Date: October 13, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Series: The Gospel according to Luke
Scripture: Luke 5:12–5:26
For the last few weeks in Luke’s Gospel, we’ve witnessed the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and in these early days, there have been two consistent themes – 1) Jesus teaches with authority, and 2) he heals with power. It began, you’ll remember, back in chapter 4, as Jesus taught with authority in Nazareth, and that teaching was then quickly confirmed as Jesus’ delivered the man with the unclean spirit and healed Peter’s mother-in-law. And that was only the beginning, wasn’t it? People were flocking to Jesus to hear him teach and to benefit from his mighty ministry. From the beginning, these themes have gained our attention. Jesus teaches with authority, and he heals with power.
As we come to vv12-26 this morning, we might think that this passage is simply continuing on with those themes. And on some level, that’s true. Jesus does continue to teach, v17, and as you heard, Jesus also continues to heal with power. And from that, we might conclude that this passage is simply more of the same. But that conclusion misses the significance of these two healing stories. Yes, the themes are similar, but Luke is also taking us deeper here, perhaps you could even say taking us closer to the heart of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, there are a number of ways that Luke shows us he is doing just that – taking us deeper into Jesus’ ministry.
The first has to do with a new set of characters. You’ll notice that the scribes and Pharisees enter the story for the first time in v17, and almost immediately, there is controversy. The religious leaders question Jesus; they’re skeptical of this untrained teacher from Nazareth. And so, from this point forward, the religious leaders will stalk Jesus’ steps, all the way to his death on the cross. That’s one way Luke tells you this passage is going deeper – there’s a new set of characters.
The second clue is a new theme in Jesus’ teaching. For the first time in v20, Jesus speaks of forgiveness. Up until this point, Jesus has been primarily teaching from God’s Word, his miracles have been largely meeting physical needs, and that was the extent of his claim. But here in chapter 5, Jesus takes it deeper, and he begins to claim spiritual, even divine, authority.
And that’s why I say that this passage takes us closer to the heart of Jesus’ ministry. Yes, Jesus teaches, but he’s more than a teacher. Yes, Jesus heals, but he’s more than a miracle-worker. To speak of forgiveness raises the stakes, so to speak, and puts salvation clearly in focus. It’s about more than physical needs and bare Scriptural knowledge. Jesus has come to save, to reconcile God and man once more. Salvation, then, is what lies at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, and here in Luke 5, we hear that purpose from Jesus’ own mouth.
And that purpose helps us understand how we should approach this passage. There are two healing miracles recounted in this text, and while the circumstances are different, the two healings combine to teach us about the heart of Jesus’ ministry – the salvation of sinners. In terms of an outline, it’s very simple. I’d like us to note together two truths about the saving work Jesus has come to accomplish. The first truth emphasizes Jesus’ compassionate power, while the second emphasizes his unique authority. Two truths, then, that I pray help us see and rejoice in the Savior.
With Compassion, Jesus Does what the Law Cannot
The first comes in vv12-16 – With compassion, Jesus does what the Law cannot. Luke quickly transitions to a new scene in v12, as Jesus is ministering in an unnamed city. But it’s not the city that is important here. It’s the man who approaches Jesus. Notice the man with me. He would have been hard to ignore in Jesus’ day.
Luke describes the man as full of leprosy, which means this man is in a terrible condition. First of all, leprosy makes the man socially unwelcome. In the ancient world, the only known treatment for leprosy was quarantine. In fact, that is what the Law of Moses required, Leviticus 13. If a person was diagnosed with a leprous condition, that person was required to live outside the city, with no human contact except other lepers. Think about that. You were an outcast, ostracized and alone. You couldn’t see your family. You couldn’t have a job, which meant you were dependent on the charity of other people. But even that charity would be hard to come by. Why? Because you were an outcast. If you came to town to beg, you had to cry out, “Unclean, unclean” to make sure no one accidentally touched you.
And that is really the worst part of the man’s condition. He’s socially unwelcome, and he’s religiously unclean. This is part of the reason why the Law of Moses required lepers to live outside the camp – because you were unclean in a religious sense. You couldn’t gather with the people of God for worship. You couldn’t come to the temple or the synagogue. You couldn’t bring your sacrifices before the priest. Nothing. You were unclean before the Lord and therefore cut off from the community.
Put all of that together and you begin to appreciate the great need this man has. It’s a need neither he nor anyone else can do anything about. The man is afflicted, alone, unclean, and largely without hope.
And yet, something remarkable happens in v12. The man comes and falls down before Jesus. This is an act of faith on the man’s part. It’s an expression of dependence. Whatever hope the man has, it is bound up in Jesus. The doctors can do nothing for him. The priests can do nothing for me. But still, the man comes and falls before Jesus.
This is a feature of biblical faith. At its core, to have faith is to cast yourself on Jesus for the help you know you need. Faith does not mean you have all the answers, or that you can make sense of every situation. And neither does faith equal doing your part so that Jesus can then do the rest. No, faith, in its simplest form, is what we see here with this leper. It’s casting yourself entirely on the Lord, trusting that he can do what no one else can.
Now, what happens next is one of the more moving and powerful moments in the entirety of Luke’s Gospel. Notice v13 – “And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’”I want you to notice here the remarkable connection of power and compassion. We don’t often associate compassion with power, but that is exactly what we see with Jesus.
Jesus’ word has power. Notice how Jesus heals the man with only his word. Do you see that in v13? It’s actually one word in the original – “Be clean,” Jesus commands, “and immediately the leprosy left him.” Remember, there was no cure for leprosy in Jesus’ day. Doctors couldn’t help, medicine was useless. And yet, with one word, Jesus heals the man. His word has power.
But at the same time, notice what happened before Jesus’ spoke his powerful word. Luke tells us Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper. That’s compassion, brothers and sisters. Who knows how long this man has been ostracized from the community? Who knows how long it is had been since another human being laid a hand on the man’s back in a display of friendship? For years, probably, the leper has seen people’s hands only recoil from him in disgust, and yet, here is Jesus, stretching out his hand, not in disgust but in compassion.
And listen, Jesus didn’t have to touch the man. The man is healed by Jesus’ word, so Jesus could have simply spoken the word and skipped the touch. And yet, that’s not the kind of Savior Jesus has come to be. The Lord Jesus does not remain far off, issuing commands from a distance because he’s wary of getting to close to unclean people. No, Jesus draws near to his people – first of all by coming to this broken earth, but then even going deeper and embracing those who are unclean.
And that means, brothers and sisters, that compassion is what drives Jesus at this point. If you want to know the heart of Jesus Christ then look no further than v13. You can be the worst sinner with more baggage and shame than any person you know, and still, the Lord Jesus will not cast you out. You can be the most unclean, the most unwelcome outcast on the planet, and when you fall before Jesus confessing your need, his response is not to recoil but to reach out with compassion, with tenderness, even with a loving embrace.
That’s the heart of the Savior and if you’re here this morning, weighed down with shame or afraid that you’re too unclean for God to help – if that’s you today, then I pray you see Jesus’ heart here in God’s Word. You don’t have to hide. You don’t have to clean yourself up first. With all your shame, all your uncleanness, you can come to Christ in humility, trusting that he is willing to make you clean. And as this passage teaches so beautifully, Jesus is willing to do just that. He receives the unclean, and with great compassion, he embraces them as his own.
But amazingly that’s only part of the good news in this miracle. There’s another display of power that we might say completes Jesus’ compassion and makes it more than mere sentiment. Notice again that the leper is healed immediately, v13. There’s no delay, no wait – just instantaneous healing through the word of Jesus.
And notice also that Jesus is not made unclean in the process. Did you catch that? Jesus touches the man, but instead of being made unclean himself, Jesus makes the unclean clean. Again, it’s a picture of the good news Jesus has been preaching. Jesus’ clean-ness is greater than our uncleanness. Jesus’ purity is greater than our filth. Jesus’ perfection is greater than our shame. That’s power – the kind of power that saves unclean sinners like us.
But it’s what happens next that has captured my attention this week. It’s another display of power that helps us understand the gospel. V14, Jesus tells the man to go show himself to the priest and then offer the required sacrifices for his cleansing. Now, what Jesus has in mind here are the requirements laid down in Leviticus 14. If a person’s leprosy ever subsided, there were certain steps the person had to follow in order to confirm the cure. Think of it like the re-entry process for joining the community. The priest had to make sure the man was really clean.
And since Jesus lives in obedience to God’s Law, he tells the man to follow these instructions. That alone is a striking point. Jesus has not come to do away with the Law, but to fulfill it. We misunderstand both Jesus and Moses if we pit the two against each other. Jesus is not anti-Moses. Rather, Jesus comes to fulfill the Law.
But here’s what most striking. Even as Jesus submits to the Law, he is also exposing the weakness of the Law as well. The priest could confirm the man’s cleansing, but the priest couldn’t make the man clean. The Law could verify the cure, but the Law couldn’t provide the cure. In fact, when you read through Leviticus 13-14, there are no instructions that speak of a cure. There are no laws that can make you clean. The Law can confirm, but the Law cannot cleanse. As this former leper goes to see the priest, there would be one truth very clear in his mind – Jesus made me clean.
Brothers and sisters, do you see here the picture of the gospel, a picture of the power of Jesus Christ to save? What the Law could not do, Jesus has done. What no priest could provide, Jesus has freely given. We’re all like the leper in this passage. That’s who we should identify with. We are unclean before God, and therefore, we cannot dwell in his presence. We cannot come before him. But what’s more, there is no commandment, no Law that can make us clean. There are no steps we can follow, no prescriptions we can implement. Instead, we are entirely dependent on the power of Christ to do what the Law could not. And that is why the gospel is good news. Believers are made clean by the power of Jesus alone – power that was poured out on the cross through the shedding of Jesus’ blood.
And amazingly, brothers and sisters, this means our status before God is secure and unchanging. Those whom Jesus cleanses, he cleanses completely. If you are a Christian, this is what Scripture calls your identity in Christ. If you belong to Christ by faith, you are not defined by your sin – past, present, or future. You are defined by Christ. You are who Jesus says you are. Or even better, you are what Jesus makes you, and the gospel says that Jesus makes us clean. That is your identity, given to you by Jesus, and that identity cannot change. Those whom Jesus cleanses, he cleanses once and for all. And he does so with compassion.
With Authority, Jesus Does what Only God Can
Now, part of the beauty of the gospel is that it’s so good, there’s always more to see. The picture we have with the leper is incredible, but Luke is not finished. The second miracle again takes things deeper, and Jesus leaves no doubt as to the purpose of his ministry. Let’s look at vv17-26 now, and note the second truth about salvation in this text – With authority, Jesus does what only God can. The circumstances may have changed, but the overall feel is the same. Again, Jesus is approached by a man in great need. V17, the man is paralyzed, and v18, his need is so great, he is dependent on his friends to bring him to Jesus. This is beyond the leper, isn’t it? At least the man with leprosy could come and fall down before Jesus. The man here in v17 is in even greater need. He needs his friends to help.
And yet, despite those circumstances, the man and his friends display great faith. Notice v19. The man’s friends arrive at the house, but there are so many people, they can’t actually get the man to Jesus. This might seem like the end of the road, but not for those who believe. The man’s friends simply go up on the roof, and they open a hole in order to lower the man down. Now, I know there are all sorts of questions about how that worked, but don’t miss the key point here. The point is not the roof, but the faith that stopped at no obstacle. This is another feature of biblical faith – it is persistent; it keeps pressing on, even when things seem hopeless.
But then comes the pinnacle of the passage, v20. The man is lowered down before Jesus, and notice what Jesus says – “And when he saw their faith, he said, ‘Man, your sins are forgiven you.’” That’s a surprising thing for Jesus to say, isn’t it? Clearly, the man wants to be healed, and yet, Jesus’ response is to say the man’s sins are forgiven. Now, is Jesus saying the man’s condition is the result of his sin? No, that is not Jesus’ point. Rather, Jesus takes this opportunity to teach us what is at the heart of his ministry. Jesus has come not merely to meet physical needs, but to reconcile God and his people. Jesus has come to provide the forgiveness that sinners like us so desperately need.
This is a staggering claim on Jesus’ part. It’s one thing to teach from God’s Word, but it’s something else entirely to claim that you speak with God’s voice, that you act with God’s authority. And that is precisely what Jesus is doing. V20 is nothing less than a claim of spiritual authority that only God himself can make.
And in v21, the religious leaders make precisely this connection. Remember, this is the first encounter between Jesus and the religious leaders in Luke’s Gospel, and I’ll contend it is not a coincidence that Jesus chooses this moment to assert his divine authority. If the religious leaders have come to investigate Jesus, then Jesus will make sure they see the core of his ministry. Notice what the religious leaders say, v21 – “And the scribes and Pharisees began to question, saying, ‘Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Now understand the religious leaders are exactly right on one level. They are right to conclude that only God has the authority to forgive sins. That is absolutely true. But where the religious leaders are wrong is their conclusion about Jesus. They fail to see his identity. They fail to see the truth that Jesus’ ministry is revealing.
And so, in v22, Jesus removes any doubt. You’ll notice Jesus perceives the religious leaders’ question, which should perhaps clue them in that this is no mere man they are dealing with. But even still, Jesus proceeds to ask a question of his own, v22 – “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk?’” It’s important that we follow the logic of Jesus’ question. Jesus’ point is that it is easier to say something that cannot be confirmed than it is to say something that can be confirmed. The religious leaders can neither confirm nor deny that the man’s sins are forgiven. There’s no visual proof one way or another.
But that’s not the case if Jesus were to tell the man to get up and walk. That can be confirmed, and immediately so. If the man doesn’t get up, then it’s clear Jesus doesn’t have the authority to heal him. But again, that’s not the case with pronouncing forgiveness. There’s no way to test Jesus’ authority to forgive, in other words. Do you see the contrast? It is easier to simply say, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’
But then comes the payoff to Jesus’ question. Notice v24 – “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. And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God.” This is a masterstroke on Jesus’ part. Think about what he has done. Jesus has done the physically miraculous thing – healing the man – in order to prove that he has the authority to do the truly miraculous thing – forgive sins. It’s an incredible and undeniable confirmation of Jesus’ claim. If Jesus has the authority to make this man walk, then surely Jesus has the authority to forgive the man’s sin.
And therefore, if the religious leaders want an answer about Jesus, then now they have it. Jesus is not merely a teacher. He’s not simply a miracle worker. No, Jesus is the Son of Man promised in Daniel 7, the One who has received divine authority to accomplish God’s salvation on earth. There is no other conclusion. Jesus is the Savior of God’s people.
Brothers and sisters, this is extremely important for us to consider and understand. I’ll even go so far as to say that this gets at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. It is increasingly common in our culture for people to speak of Christianity in terms that barely rise above sentimentality. Christianity is about unconditional love, some people say. Christianity is about not judging others. Christianity is about showing acts of mercy.
And yet, for all those attempts to define Christianity, this is often the piece that is missing – the divine authority of Jesus, authority that he alone possesses to forgive sins. This truth, which is essential to Christianity, is unique on two fronts. It’s unique, first of all, because it acknowledges that we need forgiveness. To say that Jesus alone provides forgiveness is to admit that we have sinned and therefore need to be forgiven. That’s not something we modern folks like to admit, but here we have Jesus putting forgiveness right at the center of his ministry. It’s the first thing he emphasizes in his encounter with the religious leaders. “You want to know what I’m about,” Jesus asks. “I’m about providing what’s necessary for my people to be forgiven and made right with God.” There is no Christianity apart from that acknowledgement. To follow Christ is to confess and believe that I have sinned, and that Christ alone can forgive.
At the same time this truth is also unique because of the position it affords to Jesus. Listen, lots of people are fine with Jesus as long as he’s just a man. But as soon as you connect Jesus with God, that’s when the opposition comes. It was that way with the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. They were fine with healings, but just don’t claim Jesus is God. And it’s that way in our day as well. Many people are fine with Jesus as long as he is a man, but the minute divinity comes into the equation, they’re opposed.
And that’s why this passage is so foundational. It helps us understand Jesus’ ministry here in Luke’s Gospel, but more than that, it also helps us remember what is central to Christianity today. It’s the divine authority of Jesus, a divine authority that he alone possesses to forgive sins.
And so, the question that I’ll close with today is the question of our response. If Jesus has the authority to do what only God can do, then how should we respond? Just briefly, I’ll put two things before us. #1 – We need to clearly make our Christianity, both as individuals and as a church, focused on Jesus Christ. Now, that might sound self-evident, but sadly, it’s not. Many presentations of Christianity are noteworthy because they are basically Christ-less. When we have the opportunity to speak of Christianity, let’s make sure we have Jesus as the center. Let’s make sure that our Christianity is clear on the reality of sin and the necessity of forgiveness. And then let’s labor to show that Jesus alone, who is God in the flesh, has the authority to provide that forgiveness. Let’s be Christians whose every hope rests on a bloody cross and an empty tomb – not as mere religious symbols but as the very power and grace of God that secured our forgiveness once and for all. And let’s be willing to be misunderstood and maligned for the fact that we worship a Savior who is both God and Man, who reigns in heaven above, and who is coming back to judge the living and the dead.
Listen, that’s the kind of clear, Christ-centered witness we need in our culture today. People sometimes ask me, “How can the church keep up with such a rapidly changing culture?” I don’t know the full answer to that but I know that whatever the answer is, it’s going to require more focus on Christ not less. Let’s be that kind of Christian and that kind of church. That’s the first response we should make –consistently and clearly make our Christianity focused on Jesus.
The second response is perhaps more personal. We need to embrace, every day, the forgiveness Christ has won. Again, they may sound self-evident, but I don’t think it is. Far too many believers carry around burdens they are not meant to carry. It’s the burden of guilt over sin, whether it is sin way in the past, or perhaps sin that has been recently committed. Far too many of us are carrying around that guilt, as though we can somehow make atonement for ourselves if we will just feel bad for long enough. Can anyone relate to that this morning? I know I can.
And what this passage is saying to guilt-ridden and weary Christians like us is this – if an unclean leper can be made clean, then Jesus can deal with your guilt too. If a paralytic with no hope can stand and walk, then Jesus can forgive even the worst sin imaginably.
I’ll come back to what I said earlier in the sermon, and just press this home a bit more on your heart. For those are in Christ, there is no level of shame or brokenness that should keep you from the Lord Jesus. You can draw near and find healing. You can draw near and find wholeness. In fact, the entire point of this passage is that Jesus welcomes those who draw near in humility and in faith. If you’re weighed down this morning, won’t you see again the compassionate authority of the Savior? Don’t carry burdens Jesus came to take. Be like the leper, be like the paralytic and give those needs to Jesus. With compassion, he can make the worst of sinners clean, and with authority, he secures forgiveness once and for all. Amen.