These are the words of Napoleon Bonaparte:
I know men and I tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and I have founded empires. But upon what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love. And at this hour millions of men would die for him.
Although it has been 2,000 years since Jesus walked the dusty roads of Palestine, the words of Napoleon are more true today than when he first spoke them. “At this hour, millions of men would die for him.”
It is a strange fact that the men and women of the world are instinctively drawn to Jesus. Many who call themselves skeptics are not skeptics at all when they get to know Jesus. They may have no use for the church or for Christianity in general, but for its founder they feel the deepest admiration.
Many people do not know him well, but what they know, they like. It matters not what their background–Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Marxist, or modern American–all honor his name.
It is rare to find a man on the street who will speak ill of Jesus. Even those who use his name as a swear-word pay unknowing tribute to his greatness because they are swearing by the greatest name they know.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH JESUS
With all that in mind, it is fitting that at the end of the 20th century we should get a new view of the heart and mind of Jesus Christ. For a number of reasons that has been one of my personal goals. What was Jesus really like? I’m not talking about Jesus the teacher or Jesus the story-teller, but about Jesus the man. What was it like to be around him? What kind of person was he? How did he deal with the problems of life? How did he treat people? What would we have seen if we had been there in Galilee by the sea or in Jericho or in Bethany? What was Jesus really like?
In order to answer those questions, we have to go back to the only records we have–the four gospels. As I thought about it, I jotted down the things I would like to study. First, I wanted to know more about his encounters with unlikely people. People with unusual backgrounds or unusual occupations or unusual circumstances or unusual needs. Second, I wanted to study the conversations Jesus had with the men and women he met. In short, I wasn’t looking for “Jesus the great teacher” or “Jesus and his disciples,” but for “Jesus and the common man.” What was it like to have a close encounter with Jesus?
THE GOSPEL OF THE UNDERDOG
No gospel answers that question better than the gospel of Luke. It is pre-eminently the gospel of the individual. It is full of real stories about real people. In Luke’s gospel we see Jesus dealing with a tax collector up a tree and with a prostitute who washed his feet with her tears. We see him with the rich young ruler who went away sorrowful and with the woman who touched the hem of his garment.
We know that Luke was a physician. It has been said that a minister sees men at their best, a lawyer sees men at their worst, but a physician sees men as they really are. Luke saw men as they were and loved them all. His gospel is the story of Jesus written by a kind and compassionate family doctor.
To my mind, he has given us the most appealing picture of our Lord. If you want to see Jesus as the Messiah, read Matthew; if you want to see Jesus as the powerful Savior, read Mark; if you want to see Jesus as the Son of God, read John. But if you want to see Jesus as the man for all men, read Luke. It is little wonder that someone called Luke “the gospel of the underdog.”
It is my favorite gospel, written by a man who made his story simple and uncomplicated. In my opinion, it is the easiest of the gospels to read because it is meant for people like us.
BAITING THE HOOK
Our first close encounter with Jesus comes from Luke 5. It is the story of a miracle and a controversy. Verses 17-19 set the scene for us:
One day as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, were sitting there. And the power of the Lord was present to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.
As we study this little photograph clipped from Luke’s mental scrapbook, the players in this drama come clearly in focus. First, there is Jesus who is teaching the people. Second, there are the Pharisees, the professional teachers of the law. They have come from all over Galilee, have made the long, hard trip to Capernaum to check out this new man from Nazareth. Who are they? They are full-time students of the Old Testament and of the Jewish tradition. They were legal experts who made their living by splitting hairs in 40 different ways. They were deeply religious, highly educated, very sincere, very moral, very upright. They saw themselves as the guardians of the law of God.
But what brings this impressive assemblage to an out-of-the-way place like Capernaum? Rumors. Stories have been flying across the countryside about Jesus and so they have come to check him out. They have gathered this day partly as spectators, partly as censors and partly as spies. They are a self-appointed board of inquisition and they mean to trap Jesus in his own words.
Keep them in mind. They are the key to this close encounter.
UP ON THE ROOFTOP
But there is a third group we must examine. Off to the side, just out of the view of the Pharisees, are five very determined men. One lays on a stretcher, four are at the corners. Together they are determined to get to Jesus.
Luke tells us that the man was a paralytic. He had some form of chronic paralysis, a disease that would be nearly as hopeless today as it was back then. He must have been desperately ill because his friends took desperate steps to get him to Jesus.
The house itself was typical for those days. It had one room, with a flat roof and an outside stairway. The roof was made of thatch and tiles laid over thick wooden beams.
Now the action begins. Jesus is teaching inside the house. The room is crowded with eager listeners who lean forward to catch every word. Around the walls sit the Pharisees, silent, impassive, inscrutable, their faces showing no emotion. They are waiting for Jesus to make a mistake.
Suddenly there is a noise above them, muffled words and the sound of tiles moving. More noise, then dirt begins to fall from the ceiling. Suddenly a shaft of light breaks through. Somebody has knocked a hole in the roof! Jesus stops, looks up and smiles.
Everyone else looks up only to see four faces in the hole peering down at them. All eyes are on them. Slowly the four men lower a stretcher through the hole in the roof. No one knows what to say. In a few moments the stretcher comes to rest in the middle of the room. On the stretcher a man lies silently. Even a casual glance tells you that he is very ill. He looks at Jesus expectantly.
A hush falls on the room. What will Jesus do?
HEALING THE INNER HURT
Luke gives us the answer: When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” (20) Immediately we spot something unusual. The Bible says that Jesus saw their faith. Whose faith? Doubtless, it is the faith of the four men. This is an example of intercessory faith, “faith that benefits another in need.” Jesus saw their ingenuity, their resourcefulness and their persistence and behind it all he saw faith.
Doubtless, also, he means to include the man on the stretcher. Surely they did not bring him against his will. His faith and the deep faith of his friends shone brightly that day. It was perhaps the only faith Jesus saw in that whole room.
But there is something else even more unusual here. Jesus didn’t heal the man at first. Instead he says, “Your sins are forgiven.” Why? Because this man had a deeper need than physical healing.
You see, there is more than one kind of paralysis. There is the paralysis of the body caused by disease; there is also the paralysis of the soul caused by sin. This man was sicker than he knew. He was doubly paralyzed and didn’t even know it.
The rabbis said it this way: “No sick man is healed until his sins are forgiven.” That’s because all suffering is ultimately rooted in sin. Not that this man was especially sinful. He wasn’t. But he stands as a kind of object lesson to teach us the truth that death and disease are consequences of sin. If there were no sin in the universe, there would be no sickness. If there were no disobedience, there would be no death.
Romans 3:23 is still true. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” That is true of king and clown, philosopher and fool, teacher and student. All of us have the same problem and all of us need the same thing.
Jesus is teaching a lesson by the order in which he does things: Our greatest problems are spiritual, not physical. As important as healing is, it is not as important as forgiveness!!!
We need what Jesus gave this poor man. We need to have our sins forgiven. That’s far more important than physical healing because without forgiveness, healing doesn’t really matter. It touches the body but it doesn’t touch the soul.
“WHO DOES THIS GUY THINK HE IS?”
At this point the focus shifts from the man on the cot to the Pharisees gathered at the edge of the crowd: The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (21)
Their reasoning is clear. 1. Only God can forgive sins. 2. This man is claiming to do that which only God can do. 3. Obviously, this man is a blasphemer. It was pretty simple, really. 1 plus 2 equals 3. An open and shut case.
I should add that blasphemy was the most serious sin a Jew could commit. It was the “unmistakable and overt defilement of God’s name.” In Jesus’ time, it was a capital offense.
Please note that the Pharisees understood exactly what Jesus was saying. Give them credit for that. It’s true that only God can forgive sin. It’s also true that he had forgiven this man’s sin. When the Pharisees heard that, they said to themselves, “Who does he think he is? God?”
That’s the whole point. Who is this man? Either he’s a blasphemer… or he’s God. You can kill him … or you can worship him. Which will it be?
The Pharisees are a classic example of the perpetually-closed mind. They are brilliant, analytical, informed, well-read, highly-educated, but they have no category big enough for Jesus. As a healer? Yes. A teacher? Yes. A wise man? Yes. The Son of God from heaven? No way. They have no room for that new idea.
Their problem was that they had Jesus in a box and their box was too small. Jesus was bigger than their box.
In that sense, the Pharisees are just like many well-educated people in our day. They are guilty of hyper-category-itis. That’s the disease of people who think that if they study enough, they can put the whole universe in a series of neat little boxes. That works just fine for little things like gnats and snails and junebugs, but it won’t work at all for Jesus. He’s just too big to be put in some man-made category.
The most unfortunate part about this story is the Pharisees didn’t have to make that mistake. They had all the tools to come to the right conclusion. They had forgotten more about the Bible than most people would ever know. They were religious to a fault. They spent their days arguing about the Bible. They knew all the Old Testament predictions concerning the Messiah and they knew exactly what signs to look for.
Yet with all that going for them, they still came to the wrong conclusion.
The issue is sharply drawn–WHO IS THIS MAN?
Everyone who meets Jesus must answer that question.
TWO MIRACLES FOR THE PRICE OF ONE
But the story is not yet over. One miracle has already taken place. Another is about to happen: Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: To say, ’Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ’Get up and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” … He said to the paralyzed man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. (22-25)
Jesus answers a question with a question, a technique these Jewish lawyers would appreciate. Which is easier to say–”Your sins are forgiven” or “Rise and walk?” On one level the answer is neither. You can say either one. Both are equally impossible for man to do.
But there is one crucial difference. You can say, “Your sins are forgiven” and no one can contradict you because forgiveness is not visible to the eyes. So you can say it all you want and no one will know whether you’ve really done it or not.
On the other hand, there’s an easy way to check if someone says, “Rise and walk.” Healing is a visible miracle. It can’t be faked.
Jesus is proposing a test. He’s offering the Pharisees incontrovertible proof of who he really is. If Jesus is a blasphemer, how could he perform a miracle? That would be impossible.
Jesus is saying, “If I don’t heal this man, then you’re right about who I am. But if I do heal him, you must admit that I am who I claim to be.”
Notice what he says in verse 24: That you may know. That’s the key to this whole passage. Let me put it in one sentence: Jesus did the miracle they could see so that they might know he had already done the other miracle they couldn’t see.
The healing itself is instantaneous, complete and public. The four who brought the paralytic could testify how sick he had been; the whole crowd could testify how well he was now.
So complete was the healing that the man picked up his bed and began to walk home. As he did, the crowd parted to let him through. Off to the side, people whispered, “Ooh, did you see that? How did he do it?”
As one commentator put it: “The bed had borne the man; now the man was bearing the bed.”
The point is very clear: Both healing and forgiveness flow from the word of Jesus. He has authority to do both because he is the Son of Man.
Only one detail remains: Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.” (26) The word “amazed” means something like “to blow the mind.” The people who had come to hear Jesus were utterly, totally and absolutely flabbergasted. They had never seen anything like it. They were praising God and they were scared to death all at the same time. When they said, “We have seen remarkable things,” they used a word related to our English word “paradox.” Literally, “We have seen a paradox, something contrary to all our expectations.”
Meanwhile, the Pharisees were silent. Not that they believed in Jesus. They just didn’t have anything to say.
Four things happened on this day of paradoxes:
1. The man on the stretcher was healed.
2. His sins were forgiven.
3. The crowd was amazed.
4. The Pharisees were confounded.
THE QUESTION EVERYONE MUST ANSWER
What is the main point of this story? Not the miracle! As wonderful as that is, it only raises the central question–”Who is this man?”
In order to be forgiven, two things must happen:
1. You must be willing to be forgiven
2. You must believe Jesus has the authority to forgive your sins.
That brings us face-to-face with the most profound question in the world–”Who is this man?” Every man, every woman, every boy, every girl must answer that question. No one can remain neutral.
It is true that men and women today are instinctively drawn to Jesus. Like those who crowded into the house in Capernaum, they love to hear him speak. Yet like them, they don’t really know who he is.
This morning’s observation is simple: Most people consider Jesus a “good man” or a “good teacher” or “the best man who ever walked on the earth.”
But you can’t stop there. You’ve got to go one way or the other.
*Who is this man?
*Who is this man?
*Who is this man?
This is the question every man must answer. What does your heart say? Who is this man? Is he just a carpenter or is he something much greater? Is he just another religious leader or is he the Son of God from heaven?
If he is a blasphemer … then join the crowd in killing him.
If he is the Son of God … then crown him the Lord of your life.
THE GREAT ALTERNATIVE
By most accounts C. S. Lewis was the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century. Surely no one has done as much to make the basic issues of Christianity intelligible to modern man. For many years he was a professor at Oxford University and then for many more years at Cambridge University. In his book, Mere Christianity, Lewis sums up the issue this way:
I am here trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (pp. 52-53)
THE NEXT MOVE IS UP TO YOU
Let me draw all the strands together in three simple statements:
1. There is enough evidence to convince those who want to
2. There are always ways to avoid the truth for those
who want to avoid it.
3. The next move is up to you.
You have the evidence, the testimony, all the proof you will ever need. But you must take the final step. What happens now is up to you.
Think. Ponder. Do not answer quickly.
*Who is this man?
*Who is this man?
*Who is this man?
Father, we are faced with a great question, one which we must all answer sooner or later. Open our eyes and help us see Jesus as he really is. Grant that we may give him the honor that is his due. Help us with one accord to crown him as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Amen.