v.1 His own city is Capernaum as we learned in 4:13. He had performed miracles there previously and, though it is not mentioned until v. 8, predictably there was a large crowd gathered to witness this miracle as well.
v.2 Matthew omits the descriptive details. This is the miracle recorded in Mark 2 and there we learn that the men had to cut a hole in the roof of the house and lowered the paralyzed man down through it in order to bring him to Jesus’ attention.
Take careful note of the plural pronoun “their” in “When Jesus saw their faith…” Matthew doesn’t explain what Jesus took to be the evidence of their faith, but the other Gospel writers make it clear that it was the great efforts they made to get their sick friend to Jesus. This was proof enough that the men who did this believed that Jesus could and would heal their friend. It almost seems that Matthew was assuming that his readers would be familiar with the longer accounts of this miracle and would understand to what he was referring when he spoke of “their faith.” [Hagner, i, 232] This is not the first time the faith of one has been the means of the healing of another. We saw that in the case of the centurion seeking help for his servant in 8:5-13. It is a principle with many demonstrations in the Bible, chief among them the Lord’s promise to reward the faith of believing parents by his saving work in the hearts of their children.
v.3 A discordant note. This is the first indication in the Gospel of the opposition to Jesus on the part of the religious leadership. It will not be the last. The text says that they spoke among themselves. Whether they spoke loudly enough for Jesus to hear, or the Lord discerned the nature of their discussion, or the fact of it was communicated to him in some supernatural way we are not told. The nub of their charge is that Jesus, a mere man, presumes to forgive sins which God alone can do. Blasphemy occurs not only when unworthy things are attributed to God or worthy things are denied to God, but also when things that belong to God only are attributed to others. So any pretense to be or do what only God can be or do is blasphemy. [Hagner, i, 233] Make no mistake, blasphemy was a serious charge. It’s punishment, according to the Mishnah, was stoning.
v.5 It may indeed be more difficult to secure the forgiveness of one’s sins than to heal a paralyzed man – forgiveness took the incarnation of God the Son, the cross, and the resurrection – but it is much easier to say “your sins are forgiven” than “rise and walk.” The first does not require any visible result, the second most certainly does. Any charlatan can claim to forgive sins – who’s to say whether they are forgiven or not – but if the paralytic does not get up, everyone will immediately know that you’re a fraud.
v.6 The burden of the Lord’s argument, then, is that if the Lord can make a paralytic rise and walk, one must take seriously his claim to be able to forgive sins. His power to work miracles is a demonstration of his authority as one who has the office to speak and act in God’s name. [France, 165-166] Interestingly, the Jews of that time did not expect the Messiah to forgive sins. Mark and Luke record that the man did precisely as he was told: he not only got up and went home, but he took up his mat, or portable bed as he went.
v.7 The miracle left the crowd stunned. They instinctively grasped the point that Jesus had made: such a power over disease was the demonstration of an authority that far surpassed that of all other men. But that he was a man they could not doubt; he stood before them as a man. There was the mystery: that a man should do such things, could say such things and back up what he said. They were awe-struck in the presence of divine power. It is very interesting to note that nowhere in the Gospels is it recorded that anyone supposed that because Jesus, a man, had done such things, other men could do them as well. It was self-evident to all the eyewitnesses of the Lord’s miracles that they were in the presence of someone who had an authority, possessed a power, that other men did not have.
Now, give the scribes, the teachers of the law, some credit. They understood some very important things and cared deeply about them. They knew that God alone had the authority to forgive sins. They understood that the forgiveness of sins was itself a matter of the highest importance. They knew that there was such a thing as blasphemy and that it was a very serious sin.
None of this is well understood in our day, if at all. Nowadays people may be very concerned if they think that you are not forgiving yourself, and they may be highly interested in whether they should or must forgive someone else, even more in whether someone else should forgive them. You may read about forgiveness in this respect almost any day in the advice columns of the newspaper. But people are not overly concerned about whether God forgives their sins. It is generally supposed that he will but, in any case, it is not a matter that overly concerns very many people – even, alas, many people in the Christian church. Very few people in our culture nowadays get up in the morning or go to bed at night worrying about whether their sins will be forgiven, the one thing really worth worrying about. Many worry about their paralysis, in whatever form it takes, but few worry about their sins.
Nor do people worry about blasphemy. In a culture in which George Burns is cast as God in a comedy and, in another more recent film, Bruce Almighty – a film I have not seen and hope that you have not seen either – Jim Carey is granted divine power to use as he will, it is hard for people even to imagine what blasphemy is. In a culture in which God is now regularly appealed to in advertising – I heard a commercial on the car radio the other day in which God speaks from heaven about a product – I say when God has been trivialized to such a point it is hard to imagine what blasphemy would be? Blasphemy, in the very nature of the case, must create an effect; must create an emotional recoil. Men are aghast, horrified by words, deeds, and ideas that are so utterly profane because so utterly a violation of the glory of God. But if the very idea of an Almighty God, wonderful in glory, who inhabits eternity and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, if the very idea of a God whose insupportable glory must provoke the deepest reverence in the hearts of all men, if such a God no longer exists in the mind of men or the mind of the culture, how can there be such a thing as blasphemy?
Men nowadays make crude jokes about the President or about some Hollywood celebrity. They say cruel and cutting things about such public figures, they insinuate worse things. But that isn’t blasphemy because the object of the slur is too small. It may be unkind and disrespectful but it isn’t blasphemous. For there to be blasphemy, there must be a figure so exalted that everyone understands commands absolute respect, reverence, fear, homage. To belittle such a figure as that is blasphemy. But God is no longer such a figure in the minds of modern men and certainly not in the mind of this culture.
This is the point that G.K. Chesterton made in one of his famous observations:
“Blasphemy is an artistic effect, because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief, and is fading with it. If anyone doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.” [In Ffinch, Chesterton, 136]
You see the point: Thor, the god of Scandinavian mythology, is too small and irreal a figure for us to blaspheme. There is no glory to offend, there is no reverence due that light or humorous or disrespectful or untrue words would outrage. And so, in the same way, no Hollywood executive thought that he was storing up wrath for himself by making light of God in the movies. No ad executive worries that people will be horrified if he has God speaking in a radio spot selling his product. “What is the big deal?” both of them ask, because God is such a small deal in their minds.
They have never stood face to face with the power of God as did those people in Capernaum that day. They have never been awestruck by the demonstration of divine authority as people were who saw Jesus tell a paralytic to get up and walk.
And why not? Well the text has an answer. It is because they do not reckon with their sin or their desperate need to have it forgiven as only God can forgive it. Let it be known that only God can forgive sin; let that be known in the heart and felt in the heart, and everything changes. Let it be known that God forgives the sins of some and does not forgive the sins of others, let it be known that men must die in their sins and face the judgment of them in the world to come unless God forgives them as only he can, and everything is immediately different.
The fact is, through most of the ages of human history there has never been such miraculous healings as were performed by Jesus. Add up all the years in which we find the miraculous occurring in the world – the years of Moses, of Elijah and Elisha, and of Jesus and his apostles – and it is not much more than 100 years. Even during those years, relatively few people actually witnessed a miracle themselves. The power to heal the sick is not the great message of the Bible about God and about Jesus Christ. The great ministry of Jesus to the world is not miraculous healing. The great demonstration of divine authority is not in these great miracles. Christ’s great gift and the true demonstration of his authority is to be seen in his power over sin, not in his power over disease.
All of this Matthew is concerned to make clear. In fact, he is particularly interested in making this single point clear. He removes much of the detail in his account. He doesn’t tell us about the crowd being so great that the friends of the paralytic couldn’t get him into Jesus, he says nothing about the roof being dug through. He is not that interested in the faith of the friends or of the paralytic himself. He wants you to see Jesus addressing this poor man’s real need – his sins – before he says or does anything about his physical condition. He leaves out the other details so that all the emphasis will fall upon the demonstration of “the sin-forgiving power of the Son of Man.” [Lohmeyer in Morris, 213] Matthew’s shorter form places all the emphasis on forgiveness and the Son of Man’s authority to grant it; he doesn’t deny the scribes’ premise that only God can forgive sins, but asks the scribes to consider what that means in the light of what he has said and done. [Morris, 217]
It was precisely the claim to be able to forgive sin that so shocked the scribes, the teachers of the law. Only God can do that, they said. And they were right! Jesus does not contradict them. Here is a man doing what only God can do. It is a stunning moment. The miracle was stunning to be sure, as were all of Christ’s works of divine power. But what made it the more stunning was the lesson that Jesus drew from it and which no one could ignore precisely because their eyes were fixed on the back of a paralytic walking home with a jaunty step, his mat over his shoulder. That is what Matthew is interested in: the proof the miracle provides of the greater, more astonishing assertion of the forgiveness of sins, and not merely the promise of forgiveness at the end of the age, but forgiveness now, immediately, on the strength of Jesus’ declaration.
After all, the teachers of the law knew very well that other prophets had performed miracles. They did not doubt that Moses had parted the waters of the Reed Sea, had drawn water from a rock, and so on. They knew what Elijah and Elisha had done – from calling fire down from heaven, to raising the dead to feeding a great multitude with a little bit of food. They were believers in the divine authority of Holy Scripture. They knew such things had been done before. But they also knew that neither Moses, nor Elijah had ever presumed to forgive sins. No previous miracle worker had ever dared to take to himself that prerogative that belongs to God alone.
In all of this the teachers of the law were much more sharp-sighted than most people today. They knew blasphemy when they heard it. Their theological outlook was serious and, in some respects, correct. Their problem was that they did not see what they – students of the Holy Scripture as they were – ought of all people to have seen at once: that Jesus had come from heaven, that he was the Son of God, that he was the Messiah, that God was accrediting him as one who spoke and acted on his behalf. That failure is the evil that Jesus found in their remarks, as we read in 4. It is for this that he accuses the scribes of “evil” thoughts for doubting the Lord’s authority to grant forgiveness. It is a problem, he says, in their hearts. They don’t understand forgiveness because their hearts are not right with God. They were proud and self-satisfied and their pride blinded them to the facts of their own case and the case of others. Because they were blind to their own need, they wouldn’t see the provision God had made for them.
But, in all of that, their problem was at root the same as the problem that so many have today. They did not understand how God deals with sin. They had long since lost the doctrine of redemption through the blood of a substitute, the doctrine that lay at the root of the Old Testament’s theology of forgiveness. Unlike many today, they still understood that salvation required forgiveness but, like most today, they thought forgiveness a much easier thing to achieve. They thought it lay largely in their own hands to achieve it. Like the vast majority today, they were self-satisfied and had few fears of facing the judgment of God.
It did not occur to them, as it should have, that the forgiveness of their sins would require God the Son to come into the world as a man, would require his terrible suffering and death on the cross, would require the mighty victory of the resurrection. They thought, as most do today, that forgiveness would be doled out by God to the good people and they thought themselves, as do most people today, among the good people. They had a bit higher standards for goodness than do people today, to be sure. But not that much higher. They were more inclined to think that you had to belong to the church, and the right church, than most people do today; they were more inclined to think that many people would not be saved than are most people today, but, at bottom, they felt as do most today that forgiveness was there for the taking and that obtaining it was not that difficult. It would never have occurred to them to say that receiving forgiveness was very like being a life-long paralytic who was suddenly, miraculously, stupendously healed of his paralysis and granted power to walk and jump and run.
To minimize the difficulty of the forgiveness of our sins is the default position of the human heart. It is where the heart always returns to rest when encouraged to do so. It is why after all these centuries have passed, most people in America today think about forgiveness the way the scribes did in Jesus’ day. Oh, there are details of their viewpoints that differ, but the substance is the same.
Some of you have read the often delightful, always stimulating writings of Peter Kreeft. Kreeft was raised in a devout Reformed Church in America home, his father a godly elder. Still today he speaks very warmly of the faith and godliness of his Reformed home and upbringing. He graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the college of the Christian Reformed Church. While at Calvin, he was a student of the celebrated Calvin professor of philosophy, William Harry Jellema, a number of whose disciples are now in the front rank of American philosophers. Kreeft was, in other words, a Presbyterian. But shortly after graduation from college in 1959 he converted to Roman Catholicism. He has been for many years Professor of Philosophy at Boston University and has written many books of Christian apologetics and Christian philosophy.
What is remarkable about Kreeft, as a Roman Catholic, is his candor about the miserable state of theological understanding within his own church and the appalling lack of real knowledge among Catholics as to how sinners are saved. In one autobiographical essay he writes this concerning the fact that as the Bible makes clear, sinners are saved and their sins are forgiven through and only through their living faith in Jesus Christ:
…I find, incredibly, that 9 out of 10 Catholics do not know this, the absolutely central, core, essential dogma of Christianity. Protestants are right: most Catholics do in fact believe a whole other religion. Well over 90% of students I have polled who have had 12 years of catechism classes, even Catholic high schools, say they expect to go to Heaven because they tried, or did their best, or had compassionate feelings to everyone, or were sincere. They hardly ever mention Jesus. Asked why they hope to be saved, they mention almost anything except the Savior. Who taught them? Who wrote their textbooks? These teachers have stolen from our precious children the most valuable thing in the world, the ‘pearl of great price;’ their faith. Jesus had some rather terrifying warnings about such things; something about millstones. [“Hauled Aboard the Ark,” The Spiritual Journeys, taken from the Peter Kreeft website]
In another place Kreeft writes:
“[These Catholics] think we are saved by good intentions or being nice or sincere or trying a little harder or doing a sufficient number of good deeds. Over the past twenty-five years I have asked hundreds of Catholic college students the question: If you should die tonight and God asks you why he should let you into heaven, what would you answer? The vast majority of them simply do not know the right answer to this, the most important of all questions, the very essence of Christianity. They usually do not even mention Jesus.” [In Fundamentals of the Faith, 280 cited in A.N.S. Lane, Justification by Faith in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue: An Evangelical Assessment, 231]
And why is that? Because it does not occur to them that the forgiveness of sins is a momentous matter that lies far beyond the reach of any and every human being to secure for himself or herself. And it isn’t only hosts of Roman Catholics who have such a trivial view of their sin and its forgiveness. Hosts of Protestants join them and still greater hosts of people who have virtually no religion at all. For in this matter, for most people, whether one goes to church or not makes comparatively little difference. Deeply as the scribes of Jesus’ day would be offended by the irreverent movies of today, their theology of forgiveness and of salvation was more like that of Hollywood producers than it is different.
Only God can make people as sinful as we are right with him and even for Almighty God to forgive our sins was an achievement that took breathtaking amounts of love and of power. There are billions upon billions of stars, each one more immense than we can really grasp, organized in hundreds of millions of galaxies wheeling across the far reaches of the universe, distant from us and one another by spaces that are vast beyond our power to comprehend. But creating that awe-inspiring, that stunning, that spell-binding universe was a mere bagatelle, a trifle to God in comparison to what it took to take away our sins!
That is what the scribes and so many today do not grasp. Healing a paralytic by the mere utterance of a word is nothing compared to the forgiving of sins by a holy and a just God. And that is why Matthew tells us at the outset of his Gospel that Jesus came into the world “to save his people from their sins,” and why he makes it so clear all the way through his account of the Lord’s life and ministry that it is sin, human sin, our sin that is the great interest of Christ and the delivering of us from our sin the great purpose of his ministry. The healings, the miraculous works are only an illustration, an indication of this larger purpose. It is the cross, not the healing of the sick that explains why Jesus came into the world and for what purpose he did all that he did. He came, as Matthew will say in a great summary statement later in his Gospel, “to give his life a ransom for many.” [20:28]
You see the great need of this man was not his lifeless limbs. Perhaps he himself did not understand that, nor did his friends when first they came to Jesus. Though we believe they, at least, learned that in their encounter with Jesus. There were a great many paralyzed people in the world when Jesus came to be among us whom he did not restore to soundness and health. That was not his great purpose. The healing miracles were only an illustration of his much greater object in life, as sickness is an illustration of sin and of the consequences of our sin in this world and in the life of human beings.
For Jesus did, absolutely, deal with sin, finally, perfectly, and all who call on him for forgiveness may have it and will have it and will have eternal life because of it. And 10,000 years from now, 100,000 years from now, looking back from heaven upon the few moments he lived in this world, what will that man think but that his paralysis was nothing compared to his sins. And he will shudder to think that had he been whole, had he been able to walk like most men, he might never have come to Jesus to receive what he really needed and what Jesus alone could give him: forgiveness, peace with God, and entrance into the eternal country.
Oh yes, the sin of blasphemy is very real. It is committed all the time nowadays. And it is committed in large part because people have so small a view of God and of his divine majesty, his holiness and justice and power. And they have that view of God because they have such a superficial and trivial view of their sins and what it takes to remove them. Let a man or woman see forgiveness for what it is: who alone can grant it, and what it cost him to be able to grant it, and suddenly, in that moment God will become very great in his or her view, not as great as he truly is, but as great as we are able to conceive.
Augustine tells of a dream he had in which he saw a little boy at a beach scooping up the ocean thimbleful by thimbleful and emptying it out on the sand. Then he saw an angel who told him that this boy will have emptied out the entire ocean long before Augustine has exhausted what can be said about God.
They know that to be true who know their sin and God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ. No one else really understands the astonishing greatness of God!