Your greatest need, and mine, is for God to forgive our sin. Now that statement is so counter-cultural that many people today will immediately write it off. And not only so, but they will also accuse anyone who says it that they are out of touch with reality. “Come off it,” we are told, “People don’t need religion, they need food, medicine, and education. We don’t need to worry about the world to come, we need to worry about the here-and-now.” Actually, many go further and say that religion is, as Karl Marx put it, the opiate of the masses. In other words, not only is religion unnecessary, it is an impediment to solving the world’s real problems.
The sad thing is that even religious people – including Christians – today seem to have jumped on the bandwagon of social activism and marginalize the gospel of grace. One of the ways you see this done is when people decry theology. Of course, they do this to sound pious and humble. “We don’t want to be dogmatic,” they say, “We just want to serve the poor and the needy.” And they make it sound like the real problems are problems of hunger and ignorance and income inequality and so on.
What would Jesus say to this? Well, our text has the answer. Jesus is in a house in Capernaum, probably Peter and Andrew’s, teaching. It is full and there is no way anyone can squeeze through the door to get in. Four men (Mk. 2:3) bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus in order for him to be healed. As they stand in front of the door, they realize that there is no way they are going to get in to Jesus.
Now back then, many houses in Palestine were flat-roofed, and the family would often spend time and entertain guests on the roof-top. Because of this, most houses had stairs that led up to the roof. So, since the men could not get in through the door, they moved to Plan B, took their friend up the stairs to the roof, and began to dig through the roof in order to get to Jesus below.
They were successful. They opened up the roof, let down their friend through it and got him to Jesus. However, Jesus responds to their diligence and faith in a rather surprising way. He doesn’t heal the man (at least, not yet). Instead, he says this: “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee” (Mt. 9:2).
Now think about that response. Here is a man who is paralyzed. It is bad enough to be paralyzed in our day, but can you imagine being paralyzed in the first century? This man’s physical need was huge. Moreover, his friends didn’t bring him to be forgiven; they brought him to be healed of his physical ailment. This was the obvious need, wasn’t it? But our Lord says, “Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven.” In other words, even though he was paralyzed, Jesus says that he has reason to be happy. He has a reason to rejoice. And that reason is that his sins are forgiven.
What I take from this is that the forgiveness of sins is more important than being healed of paralysis. Why? Because having your sins forgiven is a reason to rejoice even when you are physically crippled. This man’s life was probably miserable from a physical standpoint. There wasn’t a lot of hope to live a “fulfilled” life. His dreams were dashed as long as he remained in that state. But our Lord looks at him and says, “No, if your sins are forgiven, you have a reason to rejoice, no matter what physical state you find yourself in.”
It’s clear then, isn’t it, that Jesus would have little to do with those who want to replace the gospel with social activism. Now that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t meet people’s physical needs. Of course we should. It’s a vital part of the witness of the church. But if this text teaches anything it is that the most basic need that people have is their need for the forgiveness of sins. And it is so basic that even if that’s all we have, we still have reason to rejoice. God’s forgiveness is greater than the greatest physical blessing.
There is another pointer in the text to the superiority of forgiveness to physical blessing and healing. It comes in the following verses. When Jesus spoke these words to the paralytic, immediately some of the scribes reacted with shock: “And behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth” (Mt. 9:3). Mark adds the reason why they thought he was blaspheming: “Why doth this man speak blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?” (Mk. 2:7) Now there was nothing wrong with their reasoning. It is a fact that only God can forgive sins. The reason is that sin is ultimately against God (cf. Ps. 51:4), and so he is the only one who can release us from our sin against him. So they got that right. If Jesus had been just an ordinary human being, their reasoning would have been correct.
But Jesus is not just another ordinary human being. I think it is important to see that in this text we have an implicit affirmation of the divinity of Jesus Christ, because he goes on to prove to his doubters that he indeed does have the authority and power to forgive sins. Yes, only God can forgive sins. But Jesus can forgive sins. Therefore Jesus is God.
Our Lord then goes on to pose a question to his critics: “Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?” (Mt. 9:5). Now there is some disagreement among the commentators as to what the answer of this question is meant to be. However, I don’t think that Jesus meant to imply that one is easier than the other. The fact of the matter is that both are impossible for mortal men. A mere man can no more heal a man than he can forgive sin. His point in asking the question is this: “You say that it is impossible for me to forgive sin, that only God can do that. Well, it is also impossible for men to heal paralysis. Only God can do that, too. So if I can do one I can do the other.”
Jesus knew that his audience would also have understood that only someone blessed by God could perform such miracles (cf. John 3:2), and that it was inconceivable that God would bless a blasphemer. If he really had blasphemed as the scribes thought he had, then no miracle would have been forthcoming.
But the miracle did happen: “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. And he arose, and departed to his house” (Mt. 9:6-7). Jesus proves to all that he had the power to forgive sins: “And when the multitude saw it, they marveled, and glorified God, which had given such power unto men” (ver. 8).
Now how does this show the superiority of the forgiveness of sins over physical healing? In this way: the physical healing served the forgiveness of sins. The whole reason why Jesus spoke this man’s forgiveness before them all before he healed the man was to prove to all he had this power. The physical healing was meant to serve as evidence of Christ’s authority to forgive. The healing was not an end in itself, but pointed to the greater blessing of the remission of sin.
So I think this texts begs the question: why is it that the forgiveness of sins is our greatest need? It is the implication of our text, of our Lord’s words and actions. But I think it is worthwhile considering what Scripture in general has to say about it. And as we said before, I think it is especially important given the current obsession of our culture with money and health and material things to the general neglect of the soul and how we relate to God.
The first reason why the forgiveness of sins is so important is because sin is a horrible thing. Imagine being tattooed with an image that was ugly and depressing and hideous. You would have to carry it with you everywhere you went – unless you got it removed. Now suppose that you wanted to get it removed, but then you found out that you couldn’t; that there wasn’t a single place in the world that could remove this tattoo. You would have to carry it with you the rest of your life. Can you imagine how depressing that would be?
Of course, you could choose to ignore it. You could cover up the tattoo and pretend it wasn’t there. And, eventually, if you ignored it long enough and got good at never looking at it, you might even convince yourself that it wasn’t even there.
That is what sin is like. It is a hideous scar upon the soul. Deep down we all know it, and we all want to have it removed. But try as we might, we can’t. The evil is still there. And so some people simply choose to ignore it, to pretend that they really aren’t that bad. Perhaps they see tattoos on other people that are even worse than their own. At least they can cover up their scars, whereas other people have to wear theirs in plain sight.
I read a story of a soldier who had fought in a war and who had been pretty good at it. He had killed many men with his own hands. Then he began having dreams, dreams of blood staining his hands, stains that wouldn’t come off. He began to dread going to sleep at night because of these nightmares. That is what sin is like: a bloody stain that will not come off.
However, what makes sin so bad – what makes the tattoo so hideous – is not what we do to other people. Sin is bad because ultimately sin is against God, against the one who made us, to whom we owe our lives and every blessing that we have ever experienced. Sin is bad because sin is aimed at the most perfect and holy and blessed Being in the universe: God. Now make no mistake: sin can cause us to do really bad things to people. But we do really bad things to people because we are fundamentally oriented against God and against his law. This is what makes sin and unrighteousness so awful and ugly.
Just because a lot of people ignore the stain that sin has tattooed upon their heart doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. It’s there in all of us: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The question then is: how do we get rid of this vile stain upon the heart? How do we get rid of this sin? That is what forgiveness is all about.
Scripture tells us that forgiveness is possible. It is possible to be rid of the awful stains. But not by our own doing: it only comes about through the mercy of Christ: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isa. 1:18). “Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29)
The soldier found this truth to be real. By the grace of God, even though he lived in a land where there were very few Christians, he had heard the gospel of grace through Christ and had received it. And as soon as he believed, the dreams stopped. The stains had been wiped away. The same can happen for everyone who by faith hears Christ say, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Second, forgiveness is important because without it, we cannot have fellowship with God. You hear stories all the time about people who were separated from their parents either at birth or an early age and who do everything they can to reconnect with their birth parents. People sometimes go to great lengths to be reunited with loved ones that they haven’t seen in many years. But the greatest separation that has ever happened is the separation that is between mankind and God, a separation caused by sin (Isa. 59:1-2). Sin separates from God; but forgiveness reunites man with God through Christ. This is why the apostle Peter, in describing what Jesus did for us in the cross, puts it this way: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).
To be reunited to God through Christ is to have God to be for you instead of against you (cf. Rom. 8:28-39), and I cannot imagine anything better than that. It means that even in the midst of the raging seas of life that he cares for us, that he loves us. It means that all things will work for our good according to his purpose. And whereas sin is at the root of every ugly and evil thing in this world, God is at the bottom of every pure and holy joy that will last forever. To be reunited with him, therefore, is to have a real foundation for rejoicing. It’s why the apostle John wrote his epistle: “that your joy may be full,” a joy which is to be found only in fellowship with the holy Trinity (1 Jn. 1:3-4). And it’s why Jesus told the paralytic: “Son, be of good cheer: your sins are forgiven!”
Third, the forgiveness of sins is imperative because it deals with eternal issues. Poverty is important, but poverty only affects us for a few decades at most. Education is important, but it can only advance us in this world. Medicine is important, but it only aids a body that is inevitably going to break down anyway. The fact of the matter is that life is short. Eternity lasts forever. What we have now will one day pass away. But if our life is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3), it will never end. If we have forgiveness, we have something that can and never will be taken away from us.
Now how should we then relate to this? Well, surely we should want this forgiveness. And the only way to get this forgiveness is to come to Christ by faith. Note that when the text says, “and Jesus seeing their faith” (Mt. 9:2), this is not meant to exclude the paralytic. It was his faith, as much as his friends’, that attracted our Lord’s attention. We are not meant to think that they dragged him to Jesus kicking and screaming.
Now I don’t know why Jesus directed his pronouncement of forgiveness just to the paralyzed man, and not to his friends. It could be, as many think, that this ailment had befallen this man because of sin. Therefore, our Lord not only heals the man, but first of all forgives the sin that led to the illness in the first place. But whatever the case, he received the blessing by faith. That is the important lesson for us today.
If you or I are to receive forgiveness, we must receive it by faith. The apostle Peter told the Gentile hearers in Cornelius’ household, “To him [Jesus] give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43). The apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).
Who are called upon to believe? Well, I think it is very clear in Scripture that all are commanded to believe and all are commanded to repent. The only warrant for faith is the clear command in Scripture to believe in Christ, to commit oneself to him as Lord and Savior. There are a lot of people who think they need to tidy themselves up before coming. They think that they need to fix certain things in their life first. No, my friend, come to Christ now, and he will enable you to make changes. Your warrant to come to Christ and to believe in him is not any fitness in yourself. The fitness is all in Christ.
It is very important to understand the doctrine of justification in this connection. You are not justified by works at all. God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5), not the godly. As Christ will say to the Pharisees a little later in Matthew 9, he did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (Mt. 9:13). The righteousness that makes us whole is not in us; it is not even in our faith. It is the righteousness of Christ that justifies the sinner. He took your sins so that believing on him you might receive his righteousness.
“Let not conscience make you linger
Nor of fitness fondly dream
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your need of him.”
Now if we have embraced Christ by faith, should we not, as our Lord instructed the paralytic, rejoice? Should we not also be of good cheer? It struck me recently how the Bible commands us to rejoice. It is not an option: we are commanded to do so! “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). “Rejoice evermore” (1 Thess. 5:16). Now that doesn’t mean we are to go around with a silly, Cheshire Cat grin on our faces. I think the apostle would have deplored that kind of superficial nonsense. Nor are such commands meant to force the Christian to live in denial of tragedy. Rather, the reality behind these commands is the forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life, and the knowledge that nothing can change that reality for the Christian. Will a Christian weep in this life? Yes. Will a Christian be called to endure hard things? Yes. But the believer can say with the apostle, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (2 Cor. 4:8-10).