And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. (Matthew 9:1-8)
For the entire chapter after the Sermon on the Mount ends (Matthew 8), Jesus is doing two things: traveling and healing. He comes down from the mountain, from the delivery of his true interpretation of the law, at the beginning of the chapter, and immediately cleanses a leper. He enters Capernaum and heals the centurion's servant. He goes into Peter's house and heals the Apostle's mother-in-law. Now there's a water crossing. Jesus preps potential disciples on the cost of following him, not only spiritually, but as they cross the sea in the midst of a storm, emotionally and physically, too. On the other side, in the country of the Gadarenes, Jesus exorcises demons from two men. In our passage, the beginning of chapter 9, Jesus has been rejected by the people of the Gadarenes, and he has now crossed back to his own city, Capernaum.
After each travel, and before each healing, Jesus encounters faith. The leper kneels before him. The centurian claims he is not worthy to have Jesus come under his roof (Jesus marvels at his faith), and Peter has already repented. The scene on the sea of Galilee, when it storms, Jesus calms the storm and then questions their lack of faith. The people of the Gadarenes beg Jesus to leave their region after he exorcises the demons. Here is an example of no faith being present. The result is a rejection of Jesus.
The leper is healed based on his own faith (even though it is Christ's will). Remember John 1:12-13: "But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." We cannot will our own salvation, but only God can. The centurion's servant, however, is healed based on the faith of the centurion. Peter's mother-in-law is healed based on Peter's faith, and in our passage, the paralytic is healed based on the faith of the people who brought him to Jesus. Jesus didn't need to look into their hearts to see their faith. Just by their actions, bringing to him a paralytic, who would be an outcast in ancient society, their faith is revealed.
So, we have Jesus traveling, sometimes great distances, like across the sea to heal his people. And notice that all happens at his own discretion. He seems to heal based on faith, but the exorcism of the demoniacs happens without faith, and in fact, the town of Gadara rejects Christ completely. Jesus also stills the storm in the midst of a lack of faith. Faith, however, plays a part. Faith is a gift from God, not something we bring to the table. God acts, he heals anyway, even when we do not have faith. However, when faith is present, it's usually the faith of someone else on the sick one's behalf that Jesus sees.
Likewise, it's not our faith that saves us but Christ's faith on our behalf. God saves his elect on the merits of his Son. His elect may have a weak faith or no faith at all, but the good news is that we are saved by Christ's faith, not our own. When Jesus' righteousness is imparted to us, we find that we do have a Godly faith, but it's an alien faith, one we are incapable of possessing naturally. With Christ's faith in us, we can do good works for our neighbor, including discipleship, as we shall see.
Here's a second thing we learn from our text: Christ's forgiveness comes BEFORE he heals, or saves, us. The people of faith bring the paralytic before the Lord in order to heal him, to give him life. Jesus heals all throughout the Gospels. He didn't come to heal everyone, because many were left unhealed, but he healed many. The healings serve two purposes. One is that of authority. Jesus was who he said he was. His words now have the authority of God, and he himself has the authority of God. We can also see the symbolism: Jesus Christ came from heaven to save us. He traveled from heaven to earth, found us desperately sick and doomed to destruction, and he healed us from our infirmities by taking our debilitating sin upon himself on the cross. By his death, we are saved. However, our salvation comes through the forgiveness of our sins. Forgiveness isn't an emotional thing. Forgiveness means the cancellation of debt. Christ's act of self-sacrifice on the cross, as both God and man, cancels the debt we have accrued. He has forgiven our sins.
Now, this forgiveness takes place first: in the sequence of events in our reading, and in the history of the world. Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins two-thousand years ago, through God's eternal decree, though his eternal plan, this most major event. And it's through Christ's faith in the success of this event that we get our faith. Jesus forgives the paralytic, aloud, in front of the Scribes. They accuse him of blaspheming, but then Jesus actually heals the paralytic in front of them, once again for two reasons: to give authority to his statement of forgiveness and to show that his forgiveness SAVES, even to this day. He tells the paralytic to take up his mat and walk, giving him his first, post salvation work to do. After we are saved, we do good works, not for our salvation (that has already happened) but for our neighbor to show our fruit of faith. "Taking up our mats" can mean us bringing more "paralytics" to Christ. Our faith is expressed in our actions.
The last thing that happens is the reaction of the crowds. They were afraid, they glorified God, and they were given authority. Fear of the Lord, we are told in the Proverbs, is the beginning of wisdom. We must always know our place as beneath God, not above him or even AS him. This is true humility, and we have as our finest model Jesus himself. He humbled himself to the point of death. When we have a true, healthy fear of the Lord, our only response is repentance, and that is how we are forgiven. We receive Christ's forgiveness and salvation through repentance, which also is a gift from God.
Second, they glorified God, they praised him with their whole being, through thought, word and deed. We are to fear God when we compare ourselves to him, but we are to glorify God when we compare him to anything else. God was glorified through creation, but through Jesus' death and resurrection He is most glorified. Remember, everything points back to Jesus, and we glorify God the most by worshiping his son.
Finally, Christ gives us the authority. In our passage, the crowds marvel at the kind of authority God has given someone they perceive to be only a man. However, after the resurrection, they know who he truly is. Jesus then gives them authority. What kind of authority? We discover this at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, in the great commission:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
We fear God because Jesus did. We glorifiy God because Jesus did. And we pass on the authority that Jesus has given us: to make disciples of all nations, to baptize people into the Church, and to continually teach them through the scriptures. How can we do this? We can do this because Christ is with us: his faith becomes our faith. His declaration of forgiveness becomes our declaration of forgiveness. His proclamation of everlasting life becomes our proclamation.