What is the force of the words “on earth” in the Scripture “But that ye may know that the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins” (Matt. 9: 6)?
The incident that occasioned these words is also recounted in Mark 2: 1–12 and Luke 5: 17–26. The Lord’s critics thought such words blasphemous for they rightly reasoned “Who is able to forgive sins except God alone?” (Mark 2: 7). They deduced that the Lord was claiming to be God, but I do not believe that this was the case. What the scribes and the like failed to appreciate was perhaps better understood by the crowds for they “glorified God who gave such power to men” (Matt. 9: 8, my emphasis). The words “on earth” are, I believe, the key to the passage. If the Lord had omitted them and said ‘The Son of man has power to forgive sins’, without that limitation, then there might have been some grounds for the unspoken charge.
Going back a chapter we have an enlightening incident with the centurion (see Matt. 8: 5–13). This man recognised that the Lord’s position here on earth was parallel to his own: “For I also am a man under authority …” (v9, my emphasis). The power of Rome was in his word for he was the representative of the emperor. That power was not his own in independence, for he himself was “under authority”, but was given to him. This was exactly the Lord’s position as Man on earth. In a word, it is the truth of headship according to 1 Cor. 11: 3: “But I wish you to know that the Christ is the head of every man, but woman’s head [is] the man, and the Christ’s head God”. Yes, the Lord ever was, is and always will be God, but as Man His authority here was given by God His Head. Paul uses this word authority in verse 10. In Greek it is exousia (exousia) and means the right or power to do something. It is the word the centurion used and is the word translated power in Matt. 9: 6, 8. When Pilate said “Speakest thou not to me? Dost thou not know that I have authority (exousia) to….” (John 19: 10), the Lord reminds him that his governmental authority was one of delegation, not merely from Caesar but from God Himself: “Thou hadst no authority (exousia) whatever against me if it were not given to thee from above” (v11). Another passage containing the word is John 5: 27: “and has given him authority (exousia) to execute judgment [also], because he is Son of man”. Thus it is as Man that the Lord will sit in judgment, even though He is God. Again, this is a given authority that the He will execute.
Now it was common among the Jews to attribute present physical suffering with particular sins in the past, as the disciples’ question in John 9: 2 shows. Bearing this in mind, return to Matt. 9 and see the order of events and note that there is not a word from the paralytic throughout this episode. The Lord firstly addresses the man’s spiritual need: “Be of good courage, child; thy sins are forgiven” (v2). The man is still paralysed. The thoughts of blasphemy by the critics are read by the Lord who then links the spiritual and physical conditions together, the cause and the effect, with the words of v5. He would prove His right here to forgive sins—“But that ye may know …” (v6). How? By making his right to forgive sins here depend on his ability to heal. “Rise up …” (v6), the man does so, and the Lord’s right is proven.
Note too how the Lord speaks. Throughout the incident He does not say “I” once. He speaks impersonally as “the Son of man”—a title the Lord habitually used and one that identifies him as Man in relation to all men. Similarly in v2 He did not say ‘I forgive you your sins’, which would have put too much emphasis on His own authority, but He expresses the matter impersonally as “thy sins are forgiven” so that there can be no thought that He was acting independently of the authority that He was under.
The two words “on earth” are essential to understanding the passage. Take them out and it reads ‘But that ye may know that the Son of man has power to forgive sins’ which would obscure the limitation He came into as Man, for forgiveness is in the hands of God alone (see Is. 43: 25). No, it is His God–given right as Man on earth that is the point in the passage.
Finally, the work on the cross was not just to meet the needs of man but the glory of God, for sin has affected heaven as well as earth. In resurrection that authority as Man is extended and we hear Him say “All power (exousia) has been given me in heaven and upon earth …” (Matt. 28: 18). The ground has been laid so that God can “head up all things in the Christ, the things in the heavens and the things upon the earth” (Eph. 1: 10).