Which Is Easier?

17 On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18 And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, 19 but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. 20 And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 25 And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26 And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.” Luke 5:17-26 ESV

With this story, Luke introduces a cast of characters who will play an essential part in the drama of Jesus’ earthly ministry. For the first time in his narrative, Luke reveals the presence of the religious leaders of Israel who have taken a keen interest in this itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. Word of His exploits and growing popularity have reached all the way to Jerusalem, where the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Israel was headquartered. The Sanhedrin was essentially the Supreme Court of Israel, made up of 70 men and overseen by the high priest. The council was comprised of men from the two main religious/political parties of Israel: The Pharisees and the Sadducees. Some of these men were also known as scribes or lawyers, whose job was to study, teach, and provide counsel on matters concerning the Mosaic Law.

Luke indicates that Pharisees and teachers of the law had come from villages throughout Galilee and Judea to get a first-hand look at Jesus. When he mentions that some came from Jerusalem, these were likely members of the Sanhedrin, sent on behalf of the high priest to gather intel on this miracle-working rabbi whose reputation was spreading like wildfire throughout the nation of Israel. Obviously, news of Jesus’ miracles had reached the ears of the high priest, but it was likely Jesus’ comments in the synagogue in Nazareth that had gotten his attention. Jesus had declared Himself to be the fulfillment of the prophecy contained in Isaiah 61:1-2. In doing so, Jesus was clearly claiming to be the long-awaited Messiah. This would not have been the first time that someone had made that claim, but the fact that Jesus was performing miracles and garnering a massive following had the high priest concerned. The last thing he wanted was any trouble with the Roman authorities. He and his fellow members of the council served at the discretion of the Roman government and they were expected to help maintain law and order. The last thing he needed was some unknown rabbi claiming to be the Messiah of Israel and leading the people in an insurrection against the Roman authorities. If the Roman governor received news that there was someone claiming to be the King of the Jews and stirring up dissension among the people, he would not hesitate to use Rome’s military might to restore order. And if that happened, the high priest knew he and his compatriots would be held accountable for their failure to control their own people. So, he had a vested interest in what was happening in Galilee.

According to Mark, this scene took place in the town of Capernaum and at the home where Jesus had taken up residence. A large crowd of people, including the Pharisees and scribes, had gathered to hear Jesus teach. It was standing room only. And Luke adds that “the power of the Lord was with him to heal” (Luke 5:17 ESV). This statement clearly indicates that Jesus’ miracle-working power came from the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. He was still fully divine and had not lost any of the power inherent in His position as the Son of God, but during His time on earth, He had chosen to live in full submission to the Spirit’s power and presence. In doing so, He modeled the Spirit-filled life that His followers would experience after His death and resurrection.

Luke’s mention of the Spirit’s power to heal was meant to set up what happens next. A group of men arrived, carrying a paralyzed man on a pallet. They attempted to gain access to the house but were unable to enter because of the crowd. So, they used the outside stairs that led to the roof, where they cut a hole and lowered the man down into the room where Jesus was speaking. Their efforts could not have gone unnoticed. Debris from the ceiling fell into the room and the paralyzed man was slowly lowered by ropes until he lay before Jesus and His dumbfounded guests. Each of the gospel authors comments that Jesus “saw their faith” (Luke 5:20 ESV). He was struck by the extreme effort taken by these men so that their friend could come into His presence. They obviously believed that Jesus could and would heal him, so they had gone to great links to see that their friend was restored.

It was the sight of their faith that led Jesus to say, “Man, your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:20 ESV). This statement by Jesus should not be taken as proof that the man’s condition was somehow the result of sin. That was a common belief in those days. Illness of any kind was most often associated with a curse from God. Even poverty was considered a punishment from God due to some egregious sin that had been committed. The apostle John records an exchange between Jesus and His disciples concerning a man who had been blind since birth. They asked Jesus, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” (John 9:2 NLT). Even they believed that suffering was the result of sin.

But Jesus had something far more important in mind when He forgave the paralytic’s sins. He was deliberately focusing His attention on the presence of the Pharisees and scribes. He knew that they would have seen this poor man as nothing more than a guilty sinner who had only gotten what he deserved. Like the disciples, they would have speculated that this man had committed some sin worthy of his paralysis. So, Jesus takes the opportunity to reveal something about Himself that they were going to find not only surprising but repugnant.

The man came for healing, but Jesus offers him something far more significant: Forgiveness of his sins. Whether this man realized it or not, his greatest problem was not his inability to walk but his incapacity to stand before God free from condemnation for his sinful state. Just like everyone else in the room, including the scribes and Pharisees, this man was guilty of sin and worthy of death.

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… – Romans 3:23 ESV

the wages of sin is death – Romans 6:23 ESV

Jesus was pointing to the universal problem facing mankind: Unforgiven sin that creates an impenetrable barrier between man and a holy God. The man’s problem was not his paralysis but his unrighteousness. And the religious leaders of Israel stood equally guilty and condemned. But in their self-righteousness, they were appalled by Jesus’ words. Who was this upstart rabbi from the backwater town of Nazareth and what right did He have to absolve anyone of their sins. That was the sole prerogative of God alone.

“Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” – Luke 5:21 ESV

And that was exactly Jesus’ point. He knew His words would light a flame in the hearts of these religious leaders and He also knew what they were thinking as they debated among themselves. Jesus had always planned to heal the paralytic, but He used the opportunity to reveal something far more important about His identity than His ability to cure diseases.

“Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” – Luke 5:22-24 ESV

Jesus wanted them to understand that His miracles were meant to be evidence of His identity. He was the Son of God and had proven it repeatedly by His displays of supernatural, Spirit-enabled power. And Jesus points out that anyone could say, “Your sins are forgiven you” because there would be nothing to prove the veracity of their words. Forgiveness of sins can’t be seen. But in order to prove that He had the authority to forgive sins, Jesus ordered the man to “rise, pick up your bed and go home.” He back up His authority to forgive sins by exhibiting His power to heal.

At the words of Jesus, the man experienced immediate and complete healing. His paralyzed body was suddenly rejuvenated and restored to wholeness. And he proved it by jumping up, gathering his mat, and walking home by his own power – glorifying God as he went. As expected, the crowd was blown away by what they witnessed. They were dumbfounded by the entire affair and could only respond by glorifying God. But it will soon become clear that the religious leaders were less enthusiastic about what they had seen that day. Mark records that they considered Jesus to be guilty of blasphemy, a crime worthy of death. In their minds, His claim to be able to forgive sins was nothing less than a declaration of His equality with Yahweh. And they were right. That was exactly what Jesus was claiming, and He had backed it up by performing a miracle that left a paralyzed man fully healed and completely forgiven.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson