The Power of Persistent Faith
Most non-Christians in our society at least pretend to hold Jesus in high regard. Rarely will you hear a non-Christian vilify Jesus or speak negatively of him. They will denounce the church. They will excoriate Christians. They often ridicule religion in general, especially if it is organized, but they are careful to speak in often glowing terms of Jesus: he is wise, he is loving, he is kind, he is good, he’s an effective teacher, etc., etc. Continue reading . . .
Most non-Christians in our society at least pretend to hold Jesus in high regard. Rarely will you hear a non-Christian vilify Jesus or speak negatively of him. They will denounce the church. They will excoriate Christians. They often ridicule religion in general, especially if it is organized, but they are careful to speak in often glowing terms of Jesus: he is wise, he is loving, he is kind, he is good, he’s an effective teacher, etc., etc.
But I want to assure you of one thing: it was not always this way. People in the first century were not nearly as reluctant as they are today to express their feelings about the carpenter from Nazareth. In our day, religious leaders and politicians, especially in an election year, together with Hollywood actors and actresses and athletes and public figures from all walks of life have found it counter-productive to speak ill of Jesus. Their first-century counterparts, on the other hand, entertained no such scruples; they felt no such qualms. Take for example the response of the religious leaders to Jesus when he healed a paralytic.
And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? But 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, pick up your bed, and go home.” And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” (Mark 2:1-12).
Here in Mark 2 open and public opposition to Jesus emerges for the first time, opposition that will culminate in his death by crucifixion. Here in Mark 2 Jesus will be openly accused of blasphemy. By “blasphemy” I don’t mean that they accuse Jesus of cussing or taking the Lord’s name in vain! For them, blasphemy occurred when a mere human being claimed to be God. They will also charge Jesus with being immoral because of his habit of hanging out with known sinners and the lower elements of society. He will be accused of impiety for failing to observe the religious customs of the day. And to top it all off, some will insinuate that he is working in cooperation with the Devil himself!
In chapter one of Mark the initial reaction to Jesus was one of amazement and awe and astonishment. We read in Mark 1:28 that “at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.” Well, that’s all about to change. Oh, he will remain quite famous all right. In fact, his fame will grow. But the reaction to it will not be one of widespread joy and praise and acceptance.
So let’s see how all this plays out by looking at this famous story in Mark 2. And once again, let’s understand what Mark’s purpose is: to tell us who Jesus is and to challenge us to respond accordingly.
As I said, back in Mark 1:28 we are told that following his encounter with the demonized man in the synagogue, news about Jesus spread fast and far. The crowd reaction must have been something to behold. It was all anyone was talking about.
We read in Mark 2:1 that after a few days of ministering in neighboring towns, Jesus returned to Capernaum where he most likely lived. In fact, Mark says that news got out that Jesus “was at home” (v. 1b). This is either a reference to the home of Peter, mentioned back in Mark 1:29ff. where Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law, or his own personal residence. I’m inclined to think that Jesus used Peter’s home as a base of operation and that it was regarded as “his” because that is where he lived.
According to v. 2, “many were gathered together.” To put it bluntly, the place was packed to the rafters. Every square inch of space was occupied. Kids were sitting on their parents’ shoulders; others were pressing in to catch a glimpse of this man who had cast out demons and healed hundreds and had dared to touch a leper and by doing so had cleansed him from his disease.
There was, no doubt, a lot of pushing and shoving and jockeying for position, all so that they might hear Jesus teach and perhaps experience a healing or some other miracle.
One man who could neither push nor shove, neither run after Jesus nor walk up to him and launch a conversation, was a certain paralytic, probably what we today would call a paraplegic. How does one get a grip on what it’s like to be paralyzed? The disillusionment, the bitterness, the feelings of hopelessness must have been overwhelming.
It reminds me of the experience of Joni Eareckson Tada who at age 17 became a quadriplegic following a diving accident. She describes the despair she felt in the weeks after her accident:
“Once again, I desperately wanted to kill myself. Here I was, trapped in this canvas cocoon. I couldn’t move anything except my head. Physically, I was little more than a corpse. I had no hope of ever walking again. I could never lead a normal life and marry Dick. In fact, he might even be walking out of my life forever, I concluded. I had absolutely no idea of how I could find purpose or meaning in just existing day after day – waking, eating, watching TV, sleeping.
Why on earth should a person be forced to live out such a dreary existence? How I prayed for some accident or miracle to kill me. The mental and spiritual anguish was as unbearable as the physical torture.
But once again, there was no way for me to commit suicide. This frustration was also unbearable. I was despondent, but I was also angry because of my helplessness. How I wished for strength and control enough in my fingers to do something, anything, to end my life” (from Joni).
I have to confess, I get mad every time I read this statement in Mark 2:4a – “And they could not get near him because of the crowd”! How incredibly selfish! How inexcusably insensitive of these people that they couldn’t find it in their hearts to move out of the way for a paralytic! But then I suddenly remember that if they had, it would have robbed the story of its punch.
Houses such as this were often one-room structures with a flat roof, slightly sloped for rain runoff. Access to the roof was by means of an outside stairway (there were no ramps for access by the handicapped). The roof was usually made of wooden beams with thatch and compacted dirt; often tiles were laid between the beams and the thatch and mud placed over them.
They served as a deck would today, providing access to fresh air and sunlight, a place to dry clothes, sometimes a place for serving a meal, as well as a place for prayer and solitude (Acts 10:9).
What Mark describes for us was a major demolition job! There was no regard for the damage they inflicted on the house! Jesus and the people inside were no doubt showered with dirt and clumps of grass and wood chips! What did Peter do? I’m not sure, but my reaction would have been: “Are you all crazy? My house! My roof! For heaven’s sake, stop!” Did Jesus stop teaching and watch? Did he press through? We don’t know. If I had been preaching I’m sure the thought would have raced through my mind: “Good grief, if you wanted a front row seat that badly couldn’t you have just shouted or make a ruckus?”
Mark 2:5 is simply stunning: “And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”
The fact that Jesus was willing to stop his message and engage with them is explained by the reference to their “faith” (v. 5a). He didn’t interpret their destructive intrusion as a complete lack of courtesy. He didn’t rebuke them for being rude or disrespectful. He didn’t say, “Hey, wait your turn. Others were here first.”
He interpreted their persistence and their refusal to take No or Wait for an answer as an expression of love and faith.
How these men must have loved their friend! They carried him through the town searching for Jesus. All this man could contribute was dead weight. They defied every social custom and refused to think of the financial cost of tearing up someone’s roof. All they cared about was the welfare of their buddy. Jesus had to have been impressed with that.
But the most significant thing that caught the eye of Jesus was their faith! But faith in what? In whom? What did they believe or trust that captured our Lord’s attention?
The relationship of faith to healing is both controversial and confusing. Entire movements, indeed denominations, have been established on their unique view of faith and what it is and what it does.
I’ve looked at faith in the NT and asked questions about how important it is and what relation it has to healing. Several things quickly became evident. On occasion the faith of the person needing healing (Mt. 9:22) is instrumental, while at other times it is the faith of a friend or family member (Mt. 15:28). Sometimes the focus is on the faith of the person praying for the one who needs healing (Mark 9:17-24), and on certain occasions, faith apparently plays no part at all in the healing (John 5:1-9; indeed, in the gospel of John, faith is never mentioned as a condition for healing; see also Mt. 8:14). The point is that on some occasions, God simply heals by a sovereign act of his will unrelated to anything in us. However, in the vast majority of cases, Jesus healed people because of someone's faith.
In the case of both Jairus and the woman (Mark 5), faith is directed toward Jesus as an expression of need. Again, in Luke 17:11-19 Jesus healed ten lepers. When one returned to say "thanks," Jesus said: "Your faith has made you well" (v. 19). When Bartimaeus asked Jesus to heal him of his blindness (Mark 10), Jesus said: "Go, your faith has healed you" (v. 52).
By the way, whose faith is in view here in Mark 2? Clearly Jesus has in mind at least the four men who carried their friend. Notice: Jesus saw “their” faith, not just “his” faith. But was the faith of the paralytic also involved? Yes. I can’t imagine Jesus would pronounce this man’s sins as forgiven in the absence of his personal faith. I can’t imagine they brought him to Jesus against his will. And what paralytic would not have wanted to be healed?
We aren’t told precisely what they believed or in whom they put their faith, but there are several possibilities. Sometimes all we can muster is faith that God is our sole source for blessing, that he is our hope and he alone (see Pss. 33:18-22; 147:10-11). At other times there is faith in God's ability to heal. Jesus took special delight in healing those who trusted in his power; people who were open and receptive to his power to perform a mighty work. In Matthew 9:28-29 Jesus asks the two blind men only if they believe he is able to heal them. He wanted to find out what they thought about him, whether or not they trusted his ability. "Yes, Lord," came their response. "Be it done to you according to your faith," and they were instantly healed. Jesus regarded their confidence in his power to help them as “faith” and dealt mercifully with them on that basis (see Matt. 8:2; Mark 1:40-45).
Then there is faith in God's heart for healing. This is faith in God's goodness and his desire to bless his children (see Ps. 103; Luke 11:11-13). This is faith or belief or confidence that it is God's character to build up, not tear down; to bring unity, not division; to create wholeness and completeness, not disintegration and disarray. People came to Jesus for healing because they knew they would find in him someone who would understand their pain, their frustration, their grief, their confusion. Their healing flowed out of their personal encounter with a caring, loving, person. Jesus embodied for them concern, compassion, and power.
There is also the faith not simply that God can heal, not simply that God delights to heal, but faith that God does heal. This is the faith that healing is part of God's purpose and plan for his people today. You can believe God is able to heal and that he delights to heal and still not believe that healing is for the church today. For example, I believe that God is able to make manna fall from heaven to feed his people. I believe that God delights in providing food for his people; he doesn't want them to go hungry or to starve. But I do not have faith that God does, in fact, intend to send manna from heaven as a means of providing our physical needs. Therefore, I will not spend time praying that he do so.
Finally, there is the faith that it is his will to heal right now. I have in mind the psychological certainty that healing is what God is, in fact, going to do now. This is probably more of what Paul had in mind when he spoke of the gift of faith in 1 Cor. 12:9. It may also be what James referred to as “the prayer of faith” (James 5:15).
We don’t know at what level these men believed or had faith, but clearly it was enough for Jesus.
To be continued . . .