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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Authority, Sins and Sinners

Matthew 9:1-14

This lesson, like last week’s, rests upon the authority of Jesus Christ. I must therefore begin with a few preliminary observations about the nature of authority:

·         All authority ultimately comes from God, the author (hence author - ity) of creation itself.

·         When used properly, in the kingdom, authority and power flow together. If God gives you the authority to heal, he will give you the power to heal as well.

·         God has handed over this authority -- all authority -- to Jesus.[1]

·         Authority is often best seen not in the enforcement of rules but in the adjustment of those rules to the circumstances at hand.

And with that as preliminary, we shall see the use of authority in the hands of the Master.

(Mat 9:1-8 NIV) Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. {2} Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven." {3} At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, "This fellow is blaspheming!" {4} Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? {5} Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? {6} But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . ." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home." {7} And the man got up and went home. {8} When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.

(Mark 2:1-12 NIV) A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. {2} So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. {3} Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. {4} Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. {5} When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." {6} Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, {7} "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" {8} Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking these things? {9} Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'? {10} But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . ." He said to the paralytic, {11} "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." {12} He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"

(Luke 5:17-26 NIV) One day as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, were sitting there. And the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick. {18} Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. {19} When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. {20} When Jesus saw their faith, he said, "Friend, your sins are forgiven." {21} The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, "Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?" {22} Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, "Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? {23} Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? {24} But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . ." He said to the paralyzed man, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." {25} Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. {26} Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, "We have seen remarkable things today."

Authority to Forgive Sins

One of the most interesting facts in Scripture is this: we often see faith as the enabler of God’s power, or the lack of faith as its limiter. We have already seen how Jesus could work no major miracles in his home town because of their lack of faith. This limit sometimes puzzles the new Christian, for it seems that it contradicts the omnipotence of God. I make these observations:

·         God voluntarily limits himself -- to achieve his own purposes. If you want your kid’s room picked up, rent a bulldozer. If you want the kid to pick it up -- ah, that’s a bit more difficult.[2]

·         Likewise, God voluntarily enables us -- who are intrinsically powerless -- to do great things. He usually (but not always) requires us to have faith, however, to do this.

·         One of the reasons God so enables us and limits himself is that he wants us to practice intercession for others. All through the Scripture the mighty works of the saints and prophets are not designed to inflate their egos but rather to build up his kingdom.

Such faith, and such intercession, are seen in this example. We are not told that the paralytic had faith; rather, that his friends did. They had to clear away a thatch roof (no small task) and lower him down on ropes to get him to the Healer. This was at no small risk to themselves, both in terms of physical danger and in terms of what the house owner might say about his roof! Here we have a true example of intercession - faith in action on behalf of others.

Jesus responds to this act of faith. In healing, he torques the Pharisees beyond the breaking point. Reading their minds, he replies as we have seen. Let’s look at the Pharisee’s argument in more detail so that we may understand Jesus’ reply:

Suppose that I decide that you need a good punch in the nose. Being a man of action (and rather limited sense) I decide to carry out this plan, and I bop you in the face. You (being a superb Christian) now have the Christian privilege of granting me forgiveness. Let us suppose, however, that Satan arises and tempts you to petty vengeance, namely, you decide to bop me in the nose. The fight seems to be on, but (let us further suppose) that Graydon Jessup steps between us. He directs you to cease and desist, because, he says, “I have forgiven him.”

Now, being the logical sort of person you are, and greatly given to debate as opposed to combat, you decide to reason with Graydon. “Hold on, preacher,” you say, “if I want to punch his lights out (in a decent Christian manner, of course), why, that’s my business. What right do you have to forgive him and let him off the hook?”

You see the argument, of course. You have the right to forgive, because you’re the one I punched in the nose. I didn’t punch Graydon, so he doesn’t have the right to forgive me on your behalf. Right? To turn this into a principle, only the person who is offended has the privilege of forgiving.

But in any such argument there are two people (at least) who are offended. God is the other one, for he has ordained peace among his children. When I hit your nose, I break God’s law. He too is offended. More to the point, it usually happens that I don’t flatten your face for no reason; somehow, you probably offended me. In short, we are usually “both wrong.” God is the only one who is truly righteous. He also is the ultimate judge; we are both debtor to him (see the parable of the two debtors). Further, as we are Christians, we are both at his command, for his authority is absolute.

What is his command? That we forgive one another. What is his promise? That if we do, He will forgive also. I trust it is clear that God has such authority?

Now you can see the Pharisees’ objection. Only God has such authority. By claiming to forgive this man’s sins, Jesus is claiming to be God. His hearers certainly understand that point.

There is a point of logic here that must now be stated. Many people look kindly on Jesus of Nazareth as a super nice guy. He was no such thing. He most explicitly, in word and deed, claimed to be God in the flesh. That leaves us with only three options: the lunatic, the Devil -- or the Son of God.

There’s a marvelous old movie, Miracle on 34th Street, that revolves around a lawyer’s attempt to prove that his client is not insane. The defense? That his client is, as he claims to be, the one and only Santa Claus. It is a charming film, but the logic is entirely the same. The evidence for Jesus is now to be presented.[3]

Jesus’ reply is fairly simple. You have no way to check up on me if I say that God has forgiven your sins. How do you know that I have such authority? It is impossible -- unless I link that forgiveness to something which clearly comes from God (like a miraculous healing). Forgiveness is not something you can check. Healing -- that you can see with your own Missouri eyes.

Sin and Disease and Guilt

The ancients commonly believed (see, for example, Job’s friends) that sin caused disease -- and therefore committed the common logical fallacy that since sin causes disease, all disease was the result of sin. A more correct view is this: that sin and disease are both parts of our fallen nature.

We are not usually interested in sin and disease without the subject of healing. One reason that forgiveness is associated so often with healing is that God means to restore this world to its sinless state when Christ returns. He will “make all things new.” In that sense, the miracles of healing are miracles of anticipation. As such, sin may not be the cause of any specific disease (see the instance of the man born blind), but forgiveness is necessary before healing.

Modern man tends to separate the two (see how we have reacted to the AIDS epidemic -- as if moral standards had nothing to do with it). As such, we have developed our defenses against disease (medicine) and guilt:

·         “There’s no such thing as sin -- everything’s relative anyway.”

·         Wine, women and song, and drink away your troubles. The next girl will be better anyway.

·         “At least I’m not as bad as some people I know.”

·         “You need to deal with this guilt complex you have” (I love it; psychiatry used to make you feel guilty about feeling guilty.)[4]

The truth is found in the simple statement: you need to know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins.

And to forgive sinners, too.

Authority to call the sinner

(Mat 9:9-13 NIV) As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. {10} While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. {11} When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" {12} On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. {13} But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

(Mark 2:13-17 NIV) Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. {14} As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. {15} While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. {16} When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the "sinners" and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: "Why does he eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" {17} On hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

(Luke 5:27-32 NIV) After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. "Follow me," Jesus said to him, {28} and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. {29} Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. {30} But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" {31} Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. {32} I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

The ancient connection between sin and disease would have been apparent to the readers here. God grants Jesus authority to heal; that is, authority over sin. He therefore has authority over sinners as well -- including the ultimate turnaround, changing from sinner to disciple. I venture this point for two reasons:

·         Some of us prefer our church comfortable. There are people we don’t like; or those that are not quite our style. It’s almost as if you were a doctor who couldn’t stand sick people. Matthew is such a man, at once a traitor and a cheat.

·         Some of us insist on (purely socially, of course) a certain moral cleanliness before allowing someone into the church. It is a subtle thing.[5] But note that our Lord permits us to judge only those who are in the church, and then only for their own good.[6]

Matthew himself is a solid example of why this is so. No “good” person would associate with him. Yet even in such a man there can be a good example:

·         He turns from everything he knows to follow Jesus. Peter and John can go back to fishing if they have to (and they do, after the crucifixion) but Matthew has no turning back. So it should be with each of us.[7]

·         Even as a new follower, he has the excitement and sense to know he has latched on to the best possible thing. What does he do? He calls his friends -- men like himself -- to meet this Jesus. There is tremendous power in forgiveness.

The lessons for us

Many things could be derived from these short passages -- the life of Christ is so rich, and we have barely begun. But I bring to you three precepts, all of them in imitation of Christ:

·         Like the friends of the paralytic, we must intercede for others -- and do so in faith.

·         Like our Lord, we must be willing to extend God’s forgiveness (and our own).

·         As with Matthew, there will be those we just don’t like -- and all the more reason to bring to them the grace of God.


[1] Matthew 28:18

[2] A note about argument here. Just because I put the words “God can” in front of an English language sentence does not necessarily make it something possible. Give me enough cement and I can make a rock so big I can’t lift it.

[3] See also John 10:31-38 for an eerie version of this argument.

[4] The incident at Beverly Hills when I missed the meeting.

[5] Sandi Barone and AIDS

[6] 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 is worth reading in this context, if we have time.

[7] An instructive passage on this may be found in Ecclesiastes 5:1-7

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