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In Mark 2:5-12 Jesus surprises the scribes by forgiving the sins of (and miraculously healing) a paralytic. The scribes took it as a blasphemy, as they believed that forgiveness of sins was a prerogative pertaining to God exclusively:

5 And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 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? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But 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, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 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 2:5-12 (ESV)]

The parallel account in Matthew 9:2-8 narrates the same event. However, verse 8 adds an interesting detail that Mark's account omits. The verse is in bold below:

2 And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 7 And he rose and went home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. [Matthew 9:2-8 (ESV)]

So, I have a few questions:

  1. Why did Jesus have authority to forgive sins?
  2. Why did the scribes believe that only God could forgive sins? Are there any passages in the OT that clearly state that forgiveness of sins is God's prerogative?
  3. Matthew 9:8 says "[...] and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.". Does this mean that men in general also have the same authority as Jesus to forgive someone's sins?
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  • It's possible to read "son of man" here as generic rather than titular. See Burkett, ``The Nontitular Son of Man: A History and Critique,'' 1994, New Testament Studies, 40(04), 504–521. doi:10.1017/s0028688500026448 and my self-answer to hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/55204/39728 .
    – user39728
    Feb 21 at 15:08
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The OP asks three questions which i will take in a different order:

Question #2 - Why did the scribes believe that only God could forgive sins? Are there any passages in the OT that clearly state that forgiveness of sins is God's prerogative?

To answer this question, one must distinguish between temporal guilt and eternal guilt.

Temporal Guilt

Temporal guilt is created when one person wrongs or harms another. The Bible often teaches that we must seek and give forgiveness for such matters:

  • Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Col 3:13.
  • Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Eph 4:32.
  • Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Matt 18:21, 22. Jesus then illustrates and reinforces His point using the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matt 18:23-35.
  • And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Matt 6:12. See also Mark 11:25, Luke 11:4, 1 John 1:9 and the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matt 18:23-35; all these make our reception of the full benefits of God’s forgiveness dependent on our forgiveness of other’s sins against us in some sense.

See also 2 Sam 19:19, Gen 32:20, etc. This all very well. However, there are at least three limits to humans forgiving temporal guilt:

  1. Some sins do not involve any harm to another person
  2. I cannot forgive the sins and guilt of a person who has not harmed me
  3. Sometimes the victim is no longer able to forgive either because that person is unwilling, or because the harmed person is dead.

For all these reasons, plus one more to be discussed below, this brings us to the idea of eternal guilt.

Eternal Guilt

The Bible also teaches that ALL sin is sin against God whether another person is involved or not.

  • When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 1 Cor 8:12.
  • Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. Ps 51:4
  • He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God. Prov 14:31.
  • Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God. Deut 20:18. See also 2 Sam 12:13, 14, Gen 39:9, 1 Sam 12:23, 1 Sam 14:34, 2 Chron 19:10, Prov 17:5, Jer 34:19, Eze 13:19. See “Sin”.

It is this divine guilt that must be sought from God to deal with the eternal consequences of sin as described in Rom 3:22-25. It was this divine guilt that Jesus extinguished in the incident of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12, especially V8-10. Thus, Jesus demonstrated His divine authority to forgive.

Question #1 - Why did Jesus have authority to forgive sins?

This question is answered by the one above - Jesus could forgive precisely because:

  • He was divine
  • He had been given such authority from the Father, Luke 5:24, Matt 9:6, Mark 2:10
  • He was the antitypical sacrificial Lamb, John 1:29, 1 Cor 5:7, 1 Peter 1:19

Question #3 - Matthew 9:8 says "[...] and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.". Does this mean that men in general also have the same authority as Jesus to forgive someone's sins?

Jesus was a man (as well as divine) and this idea is absolutely central to Christianity. Phil 2:5-8, Heb 4:15, 1 John 4:2, 2 John 7. The people we pleased that God was no longer distant and "lived among us" (John 1:14).

The idea in Matt 9:8, "given such authority to men" might be more satisfactorily rendered, "given such authority to humanity"; it does not necessarily follow (much to disgust of some) that such authority applies to all men, but only at least one man - in this case Jesus.

Bengel's Gnomen comments:

[401] Beng seems to me, not to take ἀνθρώποις as Engl. V., “God who had given such power to men,” but, as the Dative of advantage, “Who had bestowed such power (in the person of the man Christ Jesus) for the benefit of men, so long afflicted as they had been with sin. Thus the meaning of Bengel’s “lata oratio, uti v. 6” is, that the words “on earth,” in Matthew 9:6, imply the same wide range of the Saviour’s power for the good of men as ἀνθρώποις here.—ED.

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  • This answer explains very well why the scribes viewed it as a blasphemy (question number 2), but what about questions number 1 and 3? Feb 22 at 0:34
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - thanks - updated now as requested.
    – Dottard
    Feb 22 at 0:51
  • @Dottard "Jesus was a man (as well as divine) and this idea is absolutely central to Christianity" is very well said. Although this is my intended meaning by "more than a man" I really like the way you put it. Question about your argument - I agree with your overall conclusion, though perhaps we arrived at the conclusion via slightly different routes. What wasn't clear to me is how you get from a) having divine authority to b) being divine. Feb 22 at 1:24
  • @HoldToTheRod - excellent question that, I agree, is not obvious from my answer because it involved a subtlety that I did not want to clutter the answer with. Jesus was divine but that claim and actuality to divinity was temporarily laid aside during the incarnation (Phil 2:5-8). That is, during the incarnation, Jesus had all the divine attributes but did not use them but depended on the Father for all things as an example to us. Even the miracles were using not His own power but the fathers - hence the great temptations NOT to use innate power.
    – Dottard
    Feb 22 at 1:36
  • 1
    @HoldToTheRod - see Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary on Phil 2:7.
    – Dottard
    Feb 22 at 1:40
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1. Why did Jesus have authority to forgive sins?

I suggest the clearest scriptural indication is that He had the the authority to forgive sins because He is the One who would/did pay for them. As the payer of the debt it was His call to make. For example, Romans 3:23-25

23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:

25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;

2. Why did the scribes believe that only God could forgive sins? Are there any passages in the OT that clearly state that forgiveness of sins is God's prerogative?

Although I'm unaware of any OT passage that addresses this explicitly, Isaiah 1:18 implies that when sins are forgiven, the Lord can't be left out of that discussion:

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

And in Jeremiah 33:8 (the Lord is speaking), the Lord clearly indicates that He is the one doing the forgiving--after all, they transgressed against Him.

8 And I will cleanse them from all their iniquity, whereby they have sinned against me; and I will pardon all their iniquities, whereby they have sinned, and whereby they have transgressed against me.

If a man said he could reason through a person's repentance and decide upon forgiveness, he would be taking the Lord's place in these verses. That seems a pretty bold move without explicit permission....(see discussion of Hebrews 5 below)

Jeremiah 31:34 is also relevant here:

34 And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

Two things here. 1) Even when every man knows the Lord it's still the Lord doing the forgiving. 2) The Lord forgives and remembers the sin no more. If a person says he won't remember my sin anymore, but God still does remember, that's not really all that reassuring.

3. Mark 9:8 says "[...] and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.". Does this mean that men in general also have the same authority as Jesus to forgive someone's sins?

Men in general? No. If men in general were permitted to forgive sins the Jews wouldn't have been surprised by this event.

Even the Levitical high priest, doing a vicarious work on behalf of Israel, is an imperfect man acting under God's authority. He himself cannot make the sacrifice for sin efficacious (see also Romans 3:25 above):

2 Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity.

3 And by reason hereof he ought, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins.

4 And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron. (Hebrews 5:2-4)

A man can only legitimately act in the name of God at God's direction, otherwise the man would be breaking the 3rd commandment.

Perhaps some on that occasion thought Jesus was just a man and therefore concluded based on what they saw that some men could forgive sins.

But those who were well-trained in the OT saw this as something more. In their scriptures they had plenty of examples of God forgiving sins but none of men doing so. Inductively then they conclude that only God can forgive sins.

Hence they interpreted Jesus to be claiming to be more than a man. I conclude that though the scribes' reasoning was flawed on several counts they were correct in one very important particular: Jesus was claiming to be more than a man.


PS for clarification

The apostles did mighty works in Jesus' name, not their own names. This makes Jesus' actions in His own name ("The Son of Man" appears to be one of His preferred titles for Himself) all the more striking.

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  • 1
    Also, authority is something given by someone else. Jesus was given authority by God to forgive sins. Feb 21 at 5:09
  • 1
    Isaiah records this several centuries in advance: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him". It's sometimes called the prophetic-perfect tense. God was confident enough in the plan that it could be spoken of as a done-deal. Indeed, so certain was the atonement (even before it happened) that God was forgiving sins in ancient Israel centuries before the payment for those since had been made. Feb 21 at 5:11
  • Yes. that's better, tho I still wonder at how you arrive at Jesus being more than a man. Do you have a text stating that clearly?
    – steveowen
    Feb 21 at 5:32
  • Thanks. An explicit statement in the OT? No, and i don't think the scribes did either, hence the inductive argument. Feb 21 at 5:41
  • Sorry I may have misunderstood your question the first time. The apostles did mighty works in Jesus' name, not their own names. This makes Jesus' actions in His own name ("The Son of Man" appears to be one of His preferred titles for Himself) all the more striking. For sure, that's an argument from the NT, not the OT. Feb 21 at 5:50
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Relevant to the second question, I found this citation from the Jewish Virtual Library:

The biblical concept of forgiveness presumes, in its oldest strata, that sin is a malefic force that adheres to the sinner and that forgiveness is the divine means for removing it. This is demonstrated by the vocabulary of forgiveness which, in the main, stems from the cultic terminology of cleansing, e.g., tiher ("purify"; Jer. 33:8); maḥah ("wipe"; lsa. 43:25); kibbes, raḥaẓ ("wash"; Isa. 1:16; Ps. 51:4, 9); kipper ("purge"; Ezek. 16:63; Ps. 78:38). Even the most common verb for forgiveness, salaḥ, probably derives from the Mesopotamian cult where it connotes sprinkling in purification rites. More significantly, the most prominent epithet of God in His role of forgiver is noseʾ ʿavon/ ḥeṭ/ peshaʿ (lit. he who "lifts off sin"; e.g., Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18; Hos. 14:3; Micah 7:18; Ps. 32:5).

In the religion of ancient Israel, in contrast to that of its neighbors, rituals are not inherently efficacious. This point is underscored by the sacrificial formula of forgiveness. Whereas the required ritual is carried out by the priest, its desired end, forgiveness, is granted solely by God, e.g., "the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin and he shall be forgiven," i.e., by God (Lev. 4:26, and passim).

Though I do not have answers for the other two questions, I’d like to share my thoughts on the first question of “why Jesus has the authority to forgive sins.” My interpretation of, or rather my rambling thoughts on, this passage comes from an attempt to answer Jesus’ question.

Perceiving that the scribes were questioning his authority to forgive sins, Jesus posed them this question: “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk?’”

His phrasing brings together two sets of ideas that serve as the lenses through which I examined Jesus’ question. The first pairing of ideas is that of “saying” vs. “doing.” From a human perspective, both the forgiveness of sins and the healing of paralysis are impossible, but “your sins are forgiven” may be easier to say since the result is difficult to verify. Thus one way that this passage has been interpreted is that Jesus told the paralytic man to rise, words that produced an immediately visible effect, in order to prove his ability to forgive sins, something that could not be empirically verified.

The second set of ideas in Jesus’ question relates to the act of forgiving sins vs. the healing of paralysis. If the act of forgiving sins can be reframed as the healing of the spirit, then another way to consider Jesus’ question is to weigh the work of healing the body against that of healing the spirit. From this perspective, the forgiveness of sins would seem the harder task to accomplish. One could further argue that the healing of the spirit is the most difficult task of all.

Thinking about the healing of the spirit leads me to take a big leap of logic and suggest that Jesus may have been alluding to his purpose for coming into the world, and that is, to accomplish the work of salvation:

  • “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:21)
  • Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Lk 19:9-10)

Similar to the structure of Jesus’ question, the work of salvation can be organized in two ways: the saying and the doing, or the word and the action. The word that he was sent to proclaim was the good news of the Gospel:

  • They said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do. (Mk 1:38)
  • Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Mt 4:23)

And the action that he was sent to carry out was the laying down of his life as the atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins:

  • “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord… I have received this command from my Father.” (Jn 10:17-18)
  • “For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt 26:28)

Coming back to the original question of “why Jesus has the authority to forgive sins,” I am reminded of this passage from the gospel of John:

  • “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. There is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that his testimony to me is true. You sent messengers to John, and he testified to the truth. Not that I accept such human testimony, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But I have a testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.” (Jn 5:31-36)

Rather than defending himself or relying on human testimony, even that of John the Baptist, Jesus said that his works would testify on his behalf:

  • “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” (Jn 10:37-38)
  • “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” (Jn 14:10-11)

And instead of explaining to the scribes by what authority he could forgive sins, Jesus’ question directed their attention (and mine as well) to the testimony of his words and actions.

0

The OT background of the Son of Man motif that seems to be in view here is that of Daniel's vision:

[Dan 7:13-22 NLT] (13) As my vision continued that night, I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was led into his presence. (14) He was given authority, honor, and sovereignty over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey him. His rule is eternal--it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed. (15) I, Daniel, was troubled by all I had seen, and my visions terrified me. (16) So I approached one of those standing beside the throne and asked him what it all meant. He explained it to me like this: (17) "These four huge beasts represent four kingdoms that will arise from the earth. (18) But in the end, the holy people of the Most High will be given the kingdom, and they will rule forever and ever." (19) Then I wanted to know the true meaning of the fourth beast, the one so different from the others and so terrifying. It had devoured and crushed its victims with iron teeth and bronze claws, trampling their remains beneath its feet. (20) I also asked about the ten horns on the fourth beast's head and the little horn that came up afterward and destroyed three of the other horns. This horn had seemed greater than the others, and it had human eyes and a mouth that was boasting arrogantly. (21) As I watched, this horn was waging war against God's holy people and was defeating them, (22) until the Ancient One--the Most High--came and judged in favor of his holy people. Then the time arrived for the holy people to take over the kingdom.

Now, the NLT above translates verse 22 as saying that God judged in favor of his holy people. This is how it is understood by the NKJV (but not the KJV), the NIV, the CSB, the NASB and others. However, a more literal reading can be understood as the saints receiving the authority to preside in judgement:

[Dan 7:22 YLT] (22) till that the Ancient of Days hath come, and judgment is given to the saints of the Most High, and the time hath come, and the saints have strengthened the kingdom.

The LXX seems to support that idea as well:

Daniel 7:22 Brenton(i) 22 until the Ancient of days came, and he gave judgment to the saints of the Most High; and the time came on, and the saints possessed the kingdom.

Please see this strongly related question and the accepted answer.

This explains the reference to the giving of the authority to "men" in Matthew 9:8. The authority is given not only to the Son of Man but also to [designated] saints of the Most High.

[Jhn 5:26-27 NKJV] (26) "For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, (27) "and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man.

-2

Jesus could forgive sins because God gave him the authority.

Jesus is God's anointed servant and representative. He is not God, but His representative, an image of God. Jesus spoke of the Coin with Caesar's image (same word) It has power and authority and fully represents him in specific ways - The coin is NOT Caesar. Matt 12:16

And He (Jesus) is the radiance of His (God's) glory and the representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. Heb 1:3

Later, Jesus, after the spirit had been given to the disciples, now apostles, they too could forgive sins.

And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” John 20:22

Jesus was the 'sent one' John 17:23, 12:44, 8:26 etc Because he was sent, he was sent with the tools he needed to accomplish his mission.

He had only the power and authority that God gave him through the spirit. He said he could do nothing of himself, even his words were the Father's. In Rev 1:1, God is still supplying Jesus, the Lamb, with the words he needs.

the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing John 5:19

The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority John 14:10, 12:49

My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me John 7:16

And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man John 5:27

God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. Acts 10:38

The scribes had no idea Who and what Jesus represented. They were so busy with the law, they interpreted everything Jesus did through those optics. They refused to believe He was from God and thought the opposite - he had a demon!

the Pharisees were saying, “This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath. John 9:16

So, they naturally assumed he was from the other side!

Pharisees ... said, “This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.”

Thinking this, any claim Jesus offered as truth, they could only think of as blasphemy.

Obviously, all sin is ultimately against God. God is the one who gave the law and the statutes with sacrifice and offerings etc. Who else would forgive sin? To who else would a debt be owed? If we stole from someone and paid it back - the sin remains unpaid.

Jesus, as a prelude to his ultimate sacrifice that would cover all sin, was introducing the new way of life, grace and mercy that would be available to all in his name. The apostles continued this teaching and had similar power over the natural world - in his name. They were now Christs' representatives, just as Jesus was God's representative.

John 20:21 Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you."

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  • Great use of John 20:22-23 to illustrate delegated authority Feb 21 at 5:32
  • 1
    sorry but that is false. Isaiah clearly states Isaiah 42:8 "I am the LORD; that is My name! I will not yield My glory to another or My praise to idols. Vs 24 Was it not the LORD, against whom we have sinned?" Adam did not sin against another created being, he sinned against the Almighty God, Jehovah! One must understand that a non-trinitarian God is unworkable. If Jesus can forgive sins and we engage in that practise we are committing idolatry. another Illustration...marriage. Would you give another man the delegated authority to sleep with your own wife? Is not this Adultery?
    – Adam
    Feb 21 at 8:13
  • @Adam thanks for your thoughts. I confess I'm not sure I follow your argument. Are you saying A) Jesus did not delegate authority in any matter or B) He delegated authority in some matters but not others? I have no issue with option B, but do not see a way to reconcile option A with the scriptures. Re "one must understand..." since millions of people have come to different conclusions, perhaps this is a place where we are called to simultaneously advocate for what we understand while extending charity to those whose honest efforts to understand lead them to a different conclusion. Feb 21 at 16:53
  • @user48152 - Do you think that today's disciples have the authority to forgive all of someone's sins? For example, would you approach a dangerous inmate in a jail and declare all of their sins forgiven? Feb 26 at 0:11
  • No, the text does not say or suggest this. (Forgiving 'some' sins would be pointless) For some reason, the church has become a useless and toothless paper tiger (lion). The power of Jesus name is largely missing. "greater works you will do' must have a future component when the true church arises - hint, it wont be very big!
    – steveowen
    Feb 26 at 0:32

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