Sermon, September 8: Jesus Repeats His Point

Last week we looked at how Mark shows Jesus’s priority of preaching and teaching over healing; today I want to begin looking at Jesus’s healing miracles, and we’ll see how He uses them to illustrate His teaching, and help us understand Who He is and what He does to put us and keep us right with God. Turn to Chapter 1 of Mark’s gospel, and let’s take a look.

We looked at a couple of Jesus’s healing miracles last week: driving out the evil spirit in vv 21–26, and healing Peter’s mother-in-law in vv 29–31; and while modern commentators like to distinguish healing from casting out demons, you’ll notice Mark doesn’t: v 32, they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons, and v 34, He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. We may need to distinguish these things for the purposes of modern medicine, but if we want to understand Christ’s purpose, we just accept them all as part of what He has authority over, to quote his hearers in 1.27. Peter’s mother-in-law had a fever, the man in the synagogue had an evil spirit, Jesus’s word has authority over both. In vv 40–42 He heals someone who has leprosy, and in 2.1–12 He heals someone who was paralysed, and in that story we get some more teaching, and further confirmation that the purpose of the healing miracles is to underline the truth of His teaching.

But before I get into that, let me just say something about 1.24, Be silent, 1.34, He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him, and 1.43f, where Jesus sternly charged the leper He had healed, and said to him, Say nothing to anyone. There are several verses like this in Mark’s gospel, where Jesus says or does something that reveals His divine authority, then tells whoever is present to say nothing to anyone about it. In Mark 3.12 some more evil spirits acknowledge Him, and he strictly ordered them not to make Him known. When he brings a young girl back to life in Chapter 5 He strictly charged those present that no one should know this; in 7.36 when he heals a man who was deaf He charged them to tell no one. When the disciples call Him ‘messiah’ in Chapter 8, He charged them to tell no one about him, and when Peter, James and John see Him transfigured in Chapter 9, He charged them to tell no one what they had seen. And three times it was sternly or strictly ordered.

Many people have wondered about the significance of this, and it’s been discussed so much in recent years that it has its own name as a subject—the ‘messianic secret’. To call it that is actually not helpful, because on only one of those seven occasions is the context Jesus’s rôle as the Messiah. It would be more helpful to think of it as ‘the secret of Jesus’s authority’, but I suppose that’s too much of a mouthful. Anyway, various explanations of this have been put forward, but none of them have found general acceptance, so it’s wise not to be too dogmatic about it. Some people interpret all these verses in the light of Jesus’s words to His disciples, 9.9, when He charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead. One thing that comes across very clearly in Mark’s gospel is that only after Jesus’s death and resurrection do people really understand Who He is and what God was doing through Him; so Jesus’s words about saying nothing may well be an attempt to prevent misunderstandings being spread. Augustine, the fourth century North African bishop, interpreted them in the light of Mark’s own comment on people’s reactions in 7.36: but the more he charged them [to be silent], the more zealously they proclaimed it. ‘May not the explanation be this’, Augustine wrote, ‘that He desired to give backward ones to understand how much more zealously and fervently they ought to speak on whom He lays the commission to do so, if even men who were forbidden were unable to keep silent?’ I like Augustine’s approach, personally: whatever Jesus may have required of people during His earthly ministry, once He had risen He made it very clear that all of us are to help spread the good news He brought, and tell as many people as possible about Him!

But back to the healing of the paralysed man. Remember from last week how after healing large numbers of people, when people were looking for Him the next day to heal more of them, the disciples told Jesus that everyone was looking for Him, and Jesus’s reply, you remember, was ‘I must go and preach somewhere else. That’s why I came.’  Not to treat earthly symptoms, but to deal with their spiritual causes. And He did go on preaching, 1.39 says, all through the Galilee region, preaching the gospel of repentance and forgiveness that John had announced in 1.4 and in which Jesus had urged belief in 1.15.

Then Jesus did a surprising thing, considering what He had said earlier: He turned round and headed back to Capernaum, the place He was in when He said ‘I must move on’. He must have known that He would be besieged with more requests for healing, given what had happened there already, but we’ll see that He has a purpose in going back anyway, and it’s a teaching purpose. He is besieged, of course, 2.2 tells us; the house is not only filled, but surrounded by crowds waiting for someone to leave so they can get in. But Jesus is still not healing; He’s preaching the word to them, v 2 says, the word of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Those present, of course, were just hoping He will stop this and do some more healing. In fact one group was so insistent about this that they came in through the roof, bringing a paralysed man with them, lowering him through the roof right into Jesus’s lap, so to speak. But then He did a really unexpected thing: He looked at the sick man and said, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’. Even after his friends put him under Jesus’s nose, He didn’t heal the man. Mark doesn’t tell us what the reaction to Jesus’s words of the people who made the hole in the roof was, or the paralysed man himself, but I bet they thought this was a bit unsympathetic on Jesus’s part.

The reaction Mark does tell us about is not that of the paralytic or his friends, but of some ‘teachers of the law’ who were in the house. Not law professors as we know them today, but teachers of the Old Testament law, the Ten Commandments and so on; they were the religious teachers of the day. They were furious that Jesus told the sick man his sins were forgiven, not from any sympathy with the unfortunate paralytic, but because they thought what Jesus has just said was blasphemy. v 7: He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone? It’s ironic in some ways; the teachers of the law listen to Jesus’s teaching, but call it blasphemy, while the ordinary people were might have been willing to accept that Jesus was God were too wrapped up in their desire for healing to listen to Him.

But it did give Jesus another opportunity to prove that His teaching really is worth listening to, that He really can give the forgiveness He’s been preaching about. Verse 10, that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” And the paralysed man, carried in by four of his friends, got up and went home under his own steam. Perhaps this was why Jesus decided to come back to Capernaum; they had missed the point of His teaching because of their desire for healing of the symptoms of sin, so Jesus used that desire in order to drive the point home again. And look at the next thing Mark says, 2.13: having made His point, Jesus went out again beside the sea; and all the crowd gathered about him, and He taught them. Back to what He came for, preaching and teaching the gospel of repentance and forgiveness.

The question for the teachers of the law was, does Jesus actually have the authority to forgive sins? The question for the people was, is forgiveness actually what I need? Why does Jesus keep talking about forgiveness of sin, when all we care about is having our problems solved? People weren’t coming to Him to have their sins forgiven, and even when Jesus preached and taught on the subject, they still didn’t get it, they were still only interested in having the problems they know about solved.

Are people today any different? I don’t think so; so often if you speak to someone today about forgiveness of sins, if you give them the same message that Jesus was giving, they will shrug their shoulders: who needs forgiveness? God knows I’ve always done the best I could, He understands. I’ve led a decent life, never hurt anyone, helped others whenever I could. I don’t need forgiveness; I just need a job, parents who understand, better health, better grades, someone to pay attention to me. Jesus says, No, you need to be forgiven. You need to confess, to admit that you haven’t been what God calls you to be, to admit that you’re content not to be what God calls you to be, and you expect God to be content with that too. And then on top of that you expect everything in our lives to go well, and expect the God you have sinned against to solve your problems. You need to confess that, too.

That’s the gospel Jesus teaches. He said it to the men and women of the first century, and He’s still saying it to the men and women of the twenty-first century, to us. My guess is that most of us don’t find it any easier to listen than those people 2,000 years ago did. I know that I spent years convinced that I was basically a good person, and that if everybody else was as good as I was, the world wouldn’t be messed up at all. Things had to get pretty messed up in my own life before I was willing to admit that maybe I did have some things in my life that I truly needed to be forgiven for.

We don’t know whether the healing of that paralytic convinced anyone back then. Everybody oohed and aahed, and they even praised God, Mark tells us, but did they confess their sins? Did they get the point that Jesus was trying to make? Some did, no doubt, but certainly not the most religious ones, the preachers and teachers: in 3.6, in our Bibles on the very same page as this story, Mark tells us that they began plotting to kill Jesus. And before Mark has finished we’ll be hearing about how the entire population of Jerusalem was shouting ‘crucify Him’.

So it’s worth examining ourselves pretty carefully, and asking ourselves, have we got the message about the need to put spiritual things first? If He were to answer one of those prayers focussed on our own needs, if He were to heal you or get you that great job or those great grades, would you examine your life more seriously, or would you just make a longer list of things you wanted Him to do? Sometimes it takes not getting healed before we really begin to look at ourselves honestly. It never hurts to check and be sure that our priorities haven’t slipped back to those of the world without our noticing.

Jesus says that His purpose was to show that He had authority. It’s a significant word, and it sums up all the points that Mark is stressing in these first few chapters. Jesus has authority: authority over demons, over disease, over the religious leaders of the people, over the people, there’s no area of human life over which He does not claim authority. That’s what it means when He calls Himself ‘Lord’. And what He’s hoping for are people who will accept Him as Lord, not just in name, but in fact. Who is He for us this morning? Is He truly Lord of our lives, or is He just a really useful ingredient in the good life I want for myself and my friends? He can do those miracles today just like He did then, I truly believe that, but would it serve His purposes any better now than it did then? Or would it just distract us from what He is trying to teach us?

The next time we pray, let’s spend less time on our list of miracles we want Him to do, and more time on repentance and forgiveness of sins. Seek ye first the kingdom of God, He told us, and then all those things our heavenly father knows we need will fall into place one way or another; because the whole point is that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.

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