People who read Matthew for the first time may think the arrangement of material is haphazard or at best merely topical. It is not haphazard. It is topical. But it is more than topical. First of all, we see a progression in the nine miracles. They start with simple physical healings: the man with leprosy, the sick servant of the centurion, Peter’s mother-in-law. Then they advance to Jesus’ power over nature, as He quiets a storm on the Sea of Galilee, and even over demons when He casts many of them out of the demon-possessed men from Gadara. In chapter 9, Jesus raises the dead and restores sight and speech to people who are blind and mute.
This escalating development is also seen in the careful arrangement of the interjected material. It concerns: what it means to follow Jesus, the authority of Jesus to forgive sins, and the commissioning of those who have followed Jesus to take part in the missionary enterprise. The obligation to tell others about Jesus is introduced in chapter 9 and forms all of chapter 10.
In Matthew nine we discover opposition from the Jewish leaders for the first time, an opposition that will grow to the point at which they will scheme to have Jesus crucified by the Gospel’s end. In these verses, Jesus’ opponents accuse him of (1) blasphemy, (2) living with tax collectors and “sinners,” and (3) a lack of piety.
The sixth miracle in this important sequence of nine early miracles is well known. It is the story of how a paralyzed man was brought to Jesus by four of his friends and how Jesus not only healed him of his paralysis but forgave him his sin.
Some men came carrying their paralyzed friend, and when they found they were unable to get in to see Jesus, they went onto the roof, removed some of the tiles, and lowered the paralyzed man on a mat directly in front of Jesus. Jesus stopped teaching, and everyone waited breathlessly to see what He would do. It was a dramatic moment.
I suppose the man on the mat was looking apprehensive and perhaps even afraid, because Jesus’ first words were a helpful encouragement: “Take heart, son.” That meant, “Don’t be afraid. I don’t mind.” Then, with hardly a pause, Jesus continues boldly, “Your sins are forgiven.”
“What did we just hear?” the teachers of the law asked themselves at once. “Did we hear Him say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’? How dare He say that? No one has authority to forgive sins but God. Claiming to be able to forgive sins is a claim to be God. This man is guilty of the vilest blasphemy. He should be stoned.”
They were entirely right in their facts, of course. Matthew expects his readers to understand the point. It is clear that only God can forgive sin. There is no disputing that. But it follows from this starting point that if Jesus can forgive sin, as He is about to show He can, then Jesus is God or at the very least speaks and acts with God’s authority. This is precisely the way Jesus handles their unspoken question. Knowing their thoughts, which He calls evil, Jesus asks them, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins …” He then tells the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your bed and go home.” And the man does, completely cured! The people are astonished. We are told that “they praised God, who had given such authority to men.”
They didn’t go far enough – it would be a while before anyone confessed Jesus’ full deity – but they went as far as they could go.
This story contains two important lessons. First, we see that the root problem of the human race is sin. Jesus raised this issue. Matthew’s point is that Jesus raised the sin question because the final purpose of His coming was to deal with it, not to ignore it or treat it lightly. How different from people today, or even some of the people in this story! Today we do any of three things, or all of them: (1) we ignore sin, as if it does not exist, (2) we blame it on someone else, either our genes or our environment, or (3) we pretend that it does not matter. But sin does matter! It is the source of all our problems, and Jesus takes it seriously.
Secondly, Jesus’ authority to forgive sin proves His deity. After seeing the miracle, the people understood that God had given Jesus some astonishing authority. But Matthew points out more than this. The Pharisees accused Jesus of blaspheming, since only God can forgive sin, and since Jesus forgave the sin, His as-yet-unspoken claim to deity was upheld.
This is why this example of healing is so important. The issue was the ability of Jesus to forgive sin. Anyone can claim such authority. You or I or anyone else can say to someone, “I forgive your sin,” meaning not merely that we are not going to dwell on the offense but that we actually have authority to absolve the sin or deliver the one who is forgiven from its punishment. We can say it, but who would take it seriously, except a few individuals like the Pharisees who are scandalized by blasphemy? But if someone couples the forgiveness of sins, which is invisible and unseen, to physical healing, which is both visible and verifiable, and then actually performs the healing, the claim is substantiated. And when that occurs, we had better be “filled with awe,” as the onlookers were, for it means that somehow God Himself is among us.