A Controversy of Authority: Who Forgives but God Alone?
Sermon Passage: Mark 2:1–17 | Preached to Sovereign Grace | 04/18/2021
By Peder Kling
Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?
Over the last few weeks, I have been pressing the driving question that Mark’s gospel requires us to ask. That question, again, is “who is Jesus of Nazareth?”. It’s the most important question we can ever ask—and, we never can exhaust the significance and depth of this question, assuming that the Bible’s claims about him are true. Perhaps you have heard the three-fold answer to this question—he’s either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. He lied to get power—smart people do that! Or, he was out of his mind (a lunatic). If these are the correct answers, then Jesus is really not worth our time at all.
But the Bible claims he is Lord—and therefore, as Lord, he has all authority in heaven and on earth. If that’s true, then he demands all our attention.
When you open Mark’s gospel, it gets very clear that this is the pressing issue which Jesus was forcing upon Israel. He opens his mouth, and he proclaims a message the demands a response. Chapter 1 verse 15 gives us a summary of his message—“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The kingdom is here, with the king. Either repent and believe his words for your salvation, or ignore him and receive his wrath. Verse 22 then tells us that the people “were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes”. He wasn’t offering various academic interpretations of the Scriptures like the Scribes. He offered a definitive interpretation that demanded an urgent response. And of course, his authority was not just coming from his words, but also his hands. Every time he healed a person or cast out a demon, he demonstrated authority over the curse, and over Satan.
Now, we may think we have graduated from this question in Christianity. As I consider our church family, I hope and trust we have all accepted his authority. Why does this still matter, that we should consider it in Mark’s gospel? Quite simply, we can’t let this grow old, tired, or irrelevant in our lives. Jesus’s sovereign authority should always astonish us, and be a comfort to us. And, Mark’s gospel really helps us to keep our affections and amazement toward Jesus fresh.
Like Aslan, Jesus is on the Move
How does Mark's gospel do this for us? There’s one part of Mark’s gospel that I yet have to point out to you all, as we continue our study through it. Think about how Mark’s gospel describes Jesus’s arrival in Israel, in comparison to the other gospels. When you read the gospels of Matthew and Luke, they take their time with more elaborate explanations and arguments about Jesus. Each gospel begins with long stories about the conception and birth of Jesus and John the Baptist. You might also think of the wise men, the angels, and the extended genealogies in Matthew and Luke. Those gospels are more detailed. Then, there’s Mark’s gospel, and BOOM! Jesus arrives with authoritative teaching and miracles. The word “immediately” is all over the narrative, coupled with the words like “they were all astonished” and “they were amazed”. Mark tells us that when Jesus calls his disciples, they follow him “immediately”. He immediately begins to teach with authority. He’s casting out demons, healing lepers, cleansing people social and religious impurities—all as he establishes his kingdom of righteousness and peace with unchallenged power.
Imagine how this must have hit Israel. Israel was a wasteland of the curse when Jesus arrived. The word of God had not been spoken to the people in 400 years. When God’s word is scarce like that, the curse creeps in like a plague. Perhaps you have experienced that yourself after a season of not reading the word, praying, or going to church. Temptation and sin creeps in as God’s word is not heard and loved. The nation of Israel which Jesus came to was a screaming example of that situation. While there are almost no examples of demon possessions in the Old Testament, we saw last week that a unclean spirit met Jesus in the synagogue, where the Jews worshipped. Sickness, disease, death, and demonic oppression were normal. Then, the word of God came with power and authority. The light had come to darkness.
It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. I imagine you are all at least somewhat familiar with the stories. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we first encounter a land of Narnia that was overtaken by a curse. A land that once was fruitful and beautiful turned into a winter wasteland. Do you remember the little catch-phrase which captured the situation at Narnia? “It’s always winter, but never Christmas”. The evil white witch, with her curse, had a tight grip on the land. Life was cold and dead—and, no Christmas. No joy. Then, in a strange turn of events, Christmas arrives in an unexpected person. Father Christmas comes bearing gifts—and not just gifts, but a message. “Aslan is on the move”. You know—Aslan, the king of Narnia who brings life and blessing to Narnia? He is “on the move”. He would overcome the witch’s curse with an authority and power that shocked everyone, and brought joy and peace to the land.
So it is with Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Jesus (like Aslan) is on the move. And as we read about the arrival of our Lord in Mark’s gospel, we are to be just as mystified, or shocked, or excited as we are when C.S. Lewis pulls us into the story of Aslan’s arrival in Narnia. Only, Jesus is the real deal. He really did come to reverse the curse, and to bring “joy to the world” as we often sing at Christmas time. And, he really is continuing his work today as the resurrected, reigning king from heaven. Through his word and Spirit, he is still changing lives and overturning the curse. He’s making preachers and good fathers out of drug addicts. He’s healing people, casting out demons, changing hard and prideful hearts into humble hearts that can find joy and contentment even in the hardest trials. [Note: Peder first heard of this connection between Aslan and Jesus in Mark's gospel from his professor, Dr. Andy Naselli.]
"A Rebel, a Renegade Outlaw, a Sanctified Trouble-Maker"
Now, that’s essentially what we see in the first chapter of Mark, leading into today’s passage. That’s the momentum. But as you continue to read Mark’s gospel, into our stories for today, you’re going to see a shift in Jesus’s approach. He’s going to begin doing and saying things that are going to get him into trouble. Believe it or not, Jesus was a trouble maker. One Christian rapper said “Jesus was a rebel, a renegade outlaw, a sanctified trouble-maker”.
If you read the entirety of chapter 2 and into chapter 3 verse 6, you will read about five controversies surrounding Jesus’s preaching and ministry. In our passage today, you see that Jesus forgives a man’s sin, and then he hangs out with sinners—both are controversial. Next week, we will see Jesus raise a controversy about fasting. Then at the end of chapter 2, going into chapter 3, we will find two controversies surrounding the sabbath. Forgiveness of sins, fasting, the sabbath—why is he raising controversies about these things? Well, the answer is really quite simple. He came with a message that all these things are ultimately about him. They under his authority—not the Pharisees’.
The Story, the Controversy, and the Recipients of Jesus’s Forgiveness
Today, we are going to see that forgiveness is all about Jesus, because Jesus came with authority to forgive sins. You might say he is on the move to make sinners right with God. In verses 1–5 of our passage, we first see the story of Jesus’s forgiveness. Then, we will consider the controversy of Jesus’s forgiveness in verses 6–12. Then finally, we will learn about the people who are qualified recipients of Jesus’s forgiveness.
1. The Story of Jesus’s Forgiveness (vv 1–5)
2. The Controversy of Jesus’s Forgiveness (vv 6–12)
3. The Recipients of Jesus’s Forgiveness (vv 13–17)
1. The Story of Jesus’s Forgiveness
The story of Jesus’s forgiveness in our a passage is really quite simple, although I think there’s a lot in it for us to learn from. The story is found in the first five verses of our passage, but I want to first give you an understand of where Jesus has been, geographically up to this point. In chapter 1, Jesus began his ministry in Capernaum where he exorcised his first demon and healed a number of people. Then in verse 38, Jesus says “Let us go to the next towns that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out”. So, he goes “throughout all [the region of] Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons”. Then our passage opens up by saying that “when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.” So, that might be why he began his ministry in Capernaum—it’s his home. It was the base-camp for his ministry.
So in other words, he began his ministry from his home in Capernaum where he exorcised demons, and healed a lot of people. He left to other towns, and then he returned back home again where our passage begins. And, verse 2 tells us that people again gathered to his home, “so that there was no more room, not even at the door.”. Now, if we don’t read carefully, we might think that people were pressing upon Jesus to get miracles of healing out of him, like they did in chapter 1. Verse 33 of chapter 1 tells us that “the whole city was gathered together at the door, and he healed many who were sick”. So there, we’re talking about “the whole city” gathering. A really, really big crowd. And they gathered because of Jesus’s miracles. He was healing people that night. I don’t think he was spending a lot of time preaching that night—he had already spent that day preaching in the synagogue.
Our story today gives a different picture of what was going on at his home. Verse 2 tells us that the crowd gathered this time not principally to be touched by Jesus for healing, but to hear Jesus. Perhaps the excitement wore off, or perhaps everyone was already healed from the night before. Either way, verse 2 tells us that they gathered in his home, “and he was preaching the word to them”. It’s really a sight to see, isn’t it? Today, preachers knock on other people’s doors to tell them about Jesus, only to have the door shut on their face. But in this case, people were going to the preacher’s door—and they did it with such a large multitude that the door itself was crowded as Jesus preached from inside his living room. It was, quite literally, a “packed house”. And, what word was Jesus preaching? Again, chapter 1 verses 14–15, “the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel”. He was declaring the kingdom of the Messiah—his righteousness, joy, and peace. His power over the curse, and his wrath against all his enemies.
It was at this moment as Jesus was preaching that he would have looked up to see his thatched roof opened up, and a paralytic man lowered down to him for healing.
Now, why did this man do this—to literally tear up the Messiah’s roof? Couldn’t he have simply waited until the crowd left his home? There are two reasons why someone would do something like this. Either (1) they are entirely self-absorbed and they think everything is about themselves. (So, why not tear up a man’s roof so I can be healed?) Or, (2) this man was so moved by the Messiah’s preaching that, by faith, he acted in the moment and asked his four buddies to get him to Jesus. He may have said to his friends, “This man is the Messiah, he has come with kingdom, and I want the king and the blessings of his kingdom”. I think that’s what happened, here. That’s what the passage seems to convey. Verse five says, “when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’”. In other words, faith moved this man to tear up the messiah’s roof. And that makes sense, right? Jesus was preaching—and preaching is how faith is made. Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
It’s important to see that this is the first time faith is mentioned in Marks’ gospel—especially as it is associated with receiving Jesus’s blessings. You don’t see “faith” being the reason for Jesus’s earlier miracles and exorcisms. It seems that when the “whole city” gathered together at Jesus’s door in Capernaum in chapter one, they did it because they were excited to be healed. They were excited about Jesus’s power, not what he was saying about himself. And later, when the leper implored him in chapter 1 verse 40, “if you will, you can make me clean”, we are told that Jesus healed the man because was “moved with pity”. Jesus was not moved by the man’s faith. He does not say “your faith has made you well”. In fact, this leper blatantly disobeyed Jesus after he was cleansed. Jesus told him to keep the cleansing secret, and to go to the priests as a proof to them. Instead, the man did the exact opposite.
But wasn’t there faith in these people? They had to believe something about Jesus, to make them flock to him for healing. And here, we find the difference between a false faith, and a true faith—a worldly faith which only cares about worldly blessings like healing; and a spiritual faith that cares about spiritual blessings like forgiveness and fellowship with God. The leper did not remain in fellowship with Jesus—he betrayed Jesus the very second he could. Why on earth would he do that so someone so powerful, and who was so kind to him? Because didn’t care about Jesus. He cared about himself. He wanted Jesus’s power for his own worldly gain rather than for eternal gain. Sadly, American Christianity is plagued with this self-help, selfish faith. We should keep a hawk’s eye against it.
True Faith Versus False Faith
One way to keep this hawkeye open is to let the Bible define faith and repentance for us.
In several places, the Bible reminds us that there is a real difference between a worldly faith and repentance, and a godly faith and repentance. Almost a year ago, I preached on King Ahab from 1 Kings 21. This story has always seared itself in my mind as a perfect example of this. King Ahab, focused on himself, has his wife kill his neighbor so that he could steal his neighbor’s vineyard. Now, that alone is a nasty muddle of sin. But at the end of the story, the prophet Elijah shows up and pronounces an awful judgment upon Ahab for his wickedness. He says the Lord will “utterly burn you up”, among many other awful judgments. Ahab responds in a way that we might think is genuine faith and repentance. We are told in 1 Kings 21 verses 27–29,
27 And when Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went about dejectedly. 28 And the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, 29 “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster upon his house.”
So, we might be moved to read this and think that Ahab lived the rest of his days in good fellowship with God, seeking his life and blessings because he learned his lesson. But did you hear the description of his repentance? He felt bad. That about sums it up. But let me ask you this—did Ahab confess his sins to God? Did he seek God’s fellowship and forgiveness? Did he confess that he had led Israel into idolatry, killed God’s prophets, killed a man to steal his vineyard? Not at all. Feeling bad and dejected is not faith and repentance. Ahab was sad and scared because his life, and his precious worldly wealth and blessings were threatened. He didn’t want God. He repented with a worldly repentance, because his faith and desires were placed in worldly things. When God threatened to destroy those worldly things that he loved, he went around dejectedly like a boy who got his toys taken from him.
Now, this didn’t hurt his cause. He did acknowledge in that moment that Yahweh—not Baal—was all powerful. He knew where the judgment was coming from. So God honored his humility and lightened the curse so that he wouldn’t die, but that his wife and descendants would. And in so doing, Ahab would be forced to acknowledge for the rest of his life that he is alive only because Yahweh spared his life—not Baal. Throughout Scripture, it appears that God blesses a worldly-minded faith and repentance like Ahab’s with worldly blessings. But, that will not get you fellowship with God. It will not get you his peace, his joy, and hope.
So that was Ahab. Think of another king of Israel. What did David do when David killed a man to steal from him (not just his vineyard, but his wife)? Nathan confronted David, the first thing out David’s mouth, “I have sinned against the LORD”. Then he wrote one of the most moving Psalms in our Psalter (Psalm 51) — "against you, and you only, have I sinned… Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”. That’s true faith and repentance which seeks fellowship with God, who gives life and healing to the soul.
This paralytic man in our story, who tore up Jesus’s roof, likely heard Jesus’s message about the king and his kingdom—a message of faith and repentance—and this paralytic wanted to get to the king. He and his friends were moved by the king’s words, they loved and wanted the king with all his blessings. When Jesus looked at this man, he was not moved by pity. He saw this man and was moved by the man’s faith—a faith which received Jesus’s word and was moved to pursue Jesus as king. So, this paralytic received something far greater than healing to his body. Verse 5—“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’”. Forgiveness.
What do you want more than anything else? An easier life with your health problems solved? Do you want a better home? Perhaps you want your family restored. There are all sorts of good things to pursue in this world—these are not bad things. Jesus was giving exactly these things to people in all his miracles up to this point. Healed bodies means less misery, an easier and more pleasant life. And, when Jesus cleansed the leper and the demon possessed man, he gave those men their lives back. To be unclean meant no family, no relationships. Jesus restored these blessings to these people. He pities us when we are plagued by misery. But, the greatest blessing Jesus can offer is forgiveness of sins—to be made right with the author and giver of life. With forgiveness and fellowship with God, you have a peace of mind, a quieted conscience, contentment because the God promises to care for you. Without forgiveness—you have nothing but God’s wrath and displeasure upon you, with no real way to quiet your conscience and give you peace.
That’s the story of Jesus’s forgiveness in this passage. It reminds us that we would do well to hear Jesus’s invitation to him and his blessings as the king of kings, and to pursue him with a true faith and repentance which renounces this world for his fellowship and blessings.
Now, it was no light thing for Jesus to declare this man’s sins forgiven. Consider the controversy of Jesus’s forgiveness.
2. The Controversy of Jesus’s Forgiveness
In verses 6–7, we are told that some scribes were at this event, and their heresy buttons were pushed as soon as Jesus said “your sins are forgiven”. We are told that they questioned in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”.
Of course, these scribes had the right impulse. The authority and right to forgive sins belongs to God alone because sin is ultimately an offense against God. So, only God can forgive sins. If Jesus were a mere man, he would be blaspheming.
But Jesus wasn’t a mere man, and he was on a mission to prove it. He looks at these skeptical scribes and says in verse 9, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘your sins are forgiven’, or to say ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk?’”.
Now obviously, Jesus wasn’t asking a question about dictation—“which one do you think a toddler could say more clearly?”. Jesus’s point was to say, “which one is easier to say without making a fool of yourself?”. Perhaps you have heard of some Christians completely humiliating themselves after calling a dead person to rise from the dead, and nothing happens. Or, they say the world is going to end on a specific day, and nothing happens. Those are hard things to say because it’s very obvious to everyone when you’re wrong. But to say “your sins are forgiven”? That’s easier to say—you can’t really prove it as easily, can you? You might even get people to believe you. So the logic goes—if Jesus can use his words to heal a man in a way that only God can, then it must be true that he can also use his words to forgive as only God can forgive. That’s exactly what Jesus did.
And to bring this full circle—guess what happened? Verse 12, “immediately he rose and picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God”. Again Jesus confronts a very dark Israel with a loud bang. He’s on the move with his kingdom—and this time, he’s even restoring souls to God by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins.
Now, think for a moment what this all actually means. Think of the sort of things that may have been running through these Scribes’ minds as they knew their Old Testaments well.
No doubt, they understood that Jesus was claiming to be God, or at least God’s spokesman. But the controversy of Jesus’s forgiveness in this passage goes beyond this. Think like a scribe, here. In the Old Testament law, God designed that his forgiveness would ordinarily be declared by a priest, at the temple in Jerusalem, after a sacrifice for sin was made. Jesus was not a priest according to Mosaic law. He was not the temple, that people should go to him for forgiveness. And he was declaring forgiveness without any sacrifice to substantiate that forgiveness—no atonement had been made. Jesus either didn’t care about these things, or he was claiming to be superior to them in every respect: superior to the Old Testament priesthood, superior to the temple, and superior to the sacrificial system. Of course, the book of Hebrews gives us an answer to exactly those questions. Jesus, as the high priest and the temple of God’s presence, and as the ultimate sacrifice, has every right to declare those who receive him by faith, “forgiven”.
Now, who does Jesus hang out with, and bless? We’ve seen the story of Jesus’s forgiveness, and how it might draw us to consider what true faith and repentance looks like as a response to the word of the gospel. We’ve also settled the controversy of Jesus’s forgiveness—he is God, the temple of blessing, the sacrifice for sins. So, who does he forgive?
3. The Recipients of Jesus’s Forgiveness: "The Sick and The Sinners"
It is at this point in Mark’s gospel that Mark decides to tell us about Jesus calling Levi, a tax collector. Alongside this call, verse 15 tells us that he “reclined at table in his house” with a myriad of tax collectors and sinners. So, Jesus was bringing these sinners into his home, being hospitable to them, and feasting with them. Some have suggested that the concept of reclining at the table in that culture meant we are talking about a feast, not just a menial meal of bread and wafers. That’s who Jesus decides to feast with, and to love.
So, here’s yet another controversy. Verse 16 tells us that people began to ask, “why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” In other words, nobody is too far gone for Jesus’s love and forgiveness.
Let me give you a picture of why tax collectors were so hated in Israel. At the time, Israel was oppressed and taxed heavily by Rome. One way Rome would tax Jews is by requiring Jews to go through a tax collector if they wanted to build something—my guess is any kind of infrastructure. The tax collector would place a bid on the job, and he would win the job if his bid brought the most money—or taxes—to the government. The taxes would go to the government, and the rest of the money would go to the tax collector. So, tax collectors earned their wages by commission. Of course, this meant that tax collectors would be traitors to Israel. You would be helping Rome, and hurting your Jewish brothers and sisters. R. C. Sproul tells us,
Jews who became tax collectors were regarded as traitors. They had to give up their Jewish identity, their social status, and their membership in the synagogue, and they were seen as disgraced in the eyes of their families. Furthermore, anyone who dealt with a tax collector as a friend was considered unclean.
It really was a nasty thing. To do this meant you cared nothing at all for God, your family, or for your nation. You only cared about money.
That’s who Jesus was hanging out with—people who not only were sick, but altogether lost in the deepest parts of their soul. People who were willing to trade God, their nation, and their families for money. You know—those drug addicts today who turn their backs on anything good in their life. But what happened when Jesus called Levi? Two things happened. Verse 14—“he rose, and he followed him”. When Jesus speaks, there’s hope. There’s forgiveness. There’s irresistible authority and power. Lives are dramatically changed. In case you missed it—Levi’s other name is Matthew. You know, the Matthew who wrote the gospel of Matthew? Imagine what Jesus can do with a stubborn and rebellious heart.
Now, the obvious application of this is to acknowledge that Jesus can (and does) change his most radical enemies into his most radical followers. We love those stories, don’t we? But we don’t want to fall into the trap and think that we people with less radical conversion stories, or more ordinary lifestyles, are lesser Christians. Jesus doesn’t call everyone to extraordinary things. We can’t all write a gospel like Matthew did, and we certainly cannot all “raise the roof” with our faith like the paralytic did (pun intended). We won’t all have dramatic testimonies. There is a very ordinary rhythm and routine to a faith that trusts in Jesus. It is a routine of regular repentance, and turning to Jesus for life and strength, contentment in the ordinary, and joy in the gospel of forgiveness. Jesus came to call the sick and sinners, to heal them. Are you sick, in need of a physician? Are you a sinner, in need of forgiveness? If you say “yes” to that question today, and every day until your last, then you’re doing something extraordinary even if it seems ordinary and painful. Humility before God not easy—and, it is something our world hates. Contentment and joy in God is something our world does not understand. But it is the life of faith—repenting and dying to yourself every day so that you can live to Christ, in his righteousness, joy and peace. The good news, however, is that Jesus is able to call you and keep you in it until the end because he is a great physician and a great savior of sinners.
First Peter 5:10 reminds us,
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
So, we’ve seen the story of Jesus’s forgiveness—his forgiveness requires genuine faith, a desire for him. We’ve see the controversy of his forgiveness, even as it is resolved by acknowledging who he is. We’ve seen the recipients of his forgiveness—the sick, hard-hearted sinners like you and me whom he effectually calls to himself.
In all this, we learn that like Aslan, Jesus is on the move to establish his kingdom. But his kingdom is not ultimately characterized by the absence of our miseries (e.g., no sickness, diseases, death, demonic oppression). It's charactered by his authority and power to heal hearts—to forgive sins and call the hardest and most lost people among us. There is hope for you and me, the chief of sinners. So flee to him, confessing your sins and rejoicing in his forgiveness, be cause he has all authority to forgive you, and to give you his kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy.