Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Trinity in the Holy Bible Pt. 2

Addressing Some Objections to the Deity of Christ

Sam Shamoun

[Part 1 , Part 2, 2b, Part 3, 3b, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6]

Jesus’ Divine Authority to Forgive Sins

Continuing from where we left off, it is time see what the NT says concerning Jesus’ ability to forgive sins by taking a close look at the following pericope:

“And when he returned to Caper'na-um after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?And immediately Jesus, perceiving IN HIS SPIRIT that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, ‘Why do you question thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk”? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ --he said to the paralytic -- ‘I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.’ And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’” Mark 2:1-12 – cf. Matthew 9:1-8; Luke 5:17-26

In this episode, Jesus is depicted as having ability to heal diseases and forgive sins, as well as to know what people were thinking in their hearts, prerogatives that the Holy Bible says belong uniquely to God.   

For example, we are told in the Hebrew Scriptures that not only does Yahweh heal all diseases, but that he alone knows the secrets of the hearts and forgives sins:

“If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread forth our hands to a strange god, would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.” Psalm 44:20-21

“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy… The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:2-4, 8-12

“then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive, and act, and render to each whose heart thou knowest, according to all his ways (for thou, thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men)… If they sin against thee--for there is no man who does not sin--and thou art angry with them, and dost give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near; yet if they lay it to heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent, and make supplication to thee in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned, and have acted perversely and wickedly’; if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to thee toward their land, which thou gavest to their fathers, the city which thou hast chosen, and the house which I have built for thy name; then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place their prayer and their supplication, and maintain their cause and forgive thy people who have sinned against thee, and all their transgressions which they have committed against thee; and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them.” 1 Kings 8:39, 46-50

“I have swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.” Isaiah 44:22 – cf. Daniel 9:9; Micah 7:18-19

And yet Jesus is able to do all of these things!

Nor is this the only time in Luke where we are told that Jesus forgave a person’s sins:

“One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house, and took his place at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.’ And Jesus answering said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ And he answered, ‘What is it, Teacher?’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, "The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.’ And he said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.’ And he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’” Luke 7:36-50

Not only do the words of Christ make it clear that he himself forgave the woman’s debts, but her actions such as kissing Jesus’ feet also confirm this fact since it demonstrates that the reason she even came to him is because she actually believed that he possessed the divine authority to pardon her transgressions. This is further brought out by the reaction of those at the table, since they could see from Jesus’ statements that he was personally claiming to have forgiven the woman’s sins. 

Now Islam might appeal to the following text to prove that Jesus was a man whom God had given the authority to forgive people’s sins:

“But when the crowds saw this, they were awestruck, and glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” Matthew 9:8

Here we are told that the crowds who witnessed Christ forgive and heal the paralytic took what Jesus did as a sign that God was granting men the authority to perform such functions.

There is a problem with appealing to the position of the crowds in this particular context to undermine the explicit witness to Jesus’ divine ability to forgive sins. According to Matthew’s own witness, Jesus is God who came to save his people from their sins by offering up his life on the cross as a vicarious sacrifice. Matthew even says that this is the very reason why Christ was given the name Jesus: 

“‘she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus [Heb. Yeshuah – “YHWH Saves”], for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emman′u-el’ (which means, God [ho theos] with us).” Matthew 1:21-23 RSV

“even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:28 – cf. Mark 10:45

“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” Matthew 26:26-28

Therefore, as far as Matthew’s own testimony is concerned Jesus isn’t merely a man given authority to pronounce forgiveness. Rather, Matthew and the other Gospel writers portray Jesus as having the divine power to pardon and redeem transgressors from their sins, which is an ability that God alone possesses.

It is passages such as the above which have led the consensus of NT scholarship to agree that it is Jesus himself who is granting forgiveness by the authority which he inherently possesses by virtue of being the unique Son of God and divine Son of Man:

“Joseph, the son of David, is being instructed by the angel to name Jesus and thereby accept him as his own. Jesus will therefore himself be a Davidid. Cf. Isa 43.1: 'I have called you by name, you are mine.’

“'As his name is so is he' (1 Sam 25:25; cf. Mt 16:17-18). 'Jesus' is the Greek for the Hebrew 'Joshua', which by popular etymology was related to the Hebrew verb 'to save' and to the Hebrew noun 'salvation'. Thus the saving character of Jesus (cf. 8.25; 9.21-2; 14.30; 27.42) is aptly evoked by his name… Whether 'his people' is Israel or the church, Jesus saves them 'from their sins'. This underlies the religious and moral - as opposed to political - character of the messianic deliverance. Liberation removes the wall of sin between God and the human race; nothing is said about freedom from the oppression of the governing powers. Beyond this, however, our verse is not very illuminating with regard to exactly how Jesus saves. The atoning death must be in view; but given the connexion in Matthew's world between sickness and sin (cf. 9.2), Jesus' healing ministry could also be thought of as having saved people from their sins. Jesus' healing ministry could also be thought of as having saved people from their sins. Furthermore, Jesus' revelatory imperatives and abiding presence (18.20; 28.20) are salvific in so far as they encourage and enable believers to obtain the 'better righteousness' (5.20). Perhaps, then, Jesus saves his people from their sins in a variety of ways.

“The passion already comes into the picture, for it is at the crucifixion that Jesus pours out his lifeblood 'for the forgiveness of sins' (26.28). Thus the entire gospel is to be read in the light of its end. In addition, 1.21 makes clear from the outset that, notwithstanding Matthew's insistent demand for human righteousness, salvation is the gift of God. This fact will be reiterated in 20.28 and 26.28.” (Dale C. Allison, Matthew: A Shorter Commentary [T & T Clark International, 2004], pp. 14-15; bold emphasis ours) 

Allison isn’t the only commentator to hold this view. Here is what another renowned NT Scholar says in respect to Matthew’s story of the paralytic whom Jesus healed and forgave:

“…The passive might be considered a divine passive: God has forgiven the man's sins. In this case, Jesus would only be declaring God's forgiveness. Verse 6, however, disallows this interpretation, for it clearly states that the Son of man has authority to forgive sins… Matthew does not explain why the outraged scribes believe Jesus has blasphemed, that is, spoken evil. But it cannot be because they have misunderstood Jesus, missing the divine passive, and so erroneously supposing that Jesus himself forgives sin. Verse 6 states that the Son of man does indeed have authority on earth to forgive sins. So Jesus does more than announce God's forgiveness. It seems best to take our clue from Mark's text: 'Who is able to forgive sins but God alone?' In Mark and probably Matthew, Jesus has taken to himself what some, despite 4QprNab., reckon to be a divine prerogative. He has acted not as a channel of forgiveness but as its source; cf. Jn 10.33… 'On earth' can be taken in several different ways. It can stress the fact that the Son of man, the judge of the last day, has already appeared (cf. Dan 7.13-14). But it might also indicate the period of the earthly ministry: even before the resurrection Jesus forgives sins. Or there could be a contrast between heaven and earth: God forgives in heaven, Jesus on earth. Yet another possibility finds a claim to exclusivity. Jesus is the only one on the earth with the power and right to forgive sins. On this interpretation he has replaced the temple in Jerusalem and its priests. 'A greater than the temple is here.'” (Ibid., pp. 134-134; bold emphasis ours)

“… Jesus did not respond to his opponents’ thoughts according to the skeptical view–viz., that to say ‘your sins are forgiven’ is easier to say than ‘Get up and walk’ (v.5). On the contrary, he responded according to the perspective of the teachers of the law–viz., that to say ‘Get up and walk’ is easier since only God can forgive sins. Jesus claimed to do the more difficult thing. Thus v.6 is ironical–‘All right, I’ll also do the lesser deed.’ Yet if Jesus had blasphemed in pronouncing forgiveness, how could he now perform a miracle (cf. John 9:31)? But so that they might know that he had authority to forgive sin, he proceeded to the easier task. The healing therefore showed that Jesus truly had authority to forgive sins. To do this is the prerogative of the ‘Son of Man.’ This expression goes beyond self-reference and, seen in the light of the postresurrection period, surely indicates that the eschatological Judge had already come ‘on earth’ (cf. ‘here’ in 8:29) with the authority to forgive sin (cf. Hooker, Son of Man, pp. 81-93). This is the authority of Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ (1:23), sent to ‘save his people from their sins’ (1:21)… To sum up, the healing not only cured the paralytic (v.7), it also assured him that his sins were forgiven and refuted the charge of blasphemy… Matthew alone adds the clause ‘who had given such authority to men.’ Many argue that ‘to men’ refers to the church and cite 16:19; 18:18 in support (e.g., Benoit, Held, Hill, Hummel). But this is unlikely. If ‘Son of Man’ (v.6) refers to the eschatological Judge, then it is unlikely that this function is to be shared with the church, at least in the say way (cf. Colpe, TDNT, 8:405). The pericope has christological, not ecclesiastical, concerns, compatible with the prologue (1:21, 23; see on vv. 5-7). The onlookers simply saw a man exercising the authority of God, but readers recognize him as ‘God with us’ and the eschatological ‘Son of Man.’ God’s gracious reign has come ‘on earth’ (v.6); the kingdom of David’s Son, who came to save his people from their sins, has dawned.” (Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Frank E. Gabelein (general editor) [Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI 1984], Volume 8, pp. 222-223; bold emphasis ours)  

This next Evangelical writer makes a similar point in regards to the Markan version of this particular episode:

“… For anyone but God to claim to forgive sin was blasphemy. Since for the teachers of the Law Jesus was not God, therefore he blasphemed. If they were right about who Jesus was, their reasoning was flawless. In Jewish teaching even the Messiah could not forgive sins. That was the prerogative of God alone. Their fatal error was in not recognizing who Jesus really was–the Son of God who has authority to forgive sins… The healing verified the claim to grant forgiveness. As sure as actual healing followed Jesus’ statement ‘Get up’ (v. 11), so actual forgiveness resulted from his ‘your sins are forgiven.’ As Hunter (p. 38) says, ‘He did the miracle which they could see that they might know that he had done the other one that they could not see.’” (Ibid., “Mark,” Walter W. Wessel, p. 633; bold emphasis ours)

“… In Jewish law conviction of blasphemy, which was a capital crime penalized by stoning, had to be based on unmistakable and overt defilement of the divine name. Luke shows that with his divine insight, Jesus probed the unvoiced thoughts of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who were convinced that he had arrogated to himself the divine prerogative… Without making a point of it, Luke indicates that Jesus exercises extraordinary knowledge (v.22). In a typical dialogue form of a question and counterquestion, the challengers are impaled on the horns of a hypothetical dilemma (v.23; cf. 6:9; 20:3-4, 44). Obviously while the two sentences are in one sense equally easy to say (and equally impossible to do), in another sense it is easier to say that which cannot be disproved: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’… The healing validates the declaration of forgiveness. The command to the man is impossible of fulfillment–except by the power of God…” (Ibid., “Luke,” Walter L. Liefeld, p. 881; bold emphasis ours)

As does the following Evangelical scholar in regards to Luke’s reporting of this event:

Friend your sins are forgiven.  This is not to be understood as a “divine passive” or circumlocution for “God forgives you.” This is evident from the following verses (esp. 5:24) where Jesus’ words are understood to be an implicit claim of equality with God (5:21; 7:49; cf. John 5:18; 10:33), i.e., Jesus himself is understood as having forgiven the man his sins. The Greek perfect tense of ‘are forgiven’ emphasizes the abiding state of this forgiveness…

Who is this fellow?  The unspoken thought reported by the ‘omniscient’ Gospel writer, is the key to understanding this passage. This crucial question will be answered in the following verses. Jesus is the Son of Man who possesses the divine prerogative to forgive sin and the divine power to heal. Luke’s wording of this and the next phrase emphasizes the Christological nature of this question more than Mark 2:7 does…

Who can forgive sins but God alone?  Luke by his addition of “alone” indicates that Jesus’ actions put him on a par with God! Luke believed that God alone can forgive sins just as the scribes and Pharisees did. But Luke also believed that Jesus can forgive sins. The Christological implications are not stated but are clear

5:23 Which is easier?  To make sense of this counterquestion and the next verses we must distinguish what is easier to say and what is easier to do. It is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven” than, “Get up and walk” because the legitimacy of the former cannot be disproven whereas the latter can if no healing takes place. However, since God alone can forgive sins and since numerous people, both in and out of the Bible, have performed healings, the former is more difficult to do. Luke understood that if God granted Jesus power to work this miracle, than God himself supported Jesus’ claim that he can forgive sins

Has authority on earth to forgive sins.  Luke referred earlier to Jesus’ authority and power to heal and exorcize (Luke 4:14,32,36), but here that authority was extended to the divine prerogative of forgiving sins. (Robert H. Stein, Luke: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary) [B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN 1992], Volume 24, pp. 176-178; underline emphasis ours)      

Stein goes on to say that,

“Although we find several Lukan emphases in this passage, the main emphasis is clearly Christological. Whereas Jesus’ authority and power to heal and exorcize demons have already been shown, now Luke revealed Jesus’ unique authority to forgive sins (5:21; cf. 7:48-49). Jesus’ ability to forgive sins is verified by the healing miracle in 5:24-25. This miracle, performed by the Lord’s power (5:17), is divine proof that Jesus indeed has power to forgive sins. The implication of this ability to forgive sins is raised by the question, ‘Who can forgive sins but God?’ which Luke intensified by adding the term ‘alone.’ If no human being can forgive sins, if God alone can forgive sins, and if Jesus is able to forgive sins, what does this imply? It would be wrong at this point to read into Luke’s mind a complete Trinitarian formula of Jesus’ deity such as found in the later creeds of Nicea (325) or Chalcedon (451). Nevertheless, Luke certainly saw Jesus as possessing an exclusive ‘divine right’ in this area. Jesus, the Son of Man, can forgive sins. As in 7:49; 8:25; and 9:9. Luke wanted his readers to reflect on the question, ‘Who is this’ who possesses such authority? In this same respect the use of the title Son of Man in this passage indicates that Jesus possessed another divine prerogative, that of passing judgment upon the world. Clearly Luke had a high Christology.” (Ibid., p. 179; bold emphasis ours)

And here is what he writes in relation to Jesus forgiving the sinful woman:

“… From this verse it is clear that Jesus’ hearers (and Luke) did not understand the statements about forgiveness in 7:47-48 as divine passives, i.e., they were not an attempt to avoid God’s name by using the passive ‘you forgive’ instead of ‘God forgives you.’ On the contrary, Jesus is understood as exercising a divine prerogative announcing, as in 5:20-21, that the woman’s sins were forgiven… Since this passage concludes the section entitled ‘Who Is This Jesus?’ it should not be surprising that its central teaching is Christological. The emphasis in the passage falls upon the question in Luke 7:49, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ Luke intended that his readers would answer this question in light of what preceded in this and the previous chapters. This Jesus is one who has unusual power, for he can heal the sick (7:1-10) and even raise the dead (7:11-17). He is the Coming One whom Israel awaited and hoped (7:18-35). He is indeed a prophet but more than a prophet, for he has the authority to forgive sins (7:36-50). To this can be added earlier statement about his being the Son of the Most High, Lord, Christ, Son of David, Son of Man, and Savior of the world. Theophilus and Luke’s other readers could know the certainty of this because of the things Jesus did (7:18, 22) and because of what this account reveals concerning Jesus’ unusual knowledge (of Simon’s thoughts and the woman’s status and authority to forgive sins)…” (Ibid. pp. 238-239; bold emphasis ours) 

We even have liberal critics of the Holy Bible agreeing that Jesus was in fact claiming to have the divine ability to forgive sinners:

“… It has accordingly been suggested that in the original Aramaic here Jesus was making no special claim for himself but was simply teaching that man on earth (as well as God in heaven) can forgive sins; cf. Matthew 98 (such authority to men) and note that a similar interpretation is possible at Mark 218. If it is followed in both passages, Jesus in Mark avoids using the phrase ‘Son of man’ in its technical ‘messianic’ sense until after his recognition by his disciples at Caesarea Philippi (827ff) and we thus get a coherent development.

“This suggestion is linguistically possible, but:

(i) Mark certainly understood the phrase here in its full messianic sense.

(ii) He, therefore, did not share the modern theory that Jesus only used the expression messianically after Caessarea Philippi.

(iii) The doctrine that men as such have the right to forgive sins would have been an odd one for Jesus to teach, and is without parallel in Jewish or subsequent Christian teaching.✭” (D. E. Nineham, The Gospel of St Mark: The Pelican Gospel Commentaries [Penguin Books Ltd, Reprint 1967], pp. 93-94; bold emphasis ours)

✭Moreover it is hard to see how Jesus’ working of a miracle would demonstrate such a general human power of forgiveness. (Ibid., p. 94)

That’s not at all since we have more evidence to present in the next part of our discussion.