Can Jesus Really Forgive Sins?

Introduction: 

Mark chapter 2 begins a new phase in Jesus’ ministry.  Up to this point Jesus has yet to encounter any opposition from the Jews.  But that will all change in chapter 2. One author described it this way:  “Chapter 1 is the chapter of glory; chapter 2, of opposition.”[1]  This new focus on the opposition to Christ begins in 2:1-12 and runs all the way through chapter 3.  In these conflict stories Jesus is the positive example and his opponents are the negative example.  This means that we must positively respond to what we learn about Jesus, and we must negatively respond to how his opponents react to Him.

In Mark 2:1-12 the conflict that arises centers on the subject of forgiveness. FORGIVENESS is an important subject.  Scripture makes it clear that all men have a responsibility to forgive those who have wronged them.  However, because all sin is ultimately committed against God (Psalm 51:4), only God has the authority to forgive sins in an absolute sense.  God is the only one who has the authority to dismiss one’s sins, and free him from the guilt of sin.  The Jews in Jesus’ day would have been very familiar with this concept.  The Old Testament is filled with references that make it clear that forgiveness belongs to the Lord: Isaiah 43:25; Exodus 36:6ff; Psalm 103:3; Daniel 9:9.

It is with this background in mind that we come to Mark 2:1-12.  Here in this passage Jesus declares that He has the authority to forgive sins.  This would have been a shocking claim to the Jews who were present at the time – particularly the religious leaders.  They knew that the Old Testament taught that only God has the authority to forgive sins in this way, and here Jesus is claiming to have this same authority.  As we will see, this claim was not well received by the religious leaders.  However, Jesus not only claims to have the same authority as God he also publicly proved that authority.

So as we look at this passage main point that we must come away with is that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins.  The only question is how will we respond to that authority?

I. Jesus Asserts His Authority to Forgive Sins (vv. 1-5)

a. Jesus draws attention (vv. 1-2)

The first thing that we see in this passage is that Jesus claims to have the authority to forgive sins.  But before we get to that claim we need to understand

the circumstances surrounding this claim.  In verse 1 and 2 Mark writes, “And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.  And many were gathered together, so that there was no room, not even at the door.  And he was preaching the word to them.”

In the last chapter we read of Jesus first coming into Capernaum (1:21), and using the home of Peter and Andrew as a home base (1:29).  However, because the hysteria over Jesus’ ministry had risen to a fevered pitch, Jesus was forced to leave Capernaum (1:45).  Now, here in verse 1, we learn that after some time this hysteria had died down, and Jesus was able to return to His home base in Capernaum (presumably to the home of Peter and Andrew).

This peace and quiet did not last long.  It did not take long for the word to spread concerning Jesus’ arrival.  Once that happened there was sure to be a crowd around Jesus.  Mark tells us that there were so many curious onlookers coming to see Jesus that there wasn’t even any more room to get into the door.  The crowd was massive; the entire town had assembled to see what Jesus was going to do next.  But it was not just the town of Capernaum that had come to see Jesus.  Luke 5:17 tells us that “Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem.”  This was an interesting crowd that had assembled, and we will learn more about them in a few verses.

Once Jesus had drawn a crowd to Himself Mark tells us literally that Jesus “spoke to them the word” (ἐλάλει αὐτοῖς τὸν λόγον).  Mark’s use of word (λόγον) here is no doubt the same as Jesus’ use of word (λόγον) in 4:1-20.  Jesus took this opportunity to fulfill His purpose (1:38), and preach the Gospel to these people (1:14-15).

b. Jesus becomes the object of faith (vv. 3-4)

From among those in this massive crowd Mark singles out a group of five individuals in v. 3, “And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.”  These men had to get to Jesus. They had seen His power and authority the last time that Jesus had ministered in Capernaum and they knew that He would be able to help them.  They had been waiting for Him to return, and finally He had arrived.  When word got to them that Jesus was “at home” they dropped everything that they were doing and headed out immediately.  Apparently, word did not get to them as quickly as it did to most people though.  Mark tells us that by the time they arrived “they could not get near him because of the crowd.”  You can almost feel their disappointment and

frustration as they realized that the line to see Jesus was longer than the line for Space Mountain—and there was no fast pass.  However, these men did not give up.  They knew that Jesus could help their friend, and this faith led to ingenuity.  Mark tells us that “they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay.”

This sounds pretty ridiculous to us because of the way that our homes are built, but it is not all that ridiculous when you understand how homes were built during this time.

Most homes in first century Palestine were single story homes with flat roofs that were accessible by a staircase on the outside of the home.

The flat roof for an ordinary house would be constructed by laying beams about three feet apart from wall to wall.  Short sticks were laid closely together across the beams covered with a thick matting of thorn bushes.  At other times, as seems the case here, stone slabs or plates of burnt clay were laid across the beams.  A coat of clay was spread on top of this and rolled hard to keep out the rain.  They would be readily able to dig out a hole large enough for the purpose without damaging the rest of the roof.  Having cleared away the clay, they lifted the tiles to make the opening.[2]  

Now that they had an opening, they had to get their friend down to Jesus.  For this they used their friend’s bed, which would have been like a thick quilt, to lower him down.  Mark does not tell us exactly how they did this, but it doesn’t seem all that hard to figure it out.  They were on the roof of a fisherman’s house so their must have been fishing tackle lying around, including lots of rope.  There were four of them, so apparently each one of them tied a length of rope to the corner of their friend’s bed and slowly lowered him down into the house.  Mark does not tell us what the people did while all of this was going on, but you can imagine what an amazing scene this would have been.

I do not want to push this point too far and miss the major point of this passage, but there is something instructive for us about the faith of these men.  They had faith that Jesus was capable of helping their friend and they did whatever it took for their friend to receive that help.  This conviction revealed that these five men had true faith and they were not just caught up in the hype over Jesus (1:40-45). Jesus himself recognized the faith of these five men.

c. Jesus exercises His authority to forgive (v. 5)

Mark tells us that “when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”  Can you imagine this scene?  The paralytic is lowered down into this room full of pulled.  A hush comes over this crowd as Jesus stands before the man.  Then, when everyone expects Jesus to physically heal this man, Jesus declares that his sins are forgiven.  This was an amazing declaration for several reasons.  First, it reveals that this man’s spiritual need was more important to Jesus than his physical needs.  As much as this paralytic need to be healed from the physical malady causing his paralysis, he needed forgiveness even more.  In fact, forgiveness is the greatest need for all mankind not just this man.

Second, this declaration was amazing because in it Jesus is asserting Divine authority to forgive sins.  He is not simply stating the fact that this man’s sins were forgiven; Jesus is actually forgiving this man’s sins.  As we will see in the following verses, this is exactly how the scribes in the crowd understood Jesus’ statement, and Jesus did not correct them.  In other words, Jesus was not only declaring this man’s sins to be forgiven, he was also declaring himself to be God.

Remember, only God has the authority to forgive sins.  It is against God that we have sinned, and for that sin we must be judged.  We must face the consequences for our rebellion against God.  But here Jesus is providing this man with forgiveness.  He is releasing him from the eternal consequences of his sin and granting him a pardon.  This would have been outrageous to the scribes in the crowd, especially since Jesus granted this man forgiveness based on faith rather than works.  The scribes were more than just a little skeptical of Jesus’ assertion that He has the divine authority to forgive sins.

II. Jesus Authenticates His Authority to Forgive Sins (vv. 6-12)

a. Jesus’ authority is questioned (vv. 6-7)

Upon hearing Jesus declaration to this paralytic the scribes immediately questioned Jesus.  Mark tells us that “the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this man speak like this?  He is blaspheming!  Who can forgive sins but God alone?’”  The first thing that stands out in this verse about the scribes is that they were sitting!  In a room so full of people that there was no more standing room, these men were sitting down.  They had taken the places of honor.  They were scribes of the law and religious authorities.  They felt as if they deserved those seats above anyone else.  Jesus would later warn of men like this in Mark 12:38-40 saying:

Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.

These men viewed themselves as the religious authority for the Jews (even above Scripture; cf. 7:1-13), and as such they were there to keep an eye on Jesus.  There were concerned about His growing popularity, and they were

looking to find some fault with Him.  Therefore, when Jesus declared to have the divine authority to forgive sins their hearts probably began to race.  At a time when they should have been rejoicing over a sinner whose sins have been forgiven they immediately began to question Jesus’ statement in their hearts.  They understood the implications of what Jesus had just said.  He not only declared the paralytics sins to be forgiven, but He also declared that He had the same authority as God to forgive those sins.  This was a major problem in their minds.  Only God could forgive sins, and for anyone other than God to claim that authority it would be blasphemy.

At this point the scribes were probably starting to get excited.  They had come to find fault with Jesus, and in their minds they probably thought that they had found it.  Blasphemy was a capital offense that was punishable by death (Lv 24:10-16).  In fact, this is the very charge that Jesus would ultimately be condemned of and put to death for (14:64).  I can almost imagine the grins on the faces of these individuals as they thought that they had Jesus trapped.  They did say a word to one another, and maybe no one else even noticed.  But none of this escaped Jesus.

b. Jesus’ authority is authenticated (vv. 8-12a)

Jesus knew exactly what was going on, and my guess is that things were going exactly the way that he had planned it.  Mark tells us that “immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, ‘Why do you question these things in your hearts?’”  Can you imagine the tension in the room?  Jesus knew what these men were thinking, and He looked them right in the eye and answered their questioning with a question of His own: “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed, and walk?’”  The answer to that question is that neither one is easier than the other.  In fact, only God has the ability to do either one.  But, one is easier to validate than the other.  R. T. France put it this way,

A visible healing is ‘hard evidence’, whereas a merely verbal claim to forgive sins invites scepticism. To tell a paralysed man to get up and walk exposes the speaker to ridicule if it is not successful; but how can a claim to have forgiven sins be falsified?[3]

The point is that only God is able to either one of these things, and so if Jesus were able to do one it would prove that He was able to do the other.

Apparently the scribes had no answer for Jesus, and rather than wait for an answer Jesus looked back at the paralytic and said to him, “’Rise, pick up your bed, and go home.’  And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all….”  Talk about proving your point!  Jesus proved the possessed divine power, and the divine authority to forgive sins.  The scribes could have questioned His ability to forgive this man’s sins, but they could not deny his physical healing.

This is an incredible account, and in v. 10 we learn why all of this happened.  Jesus tells us that this happened “that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”  So as we look at this account is reveals to us just who Jesus really is.

  • He is the Son of Man:  This is a Messianic title that goes back to Dan 7:13-14.  In this passage God will send forth the Messiah onto the earth “like a son of man,” and give to Him dominion over the kingdom.  Now we find out that this “son of Man” is Jesus.  This was Jesus favorite self-designation because it reflected His nature and purpose on the earth, and it did not conjure up misconceptions about His ministry like the title Messiah would have.
  • He has God’s authority on Earth:  Jesus has God’s authority because He is God himself.  John 1:14 makes it clear that Jesus is a part of the eternal Godhead who took upon himself the form of a man in order to bring forgiveness.
  • He has the authority to forgive sins:  This is really the main truth of this passage, and it is a truth that has eternal significance.  What we see in this account is that as God Jesus has the authority to forgive sinners of their sin.  In fact, this is the very reason that Jesus came into this world (10:45).

c. The reaction to Jesus’ authority (v. 12b)

At the end of v. 12 Mark tells us exactly how the rest of the crowd responded to all of this: “They were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”  So the people were really impressed with Jesus, and what they saw from Him that day.  Unfortunately they didn’t really get it.  The crowd did not understand who Jesus truly was.  In Matthew’s account of this same day we learn that the people say Jesus as just a man who had received power from God rather than as God Himself (9:8).  We must not make the same mistake that this crowd of people made.  They were impressed with what they saw, but they did not truly understand who Jesus is.

Conclusion:

In this passage it is clear that Jesus is the Savior—God Himself— and He alone has the divine authority to forgive sins.  The people responded to this authority in three different ways.  The paralytic and his friends had faith and pursued Jesus.  The Scribes and religious authorities hated Jesus and looked to find some fault with Him.  Finally, the crowd was impressed with what they saw, but they missed the full implications of Jesus’ actions.

If we are going to receive forgiveness like the paralytic then we must respond with the same kind of faith that he and his friends had.  We must see Jesus for who He truly is.


[1]William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1975), 85.

[2] Hiebert, The Gospel According to Mark (Greenville, SC: BJ Press), 65.

[3]R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark : A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 127.

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