"To Forgive, Divine!"
(Delivered Sunday, September 18, 2005 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
This morning, we look at a passage in the Gospel of Matthew that features a couple of important "firsts".
For one thing, it's the first passage in Matthew's gospel in which we find opposition expressed to our Savior's earthly ministry. This morning's story introduces us to the first little hint of the conflict that Jesus experienced with the teachers and religious leaders of the day - a conflict that developed over the claims that He made about Himself, and because of the impact He was having on people's lives. In Matthew's gospel, this opposition will continue to grow from this point on; and will eventually culminate in His crucifixion.
But the specific cause of the opposition in this morning's story leads us to another of its "firsts" - a very wonderful first, in fact. This morning's passage introduces us to the first time in Matthew's gospel in which our Savior actually "forgave" the sins of a specific individual. Jesus came to this earth to die for us on the cross, and - through the shedding of His blood - bring about the forgiveness of our sins (Matthew 26:28; Ephesians 1:7); but here, we read of the first time that He actually, personally, "forgives" a sinner! What a wonderful "first" that is!
But the main thing that this morning's passage teaches us is that this Jesus - who stirred up so much controversy by His claims about Himself - proves Himself to be the Son of God. And as the Son of God, He possesses the divine authority to forgive sins that are committed against God. Matthew tells us about Him when he writes:
So He got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city. Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, "Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you." And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, "This man blasphemes!" But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, "Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Arise and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins" - then He said to the paralytic, "Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house." And he arose and departed to his house. Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men (Matthew 9:1-8).
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Stop and think with me of what it would be like if you had the authority to 'forgive' the debts of anyone who came to you. Everyone wants to have their debts forgiven. Just think of what it would be like if you had it in your power to forgive their car loan, or their credit card debts, or their business loans, or their medical bills, or even their mortgage. Wouldn't you be very popular?
Well, as it so happens, we can forgive debts - but only the debts that are owed to us personally. And that would only be because we are willing and able to assume the cost of the debt ourselves. It would be horribly presumptuous for us to forgive the debts that are owed to someone else. Our hearts may go out to a person in debt; but we can't pardon their debt for them. Only a creditor who is willing to bear the debt himself has the power and authority to declare a debt "forgiven".
You might think; "Well; I could forgive the debt owed to someone else if it was also in my power to pay it." And that would be true - if you had the resources to pay it; and if the creditor was willing to accept your payment for another. But what if you were in debt yourself?
The Bible tells us that we all are born into this world in a condition of debt - and it's a debt that we cannot pay off. The apostle Paul writes, "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned - " (Romans 5:12). Every one of us is born into this world with the debt of Adam's sin charged to our account. God is our great Creditor; and every day we compound that debt further before Him with our own sins.
When it comes to sins, it's not in our power to forgive the 'sin-debt' of another. It's not even in our power to remove ourselves from our condition of 'sin-debt'. And so, it would be the greatest possible presumption to announce that we "forgave" someone of the sins they had committed against God.
But the good news is that Someone has taken the burden of our debt to God on Himself - Someone who Himself had no 'sin-debt' whatsoever; and who willingly paid the debt for us. And what's more, this Someone, because He paid our debt, now has the authority from God Himself to announce our debt to God "forgiven". That Someone is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The prophet Isaiah says of Him that "He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows" (Isaiah 53:4); and that "the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (v. 6). The apostle Paul wrote, "And you, being dead in your trespasses, and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross" (Colossians 2:13-14).
There are many lessons for us in this morning's passage. But the greatest lesson that it has to teaches us is that, as the Son of God in human flesh, Jesus Christ has the authority to forgive the sins committed against God for anyone who comes to Him.
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Look first at how this passage shows us that . . .
1. JESUS CLAIMS THE AUTHORITY TO FORGIVE SINS (vv. 1-2).
Matthew begins this story of Jesus by telling us, "So He got into a boat . . ." That points us back to some of the other "boat" stories we've studied concerning Jesus; and to what they taught us about Him.
First, we saw that He was in the boat asleep while in the midst of a storm; and we saw that He rose from His sleep to rebuke the wind and the waves (8:23-27) - which taught us that Jesus has authority over the natural realm. He commands the wind and the waves, and they obey Him. Second, we saw that He crossed the Sea of Galilee to meet two demon-possessed men; and He cast the demons out of them (8:28-32) - which taught us that Jesus also has authority over the natural realm. He commands even the evil spirits, and they must obey Him.
In all these things, Jesus is showing Himself to possess full authority as the Son of God in human flesh. He has authority over the physical world, and over the spiritual world. And now, as He enters the boat once again to cross over the Sea of Galilee, we are being taught that Jesus - as the Son of God - has even the authority to forgive sins.
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We're told that he "crossed over, and came to His own city." This is Capernaum; by the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The news that Jesus had returned to Capernaum spread; and very quickly, huge crowds gathered to the house in which He was staying, in order to hear Him teach. In fact, there was such a huge crowed gathered at this house to hear Him that there wasn't any room for any more people. Even the doorways where stuffed with folks. And with all these people packed tightly into the house, Jesus preached the word to them.
And that's when this poor, helpless paralyzed man comes into the story. Matthew says, "Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed." Mark, in his gospel, tells us a little more of the details of what happened. He said,
Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken though, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying (Mark 2:3-4).
I have often tried to imagine that scene. I have thought of what it must have been like to be stuffed into the house with the crowd - listening to Jesus as He taught. The people would have been taking in all that Jesus was saying when - suddenly - some of them felt a little bit of plaster falling onto their shoulder. And then, as they brushed it off, someone might have felt a big chunk of plaster 'ping' off the top of their head. Finally, people looked up and gasped to see a hole in the roof with an eyeball looking through it! Then, they saw a finger poke through the hole to tear off bigger chunks. Soon, strong and determined hands were prying large chunks of tiles off the roof, as the surprised people below moved away from the falling debris. I'd suspect that everyone was looking and pointing. And pretty soon, a big hole was made; and a cot was lowered down by ropes - right in front of Jesus - with paralyzed man lying on it.
It doesn't say so in the Bible, of course; but I strongly suspect that Jesus looked up to the men on the roof and laughed. The Bible says that He saw their faith. They certainly meant business, didn't they?
I think that's one of the 'littler' things that this Bible story is meant to teach us. It's meant to show us a demonstration of the kind of faith that gets a response from the Savior. These men had an unshakable faith that if they could get their poor friend to Jesus, Jesus would be able heal him. And so, when they got to the house and saw that the crowd was too great, and when they saw that there was no access to Jesus through the doorway, they didn't let these things stop them. In fact, they wouldn't let any obstacle stop them at all - not even a roof. They tore open a hole in the top of the house, and lowered the man right down to where Jesus was. This kind of faith - the kind of faith that is willing to do something bold - is the kind of faith that always gets Jesus' attention.
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But there's another thing that this Bible story teaches us; that is, the priority that Jesus had for the man. Jesus did something that no one expected. He turned to this man on the bed - this poor helpless man that his friends loved so much - and said, "Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you."
I can't help but think that the man's friends on the roof were waving their hands and shaking their heads; and saying, "No, Lord! We wanted you to heal him - not forgive Him!" Jesus, however, knows the real need.
What's more, I believe the man on the bed knew what his real need was too. We know from this passage that Jesus reads the thoughts of those around Him. And I'm sure He could also read the thoughts of the poor paralyzed man. It may well be that the man had more faith in Jesus than anyone else could know. And while I suspect that Jesus' words confused the men on the roof, I also believe that they brought immediate and unspeakable joy to the poor paralyzed man. Deep down in his soul, the forgiveness of sins was what he knew he really needed most of all. And he had just received it from Jesus.
We all need to receive the very same thing from Jesus. We may be drawn to Jesus for a variety of different reasons. Some, like this man, suffer physically; and they want Jesus to relieve them of their suffering. Others are trapped by some horrible destructive habit; and they want Jesus to set them free from it. Still others may have a terrible hunger in their soul that demands to be satisfied - something that no earthly thing can fulfill; and they come to Jesus in the hopes that He can fill it for them. All of these are good reasons to come to Jesus. Anything that makes us come to Jesus is a wonderful gift. But always remember: The real cause of our need is - ultimately - a result of the sin of our father Adam. And always, the real need is the full forgiveness of sin that Jesus has purchased for us on the cross.
In a lot of ways, this poor man is a picture of us - stuck as we are in our sin. We're helpless. We can't move. We're completely bankrupt before God, and can do nothing to help ourselves. We are completely at the mercy of God, our Creditor. And yet, Jesus says, "Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven."
No one but Jesus - and the man on the bed himself - could have known what happened in that man's heart when he heard Jesus speak those words to him, and when the burden of his debt to God rolled away! I'm sure that had something to do with Jesus' words, "Son, be of good cheer . . ."; aren't you?
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Now; not everyone was cheerful about this. In fact, Jesus' words sent some people through the roof - in the other direction! This leads us to the next point; that . . .
2. HIS CLAIM TO AUTHORITY RAISES CONTROVERSY (vv. 3-4).
Matthew tells us, "And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, "This man blasphemes!" The Gospel of Mark explains their concern when it has them saying, "Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?"
Think about who it was that said this. These were scribes - the learned trustees of the law of God that was contained in the Old Testament scriptures. They were reasoning within themselves that, if no one but God can forgive the sins that are committed against God, and if it would be very blasphemous for a mere man (as they thought Jesus to be) to presume to do what God alone had the right to do, then what Jesus was doing was horribly blasphemous!
Their error was in their belief that Jesus was simply a mere man. A mere man WOULD be guilty of great blasphemy if he were to presume to forgive sins committed against God. But He had been proving over and over that He was not just a mere man. His works had been testifying that He had authority over the wind and the waves; and that even the evil spirits obeyed His command - crying out and calling Him "Son of God". His whole story, as we've been studying it together from Matthew, has been showing that He was not just a mere man, but is the Son of God in human flesh.
Now again, there are several things for us to notice in this. For one thing, we see that Jesus sees and knows the thought of those around Him. I believe that He knew what was in the heart of the paralyzed man. And here, we see that He even knows the thoughts of those who doubt Him. When He stirs up controversy, He knows about it. Nothing is hidden from His sight. As the apostle John said of Him, He "had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man" (John 2:25).
And another thing to notice is how Jesus characterized their thoughts. He said, "Why do you think evil in your hearts?" They thought that their thoughts of Him were reasonable. But He said that they were "evil" thoughts. They were thoughts of sinful unbelief. He had been showing them who He was, but they still wouldn't believe. This, as we noted before, was the beginning of their opposition to Him.
But there's another thing for us to notice in this; and that is the wonderful mercy of the Savior. He has already proven that He has the authority to command the winds and the waves; or to cause demonic spirits to cower before Him. But in knowing the evil thoughts of the unbelieving scribes, He didn't strike out at them in divine anger. If I may say so rather boldly, it would have been in His power to turn around and make them all into paralytics! But He didn't. Jesus isn't like that. Instead, He taught them. What a wonderful Savior!
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Now think about what we've seen so far. We've seen that He has claimed to have the authority to forgive sins; and that this claim had been challenged by those who saw Him as a mere man. This leads us to our third point; that . . .
3. HIS POWER PROVES HIS AUTHORITY TO FORGIVE (vv. 5-8).
Jesus turned to those who had evil thoughts about Him - that He was committing and act of blasphemy in presuming to forgive sins committed against God - and said, "For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Arise and walk'?" (v. 5). I believe that Jesus even paused for a moment, and let that question sink in.
And I ask you to think about it too. Which is easier? To be honest, it's a very easy thing to simply 'say' the words, "Your sins are forgiven you." Even I could say that. In fact, anyone in this room could say that. But there would be no way for others to know that we actually had the authority to forgive sins. The paralyzed man might be carried away rejoicing that I forgave his sins - but if I didn't have the authority to actually forgive his sins, he'd still be in his sins as they carried him away rejoicing; and no one would be able to tell. To say, "Your sins are forgiven you," would be a very easy thing to say - but a very hard thing for others to verify.
But if I were to tell the man to get up and walk away; now, that's not such an easy thing to say! If I had the power to heal the man, it would be immediately verifiable that I had that power. All that would need to happen to prove it would be that he got up, at my commanded, and walked home! To order him to get up, then, is not such an easy thing to say! And yet, if I could command a man to get up and walk away - which is a humanly impossible thing to do; then I would also prove that I had the authority to say, "Your sins are forgiven you" - which would be a much easier thing to say.
And so, look at what Jesus does. He speaks to the doubting scribes and says, "But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins" - then, turning to the man on the bed, He says, "Arise, take up our bed, and go to your house." And Matthew tells us that, "he arose and departed to his house."
Jesus HAS the authority to forgive sins!
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And notice the reaction of the people who saw this. Matthew tells us, "Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men." The word that Matthew uses to describe their reaction isn't one that simply describes a mild amazement at what occurred. It's one that means that they were "terrified" or "frightened". They became afraid - just as the disciples in the boat were afraid when He commanded the winds and the sea; and just as the people of the Gergesenes were afraid when He commanded the evil spirits to be cast out of the two men. The people who saw the paralyzed man get up were moved with a sense of holy fear; because they knew that they were in the presence of One who possessed divine authority, and who exercised the right to do what only God can do - to forgive sins.
And they also glorified God. But you'll notice that their reaction still came up somewhat short. They glorified God for giving such power "to men". It may be that they had a reverential fear of what they saw in Jesus; but they still seemed to think of Him as a great man among men. It may be that they only looked upon Him as a remarkable man who was, perhaps, a prophet on whom God had placed great power. They didn't yet understand, it would seem, that He forgave sins committed against God because He was - in fact - the Son of God in human flesh.
Now it's true that - in a sense - men can "forgive" sins. Just before He ascended to the Father, Jesus breathed on His disciples and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:22-23). But this is an authority that He has passed on to the church as His body on earth. It is the church's authority, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, only as that authority has been derived from Him and is exercised in His name; and only because of the sufficiency of His sacrifice on the cross. The church doesn't so much "forgive" sins as "officially recognize and testify that sins as forgiven" when Christ is trusted and obeyed; and when sins are truly repented of.
I stress this so that we do not fall as short in our praise toward God, as the people did when they saw this miracle. Instead, may we recognize Jesus for who He is; and recognize that the authority to forgive sins was given to men in the Person of one Man - Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God.
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Now, how do we apply all this? Let me offer a suggestion.
I have talked with people - perhaps you have too - that knew they had sinned and were aware of the greatness of the 'sin-debt' they owe to God. They knew that there wasn't anything they could do to pay back that debt. But what was so sad was that, when they were told about the forgiveness available to them through Jesus Christ, they still wouldn't place their trust in Him. Often, they'd say, "You just don't understand. What I have done is just too sinful. God could never forgive me. I'm just too bad." Perhaps there is someone here this morning who thinks that way.
If you are thinking that way - and even if you think that way as a professing Christian - it's because you are still thinking that the only way you can get rid of your debt of sin is by paying it off yourself. And the fact is that you can't. You are bankrupt - as bankrupt and as incapable as that poor paralyzed man on the bed.
But the good news - the news that is taught us clearly in this morning's passage - is that you don't have to pay that debt back yourself. You have a Friend who is authorized to forgive your debt. And what's more, He is willing to forgive it. Jesus paid the whole debt of your sin by dying on the cross in your place; and God the Father has fully accepted the payment of Jesus His Son for all of your sins. All that you need to do is come to Him in faith, just like a spiritual "paralytic" - unable to help yourself - and place your trust in what Jesus did for you. You must stop believing that you must "do"; and trust confidently instead that it has already been "done".
Jesus alone has the divine authority to forgive sins committed against God. And if you come to Him on those terms today, it's as if He says to you, "Be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you."
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