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Your Visa to Heaven

A sermon on Mark 2:1-17 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 6/27/99


Suppose tomorrow morning you wake up and find that you are dead. Well, you wouldn't really have awakened, would you. But you are conscious, and discover that your body has died. Looking around, you find yourself not at the mythical pearly gates, but in a large building more akin to an airport terminal, and you're in line, waiting for some official to decide whether or not to give you a visa. As the line moves forward, you pass a desk where everyone is busy filling out forms. You take one of the forms and read it over. The usual questions are included: Name, address, passport number, are you carrying monetary instruments worth more than $10,000. That last one is easy: You don't have pockets -- you don't have clothes -- you don't even have a body, so there are no monetary instruments anywhere.

But then comes a more challenging question. In the place where the visa form would normally ask "Reason for entry," this form asks "Reason entry should be granted." In other words, "Why should we let you in?"

Why should anyone let you into heaven? What do you write on this form?

Do you write: "I attended Community Bible Church most Sundays."

Do you write: "I worked hard at my job and did my best to provide for my wife and children."

Do you write: "I did my best at school, and was kind to stray animals."

Or what if none of that is true of you? What if you kick cats and throw rocks at stray dogs? What if you have hardly ever attended church? What if you have been a rotten worker and a terrible husband or wife? What if you look back at your life and see nothing to be proud of? What do you write?

Today we are going to look at two men who, before the incidents recorded in the second chapter of Mark, would have had nothing to write on that form. They were losers -- in different ways, but both losers. Jesus works a miracle in both of their lives -- and in so doing, shows us what to write on that heavenly visa form.

Since we're coming back to Mark after a 6-week hiatus, let us recall the context of today's passage. In verses 9 to 39 of chapter 1, Mark focuses on the question: Why did JC come? Verses 14 and 15 tell us he came:

preaching the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."

He also heals the sick and casts out demons. Hearing that this man heals diseases, crowds gather to the extent that Jesus' preaching is hindered. He rises early in the morning and spends a lengthy time in prayer. Peter and the other disciples wake up to find a crowd already there, waiting for Jesus to come and heal their diseases. Peter seems to be thinking: "Great! Look at the crowds we're attracting! Things couldn't be going better!" But where is their star attraction? They can't find him anywhere!

So Peter and others look for Jesus, and find him. There is a hint of a reprimand in Peter's statement at this point: look at verses 37 and 38:

they found Him, and *said to Him, "Everyone is looking for You." And He *said to them, "Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, in order that I may preach there also; for that is what I came out for."

Jesus leaves a large crowd of people who came seeking physical healing in order to preach elsewhere. "That is what I came out for," he says. Not primarily to be a healer of disease, not in order to attract large crowds by any means possible, but to preach and teach the good news, the fulfillment of the law, the message of repentance and forgiveness.

We might expect that Mark would follow this account with the content of Jesus's teaching. Instead we get two stories about: . . . healing! In the last message in this series we looked at the first of these healings, the story of the leper in Mark 1:40-45. We saw that the leper's request to Jesus specifically is not to be cured but to be cleansed, to be made fit to enter the temple and worship God, to be one of God's people. Leprosy in the Old Testament was a symbol of lostness, and the sacrifices instituted for the cleansing of a leper -- which Jesus instructs the healed leper to perform -- symbolize Jesus' work. So Jesus, through healing this leper, is providing a vivid illustration of his work in coming to save us. For without him, we too are like the leper: isolated, becoming less and less human, losing one faculty after another. He and he alone can heal us, and make us fit to come into God's very presence, to be God's delight.

The two incidents we consider this morning are recorded in Mark 2:1-17. We begin with another healing that's much more than a healing, and then the calling of a member of the most despised category of person in Jewish society. In these incidents too we have the beginning of the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day. Jesus, the fulfillment of the law, begins to act in ways contrary to the religious authorities' view of the law. This conflict begins with forgiveness of sins, extends to association with sinners, and then moves in subsequent verses to the meaning and purpose of the Sabbath (We'll look at the Sabbath incidents two weeks from today).

In all these stories, Jesus illustrates the content of his preaching: The good news of the gospel; the time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is near!

Chapter 1 ends with Jesus leaving Capernaum to preach in other towns; chapter two opens with his return "home:"

1 And when He had come back to Capernaum several days afterward, it was heard that He was at home. 2 And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room, even near the door; and He was speaking the word to them. 3 And they came, bringing to Him a paralytic, carried by four men. 4 And being unable to get to Him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Him; and when they had dug an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic was lying. (Mark 1:1-4 NASB)

Jesus had left Capernaum to preach elsewhere; he returns and manages to speak the word now, instead of holding a healing service. But the crowds are large; Jesus is speaking inside a house, perhaps Peter's house, and the crowd is overflowing out the door.

Picture what happens next: Four men arrive carrying a paralyzed man on a pallet. It seems likely that they had been among the crowd several days earlier waiting for Jesus early in the morning, and head been disappointed at his departure. They thought at the time, "Surely he'll return! Next time, we'll get here first and be sure to see him!" But they hear the news of Jesus' arrival too late; the crowds are thick around the door and there is no way to squeeze through with four men and a pallet.

One of them has a bright idea: "The roof! We can get to Jesus through the roof!" Recall that, even today, most roofs in Palestine are flat, since accumulating snow is not a problem. Many people would sleep on their roofs in dry weather. So the four men haul their friend up onto the roof, remove the outer tiles, and then begin to dig through the saplings and plaster underneath.

Now picture the crowded room below: Jesus is speaking the word when loud sounds appear above. He looks up -- and dust and bits of plaster start falling on him. A hole opens, and a pallet starts to descend. Four anxious faces appear in the hole above, lowering ropes tied to the corners of the pallet.

Put yourself in the place of the paralytic: He wants to be healed, he has tried in the past to be healed; but now -- is this really what he wants? "Here is the only man who can heal me -- I know he can do it! But we've just interrupted his teaching, and covered him with dust! Will he be angry? Will he send me away? What claim do I have on him? How could I have hoped that he would heal me? I don't deserve anything from him!"

We don't know Jesus' initial thoughts as the men dug the opening in the roof, but verse 5 records his words to the paralytic after his descent:

And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven."

Jesus recognizes the faith of the paralytic and his four friends -- even though this faith is not in his work as Savior. These men believed that Jesus could heal paralysis, and went to great lengths to have him do that, but they do not have a full understanding of who he is. Nevertheless, Jesus recognizes and appreciates their faith, limited as it is.

And then Jesus forgives this man's sins. Why does Jesus do this, instead of simply healing the man?

Let us continue reading:

6 But there were some of the scribes sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, 7 "Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?"

Why do the scribes reason this way? Are they justified in this reasoning?

The scribes base their thoughts on a truth and a misunderstanding.

The Truth: Every sin is a sin against God, and thus only God can forgive sin.

David says this most clearly in Psalm 51. Recall that David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then arranged for the murder of her husband, Uriah. David certainly sinned against Uriah! Yet he writes in Psalm 51:4

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight

David here is not denying that others are affected by his sin. Rather he is saying that sin first and foremost is rebellion against God; when we sin, we set ourselves up as the moral authority, above God. Thus, the scribes are right: If sin is primarily against God, only God can forgive sin. No man acting on his own can pronounce forgiveness for another.

The Misunderstanding: A wrong view of the purpose of the sacrificial system

In addition to thinking that only God could forgive sins, the scribes believed that God would only forgive sins when proper sacrifices were offered at the temple. Since this paralytic had offered no such sacrifices, how could Jesus declare the man's sins forgiven?

The scribes based this belief on several Scriptures. For example, consider these verses from Leviticus:

[Through the sin offering] the priest will make atonement for him for the sin he has committed, and he will be forgiven. (Lev 4:25)

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life. (Lev 17:11)

Taken alone, these verses seem to say that atonement is provided through the shedding of an animal's blood at the temple; they seem to imply that God's forgiveness is provided because of the performance of the prescribed ritual.

But this is a misunderstanding of Old Testament teaching. When we consider the entire counsel of the Old Testament, we find that time and again God makes clear that the rituals alone have no value; they are valuable only when accompanied by the right attitude of the heart.

For example, look again at Psalm 51, the 16th and 17th verses, and Hosea 6:6:

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

Now, from a New Testament perspective we see that the scribes were right, in a way: As the author of the book of Hebrews writes:

without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Heb 9:22)

A sacrifice is indeed necessary to pay the penalty for the sin. But the blood of bulls and goats under the levitical sacrificial system serves to foreshadow the blood of Jesus shed for us on the cross. That is the necessary sacrifice, without which no sins can be forgiven.

What lessons can we glean for ourselves from this error of the scribes? I'd like to suggest two, one general and one specific:

  1. Most generally: Don't base our understanding of God or His work on isolated verses, but understand the whole counsel of God. Know His word through and through, comparing Scripture with Scripture when we find difficult passages.
  2. Specifically: Do not rely on any ritual to save us! Not baptism, not attendance at church, not participating in communion or the eucharist; not Bible reading or prayer. God forgives our sins by His grace through our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; nothing else saves us. Baptism, church attendance, communion, Bible reading, and prayer are all important; they are all responses on our part to our being united with Christ in His resurrection; but they do not save us.

How does Jesus react to the scribes? Let us continue reading in verse 8:

And immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, *said to them, "Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts? 9 "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven'; or to say, 'Arise, and take up your pallet and walk'? 10 "But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" --He *said to the paralytic-- 11 "I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home." 12 And he rose and immediately took up the pallet and went out in the sight of all; so that they were all amazed and were glorifying God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this." (Mark 2:8-12 NASB)

Jesus does not react in anger to their questions (anger comes later, and for a different reason; see 3:1-6); he instead takes this opportunity to teach them about himself through pictures. They are perfectly justified in doubting His ability to forgive sins. So he graciously provides them with a sign. He did not just start claiming, "I am the Messiah; I am the Son of God." He showed them who he was by forgiving sins, and then gives evidence of the invisible forgiveness by providing visible healing. As Jesus states in verse 10, he heals the paralytic in order that they may know that he has authority to forgive sins. Through these actions, he displays the truths he has been preaching: Forgiveness is available! The time is fulfilled!

And how do the people respond? As Mark tells us in verse 12, with amazement; they glorify God for this great work. Not only for the healing -- but for seeing the evidence that the gospel is true: God's gracious mercy is available to all.

So the first incident tells of a man who came to Jesus hoping for physical healing, who receives so much more, more than he could ask or imagine! The paralytic had no basis for a claim on Jesus except His mercy, yet Jesus' mercy extended far beyond the paralytic's hope.

The second story considers a man who was paralyzed in a different way. Let us read beginning in verse 13:

13 And He went out again by the seashore; and all the multitude were coming to Him, and He was teaching them. 14 And as He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax office, and He *said to him, "Follow Me!" And he rose and followed Him. 15 And it came about that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax-gatherers and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him. 16 And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, "Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?" 17 And hearing this, Jesus *said to them, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mark 2:13-17 NASB)

Levi Matthew apparently ran a tollbooth on the road to the Mediterranean Sea. He probably collected a transportation tax, rather similar to an import tariff, on all goods for trade passing on the road. The Romans knew something about economics, for they set up an incentive system that was guaranteed to provide a specific amount of income. Tax collectors had to give a certain amount regularly to the Roman authorities, regardless of the amount of traffic that traveled on the road. If they didn't collect enough, the collector had to cover the difference from his own pocket; but if he collected more, he could keep all of the excess. The collectors clearly wanted to collect as much as possible, leading to obvious opportunities for corruption.

Tax collectors tend not to be the most beloved of people in any society. In ours we've depersonalized the tax collection process through tax withholding, so that our anger, if any, is directed against an organization instead of against an individual. But imagine if instead of receiving net income each month, you were paid your gross salary in cash. So you go to the paymaster, and collect all this money. But right next to the paymaster stands the tax collector. You receive the money from the paymaster -- and then immediately have to give 1/4 or 1/3 or 1/2 to this tax collector. Even if there is no corruption, the tax collector is unlikely to be your favorite person.

But for Jews in first century Palestine the tax collector's position was much worse. Not only were tax collector's taking money from Jewish businessmen, hurting business; not only were they corrupt, taking more than they had a right to by law; but they were also agents of a foreign government. They were working for the oppressors! The equivalent today would be a Kosovar who is a paid agent of the Serbian government. Such a person is hated and despised in every society.

So Levi Matthew was one of the most despised men in all of Galilee. Prior to the incident recorded here, he must have heard Jesus preach in Capernaum, and responded in his heart to the message. But he thought: "Look who I am! Look at what I have done! Surely Jesus' offer of the good news does not extend to me -- a tax collector, an agent of Rome, despised by all our leaders."

But this day, Jesus passes Matthew's tollbooth on the way to preach by the Sea of Galilee. He looks Matthew in the eye and says, "You follow me! You, Levi, leave your tax collecting; I want you to follow me." And he responds with joy -- so much joy that he throws a party for all his friends!

Think about this: Jesus called Levi! Not the scribes of the Pharisees. Not the religious authorities. In this case, not even the "salt of the earth" farmer or fisherman, but the most despised person of his day: a cheating agent of a foreign oppressor. The one man in all of Galilee most unlikely to become a religious leader was called by Jesus to be a foundation stone of His church.

Now consider Levi's party. Whom does he invite? He probably invites the only people who would come to party thrown by him: all his fellow tax collectors. But did you notice the last phrase in verse 15? Some of these also choose to follow Jesus!

Some of you have seen this in your own families: one person begins to follow the Lord and shares the good news with others, who also follow. The work of the Lord is infectious, when joyfully shared with those we love.

But the scribes don't like this. They considered tax collectors similar to Gentiles, perhaps worse than Gentiles. They were unclean; they had turned their backs on their people and on the religion of their ancestors. So the scribes would not eat with them or associate with them; it was their understanding that to associate with such persons would make them unfit for participation in temple worship.

Notice that, as in the first story, the scribes say nothing to Jesus. In the case of the paralytic, they simply think, and Jesus discerns their thoughts. Here they speak to Jesus' disciples, not to him, asking: "Why does Jesus eat with these people?" They are genuinely confused. But once again, Jesus responds to their concern:

"It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Again, there is no note of anger in Jesus' words. He continues to teach them, continues to explain to them how he is the fulfillment of the law that they believe they are upholding. He has just been healing people, so he says:

Who needs a physician? The healthy? No, those who are sick need a physician. And the spiritually sick, those enslaved to sin -- like this tax collector who now follows me -- they too need healing! And I offer forgiveness and healing to all!

Consider Jesus' closing words carefully: "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Let me make this perfectly clear:

There is nothing you can do to earn God's favor! Nothing! But the message of these verses is that God calls those who are poor in spirit, those who acknowledge their need for a Savior. He calls even those like Matthew whose lives give no evidence of good works.

CONCLUSION

Consider these two men: One came to Jesus because he wanted physical healing; he didn't even know his real needs. One was hated and despised by men; the least likely person, one would think, to attract the attention of the Son of God.

What do they share? They both believed -- and acted on that belief. Oh, the paralytic didn't know exactly what he needed, but he believed that Jesus could solve what he thought was his biggest problem. Jesus did solve that problem -- and a much bigger one! Matthew may very well have been a crook and a betrayer of his people, but when Jesus called he thought not about the lucrative business he was leaving behind, but only of the joy of following this itinerant preacher.

We don't know what became of the paralytic. But Matthew went on to write under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit -- the gospel that most clearly identifies Jesus as the fulfillment of the very Scriptures these scribes claimed to love so much.

In his gospel, Matthew records a saying of Jesus that must have been special to him:

"I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." (Matt 17:20 NASB)

Later in Mark we'll encounter a man who says, "I do believe; help my unbelief!"

Do you have this faith, even as a grain of mustard seed? Do you ask the Lord to help your unbelief? This promise of the gospel, the hope for sinners, the hope for every sinner, is offered to you. Do you believe -- even a little?

This is the truth -- the central truth of life: Believe, and you shall live. The worse thing you can do is to hear, to acknowledge that what you hear is true -- and then not act. Your background does not matter, your race does not matter, your reputation does not matter; your failures do not matter -- indeed, your successes and accomplishments do not matter.

The only questions that matter are these:

Do you believe that Jesus Christ came to save sinners? Do you believe he can heal you and cleanse you? Do you want to be freed from the tyranny of sin?

"I did not come to call the righteous but sinners." Are you a sinner? Put that on your heavenly visa form! In the box asking "Reason entry should be granted" write: "I am a sinner, saved by God's grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ." If that's on your form, as Peter writes, "the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you."


This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 6/27/99.

Copyright © 1999, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, copied for resale or incorporated in any commercial publications, recordings, broadcasts, performances, displays or other products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney, tpinckney@williams.edu, c/o Community Bible Church, Harrison Ave, Williamstown, MA 01267.

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