In Mark 2, we read that Jesus encounters a paralyzed man. Jesus is back home in Capernaum, and news of His power and teaching has spread through the area so effectively that a dense crowd has gathered in and around His house. If the paralytic is to be healed, his friends realize they must take drastic measures to get him in Jesus’ proximity. In a famous move of zealous faith, they audaciously dig a hole through the Messiah’s roof and lower their friend to His presence (Mark 2:1-4).
Having been to Capernaum I can only imagine the scene in my head and wonder. There sits Jesus, packed sardine-style in a small stone house, shoulder-to shoulder with curious townsfolk and scribes, perhaps in tense conversation about the Law, when suddenly small chunks of dust and debris begin to rain down into His lap. A few moments later there suddenly appears a paralyzed man! Who knows how the crowds inside the house reacted—the text is silent—but Jesus is not angry about His roof or the dramatic disruption of His teaching. Instead, Jesus recognizes the faith of the men and responds by saying, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5 [NIV]).
It is a necessary place to pause. Though many people who suffer from quadriplegia have remarkable strength of character and bear their sufferings with inspirational dignity, it is obvious that paralysis is not a preferred or desirable state of physical being. In the ancient world the condition was exceptionally difficult and often socially isolating. With this in mind, it is curious that Jesus’ initial response was, “your sins are forgiven,” and not “get up and walk.”
Around 334 B.C. and only in his early 30s, Alexander the Great managed to conquer the known western world for Greece. His empire stretched from the southern reaches of the Nile River to the northern shores of the Black Sea, and from modern Greece as far east as India. He died shortly after his power reached its height and control over the farthest corners of his empire quickly fizzled, but Grecian control over the Mediterranean persisted. Though by Jesus’ time a new empire, Rome, had conquered the West, the power of Greece prevailed—not in military might but in something more durable; the power of thought.
Consequent of the Greek philosopher Plato’s Theory of Forms, much of the Greek understanding of the world included the notion of a physical and spiritual dualism. What we see and experience in this life is but a mere shadow or representation of the actual form. There is then a divide between what is and what is experienced. For many who were living in the shadow of Classical Grecian rule, the idea that what is experienced in this physical life is of less value or virtue that what exists in the spiritual realm.
So, what does Plato have to do with Jesus healing a paralytic man? In my mind, two things. Firstly, Jesus clearly demonstrates for us and the crowd surrounding Him the seriousness of His ultimate deity through this miracle. Secondly, Jesus’ approach to healing and forgiving this paralyzed man—that is, recognizing both his spiritual and physical needs—presents a powerful model of Christianity’s missional influence to bring healing to this world.
Were this account to stop at Jesus’ forgiveness of this man’s sins and not at his physical healing it would present an interesting dilemma, at least to my own reflections. I know that Jesus is the Messiah, and it is through Him that eternal salvation is given. I also know that this life is full of “light momentary affliction” which “is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” in heaven (2 Corinthians 4:17-18 [NIV]). I also know that those “light momentary afflictions” Paul is talking about rarely feel “light and momentary,” especially for the paralyzed man. A life doomed to quadriplegia is not a light or momentary affliction. But I also know that what Paul is driving at is that with a correct perspective shift in comparison of the whole of eternity in the glorious presence of God, this life is very short. With that perspective in place were Jesus to stop with healing the man’s sins that he might live for eternity in full joy and health and in the very presence of God—it is enough. More than enough, no matter what it feels like now.
So why would I feel so bummed out if Jesus didn’t heal the man? Because I am a human. I am both spiritual and physical. To completely disassociate or divide from the grasping, pains, and joys of this life only to dwell on heaven come may look “extra-spiritual,” but that would not be a pure Christianity, rather a Christianized form of Buddhism. Christ’s life demonstrates the fullness of perfection of a Spirit-filled relationship with God. Fully God, fully human, Christ’s life was not a life disassociated from the reality of the pain, suffering, beauty, goodness, and joy this life has to offer even though it was a life more fully aware glory of heaven to come than anyone else. And for Jesus, it was not enough to forgive this paralyzed man of his sins without healing him from his paralysis. Jesus knew his spiritual needs, but counteracted dualism by dignifying his humanity when He went on to acknowledge the man’s physical state and provide a miraculous healing.
The account continues to tell how the scribes sitting near Jesus began to have some serious questions too, but theirs were a little different from mine. “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” are their questions (Mark 2:7 [NIV]). And they are serious questions, because they’re right—no one can forgive sins but God alone. By telling this man that his sins are forgiven, Jesus is effectively calling Himself God, and if He weren’t God that was a crime worthy of capital punishment. Jesus’ response is risky. He asks them the question, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?” (Mark 2:9 [NIV]).
I am not a doctor and I know little to nothing about paralysis. Given the two options above, I would probably have to say “your sins are forgiven”--who around could see if that has actually happened? In Jesus’ case, given that He’d already told the man his sins were forgiven, if He were to say “walk” and the man couldn’t walk -- the result would have been Jesus’ own death at the hand of the crowds. But Jesus is God and He does have the power both to forgive sins and to heal the body, which He demonstrates in this passage, saying “But so 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, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And [the man] stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:10-12 [NIV]).
What is clear in this particular miracle is that the ultimate reason for the physical healing is so that God would be glorified. As Christians we know all too well that miracles (by definition) are rare. We know that God can do all things, but sometimes He doesn’t. This may be the hardest part of unanswered prayers—not lack of faith, but pain in realizing that God is totally able and sometimes doesn’t. We must trust that God indeed cares about our lives and is grieved with us in our sufferings (more on God caring about our earthy lives: Exodus 3:6-8, Isaiah 58:6-11, Psalm 56:8, Luke 12:6-7). In these moments we must choose to rest in that same faith, in the truth of God’s character, and in the understanding that we do not have the full perspective of His plan.
But Jesus does heal. Over and over again, Jesus heals the most unlikely, the most helpless, and the most despised and proves to us that God does indeed care about our lives this side of heaven. And time and time again, this physical healing is met with a forgiveness of sins. For true, holistic healing, it is imperative that the physical sufferings and injustices of this world be met with the power of the Gospel of Christ, and likewise that the Gospel of Christ must be met with action to relieve the injustice and suffering in the world.
There are innumerable injustices and sufferings all around us—locally and globally alike. So too are there are innumerable charities, nonprofits, and advocacy groups doing good things to alleviate these pains. But as Jesus says in Matthew 6:26 [NIV] “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” If the good work being done to help those in need overlooks the spiritual realm and the very present reality of the shortness of this life and truthful perspective of eternity, all the best work done is stillborn in ability to activate everlasting transformation. This is an attempt to fix the problems of the world with only half of the necessary tools. True healing begins in the heart by the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This does not give Christians a right to merely speak the words of the Gospel to those in need without rolling up sleeves, moving into the neighborhood, and doing the hard and uncomfortable work necessary to bring about change. We cannot call ourselves followers of Christ if we are unwilling to follow Christ to the cross and act in His loving compassion. James 2: 15-18 [NIV] drives this point: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” The power of the Gospel is the true Wisdom of God (I Corinthians 1:17-19). It is the power to bring about justice through truth, with love, and by the hope of the glory to come.
Do not try to change the world by your own wisdom.
Do not put your hope in a man-made program.
Do not labor in vain trying to fix what cannot be restored apart from the Spirit of God.
Do not speak of the Gospel while blaspheming the Name of Christ through non-action.
Instead, follow Jesus’ example. Do every good work for the sake of God’s glory—not your own. Preach while you work, and work while you preach. Doing any less shortchanges the healing work of Christ’s body on earth.
By Haley Winkelman