Mark 2:1-12 – Healing Forgiveness

After a brief preaching circuit around the Galilean region, Jesus returns to his hometown. Mark 2 picks up the account:

When Jesus returned to Capernaum several days later, the news spread quickly that he was back home. Soon the house where he was staying was so packed with visitors that there was no more room, even outside the door. While he was preaching God’s word to them, four men arrived carrying a paralyzed man on a mat. They couldn’t bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, so they dug a hole through the roof above his head. Then they lowered the man on his mat, right down in front of Jesus. (Mark 2:1-4, NLT)

Before we go any further, I can’t help but pause here and reflect on one line in this passage that I find particularly disturbing: “They couldn’t bring him to Jesus because of the crowd” (verse 4, NLT). We like to think of ourselves as “the crowd around Jesus,” don’t we? We’re Christians, we’re church-goers, we’re part of the “in group.” But have we ever stopped to think about how we might sometimes actually be a hindrance for others trying to get to Jesus? Can’t we so easily discourage seekers by the way we judge others in our churches? Or perhaps by the way we criticize or gossip about other believers? What about when we try to make others follow all of our self-imposed rules once they get into our churches? (“You can’t be baptized until…”) How many times have sincere seekers been turned away or discouraged from coming to Jesus by the church-going crowd around Jesus? A sobering thought.

But, I love how the rest of the story goes. I like to imagine it played out something like this:

Perched from his seat in the center of the room, Jesus teaches to the eager crowd. They’re most likely in Peter’s house. Closest around Jesus are Peter, Andrew, James, and John, each posturing themselves as protective body guards. They’re keeping an eye out, in case anyone tries any, you know, “funny business.” In the middle of Jesus’ illustration, an awful scraping and clattering noise interrupts the discussion from directly above. Suddenly, a torrent of straw and dust and mud flakes rain down on the heads of Jesus and the disciples. What could possibly be going on? Peter gives a shout of indignation and starts for the back portico door—that’s his roof after all! But Jesus quickly reaches out and gently grabs a hold of Peter. “Wait..” Jesus whispers. Then, looking up with a quizzical smile, Jesus waits to see what will happen next… Suddenly, four heads pop over the ceiling’s gaping hole. A moment later, the heads disappear and grunts of lifting and staining can be heard. The next thing everyone knows, a pallet of some kind is being lowered with ropes through the opening. (Everyone is still too surprised to say anything!) Once the load reaches eye level, a gasp ripples across the room. There’s a man on the pallet! Slowly, the bed is lowered all the way to the floor, directly in front of the Teacher. All eyes are on Jesus now. The crowd breathlessly waits to see what Jesus will do. Jesus looks intently at the paralyzed man for a long while. He then thoughtfully gazes up at the four heads popping through the roof. Finally, resting His eyes back on the young man, Jesus says with a loving smile: “My child, your sins are forgiven” (verse 5, NLT).

“Uh, Jesus…” We think to ourselves. “Are you sure you got that right? Isn’t this man’s plight rather obvious? Don’t you think the poor guy would rather just be able to walk!?”  But no, Jesus knows exactly what’s going on in this man’s mind and heart. What kind of physical experience can possibly compare with the spiritual, emotional peace that comes from a forgiven soul? Christ’s words fall like music on the paralytic’s ears…

The burden of despair rolls from the sick man’s soul; the peace of forgiveness rests upon his spirit, and shines out upon his countenance. His physical pain is gone, and his whole being is transformed. The helpless paralytic is healed! the guilty sinner is pardoned!

In simple faith he accepted the words of Jesus as the boon of new life. He urged no further request, but lay in blissful silence, too happy for words. The light of heaven irradiated his countenance, and the people looked with awe upon the scene. (E. G. White, Desire of Ages, p. 268)

Yet not everyone can appreciate the beauty of the moment. From this point in Mark’s gospel, we see the first flicker of the mounting controversy between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders: “But some of the teachers of religious law who were sitting there thought to themselves, ‘What is he saying? This is blasphemy! Only God can forgive sins!’” (vs. 4-6, NLT) How sad. These so-called spiritual authorities have become so calloused and jaded that they can’t even sympathize with the paralytic’s needs. Their jealousy of Jesus’ popularity has been growing by this point and so they immediately jump on an opportunity upon which they can criticize Jesus. But I just love how Jesus responds to the situation:

But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, 11 “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” 12 Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:6-12, NKJV)

With one stunning miracle, Jesus traps the scribes in their own logic! As theologian William Barclay writes: “On their own stated beliefs the man could not be cured, unless he was forgiven. He was cured, therefore he was forgiven. Therefore Jesus’ claim to forgive sin must be true.”

As Mark’s “first time readers,” we learn a couple of important points from this story about the life and ministry of Jesus. Number one, we see for the first time, that Jesus not only heals sick people and cleanses lepers, but He also forgives sins! (We’re not just dealing with a powerful prophet anymore!) Next, we see Jesus affirm faith as an integral part of the healing/forgiving process. Finally, we begin to see the forebodings of an irreparable rift between Jesus and the religious leaders. Where is all of this going to lead from here? 

Before we wrap up today’s study, however, I’d like to highlight a few more life-application points for us to reflect on throughout the rest of the day:

  • Notice that after the crowd hinders the paralytic from being brought to Jesus, the four men must tear through the roof to make a way to Jesus. The thought occurs to me: Are these some things in my life I might need to tear down to ensure that I am never a hindrance for others coming to Jesus? Are there some practices of our churches that we might need to deconstruct in order to foster a better community of acceptance and love for those who seek Jesus?
  • Verse 5 says: “When Jesus saw their faith,” then He spoke to the paralytic… So, whose faith are we talking about here? Was it the faith of the four friends or the faith of the paralytic? I believe it’s both! The paralytic had to be exercising some faith in order to ask his friends to carry him to Jesus in the first place, and he was certainly acting in faith as he jumped up from his bed! But Jesus was also affirming the faith of the four friends in caring for their brother. We also have a responsibility to intercede in prayer and come along side our brothers and sisters in their difficult life seasons. “Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, NLT).
  • The Pharisees and scribes were beginning to become trapped in a fault-finding mode of thinking. They were becoming jealous and suspicious of Jesus and so they were just waiting to pounce on an opportunity to criticize Him, even when that so-called opportunity was a beautiful act of the miraculous. Shouldn’t we carefully examine ourselves when we find our hearts falling into the same kind of critical spirit of other individuals or groups, even if they may do things a little differently than we do?
  • Which character, or set of characters, do you most closely identify with in this story? The crowd, the friends, the disciples, the paralytic? Why?

Jonah, Part 4: Radical Mercy, Scandalous Grace

After Jonah pours out his soul in heart-felt repentance, the LORD commands the fish to spit Jonah out on a beach. “Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time: ‘Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.’  This time Jonah obeyed the Lord’s command and went to Nineveh” (Jonah 3:1-3, NLT). Jonah then launches one of the most effective evangelistic campaigns this world has ever seen:

The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow… When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:5-10, NLT)

And this miraculous repentance is exactly what Jonah feared the most! Jonah’s reaction to God reveals that there is still much hardness and bitterness in his heart:

This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.” (Jonah 4:1-3, NLT)

“I know exactly what you are like, God,” Jonah bitterly exclaims. “I knew that you are merciful and compassionate, and that you would be willing to forgive them—even them!” Isn’t it all so tragically ironic?

God’s response to Jonah’s four-year-old temper tantrum is astonishingly compassionate and patient: “The Lord replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about this?’” God simply asks Jonah a question. Just like a loving parent, trying to soothe a screaming child. God is trying to get Jonah to recognize the root of his heart problem. But Jonah stomps off to find an area with a good view, so that he can see what might happen to the city. He’s hoping for a good firework show.

“And the Lord God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant” (4:6-7). Did you notice that God does a lot of preparing in this story? God prepares a storm, God prepares a fish, God prepares a plant, and now God will prepare a worm and a bitter east wind – all for the purpose of showing Jonah his desperate need for a heart transformation. Now, let’s read the ending of our story:

And as the sun grew hot, God arranged for a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. “Death is certainly better than living like this!” he exclaimed.

Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”

“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!”

Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4:8-11, NLT)

The End.

What, the story is over? That can’t be all of it! What happens to Jonah? Does he ever repent? First of all, you may find it encouraging to know that the book of Jonah may have been actually written by Jonah. If that’s the case, Jonah’s repentance would have certainly preceded his authorship of the account. Furthermore, Jewish tradition actually tells us that, after hearing the LORD’s words, Jonah fell on his face and proclaimed, “Govern your world according to the measure of mercy, as it is said, To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness (Daniel 9:90).”

But we’re sort of missing the point when we worry about what Jonah’s response might have been. Because this book isn’t about Jonah… It’s about God. It’s a story that begins and ends with God. The story is bookended by God’s mercy. Maybe part of the reason that our story’s conclusion is so open-ended is because it’s meant to put us, the audience, in Jonah’s shoes. There’s a sense in which we get to decide the ending four ourselves. We get to choose whether to accept or reject God’s completely radical, entirely scandalous offer of mercy and grace.

And so, how does the story end? Well, the question is up to us: What will you choose?

Jonah, Part 3: In the Belly

It is in the belly of a fish, the ultimate “dark night of the soul,” that we find one of the most profound and heart-wrenching psalms of worship in Scripture. As I mentioned in our last study, Jonah fully expected to die as he was cast into the sea. What an unbelievable turn of events, then, when Jonah instead finds himself alive in the gut of some sort of sea creature! Although he is alive, Jonah does not find himself in a comfortable situation. (God could have saved Jonah via a luxury cruise, but He didn’t do that, did He?) Jonah’s physical situation is a reflection of the intense psychological, emotional struggle of his very soul. And now, for the first time in our story so far, Jonah finally reacts in the best way possible: “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish” (Jonah 2:1). I hope that we can remember to cry out to God from the depths of our struggles as well.

It is in this psalm of worship that we see Jonah as a representation of Christ. Jesus was also thrown into the sea of separation from God so that we might be saved. Jesus explicitly references Jonah in Matthew 12:38-41 and identifies His mission as our Savior with Jonah’s three-day experience. Jonah 2:1-9 is a song and prayer of trust in the face of seemingly irreversible separation from God. Notice how this passage ends with a triumphant cry of faith:

You threw me into the ocean depths,
and I sank down to the heart of the sea.
The mighty waters engulfed me;
I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves.
Then I said, ‘O Lord, you have driven me from your presence.
Yet I will look once more toward your holy Temple.’
(Jonah 2:2-4, New Living Translation)

Jonah’s prayer is also one of repentance. He promises to fulfill his vow of obedience to God, while recognizing that salvation and forgiveness come from the LORD alone:

Those who worship false gods
turn their backs on all God’s mercies.
[Side note: Isn’t it interesting that Jonah compares
his stubborn rebellion from God’s will to the sin of idolatry?]

But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise,
and I will fulfill all my vows.
For my salvation comes from the Lord alone.

I love how the prayer ends. It doesn’t end with what Jonah will do for God, but it ends with what God has done for Jonah – and, by extension, what God has done for us: Salvation begins and ends with the LORD. I am reminded of Hebrews 12:2, where we remember that Christ endured the ultimate “Jonah experience” – Christ bore the cross, courageously facing its shame and humiliation. And now Christ reigns triumphantly in His Father’s throne where He is able to freely dispense the gift of salvation to all who care to ask for it:

“looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, NKJV)