Authority to Forgive Sins
Saint Matthew 9:1–8
In this morning’s reading from the Old Testament, we heard of a dream that the Lord God gave to Abraham’s grandson Jacob, while he was stopped for the night on his way to his ancestral home of Haran, where he had been sent to look for a wife. In this dream there was a very, very tall ladder that stretched from the earth all the way up to heaven. And making their way up and down on this ladder were the angels of God. Standing above the ladder and above all the angels was the Lord God Himself, who spoke to Jacob a word of promise—the same promise that He had made to Abraham—the promise that of him a great nation would arise; his offspring would be like “the dust of the earth,” filling the world to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth.” In the more immediate context of the salvation history of the world, God was speaking about the children of Israel, His holy people consecrated and set apart from the sinful, unbelieving world, whom He would come to rescue from their captivity in Egypt and establish in a promised land flowing with milk and honey. In the larger context, this promise is for all believers like you and me—the Israel that has its foundation upon our Lord Jesus and in whom we are making our way by faith to the Promised Land eternal.
When Jacob awoke from his dream, he named the place Bethel, meaning “the house of God,” and he declared that place to be the gate of heaven. Visualizing this “gate of heaven,” one might very well recall jokes you’ve heard about Saint Peter at the pearly gate—none of which I will attempt to tell at this time. I will, however, remind you of what our Lord Jesus has to say—not about the gate of heaven, per se, but about that ladder from Jacob’s dream, which is, in essence, the entrance or gate to heaven. In the first chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus says to Nathanael, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” In other words, He—our Lord Jesus—is the ladder of Jacob’s dream; He is heaven’s gate; He is the door to salvation, the only way to heaven and everlasting life. As Jesus says to the disciple Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
But now, what does all this have to do with today’s Gospel Reading, the account of Jesus first forgiving the sins of a paralytic and then miraculously healing him? Well, dear friends, it has to do with the issue of authority, specifically, the authority that God our heavenly Father has given to His Son Jesus, the authority to forgive sins. And as you know, it is through the forgiveness of sins that you have from your Saviour, that heaven’s gate is open to you and to all who believe.
The events before us this morning take place in our Lord’s own city, the city of Capernaum. Jesus had chosen this place along the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee as the home base for the first portion of His earthly ministry. It was a fairly routine thing for Jesus to return to Capernaum after being away to find that people with all manner of physical afflictions had been brought to Him for healing. The rather unusual thing about this particular instance with the paralytic is that the healing that Jesus offers to the man is spiritual in nature. He tells the paralyzed man, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”
Jesus, of course, is not blind to the man’s paralysis, but as the Great Physician that He is, He deals first with what is of a greater and more urgent need. Certainly, spiritual healing is a top priority for Jesus. After all, it’s the reason why He came to earth and was born of Mary, becoming true Man with us—so that He can save us from our sins. We sinful human beings, however, are apt to lose sight of this; the things of this world have a way of getting in the way of what is most important. Perhaps this is what is happening with the people in Capernaum. Perhaps they have come to look upon Jesus as only a miraculous healer of bodies stricken with sickness and infirmity. Perhaps it is, by first forgiving the man his sin, that Jesus is very pointedly directing them to see Him in a different light—a truer light—in the light of salvation and everlasting life that He has come to bring.
When Jesus says to the man, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven,” the light in which He is seen by certain scribes who are there, is a light clouded over by their sin and unbelief, for they say to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” Now, this is a word that likely rarely, if ever, comes up in your day-to-day conversations. What, therefore, do they mean that Jesus is blaspheming? The word blaspheme comes from the Greek word, blasphemia, and means to vilify, speak evil of, or rail against a person. When used in the context of faith, it means to insult, show contempt of or not revere God sufficiently. The scribes believed that Jesus was blaspheming against God for saying that He could do something that only God had the authority to do, namely, forgive sins. Obviously, they did not regard Jesus as both true Man and true God.
In answering the scribes’ muttered accusation, Jesus, in keeping with His vocation as Great Physician, begins with an assessment or diagnosis of what’s up with those scribes. He says, “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” Here’s another one of those words, like blasphemy, that needs a bit of unpacking—not because the word evil is never used, but because it’s used so very often in the wrong way. Lately, I’ve been hearing in the media the word evil applied by some to others because of differing social or political ideas. In essence they say, “Those people are just evil because their views differ from mine!”
Well, there’s a reason why Luther, in his hymn that we will sing next Sunday, calls the devil the “old evil foe.” And it’s not because the devil has different social or political ideas. It’s not even because the devil “means deadly woe” to us, or has, as “his dread arms in fight,” “deep guile and great might.” Rather it’s the “why” of his harmful activity that the devil is evil. It’s because he has rejected God and does not “fear, love, and trust in Him” … at all. You may remember from the Small Catechism that in the explanation of the Fourth Petition, Luther places people into two distinct groups: believers and unbelievers, the latter whom he refers to as “all evil people.” For this same reason, our Lord Jesus points to the evil that is in the hearts of the scribes. They don’t believe. And because of their unbelieving—because of this evil of their hearts—it is they, and not Jesus, who is blaspheming against God.
I have no doubt that, even if there had been no negative comment made about our Lord giving forgiveness to the paralyzed man, He would have also fixed that fellow’s body, too. And that’s because Jesus is compassionate and full of mercy. It’s what He would do. But because there was open rejection of His authority to be able to forgive sins, He uses the bodily healing of the man as a way to show, without a doubt, that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. When He asks, “For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” He knows that those hearing will understand that both are deeds that only God has the power to do. After asking this question, He demonstrates that the Father has given this power and authority to Him by telling the paralyzed man, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home,” which the man does.
You probably noticed that, before our Lord Jesus heals the paralyzed man with the command of His Word, He refers to Himself as “the Son of Man.” This points to His holy incarnation—to Him being “conceived by the Holy Spirit” and “born of the Virgin Mary.” When the eternal Son of God came into our flesh, He humbled Himself, setting aside His divine power and glory—and also His divine authority. The authority that we see Him exercise in today’s Holy Gospel is, therefore, not His own, but that which is given to Him by the Father, as He tells His disciples in Matthew 28, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” In John 12, Jesus also says, “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak.” In the humiliation of His birth—in making Him to be, as the writer to the Hebrews says, “a little lower than the angels,” God the Father crowned His Son “with glory and honor”—the “glory and honor” that is located in and revealed through the salvation that He accomplished for you, for me, and for the whole world with His innocent suffering and death on the cross of Calvary. The authority that the Father gives to His Son, you might say, comes with the job, so that through His Son’s atoning work, we might recognize the Father as the Giver of every good and perfect gift.
On the third day, our Lord Jesus rose again from His sacrificial death on the cross, and forty days after that, He ascended into heaven. But even though He physically departed from this world, He did not leave us as orphans. He promised His disciples that He would come to them, and this promise is for you, too—fulfilled most wonderfully this and every Lord’s Day. Here, through His blessed Word and holy Sacraments, Jesus is the ladder of Jacob’s dream for you, the ladder that reaches down from heaven and touches the earth with the mercy and grace of God, our Heavenly Father. He comes bearing the full forgiveness of your sins that He earned on Calvary’s cross. He comes to be your gate, your door to heaven and everlasting life. He comes to say to you, “Take heart, my son;” take heart my daughter; “your sins are forgiven.”
Believe it, dear friends, for He who has all authority in heaven and on earth has spoken it. He has spoken it through one to whom He has given the authority to declare it to you. So, it is as Jesus says: You are forgiven, and you have life and salvation in His holy name, now and forever. Amen.