He Came For the Sick
Let’s begin with a recap of Mark 1. John the Baptist appears, fulfilling Old Testament prophecy and preparing the way for the arrival of the Mighty One. Then Jesus of Nazareth appears and embodies Israel’s history by being baptized, anointed with the Holy Spirit, and then driven into the wilderness for 40 days to be tested. After his temptation, the next thing we see is the launch of Jesus’s public ministry in Galilee. In Chapter 1, that public ministry consists in:
1) Proclaiming the gospel of God, the good news of “Behold your God! Your God reigns! He is coming to liberate the captives.” Preaching is central to the ministry of Jesus. He teaches with authority in the synagogue (1:21), and in 1:38-39, he insists that his mission is to preach all throughout Israel.
2) Gathering disciples. He calls four fishermen who have trusted in him to join him in his public ministry, to travel with him, to witness what he does and how he does it.
3) Casting out demons. Exorcisms are not a small part of what he’s doing, but a repeated emphasis in chapter 1 (21-26; 34; 39).
4) Healing many. From Simon’s mother-in-law (1:31-34) to the towns and villages that gather about him to be healed of various diseases, Jesus’s ministry is marked by healing (1:40-42).
Preaching, gathering disciples, casting out demons, and healing. This is the public ministry of Jesus in Mark 1 that spreads his fame throughout the region, so that he can’t even enter towns anymore because the people mob him. And that brings us to one of the stranger aspects of Jesus’s ministry: his insistence on secrecy. He won’t let demons speak because they know and identify him. He sternly tells those he heals to keep the means of their healing quiet, instead treating it as though God healed them in accordance with the Old Testament Law. So there’s this strange tension in Jesus’s ministry. On the one hand, he travels all over Galilee, teaching in synagogues with power and authority, gathering crowds by casting out demons and healing many. He gets everyone’s attention. And then, along with that, he tries to keep things quiet so that his identity is veiled, what Jonathan referred to last week as the Messianic Secret.
Turning now to chapter 2, we see a development and deepening of Jesus’s ministry in the two stories that we’ll cover: the healing of the paralytic and the calling of Levi. Let’s take the first. Jesus has returned to Capernaum; he’s at home (probably Simon’s house), and, as is his custom, he’s “preaching the word.” He’s opening the Scriptures and unfolding God’s purposes for the kingdom and the hopes of Israel. He’s proclaiming the gospel of God. And the house is full, and there are people at the doors and windows, and there’s no room. And men come with a paralyzed friend. He’s there to be healed, but there’s no way to get to Jesus. But these friends are determined. They will not be dissuaded. So strong is their commitment to their friend, that they climb on the roof and dig through the mud, and the thatch, and the wood so that they can lower their friend down right in front of Jesus’s face (One wonders what Simon and his mother-in-law thought!). And Jesus looks at their dedication and their commitment and he calls it “faith.” “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (2:5). All of their efforts are evidence of faith, theirs and their friend’s. “We must get to Jesus! We’ll climb buildings. We’ll dig through walls. We will make a spectacle of ourselves in front of the whole town. But we will get to Jesus, because we believe, we KNOW that he can heal our friend.”
So the paralytic man gets to Jesus. And let’s be clear: he comes, expecting healing. He can’t walk. They brought him there because they want him to walk and they’ve seen and heard of Jesus’s authority. They believe he can heal. And then, Jesus surprises them. He overturns expectations. He doesn’t immediately heal the man, like he’d done dozens of times before. Instead, he forgives the man’s sins. This is a surprise. This is unexpected. And at this point, the camera zooms in on the faces of a group of men who have been listening to Jesus preach.
Who Can Forgive Sins?
The scribes have been mentioned before. The crowds compared Jesus’s way of teaching to theirs (and found theirs lacking). So they’re listening. They see the ceiling open up. They see the man drop in. Like everyone else, they assume Jesus will heal the man, like he healed many diseases. And then they hear Jesus say, “Your sins are forgiven.” And they get upset; they don’t know what to think. They question in their hearts. “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Who indeed. And on this point, the scribes are right. Their theology is spot on. Prophets, priests, kings, holy men can do many things. They cannot forgive sins. Sin is ultimately an offense against God, as David prayed in Psalm 51, “Against you and you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.” God is the ultimate offended party in every sin, and therefore, only he can ultimately forgive sins. And here’s this man, this healer, exorcist, preacher, prophet, who dares to assume the mantle of God. For a creature to claim the authority of God is blasphemy.
Notice Jesus’s response. He knows what they’re thinking. He sees into their hearts (which tells us as readers something about who he is). And he asks them some questions in return. “Why do you question these things in your heart?” Well, Jesus, because we’ve read the Bible and we know that only God can forgive sins, so…
And Jesus could have set them straight here. He could have looked at them directly and said, “I’m the Son of God. I’m God in the flesh. I’m him. Therefore, I can forgive sins.” But he doesn’t. He asks another question. “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk?’” Now think about the question. The answer, it seems to me, is that it’s easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven” because no one can verify whether your word is effective. Is it just empty words or not? There’s no way to know. Whereas if he said, “Take up your mat and walk,” you’d know in an instant whether it was effective. So Jesus’s question is designed to fix in the scribes’ mind that Jesus said the easy thing. Because it’s a cheap way for a huckster (and a blasphemer) to keep his followers. But then Jesus says, “But so you can know that my word is effective, that I have the authority I say I have, I’ll say the hard thing too. I’ll say the thing that will make or break me. Take up your bed and go home.”
Jesus isn’t just asserting his authority to forgive sins (“Trust me with no evidence); he’s demonstrating his authority. “Your questions, scribes, are because you don’t know whether I have that authority. You think it’s blasphemy to say what I said. So let me show you that my words have authority. Get up, son.” The efficacy and authority of Jesus’s words to heal testify to his authority to forgive.
The Son of Man and His Authority
But I want to draw attention to another oddity in the passage. Jesus doesn’t say, “So that you may know that I have authority on earth to forgive sins.” He says, “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Who’s that? What’s with this third person title? That’s the first time that title has shown up in Mark (but it won’t be the last). It’s not the only title available. He could have said “Son of God” or “Messiah/Christ.” Mark has already called him both of those in 1:1. But throughout Mark, Jesus himself seems to avoid those titles and instead use the title “Son of Man.”
This is where the Messianic Secret comes into play. The terms “Son of God,” and “Messiah” were all messianic titles in the 1st century. When people spoke of the Coming One who would fulfill God’s promises and their hopes, they spoke of God’s Messiah, or the Son of David, or the Son of God (because that’s what God called the Davidic king in the Old Testament). People had a clear box for what those terms meant. The Messiah would be God’s anointed messenger who would overthrow the Romans and restore Israel to her glory and sit on the throne of king David. It’s a highly charged political term, filled with religious and social expectations. And Jesus is here to overturn expectations. So what does “Son of Man” mean?
It’s a phrase from the Old Testament but it has some ambiguity, and New Testament scholars debate which passages Jesus has in mind. On the one hand, it might just refer to a man, as in Psalm 8, where the majesty of God’s name is contrasted with the lowliness of man. “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” That psalm is about the strange paradox of humanity. Lower than angels, but still crowned with glory and honor and given dominion over the works of God’s hands. So if that’s the background, then Jesus is saying, “So that you may know that Man or Humanity has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
The other possible background is Daniel 7, a vision where Daniel sees “one like a son of man” coming to the Ancient of Days (the Lord God) to receive dominion, glory, and a kingdom that will never pass away, and all the nations will serve him. This Son of Man is an exalted, almost divine figure who receives authority to rule on earth. In my view, Jesus chooses the title “Son of Man” precisely because of that ambiguity. Remember: at this point in his ministry, he is trying to maintain the Messianic Secret. He’s not revealing the fullness of his identity yet. So this title, with its ambiguous Old Testament background allows him to shape the perception of his identity as the Son of Man by what he does. And it allows him to keep the scribes on their toes. “Did he say that he can forgive sins?” “No, he said the son of man can forgive sins.” “What does that mean?” (He may be doing the same thing in the question about fasting, when the scribes ask why his disciples don’t fast. He speaks of the bridegroom and new wine and wineskins; it’s not clear, “Does he think that he’s that important? That he’s ultimate Bridegroom who seeks a bride, which is how God is described in the Old Testament.”) And so, keep an eye out for that term as we continue through Mark. See how Jesus unfolds it.
For now, we can say that Jesus demonstrates that he has authority to forgive sins by healing the paralytic with a word. And this makes Jesus’s words different from the pastoral words in the Assurance of Pardon. The pastors have no authority on earth to forgive sins. We don’t pardon sins. We assure you that your sins have been pardoned through Christ. We don’t speak on our own authority to forgive. Our authority is announce pardon, to assure of pardon in response to repentance and faith. And that’s an authority that every Christian has. But Jesus is actually doing the pardoning.
Calling the Sick and Sinners
Second story: Jesus passes along the Sea of Galilee, sees Levi (or Matthew) sitting in a tax booth, and tells him “Follow me.” And like with the fishermen, Levi leaves the booth and follows Jesus, inviting him into his home, and bringing all of his friends to meet Jesus. Now tax collectors in Jesus’s day were not respected by the people. They were compromised. They worked with the wicked Romans to further their oppression, often taking more than the rightful taxes for themselves. They’re snitches and informants, and therefore are despised and held in contempt for their betrayal of their people. And Jesus looks at the compromised, false tax collector and says, “He’d make a good disciple. Follow me.”
Jesus’s fellowship with Levi and his friends in his house causes another scandal. The scribes ask Simon, Andrew, and the rest why Jesus fellowships and eats with such people, such sinners. And Jesus confronts them directly again. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus is a physician, a healer, and he is on a mission. Doctors spend time with sick people because it’s sick people who need doctors. And Levi and his friends are sick; they are sinners, and Jesus came to call them.
Now before turning to the relevance of these stories for us, I want to draw attention to the way that, together, they develop and deepen the ministry of Jesus. In Mark 1, Jesus become famous for teaching, casting out demons, and healing people of various diseases. In Mark 2, he draws a connection between the physical healing and restoration and the more fundamental spiritual healing and restoration that he offers. He deepens his ministry from bodily sickness to soul sickness. A paralyzed man comes to him for bodily healing, and Jesus instead highlights that man’s need for the forgiveness of sins. He calls Levi to follow him and then makes the connection between a physician who heals bodily sickness, and his own ministry in calling sinners to repent. In other words, in Mark 1, Jesus got everybody’s attention through a ministry of physical restoration so that he could press beyond physical brokenness to the spiritual brokenness and sin that is our greatest need. For Jesus to heal the paralytic’s body, and leave his sins unforgiven would be tragic. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but forfeit his soul? What does it profit a man to regain the use of his legs, but still die in his sins? And so Jesus goes deeper.
How do these two stories and the deepening of Jesus’s ministry that they reveal speak to us today? First, Jesus’s ministry confronts each of us with a Choice. This is reinforced by the introduction of the scribes and Pharisees in both stories. When Jesus comes preaching the good news of the kingdom, gathering disciples, and using his authority to heal, we have two options. We can either insist that we are well, and therefore don’t need a physician. Or we can recognize our sickness and run to him for healing. That’s the Choice. Are you going to be the scribe? Or are you going to be the tax collector? I can’t fault the scribes for their initial skepticism. A man claiming to forgive sins is shocking. But Jesus knows their hearts, and he puts his finger right on the key issue. “Do you think that you are well? Do you think that you are righteous? Then I haven’t come for you. I came for the sick. I came to call sinners to repentance. I came to seek and save what was lost. I came to restore paralytics. Not just to the use of their legs and bodies, but I came to restore their souls, to forgive their sins, to bring them back to God.” And if you think you’re well, I can do nothing for you, but confront you again and again with your own need.
Which brings me to the second application. Last week, Pastor Jonathan said, when it comes to Jesus and this church, “It’s okay not to be okay.” We all have various diseases. We have spiritual leprosy, and we don’t need to pretend. That’s why we have Life Groups and Community Groups to press in on our sickness, that’s why we have pastors and deacons who are eager to meet with you, so that everyone who joins this body has a place to unburden themselves, a place where it’s safe to not be okay. But, as Pastor Jonathan also said last week, Jesus doesn’t come to the sick in order to pat them on the back. Jesus came to heal. Jesus came to call. You’re not okay. And that’s okay. But Jesus won’t leave you there. He is calling you. Turn from your sin. Come out of your brokenness. He is the great Physician and he will treat that soul sickness. Jesus looks at each of us, like he looked at Levi, the sick, sinful tax collector, and says, “Follow me.”
And so don’t let your issues keep you from Jesus. Don’t let your shame keep you from Jesus. He came for the sick! He came for sinners! And don’t let your pride keep you from Jesus. He came for the sick. He came for sinners. So come to him. Whatever you have to do. Climb the roof. Dig out the ceiling. Bust out the wall. Make a spectacle. Get to him, come to him, follow him, trust in him.
Normally, this is where we would turn to the Table. Just as Jesus both revealed and hid himself in his ministry, so he reveals and hides himself at the Table. Jesus is present in the bread and wine, but you’ll only find him there if you believe. We see him in the simple, nondescript bread and wine, if, like the paralytic and his friends, we are determined to see Jesus by faith. But I’m not going to take us to the Table now. I’m going to take us to down to the river. Or rather, down the hall. There too we will find something hidden, unremarkable. A metal trough filled with water. But at that water, we will meet Jesus, and a number of us will outwardly own the promises of God. Just as Jesus visibly demonstrated his authority to forgive by healing the paralytic, so now God will visibly represent his forgiveness through the waters of baptism.