What was the top cause of death in the United States in 2010? According to a recent New England Journal of Medicine article, the top killer in 2010 was heart disease, which killed 192 out of 100,000 people. Closely behind was cancer, which killed 185 out of 100,000 people. While the mortality rate in the United States has declined since 1900, the number of deaths attributed to heart disease and cancer has actually gone up. As a silver lining, the number of deaths related to communicable diseases, such as tuberculous, pneumonia and influenza, has drastically declined since 1900.
However, the New England Journal of Medicine is wrong. Heart disease is not the top killer of Americans. The number #1 killer of Americans is sin … by a wide margin too. Sin, which is our rebellion and disobedience against our holy creator God, is a natural condition that is 100% deadly if not properly treated. The heart of man is desperately wicked and beyond any earthly cure (Jeremiah 17:9). Everyone sins and everyone receives the sentence from their sins, which is death (Romans 3:23, 6:23). Every man thinks their ways, plans and decisions are just and right, but – in the end – our choices inevitably lead to our death (Proverbs 14:12). Sin is the most ruthless and efficient assassin of all time.
Not surprisingly, we find in the New Testament that Jesus is also extremely concerned about the deadly nature of sin.
In Mark 2:1-12, we find Jesus preaching in a private residence in Capernaum. Four men show up carrying a paralyzed man on a mat. The home is so packed with people that the four men can’t even get into the doorway. Desperate to get this sick man into close range of Jesus, the four men tear open up the roof of the house and lower their disabled friend down to the feet of Jesus, who has gotten quite the reputation as the local healer. Jesus sees their faith and declares to the paralytic: “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Whah hunh?!? Your sins are forgiven?!?
If this group of men have come asking for a healing then why does Jesus offer forgiveness of sins instead? Consider the request of these four men. In Jesus’ time, this paralyzed man would have suffered tremendously, relying completely on the kindness of family, friends and even strangers to save him from starvation and homelessness. Many may have presumed that the paralytic’s condition resulted from sin and treated him as a spiritual outcast. In this light, the four men were so concerned about their friend’s physical condition that they vandalized someone’s home in hopes of getting their friend within eyesight of the reputable healer. These men have desperately come begging for a cure of physical malady – not spiritual ablution. Yet the perspective of Jesus is radically different than any of the men seeking healing. Jesus considers the paralyzed man’s sin to be far deadlier and serious than his physical infirmity.
Of course, the scribes are around to be the permanent party poopers and start questioning (in their hearts) about how Jesus has the authority to forgive sins. Jesus then heals the paralytic to offer evidence to the local nay-sayers that He has the authority to forgive sins. If Jesus can make paralyzed legs walk, then He can also offer the forgiveness of sins. Jesus can physically heal. But don’t miss the point: Jesus considers the paralyzed man’s spiritual condition to be the more desperate problem. The Great Physician examines us and knows our greatest needs.
Based on the teachings of Christ, we must realize that our need for Christ is essential. Without Christ, we are 100% dead in our sins (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:1-3). Without Christ, we are still slaves to our sins (John 8:34; Romans 6:15-23). In the midst of the Gospels, we find a Savior who affirms that life is fragile, sin is fatal and repentance and belief in Him as Lord and Savior is essential. Only Jesus Christ can cure the disease of sin (John 14:6-7; Acts 4:12).
In a less familiar story in John 8:12-30, we find a complementary situation. Jesus is debating a crowd of Jewish festival goers during the Feast of Tabernacles. The crowd demands answers to who Jesus thinks He is, what authority He has and why He keeps making such outrageous and confusing claims about Himself. Exasperated, Jesus cries out to the crowd in John 8:24: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” Jesus is extraordinarily frustrated that the people continue to question the qualifications of the Great Physician instead of examining the deadliness of their own sinful condition. The crowd is principally composed of the hostile and the belligerent instead of genuinely questioning seekers. Jesus has already answered questions of His identity before, and considers the greater need of the crowd to be salvation from their sin. Jesus urgently desires to heal the crowd from their sins, but they’d much rather keep asking for a David Copperfield show.
Not only is our need for Christ essential, our need is equally urgent. In James 4:13-15, Christians are exhorted about the transient nature of life: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” No one knows the duration of their life. We could walk out of the doctor’s office with a clean bill of health and die of a heart attack within 30 minutes. We are a candle flame that burns bright for a moment then gets quickly snuffed out. And we have a limited time to ask the Great Physician to cure our sin (Hebrews 9:27).
In the midst of a charged debate about health care reform in the United States, my prayer is that Christians would not lose the perspective of Christ. Fervent emotions in the Christian community range from Chicken Little (“The sky is falling! We’re doomed!”) to Left Behind (“I’m rapture ready! … The signs of the apocalypse are at hand!”) to randomly quoting deist Founding Fathers and flying the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag. Let’s all take a deep breath and think Biblically for a moment. Regardless of whether an individual mandate, single-payer system or free enterprise exists, none of these man-driven health care systems will cure the fatal condition of sin. In the 2,000 years since Jesus lived, died and rose again, no man has ever developed a cure for the wickedness of a man’s heart and no man ever will. While the current health care discussion in the United States is important and debate-worthy, this debate is not more important than mankind’s need for a Savior. As repeatedly noted by Jesus throughout the Gospels, the spiritual condition of a man’s heart is still the more desperate condition. Christians should be espousing that our need for Christ far exceeds our need for free enterprise, health insurance or so-called American values. And a lost and dying world desperately needs to hear about why they essentially and urgently need Christ far more than they need to hear Christians prattle on ad nauseum about our position on health care.
Please don’t think that I’m going all anti-medicine Scientology up in here. My family has health insurance … I see a doctor (somewhat) regularly … I have opinions regarding the role of free enterprise in the American health care system. As a pastor, I routinely encourage people to go see their doctor when they’re hurting and in pain.
But unless the Lord returns quickly, I am going to die. And you are doing to die. You might be lying in a casket in my church as a I preach your funeral. When the doctor strolls into the Norman Rockwell adorned room to gently inform you that you have terminal cancer, it is far more important to have repented and believed in Christ than to have health insurance. He is the source of life. He is the source of resurrection (John 11:25). It’s well past time to stop getting hysterical about health care reform and to display a radical trust in the healing and resurrection power of the Great Physician.