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Mark 2:1-17: Forgiving Sin and Calling Sinners Print E-mail
Sunday, 22 July 2007

If you want to avoid opposition in your life, then it is probably not a good idea to follow Christ.  If peace and approval from everyone (or even many) is what you want, then you cannot follow Jesus of Nazareth.  The life and ministry of Christ was filled with opposition.  He is constantly being questioned by the religious leaders of the day.  Many of the crowds will leave following Him over His “hard sayings” (see John 6:60-66).  In fact, even His disciples will abandon Him in the end.  Judas will sell Him for thirty pieces of silver and Peter will deny Him three times.  Thus, if you are looking to avoid opposition, then you should stay away from Jesus Christ.

Yet, if you agree with Simon Peter when he insists: Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God (John 6:68-69), then you know that not following Jesus is not an option.  Therefore, we learn that following Christ means facing opposition for our belief in Him.  We expect opposition, for if they opposed Christ, then surely they will oppose those who claim to follow Him.

Beginning in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Mark, we see growing opposition against Jesus.  In fact, the opposition that we see this morning will ultimately lead to His death on the cross.  Those opposing Him in our text are identified as scribes (v. 6) and the scribes of the Pharisees (v. 16).  In seeking to learn about the opposition that we can expect, we need to consider together this morning the opposition of these groups.  Thus, since they challenge Jesus with two questions, I want to use these questions as an outline for my sermon.

First, how can Jesus claim to forgive sin (when only God can forgive sin)?

This first question is found in the story of Jesus healing a paralytic.  Look at verses 1-12 with me.  As we have seen before, the story begins with Jesus preaching the word to the crowds who have gathered at the home (probably of Simon and Andrew, see 1:29).  While preaching, four men attempted to get their paralytic friend close enough to Jesus to be healed.  Yet, they had a problem: the crowd was so thick that they could not get to Christ.  Thus, they decided to climb on the roof (most roofs were accessible by an outside ladder), dig a hole in it, and lower their friend to Jesus in that way.  When this happens, Jesus’ response seems to be odd.  Look at verse 5 again. 

Mark does not tell us why Jesus says this to the paralytic, but rather begins telling us how the scribes respond to such a statement of Jesus.  Simply stated, they accuse Him of blasphemy because no one can forgive sins but God.  In one sense, we would completely agree with what they are saying.  They are right when they say that only God can forgive sins.  In fact, Jesus never corrects this thought because it is right.  Yet, their error comes in their assumption and belief about who Jesus exactly is.  They are not wrong about God being the only One to forgive sins, they are wrong in not believing that Jesus is in fact God in the flesh.  Mark tells us that Jesus perceives their error and proceeds in correcting it.  He does this by asking them a simple question: Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?  This is an interesting question. 

What is Jesus driving at with this question?  In one sense, we know that the forgiveness of sins requires more authority and more power.  Yet, it seems that what Jesus is saying is this: ‘Which one is easier to prove, or visibly demonstrate, the forgiveness of sins or the healing of the paralytic?’  Of course, anyone can claim to forgive someone’s sin because it takes no visible demonstration.  But, the claim to heal someone does require proof and is therefore harder to say because it is harder to demonstrate.  Thus, Jesus goes on to tell them that He is going to heal the paralytic in order to demonstrate His authority on earth to forgive sins.  And with that, He simply tells the man to pick up his mat and go home, to which the man responds by picking up his mat and going home.  As we said last week, we see Jesus using healing as a way to demonstrate His authority.  Particularly in this passage, He is demonstrating His authority over sin.

So, how can we answer the question of the scribes?  Simple: Jesus can forgive sin because He is God.  Again, they were right in believing that only God can forgive sin, but they were wrong in not recognizing Jesus as God in the flesh.  The implication of this text is simply that Jesus, the Son of Man as He calls Himself, is the very Son of God, and as such has the authority to forgive sin.  Jesus of Nazareth is Almighty God in the flesh.  He has authority in His teaching, authority over demons, authority over disease, and even authority to declare our sins forgiven.

Before we move to the second question, we need to pause and see the gravity of such statements about Jesus.  Like the paralytic, despite whatever physical illnesses we have, our greatest need is to have our sins forgiven.  But who has the authority to forgive our wickedness and rebellion?  Who has the authority to declare us clean and just before a Holy God?  The Bible tells us that His name is Jesus.  Jesus is the One, through His sacrifice on the cross, that can declare us righteous before a Holy God.  He has authority to forgive our sins.  Thus, brothers and sisters, we need to believe in the authority that Jesus has to forgive sins.  The Enemy wants us to believe that we are still his slaves and slaves to sin, but the truth of the gospel will not allow us to believe such lies.  As the hymn we sang earlier says: “When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within, upward I look and see Him there, who made and end to all my sin, because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul has been set free, for God the Just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me.” 1  May we believe and hold fast to the glorious forgiveness that we have in Christ.

Second, why does Jesus eat with sinners?

We see this question come from the scribes in verses 13-17.  Look at those with me.  These verses begin with Mark’s second account of the calling of the disciples in verses 13-14.  In keeping with the stated purpose of His ministry, Jesus was teaching the crowds by the sea.  While teaching, Mark tells us that He saw Levi and called him to follow Him, a call that Levi immediately responded to with obedience.  The interesting issue of this account is Levi’s occupation.  According to Mark, Levi was a tax collector.  If you have read the gospels at all, you know that this occupation was not a favored one. 

Tax collectors worked for the hated Roman government and used their authority to steal money from the people.  Thus, it is shocking that Jesus would choose to call one so despised by society and the religious.  Yet, Mark tells us that He called him and he became one of His followers.  Not only that, Mark goes on in verses 15-17 to tell us that Jesus even ate with tax collectors.  To us, sharing a meal with these might not seem like such a big deal, but in those days, to share a meal with someone signified fellowship and for the Jews, it was against their customs and religion to eat with Gentiles and frowned upon to eat with such ‘sinners.’  Thus, we may not be shocked by this whole scenario, but as we see with the scribes, they cannot believe that Jesus would eat with these people.

So, why does Jesus eat with sinners and tax collectors?  According to Christ, He ate with sinners because He came to call the sick.  Look again at verse 17.  Jesus did not come to call the righteous but sinners.  Who are these ‘righteous’ that Jesus did not come to call?  Well, it could be a reference to the scribes and Pharisees who see themselves as ‘righteous’ and not in need of forgiveness or it could just be a hypothetical group that Jesus used to make the point that He came for sinners, which would include us all.  Either way, Jesus is making the point that He is eating with sinners and tax collectors because He came to call such people to repentance and belief.  He came for sinners.  His message is for sinners.  His call is for sinners.  Jesus came to turn sinners, enemies of God, into followers and friends of the Almighty.  Again, this is why the good news is so good.  Just as the scribes misunderstood the nature of Jesus, they also misunderstood the nature of the forgiveness He offered.  Sinners to saints is the glorious transition of the gospel.  We see it with Levi.  We see it with all the followers of Christ.

As we have contemplated each week in the book of Mark so far, we have to consider what this means for those who claim to be followers of Jesus.  First, obviously, it means that even we as sinners can rejoice in the forgiveness of Christ and follow hard after Him.  No one is disqualified by the ugliness of their sin, for Christ took all that ugliness upon Himself at Calvary and sacrificed His own flesh and blood to secure our forgiveness (even as we will celebrate in coming to the Table this morning). 

Second, it also means that the gospel call is intended to go to sinners.  We would never call a tax collector.  We would never call a drunkard.  We would never call a homosexual.  Yet, it sure seems that Jesus would.  So then the question becomes: should we eat and fellowship with sinners?  I think the obvious answer from the text is ‘yes’ (I told you that doing what Jesus did could be uncomfortable).  Let me offer an important qualification.  Many take this text and make one of two errors.  They either condone the sin and lose the need for repentance or they condemn the sinner and lose belief in the power of the gospel.  Both errors must be avoided.  We must call people to repentance, speaking to them the truth of their sin.  And we must call people to believe, holding fast to the finished work of Calvary. 

These are important issues for us right now.  Many of you have seen in the news about the Church in St. Louis (The Journey) that is trying to reach out to lost people by having meetings in a local bar (Theology at the Bottleworks).2  Many have condemned this Church for such activity.  I understand this.  I struggle with whether or not they are condoning drunkenness and losing the call to repentance.  Yet, I have to say in their defense, they are not afraid to eat with sinners.  They are rubbing shoulders with those who desperately need to hear the gospel.  And this is where my conviction comes in.  Granted, I am not necessarily convinced that this is the best way to go about it, but at least they are trying to eat with sinners.  What am I doing? 

If Jesus shared a meal in the home of tax collectors, then where and with whom am I sharing meals?  Am I too much like the scribes and Pharisees, simply misunderstanding the forgiveness that is offered in Christ?  I want to be a follower of Christ.  I want to follow where He leads.  I want to serve the needy by preaching the gospel to sinners.  What about you?  Do you want to follow Christ into the highways and byways, into the homes of sinners and tax collectors, taking the gospel with you?  God give us grace to really follow hard after Christ, whatever that means.  Amen.

1 From the hymn “Before the Throne of God Above,” written by Charitie Bancroft, 1863.
2 For more, visit

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Thursday, 02 August 2007 )

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