Did Jesus’ Authority to Forgive Sins Indicate He Was God?

Did Jesus’ Authority to Forgive Sins Indicate He Was God? March 24, 2017

The following is an excerpt from my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ (2008):

During antiquity, both rabbinical theologians and Greek theistic philosophers taught that God possesses certain prerogatives that belong only to Him. Rabbis insisted that one of those prerogatives is the forgiveness of sins, and Christian traditionalists later accepted this axiom. They therefore asserted that since Jesus claimed the authority to forgive sins, and only God can forgive sins, this indicates that Jesus was God.

The synoptists report two instances in which Jesus verbally forgave someone’s sins that were not committed personally against Jesus. Only Luke relates one instance, in which a woman of ill repute anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume while she simultaneously wept profusely (Lk 7.36-50). Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven” (v. 48). Those present wondered to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” (v. 49). A similar episode happened that is reported by all three synoptists, and their accounts 1JesusHealsParalyticMark2are more developed. Jesus healed a paralytic man who was let down through the roof in a house while he was lying helplessly on his bed-pallet (Mt 9.1-8; Mk 2.1-12; Lk 5.17-26). In Mark 2, the portion that pertains to Christology is as follows [in the New American Standard Bible]:

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

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?”

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.”

Scribes were the biblical scholars of that time, the recognized authorities in interpreting the Law of Moses. Luke more specifically identifies “Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting there” (Lk 5.17). Jesus no doubt posed His question for the benefit of the crowd, which would have been aware of the traditional precept behind the scribes’ thinking. The common answer to Jesus’ question would be that it would be impossible for anyone to heal a paralytic; if Jesus healed him, it would seem to demonstrate that He had the authority to forgive the man’s sins as well. In Judaism, lameness and sins were thought to be inter-related (e.g., Jn 5.14; 9.2), and so were healing and divine salvation, which includes divine forgiveness (e.g., Isa 35.4-5).

2JesusHealsParalyticMark2These scribes inwardly accused Jesus of blasphemy because of their tradition that the authority to forgive sins in a final sense is a prerogative that belongs only to God. Judaism had determined that even the promised Messiah could not forgive sins. So, these scribes took Jesus’ assertion as an affront to God’s majesty, if not an implied claim to be God. In the Torah, insulting God’s dignity was the primary basis of blasphemy.

Christian traditionalists have usually agreed with these Jewish scribes, and their tradition, that only God can forgive sins. And they have further alleged that Jesus’ claim to forgive sins was an indirect claim to be God. But were these scribes right, that only God can forgive sins and that if anyone else professes to do so it is blasphemy? E.P. Sanders claims that “such a pronouncement would not be regarded as blasphemy by any known Jewish law or by any known interpretation.”[1] If Sanders is correct, that must be why this accusation was never made later, at Jesus’ examination before the Sanhedrin.

3JesusHealsParalyticMark2Jesus’ announcement of forgiveness, in Mk 2.5, is in the passive voice and thus is somewhat ambiguous.[2] Indeed, the scribes seem to have been rather perplexed as to what Jesus meant. Did He mean that God had forgiven the paralytic and that Jesus was merely exercising His prophetic office by announcing that fact? That is what the prophet Nathan did when he said to penitent King David, “The LORD also has taken away your sin” (2 Sam 12.13). However, in v. 10 Jesus made it perfectly clear that He possessed authority to forgive sins. Surely, any such decision on His part would not be contrary to the divine will but commensurate with it. Indeed, the Johannine Jesus explained, “if I do judge, My judgment is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and He who sent Me” (Jn 8.16).

4JesusHealsParalyticMark2In addition, when Jesus healed the paralytic the attending crowd responded by “glorifying God” (Mk 2.12; Lk 5.25-26). This does not mean that they glorified Jesus as God. Matthew explains, “But when the multitudes saw this, they were filled with awe, and glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (Mt 9.8). In other words, the people glorified God because they rightly recognized that God had given Jesus authority to heal as well as to forgive sins. And it is evident from the last clause that this was Matthew’s understanding as well. Traditionalist M.M.B. Turner further explains, “the significance which Jesus attaches to his pronouncement of forgiveness and the corroborating miracle, is not that he shares the divine essence but rather that he already has the authority of the Son of man to execute God’s judgment (Mk 2:10).”[3]

This probably was the first time during Jesus’ public ministry that He claimed authority to forgive sins. But it was not His last. At least two more times Jesus expressly claimed authority to judge on judgment day (e.g., Mt 16.27; 25.31-46). Surely such authority includes the right to do so prior to that time, e.g., at that moment when the paralytic was brought to Him. Besides, the Johannine Jesus seems to have not restricted His authority to forgive only on judgment day because He announced, “For not even the Father [alone] judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son” (Jn 5.22).

Furthermore, the authority to forgive sins in a final sense is a prerogative that God has delegated to others besides Jesus. And when He has done so, the recipients of such authority have not been perceived as being God.[4] The best OT example is “the angel of the LORD.” God had instructed the wandering Israelites regarding this patron angel, “Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression” (Ex 23.21). The implication is that the Angel of the LORD has authority to forgive Israel’s sins.

[See a large section in RJC in which I claim that “the angel of the LORD” in Ex 23.20-23 and 32.2 is not God himself, as many have believed, but an actual angel, that is, the guardian angel of Israel, who is Michael the archangel as in Daniel 10.13, 21 and 12.1.]

Also, Jesus’ instructions to His disciples about binding and loosing allude to a networking of forgiveness between God and men. The first time this occurred was when Jesus gave Peter the keys of the kingdom of God and told him that he would be the first of the apostles to open and close the door(s) to the kingdom. In other words, whatever Peter chose to bind or loose on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven, with heaven being a euphemism meaning that God would approve of it (Mt 16.19; cf. 18.18). The second time this occurred, Jesus was more specific. It seems to have involved, among other things, both forgiving sin and refusing to forgive sin by calling down judgment from heaven. For, Matthew records that this promise of Jesus was given in the context of forgiveness (Mt 18.15-17, 21-35). [See my 2015 book, Solving the Samaritan Riddle: Peter’s Kingdom Keys Explain Spirit Baptism.]

Jesus made this even clearer during one of His post-resurrection appearances, when He mysteriously breathed the Holy Spirit onto His disciples. Then He said to them, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained” (Jn 20.23). R.E. Brown illuminates the meaning of the first clause by paraphrasing it, “When you forgive men’s sins, at that moment God forgives those sins and they remain forgiven.”[5] This bestowal of the Holy Spirit as well as Jesus’ associated proclamation about the authority to forgive sins represents the transference of power and authority from Jesus unto His disciples. The result, of course, is a continuation of Jesus’ ministry on earth following His ascension into heaven.

It must therefore be concluded that if God grants authority to forgive sins to angels or men, and it does not indicate that they are God, Jesus’ authority to forgive sins does not necessarily imply that He is God either. Neither does Jesus’ authority to judge on the day of judgment necessarily make Him God. And this prerogative does not belong to Jesus inherently but has been granted to Him by the Father (Jn 5.22, 27; 8.16).

Finally, when church fathers interpreted that Jesus forgiving sins, in Mk 2.5-7, means that He was God, they contradicted another aspect of their theology. They insisted that the prerogative to forgive sins belongs only to deity and thus Jesus’ divine nature. Yet Jesus had said that the reason He possessed this authority to forgive sins was that He was “the Son of Man.” Church fathers, and many subsequent traditionalists, believed that Jesus’ status as the Son of Man referred exclusively to His human nature.

[1] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 213.

[2] Dieter Zeller, “Jesus,” in DDD 468.

[3] M.M.B. Turner, “The Spirit of Christ and Christology,” 171.

[4] See D. Cupitt, Jesus and the Gospel of God, 16-17.

[5] R.E. Brown, John (xiii-xxi), 1024.

Also, click here to see a list on October 4, 2015, of over sixty posts on how the Bible does not say Jesus is God. You can easily click on any of them.

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