Luke 5:17-26, the story of Jesus forgiving and healing a paralyzed man, is a really difficult story for me. Here is the story from the ESV:
When Jesus sees the paraplegic man dangling in front of him, the first thing he does is forgive him his sins. This troubles the religious leaders because it goes against God’s word – only God could forgive sins and that happened only after a specific sacrifice was offered. When Jesus speaks forgiveness he effectively asserts that he is greater than the Law, even greater than the Temple – he makes himself equal to God. Of course, to us as Christians, this makes total sense. But to the Jews of Jesus’s day it was blasphemy.
Jesus addresses the religious leaders and their unbelief and then offers the most troubling part of the passage, “‘I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” so he said to the man who was paralyzed, “rise up, pick up your mat and go home.'” Why do I find this troubling? Because Jesus never required people to believe in his ability to forgive sins on faith alone – he always offered them proof through signs, wonders and miracles. In this passage Jesus directly links his authority to forgive with his ability to heal.
This troubles me as a Christian, and especially as a pastor, because Jesus is my model for life and ministry. If Jesus didn’t require people to receive forgiveness of their sins by faith, then neither should I. But that is about the only thing I can ask people to do because I live a largely powerless life as a Christian. I can’t say to people with any confidence, “I want you to know that Jesus has the ability to forgive your sins, therefore, be healed! Know that what Jesus just did for your body he can do for your whole life – he is the only one who can make you right with God.” I WANT to say that, but I’m really afraid to. Putting someone’s faith and salvation on the line in that way terrifies me and seems amazingly irresponsible.
Yet Jesus did it. (John 10:37)
In John 14:11 Jesus appeals to the miracles he performed as proof of his unique relationship with God. He said that even if someone didn’t believe his words, they could at least look at his miracles to see proof of his claim to be God’s son, to be the perfect representation of the Father. In John 15:24 Jesus acknowledges that the miracles he performed revealed the character of God (healer, redeemer, restorer) and says, “If I hadn’t done among them what no one else did, they wouldn’t be guilty of sin…” Jesus argues that it was his demonstration of the Gospel that brought condemnation and guilt on those who persisted in unbelief. Words are cheap, and it is hard to prove actual spiritual change has occured using them – so Jesus appealed to miracles as proof that what he had said actually happened. That floors me.
I want to be able to proclaim and demonstrate the Good News of the Kingdom just like Jesus did. I want people to have absolute confidence in Jesus’s invisible work in their hearts/spirits because they have witnessed Jesus’s visible work in their body, soul or mind. If someone comes to salvation and faith in Jesus by words alone, then they have tremendous faith and will be greatly blessed (John 20:29), but if I can’t also demonstrate the Realities I speak of, then something is really, really wrong.
The burden of proof
How is anyone to trust in Jesus without proof? The claims of Christianity are off the charts. We believe that a man died on a cross 2,000 years ago, was raised from the dead and levitated into Heaven to sit on the Throne of an invisible, yet all-powerful God. We believe this man is still alive 2,000 years later and is some day soon going to descend out of Heaven to establish a literal Kingdom on the earth. We believe that this man’s sacrifice, death and resurrection secured for us eternal life and an extravagant inheritance if only we will submit ourselves to him and take up his life as our own. We believe that we will reign with him on the earth forever.
Friends, believing in something that outlandish without proof takes great faith – and some people have it! But we shouldn’t be surprised if others (atheists) require some sort of proof from us. The burden of proof isn’t on them – it is on us who bear the name of Christ. I don’t look for proof of unicorns because I don’t believe they exist. If someone in my life insists that unicorns are real, they are going to have to show me some proof in real life – photoshopped images or stories of other people who have seen unicorns won’t cut it. Why should it be any different with atheists and God?
The burden of proof is only problematic if we don’t believe God will come through. Do we? Are we willing to take that risk? Reading through the book of Acts, it is striking how many times you will read “and the Lord confirmed his word through the signs that accompanied it.” How do we know it is his word if he isn’t confirming it?
I know I’m over-emphasizing miracles
I know I’m over-emphasizing miracles and I’m doing so for a reason. My intent is not to cast anyone into doubt or despair, but I do want to draw attention to a hole in our presentation of the Gospel. We are called to proclaim AND demonstrate the Gospel, just like Jesus did. Every time Jesus comissions his disciples/the Church it is for that purpose (Luke 9, Luke 11, Mark 16, Acts 2). We are in error if we know the word of God, but not his power (Matt. 22:29).
My intent in this post is to share with you my journey in trying to live out the fullness of the Christian life and to convince you to join me in trying to do the same. I’ve tried to be transparent with my doubts and struggles, and I hope that hasn’t put you off. I am absolutely convinced that it was (and is) Jesus’s intention to pass on his miracle ministry to the Church so that we can do what he did – save sinners, represent the true nature of our Father and do what no one else can do so that those who persist in unbelief are rightfully condemned.
Only in Jesus is there forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This is the most basic confession of the Christian faith. How people respond to that Truth will affect them for all of eternity, therefore, it is essential for us to present them with the most compelling presentation of the Gospel we can – clear arguments and a demonstration of the Spirit’s power. I hope you will join me in trying to fill in this hole in our Gospel presentation because Jesus wants people to know that he has power and authority to forgive sins and change lives… and he wants to give them that certainty by healing their bodies or the people they love.
Thanks for reading friends.