Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

34 The Healing of the Paralytic (Matthew 9:2-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26)*

The first circuit of the towns and villages of Galilee concluded, Jesus now returned to Capernaum. He had ended this preaching tour in the less populous eastern side of Galilee (Lk. 5:16), and now (Mt.) from there he came back by boat.

Almost at once people knew that he was back: “It was noised that he was in the house”

(Mk.), as indeed it always is, even to this day. If it may be assumed that the Lord’s family had all moved to Capernaum, then perhaps the modern versions are right in translating: “It was reported that he was at home”. Or, since Mark’s is really Peter’s gospel, Jesus may have been resting (most welcome guest!) at the home of Peter.

In the Synagogue

After a while (see Notes) Jesus used the opportunity to teach once again in the local synagogue. There are several hints in the narrative that it was the synagogue, and not some private house, where the crowd gathered to hear him. The English reader is easily misled by the word “house” (Mk. 2:1), forgetting that the synagogue was “the house of assembly” or “the house of prayer”. The very word translated “gathered together” (Mk) is really “synagogued”. A concourse of high dignitaries from far and near, including even rabbis from Judaea and Jerusalem (Lk), would hardly have presumed to enter a private house and appropriate seats there. Indeed, such a special assembly of scribes and Pharisees, intent on assessing the credentials and teaching of this Jesus of Nazareth, would certainly not choose the home of a private citizen as the place for such an investigation.

Other considerations identify the synagogue as the location of this encounter with the men of the Law. There is the mention of crowds (Mt), an utterly inappropriate word for a private house, no matter how packed with people. Also, the four bearers would be more ready to break open the roof of a public building than they would of someone’s home. And, if it were the synagogue, they would know exactly where to make an opening in order to be able to lower their stricken friend immediately in front of Jesus.

Not improbably Jesus was invited to take the synagogue service on this particular day specially so that the religious authorities might weigh carefully what he had to say and so make up their minds about him. The presence of these men from the headquarters of the Law, and their demeanour, is the first sign of official criticism since Jesus returned from Judaea to Galilee (See Jn. 4:1-3).

A Stricken Man

“And the power of the Lord was present to heal them” (Lk.) This statement is somewhat puzzling. Although grammatically the pronoun should apply to the “Pharisees and doctors of the law” referred to in the same sentence, probably it has general reference to the people assembled there. In that case the words may describe the forgiveness of sins, for Isaiah’s phrase: “and I should heal them” (6:10) has “and their sins should be forgiven them” as its equivalent (Mk. 4:12). This is made more probable by the strong ensuing emphasis on the Lord’s power to forgive sins (Lk. 5:20, 21, 23, 24).

None of the synoptists give any indication as to what the discourse of Jesus was about. Their main purpose and interest is in the miracle which ensued.

Eager for Help

There was in the town a young man stricken, helpless, utterly prostrated (Mt) with paralysis. Only by being carried could he come to Jesus for the help he so sorely needed. It cannot be said with certainty that the man’s disability was the direct result of an evil life, but the way in which Jesus went about curing him strongly suggests this (cp Jn. 5:14; Ps. 103:3). And locomotor ataxia, such as he apparently suffered from, might well have been brought on by syphilis in an acute form.

The reader is left wondering why he had not been brought to Jesus on the earlier occasion (Mk. 1:32) when the Lord spent an intensely busy evening healing “all that were diseased” in this very town. Was the onset of his affliction more recent than that? or had he felt too ashamed of his evil life to face this man of power and uncanny insight.

But now he was a different man. Greatly depressed and desperately repentant of his wickedness, he was convinced that Jesus could restore his health, both physically and spiritually. This is an easy inference from that later fact of sins forgiven. There is no forgiveness without faith (cp. also Lk. 7:48; 17:19; 18:42; 23:42, 43; Mk. 5:34).

Also, the man was blessed with friends who shared his faith. All that was needful was to appeal to Jesus as he taught in the synagogue. So these four loyal friends brought the man on his bed, but only to meet with vexatious discouragement -- the place was full to the door, packed solid with others whom the fame of Jesus had brought together. There was even a crowd round the doorway (Mk). Others besides themselves had had to put up with disappointment and frustration. Persistently (so Luke implies) they pleaded and cajoled, but in vain. No access was to be had.

Desperate Measures

But they were not to be gainsaid. Was it the stricken man himself or one of his faithful four who hit on a desperate solution to their difficulty? One of them ran off to the beach and borrowed ropes from a fishing boat -- without so much as ‘By your leave!’, judging from the character of the rest of the enterprise. Then they carried their helpless burden (with what difficulty!) up the outside stair of the synagogue on to the flat roof. Since they were familiar with the interior of the building, it was a simple matter to estimate the exact spot under which Jesus sat as he delivered his discourse. Then, whilst two of them slung ropes under the sick man’s mattress, the others set about prising up the tiles (Lk.).

Somewhere about this point the Lord’s preaching came to a sudden stop, interrupted first by the unaccustomed noises proceeding from the roof and then by a great shower of lath and plaster, as the dauntless four vigorously dug a man-sized hole through the roof. From their point of view payment for repairs afterwards was a matter of trivial concern compared with the dominating need to get the attention of Jesus who in a matter of seconds had become half smothered in dust. It was in his hair and his beard and was copiously sprinkled on his clothes -- and also over the protesting venerable dignitaries who sat in the seats of prominence close by.

All eyes were now on the cause of the disturbance which had so effectively brought the service to a halt. It was a tricky business, lowering steadily and evenly that flimsy mattress with its helpless paralysed burden. With not a few disconcerting jerks, the sick man was let down, but at last the ropes went slack.

Sins Forgiven

Jesus looked into the invalid’s eyes. Then, before he was asked, he gave: “Take heart, child, your sins have been forgiven.” Only Jesus, knowing what was in man, could tell unerringly that this poor young fellow was as much distressed over the memory of his own evil living as he was on account of the physical retribution which had overtaken him.


The words of absolution were heard by all in the synagogue, and immediately created a great sensation. Matthew’s characteristic “Behold” tells of an ominous change of atmosphere in that synagogue. The rabbis present, already well-armed with a strong critical prejudice against this Nazareth preacher who had never been to college, pounced on the implications behind this forgiveness of sins. Who had the right to forgive men their sins except Almighty God?: “To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses” (Dan. 9:9); “I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions” (ls. 43:25). Whichever Scripture they had in mind, they were roundly condemned by the context, for in both instances there is exposure of the arrant apostasy of the nation and -- in Isaiah -- especially of the teachers (v. 27, 28), the very men who now sat before the Son of God acidly criticising him in their hearts (their minds).

There was no opportunity for them to get heads together and then publicly voice their censure. Individually, but as one man, they were formulating the same stricture: “Who is this which speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God only?” In their eagerness to find fault they had surely forgotten that on each Day of Atonement the High Priest acted on God’s behalf to pronounce the forgiveness of sins not of one man only but of the entire nation.

Mark’s introductory phrase: “After some days”, may perhaps mean the end of the (religious) year (cp. Gen. 4:3 mg; 1 Sam. 1:3; 2:19 Heb.). And in that case Luke’s phrase: “on one of those days” most likely picks out the Feast of Trumpets (Lev. 23:24). If so, the Day of Atonement came on a few days later. Is this why Jesus said: “Thy sins are being forgiven”? And note: “We never saw it on this fashion” (i.e. on any Day of Atonement).

Yet their reasoning was not altogether at fault. If indeed a descendant of Aaron did have authority to forgive sins, it was only because this was specially delegated to him by God (1 Chr. 23:13; Num. 6:23; Lev. 9:22, 23; Dt. 10:8). The blunder of these scribes was their refusal to deem it possible that God might ever give that authority to another besides the high priest.

The words of Jesus implied that he was at least as close to God as the high priest was; they might even involve a claim to priesthood for himself. It seemed like barefaced effrontery. Blasphemy was not too strong a word. They knew of three ways in which a man might be guilty of blasphemy -- he could ascribe to God acts or attributes unworthy of Him, he could deny God that which was His by right, or he could ascribe to some other (man or god) what certainly belonged to God. It was the last of these which crystallised out in their criticism. Yet what followed may have inclined some of them to think differently.


Jesus read these critics like a book. He knew completely and immediately (Mk. Lk.) what they were thinking. Another miracle! Already in their minds they were scheming (Mt.) how they could use this occasion to frame a charge against him. And Jesus knew it. His demonstration of that fact a moment later should have told them that here was no blasphemer.

“God only”, they had said. “God only” reads your hearts, Jeremiah had declared (17:10). Like Father, like Son!

And now Jesus left the paralytic to savour the warm comfort of the assurance of forgiveness whilst he turned on these men and exposed the evil of their minds: “Why think ye evil in your hearts?”. An honest answer would have revealed to these proud men the professional jealousy which effectually prevented them from judging him and his teaching without prejudice.

He proceeded to reason with them after the manner of their rabbinic schools. Which was easier to say to the helpless creature lying there on his mattress: Your sins are forgiven; or, Take up your bed and walk? Obviously, neither, so far as the actual speaking was concerned. But equally obviously the first, so far as superficial judgement goes. For when a man’s sins were pronounced forgiven, there was no open sign available by which to know whether or not this absolution was a wonderful divine truth or a grandiose meaningless verbal flourish. It could be a gesture which any mountebank might go in for. But the claim to heal an incurable malady must stand or fall by discernible physical results.

Yet in actual fact the “easier” proposition is the healing of the paralysis. For if a man claim authority to forgive the sins of others, sooner or later, he must demonstrate this divine right by holiness of character and closeness to God. And, sooner or later, he must go to Golgotha to achieve that forgiveness!

Son of Man

To reinforce his amazing claim Jesus now for the first time referred to himself as “Son of man”: “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins...” The only possible origin of this remarkable title is the ‘impressive prophecy in Daniel 7:13, 14: “Behold, one like unto the Son of man came, with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom...” The Lord’s own later authority for this identification is repeatedly clear and explicit (Mt.24:30; 26:64; Rev. 14:14; Acts 7:56).

This first use of the title in the healing of the paralytic is specially appropriate after the assurance of the forgiving of his sins. On the Day of Atonement, when the sins of the nation were expiated, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies with the blood of the sacrifice, but could do so only if shrouded in a dense cloud of incense, “that he die not” (Lev. 16:12, 13) in the presence of the Glory of the Lord. But in Daniel 7:13 the Son of man is represented as coming into the Divine Presence accompanied by the very Shekinah Glory which meant death to any other human high priest. If indeed the claim of Jesus to be this Son of man was understood by his learned audience, it could only exacerbate their accusation of blasphemy. That such a humble individual as this carpenter from Nazareth should baldly claim to be the one foretold in an august Messianic prophecy was barefaced presumption.

The Miracle

Yet the triple credentials were there before their eyes -- in response to the imperatives: “Rise ... take up... go...” a man known by many of them to be helpless and incurable rose from his mattress, bundled it up on his shoulder, and, with loud ejaculations of praise and thanksgiving on his lips (Lk), vigorously pushed his way out through the close-packed assembly, which half-an-hour earlier had blocked his access to Jesus.

“Go unto thy house”, Jesus bade him. This was to get the young man away from the evil overbearing influence of the critics. It was also in accordance with the policy he was seeking to follow of limiting the sensational talk about his miracles as much as possible.

And, sorely tempted as the man must have been to stay and be a centre of excited discussion, he obeyed, and went, glorifying God: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases...” (Ps. 103:2, 3; cp. Jas. 5:15). “Fools because of their transgression, and because of their iniquities, are afflicted. Their soul abhorreth all manner of meat: and they draw near unto the gates of death. Then they cry unto the lord in their trouble, and he saveth them out of their distresses. He sent his Word, and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions. Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men” (Ps. 107:17-21).

The Effect on the Crowd

This they did in the synagogue that day: “They were all amazed, and glorified God, and were filled with fear, (Lk. 7:16, Mk. 4:41) saying, We have seen strange (paradox) things today.” Moses had pronounced against a nation of sinners: “Then the Lord will make thy plagues wonderful (s.w.) and the plagues of thy seed, even great plagues, and of long continuance” (Dt. 28:59). But now they witnessed the removing of these plagues and sicknesses in a way yet more wonderful. They also glorified God “for giving such authority to men”. Although the reference was clearly to the authority of Jesus both to cure and to forgive, Matthew uses a plural here -- presumably to prepare the minds of his readers for an extension of such authority to his Lord’s men in later days (16:19; 18:18; Lk. 10:17).

The people were also “filled with fear” (Mt. Lk.). It is a strange phrase for such a context. Perhaps they took it as almost certain that the confrontation between Jesus and rabbis was bound to blow up into a much bigger row.

Or is it possible that it was specially the scribes who feared? for if they had made an enemy of such a man as this, might he perhaps use his amazing powers to switch that paralysis to themselves?

A Miracle, A Wonder and a Sign

Time and again three different words are used to describe the marvellous works of Christ: “miracles (powers), wonders, and signs” (e.g. Acts 2:22). This healing of the paralytic was certainly a “power”, imparting power to one who was bereft of it: “he took up the bed, and went forth before them all.” It was a “wonder”: “they were all amazed, and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion.”

But, most important of all, it was a “sign”. Here was a man suffering from the results of his

own sin in such a way that his will was left free, but yet he lacked the power to make his body respond to his will: “What I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that I do ... to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do ... O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of his death?” (Rom. 7:15-25). The deliverance, involving full forgiveness of sins and the imparting of new vigour and a God-centred life, comes from the Son of man: “I thank God (that I am delivered) through Jesus Christ my Lord.” The man went out of the synagogue triumphantly carrying away that which had been the open sign of his sin and helplessness.

The miracle proclaimed Jesus as the true High Priest pronouncing with authority the present forgiveness of sins. But to receive this blessing the impotent must come to him, even if it means the break up of the ancient Law and Traditions, or the unceremonious disintegration of Orthodoxy and Error. And even then he needs help -- the matchless dependable aid of four good friends, called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Relying on these he can be set in the very presence of Christ, and receive all the blessing which he seeks.

“Son, be of good cheer!”

Notes: Mark 2:1-12

When Jesus saw their faith. The pronoun certainly includes the paralysed man, for without faith in a successful outcome he would assuredly have forbidden this decidedly precarious enterprise. Note here the power of the faith and intercession of others: Mt. 8:13; 9:32; 15:28; 17:14-18; Lk. 8:50; Jn. 4:49; Josh. 6:17; Gen. 7:1; 18:32; 19:12; Acts.27:24.

Son: “child”. But Lk has “Man”. How did Jesus address him? Here is one of the multitude of examples showing that the inspiration of the gospels covers the essential meaning, but not necessarily the exact words spoken.
RV: Why doth this man thus speak? he blasphemeth follows an inferior textual reading. These men who spoke were the blasphemers! In ch. 2, 3 Mk. gives prominence to the build-up of official opposition to Jesus: 2:7, 16, 18, 24; 3:2, 6, 22. “This” is used about Jesus in a spirit of contempt: “this fellow”; Mt. 9:3; 12:24; 13:55; 21:10; 26:61, 71; 27:47; Lk. 7:39; 15:2; 23:35: Jn. 6:52; 7:15; 11:37; Acts. 6:14.
Perceived in his spirit. In his mind? or, by his Spirit? (but not by hearing what they said). For many examples of this, see Study 213, Notes.
Take up thy bed, and go... So addressed, most paralytics would have said: “But I can’t!”
They glorified God. But it didn’t last: Mt. 11:23.

Luke 5:17-26

Judaea and Jerusalem. Here is indirect evidence of the southern ministry described in Jn. 2, 3, 4.

To heal them. The WH reading: “him”, is unwarranted (as also is RV), and is indeed quite silly. But to heal whom? The plural covers more than the paralytic.
Glorifying God. Not “glorifying Jesus”. Isn’t this remarkable?
Strange things. The link with Dt. 28:59 (see text) suggests a parabolic reference of this incident to the spiritual healing of Israel still to come. The word for “paralytic, palsied” occurs also in Dt. 32:36 LXX, a prophecy about divine retribution on Israel (and also in ls. 35:3). The break-up of the synagogue roof and the vigorous departure from the synagogue were not only a sign to Jewry hearing the 1st-century gospel but also will have further fulfilment before long.

Matthew 9:2-8

Their thoughts. The same word in Acts. 17:29, Heb. 4:12 suggests “their scheming (against him)”.
Whether is easier? The idea behind the Greek word is “less trouble”. Note how in Jas. 5:14, 15 forgiveness and healing go together.
Hath power on earth (Mk. Lk. also). In Dan. 7:13, 27, in both earth and heaven. The chapter (LXX) uses this word “power, dominion”, 5 times about the Son of man. Note how the Lord breaks off his speech in this verse.

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