My problem with authority
I have a problem with authority. I admit it freely. I have spent hours debating what it is, who has it and how it should be used. The root of my skepticism is found in the words, “God-given authority,” which is a phrase I have heard one too many times in churches and Christian ministries. In my experience, Christians who are obsessed with their “God-given authority” just want control over others. Or in other words, they want power. So many Christian leaders have used their positions of authority to abuse and take advantage of others for personal gain. I am wary and suspicious of those who talk about their spiritual authority.
Mark wants to convince his readers that Jesus has authority on earth like God does in heaven. Since I carry this baggage with authority, what do I do with Jesus when he claims to have authority? I hold him to the same query as I would other authorities in my life. I question if his authority is legitimate, and I examine how he uses it. Jesus claims that his healing power legitimizes his authority, and he uses his heavenly authority not for personal advantage, but to forgive and to bring wholeness to a broken man. This is a good test for those who claim spiritual authority. Do they forgive others?
Let’s read the story. To help you visualize how Mark builds to the main point, I’ve put together a graphic of my translation of Mark 2:1-12 marking the topics he uses to bookend the central message placed at the center of the story.
The story reveals the tension between the material and the immaterial.
In the previous chapter of Mark, Jesus says that he came to the world to teach the good news about God’s realm. Mark 2:1 says that Jesus was doing just that to a packed-out crowd. He was speaking to them “the Word.” To a Greek or Roman reader, the “Word” was “Logos.” Logos was a philosophical idea of a divine, unchanging truth that is available to all. Jesus has knowledge about eternal truths, and his teaching explains and illustrates those immaterial truths to a material world that cannot easily see or understand.
This story of healing the paralytic man is an illustration of the “logos” that Jesus taught. Jesus knows that there is more to life than the material world, and he does more than just philosophize about these unseen truths. He has the power to connect the material world to the immaterial, or the realm of God. This story blends the unseen spiritual needs with evident physical needs. Not only can Jesus heal physically, but he can also make broken spirits whole.
The cripple had a physical problem, but Jesus knew that he had an even bigger spiritual problem. Until the spiritual problem was solved, a physical healing would not bring the improvements the friends were trusting Jesus to fix. The scribes, on the other hand, were grasping for eternal truths in their hearts and ignoring the physical problems around them. They were content to sit and think, instead of acting on their knowledge that God forgives and heals.
This contrast between the friends’ action and the scribes’ knowledge prompts me to personal reflection. How often have I lost sight of the spiritual ramifications because I was focused on physical problems alone? Or, just as often, I am content to sit on the sidelines judging the actions of others, enjoying my own opinions without ever offering to carry a friend to Jesus. Jesus is the unique person who connects the two worlds, offering a soul pardon and a body healing.
The son of man has the authority to forgive sins.
Jesus said that the reason he performed the miracle was to prove that the man had a complete pardon. He identifies himself as “the son of man.” What does he mean by this?
The son of man is a term used in the Old Testament and in 1st century extra-biblical writings. In Psalm 8:4-8, the son of man represents all of humanity having divine authority to rule creation. In Daniel 7:13-14, the son of man is a unique person with God qualities. He comes from the throne of God in heaven to earth “in the clouds.” Daniel prophecies that all will worship and obey him, forever. The son of man describes an individual like the Old Testament Judges, someone who would deliver and judge. When Jesus self-designates as the son of man, he is emphasizing his humanness, his unique connection to God, and his conviction that he is the prophesied deliverer and eternal king from the Hebrew Scriptures.
Jesus, calling himself “the son of man,” uses his divine authority not to demand obedience and to amass power, but to forgive. This is the profound reality of the incarnate contradiction. All the Gospel writers title Jesus “the son of God” and “the Christ,” but Jesus calls himself by the title that euphemistically means, “The Human.” Jesus has been given divine authority as the son of God, yet he identifies as a free human agent. Jesus is a human who forgives like God does.
We don’t know what the disabled man had done that Jesus pardoned so publicly. I like to think that it was something specific connected to his injury that eased his conscience as well as his physical suffering. Whatever the sin, general or specific, Jesus brought complete deliverance, proven by the immediate restoration of the man’s ability to walk. The crowd who witnessed Jesus’ authority and power that day were out of their minds with amazement.
As I continue to wrestle with my skeptical attitude toward the idea of spiritual authority in the church, I agree with the crowd’s words that day as they witnessed how Jesus used his authority. I’ve rarely seen anything like it. This is a true example of “God-given authority.” It liberates. It frees people from guilt. It forgives.
May more Christian leaders use their authority to free others as Jesus did.