Read the passage here.
Our passage today is a shorter one – just 8 verses. And if you were here last week, you know that we are arguing that this passage properly fits with the several vignettes that went before. However, I wanted to look at this passage separately as I believe that it has particular significance – not that Matthew is setting it apart as having particular significance, but rather that I want to bring out its significance.
So, by way of review, and in case you weren’t here last week, what we considered is that our passage today is part of a larger literary structure. We know that Matthew has five major sections structured by a narrative-discourse format. We are into the second major section, and in the first part of the narrative (the discourse starts in chapter 10 – the sending of the twelve).
So far, what we’ve seen is three stories of healing, followed by a challenge to two would-be disciples, and then three more stories of miracles (calming the sea, casting out of demons, and the healing story we get today). The structure of these set of stories, therefore, looks something like this:
- Healing of the leper (8:1-4)
- Healing of the centurion’s servant (8:5-13)
- Healing of Peter’s MIL (8:14-17)
- Jesus’ call to respond (8:18-22)
- Jesus calms the storm (8:23-27)
- Jesus casts out demons (8:28-34)
- Jesus heals the paralytic (9:1-8)
Now we further noted that in each of the two sets of three stories, in the middle story (centurion/demons), we get an explicit, third-party statement/attestation of Jesus’ unique authority. First the centurion and then the demon(s) acknowledge that Jesus has authority to do what he wills to do.
So we can see that what Matthew seems to be doing is demonstrating the authority of Jesus. In the first series of stories, he demonstrates that Jesus has authority to heal – he has the authority to heal or restore us from the brokenness of the world. In the second set of stories, Jesus demonstrates authority (I would argue) over the natural world, the supernatural world, and over sin itself (which is what we will talk about today).
This middle story then, where Jesus appears to discourage or challenge the two seekers, seems to be Matthew’s challenge to his readers, including us. If Jesus is indeed a person of authority – even having the very authority of God – what will we do about it? How will we respond?
So the long and the short of it is that this entire section seems to have to do with Jesus’ authority as the Messiah.
Now the reason why we’ve set today’s passage aside – why we’re discussing it as a separate sermon – is not because Matthew gives it special attention (I think) but simply because I want to. And right off the bat, as we’ve already indicated, this particular story is not focussed on the healing (like the first three stories in this section/structure), but rather on Jesus’ proclamation of forgiveness of sins. Jesus says to the paralyzed man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”
It’s this proclamation that shocks and angers the teachers of the law. Though we’re probably familiar with the issue, the corresponding passage in the gospel of Mark spells it out:
6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”Mark 2:6-7
In other words, by forgiving the man’s sin, Jesus is making a claim to possess divine authority. According to the religious leaders – the teachers of the law – this claim is blasphemous. And if Jesus isn’t, in fact, given authority by God – if Jesus isn’t in fact God Himself – they’re right.
So in consideration of this passage, there are a couple of things that are worth noting (there’s actually a lot of things, but we’ll just talk about a couple). The first thing is Jesus’ response. He says to the religious leaders:
4 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? 5 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”Matthew 9:4-6
The phrase that Jesus uses here, “Son of Man,” has several referents in the Old Testament, mostly in the book of Ezekiel. In most cases, it simply means human being – i.e. the son of a man is, himself, a man. However, most scholars agree that the way Jesus uses it (here and elsewhere) is a reference to the book of Daniel, chap. 7. Here, the prophet says:
11 “Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire. 12 (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.Daniel 7:11-14
Most of us are familiar with the book of Daniel by virtue of the story of Daniel in the lion’s den and the story of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego in the book of Daniel. And as many of you also know, Daniel is also known for the significant amount of apocalyptic passages (of which, Daniel 7 is included).
At any rate, the book of Daniel is written to a people in the midst of the Babylonian exile. The challenge for Israel, taken out of their land and being forced to live as strangers in a new land, is how to maintain their identity as the people of God. According to Leslie Hardin and Derek Brown,
“Daniel 7 is set in the midst of a literary unit (Dan 2–7) concerned with the encroaching pressure among exiled Jews to worship the king of Babylon.”… Daniel sees “one like a son of man, coming on the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:13 NIV). The phrase “one like a son of man,” denotes a human-looking figure who is given privileges normally reserved for God: authority, glory, sovereign power, the worship of men of every language, and an eternal kingdom (Dan 7:14).Hardin and Brown, “Son of Man,” LBD.
And (again, without getting too side-tracked), the concern (and thus the images that we get in the apocalyptic vision) is fundamentally about the conflict of kingdoms, and therefore the conflict of loyalties.
They go on to say:
Daniel’s vision is one of suffering and exaltation. The saints both suffer at the hands of the “little horn” and simultaneously are given the kingdom along with its sovereignty and power (Dan 7:19–27). As the beasts rage against Israel, the “one like a son of man” is ushered into the presence of God and enthroned.Ibid.
So, in the midst of this setting of conflict of kingdoms, conflict of loyalties, the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision is one who steps in and establishes the kingdom of God by asserting the authority of God. The Son of Man is one who, by his authority and by his rule, brings peace and order to the cosmos.
So, for obvious reasons, the Son of Man, according to the Daniel imagery, had significant messianic overtones.
The second thing I want to consider is the relationship between sin and sickness. And the reason that I bring this up is that it seems slightly odd that Jesus, in response to being presented with a paralyzed (or obviously unwell) person, instead of healing him, forgives his sins. Now, given that Matthew is most likely written before the gospel of John, the initial readers of Matthew wouldn’t have thought of John’s story of Jesus healing of the blind man (John 9)
1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”John 9:1-5
And I only bring this up because, at least in the minds of people in the time, the idea of sickness and sin being related is clear (as it often is in our own time).
However, Jesus is not claiming that the person is sick because of sin (and that therefore, he has to forgive the sin). Rather, the forgiving of sin is a demonstration of authority (which the religious leaders can’t understand) and the healing of the paralysis then serves as proof of the aforementioned authority.
According to Craig Keener:
By performing a sign that is empirically verifiable, however, Jesus argues that he is God’s authorized agent and therefore has authority to forgive sins. The argument runs like a traditional Jewish qal waḥomer argument: if God would authorize Jesus visibly to heal the effects of humanity’s fallenness, would he not send him to combat that fallenness itself?Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
So, to repeat, Jesus’ concern here is with forgiving sin, not (so much) with healing. What Matthew is doing here is a further demonstration of Jesus’ authority, and here specifically the Danielic authority of the Son of Man. The healing of the sickness serves as a specific proof, a specific example of sorts, that this authority has to do with the real healing with which God is concerned – the sin and fallenness of humankind.
And while our passage today should be understood in the context of the entire series of vignettes that we talked about in the past couple of weeks, and while I don’t believe that it’s meant to be a climax of sorts by Matthew (if anything, structurally, the passage about the two seekers is the climax), I think for us this point is the main thing – that Jesus healed the sick and ate with the poor, but His main objective was to deal with sin. It’s the brokenness and fallenness – the sin – of humankind that Jesus was concerned with. It’s the reconciliation of a fallen humanity to a holy God.
I feel like this is important because, being fallen humans, we are often prone to think of Jesus or being a Christian in terms of what we get. We read stories like this and think, perhaps, that people should follow Jesus because if you follow Jesus, then you will get healed; or following Jesus means that you will get to go to heaven when you die; or you will find success; or you will be happy; or whatever else we think Jesus will give us. And when we read these stories, these vignettes, in terms of power, then we’re prone to think in terms of reward. But, to reiterate once again, these stories are not ultimately about power, they’re about authority. Matthew’s concern is to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah because he has been given authority by God. The power is given or demonstrated, precisely because Jesus has authority. This is why Jesus is able to heal, calm storms, cast out demons with simply a word. Because it’s not an exercise of power, but of authority.
And in our world, we’ve got that backwards. We think, because our world is structured this way, if a person has power, then they should be given authority. We think that the higher position a person has, the more we should trust them. This is why celebrity endorsements matter (though they shouldn’t). Why do we trust a person whose expertise is acting in front of a camera or throwing and catching a ball when we’re deciding what kind of vehicle to buy? Why aren’t tv commercials showing us engineers and safety experts instead? Why is it that we trust billionaires like Bill Gates or Elon Musk or Oprah Winfrey to tell us how to be happy? And why are Instagram influencers even a thing?
But Jesus’ authority isn’t derived from his ability to gather crowds or even perform miracles.
And that brings us back to the passage that we looked at last week with the two would be followers (which, I think, is really Matthew’s central point). If Jesus really is who He says He is, if all of the things that Jesus does points to the fact that He really is the Messiah. And if the Messiah has been given all authority by God the Father, authority to establish the kingdom, authority to reconcile a broken and fallen humanity to a holy God, how then will we respond?
We may see Jesus, rightly, as one who can fix everything that is wrong. And that might be enough for us. But if Jesus is the one to whom authority of the kingdom has been given, if Jesus is actually the king, then that has profound implications for what it means to actually follow Jesus.
So, following Matthew’s gospel, we understand who Jesus is – He is the King. And we understand what He is doing – He is restoring a lost and fallen humanity, releasing us from the bondage of sin and bringing us under the Kingdom of God. And once again, we must ask ourselves, how then will we respond?