If you were to ask me which scenes from Christ’s ministry I would like to have personally witnessed, this one would be on the top-ten list. Jesus is teaching in a crowded house, when suddenly He is interrupted by the sound of tiles scraping one against another. Small bits of brick and stucco began to fall among the people standing around Him. Looking up, everyone is surprised to see a group of men begin to lower some sort of bundle down through the roof. As it comes closer, they realize that the bundle is a man – a known paralytic. His friends, despairing of getting in to the standing-room-only house to see Jesus, have resorted to, shall we say, extreme measures.
The audience holds its breath, waiting to see what Jesus will do. Up on the roof the paralytic’s friends, their muscles tense as they hold the ropes that secure their loved one down below, also await anxiously.
Jesus looks at the man, and then utters words nobody expected to hear:
“Your sins are forgiven you.”
An Illustrious Audience
At this point it is helpful to take a step back and look at what Luke has to say about those in attendance. This is important because it sets the tone for the whole episode, and shows us Luke’s purpose in including it here.
All three synoptic Gospels include this account, but only Luke describes in detail the makeup of the audience:
On one of those days while He was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea, and also from Jerusalem.
So we can see that this was no ordinary crowd, but was composed of the greatest theological minds of that day…including from Jerusalem itself. These learned men were of the sect of the Pharisees, a group of people devoted to doctrinal purity and personal sanctification.
Doctrinal purity and personal sanctification – both good things, right? Indeed! Christian fundamentalists like myself can identify with both of these.
But in this narrative, the Pharisees are clearly in the wrong. Why? How? Let’s look a little closer.
Of all the evangelists, Luke feels that it is important that we know this detail. Remember, the most relevant fact about Luke as we interpret his gospel is that he was a disciple of Paul. Paul was consistently persecuted by the a group of legalists called the “Judaizers”, who taught that, to be a Christian, one had to follow Old Testament law. Paul wrote the book of Galatians specifically to refute this teaching. Luke would have been intimately acquainted with this struggle – personally involved in it, even.
So, by including this detail at the beginning of the account, Luke is sending a clear message to his readers, many of whom doubtless had also encountered the message of the Judaizers. “Faith in Jesus alone is necessary for forgiveness of sin”.
He develops this idea with four stark warnings that become obvious as we read the story.
Warning 1: It is possible to be involved in ministry, and not have faith.
No one could possible doubt the dedication of the scribes Pharisees to the work of the Lord. They were consecrated to the preservation and teaching of the Word. If the common people had any scriptural knowledge whatsoever, it came to them from the Pharisees. We even know that the Pharisees had a certain missionary zeal.
But all of their work was for naught, for – as their reaction to Jesus shows without a doubt – it was done in unbelief.
Yet the Bible is equally clear that our works are a result of faith, not a substitute for it.
The other day I was talking with some friends about a couple people we know who were at one time very active in Church ministry, but have since abandoned the faith and want nothing to do with Christianity. The temptation is to wonder how this can be possible. Jesus teaches us that not only is it possible, but relatively common.
Warning 2: It is possible to have great knowledge of the Bible, and not have faith.
There was literally no group of people at that time who could lay claim to more Bible knowledge than the Pharisees. Not only did they copy the Old Testament meticulously, but the also committed great portions of it it memory. And yet, when they found themselves sitting at the feet of Jesus, the Messiah clearly foretold by the prophetic books they themselves worked so hard to preserve, they refused to recognize him.
It is interesting that three centuries earlier, as Alexander the Great approached Jerusalem with his conquering armies, the religious leaders of the time, forebears of the Pharisees, had gone out to meet him and shown him the prophecies concerning his conquests in the book of Daniel. Do you see the irony in that? The Pharisees could recognize Alexander the Great in the Old Testament, but not Jesus!
But one can have all the Bible knowledge in the world, yet if it has not been applied personally, it is useless.
Warning 3: It is possible to hold to correct doctrine, and not have faith.
Notice verse 21:
Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to think: “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
We see here that the doctrinal premise of the Pharisees is correct: only God can forgive sins. But their conclusion, from this correct doctrinal premise, couldn’t be more wrong. Instead of seeing Jesus for who He is, they remained in darkness, despite a theologically correct starting point.
And still one can sign off on the most precise, in-depth, all-inclusive fundamentalist doctrinal statements ever composed, and still not be a believer, if those universal truths have not been applied in faith to his soul.
Warning 4: It is possible to have marvelous experiences, and not have faith.
What the Pharisees witnessed that day was nothing short of spectacular. A man who was paralyzed from birth was suddenly and completely healed, before their very eyes. Surely this would soften the hard hearted Pharisees. Surely this would cause them to conclude that Jesus had not indeed blasphemed, but was truly God incarnate. Surely this would bring them to their knees in repentance for their unbelief.
But no…it did not do any of that. If nothing, the Pharisees left there more hardened than before.
I wish I had a dollar for every unbeliever, committed to a blatantly sinful lifestyle, who has tried to impress me with stories of marvelous things God has done in his or her life. The conclusion they want me to draw is that, since God did such-and-such a marvelous thing for them, or in their presence, surely they cannot be that bad. The conclusion I usually try to bring them to is that God is demonstrating to them the hardness of their own hearts.
These conversations don’t tend to end rather abruptly.
The paralytic man left that crowded room healed and forgiven. The Pharisees left proud and lost. And the difference can be summed up in one word: faith.