Jesus’ authority on earth (Matthew 9:2-8)

When Jesus healed and forgave sins, was he showing his deity or his human authority?

Open Matthew 9:2-8.

Matthew 9:2-8 (my translation)
2 Look, they presented him with a paralysed person restricted to a stretcher. Having seen their trust, Jesus said to the paraplegic, “Be encouraged, child, your sins are revoked.” 3 Look, some of the Bible scholars said among themselves, “He’s blaspheming!”
4 Seeing how they were thinking, he said, “Why are you thinking evil in your hearts? 5 What’s easier? To say, ‘Your sins are revoked’ or to say ‘Get up and walk’? 6 So you can know that the son of man has authority on the earth to revoke sins,” he says to the paralysed person, “Get up, pick up your stretcher, and head off home.” 7 Having been raised up, he went off home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were overawed and honoured the God who gave such authority to people.

When Jesus finally mentions someone’s sin in the New Testament, it’s to revoke it. The Bible scholars (scribes) weren’t happy. Jesus revoking sins? They can’t let him do that! They need to drag him down into the morass of human sin too. He’s a sinner, they say, a blasphemer.

Blasphemy isn’t just saying a naughty word against God; it’s demeaning our sovereign’s authority, often by making a claim to that authority. When Assyria attacked Jerusalem in King Hezekiah’s day, the Assyrian general claimed to be more powerful than Israel’s God. He claimed God had given him authority to take Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:25, 35). Isaiah denounced his claim as blasphemy (2 Kings 19:6, 22 NIV). When the scribes label Jesus as a blasphemer, they reject his claim to speak and act on earth on behalf of Israel’s sovereign God.

At this stage, their rejection of Jesus is unspoken. Jesus sees it in their body language, so he draws public attention to their “evil” thoughts (9:4). Now we really do have Jesus pointing the finger, accusing these people of sin. Evil is the rejection of God’s authority, refusing to recognize God as ruler of the entire earthly realm. These Bible scholars have evil in their hearts because they reject the one whom God has anointed to rule on earth. That refusal to recognize divine authority operating in and through Jesus is the reason they ultimately crucify him (26:65).

So how does Jesus show the Bible scholars that God has given him authority to speak and act for him on earth? Jesus spoke for God by revoking the sins of the paralysed chap. Now he speaks for God again, decreeing the guy’s healing. That’s the point of the healing: so the Bible scholars “know that the son of man has authority on earth to revoke sins” (9:6).

Unfortunately, some theologians have tried to make a different point out of this passage — as support for Jesus’ divinity. The argument goes that only God can forgive sins, so if Jesus is forgiving sins he must be God. According to this way of thinking, Jesus was walking around claiming to be God and acting as if he was God, so he must be insane, a deceiver, or actually God (lunatic, liar, or Lord). It’s the same argument advanced by those who accused Jesus of blasphemy (compare Mark 2:7), but with a different conclusion.

Now, it’s true to say that Jesus was and is the second person of the trinity, but that isn’t what Jesus was saying here. His own disciples did not yet understand his deity, and he certainly wasn’t trying to convince his enemies that he was God incarnate. He wants them to understand that he has been delegated with authority on earth to forgive sins, because of his rule as the human — the son of man (9:6).

Neither is Matthew trying to show that Jesus is God here. Matthew’s point is that Jesus’ actions did not lead the people into rebellion against their divine ruler. Rather, Jesus led people to recognize divine authority:

  • They feared God (phobeō), i.e. they submitted to God as their ruler.
  • They glorified God (doxazō), i.e. they gave honour to God as their ruler.

The crunchline of the whole story is not the deity of Jesus but the recognition of “the God who gave such authority to people” (9:8). When they saw Jesus speaking for the heavenly sovereign, forgiving sins, releasing a paralysed person, they were blown away by the awareness of the authority our heavenly king has entrusted to human beings.

When did God give authority to humans? In the beginning (Genesis 1:26-28). Now, in Jesus, the crowds recognized that authority as it was meant to function. There’s been a whole history of humans blaspheming by grasping at divine power and using authority abusively towards each other. But now, in Jesus, they see what divinely delegated authority looks like. It’s beautiful. It leads people to live in awe of our heavenly sovereign and to give him the honour due to this regal position.

For the first time in history, we see our heavenly sovereign’s intentions becoming reality on earth. In the person of Jesus the true human (the son of man), we see divine authority functioning on earth. This is the divine kingship, the kingdom of God.


What others are saying

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 288–290:

Matthew preserves the main point of the story: Jesus’ authority to heal the body testifies to his authority to forgive (9:6–7; cf. 9:12). Jesus’ “authority” (9:6, 8) is a central focus of the context (7:29; 8:9, 27; cf. 28:18). …

By performing a sign that is empirically verifiable, however, Jesus argues that he is God’s authorized agent and therefore has authority to forgive sins. The argument runs like a traditional Jewish qal waḥomer argument: if God would authorize Jesus visibly to heal the effects of humanity’s fallenness, would he not send him to combat that fallenness itself?

Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 99:

What they hadn’t bargained for was that God would, when the great moment came, delegate this role to ‘one like a son of man’ through whom authority of the right sort would now be let loose in the world. But the forces of resistance, the forces that see their own power undermined by God’s new sort of power, remain angry and obdurate. We shall see in this chapter how they begin to snipe at him and attack him, a process which will grow and swell until Jesus eventually stands before the high priest himself and makes, for the last time, a great statement about the authority of the son of man (26:64). After that, all that is left is his death, through which all sins were dealt with—and his own ‘getting up’, the sign, as in this story, that God was indeed with him, and had given him his own special type of authority, to heal and restore the world.

[previous: What is forgiveness?]

[next: What’s with tax collectors?]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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