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Only God Can Forgive Sins - A Study of Mark 2:1-12 (Also, The Importance of Friends)

[Mark 2:1-12 Commentary] Who can forgive sins but God alone? In this passage, Jesus declares that He is able to forgive sins, and He backs up that claim with a miraculous healing. The people respond with a mixture of awe and anger (who does Jesus think He is?), kind of like today. We’re reminded that our most important need is to be right with God, not miraculously healed.

But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he told the paralytic— “I tell you: get up, take your mat, and go home.” Mark 2:11

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website. Also, this picture is of one man standing and four friends sitting nearby. I thought of it like "the next day" for the men in our passage this week.]

What’s the Best Thing a Friend Has Ever Done for You?

In our passage this week, four friends are going to go to a great length to take care of a fifth friend. And that just begs a great question: what are your favorite stories of what friends have done for one another? I Googled “the nicest thing a friend has ever done” and read some very cute and heartwarming stories. (And yes, lots and lots of weird and cheesy and unbelievable stuff too!) Some things, like an elaborate surprise birthday party, unexpected help with a major house project, and volunteering to watch infants for a sick mom, are simple but we all know how much they mean to the person on the receiving end.

I read about the friend who helped drive a U-Haul 20 hours and then got in a plane to go back home. I read about the friend who sent a new, beautiful dress to her friend who couldn’t afford one for her semi-formal office Christmas party. I read about the friend who got on a 4-hour train ride just watch some sick kids long enough for mom (her friend) to get a haircut. I read about the friend who offered a place a stay and then went and bought bedroom furniture when it became clear that his friend was coming to him with absolutely nothing (that friend has now done the same for 4 other people in need). I read stories about friends surprising someone (usually after a hard event like a job loss or a divorce) with a memorable trip to Barcelona or London or something like that. Put your class in a good mood!

Thatched Roofs!

Actually, the purpose of this icebreaker would be to ask your class about the oddest “renewal design” houses/structures they’ve seen. Thatched roofs are actually making a comeback in England (because of course they are) for being rustic, relatively cheap, and there are now coatings that reduce flammability. The process/purpose of a thatched roof hasn’t changed in thousands of years: build a simple frame above your house, and then layer whatever dry vegetation you can find (strengthened with mud) in such a way as to shed water. Like walls that are made out of mud bricks, when the conditions are somewhat wet, it’s easy for people to “dig” through the walls or roof (which is exactly what the friends are going to do in our story this week). So again—this icebreaker is primarily simple whimsy: how would you like to live in a house people could dig through, and what do you think about this whole “renewal construction” craze that’s taking us back to ancient building methods? Do you think it has a future?

The Week's Big Idea: The "Messianic Secret" in Mark

You’ll notice many times in Mark where Jesus says something to the effect of “don’t tell anyone about My identity” after He performs a miracle or declares Himself the Son of God. The long and short of the reason is made clear in our passage this week—every declaration of authority was met with severe backlash. Had it simply been declared that Jesus was the coming Messiah, a full-scale rebellion would likely have erupted, and Jesus had a specific plan for His death and followers.

But here’s why the idea of a “Messianic Secret” is worth knowing (for teachers and defenders of the Bible): skeptics have used it to say that Jesus Himself did not believe that He was the Messiah, but that later followers claimed it on Jesus’ behalf. Then, the Gospel writers (and Mark was the one to start this secret) put such secretive words in Jesus’ mouth so as to explain why Jesus’ ministry and behavior didn’t look particularly Messianic (at least, in the expected sense). One group of scholars has Mark likening Jesus to Odysseus who disguised himself on his journey home (in other words, Mark was patterning his Gospel after a secular myth). Does that begin to explain why Bible readers should understand this “secret”?

Let me remind you that Jesus’ appearance and works and ministry did not meet any expectations. The Jews thought their Messiah would be a military conqueror who would overthrow their oppressors and bring the Kingdom of God/Israel into power over the whole earth. Even John the Baptist, when he was languishing in prison, needed reassurance from Jesus (see Matthew 11)! Jesus replied with Isaiah 29:18-21, 35:5-6, 61:1, all of which are clearly Messianic in context and reminded everyone that the Messiah would preach good news to the poor, give sight to the blind, heal the sick, etc. In other words, it wasn’t that Jesus was failing to do the works of a messiah, it’s that the people misunderstood what the Messiah would do. (At least—on His first coming. When Jesus comes back, He will indeed wipe out God’s enemies and bring about God’s kingdom with fire and sword.)

So, now let’s revisit the “why”. There’s a neat structure to this part of Mark that we miss based on the verse choices. Mark 1:21-45 is all about secrets. In Mark 1:25, Jesus told the evil spirit to “be quiet!”, and in 1:34 He wouldn’t let the demons speak because “they knew who He was”. In 1:38, Jesus escaped the multitudes when they started being oppressive. In 1:44, Jesus specifically told the leper not to tell anyone what Jesus did. Then, Mark 2:1-3:6 is all about revealing the secret thoughts of the Pharisees, specifically their wrong thoughts about forgiveness (2:8), their wrong thoughts about hypocrisy (2:17), their wrong thoughts about religiosity (2:19), their wrong thoughts about the Sabbath (2:27 and 3:4). Finally, Mark 3:7-12 is back to the secrets.

Here’s what I take away from that organization: until people are willing to acknowledge their false expectations of the Messiah, they will never be able to accept the true Messiah. Does that make sense? People simply weren’t ready for everything it meant for Jesus to be the Divine Son of God, and once they got hung up on that, they would interfere with the ultimate purpose for God to become flesh: to take our sins upon Himself so that we might be forgiven. It’s amazingly powerful, and (at least to me) it explain why Jesus would be so secretive. And then in the larger scheme of things, it would become incumbent on the Apostles to be the ones to deliver this message to a skeptical world. It’s not for Jesus to toot His messianic horn; it’s for us to believe based on the evidence we have been given.

The Context in Mark

A lot of events happen in this larger passage in Mark. After calling the first disciples (last week), Jesus went into a synagogue to teach with authority. Mark includes a number of miraculous healings immediately following that, designed to demonstrate that Jesus had such authority. Then, Jesus took His disciples on a short tour of the surrounding villages to teach and perform miracles. When they returned to Capernaum, it didn’t take long for the home where they were staying to fill up (our passage this week). The point of the context is to explain how Jesus’ celebrity could grow so quickly. Just realize that we’re talking about a relatively small and sparsely populated region at this point. Jesus is “building a resume” that will give Him necessary credibility for His upcoming journey to the cross.


Part 1: Faith Expressed (Mark 2:1-5)

When he entered Capernaum again after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many people gathered together that there was no more room, not even in the doorway, and he was speaking the word to them. They came to him bringing a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they were not able to bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and after digging through it, they lowered the mat on which the paralytic was lying. Seeing their faith, Jesus told the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Below, I give my thoughts on whose home it was, and on the next page, I give my thoughts on what the homeowners thought about the destruction done to his home. But the important point is that the Bible does not give us any of those details so either (1) it was so obvious and well-known that the author didn’t feel the need to mention it, or (2) those details just aren’t important. Mark has already omitted a number of details because he doesn’t want his readers distracted with questions like the ones I’m asking.

As I’ve said, Jesus had been performing miracles all around Capernaum, so His reputation had been spreading. That’s why so many people had gathered in the home. Matthew and Luke mention up front that Jewish leaders were also there, listening to Jesus. Our story this week is the perfect illustration of a major tension in the background of Jesus’ ministry: miracles vs. teachings. You might remember that I mentioned that Mark focused on miracles to appeal to his action-oriented Roman audience whereas Matthew gave equal weight to Jesus’ teachings to appeal to his Jewish audience and John focused on Jesus’ teachings to clarify Jesus’ place among the philosophies of the empire. In this passage, that plays out by Mark simply noting that Jesus was teaching—not what Jesus was teaching. The tension comes in with the men interrupting Jesus’ teaching with this paralytic. This creates a dichotomy for us. What is more important: many people hearing and understanding the gospel, or one man being temporarily healed of paralysis? (I say “temporarily” because everyone eventually gets sick and dies.) My initial reaction would be that it’s the eternal destiny of souls being changed by the good news of salvation; that's more important than immediate and short-term wants. But, miracles are exciting and awe-inspiring; teachings tend to be boring and tedious. Jesus Himself will later confront the people that they’re more interested in being entertained than enlightened. (We have that tension in our churches today, right?) So, does that mean this interruption is bad?

Definitely not. Here’s what our passage in Mark makes very clear: Jesus can use His miracles to validate His teachings. And in this case, He uses the miracle as an illustration of His teachings. Even though He knew His ministry must be to preach the gospel and die for sins, He also knew that healing the sick and casting out demons was a part of that ministry. (In Matthew’s Gospel, the healing ministry is prophesied of the Messiah; in John’s Gospel, the healing ministry is a sign of divinity.) So rather than begrudge the interruption, Jesus turned it into a teaching moment. Think about it—this would have been a long, long interruption. Dirt starts falling on the floor, then noises from the roof, then light shines through, then more dirt, more light, until a hole is large enough for a person to fit through sideways, and then there’s the process of actually lowering the man through the hole in the roof. What do you think? 10, 20 minutes? Longer? Do you think Jesus was continuing to teach while this was taking place? I know I would be distracted.

Again, Jesus was not angered by the interruption. I can’t imagine how the paralyzed man must have felt while being lowered into the middle of this room right in front of Jesus! He knew everyone was watching him, and he knew that at least some of those people would have been annoyed. But Jesus saw the faith and love of those friends and quelled any fears with words of encouragement. But not in an expected way! Like I said, Jesus was going to use this distraction as a teaching moment. It was obvious to everyone that the paralyzed man wanted to be healed, so Jesus’ first words to him would have been very surprising. Now, there was a strong belief in that day that physical ailments were punishments for sin (see John 9:1-3), but that is definitely not what Jesus is talking about here. No matter what our physical condition, what is every person’s most important need? To be right with God. Jesus has the authority to make someone right with God.

The most important part of this lesson is the third point, but this is a great opportunity to explain why Christians can’t stop with doing nice things for people. Supporting soup kitchens is great. Hospitals, clean water, homeless shelters—all of those are great things for us to support. But if we aren’t also intentionally and clearly sharing the gospel as part of those efforts, all we’re doing is delaying the inevitable (and heaping judgment on ourselves). By all means, take care of people’s needs. But also have a plan to share the words of life with them. Another application would be to ask ourselves if we’re getting in the way of people coming to Jesus. Why didn’t people make room for this obviously-in-need man? I don’t know, but I wonder if we do the same thing every Sunday by not making it easy for people to come into our churches and hear the gospel preached (what obstacles might we be putting up?).

Let me repeat that. Why didn't people make room for this obviously-in-need man? Are we doing that in our churches on Sundays?

Aside: Whose House Was It?

Let’s start with this word “home”. When we read that, our first reaction is to believe that this was Jesus’ house. But we all know that Jesus didn’t own a home, so what is this about? Well, it’s different to say “owning a home” and “having a home”. Jesus had people all over Israel who would serve as His host for an extended period of time—months or more. Would it not be reasonable to call it “home” for that stay? In all likelihood, this is Andrew and Peter’s home (Mark 1:29). I see this as the flipside to the story in John 1. Andrew had first met Jesus as a part of John’s ministry in the Jordan River. You might remember that John had told Andrew that Jesus was the Lamb of God, and so Andrew started stalking Jesus. Jesus confronted him, and Andrew asked Jesus where He was staying, after which Jesus took him along. Depending on exactly where John was baptizing in the Jordan, this could have been a few hours or a few days from Capernaum. Both Andrew and Jesus (and anyone else who had come to be baptized by John) would have had to have accommodations in the area. In other words, in John 1, Jesus brought Andrew to the equivalent of His “extended stay” hotel/host home. So, it makes sense to me that when Jesus (and His disciples) returned to Capernaum, Andrew would have invited Jesus to stay with him. Andrew’s brother and roommate, Peter, was now in on the Jesus experience (as John explains), so there would have been no awkwardness. Andrew and Peter grew up in the nearby town of Bethsaida (John 1:44), and Peter’s mother-in-law was staying with him (Mark 1:30), so they were probably used to guests.

Aside: Are We Approving of the Destruction of Private Property?

I have to admit that this is the sort of question my brain goes to. I mean, seriously, these guys just go in and tear up some poor guy’s roof. Are we saying that’s okay just because they were doing something nice? Well, we can say two things about that. (1) The “damage” they did to the roof really wasn’t that big of a deal. Roofs (in a “middle class” house) would be thatched with palm branches and then covered with a layer of mud (for watertight and insulation), then, ceramic tiles would be placed over that to distribute the weight of anyone enjoying an evening on the roof. The friends would have moved the tiles out of the way (see Luke 5) then “dug” through the mud. The worst “damage” they would have caused would have been the mess of dirt that dropped on the floor beneath them. (2) The Bible simply doesn’t give us any more details. As far as we know, the guys immediately cleaned up the mess they made. Or even more likely, Andrew or Peter sent for the man who needed to be healed! When Jesus settled in, they went to get the paralyzed friend, but by the time they got back, his house was packed with people. The point is that that’s not the point. Like Zacchaeus, when people discover the Jesus is working miracles, they stop caring about any personal inconvenience of being surrounded by sick people, or uncouth people, or whatnot—they just want to give Jesus space to work.

In other words, the homeowner wouldn’t have cared if he had to repair his roof. Jesus had just performed a miracle. Of course, a lesson can be elaborated that churches don’t need to prioritize protecting their buildings above bringing people to Jesus, but that’s not really a Sunday School lesson.


Part 2: Authority Questioned (Mark 2:6-7)

But some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts: “Why does he speak like this? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

The Jewish teachers picked up on this right away, and they rightfully pounced on it. I say “rightfully” because think about it from their perspective—yes, Jesus has performed miracles, but this is speaking on behalf of God. Remember what David prayed in Psalm 51: all sin is ultimately against God. Thus, the only one who can truly and fully forgive sins is God Himself. The Jewish leaders, who taught the Old Testament, would have known this well. Jesus was not “one of them”, so why would He think to be able to speak for God? Mark does not often “read people’s minds”, but he does so here only because it was about to be made clear what they were thinking.

The important thing to note here is that the Jewish leaders were right. Only God can forgive sins.


Part 3: Power Proclaimed (Mark 2:8-11)

Right away Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were thinking like this within themselves and said to them, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat, and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he told the paralytic— “I tell you: get up, take your mat, and go home.”

Jesus knew what they were thinking (which, of course, is something only God can do—1 Chr 28:9) and responded with a question we misunderstand. Which is easier to do? Forgive sins or heal an illness? Knowing what Jesus suffered for our forgiveness, we all know that it is much easier to heal than to forgive! But that’s not what Jesus asked. Which is easier to say? Obviously, it’s easier to say that someone’s sins are forgiven...because how will we know? If we say someone is healed, we know right away if we lied or not. Of course, Jesus is pointing ahead to the cross. He knows that forgiveness is much harder than healing, so there is a strong hint of irony in this statement. Here, Jesus did the “easy” task of making a paralyzed man walk; in a few years, Jesus would do the “hard” task of suffering for the forgiveness of that man’s sins. A song lyric we occasionally sing is “I’ll never know how much it cost to see my sin upon that cross”—that is what that lyric is about. We’re amazed by the thought of Jesus making a lame man walk; the real miracle is that man becoming right with God. Jesus demonstrated His authority to pronounce forgiveness by making a man walk. That’s why Jesus gave those commands to the formerly paralyzed man: the people needed to see an immediate proof. They needed to see that man walk out of the house and go home (not sit and listen). And he did.


Part 4: Authority Demonstrated (Mark 2:12)

Immediately he got up, took the mat, and went out in front of everyone. As a result, they were all astounded and gave glory to God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

Even though Jesus had performed miracles before, here Jesus raised the stakes, so to speak. This time, Jesus specifically connected His ability to heal the man with His right to forgive sins. I’m sure that some of the people in that house (including the Jewish leaders) believed that God would have prevented the healing to punish the blasphemy. But none of that happened. The man immediately got up and walked (there’s that word again).

So here’s the question for us today: would people be more likely to believe in Jesus is He were still walking around healing people? I’m sure we would want to say “yes”, but ask your class why that’s not true. Well, people in Jesus’ day didn’t believe, and people today have seen miracles that Jesus is still performing (not to mention the testimony of the Bible). Seeing is not always believing.

What miracles do we have today that continue to prove Jesus’ authority? Well, there are miracles we have all seen in our own lives. There are also the miracles of prophecies that continue to come true. And there are the promises that God made thousands of years ago that He still keeps. Ask your class if they take comfort in knowing that the same God who performs such miracles is the God who also forgives us all of our sins. What can they do to be more aware of God’s power?

Finally, remind everyone that we are in the season of Lent, 40 days the church takes to prepare our hearts for Good Friday. This lesson is the perfect kickoff as we start to think about how hard it truly was for Jesus to accomplish the forgiveness of our sins. Pray together that God would help you be truly humbled in the presence of Jesus’ love and sacrifice. What action do you need to take this week to demonstrate your thanksgiving?


A Harmony of the Gospels

This section of Mark is almost perfectly reflected in Luke and Matthew. Matthew doesn’t include the story of healing the demoniac in Capernaum.

  • Calling the first four disciples (Mt 4:18-22, Mk 1:16-20, Lk 5:1-11)

  • Early healings, including Peter’s m-i-l (Mt 8:14-17, Mk 1:29-34, Lk 4:38-41)

  • Touring Galilee with Peter (Mt 4:23-25, Mk 1:35-39, Lk 4:42-44)

  • Publicity from the cleansed leper (Mt 8:2-4, Mk 1:40-45, Lk 5:12-16)

  • Healing the paralyzed man (Mt 9:1-8, Mk 2:1-12, Lk 5:17-26)

  • Matthew’s call and banquet (Mt 9:9-13, Mk 2:13-17, Lk 5:27-32)

  • Parables about fasting (Mt 9:14-17, Mk 2:18-22, Lk 5:33-39)

There are just a couple of things I want to point out about this “harmony”. First, note that Matthew’s and Luke’s account of our passage this week is shorter than Mark’s. Matthew doesn’t mention anything about the crowd or the roof. Luke focuses on the presence of the Pharisees. This is why scholars believe Mark wrote his version first. (That might also make logical sense—after all, Matthew wasn’t there for that event.)

Now, why is the order different in Matthew? Mainly because Matthew wanted to include the Sermon on the Mount, which would have happened early in Jesus’ ministry. Matthew organized his Gospel in five blocks of teaching followed by miracles (demonstrations of Jesus’ authority). Matthew put these miracles described in Mark 1-2 after the Sermon on the Mount. So the order of things isn’t necessarily different in Matthew; Matthew just uses the description of his setting to address both the miracles and the Sermon.


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