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We come today to the second of three articles, three life-size pictures of sin and grace, each capturing a cameo portrait of a man whose troubles display what the gospel is, why we need it, and how it works in our lives. In our last article, we considered the leper whose condition rather graphically illustrates the defiling power of sin. It makes us dirty, and only Jesus can wash us clean. In this article, we meet the paralytic, a man trapped in a broken body, a living illustration of sin’s ability to trap the soul in terrible bondage.

Before we get to the man, Luke introduces Jesus the Healer as Jesus the Teacher. This is important: it is in the context of His teaching that the power of the Lord is present to perform healing (Luke 5:17). Luke wants us to make the connection: truth is the great and ultimate bondage breaker.

Another detail we must not miss is that Jesus knows our true need. No doubt everyone thought they had this man’s problem pegged. It was obvious that he was a paraplegic and couldn’t walk. But Jesus saw things differently. Jesus looked past this man’s broken body and saw a broken soul. Just like the leper, whose skin disease pointed to a deeper need, the paralytic had a physical infirmity that paralleled a deeper bondage. What injury or disease had done to his nerves and muscles, sin had done to his soul. What this man really needed was forgiveness. He needed Jesus to set him free from his fatal bondage to sin, guilt, and death. Had Jesus merely healed this man’s body without going deeper, He would have been like an undertaker putting lipstick on a corpse. What use is a mobile body if it houses a dead soul (Eph. 2:1 ff)?

Most importantly of all, in and through this pathetic, helpless man, Luke means us to see ourselves. Sin makes paralytics of us all. Calvin says sin makes us its willing slaves, hungry to parley with temptation, trapped in cycles of habitual disobedience, and disabled and disqualified from every good work (Titus 1:16). Our fathers in the faith called this bondage “total inability.” We are totally unable to improve our spiritual condition in any way. We are totally unable to respond to the gospel and come to the Savior.

Many in the church dispute this. How can God blame us for not doing what we can’t do? Would this not be like commanding a man to fly and then punishing Him for not taking flight? At first glance, this might seem like a fair objection, but it is not. Our inability is freely chosen. We are willful slaves: We can’t come to Christ because we won’t—our hatred prevents us. And it is precisely because we won’t come that we can’t.

I stumbled across a remarkable illustration of this recently in the insect kingdom: the Ampulex compressa, or the jeweled cockroach wasp. This beautiful, emerald green creature has a particularly effective venom that is peculiarly suited to its prey. Here is how it works: when the wasp finds a roach, quick as a flash it jumps on top of it and stings it twice. The first sting disables the roach’s powerful front legs, and the second, delivered at the base of the roach’s head, goes right into the hapless beast’s brain. This venom doesn’t kill the roach, as you might expect; it simply disables its will to escape. It could escape, but it just doesn’t want to. It is quite content to remain a prisoner. The wasp then leads its stupefied victim back to its lair, where it lays a solitary egg in the soft place between the cracks of its abdomen. When the larva hatches, it burrows into the roach’s belly and eats it alive from within. In a stroke of particular genius, to keep its host alive as long as possible, the larva seems to know to begin its feast by eating the least important bits first. I know it is the stuff of nightmares, but could there be a better illustration of sin and what it is and how it works in each of our lives?

We are willful slaves: We can’t come to Christ because we won’t—our hatred prevents us. And it is precisely because we won’t come that we can’t.

Trapped in sin’s fatal grasp, we no longer want to be free. With the venom of sin at work in our souls, we become helpless addicts to the self-life—self-serving, self-satisfaction, self-exaltation, and self-righteousness. The 1960s saw the birth of the sexual liberation movement. But a fine liberty it offers. When people can’t say no to their darkest desires, this is not liberation but the worst form of bondage. So committed are we to pleasing ourselves that we will fight with anyone who stands in our way (Titus 3:3).

Only the Lord Christ can set us free. Jesus looks at this man and says, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” Well, the Pharisees are incensed: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they think—and, they are half-right and they are all wrong. Only God can forgive sins, to be sure, but they are wrong to think that Jesus is less than God. God, of course, is precisely who Jesus is.

And you remember how Jesus replied: “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” (Luke 5:23)

Well, which is easier? “Your sins are forgiven” is a much easier thing to say, isn’t it? But how could a person even begin to prove whether the forgiveness promised had actually been granted? It’s an invisible benefit. But telling a paralyzed man with withered, atrophic muscles and contracted stiff joints to pick up his bed and walk—that’s a much more risky command to offer. Such words leave no room for doubt. Anyone with eyes can see immediately whether our words are just words or whether they have real power to effect change. 

So, you can perhaps imagine the crowd’s amazement when Jesus seals the deal with His devastating pronouncement, “‘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’” (Luke 5:24). And then in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, decades of atrophy and weakness were wiped off that man’s body like writing on a whiteboard.

Perhaps you are reading this article and you are aware that all is not right with your soul. There are clearly areas in your life where sin seems to have the upper hand and you feel powerless to resist. Perhaps you are beginning to doubt whether you have ever been saved at all. Well, I set before you a living Savior who has the authority to forgive you and the power to free you from you sins—a Savior whose voice shattered the silence of the first day of creation (John 1:1–3)—who created everything out of nothing. A Savior whose voice wakes the dead, and with that same voice He calls you to Himself. Perhaps you say: “But I can’t come to Him? What am I to do?”

Cast your mind back to an episode, early in Christ’s ministry, when Jesus went to a synagogue to worship on the Sabbath day. There was a man there with a withered arm. We are not told this man’s name. We are simply told what he could not do—he could not stretch out his arm. What did Jesus say to him? He commanded him to do what he could not do—to stretch out his arm—to go far beyond his ability and do what before had previously been an impossible pipe dream. And the man did exactly what Jesus told him to do—he stretched out his hand. Why? Because there is power in the command of Christ to give what He commands. As the psalmist said, “My people will be willing in the day of my power” (Ps. 110:3). Expose yourself to His Word and you will come face-to-face with the most powerful creative force in existence. Cry out to Jesus: “Do not pass me by! Enlarge my heart that I might run in the course of your commandments! Restore my soul! (Ps. 23:3—literally, “Cause my soul to repent!”). Lead me in the paths of righteousness for your name’s sake.” He has not changed. His mighty arm has not become arthritic with age. He can still give what He commands.

Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t share the gospel more than we do is that we see only the enslaving, soul-destroying power of sin in the lives of unbelievers. Such power is there, and we must not minimize it, but it is dwarfed in comparison to the almighty power of the Lord Christ. Too often, we focus on the former to such an extent that we miss the latter, thinking to ourselves: “My words are just words. They can do nothing.” But don’t you see, when you speak a word for Christ, you are not just sharing your words? You are sharing the almighty words of Christ, the bondage breaker, the One who says, “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29).

Have faith in God, and be not backward to speak a word for Him to others. All our evangelistic efforts hang on the power of Christ, who is the very Word of God (John 1:1). Call on Him for help, and speak of Him when you can. His Word will not return to Him void.

Suffering and the Joy before Us

Church, Parachurch, and Unity