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Forgives (or, What Are the Limits of Jesus' Power?) from Luke 5:17-26

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Luke 5:17-26

The combined presence of a group of faithful friends and a group of condescending Jewish leaders sets the stage for Jesus' most profound miracle/teaching yet. Not only does Jesus have the divine power to heal, but also He has the divine power to forgive. No one was quite ready for that declaration, and the reactions are polarized.

“Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Luke 5:21

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We've Seen This Passage Before!

For me, this week's lesson is an interesting challenge. We covered Mark's version of this event in March 2019, and the two Gospels are rather similar.

[Teaching reminder moment: "The Synoptic Gospels" are Matthew, Mark and Luke. They are very similar but not quite the same. I talked about that a lot more in depth in my Introduction to Luke. Not being the same is not a problem -- it makes these accounts more compelling.

Anyway, our passage this week has a parallel in all three:

  • Matthew 8:1-4 // Mark 2:1-12 // Luke 5:17-26

And like I said, we covered Mark's version two years ago. That's actually one of the reasons I started putting up old lessons -- so we could easily see what we had already covered. And voila, here's that lesson!

Reading through it, I feel pretty much the same about this week's passage in Luke! The things I emphasized then are things I would want to emphasize now:

  • Discussion idea: what's the best thing a friend has ever done for you?

  • Point: why didn't the people around Jesus make room for a man in need?

  • Explanation: miracles vs. teachings, and the nature of authority.

So, here's the interesting challenge for me. You know that I always like to suggest something different or unique (my goal in these supplements is to supplement what you already have in the leader guide) -- a different way to explain or illustrate the lesson, different ideas for questions or discussions. And I'm going to do that this week! I'm trying to talk about things I didn't focus on in the Mark lesson. BUT . . .

But our most important job in Bible study is to learn the "main thing". Until we're comfortably living like Jesus, we still have a lot to learn about the basics of the Bible. If that means you repeat the ideas you emphasized when you studied Mark, then do it! Throw in some new questions and illustrations, but focus on Luke's main idea, which is the same as Mark's main idea. We never want our creativity to take us away from the clear and obvious truths of God's Word.

[Editor's note: having finished this supplement, it turns out that the differences in wording between Mark and Luke are more than enough to fill up a meaningful and lively discussion of this passage.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

#stickittotheman - The People vs. The Power Brokers

If you like mind-numbing news, 2021 has not disappointed. I very much like to include current events in my discussion topic suggestions, but I also prefer to use them when they more clearly apply to that week's passage. For example, the Capitol protests fit our discussion that week because John the Baptist was confronting the people with their political misappropriations. Believe it or not, I think that this whole GameStop thing fits as a topic for this week. (As always, if your group is just not interested in this kind of thing, don't use it.)

So, let's bring up the stock market craziness related to GameStop and the "short squeeze". There are so, so many theories about what's really going on, and you could lose control of this discussion if you don't keep it tight. But at least part of the GameStop stock event is due to "day traders" uniting against "accredited investors" -- amateurs vs. professionals, or the people vs. "the man". It's a classic trope -- "the little guy takes on the system". (By the way, that's not currently going well for the little guy.)

Part of the reason why many of us are drawn to a "David vs. Goliath" story is we all fear that the system is rigged against the little guy, and so we root for him (even if we're not optimistic about his chances). How many stories can you think of (not found in the Bible) in which David actually beat Goliath?

Here's where I'm going with this: the Gospel of Luke makes it very clear that the people around Jesus saw Him as taking on the religious authorities (and winning). It's insinuated that the religious leaders show up in our story this week partly because they want to censor Jesus. (Kind of like shutting down E-Trade or Robin Hood.) But not only does Jesus get the upper hand on them, He's also so clearly in the right! This absolutely delights the people. At least some of them view it as comeuppance. The New Testament is clear that Jewish leaders (and I'll focus on the Pharisees in this supplement) did not have the full support of the people. They were oppressive and holier-than-thou. In the eyes of those people, Jesus was a little guy sticking it to the man, and that gave Him some popularity. (And then, as Jesus' mission becomes more clear, that popularity starts to wane, but more on that later.)

In other words, if you have been reading the stock market news and have been at all sympathetic to the armchair traders taking on the hedge fund managers, you probably would have been drawn to the story of Jesus. (And you probably would not have been surprised when He ended up on a cross. I just hope that you would have stuck around for the rest of the story!)

(Note: here are two twists on the story that are important to understand if you decide to use that as an opening illustration.

  1. Jesus' mission was not about comeuppance on the Pharisees. Yes, He routinely put the Jewish leaders in their place, but that was not His primary purpose. Indeed, He wept over the hardheartedness of Jerusalem! No -- His mission was to rescue us from sin. That mission simply brought Him into conflict with leaders who were more interested in their earthly power than everyone's eternal salvation.

  2. The Pharisees were once the grass-roots, populous movement. They became popular because they were willing to challenge the leadership (much of which was Greek-leaning) and call the people back to their covenant commitments. But over generations, they became the entrenched power brokers who saw the teachings of someone like Jesus as a threat rather than the truth of God.

All of that to say: this story is not ultimately about "the little guy vs. the system". It's about each one of us following Jesus.)


Where We Are in Luke

Last week, we covered passages before and after this week's passage -- the calling of the first disciples. This is in the section of Luke I labeled as "Jesus begins to build a new community" (Luke 5-6). Here's how it all fits together:

  • Jesus calls His first disciples (5:1-11), establishing His miraculous power and the idea of leaving everything to follow Him.

  • Jesus heals a man with leprosy (5:12-16), establishing that Jesus will include those people the Jews considered "unclean".

  • Jesus forgives and heals a paralyzed man (5:17-26), establishing His relationship with the religious establishment and the key place of forgiveness.

  • Jesus eats with sinners (5:27-32), establishing that Jesus' mission extends to those rejected by the self-righteous world.

  • Jesus corrects misunderstandings about fasting (5:33-39), establishing that Jesus is not beholden to man-made traditions.

And so on. Jesus' new community will be built on repentance and forgiveness, extend to all people, and be based on God's rules, not man-made traditions.


Part 1: Hope Demonstrated (Luke 5:17-19)

17 On one of those days while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea, and also from Jerusalem. And the Lord’s power to heal was in him. 18 Just then some men came, carrying on a stretcher a man who was paralyzed. They tried to bring him in and set him down before him. 19 Since they could not find a way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on the stretcher through the roof tiles into the middle of the crowd before Jesus.

Last week, we established that Jesus had been teaching in Galilee for a while -- long enough that He had caused enough of a stir that religious leaders from as far as Jerusalem had come to hear Him. They wanted to know exactly what this new player was teaching because they had been given a sense that it was revolutionary (spoiler: it was).

Let's compare Luke's account to Matthew and Mark. This is something you can do pretty easily, and I highly recommend that you do so any time you are studying a Gospel in depth. Matthew gives a very short version. He mentions that they're in Capernaum, that a paralytic was brought to Jesus, and that some teachers of the law observed the event. Matthew focuses on how the miracle affirmed Jesus' authority to forgive sin (and the importance of such forgiveness to Jesus' mission). Mark goes into a lot more detail. We learn that Jesus was teaching in a house -- a house that was packed full of listeners, including some teachers of the law. Mark focuses on the exchange between Jesus and those teachers, but he also highlights the action of healing. We also learn that there were four friends. Luke, on the other hand, immediately calls attention to the Jewish leaders and where they had come from. It's clear that whatever is about to happen is going to be confrontational and memorable. And again, this fits well with Luke's emphasis on Jesus' worldwide mission, particularly to the poor and oppressed. The "establishment" was present and judging, but Jesus was focused on the needs of a helpless man.

[Note: "the Lord's power to heal was in Him" is a strange phrase, as if that were a rarity. The point is that Jesus performed multiple healings on this day, and it was unmistakable that they were all miracles of God.]

"Pharisees" represents a religious party, along with the Sadducees. "Teachers of the law" refers to a function, not a party. I described the parties more fully in

Many (or most) teachers of the law would have identified with the Pharisees. They had extensive knowledge of the the Torah as well as the different Jewish legal traditions in understanding and applying the Torah (this is where we get into the Talmud and the Mishnah). The point is that when people wanted to know "what does God want us to do in this situation", they asked the teachers of the law. But Jesus did not ask the teachers of the law what they thought about His teachings. (For obvious reasons.) They didn't like that. And they really didn't like when He said things outside of their self-made boundaries.

For our purposes, though, as 21st century readers, the real emphasis is on the paralyzed man and his friends (I'll talk more about his condition later). I believe that friendship is always a great topic for discussion, so if anyone has stories of "the power of friendship", I think you should always make room for it. We have no idea where this man came from. He might have lived down the street. He might have lived on the far side of the sea. What these friends did for this man is something we should celebrate for all eternity. (And note: Jesus calls initial attention to their faith, but more on that below.) They believed that Jesus could heal him, and so they were willing to take on whatever hardship not for their benefit but for his. That's powerful.

Sadly, there was no room for this man because all of the seats were taken. (And don't miss Luke's insinuation that much of the crowd were Jewish leaders. They were crowding him out, and they considered him a distraction.) But that didn't stop them! They went to an extreme measure that I hate to admit would have not crossed my mind. They modified the house and made room for their friend!

In my Mark comments, I established two things:

  • Many scholars believe that this house belonged to Andrew and Peter (see Mark 1:29), so no one would have fussed about the damage to the home.

  • "Damage" such as this wasn't actually damage. The way construction worked in the day, moving part of the roof was like moving a large piece of furniture. The worst of it would be the dirt that inevitably fell on the people below.

I also talked about the impossible awkwardness of the situation. This didn't happen quickly. The friends had to remove a large enough section of roof that a grown man lying flat on the equivalent of a stretcher could fit through it. And it was directly above Jesus! Imagine trying to teach while ceiling construction was going on directly above you in the same room. And yet, Jesus was not bothered at all, as the next section illustrates.

So, here's a new application/discussion idea that I didn't use in the Mark lesson: how do you handle distractions in worship or Bible study? We all have a funny story about such a distraction. I remember a time (a long time ago) when Micah put a Hot Wheels car on the floor and it rolled all the way to the front. And it was loud. Funny now; red-faced then. How about you?

And here's my point: sometimes we don't take well to events like that in church, do we? I have too many memories from my position on the platform of watching church members shoot the evil eye at the parent with the whimpering infant or toddler. Yes, I understand that there's a point at which you should take the child to the hall, but it's not after two seconds! Or what about the person who starts sobbing unexpectedly during the service? Or the person who has to use the bathroom two or three times? When we give the vibe that such a person is a distraction, they immediately feel unwelcome and unwanted. What if that was the first time that mom had been in a church service? What if the crying person recently lost a loved one? What if the bathroom-breaker was having adverse reactions to a new cancer treatment? Aren't those the kinds of people we should have extra compassion for as followers of Jesus Christ?

The final point to be made: the friends probably knew all of the possible conflict their intrusion would create, and it didn't stop them. They were more worried about their friend's need than their reputation among the religious leaders. I think that's a big deal, and something we can all learn from. They did so because they had hope that Jesus could do for their friend what He had do for many others already. I want to be that kind of friend!


Aside: Is There a Contradiction in Here?

If you read my Mark lesson commentary, you saw my illustration involving thatched roofs. But Luke specifically mentions tiles (it's the word we get "ceramic" from). As our liberal friends would conclude -- "clearly the entire Bible is a farce".

In truth, it's a reasonable question. Why the apparent discrepancy? First of all, note that Luke describes a very common house. They would have had flat roofs, and there would have been some sort of stair on the outside of the house. So the question is -- why does Mark describe a mud thatch, and Luke a ceramic tile? Archeological evidence from Galilee suggests that most common houses would have been covered with beams, branches, and a mixture of wood and straw like Mark describes. Does that mean Luke was wrong? There are two plausible explanations:

  1. Both of them were right. In very rare circumstances, some houses involved tile placed over the thatch. It provided extra protection from storms. But it was a lot more expensive. Plus, tile was used by Greeks -- a negative connotation.

  2. Playing off of that last observation, it's possible that Luke used the building material that was more familiar with his Gentile audience. The story is essentially unchanged, except Luke doesn't have to explain how houses were covered with mud roofs.

I lean toward that first option, but some scholars I respect say it's the second.


Part 2: Forgiveness Granted (Luke 5:20-24)

20 Seeing their faith he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” 21 Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to think to themselves, “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 But perceiving their thoughts, Jesus replied to them, “Why are you thinking this in your hearts? 23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he told the paralyzed man, “I tell you: Get up, take your stretcher, and go home.”

This is by far the most important part of this amazing event. All the rest of it is tremendous and lifechanging and earthshattering, but the most tremendous and lifechanging and earthshattering piece is this comment about the forgiveness of sins, followed by Jesus' declaration that He had the authority to grant such forgiveness.

Let's start with the double-take. This is definitely not what anyone expected to hear out of the mouth of Jesus in this situation. Clearly, they brought this man for physical healing (see below for more about his condition). Would they have been delighted to instead hear about God's forgiveness? Confused? Shocked? Jesus knew all along that He would physically heal the man, so this was not a bait-and-switch tactic. I also don't think it's was solely about the presence of so many Jewish leaders (this may have been His first "big opportunity" to directly challenge the status quo). I think He was genuinely moved by the faith of this group of friends. Because of their great faith, they would forever be associated with this greatest of news.

Think about it -- this is the first time Jesus has talked about forgiveness. His early message (according to Matthew) was "Repent, for the kingdom of God is near!" (Mark added, "Believe the good news!") Now, we learn that repentance can lead to forgiveness. That's not just good news, that's the best news! Jesus was just waiting for the right time to share the next level of His message -- and this was it.

(By the way, Jesus "being moved" simply reminds us of His great love for all people. We've recently talked about when He was moved by the faith of the centurion, as well as the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman. Jesus loved people, and He loved to celebrate those whose faith should be a beacon to others.)

And then there's the observation that Jesus seems to base the man's forgiveness on the entire groups' faith ("their"). That's weird. There are no proxy benefits for faith. (Incidentally, that's why Baptists reject the argument from Methodists that an infant can be baptized by virtue of the godparent's faith.) The simplest explanation is that Jesus forgave the man based on his own faith. He had faith enough to allow his friends to carry him all this way! And the rest of the story further establishes his personal faith in Jesus. But why mention the friends' faith at all? Well, why not? It's clear that they also had faith in Jesus; healing the paralyzed man would bring joy to them all. (And even though the Bible doesn't say this, I firmly believe that all of them followed Jesus -- ultimately, all of them were forgiven. But because the paralyzed man was literally at the center of the story, Jesus used him as the "object lesson" for the good news for all people, that forgiveness was available.)

Note the passive voice: "Your sins are forgiven." At this moment, Jesus has not said that He forgave the sins. But the Pharisees realized that Jesus was speaking on God's behalf -- and no one could speak definitively for God except God.

And the Pharisees were right! God alone could determine whose sins would be forgiven! But here's the amazing way Jesus blocks their flow of argument. No one could perform a miraculous healing but God alone (or His chosen conduit -- see John 9:33 for the popular opinion about this). So, if Jesus could perform this miraculous healing, then . . .

(Over the course of the Gospel, as the evidence in favor of Jesus continues to mount, the Jewish leaders have to resort to ridiculous blasphemies like Jesus performs these miracles by the power of Satan.)

It's easier to say "your sins are forgiven" because who can know in this life? But we all know that the miracle of forgiveness is actually much harder than a physical healing. But in that setting, the Pharisees were trapped on the line of argument that it was harder to say "get up and walk". And when Jesus did so -- and the man immediately got up and walked (see the next section) -- everything He had previously said was by their argument validated by God.

As far as I'm concerned, verse 24 is an important turning point in Luke's Gospel. Yes, people must repent. Yes, forgiveness is available. But Jesus, the "Son of Man" (see below) has the authority to grant that forgiveness. (Conversely, what authority do the Pharisees have, exactly?)

It's a truly incredible exchange. Today, knowing as we do from Matthew 28:18 that all authority has been given to Jesus in heaven and on earth, this might seem underwhelming. But think about what these first hearers must have thought as Jesus started "pulling back the curtain" on His mission and ministry. We might get caught up on the miracle -- how amazing would it have been to hear Jesus say, "Get up!" and to see the man do just that. (And let's not take away from what happened.) But the truth is that Jesus primary point is that forgiveness of sin is a greater miracle than divine healing. And each one of us -- everyone who has trusted in Jesus for salvation -- has experienced that miracle.

This story should remind us how blessed we are, even if Jesus has maybe not performed a miracle of physical healing that we may have asked for. He has done the greater miracle for us, and in heaven we will have no need for physical healing ever again.


Aside on Paralysis

I've written elsewhere about diseases in the New Testament. (As a shameless plug, you can always scroll down to the bottom of each lesson and click on any of those tags to see other places I've talked about a topic.) Forgive the New Testament authors if the terms used were vague or overly general; they didn't have the medical knowledge that we have today.

The word describing the man's condition basically means "loose from one side". Many scholars have associated this with some kind of palsy. Certain forms of palsy can be completely incapacitating. You'll notice that all of the accounts of physical healing in the Gospels are rather light on details about the condition -- that's because the author's focus is not on the disease but on the Healer.

And here's an important thing to remember: by talking about forgiveness, Jesus is not somehow implying that the man was suffering from palsy because he had sinned. He's simply acknowledging that the man's bigger need (and also the need of everyone in that house) was forgiveness of sin. And that forgiveness is available to all who would believe the good news.


Part 3: Praise Offered (Luke 5:25-26)

25 Immediately he got up before them, picked up what he had been lying on, and went home glorifying God. 26 Then everyone was astounded, and they were giving glory to God. And they were filled with awe and said, “We have seen incredible things today.”

The structure of this story is impeccable. Luke masterfully creates dramatic tension.

  • In the previous story, Jesus' miraculous healings were attracting a crowd.

  • Then we learn that Jewish leaders are a part of that crowd, clearly to see if they needed to censor Jesus. Would they trap Jesus?

  • Then, a paralyzed man is lowered directly in front of Jesus in full view of all the people. What would Jesus do?

  • Then, Jesus subverted all expectations by forgiving the man's sins. How could anyone justify such a bold statement?

  • Then, when implicitly confronted, Jesus said that healing the man of his paralysis would validate His claim. Would the man get up and walk?

  • Then, the man did so!

It's all so very smooth. And clearly, there is tension in the room. On the one hand, you have the religious leaders who can see the train leaving the station, so to speak. They want to stop it. On the other hand, you have the normal Jews who have seen something they cannot explain (and are probably a little frightened; what would you think if you saw something like this happen?). Jesus is pushing people to a place where they cannot simply call Him "a good teacher". If He is right in what He says, everything is about to change.

The payoff is so cleanly written that it seems to easy. We don't know how the man got up. For that matter, we don't know how long he was paralyzed. But Jesus said "get up" and he got up. The word "immediately" here helps us realize that the paralyzed man had faith in Jesus. He didn't need to be coaxed or helped. Jesus spoke, and he responded. And finally, note that Luke concluded with the word "today" -- not found in Matthew or Mark. It bookends the first word Jesus said in Luke 4:21, introducing His conflict with the Jewish authorities, a key word that "today" is the day of salvation.

The man (and indeed everybody) gave glory to God -- another key theme in Luke (see 2:20, 4:15, 7:16, 13:13, 17:15, 18:43, 23:47). What's our reaction when God has done something merciful for us? How thankful are we for it?

Let's all go home giving glory to God for all of the incredible things He has done in our lives!


Closing Thoughts: "The Son of Man"

This is the first time Luke mentions the phrase "The Son of Man". It is an interesting title, just vague enough that liberal scholars use it to say that Jesus didn't believe He was God, but rather this obscure "Son of Man" character. Well, let's dissect that.

This phrase is used in three ways in the Old Testament (you can do a simple search in a tool like and read for yourself).

  1. It's just another way of describing a normal person (Num 23:19).

  2. It's God "pet name" for Ezekiel (Ezek 2:1).

  3. It's the divine being of the prophecy in Daniel 7.

Obviously, Jesus wasn't using it in the second sense, and the first sense makes no sense -- God has clearly not given "normal people" that kind of authority. Ergo . . .

I can think we can safely say that Jesus preferred this term precisely because it was a little vague. (Not as vague as referring to "the man upstairs", though.) People would not immediately be riled up by self-applying that title. But there's no doubt what Jesus meant when He applied it to Himself.


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