Joni was a healthy, athletic teenager. She had just graduated from high school, where she was voted “Best Athlete” of her class. She was an award winning swimmer and skilled tennis player, planning on pursuing a future career in athletics. A month after graduation, however, while swimming in the Chesapeake Bay, Joni dove into some shallow water and cracked her head on the rocky floor. Her arms and legs immediately went limp and she had to be rescued from the shallow pool of water she laid in. Joni damaged her spine and permanently lost the ability to use her arms and legs, becoming a quadriplegic. Joni was a Christian, but how did her faith affect how she processed this life altering accident? She writes, “I was a Christian back then, but life in Christ didn’t define who I was. True, I understood I was a new creation with a new heart, at least in theory, but I didn’t live like it. So, after my accident, I dug into my Bible for help, hoping that Jesus would give me back all that I’d lost. I wanted—I needed—my body back.”
As Joni studied the Bible she came across the story of Jesus healing a paralytic in Luke 5 and Mark 2. Filled with a desperate hope, Joni came to believe that Jesus could heal her of her paralysis the same way He healed the paralytic in this story. “And so,” she writes, “I made the rounds at local healing services, following every scriptural injunction that might qualify me for physical healing. Elders prayed and anointed me with oil, and I confessed more sins than I could recall. But after two visits to Kathryn Kuhlman’s healing crusades (the Benny Hinn of her day), I plummeted into despair. My arms and legs remained unresponsive. Didn’t God know I was lost without limbs that worked? Didn’t he understand I was a strong athlete on the inside? Surely he knew I was the least likely candidate to enjoy life in a wheelchair. After the third healing crusade, my sister drove me home to our Maryland farm. All the way, I kept fuming, What kind of Savior, what kind of rescuer or healer, would refuse the prayer of a paralytic? Especially a paralytic who claims Christ as her Savior? I felt bewildered and utterly lost. One morning I awoke early, looked around my shadowy bedroom, and decided I didn’t want to get up. If I can’t be healed, I thought, then I’m just not going to do this. . . . I am not going to live this way! I stayed in bed that day. And the next. And the following week.”
So writes Joni Eareckson Tada 50 years after her accident, her mobility now limited to a wheelchair, with the added difficulties of scoliosis, chronic pain, and two bouts of stage three breast cancer. Needless to say, Joni’s life has been one filled with intense, day-in, day-out suffering. Friend, I wonder what you think about Joni’s despair, her frustration? Did God not want to help her? Did God not hear her? Or was God just incapable of working miraculously like He once did when Jesus walked the earth? Maybe you are a skeptic here today who lost your faith because God refused to answer a prayer for yourself or someone you loved to be healed. How could God be all good and all loving but let something terrible like this happen? That’s a serious question. Let’s think about it as we turn now to our text and look at the story of Jesus and the paralytic. My hope today is that by the end of the sermon we will know one thing: Jesus provides a deeper healing
Jesus returns to Capernaum, the city where he had garnered a great deal of popularity through His teaching, healing, and exorcisms performed (cf. Mark 1:21, 28; 33; 37). He is likely at Simon’s house (cf. 1:29-34), when again a large crowd gathers in the home and outside of the door. Jesus takes advantage of this opportunity and begins to preach to them (2:1-2; cf. 1:38-39). Suddenly, a group of four men bearing a paralyzed man on a bed begin to fight against the crowd, trying to get in to see Jesus. They likely heard of the reports of Jesus’ ability to heal people and knew that the last time Jesus was here He stayed for only one day before leaving (cf. Mark 1:35-39). They don’t know how long Jesus is going to stay this time, so they are desperate to get their friend to Jesus. Blocked by the crowds, they decide to take a drastic measure and climb onto the roof of the home. Roofs would have been constructed by laying tree branches, limbs, or small trunks across the tops of the walls of the house, and then layering over them straw and mud. The four men begin to literally “unroof the roof” by presumably pulling the tree branches and all of the connecting mud and straw up and off. The people below would have been showered in a downpour of dirt and debris, likely interrupting Jesus in the middle of His teaching. One wonders what Simon (the owner of the home) was thinking (or saying to them) while all of this happened. The men proceed to lower the paralytic on his bed down into the room where Jesus was.
Jesus is impressed by the faith of the four men and the paralytic to go to such lengths. Now, the text has not told us explicitly what the paralytic came to Jesus for, but it seems to be that he has come to be healed. Jesus’ fame in Capernaum is linked to His miraculous healings, exorcisms, and teaching. However, Jesus does not ask him what he is looking for but simply pronounces, “Son, your sins are forgiven,” (2:5). I think this is a rather surprising thing for Jesus to say for a number of reasons. First, as you are reading Mark’s story, the reader expects that the paralytic is looking for physical healing, not the forgiveness of his sins—Jesus hasn’t pronounced the forgiveness of sins to anyone in Capernaum before; He has healed them. Secondly, if this man was looking for his sins to be forgiven, one would expect that he would be going to the temple to present a sin offering (Lev 4-6:7)—the assurance of forgiveness could be given through the high priest after the ritual sacrifice had been performed (Lev 5:13). The high priest was permitted to give an assurance of pardon simply because he was following God’s laws about how forgiveness was procured—God was the One who forgave sins and He had revealed how forgiveness could be obtained: through sacrifice in the temple. Thus, for Jesus to pronounce, “Your sins are forgiven,” when He is not in the temple, not a high priest, and there has been no sacrifice made, makes this a fairly scandalous statement. Which is why the scribes who are present begin to question within themselves, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Mark 2:7. It is scandalous.
The Scribes are outraged for two reasons: Jesus’ claim to be God, and His disregard for the temple. First, they think Jesus is blaspheming because only God is permitted to proclaim forgiveness, thus for Jesus to tell this man that his sins are forgiven is assuming that Jesus has the same divine authority as God does. The Bible’s concept of sin always relates to God as the primary one being sinned against—even sins that are directed at other people, all sin is first and foremost a sin against God (cf. Ps 51:4). Thus for Jesus to forgive people of their sin would be like Him saying that He was the One who had been sinned against. If Joe walks up and punches me in the nose, then James puts a hand on Joe’s shoulder and says, “Joe, that was wrong, but I forgive you,” then I would be rather frustrated with James. Joe punched me in the nose, so I am the one who has the ability to forgive or not forgive Joe—James doesn’t have anything to do with it. So, if Jesus is pronouncing forgiveness of this man’s sins, He is assuming the status of God Himself, the One against whom all sins are primarily against.
Secondly, for Jesus to proclaim the forgiveness of sins outside of the channel of the temple, priesthood, and sacrifices that were written in the covenant at Sinai, reveals that Jesus has come to inaugurate a new means of forgiveness, a new covenant. You see, Jesus teaches that His body is a new temple, “Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body.” (John 2:19-21); the book of Hebrews explains that Jesus is a new priest (Heb 7-8), and that Jesus’ death on the cross is a new and final sacrifice to cleanse us from our sins (Heb 9)—Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). The temple, priesthood, sacrificial system—all of it was just the shadow of Christ who has now come to fulfill all these things. This is why Jesus can pronounce forgiveness outside of the temple system. He isn’t contradicting what the Old Testament teaches, rather He is teaching that the old covenant age is coming to its originally intended fulfillment in Christ, and the new age of the new covenant is beginning. The temple system, sacrifices, and priesthood in the Old Testament were just shadow puppets, miming and hinting at what the coming Messiah would do; now, the screen has been removed, and the Messiah, Jesus Christ, has stepped out onto the stage in His fullness.
However, the scribes do not understand this and are, naturally, offended—This man is claiming to do what only God can do. Blasphemy! Jesus discerns their thoughts and intentionally “pokes the bear” by confronting them directly, ““Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?” Mark 2:8-9. Now, you’ll notice right away that even though Jesus understands the weight of the charges they are tallying up against Him in their minds, He does not go out of His way to make it any better. Jesus doesn’t look at the scribes and say, “Hold on, now! Don’t think I am claiming to be equal with God or anything—that would be blasphemy!” Blasphemy was a capital offense in the Old Testament; it was not a small issue. And, of course, it would be blasphemy for a mere man to claim to do what only God can do. But, Jesus is going to demonstrate here that He is not merely a man. Jesus, in fact, seems to double down on what the scribes are suspecting.
Jesus asks them which is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or “Rise, take up your bed and walk?” And this question has puzzled interpreters for nearly two thousand years, mostly because it appears to have multiple answers. On the one hand, since only God can forgive sins, it would seem that is the harder of the two tasks laid out—one doesn’t necessarily need to be divine to work miracles the way one needs to be divine to forgive sins. But Jesus asks them which is easier to say. Which would make, “Rise, take up your bed and walk,” more difficult. The forgiveness of sins is not something that is visually seen, but being healed of a paralyzing disease is immediately verifiable—you either get up and walk, or not. Anybody can go around and say Your sins are forgiven because there is no hard data to prove or disprove it. So, Jesus appears to be arguing from the greater to the lesser here: if I can do the thing that can be empirically verified, then that serves as proof of my authority to do thing that cannot be verified. This appears to be how Jesus is thinking by what He says and does next:
“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” Mark 2:10-12. What does Jesus want the Scribes and the crowds to know? That He has authority on earth to forgive sins. So, how does He demonstrate it? He heals the paralytic as a testimony that He is not blaspheming—He is not a mere man claiming to do what only God can do—but instead demonstrates that He is the Spirit-filled Messiah who has come to usher in the kingdom of God, the new Exodus, and with it the new covenant. As we will see shortly in Mark, Jesus has come to bring about a pivotal shift in redemptive history—Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are going to render the old covenant and all of its rituals, practices, and laws obsolete because He has come to inaugurate the new covenant. This is the “new wine” of the kingdom that Jesus speaks of in Mark 2:22. Of course, Jesus has told us this back in 1:14-15, but Jesus’ miraculous healings are the proof that the Messiah has come and has inaugurated the messianic age (Isa 35:5-6; cf. Acts 2:22). In Matthew and Luke, John the Baptist begins to question whether or not Jesus is really the messiah, so he sends messengers to ask Jesus directly, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them,” (Matt 11:3-5; cf. Luke 7:20-22). Jesus alludes to the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 35:5-6 (cf. Isa 29:18-19; 61:1-2) as being fulfilled in His ministry of healing and this serves as proof that He is the Messiah who has come to usher in the kingdom of God, and thus has the authority to speak as God and pronounce forgiveness outside of the temple system. In Acts 2:22 we are told that the miraculous works that Jesus performed were the authentication, what “attested to” the fact that He was who He claimed to be. In other words, Jesus’ healings were not merely ends in themselves, but served the ultimate purpose of authenticating who He was and demonstrating the power of the kingdom of God.
We saw this last week when we discussed the priority of God’s Word over miracles in the ministry of Jesus. Jesus leaves Capernaum when there was still great need in order to go preach the gospel in other towns—why? Because everyone whom Jesus heals physically will still one day die, but those who believe in His Word will have everlasting life. Jesus’ miracles are there to authenticate His Word, to demonstrate that the kingdom of God has come in power, to give an appetizer of what the new creation will be like. But they are subservient to the Word.
So what is Mark wanting us to glean from this story?
First, this shows us that Jesus is the One who helps us with our greatest need. Jesus possesses the authority to pronounce your sins forgiven because He is God and He has provided the means of forgiveness through His death, burial, and resurrection. Forgiveness is not obtained by going to a priest, going to a special place of worship, or performing enough good deeds. Our status of “forgiven” is only given through Jesus. So, that means that if Jesus has forgiven my sins, even if I don’t feel forgiven, or feel like Jesus could ever forgive me for what I’ve done, it doesn’t matter. I do not create my own forgiveness; my subjective feelings are not what grant the validity of my standing before God. Jesus paid the bill, and no matter how many times my weak faith may feel unsure about it, the bill has been paid.
Second, this shows us what our greatest need is. Jesus’ primary concern is not the physical healing of this man, but the forgiveness of his sins. It is safe to assume that the paralytic and his friends were surprised to hear Jesus say, “Son, your sins are forgiven,” rather than, “Rise up, be healed.” If you are incapable of walking today, your life is difficult. If you are incapable of walking in Jesus’ day, your life is remarkably difficult. There is no government provided safety net, limited healthcare, no social security, no benefits for the disabled. This is primarily an agrarian and labor society—there are not many “desk jobs” available. If you can’t go out into the field, on the boat, or in the marketplace, you can’t feed yourself. You are simply at the mercy of handouts from family and other people, and, as is the case in this story, your very mobility is determined by the kindness of others to carry you around. So, needless to say, this man’s condition is dire, and yet Jesus’ main issue He is going to address is first the forgiveness of his sins.
I want to make this clear: every Christian, every person who has faith in Christ, will be totally, and completely healed of all physical infirmities. If you are in Christ, you will be healed! Jesus’ miracles are a display of God’s power to remove the effects of the curse of sin on our physical bodies. But, and this is a huge qualifier: we are nowhere instructed in the New Testament that Christians are promised that they will be physically healed in this life. Can God miraculously heal our bodies here? Of course. He is God and is free to do whatever He pleases. But are we ever promised that if we “have enough faith” God will heal us in this life? No. Actually, we are told to expect our bodies to break down, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,” 2 Cor 4:16-17. Our suffering becomes our servant to increase our joy in the New Creation where there will be no more sickness, no more crying, no more pain (cf. Rev 21:4). This is where our hope and confidence in healing lies—when we pass through the veil of death, we will leave our sickness behind us, and enter the glories of heaven. As the old hymn says, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He’s come to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.”
Friend, what do you believe you need most from God? Maybe, like this paralytic, you think it is physical healing, or maybe for you it’s a spouse, or a successful career. What is the one thing you feel like you need for life to make sense? What are you currently angry at God for withholding from you? I don’t want this kind of husband! I don’t want this pain! I don’t want these kids! This trial is a rock on my chest holding me under water, and if You don’t take it away I am going to drown!
Some people have walked away from the Lord because He has withheld things like that from them: how could I worship a God who would withhold something I need so desperately? Well, friend, what if you are wrong about what you need most? Do you have a category for that? What if you think you need more Band-Aids on your broken leg, when what you really need is the bone to be set straight? And what if God will deny giving you those Band-Aids so you will realize that there is a much, much more serious issue at hand?
This is what Joni Eareckson Tada learned. She thought that what she needed most was for God to heal her body, but as her 17 year old self lay in bed, suffocating herself with pity and self-loathing, she writes, “The despair was claustrophobic and I finally whimpered, “I can’t live this way. I’m so lost. God, show me how to live.” Joni then began to read her Bible voraciously and came back again to the story in Mark 2 and noticed Jesus’ focus on forgiving the man’s sin primarily, and healing him physically secondarily. She writes, “I learned that the core of Christ’s plan is to rescue us from sin. Our physical aches and pains and broken relationships aren’t his ultimate focus—he cares deeply about these things, but they’re symptoms of the chief problem in this fallen world. God’s goal is not to make us comfortable. He wants to teach us to hate our transgressions as he grows our love for him… Does God miraculously heal? Sure, he does. But in this broken world, it’s still the exception, not the rule. A “no” answer to my request for a miraculous physical healing has meant purged sin, a love for the lost, increased compassion, stretched hope, an appetite for grace, an increase of faith, a happy longing for heaven, a desire to serve, a delight in prayer, and a hunger for his Word. Oh, bless the stern schoolmaster that is my wheelchair!”
Isn’t this so interesting: God used Joni’s accident to bring her to Himself in a way that she never would have experienced had the accident not happened. If the man in Mark 2 wasn’t paralyzed, would he have ever come to have his sins forgiven? Friends, maybe the weight and trial you are walking through—maybe the very thing that is shaking your faith in God—is the very thing that God has ordained to bring you to Himself and save you from your deepest, most serious problem: being reconciled with God, repenting of our sin, and growing in holiness. Joni elsewhere writes, “Sometimes God will permit what He hates to accomplish what He loves.”
 Actually, due to a mixture of superstition and a poor understanding of the Old Testament’s teaching on the relationship between sin and sickness, there was a teaching popular at the time that said: “A sick man does not recover from his sickness until his sin is forgiven,” (Achtemeir, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd Ed., 363; see also John 9:1-2). So, in other words, if you are sick it is because there is some sin in your life that you were being punished for (a line of thinking that the entire book of Job contradicts). However, it might be that Jesus realizes that in the crowds’ and scribes’ mistaken understanding of the causal relationship between sin and sickness, He knows that by physically healing this man He can provide further credible evidence, in accordance with their assumptions, that this man’s sins have been forgiven.