Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 06/19/1984
Luke 5:12 And it came about that while he was in one of the cities, behold, there was a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus he fell on his face and implored him, saying, "Lord, if you are willing you can make me clean." 13 And he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, "I am willing; be cleansed." And immediately the leprosy left him. 14 And he ordered him to tell no one, "But go and show yourself to the priest and make an offering for your cleansing, just as Moses commanded., for a testimony to them." 15 But the news about him was spreading even farther, and great multitudes were gathering to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But he himself would often slip away to the wilderness to pray. 17 And it came about one day while he was teaching that there were some Pharisees and teachers of the Law sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem, and the power of the Lord was present for him to perform healing. 18 And behold, some men went carrying on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were trying to bring him in and set him down in front of him. 19 And not finding any way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down through the tiles with his stretcher, right in the center, in front of Jesus. 20 And seeing their faith, he said, "Friend, your sins are forgiven you." 21 And the Scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, "Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?" 22 But Jesus, aware of their reasonings, said to them, "Why are you reasoning in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins have been forgiven you,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'? 24 But in order 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, rise, take up your stretcher, and go home." 25 And at once he rose up before them and took up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26 And they were all seized with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filed with fear, saying, "We have seen remarkable things today."
Last week we saw the Lord call Peter and his friends to follow him and become fishers of men. Luke follows this story with several examples of Jesus showing Peter and his friends just what he meant by that. Today we would like to examine the first two, the healings of a leper and of a paralytic. Next week we will look at a third: the call of Levi (or Matthew), a despised tax collector, to join the inner band of disciples and be also a fisher of men. In other words, to be a fisher of men, to be a disciple of Jesus, you have to be ready and willing to minister both to and with people you might not otherwise want to touch.
The cleansing of the leper reveals three facts about the Lord that are relevant to his followers.
We've already seen Jesus power over temptation, over demons, over disease, and over nature (the fish). What does this encounter add to that? Well, first we see his power over leprosy. To us, this might just seem to be another example of Jesus' power over sickness. But to the first century Jews who observed this healing, it was a special case. Leprosy was incurable and very serious, leading to the mutilation of the body as the extremities were literally worn away due to the loss of feeling in the nerves. It made a person ceremonially unclean. None of the contemporary "faith healers" would even attempt a cure of leprosy; it was considered incurable except by God himself. So Jesus' cure of this man was unprecedented in the experience of those who witnessed it. It was one more indication to his disciples that the Person they were following was more than just a man sent by God; he was in some sense God himself. Peter, in other words, was being given one more opportunity to respond as he had done at the unaccountable draft of fish.
But we also see something else here: Jesus' power or authority over the Law. It was against the Law to touch a leper, but Jesus does it anyway in order to heal him. Yet then, having ignored the Law himself, Jesus turns around and upholds it as far as the leper himself is concerned, commanding him to show himself to the priest and make the requisite sacrifice. What is going on here? Why the seeming inconsistency? We cannot appeal to the distinction between the "moral" law and the "ceremonial" law, because both of these rules belong to the ceremonial law, and, besides, it was still in force until the veil of the Temple was split anyway. Yet, if Jesus was simply footloose about the law, why bother insisting on the priestly examination and the sacrifice? The answer is that the King is here, one who has the authority to make exceptions. Jesus did not need the protection which the prohibition of touching lepers was designed to give, and his desire to personalize the healing through touch was more important than adherence to the letter. In effect, Jesus bypasses the letter of the Law to uphold the spirit of it. It is good for this man to be touched; it is also good for him to keep the Law as concerning himself, for otherwise he will not be able to re-enter society. For us that would likely be a rationalization. But the Law of God is not something passed by a legislature. It is the revelation of the will of the King, and therefore the King has the authority to suspend it for his own purposes. One who is able to heal leprosy, one who is even greater than the Law--what manner of man is this?
Jesus did not need to touch this leper in order to heal him. He has already shown himself capable of healing with a word, even from a distance. So why do it? Because touching is a way of establishing a relationship, of expressing identification, and of showing compassion. Ultimately that was the reason for this gesture; to heal in such a way that it was an expression not just of power but of compassion for this suffering individual. Doing it that way was important enough to Jesus that he was willing to suspend his own Law to do it, important enough that he didn't care what anyone else thought about it. If we are going to be fishers of men for a leader like this, we had better learn to do the same kinds of things for the same reasons.
Jesus was obviously not in pursuit of popularity as such. Otherwise he would have encouraged word of mouth advertising instead of actually forbidding it in many cases, as here. But the leper could not help himself, and so he told about what had happened to him anyway, the word got out, and the crowds increased. So what was Jesus' reaction? "Oh boy, the crowds are increasing, our constituency is growing, so let's build a bigger sanctuary and add all their names to our direct-mail fundraising file." Not exactly. He would often slip away to pray, to be alone with the Father. Now, a lot of Jesus' fishers need to pay attention at this point. Many of us act as if popularity were an end in itself, as if it were what we were actually in the ministry for. A more attentive follower of Christ was the great Reformer Martin Luther, who when asked why he had stayed an extra hour in his prayer chamber explained that it was because he had so much to accomplish that day. Ministry is not about us, it is not about numbers and influence, it is not even ultimately about the lost. It is ultimately about God. If we forget that, nothing else we do really matters. Jesus' example here can help us remember it.
What is the message of all this to Peter and his friends who are now observing as Christ models man-fishing for them? They should be learning that in order to be a fisher of men you have to get your hands dirty. Christian ministry is not something that can happen in an ivory tower. To be effective in it you have to get involved with people; you have to be willing to touch the untouchable. The point is made physically here with the leper; it will be made in a different way next week with the calling of Levi. There is no real ministry without risk, without exposure. It is costly. Dr. Francis Schaeffer of L'Abri fellowship put it like this:
"Don't start a big program. Don't suddenly think you can add to your church budget and begin. Start personally and start in your homes. I dare you. I dare you in the name of Jesus Christ. Do what I am going to suggest. Begin by opening your home for community. . . . L'Abri is costly. If you think what God has done here is easy, you don't understand. It is a costly business to have a sense of community. L'Abri cannot be explained merely by the clear doctrine that is preached; it cannot be explained by the fact that God here has been giving intellectual answers to intellectual questions. I think those two things are important, but L'Abri cannot be explained if you remove the third. And that is that there has been some community here. And it has been costly. In about the first three years of L'Abri all our wedding presents were wiped out. Our sheets were torn. Holes were burned in our rugs. . . . Blacks came to our table. Orientals came to our table. It couldn't happen in any other way. Drugs came to our place. People vomited in our rooms, in the rooms of Chalet Les Melezes which was our home, and now in the rest of the chalets of L'Abri. How many times has this happened to you? You see, you don't need a big program. You don't have to convince your session or your board. All you have to do is open your home and begin."
Perhaps not everybody is called to take the kind of risks the Schaeffers took. But there is no man-fishing that follows Jesus without some kind of risk. I have seen churches with dress codes, churches which would have gone into apoplexy if the "wrong" kind of person came there to be saved. This is less than Christian discipleship; it has missed the lessons in being fishers of men that Jesus wanted Peter and his friends to understand.
O. K., then, someone is going to say, if we do not hide from the world, if we are going to be willing to go out into it and get our hands dirty, how will we maintain our own purity and avoid compromise with the world? I would have to ask, purity from what? What a lot of Christians call "purity" is a very artificial construct that has very little to do with the way Jesus actually loved and ministered. It is mainly an excuse to avoid the way Jesus actually loved and ministered, to avoid real risky following of our Lord. Yet there is a moral purity, rooted in a purity of devotion to the One who leads us into these non-antiseptic situations, with which we do need to be concerned. And the answer to preserving that is not in preserving it so much as in nourishing it. That is what Jesus shows us in vs. 16. Our connection with God has to be strong to maintain us in all the challenges of life. So like Jesus, we must make the pursuit of it a priority. If I do not love the Lord and pursue fellowship with him, what do I have to offer anyone else? To be a fisher of men we have to be a disciple; to be a disciple is to attend to and follow Jesus' example. This we must never forget.
This episode is remembered from Sunday School for the quaint details of the friends lowering the paralytic through the roof, and rightly so. Who wouldn't want to have friends like that? But the main point as with all these stories is what it tell us about Jesus. And the point that sticks out here is Jesus' astounding act of forgiving the man's sins before he healed him. This is another of those "What manner of man is this?" moments, as the Pharisees were quick to perceive. Who does Jesus think he is? No one can forgive sins--except God alone.
We must begin by stressing the rightness of the Pharisees' case--as far as it went. Let's say that Jim runs his big wagon over Mark's Cavalier and smashes it into oblivion, receiving only negligible damage himself in the process, and I say, "That's O. K., Jim, don't worry about it; I forgive you." Now, that surpasses even my usual arrogance, as Mark would be quick to notice. I forgive him? It wasn't my car. It won't be my insurance payments going up--and maybe Mark only has liability anyway. Who am I to let Jim off the hook for destroying someone else's car? It is none of my business. I cannot extend the forgiveness because the offense was not committed against me. There is only one Person in the universe who is in a position to have the right to assume that every offense is an offense against him personally, and that is God. So who is Jesus to be assuming God's prerogatives?
That was a very good question. The Pharisees' premise was in fact correct, and Jesus does not challenge it. In fact, his whole answer accepts it as true and foundational. But he turns around and answers their question, as was his custom, with one of his own. Which is harder, to say, "Your sins are forgiven" or to say, "Rise, take up your bed, and walk"?
Now, that is an interesting question. Jesus obviously expects the answer to be that it is harder to say, "Rise." But how is it harder? Forgiving a third party is actually harder to do. Only God can do that, while lots of powers in the universe may be able to heal. Even Satan has a limited power to do miracles, as proved by the Egyptian wizards' rods which turned in serpents. But while forgiving a third party is harder to do, it is easier to say, because forgiveness is invisible. How do you prove whether it has really happened or not? So "Rise" is harder to say because everyone will immediately see whether or not you can back it up. Jesus' healing of the paralytic does not strictly prove that he has the right to forgive, for it is theoretically possible that the power to heal came from Satan. But what it does do is force the audience to take Jesus seriously. They cannot just dismiss him as a crank. They are now in fact faced with the famous "trilemma" which C. S. Lewis explained so well in Mere Christianity. There are only three possibilities: Jesus is Lord, he is a Liar, or he is a Lunatic, to have said what he has said. To finish the argument--this part is left implied--we would have to say that the Lunatic option is ruled out by the healing. Jesus is either Lord, or he is a Liar, claiming to speak for God when he is really using the power of Satan. And that option is ruled out by his goodness. Jesus' logical gambit has removed the option of dismissing him and forced the audience into a choice: he is either God or he is demonic. No wonder the people said, "We have seen remarkable things." The word inadequately translated "remarkable" is paradoxos, from which we get the English word paradox. It means something unexpected, something so astonishing it just doesn't make sense--because the Pharisees were not prepared to accept the correct conclusion, that Jesus was in fact God in human flesh . . . and therefore that he had the authority to forgive sins. And that was the heart of his ministry.
Christ here goes out of his way to make the forgiveness of sin the central issue. So if we are to follow him as fishers of men we must not forget what is central either. If we are to fish for men, the Gospel is our net, and forgiveness is the bait. It is man's deepest need, whether he recognizes it or not. Yet today many of us, even who believe this, hesitate to deal with it forthrightly for fear of offending our audience. For there are people today who deny that there is any such thing as sin. And until you see sin as your central problem, the Gospel is hardly good news to you. But we must believe the Gospel strongly enough to believe that, whatever they say, deep down people do still wrestle with guilt and long to be free from it. So let's not get embarrassed or tongue-tied about the fact that the Gospel has to do with sin and guilt and is the only solution to this problem. Let us continue to present Jesus as the only solution to man's biggest problem, sin, believing that despite our denials it still is our biggest problem and that therefore this message will indeed hit home. To be a fisher of men who follows Jesus is to follow him in raising the issue of forgiveness precisely in those situations where people have forgotten it in their focus on other things. And I must begin by honestly remembering that forgiveness is my greatest need, that Jesus has met it completely, and by rejoicing in that fact.
What manner of man is Jesus Christ? He is one who identifies with sinners, who says no to Satan, who bosses demons around, who fills fishnets, who touches lepers, who forgives sins, and who accepts sinners. He is one who raises the issue of sin and forgiveness when no one else does, even if ti is controversial. And he calls us to follow him and pay attention to these things so that we too can be fishers of men. So we must begin by putting ourselves in the place of Peter and his friends, the newly called fishers of men, as they watch Jesus model their job for them. And we must ourselves accept the fact that we are forgiven sinners because Jesus died on the Cross for our sins, and we must become so appreciative of this fact that we can't help sharing it. For until you begin to feel that way, you do not yet understand what the Christian faith is all about.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated 10/30/2004 2:53 PM