The Son of Man Claims God’s Authority to Forgive Sins on Earth

Mark 2:1-12 says that the son of Man–Jesus–forgave a paralytic’s sins. Does this mean that Jesus claimed authority that only God has, thus making himself equal to God? Did he use a Hebrew word for “forgiveness” which only God can offer?

All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted. If you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com.

I chose Mark’s version instead of Matthew’s (9:1-8) and Luke’s (5:17-26), because Mark’s is the fullest. But Matthew and Luke have the same meanings.

The key verses are 5-11.

1 When he entered Capernaum after some days, it was heard that he was at home. 2 Many people were gathered, so there was no room, nor at the door. He was speaking the word to them. 3 They came, bringing to him a paralytic, taken up by four men, 4 and when they were unable to bring him because of the crowd, they unroofed the roof where Jesus was and dug through and lowered the mat on which the paralytic was laying. 5 Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Some of the teachers of the law were there, sitting and reasoning in their hearts, 7 “Who is this man who speaks in this way? He is blaspheming. Who is able to forgive sins except God alone?” 8 And then Jesus, knowing by his spirit that they were reasoning in that way among themselves, said, “Why do you reason in your hearts about these things? 9 What is easier? To say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’? or to say, ‘Get up and pick up your mat and walk!’? 10 So that you may know that the son of Man has authority to forgive sins on the earth”—he said to the paralytic, 11 “I say to you: Get up, pick up your mat, and go to your house!” 12 Then he got up and immediately picked up the mat and left in front of everyone, so that everyone was amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen such things!” (Mark 2:1-12)

“As elsewhere in the early Galilean ministry, Jesus’s authority is on center stage. Here he demonstrates his authority not only to heal disease, but also to forgive sins. The two are inextricably connected in Jesus’s announcement of the kingdom of God and the restoration of creation that this entails” (Strauss, p. 117)

“unroofed the roof”: that’s a literal translation. If you don’t like it, you can say: “made an opening.”

The last part of v. 7 can be translated as “Who is able to forgive sins except One–God?” The active voice “to forgive” is used.

With those preliminaries done, now we come to Jesus’s claim that the son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, the main point of the post.

The Hebrew word for “forgive” that only God can offer is salach (pronounced sah-lahkh) (see Works Cited link, below, and the commentary on Leviticus, p. 771, by Bernard J. Bamberger, published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations). The Hebrew word is found forty-seven times in the Hebrew Bible. Let’s focus on Leviticus, since the temple and the sacrificial system in Jerusalem loomed over Judaism, even up in Galilee; it is in this book and the sacrificial system where forgiveness could be obtained. (In many of the other references, people pray that God would forgive sins [2 Chron. 6:21, 25, 27, 30, 39], or God himself pronounces forgiveness on people: “I will forgive their iniquity” [Jer. 36:3].)

In Leviticus, which prescribes specific offerings for sins, the priest pronounces that the offerer is forgiven, but only after the right offering is done. Then the priest uses the “divine passive”; that is, the Torah says repeatedly, “his sin will be forgiven,” implying that God is the one forgiving. Here’s a sample verse: “With the ram of the guilt offering the priest is to make atonement for him before the Lord for the sin he has committed, and his sin will be forgiven” (Lev. 19:22, NIV, emphasis added). Note the passive “will be forgiven.” God set up this forgiveness process in the sacrificial system. It was God himself who used the divine passive and pronounced the offerer’s forgiveness.

In contrast, the paralytic or his four friends or relatives are never said to have offered a ram or any other animal at the temple. Jesus simply and authoritatively pronounces forgiveness of sins on the paralytic. Jesus did not go through the temple system. Even Nathan the prophet did not use the word salach when he said that the Lord had taken away David’s sin (2 Sam. 12:13).The entire context shows that Jesus went beyond declaring the sins forgiven by God, which he did, but actually forgiving sins (see France’s excerpt below, at v. 10).

And so we should have no doubt that Jesus used the Hebrew word salach (his native language was Hebrew) when he pronounced forgiveness outside the temple system. It was surely this word which got the religious leaders’ attention. The priest depended on the authority of the Law of Moses—the Torah, the Very Word of God—to pronounce forgiveness with the divine passive in a system God set up and pronounced forgiveness by the “divine passive.” In contrast, Jesus independently asserted his own authority to pronounce forgiveness (v. 10), outside of the Law of Moses and the priesthood. Jesus was not playing by the rules but took on himself divine prerogatives, as the son of Man, echoing Dan. 7:13-14, which says that the son of Man has the highest divine status.

Here are the key verses in Daniel:

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. (Dan. 7:13-14, NIV)

The Ancient of Days is God, and the son of Man is “coming” towards him and given authority, glory, and sovereignty and dominion. Jesus’s status as the son of Man is the highest in the universe, dependent on God’s. It is this status that enabled him to claim God’s authority to forgive sins on earth.

See my post:

4. Titles of Jesus: The Son of Man

In Mark 2:1-12, Jesus is bringing God’s salach down here “on earth” (v. 10) and embodying it in his own person. The religious leaders never dreamed of doing this in their own authority. For them, this arrogation would be “blasphemous” (v. 7). Yet Jesus backed up his own authority by healing the man in front of everyone, something the religious leaders or the priests never did or even dreamed of doing. He seemed to have swept aside the entire system.

However, you may not accept that Jesus used the word salach. Or you may believe that he used it but only in the “divine passive” and it is no big deal. If so, in the parallel passage in Matthew’s Gospel, commentator Craig Keener says that the authority to forgive sins is an “attribute Jewish people did not even associate with the Messiah” (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Eerdmans, 1999, p. 289, referencing Robert Gundry, 1982, p. 163). This indicates that Jesus the Messiah is still speaking in a new and authoritative way which traditionalists would find blasphemous.

Further, this translation of vv. 6-7 would not work: “The teachers of the law reasoned in their hearts that this man blasphemes because he receives delegated authority from God to forgive sins.” No, the religious leaders knew what Jesus was doing. He claimed God’s authority for himself. Jesus, using the third person, actually says, “”So that you may know that the son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth ….” (v. 10). He actually uses the active voice, just as the teachers of the law did in v. 7. So, he is using the “divine active infinitive”!

“Authority” is the noun exousia (pronounced ex-oo-see-ah) in Greek, and it means, depending on the context: “right to act,” “freedom of choice,” “power, capability, might, power, authority, absolute power”; “power or authority exercised by rulers by virtue of their offices; official power; domain or jurisdiction, spiritual powers.” Here Jesus proclaims that “the Son of Man’s authority is equivalent to that which the Father exercises in heaven. Through the Son of Man, God’s heavenly forgiveness has now come to earth” (Strauss).

Wessel and Strauss write of v. 7 and Jesus’s pronouncement of forgiveness:

The OT priests pronounced God’s forgiveness of repentant sinners who brought sacrificial offerings to the temple … But Jesus’s functioning as God’s spokesperson is clearly not how Mark intended his readers to hear Jesus’s words, since the teachers of the law immediately accuse Jesus of blasphemy, and since in v. 9 Jesus explicitly declares his own authority to forgive sins.

Writing about v. 10, commentator R. T. France says that Jesus claimed for himself a distinctive divine prerogative to exercise forgiveness on earth, as follows.

The [exousia] which Jesus here claims is not merely that of declaring sins forgiven, but of forgiving (see on v. 5 for the distinction). This is exactly the way the scribes’ [teachers of the law] unspoken thoughts have set up the problem in v. 7; they have in mind a distinctively divine prerogative, and Jesus responds in their own terms, claiming to be able to exercise that divine right [on earth]. This phrase is added not so much to limit the [exousia] asserted (on earth but not in heaven), but rather to underline the boldness of the claim: forgiveness, hitherto thought to be an exclusively heavenly function, can now be exercised [on earth] because of the presence of [the son of Man] (who according to Dn. 7:13–14 was to receive from God an authority to be exercised over all the earth).

In other words, Jesus went beyond declaring sins forgiven (as the priest did), but actually forgiving sins, as the concerns of the teachers of the law clarified. He took this authority on himself, which rightly and exclusively belonged to God.

As a result, the religious leaders accuse him of blasphemy, which is a serious charge that brought death (Lev. 24:15-16). A man was actually stoned to death for committing this sin (Lev. 24:23). It is abusive and defiling speech about God. That was the crime Jesus will be accused of, which triggered his death (Mark 14:62-64).

However, Wessel and Strauss broaden the definition of blasphemy as it was in Jesus’s time, when he spoke those words:

The Mishnah [collection of oral traditions written down in about AD 200] defines blasphemy narrowly as the act of pronouncing the divine name … but … the term could be used for a much wider range of offenses against God. To lay claim to God’s sole prerogative to forgive sins would certainly have qualified. If the scribes [teachers of the law] are correct about who Jesus is, their reasoning is flawless. In Jewish teaching even the Messiah could not forgive sins. The manner in which the accusation is expressed, “Who can forgive sins except One—God” … may indicate an allusion to the Shema, the classic Jewish statement of monotheism from Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God; the LORD is one.” Jesus is accused of usurping God’s unique position.

In their last two lines, Wessel and Strauss are insightful. The Greek text in v. 7 can better be translated as “who can forgive sins except One–God?” The religious leaders knew what Jesus was doing. However, “there is heavy irony here. Even as the religious leaders are scoffing at Jesus’ claim to divine authority, he is reading their minds—demonstrating a prerogative of God!” (Strauss).

What does “which is easier?” mean?

Some interpreters argue that it is easier to heal the man than to say his sins are forgiven, because Jesus will die on the cross for them, which is much more difficult than healing the man’s broken body. However, that line of reasoning exercises too much interpretive gymnastics. Jesus was not dying on the cross then and there. Instead, the straightforward interpretation is that it is easier to say the man’s sins are forgiven because people cannot see with their own eyes the effects of this pronouncement. In contrast, they are about to see with their own eyes the physical healing of paralysis. It is more difficult to say, “Get up and walk!” than it is to say “your interior sins are forgiven.”

Wessel and Strauss write of v. 9 and the debate over “which is easier?”:

Of course, as Jesus meant the words, neither of the two was easier. Effecting both was equally impossible for human beings and equally possible for God. To the teachers of the law, it was easier to make the statement about forgiveness, for who could verify its fulfillment? But to say, “Get up … and walk”—the authority to issue that command could indeed be verified by an actually, observable healing. Jesus’s question takes the form of a rabbinic-style “lesser-to-greater … argument. If someone can do the “harder” (in this case physically heal someone), it will prove the “easier” (here the forgiving of sins) has also been accomplished.

How would the religious leaders understand this “which is easier?” challenge? Jesus backs up his words with the healing of the paralytic. So the words are demonstrated with power (Cf. Rom. 15:18-19; 1 Cor. 2:4-5).

How does this post help me grow in God?

What was so strange, wonderful, remarkable that the people react in the way that they did (v. 12)?

First, a paralytic got his complete, instant healing. He walked in front of them with his mat, though they had blocked his way.

Second, the paralytic’s sins were forgiven, after all.

Third, the Son of man—the Messiah—was standing right in front of them, though they could not see it clearly yet.

Fourth, this was an honor-and-shame society, and the people saw the teachers of the law get their comeuppance, and some of the less pious in the crowd must have snickered at their expense. The powerful were shamed, while the paralytic was honored.

Fifth, quarreling and quibbling over matters of the law and traditions was cut apart like the Gordian knot was cut through. It is God breaking in and crushing these empty discussions, demonstrating his love and power.

Finally, I like how Wessel and Strauss conclude this pericope (section of Scripture): “In this act of forgiveness Jesus was declaring the presence of God’s forgiveness” (p. 727).

in his own divine status and authority as the son of Man, Jesus embodied God’s unique capacity to forgive; he was bringing down to earth the salach of God. Jesus really was claiming authority that only God had.

RELATED

What Is Biblical Forgiveness?

How to Forgive Adultery and Fornication

SOURCES

France, R. T. The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Eerdman, 2002).

Garland, David E. Mark: The NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 1996).

Lane, William L. Mark: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Eerdman, 1974).

Strauss, Mark L. Mark: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2014).

Wessel, Walter W. and Mark L. Strauss. Mark: The Bible’s Expositor’s Commentary, Vol. 9, Rev. ed. (Zondervan 2010).

Works Cited

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