Open your eyes and see!” But much less is a man, any man, able to take away another’s sins or to rescue him from the consequences of his or her guilt before a holy God.
Here then is the Lord’s point: salvation is an immensely great thing. It is infinitely more important than a man or woman’s health, but it is also infinitely more difficult to achieve. To be freed from one’s sins requires a far greater power than to be healed, even miraculously, and even from the worst conceivable malady. And to be forgiven, to have peace with God, to have the prospect of eternal life, is a state and condition vastly more wonderful than even that of sound legs for a man who has never been able to walk.
And the reason this incident in the Lord’s ministry has been written down and published to the world is that the Lord is addressing the same question to you, and to me, that he addressed to that crowded house and to the teachers of the law who were crammed into Peter’s living room or listening intently from the doorway: “Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘Get up, take your mat, and walk’?” Well, some might say it’s easier to say “Your sins are forgiven” because it can’t be proved one way or the other; who will know whether they have been or not? But if one claims to be able to heal a paralyzed man – especially one lying at ones feet at that moment – everyone will know soon enough whether he has divine authority or is just blowing hot air. But, I suspect, neither Jesus nor the teachers of the law would have thought that way in answer to that question. They both understood that no one can forgive sins but God alone. Jesus’ point, as v. 10 makes clear, is that both things – the healing of paralyzed man and the forgiveness of sins lie beyond man’s power and, therefore, if a man can do the one thing – enable a paralyzed man to rise and walk – it is almost irrefutable evidence that he has the divine power and authority to do the other: pronounce the sinner forgiven. And both would have agreed – both Jesus and the teachers of the law – that forgiveness is the far greater thing.
But, you see, if that is true – as it most certainly is – then the other side of this picture of salvation comes into sharp focus as well. For there is another part of this picture and of this account of the man being healed; another part of this illustration it provides of the salvation Christ brings to those who trust in him. There is a divine side, to be sure – the power and authority of Jesus both to heal and to forgive – but there is also a human side to both the healing and the salvation it so magnificently illustrated. This man didn’t suddenly materialize in front of Jesus there in the room. He was paralyzed, incapable of moving himself. Great effort had to be expended by his friends to get him to Jesus. And that great effort was made because of the great confidence these men had in Jesus of Nazareth, his compassion and his power.
They cared to get him healed, so much so that they let nothing stand in their way. They offended against convention and good manners and they probably broke the law when, in their determination to get their friend to Jesus, they ruined a part of someone else’s roof. No doubt in the process of digging a hole big enough to let their friend down through they must have dropped dirt and debris on the onlookers below. You can be sure there were protests, angry looks and words, but none of that mattered to these men. Jesus could make their friend well and that was that. Other things were forgotten. The crowd is curious; they are interested enough to pack themselves into that uncomfortably warm room; they are fascinated by Jesus’ teaching and no doubt hope to see a miracle such as he has performed on previous occasions, but that is all. They stand, listen and observe. The plucky group of four does a great deal more than observe. They act in faith, in confidence, in determination to have Jesus heal their friend.
This is not, by the way, the only place by any means where the Lord grants blessing for one because of the faith of another. On one occasion, a father secures healing for his daughter, on another a mother pleads for and wins deliverance for her demon-possessed daughter, on still another an official intercedes with Jesus for his son. (These are all, by the way, beautiful pictures of parents believing in Jesus for the salvation of their children. As a picture of salvation this miracle here in Mark 2 beautifully describes the way most people become Christians and followers of Christ. They are brought to Jesus by their parents in their own homes.) Here it was this man’s friends and, as Mark makes a point of saying, Jesus saw their faith and forgave this man his sins and healed him of his paralysis. It may be assumed that the paralyzed man also believed, but it is in fact their faith, not his faith that is said here to have prompted the Lord to take action.
And in the matter of salvation and the forgiveness of sins, of which Jesus makes this healing a beautiful and power picture, great stress is always laid on the fact that these men searched for it, determined to find it, and did not rest until they had. This is how this man came to have his sins forgiven! These men, carrying that stretcher up that steep, narrow stone stairway to the roof and then digging a hole in someone else’s roof are the perfect picture of the person who seeks salvation with a true heart.
We will see how often in Mark as in the other Gospels this matter of striving after salvation is emphasized. Jesus himself makes a great point of it. In one sermon he said, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.” These men tried the door and found it blocked but still were not deterred. In another place Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is forcefully advancing and forceful men lay hold of it.” And how often in the events of his life and in his parables does the Lord emphasize this matter of making every effort and devoting all one’s powers to obtain God’s salvation. Blind beggars cry out until the crowd, thoroughly annoyed, yells at them to shut up, which they refuse to do until Jesus takes notice of them and their plight. Others come from a great distance to have Jesus touch them. The kingdom of heaven, he says on one occasion is like a man who sold everything he had to buy a field because he knew that treasure was buried there.
And, on the other hand, how often in the Lord’s teaching and in his encounters with people, the one who fails to find salvation is somewhat interested, somewhat committed, but not enough. Think of the rich young ruler who wanted to be saved but didn’t want to have to part with his first love – money – in order to be saved. There was the man who came to the wedding feast but wasn’t sufficiently concerned to be properly dressed. There were the five virgins who went out to meet the Lord at midnight but took no precautions to ensure that they would have sufficient oil for their lamps. They were too cavalier, too unconcerned; they didn’t care enough about the salvation of God.
From the beginning of the Bible to the end salvation is obtained by those who permit nothing to stand in their way and is missed by those who, however seemingly interested, at last seek it with only half heartedly. True faith, saving faith climbs steep steps and digs through roofs until Jesus has been found and has bestowed his grace. If the Scripture tells us that faith in Christ is necessary then we will pray for true faith, we will resolutely set ourselves to believing in Jesus about everything and then knowing our weakness, conscious of it, we will over and over again pray to the Lord, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.” If the Scripture says that true and living faith in Jesus, the kind of faith that saves the soul must produce love, obedience, service, and prayer, then we will not rest until all those things are faithfully, honestly, and increasingly represented in our lives. If the Scripture says that if we shrink back we will not receive what is promised, then we must continue to follow hard after the Lord and take care our commitment to him does not flag. This is the way it is with the person who obtains the forgiveness of his or her sins and entrance into eternal life. He bends every effort, she brooks no obstacles, he is daunted by no opposition because he knows, she knows that compared to this nothing else matters.
Can you see yourself, all of you who are listening to me, can you see yourself in those four determined men who ruined Peter’s roof to get their comrade to Jesus and, for their reward, received not only a miraculous healing but the forgiveness of their sins? When, by faith, a person comes to see how great and how infinitely important salvation is, his entire life begins to revolve around it. He sees his calling to be to obtain that salvation for himself and for those around him, especially those nearest and dearest to him. He measures the importance of things in direct proportion to the bearing they have on this one great matter: the forgiveness of sins and obtaining eternal life. Now it is for us to apply this miracle to ourselves and to our own case, just as Jesus intended that we should.
The great difficulty that stands in the way of that is the terrible weight of guilt that has accumulated on all of us. Our guilt is so great that we dare not think about it. It is too horrible to believe that we would ever be called to account for a thousandth of it. Heartbeat after heartbeat, breath after breath, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, and all full of sin; nothing but sin from our mother’s womb to our grave. From time to time the shame of some sin may overwhelm us, but it is soon enough forgotten, falls out of sight and out of mind. Other sins of the same kind take its place. Our sense of sin, our sense of guilt are soon almost extinguished by our daily life of sin until the accumulated load of our sin is no more felt by us than we feel the tremendous weight of the atmosphere. But, because we do not feel it, or notice it, does that mean it is not there? Because we never think much about it, does that mean that the Judge of all the earth, whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity, has forgotten it? Does God’s holy Word deceive us when it says that on the day the books shall be opened multitudes of men and women will cry to the mountains to fall on them and the rocks to cover them, on the day the trumpet sounds and we discover mountain upon mountain upon mountain of our own aggravated guilt standing between us and salvation unless Christ should have forgiven our sins and taken them away? [Whyte, Bunyan Characters, iii, 136-137] Difficulty does not begin to describe our problem with sin and guilt. Impossibility hardly does our situation justice!
But what is impossible for men is possible for God. The one who told the paralyzed man to get up, take his mat and go home can also say to us as he said to him, “Your sins are forgiven.”
If there is anyone here this morning who has not yet rejoiced as this man did in the forgiveness of his sins, learn the lesson these wise friends have taught us. Tell the Lord, in the secret place of your heart; tell him that you fully understand that if he does not save you, you cannot be saved. Tell him that if you are to die the second death – as you know you fully deserve to die – you will die on Christ’s doorstep, straining all the while to make your way to him through the crowd. Tell him you will gladly break your legs dropping through the roof if that is the only way to reach him. Tell him that if he shuts the door against you and if you are to be cast away forever from his presence, it will not be because you did not try with all your might to come to him so that you might receive from him the forgiveness of yours sins.
And if you do that, really do that and say that to him from your heart and with your heart, you will discover what these men discovered: the Lord never turns away those who truly come to him and believe in him. He might have been talking about the paralyzed man’s friends; he was certainly talking about all their spiritual descendants – men and women of a similarly intrepid faith – when he said, “You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
And then once you have sought and found the Lord for yourself, there are others to bring to him. I love the story of the conversion of Hugh Latimer, the greatest preacher of the Protestant Reformation in England and later a himself a martyr for Christ and the gospel. As a just graduated priest, he had given an address in the university attacking Martin Luther and his monstrous ideas. He condemned in particular in this address Luther’s idea that people should read the Bible for themselves. An enemy of the Reformation, there seemed to be no one less likely in all the land to embrace that message of salvation through faith in Christ alone than Hugh Latimer a newly ordained priest. But Latimer had a friend, a fellow student by the name of Thomas Bilney. Bilney had discovered the gospel, salvation through Christ in faith, had embraced the Reformation, and he wanted Latimer to do as well. And he thought about how he might bring him to Christ. So Bilney asked Latimer, after listening to his bitter lecture against the Reformation, if Latimer would hear his confession, something any conscientious priest especially any newly ordained priest like Latimer would certainly be willing, even perhaps eager and honored to do. But this was no ordinary confession. In his confession with Latimer as his captive audience sitting on the other side of the screen with nowhere to go Bilney told Latimer of his long and futile search for peace with God and how at last the Lord had shown him how a man was made right not by his own efforts, however religious, however serious, but by faith in Jesus alone. He also said, though Latimer had just denounced the private reading of the Bible, that it was in the Word of God and reading it that he had finally found the light and his eyes had been opened.
“I learned more by his confession,” Latimer later wrote, “than before in many years.” And I can’t help but think that the Lord had looked at Bilney just as he looked at those four fine friends and saw their faith. He saw Bilney’s faith and healed his friend Hugh Latimer, still, spiritually speaking, lying paralyzed on his cot.
Once we know to believe in Jesus, really believe in him for ourselves, then there are others to believe in Jesus for. Every paralyzed man or woman who picks up his cot and clicks his heels should then take the place of one of those four fine men who carried him to Jesus. Such is salvation and such is how it comes to pass in our world. Amen.