The roof, the paralytic and the bed
Pp Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26
They brought to Him a paralytic
Forgiveness and healing
Authority to forgive sin on earth
Who was closest to the truth of who Jesus was?
Again, just as in the previous passage, the writer of Matthew gives us a more concise account of this incident of the paralytic being healed than does either Mark or Luke (Matmor notes that, whereas Matthew has 126 words, Mark has 196 and Luke 212). Whatever the author’s reasonings, the main points of the passage are given to the reader, even though one would have expected him to have written about the opening up of the roof and the lowering of the incapacitated person through the opening (Mark 2:4-5) - an incident which would probably have sparked the retort ‘Hey! What’re you doing to my roof?!’ had it been our house, rather than Jesus’ ‘My son, your sins are forgiven’ which was a response to His perception of their faith.
Matthew begins by having to have Jesus return from the west side of the Sea of Galilee to ‘His own city’ (Mtw 9:1), a point which is a direct response to the requests of the inhabitants of the Decapolis to leave their neighbourhood for fear (Mtw 8:34). This allows for the smooth flow of the narrative and it indicates that, although some of these incidents shouldn’t be taken as being in time order, the writer is concerned to make them as readable as possible rather than for them to be a disjointed series of points. It is evident, therefore, that Matthew has once again stepped out of chronological order here and the incident shouldn’t be thought of as occurring as soon as Jesus returned to the city of Capernaum.
Luke 8:40 records for us that, after the return of Jesus from the east side of the Lake
‘...the crowd welcomed Him for they were all waiting for Him’
and, in both Mark and Luke, the incident of the raising of the ruler of the synagogue’s daughter took place (Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:41-56), an incident which takes place in Matthew a little later on in the present chapter (9:18-26). Before this incident takes place in Matthew, however, we have the story of the paralytic, the calling of Matthew the tax collector and the question put to Him about fasting.
But the event appears to have taken place in Jesus’ residence (Mark 2:1) though, perhaps, we are reading just a little too much into the statement of Mark which says ‘He was at home’ - the phrase could just mean that He was in His home town in much the same way as when we speak of arriving in our cities or our countries of residence, we consider ourselves, too, to be ‘home’ even though we have a way to go before we reach our houses!
For Matthew, the point that needs to be made, it would appear, is Jesus’ authority to forgive the sins of men and women and so, for brevity’s sake, he chooses to ignore the details about the man being lowered through the roof (one can’t help but wonder whether the compiler of the Gospel was aware that he only had a small manuscript with which to commit all the details to writing and so was being brief wherever he felt it necessary - that’s just about as good an explanation as some of the more seasoned commentators come up with!) and, for the main thrust of chapters 8 and 9, a lot of the details do not need recording - for the intention of the writer is to put together incidents from Jesus’ Galilean ministry that demonstrate the types of things which Jesus did amongst them and the principles which they teach His followers.
The Roof, the Paralytic and the Bed
When the commentator comes to this text, there is the danger of launching simply into some sort of exposition of the main points of the teaching without first attempting some analysis of the background details that the writers present to us (most published commentators in book form are also limited by space considerations). This is necessary, however, for certain of the details here noted conjure up in the mind interpretations that are based more on our present day understandings of the word than on what it would have meant for the first century reader.
Therefore, we need to try and answer the questions as to what a ‘roof’ was (did it have slate tiles and wooden cross sections like we have in Europe?), what a ‘paralytic’ was (as opposed to our comment that anyone drunk is in a similar state as to warrant the label) and what a ‘bed’ was that could be carried about by friends (did it have a well-sprung mattress and headboard or was it a four-poster?).
Once we’ve dealt with these, we’ll move on to consider the text.
When the archaeologist excavates an ancient structure, the chances of finding a roof which is intact and still in its original situation (that is, supported by beams and raised some distance from the floor) is incredibly rare. The most they can hope to find are some shreds of evidence lying about on the floor and which indicate what sort of composition the roof above had.
Unlike the western roof structures, most of the ancient buildings had flat roofs which were not totally waterproof owing to the fact that many of them were made from partially soluble material! The poorer houses - which is the type of house which we are probably looking at as being the scene of the miracle here - had a roof which, according to NIBDA
‘...comprised a layer of clay stamped into the rafters which formed the ceiling of the room below’
and, according to Marklane, would have been
‘...made of a light material like straw covered with mud’
However, as the Dictionary goes on to point out
‘The better class houses had roofs made of tile or thin slabs of stone’
and it may be significant that Luke 5:19 speaks of the men letting the paralytic down
‘...through the tiles into the midst...’
Some commentators note that the use of tiles in Israel didn’t occur until late on but Lukmor comments that it’s usually followed by the assertion that Luke used a picture that was familiar to him rather than a true description of what took place. However, tiled roofs are known to archaeological sites of this period according to Lukmor’s archaeological source and they seem to have been used even before NT times.
Others feel that Mark’s description of the friends (‘friends’ are assumed) who dug through the roof contradicts Luke’s assertion that they removed the tiles - but the latter need some sort of solid support on which to be set and it is not unimaginable that the covering of tiles first needed to be removed before the roof substances of clay and plant matter (see below) could be dug through.
Though this type of ceiling appears to have been rather flimsy (try doing the same with the modern slate roof in the UK!), it was still strong enough to take the weight of humans for there are a few descriptions of the roof being used by men and women, the only reference to this in the NT text being in Acts 10:9 where we read that
‘...Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour’
The roof is also recorded as being used in the OT (I Sam 9:25-26, II Sam 11:2 - the latter of these two seems to be a more substantial building than a ‘poor’ house) and external stairs would have been constructed on the outside of the house wall to provide access to the roof.
There was also a specific commandment in the Mosaic Law concerning the need for an outer raised extension to the house walls to prevent anyone from accidentally falling over the edge of the building (Deut 22:8) and this would probably also have been part of the roof up to which the carriers of the paralytic ascended.
Quite obviously, the roof would have been largely vacated as it provided an impervious barrier to the sound of Jesus speaking below and the stairs largely ignored. The carriers of the invalid would, therefore, have found it not too difficult to gain access to the roof and, seeing the large crowds and having tried to bring their friend to Jesus (Luke 5:18), felt that this was their best opportunity to get the healing he needed.
Zondervan gives us a more detailed description of NT roofs, however, and notes that
‘Roof structures were formed of tree poles or palm tree trunks over which smaller branches, brush reeds or palm fronds were placed to form a base for a packed clay layer rolled into place with stone rollers, some of which have been found in house ruins. In some areas, marly stone was pulverized and spread over the clay and this provided a much more impervious surface’
The roof, then, was not too difficult a structure to have been dug through and, provided one didn’t either dig round a main supporting tree pole, the rest of the roof structure should have remained largely intact. One can’t help but imagine what sort of debris, however, must have started to cascade into the house upon their digging into the roof and the quantities of dirt and grime which cascaded to earth must have made listening to Jesus somewhat difficult!
I would imagine that, by the time the hole appeared and the man was being lowered to the ground, Jesus had already stopped His teaching and most of the room were staring intently at the widening hole.
We need also to ask ourselves what the NT writers mean when they use the general words for ‘paralytic’ or, as in the case of the AV, ‘palsy’. Luke uses the verb form exclusively and speaks of the man being ‘paralysed’ throughout the passage (Luke 5:18,24 - Strongs Greek number 3886) whereas both Matthew and Mark chose rather to personify the condition and so speak of the ‘paralytic’ (Mtw 9:2,6, Mark 2:3,5,10 - Strongs Greek number 3885).
But each are speaking of the same condition, even though the precise details of what that meant for the incapacitated person is difficult to determine. Harrison, quoted in Matmor, seems to be the only source who feels that the word is a technical word meaning a specific condition which would have been caused by
‘...an accident earlier in life or by a bony lesion...’
but the word is also used in both Mtw 4:24 and 8:6, the former of which is a generalisation of the healing ministry of Jesus and should, better, be considered to be referring to all types of paralysis rather than to a specific bodily problem that is too narrow in its definition.
Zondervan, however, gives a good overview under the heading ‘palsy’ (the AV’s rendering of the Greek words) and comments on the range of possibilities by writing that it
‘...means loss of motor function and sometimes of sensory ability...It may be limited to a local area of the body or be generalised. It may be temporary or permanent...The causes of palsy are many and varied. The condition may be inherited. It may be due to injury at birth. Sicknesses such as polio or syphilis may be responsible...’
The main conclusion that we can draw from this, therefore, is, as in the words of Marklane, that
‘It is impossible to say anything definite about the nature of the man’s affliction beyond the fact that he was unable to walk’
evidenced by the fact that he was being carried about on a bed by his friends. The paralysis could have been so bad that he might have even been unable to speak, or it may have been relatively limited to his lower limbs - indeed, we have no way of knowing what his condition actually was beyond knowing that, as Mathen
‘...the case must have been rather serious...’
What the paralytic’s ‘bed’ was is just as difficult to decide upon as the type of ‘paralysis’ that is meant and the Greek words employed are also insufficient to give us any indications. Both Matthew and Luke use two related words (Mtw 9:2, Luke 5:18 - Strongs Greek number 2825 - and Luke 5:24 - Strongs Greek number 2826) whereas Mark uses a word that is of Macedonian origin according to Vines (Mark 2:9 - Strongs Greek number 2895) and which may tell us more about the place of composition, therefore, than the type of construction of the bed.
Amongst the poor, a ‘bed’ was simply a pile of soft material that one lay down on of a night to sleep and therefore little turns up in the way of archaeological remains when excavations take place. Zondervan notes at the outset of the article, however, that in keeping with the general details from ancient writings
‘The simplest and most common form of bed was a mat of some sort, of cloth or other woven fabric, in the poorer homes laid out at night in a portion of the principal room where the whole family slept’
Certainly, this type of construction would have been totally insufficient for use as something on which to carry the paralytic and a structure much more substantial must be in mind here. As Zondervan comments
‘Later forms of the bed are revealed as wood frames to which was attached a webbing of rope or fabric to support the pallet and covering...’
but their assertion that the lame man of John chapter 5 (especially verses 1-9) would have been using such a structure is difficult to imagine unless he was transported on a daily basis to and from the place where he sought to receive his healing - the implication is that he stayed there on a permanent basis.
Amongst archaeological finds, two bedsteads have been unearthed from the Persian period of 530-330BC and one in the tombs located at Jericho of much more ancient times.
But just such a ‘bed’ is likely to have been used when it comes to the passage under consideration and four men (Mark 2:3) would have found it not too difficult to transport their friend around - there may even have been no need for any straps to hold the paralysed man in the bed for the position of the friends at each corner would have naturally stopped the man from rolling off - they would have had a little difficulty negotiating the stairs on the outside of the house, though! - and the descent of the bed into the room need not have meant that they tip the bed vertically when the entire structure could have been lowered inbetween the parallel roof beams.
This bed seems to have been the property of the paralysed man, however, according to Matthew 9:2 and it’s possible that this may indicate that the man wasn’t amongst the poorer sections of Jewish society, but other translations don’t use the personal pronoun and the statement is difficult to substantiate with any great certainty.
Having dealt with the roof, the nature of the paralytic’s illness and the type of bed meant, we can move on to some preliminary observations about the text.
They brought to Him a paralytic
I noted in my overview to chapters 8 and 9 that the recurring common denominator recorded for us in all the healing passages here was that the ill or incapacitated person came to Jesus and that the assertion by many of the more modern teachers that faith is absolutely necessary for healing to take place isn’t accurate.
Even in the previous incident of the healing of Legion and his companion (Mtw 8:28 speaks of two demoniacs) on the east side of the Sea of Galilee, it could be misconstrued that Jesus actively sought the demon-possessed man out (and there is an element of truth in that) but they still needed to come out from the tombs to meet with Him - it wasn’t that Jesus ran after them as they fled and forced the deliverance on them!
Here, there isn’t even the remotest suggestion that Jesus made Himself available in the situation where the paralytic lay at home, but it was solely the initiative either of the four men who carried him on the bed to Jesus or the insistence of the paralytic himself to get to where he knew Jesus was speaking.
Having said that, all three of the Synoptic writers note that Jesus, upon seeing the roof being opened and the paralytic descending from the skies (Mtw 9:2)
‘...saw their faith...’
a significant statement and one which indicates to us that, unless action follows belief, faith cannot be said to be necessarily present - it is only the response to what one believes that shows whether a person is actively putting into practice what’s in their head and, by letting nothing get inbetween themselves and Jesus (not even a roof!), the men demonstrated their faith.
I have always taken Jesus’ statement to be referring to the four bearers of the bed who had taken steps to dig through the roof and to lower the paralytic. This is not an unusual occurrence where another person’s faith is responsible for bringing healing to someone who has the incapacity and we’ve already seen this principal in a previous passage in Mtw 8:5-13 where the Centurion petitions Christ on behalf of his paralysed servant.
The common denominator in both these is that the person needing healing is unable to get to Jesus themselves. But, having said that, in a future incident (Mtw 15:21-28) there is no such indication that the invalid was unable to come to Christ themselves, the demoniac of Mtw 8:28-34 demonstrating that a person with such a condition need not have been immobile.
However, some commentators see Matthew’s comment that Jesus saw ‘their faith’ as indicating (as Mathag)
‘...the faith of the paralytic as well as those who carried him...’
and, though this is possible, the phrase seems not to have to include any response of faith from him. But, as will be noted in the next section, the healing of the paralytic implied that he was in a state to be able to receive the forgiveness of his sins and, therefore, the healing that he needed - that would imply that he already knew the root cause of his incapacity, implying faith in the authority of Jesus to sort out all that was wrong with him.
All that can be said here with certainty is that the faith of the bed bearers was demonstrated by their destruction of the roof overhead and their lowering down of their friend into the midst of the crowd that had gathered to hear Jesus teach.
Forgiveness and healing
There are numerous possibilities here as to the correct interpretation of the relationship between the declaration of Jesus that the paralytic’s sins are forgiven and the healing of his condition, and the commentators reflect the diversity of understanding by asserting some fairly different views on the matter.
Firstly, Mathag comments that
‘The present pericope suggests neither that the man’s sickness was caused by his sin nor that his sin had to be forgiven before he could be healed. The point of this narrative is that the problem of sin, though not as apparent to the eye as paralysis, is a fundamental...problem of humanity that Jesus has come to counteract. Compared to the healings, the forgiveness of sins is by far the greater gift Jesus has brought in His ministry’
In this case, though sin is seen as the reason for the presence of sickness in the world (that is, sin in general which results in the ‘fallen race’ through Adam’s first transgression), it’s shown to be of primary importance over and above any healing which will be performed by Jesus throughout His earthly ministry.
As Mathag goes on to say
‘Where sin is fundamentally overcome [in the cross], the way is made clear for any and every healing’
While it’s quite true to cite John 9:2-3 (as Mathag does) to show that the cultural idea that incapacity was always the result of sin and that Jesus refuted it, it must be pointed out that the text cannot be taken to be indicating that no illness is the result of sin. After all, the passage in John is a comment on the problem of someone who could not have committed sin to have received the incapacity that he now has (he was born blind) and so the question relates to which person’s sin was responsible for him being the way he was.
It’s just as sure from Scripture that the sin of the father can affect the life of the child as in the incident of the adulterous relationship of David with Bathsheba, which resulted in the birth of a child which was struck down with illness and, ultimately, death because of the sin of the father (II Sam 12:15-23).
That sin can produce illness is also clear from the warnings associated with the observance of the Mosaic Law in Deut 28:15-68 where a refusal to obey the voice of God as revealed through the commandment results in God becoming the nation’s adversary and warring against it in many forms including sickness (Deut 28:21-22, 58-61). So, although some commentators may regard Jesus’ words here as not indicating a cause and effect relationship between sin and sickness, that it is possible that such an equation could have been true is substantiated by recourse to other Scripture.
What the Bible doesn’t assert, however, is that all sickness and disease is the result of personal sin but that always it comes as a result of the Fall of man through Adam and Eve, something that cannot be overcome by personal righteousness.
Mathen, in a similar vein to Mathag, sees the fundamental problem with the paralytic as being his own state of mind that seems to have been caught up with the conviction of personal sin. He comments that
‘The inference seems altogether justified that the matter about which the paralytic was concerned more than about anything else was not the paralysis of his body but the perilous state of his soul’
Therefore Mathen sees Jesus dealing with what is within the person first - and which has been the subject of much anguish of heart in the individual - before turning His attention to his physical state. However, he goes on to note
‘That this sin had resulted in his sickness is not stated and probably not even implied’
a statement which makes one wonder that, if such an equation is not even so much as implied, how his assertion that the paralytic was troubled by thoughts of guilt is also either implied or justified from the text!
Both these commentators don’t equate the man’s spiritual state of health with his physical incapacity and cause Jesus’ words of forgiveness and healing to stand alone without too much of a relationship. This is, I feel, incorrect and Matfran is much closer to the truth when he comments that
‘Jesus Himself does not state here or anywhere else that a given illness is the result of sin...but, to the patient, the assurance of forgiveness was real cause to take heart...’
because, according to Matfran, most illnesses in the first century were considered to be the result of sin. Jesus is therefore being seen as the Man who moves in each situation to answer and deal with the problems of man’s understanding.
Matfran perceives Jesus’ statement to the scribes in Mtw 9:5 as being, therefore, a statement whereby Jesus is pointing them in the direction that their own logic should have led them in. That is, that if they believed that all sickness was a result of sin, healing could only successfully come about if it was first dealt with and the person’s sins forgiven them. All that Jesus is doing, then, is attempting to show His onlookers that He has power on earth to forgive the man’s sin in their understanding of the man’s condition.
But why would Jesus go out of His way to forgive the sins of one who needed no sin to be forgiven him? And Jesus would hardly have allowed Himself to be misunderstood on the subject of the need for forgiveness before healing if there was no ‘cause and effect’ in this situation - as has been noted throughout Matthew chapter 8, Jesus cut against the accepted belief structures of His day and caused great offence with His stand for the unacceptable and unlovely but against the agreeable and appreciated. Why would He now bow the knee to acceptability?
Besides, the contrast is between which is the easiest and best thing to say in the situation - either to forgive the person their sin or to tell the paralytic to be healed - and the inference is that both stand with equal weight in the present situation (incidentally, the natural response to Jesus’ question of Mtw 9:5 is to answer that it’s easier to announce one’s sins are forgiven which can be accepted without any outward demonstration than to declare a man healed which would demand that there be evidence of healing for all to see - but each statement holds equal weight as relating to the paralytic’s condition).
Therefore, although it seems right to accept that, as Matfran notes, the statement about forgiveness of sins was naturally challenging the scribes present to think through the implications of what He was doing, there had to be a cause and effect between sin and sickness in this man’s life unless Jesus was misguiding them into thinking that their equation was correct.
Far from disproving the relationship, then, Matfran’s statement seems to necessitate its existence in this case.
It will not come as any surprise to the reader, therefore, when they note that I take Jesus’ two statements about sin and sickness to be necessarily related here and that it was necessary that the man had his sins forgiven him first before the healing was to take place. Therefore I would wholeheartedly agree with Mattask who notes that
‘...before this particular man could be healed physically, his sins had to be forgiven; for his disease was the result of his sin’
but also urge upon the reader not to accept that all sickness is a result of sin. As to what the man’s sins were that had caused him to become paralysed, we would be going too far to speculate but, as we could imagine, it may even have been that the paralysis had occurred through a direct result of a sinful act such as trying to dig through a roof to rob a house and from which place he fell and became paralysed (the irony!). Of course, this isn’t meant to be taken seriously, the same as the point which would equate Jesus’ forgiveness of the man’s sins with his transgression of breaking the house up by having his four friends partially destroy the roof!
The tense of Jesus’ statement certainly indicates a present forgiveness of sins rather than that God had already forgiven them and that they were now being pronounced as having been forgiven in much the same way as a priest could announce the dealing with of a man’s sins because of the success of a sacrificial offering.
Therefore, Jesus forgives at that moment in time and restores the man back into a right relationship with God. But there must necessarily have been a realisation of the need for forgiveness in the life of the individual before such a cleansing could have taken place (see my notes on repentance).
Authority to forgive sin on earth
Matthew 9:3 records the thoughts of the scribes by summarising them with the words, as directed at Jesus, of
‘This man is blaspheming’
a statement which would seem to contradict the plain statement in the Mishnah of Sanhedrin 7:5 which says that
‘The blasphemer is not culpable unless he pronounces the Name itself’
As Jesus had not used the name YHWH in His proclamation of the forgiveness of sins, it seems difficult to see how the scribes could have justified their viewpoint that what had just taken place was ‘blasphemy’ except that the character of God was, perhaps, being maligned because His sole function of forgiving men their sins was being taken by a Man who seemed to be operating by His own authority.
It’s only Mark and Luke, however, who go on to record the reason for their assessment of the situation as being, as in Mark 2:7, in the form of a question
‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’
It’s also Mark who tells the reader that Jesus perceived in His own spirit that they were questioning His pronouncement (Mark 2:8), where Luke simply tells us that He perceived the questions (Luke 5:22) and Matthew that He knew their thoughts (Mtw 9:4) - what is being implied here is that Jesus received a revelation of the nature of their thoughts and so responded to it, although some commentators such as Mathen suggest that Jesus was operating from out of His divinity, unreliant upon the Father, because He knew the thoughts of all men. I disagree with this as I’ve previously noted on other pages and which I’ll again state below, for Jesus is portrayed as man dependent upon God - true, the man is perfectly God in human form but He is, nevertheless, operating on earth as a man obedient to the will of the Father and not living outside in His own strength.
As is the case with some of the opposition to Jesus from the scribes and Pharisees, they don’t appear to be necessarily thinking along the wrong lines for all sin, ultimately, is an affront to God and an offence against Him alone. In that case, it is only God Himself who has the ultimate power to forgive men and women their sin in His mercy. Besides, the OT doesn’t appear to give an example of a transgression against God where a man was able to take it upon himself to forgive that person’s sin - true, man may forgive transgression committed against themselves, but the thought here in Matthew is that Jesus is acting in the place of God and washing away those sins which are an affront to God Himself.
But, where the religious leaders of the day went too far was in immediately jumping to the conclusion that what they understood from a situation was therefore the right interpretation of events.
In this case, their conclusion is a wrong inference from a correct assumption. Jesus doesn’t dispute their assertion that it’s only God who can forgive sins - indeed, by His response it appears that He upholds it and agrees - but He counters their arguments with a question as to which statement is easier (Mtw 9:5 - as dealt with above) before going on to state clearly that He had now been given authority from heaven to forgive people their sins and so heal.
After all, as Matfran pointed out above, if, by their logic, sickness was the result of sin, healing the sick had to infer that sin was also being forgiven. In that case, they should have had no problem in accepting His statements regarding sin - and, when He noted that He wasn’t claiming to have taken the place of God but that He had simply been given the authority to forgive sins on earth, their minds should have been settled to accept the words thus spoken.
Whether they found it in themselves to be able to accept Jesus’ words is not indicated in the text but, as opposition was soon to spring from this section of Israelite society, it would appear that they decided to reject the explanation offered. And Matthew’s use of the phrase ‘think evil’ (9:4) would indicate a pretty settled upon way of interpretation that would not have been easily refuted.
Finally, we need to ask ourselves whether Jesus’ bestowal of forgiveness on the paralytic was a proof that Jesus was claiming to be God. I have long thought it was and, in my previous brief notes on the subject, I noted as much. Mathen also sees the choice of the scribes as being either to jump to the conclusion that Jesus is blaspheming by His pronouncement of forgiveness or that
‘Jesus is what by implication He claims to be, namely, God...’
Mattask also errs here by asserting that Jesus’ action in forgiving the man
‘...is in itself an expression of His divinity’
What I failed to read carefully there, though (and what both Mathen and Mattask seem to have ignored or missed as well), are Jesus’ words where He says (Mtw 9:6 - my italics) that
‘...the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins...’
We saw on a previous web page that the phrase ‘Son of man’ was used by Jesus to assert the genuineness of His humanity to the people He encountered, a deliberate title that grounded His mission in terms of being a man dependent upon the provision of God rather than of being God operating from His own power in human form. That phrase is again used here with the assertion that the Son of man has been given authority to forgive sins, the inference being that such authority has been given to Him by God Himself - even though the text doesn’t specifically say so.
So, although many would see in Jesus’ actions of bestowing forgiveness on the paralytic as demonstrating Jesus’ divinity, it actually does the opposite - it proclaims His humanity and His dependence upon God the Father as an obedient Son. There are adequate texts elsewhere which proclaim Jesus’ divinity but it would be going too far to assert that this passage should be added to that list. For now, Jesus operates in complete dependence upon and in obedience to the Father - and it is as the obedient Son that He now does the things He does.
Who was closest to the truth of who Jesus was?
Was it the religious leaders or the crowds who were the nearest group to realising who Jesus was?
Firstly, let’s deal with the crowds who flocked to hear Jesus speak and to see Him heal on numerous occasions. They understood and accepted Jesus’ own proclamation of Himself that He was the ‘Son of Man’ - that is, a man - and the text records for us (Mtw 9:8) that
‘...they glorified God, who had given such authority to men’
They saw Jesus, therefore, as a man given authority by God to heal all sickness and disease but missed the subtle proclamations of His divinity which occurred on occasions - such as His teaching about His unique relationship with God as Father. Had they known the Scriptures better (John 7:49), they would have realised who Jesus was (John 7:31) but, as it was, they saw Jesus only as a man who had a unique and dynamic relationship with God.
Though the crowds could be forgiven for failing to perceive the truth of what Jesus was doing through ignorance, the scribes and Pharisees didn’t have such an excuse to fall back on - they knew the Law but failed to accept what it said when it pointed towards Jesus being the One they’d been waiting for.
In the present passage under consideration, they would probably have seen Jesus’ claim to be able to forgive sins as blasphemy even after He’d offered the explanation that He’d been given authority to do such a thing. They certainly believe that He’s claiming to be God when He first utters the pronouncement (Mtw 9:2-3) and His healing of the paralytic would have pointed towards the fact that Jesus did have the authority to do as He’d just done (see above), but I wonder whether they only selectively heard His statement about authority and still understood by His words that He was attributing divinity to Himself.
If it wasn’t from this incident, then it was certainly through their encounters with Him on other occasions that they seemed to formulate their beliefs about His divinity - justified though they were - but reacted against what was clearly perceivable to them.
I have previously shown that the title ‘Son of man’ was a favourite title that Jesus used of Himself and that, contrary to some commentators, it was aimed at emphasising His humanity rather than to promote the idea of Jesus being the person spoken of as the ‘Son of man’ in Dan 7:13.
The title ‘Son of God’, however, must naturally emphasise Jesus’ divinity and stands in contrast to this title. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the phrase is only ever found on the lips of the devil and his demons (Mtw 4:3, 4:6, 8:29, Mark 3:11, Luke 4:3, 4:9, 4:41), the disciples (Mtw 14:33, 16:16), the religious leaders (Mtw 26:63, Luke 22:70), the mockers at the cross (Mtw 27:40, 27:43), the centurion at the cross (Mtw 27:54, Mark 15:39) and an announcing angel (Luke 1:35) - but never on the lips of Jesus.
That’s not to say that Jesus never used the title but that the Synoptic Gospel writers chose rather to include those passages which emphasised Jesus’ humanity rather than His divinity. John, the writer of the fourth Gospel, felt under no such constraints, however, and has the title on the lips of Jesus on more than one occasion (John 5:25, 10:36, 11:4 - and it’s implied in the other passages where Jesus speaks of God as being His Father, such as John 5:17-18) and as an acknowledgement by those around Him also more than once (John 1:49, 11:27), the writer bearing witness in his own comments on the text (John 1:34, 3:18, 20:31). The Jewish religious leaders also proclaim the fact in order to attempt to have Jesus crucified (John 19:7).
This title which witnesses to Jesus’ divinity as opposed to the title ‘Son of man’ which testifies to His humanity, is obviously an important title but, for our considerations here, we need to note that it was usually a title that was placed upon Jesus by those around Him and especially by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day as a response to some of the discourses in which He proclaimed God to be His own Father (though, He had also proclaimed the disciples to be in a Father/son relationship with God - Mtw 5:48).
The religious leaders, therefore, made the right assessment of Jesus’ claims and saw His credentials which backed up the title of ‘Son of God’ but failed to acknowledge it and to believe that the label was a true one, attributable to Jesus. They were, therefore, even closer to the Truth about Jesus than the crowds were, who only seem to have perceived Jesus as ‘Son of man’, a man who had been given authority by God to do the things He did (Mtw 9:8) and the religious leaders real sin against God was not that they failed to perceive who Jesus was but that they rejected it.
They were much closer to the truth of who Jesus was because they had correctly perceived the implications in the things that Jesus was doing and saying. But both made one grave error - the crowds, as we’ve seen, failed to realise that some of the things which Jesus did pointed towards His unearthly origin whereas the scribes and Pharisees saw it plainly but failed to accept it as being true - even though, by their own proofs (such as the healing of the leper), Jesus showed Himself to be the One that they’d said they’d been waiting for.
They were one step away from Peter’s confession (see below) but they refused to accept what was obvious because of their spiritual pride in the knowledge of the Law. The more we also get to know the written testimony to the movings of God in history (that is, the Bible), the greater will the danger be of our becoming a christian Pharisee and oppose the ways and workings of Christ due to our insistence on legal requirements. If a believer does a great work, for instance, and it’s seen to be ‘unorthodox’ (rather than ‘sinful’ - though we often try and make out that what is unorthodox is also sinful!), a christian Pharisee will say ‘this is not of God’ - but, if it is, their heart is hardened against the Christ, not only in that move but in the future when He moves again.
Peter, however, demonstrates the way to perceive correctly - by revelation - just as other believers came to understand Jesus. Peter seems to be the first disciple to declare with sobriety (Mtw 16:16) that He considered Jesus to be
‘...the Christ, the Son of the living God’
even though, on a previous occasion when they see Jesus coming to the boat and walking on the water, they proclaim (Mtw 14:33)
‘...Truly You are the Son of God’
In the incident of the raising of Lazarus from the dead also, Martha announces her belief concerning Jesus by saying to Him (John 11:27) that
‘...I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, He who is coming into the world’
something that came by a revelation of who Jesus was rather than as something that she’d been told. As Jesus says to Peter’s confession (Mtw 16:17)
‘...flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven’
All our learning and knowledge of the Scriptures are of no avail if we have not received them by revelation. When revelation is received by the Holy Spirit, it always glorifies Jesus and neither refutes the claims of Christ nor sets the individual up as a judge (James 4:11), nor fails to perceive or glorify Christ in situations.
Peter was moving in ‘knowledge by revelation’ and this is the principal for all learning. The crowds who took what they saw and heard at face value failed to perceive the greater claims of Jesus - and the religious leaders who had Jesus’ divinity proved to themselves by the things He did )and through their understanding of the Law) failed to accept the testimony.
But Peter - and men and women like him - accepted the revelation which came to them from God and believed it.
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