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Matthew 9:1-8 “Authority to Forgive”

“And getting into the boat, He crossed over and came to His own city. And behold! They were bringing to Him a paralytic having been laid upon a bed. And seeing their faith Jesus said to the paralytic, ‘Courage, child. Your sins are forgiven.’ And behold! Some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This one blasphemes!’ And seeing their thoughts, Jesus said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say: ‘your sins are forgiven’ or to say: ‘get up and walk’? Now, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority upon the earth to forgive sin’ Then He says to the paralytic, ‘Get up. Pick up your bed and go to your house.’ And getting up, he went to his house. Now, when the crowds saw they were frightened and glorified God who gave such authority to men.”

 

This third and final wonder within Matthew’s second block of miracles (8:23-9:8) brings Jesus back to Capernaum where He demonstrates the highest authority of all: to forgive sin. Many themes that have previously been introduced continue to flow through this narrative (faith, sin, opposition to Jesus, etc.) but the central point is to further define the extent, purpose, and source of Jesus’ authority. The people are beginning to arrive at their own conclusions regarding who Jesus is. These conclusions are exposed by what Jesus sees of them, and what they see in Jesus.

 

What Jesus Sees (vv. 1-7)


Though made somewhat ambiguous in most English versions, the action of seeing drives this text. The aorist participle ἰδὼν/ἰδόντες (seeing) is found in vv. 2, 4,[1] and 8 to describe what Jesus sees and what the crowds see. In all three instances, what is seen reveals more about the one who sees than the object that is seen.

 

Belief (vv. 1-2)


The main object that Jesus sees in these verses is the faith of the paralytic and those who carry him. Yet, true to Matthew’s form, we are provided first with the necessary context before we read of Jesus’ compassion on what He sees.

 

Context (vv. 1-2a)

“And getting into the boat, He crossed over and came to His own city. And behold! They were bringing to Him a paralytic having been laid upon a bed.”

 

Jesus has come back from the country of the Gadarenes and is now back in His hometown. Ever since Jesus relocated from Nazareth to Capernaum (4:13), the seaside town became the center of Jesus’ operations. After being rejected by the Gentiles of Gadara, Jesus has returned home. There is an implicit question regarding Jesus’ reception. Will the Israelites who know Him receive Him with more warmness than the Gentiles who were strangers?[2]

Matthew utilizes his favorite attention grabber to introduce v. 2. Καὶ ἰδοὺ (and behold!) marks the procession of a paralytic being brought to Jesus. The imperfect προσέφερον (they were bringing) indicates the procession as an ongoing process. Nothing more is said of those who are carrying the paralytic, only that they (whoever “they” were) were bringing this one to Jesus.[3]


The vocabulary utilized is strongly reminiscent of the centurion’s servant (8:5-13). While paralysis was more of a symptom than the malady for the centurion’s servant (8:6), the same term is employed here. Also, the perfect passive verb from βάλλω (lying/laid out/struck down) used in 8:6 (βέβληται) and 8:14 (βεβλημένην) is used again here (βεβλημένον). As with the other cases, it is probably best to understand a more active sense (having been laid upon a bed/struck down upon a bed) than the passive one favored by our translations (lying upon a bed).[4] While Matthew has already recorded that Jesus has healed other paralytics (4:24), this is the first (and only) detailed account of such a meeting.

 

Compassion (v. 2b)

“And seeing their faith Jesus said to the paralytic, ‘Courage, child. Your sins are forgiven.’”

 

It would be a mistake to rush over the first few words. Jesus’ response to the paralytic and those who carry him is prompted by the fact that He saw their faith. There is no reason to suppose that their faith (τὴν πίστιν αὐτῶν) refers only to the faith of those carrying the bed and every reason to suppose that the paralytic’s faith is also in view. This faith certainly draws our attention back to the centurion whose faith was credited to him as righteousness (8:10-11), but also connects us back to the little faith (ὀλιγόπιστοι) of the disciples (8:26). Again, faith is not measured in quantity but in quality. One does not so much believe harder but refines and defines what one believes. That these men believed that Jesus could heal is evident by the fact that they are here. But why are they convinced of this truth? Who do they believe Jesus is and where does His healing power come from? Their faith is in more than Jesus’ abilities as a miracle worker but in Jesus Himself. That Jesus sees this faith could be a simple reference to observing the fruit of faith, which is their effort to bring the paralytic. Yet the following context suggests something deeper. Jesus looked into their hearts and saw their absolute trust in Him. This is confirmed by what Jesus says to the paralytic.


While Jesus sees the faith of all those men involved, He addresses only the paralytic. It is he for whom the others are concerned. First comes a word of encouragement. What most English versions translate as “Take courage” (NASB, LSB), “Be of good cheer” (NKJV), or “Take heart” (ESV) is the single present imperative θάρσει (from θαρσέω – to be firm or resolute in the face of danger). In keeping with the simplicity of Jesus’ words, perhaps the best English translation is simply “courage, child.”[5] Jesus uses the noun τέκνον (child) rather than υἱός (son), emphasizing the tenderness and compassion of the encouragement.[6] Any doubts or misgivings that the paralytic may have had are laid to rest. With Jesus as the object of their faith, there is no reason to fear or be dismayed. What follows is the reason for such courage.


Your sins are forgiven” is an excellent translation of the Greek text (ἀφίενταί σου αἱ ἁμαρτίαι[7]). If the narrative concerning the centurion links faith with credited righteousness and reward and the account of the storm links faith with preservation, then this statement unambiguously links faith with forgiveness.


There is the ever-present connection between sin and illness (Lev. 26:16; Deut. 28:22), though it is not necessary to assume that this man’s paralysis is the result of a specific sin. If that were the case the paralysis would have been cured the moment Jesus pronounced forgiveness. Yet, all illness is a result of the curse (Rom. 5:12) and so this man’s paralysis was a constant reminder that he was a sinner in need of forgiveness. Matthew began his gospel with a promise that Jesus was the One to save His people from their sin (1:21). The fact that Jesus was healing people from sin’s effects has already been linked with future atonement Jesus will secure through His suffering (8:17). These men believe (πιστεύω/πίστις) that Jesus is the One who has the authority to save from sin. Jesus’ compassionate words both confirm and reward this faith.

 

Unbelief (vv. 3-7)


The opposition to Jesus continues to grow. The demonic forces behind the storm attempted to prevent Jesus from entering Gentile territory. The Gentiles of that territory begged Jesus to leave them alone. Jesus’ return to His own town draws new opposition from His own people. Matthew first provides a brief context (v. 3) of the opposition before recording Jesus’ response to the conflict (vv. 4-7).

 

Context (v. 3)

“And behold! Some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This one blasphemes!’


Another “καὶ ἰδού (and behold!) introduces a new and interesting scene worthy of the reader’s attention. Matthew moves to a group of scribes speaking among themselves. As mentioned before a “scribe” (γραμματεύς) is a legal expert in Torah and thus was called upon to judge and settle disputes.[8] These students of the law are convinced that Jesus has just blasphemed. Matthew provides nothing of their rationale, such as the fact that only God can forgive. Yet nothing else remains for them to come to this conclusion. They take Jesus’ pronouncement of forgiveness as overstepping His bounds (as a man) into the province of God. 


Interestingly enough, their choice of words mirrors that of the disciples in the boat. The disciples asked, “what kind is this one?” (ποταπός ἐστιν οὗτος) while the scribes state “this one blasphemes!” (οὗτος βλασφημεῖ). The disciples marveled, the demons declared, and the scribes utterly reject. That these men were speaking to themselves (τῶν γραμματέων εἶπαν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς) does not mean that they were discussing the matter together so much as they all were thinking these things to themselves as the context will soon make clear.

 

Conflict (vv. 4-7)


The following response of Jesus consists of questions (vv. 4-5) and answers (vv. 6-7). The questions target the purpose of the scribes in their innermost musings (v. 4) and challenge them to form proper conclusions based on the evidence at hand (v. 5). The answers come in the form of a dramatic statement that supplies Jesus’ intended purpose (v. 6a) and a miraculous work that proves Jesus is precisely who He claims to be (vv. 6b-7).

 

Questions of Purpose (v. 4): “And seeing their thoughts, Jesus said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts?” Just as Jesus saw (ἰδὼν) the faith of the paralytic and his companions, Jesus sees (ἰδῶν) the scribes’ inner most thoughts. Matthew does not say that Jesus read the faces of those thinking evil thoughts and came to the correct assumption. Jesus supernaturally saw their invisible thoughts as certainly as He saw the faith of those with the paralytic. In addition to the ability to forgive sin and restore a paralytic, perhaps this is a third proof that Jesus is God-incarnate, for who else can read the hearts of men back to them.


Jesus’ question marks the scribes’ purpose (ἱνατί). For what reason are they thinking evil in their hearts? Now it becomes clear that the scribes were thinking rather than discussing Jesus’ blasphemy. In phrasing the question in this manner, Jesus reveals that they were never listening to Jesus to hear truth but came for the purpose of finding fault. This statement was not a surprise to them in that it took them off guard and then innocently came to an incorrect conclusion. They came with bated breath waiting for Jesus to hang Himself with His own words and apparently this was it. Before correcting their false assumption Jesus condemns their wicked motives.

 

Questions of Proof (v. 5): “For which is easier, to say: ‘your sins are forgiven’ or to say: ‘get up and walk’?” This question forces the scribes to consider all the evidence before jumping to conclusions. Presumably, they see before them what appears to be a man, flesh and blood, declaring the forgiveness of sins. If true, then this is certainly a case of blasphemy. Yet, Jesus turns the tables on them by asking which task is easier: (a) to say, “your sins are forgiven” or (b) to say, [to the paralytic] “get up and walk”? 


There is much discussion on how best to understand Jesus’ question. On the one hand, it is easy to say “your sins are forgiven” because there is no immediate visible evidence that would either confirm or deny the statement. It would not be until the individual in question stands before God on the last day that he would know if he were truly forgiven or not. Thus, Jesus could escape being found out as a charlatan. To say, “get up and walk” thus seems like the harder of the two, for that implies an immediate source of vindication.


Yet, on the other hand, both these statements are easily said while remaining impossible to execute. No mere mortal can any more forgive sin than he can make the paralyzed walk. There is no “easier” choice for both are impossible, belonging squarely in the province of God alone. Therefore, if Jesus can perform one of these feats, there should be an assumption that He can execute both. This is the best way of understanding Jesus’ challenge. If He can do one, then He can do the other. If He can restore the paralytic, then He can forgive sin because neither one of these feats is possible for man.

 

Answering Purpose (v. 6a): “Now, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority upon the earth to forgive sin.’” This statement brings the scene to a climax. The purpose (ἵνα) of this miracle is for the scribes to know (a) who Jesus is and (b) the extent of Jesus’ authority. Once again Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man with reference to Dan. 7:13-14. The phrase “upon the earth” (ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς) is an interesting addition as it normally at least implies some sort of comparison with heaven (Matt. 6:10, 19; 10:29; 16:19; 18:18, 19; 23:9; 28:18). Though the Son of Man comes [from heaven] riding upon the clouds (Dan. 7:13), His authority extends to the earth. There is an implication here that the Son of Man’s authority is to execute the Father’s will which is in heaven upon the earth (6:10). That authority begins with the forgiveness of sin.


It is interesting that Jesus chose this moment, this circumstance, and this audience in which to make this statement and then perform this deed. It would be negligent of the Christian to think anything less of Jesus as the orchestrator of these events. He chose to pronounce forgiveness before performing restoration. It is almost as if He is demonstrating the order of events to come. Messiah comes first to make an end of sin and then to bring in everlasting righteousness (Dan. 9:24).

 

Answering Proof (vv. 6b-7): “Then He says to the paralytic, ‘Get up. Pick up your bed and go to your house.’ And getting up, he went to his house.” The flow of Jesus’ discourse is interrupted by Matthew the narrator. The historical perfect (He says…) draws attention to what comes next. Technically, Jesus uses only two imperatives here (Pick up your bed…Go to your house). The aorist participle ἐγερθεὶς (getting up) functions almost like a preparatory command. The point is simple: there is no more work to be done here. The paralytic (or ex-paralytic?) has been made whole. His sins have been forgiven and his body has been restored. This restoration is to prove to the unbelieving scribes that Jesus is (a) the Son of Man (b) who has come to save His people from their sin.


Matthew records the obedience of the ex-paralytic with the simplicity and precision that marks a true disciple. Jesus told him to get up and go home. So, he got up and went home. What more proof could one ask for? 

 

What Everyone Else Sees (v. 8)


Jesus saw faith and confirmed it. Jesus saw unbelief and confronted it. Now, Matthew recounts what everyone else saw. Matthew does not say where these crowds came from, but we are getting used to the fact that wherever Jesus goes, crowds soon follow. By mentioning the crowds, Matthew is able to speak of those others who saw and heard these things while at the same time excluding the scribes. Their response to Jesus has already been recorded. Now it is time for those who are neither scribes, followers, nor disciples. These are just “the crowds”.

 

The Crowds’ Reaction (v. 8a)

“Now, when the crowds saw they were frightened and glorified God.”


Just as Jesus saw (ἰδὼν) the faith of the paralytic and friends and He saw (ἰδὼν) the unbelief of the scribes, the crowds react to what they saw (ἰδόντες). Their reaction consisted of fear (ἐφοβήθησαν) and praise (ἐδόξασαν). Fear is a natural reaction to being in the presence of the holy. The verb is stronger than “awestruck” (NASB) or “marveled” (NKJV) and Matthew is not drawing a connection to the response of Jesus to the centurion (8:10) nor the disciples’ response to Jesus (8:27). Their response is more akin to that of the Israelites who behold the shining (glory) face of Moses upon his return from Sinai (Ex. 34:30). That they turned their glorifying to God is a good thing in and of itself. But the reason they did so betrays the grim reality of their condition.

 

The Crowds’ Rationale (v. 8b)

“Who gave such authority to men.”


They recognize that the source of Jesus’ authority is God, but miss the point that Jesus is God. Jesus never claimed to exercise authority that was not His. The very term ἐξουσία implies more than one’s right to act but also assumes the power to act. When Jesus claimed the authority to forgive sin, He referred to both His authorization and His ability to do so. Yet, the people miss the fact that He is THE Son of Man from Dan. 7 and consider Him to be nothing more than a son of man like Ezekiel (Ezek. 2:1, 3, 6, , 8; 3:1, 3, 4, 10, 17, 25; 4:1, 16, etc.). In other words, they see nothing more than what the scribes saw: a man like one of them. It is amazing to them that God has given authority of this kind to a man and they missed the point that God is among them as Emmanuel. 


Jesus’ authority extends over creation, into Gentile territory, and presides over sin. The source of this authority rests upon Him by virtue of who He is, the Son of Man who has come to make an end of sin and will return to bring in everlasting righteousness. All of this has been made plain in Matthew’s record. And the people missed it all.



[1] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies, 1971), p. 24. Later copyists replaced ἰδὼν (seeing) with εἰδὼς (knowing) because it (a) seems to make more sense that Jesus knew rather than saw the scribes’ thoughts and (b) because it corresponds with the parallel accounts (Mk. 2:8; Lk. 5:22) which use ἐπιγνούς (knowing). Yet, the apparent awkwardness of the phrase “seeing their thoughts” combined with the connections to vv. 2 & 8 and the fact that ἰδὼν is found in the earlier manuscripts all argue for its originality.


[2] This does not demand that these events immediately followed Jesus’ return from Gadara chronologically, but that Matthew places these events side by side to demonstrate the increase of opposition from the spiritual realm, the Gentile lands, and now even on Jesus’ home turf. While it is certainly possible to harmonize the gospel accounts chronologically, to make such a task the objective is to lose sight of the author’s intention.


[3] While much more detail is given by both Mark and Luke, Matthew (the first to write of this event) purposefully draws the reader’s attention to Jesus. Neither the paralytic nor those who accompany him say a word. Jesus’ actions and speech are in the spotlight, just as Matthew intended.


[4] Charles Quarles, Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p. 89.


[5] Broadus, p. 195.


[6] Lenski, p. 356.


[7] The present indicative ἀφίενταί indicates that this forgiveness is a completed action. The emphasis is not laid up on a future action, but has already, now, been put into effect. The pronoun σου is a subject genitive, indicating the sins committed by the paralytic. These sins are gone, having been dismissed by Jesus at this moment.


[8] We must remember that Israelite culture was theocratic, thus Torah served as the people’s penal, moral, civic, and social law-code. 

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