Mark has put pen to paper to tell us “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Gospel, of course, means good news, and the best news in the entire world and for all of time is that Jesus Christ, the perfect, sinless, Son of God is also the Friend of sinners. (This is one sinner who will forever glory in that blessed fact!)
In the first 57 verses of his account, Mark has demonstrated that Christ’s primary focus is to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom and the gospel of repentance and belief. In 1:15 Christ entered Galilee saying as much. He then called His first four disciples, promising that they too would become “fishers of men.” In Capernaum He attended synagogue and proclaimed the gospel, and that was followed by an all day and night healing session emanating from Peter’s house. In the following days Christ lead His disciples on a preaching tour of Galilee. He said, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth.”
When He returned from the preaching excursion He had an evangelistic conversation with several of the scribes, again from Peter’s house. People from all over crowded into and around the house just to catch a glimpse of the amazing Jesus.
While publicly and privately proclaiming the gospel, Jesus was not indifferent to the physical suffering of those around Him. His primary concern was their spiritual health, but He did not ignore their physical needs. Mark recorded His many healings on that first remarkable day in Capernaum. He also recorded Christ’s healing touch of the leper, and his healing words to the paralytic. Thus far Mark has detailed four particular healings:
- Exorcising the Unclean spirit at the Capernaum synagogue.
- Healing Peter’s mother-in-law of her debilitating fever.
- Cleansing the leper.
- Healing the paralytic.
None were surprised that Jesus displayed mercy to the above individuals. To be sure, all were amazed that He was able to perform those miracles, and the Pharisees were offended at His message. None, however, were shocked that Jesus showed mercy to a possessed man, His follower’s mother-in-law, a leper, and a paralytic. The shock factor was centered on His ability to heal and forgive sins, not onto those whom that ability was used. In Mark 2:13-17 that would change.
And he went forth again by the sea side; and all the multitude resorted unto him, and he taught them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the [son] of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him. And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners? When Jesus heard [it], he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Emphasis added)
“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” That is the definitive statement of Christianity. Those eleven words summarize and clarify what Jesus’ ministry was and what the church’s ministry is to be. Literally, that sentence is Christianity in a nutshell. It describes the focus of Christ’s earthly ministry and the purpose of His church until Christ’s glorious Return. If you have ever wondered why Jesus was born of a virgin, why He lived a perfect, sinless life, why He died a horrible death on the cross, why He rose the third day from the tomb, and why He ascended to the Father’s right hand, making intercession for the saints; this is the reason: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance”. That is the message of Christianity; the essence of the gospel.
Jesus Christ is the Friend of sinners, and that was never more apparent as when He called Levi the tax collector to follow Him.
Jesus: Friend of Sinners
According to the US Budget for FY08 tax receipts for 2006 were $2.4 trillion. That’s a one followed by twelve zeros. That’s a lot of money. It’s hard to imagine how our government is bale to spend that money (and more), but think for a moment about collecting all that cash.
It’s a depressing thought. I know. Who likes to pay taxes? No one! Still, you have to be a little impressed at our government’s ability to collect $2.4 trillion. They are quite good at separating us from our money.
Paying taxes is not something that we enjoy. That is true of all Americans, and it is true of all people in every country around the globe. This has always been the case, and it always will be. It was certainly true of the Jews of 1st century Palestine. They hated paying taxes, probably even more than the Hoosiers of 21st century Indiana.
According to Alfred Edersheim’s Sketches of Jewish Social Life, the Roman Empire collected taxes from their conquered territories by selling tax franchises to wealthy individuals, or groups of individuals (joint – stock companies) and these folks (publicans) would collect the required taxes from the people. Rome required a certain amount from each district. Anything the publican could collect above that designated amount was his to keep. Obviously, this type of system created the potential for gross oppression and abuse, and the Romans would normally support the publicans in order to guarantee faithful and complete payments to the royal treasury.
The Hebrew word for publican was Gabbai; which is kind of funny because that is what you said to your money when you ran into one of these guys! These tax collectors were reviled by the Jews because they served Rome. They were collaborators with a tyrannical, Gentile empire. They were traitors to the cause of Israel. They enriched themselves at the expense of their countrymen. To 1st century Jews, and maybe even to Jews today, nothing was as scandalous as being anti-nationalistic. Literally selling out to a Gentile empire was unforgivable. Edersheim wrote that:
[Publicans were] declared incapable of bearing testimony in a Jewish court of law, [Jews were] forbidden to receive their charitable gifts, or even to change money out of their treasury… [Publicans were] ranked with harlots… heathens…highwaymen and murderers, and [were] excommunicated. It was held lawful to make false returns, to speak untruth, or almost to use any means to avoid paying taxes.
These men were the dregs of society. These were the men with whom no decent person would associate; especially not a respected, pious, religious leader. Yet Jesus walked straight to Levi, while he sat at his tax collecting table, and said to him “Follow me”.
That is exactly what Levi did. Right there in verse 14 the conversion of Levi the tax collector is recorded. The only thing missing is the details, but those are unnecessary. We know that Jesus said “Follow me” and that Levi rose and followed Him. Obviously, this was not the first time that Levi had heard of Jesus. Jesus had ministered all over that area. He was based out of Capernaum, where Levi operated his tax franchise. It was not possible to live in that area and not know who Jesus was; to not hear what He taught; to not witness what He accomplished. Nothing was done in secret. There were no closed doors requiring secret hand shakes and knowledge of the passwords in order to see and hear what was happening. Everything was out in the open. They knew who He was. They knew what He taught. They knew all about the miraculous signs and wonders. Their hearts were prepared, and Matthew was a man under conviction.
This was no coincidental meeting along the roadside. There are no coincidences with Jesus; only providential appointments. Matthew was a man who believed he was unredeemable. He believed that because the system told him that he would not and could not see the kingdom of God. The religious system had declared that he was the worst of sinners.
Jesus is not part of the religious establishment! Praise God! Jesus is the Friend of sinners, and He walked right up to that notorious sinner. This was a revolutionary move on the part of Jesus; one that would damage His reputation, not only with the Pharisees but with any self-respecting Jew. One can only imagine the furtive glances that Simon, Andrew, James, and John stole as the One whom they had forsaken all to follow, not only approached a publican, but called him to join their merry little band. I wonder what amazed them more; that Jesus called Levi to follow Him or that Levi followed?
This is the evidence of Levi’s conversion. He recognized his sin, and I believe that’s why he arose and followed. The scribes, with who Jesus had been dialoguing in Peter’s house, refused to recognize their sin. They refused to believe, and therefore they would not follow Jesus. Instead, they whispered within themselves, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Face to face with Christ the Savior, witnesses of His authoritative teaching and miracles, these men rejected Christ because they refused to believe that they were sinners.
Not so with Levi. He, better than anyone, knew that he was a sinner, and now he was a sinner saved by grace. Listen to the words of Jesus as He spoke to the Pharisees in John 10:24-28:
Then came the Jews round about him, and said unto him, How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me. But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any [man] pluck them out of my hand.
The Jews were not “made to doubt”. They refused to recognize and repent of their sin. Of course, they easily recognized the sin of others. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” That is how they prayed according to Luke 18:11.
Jesus knew Levi’s heart. He knew not only Levi’s sinfulness, but He knew Levi’s willingness to repent of his sins and seek God’s forgiveness. Just as Jesus forgave the paralytic’s sins, He also forgave the publican of his sins. We know that because Levi immediately followed Christ, and Luke reveals that Levi left everything to follow Jesus (Luke 5:28). Unlike the rich young ruler who went away sorrowful, unwilling to recognize his own sins and admit to the authority of Christ; Levi joyfully forsook everything and followed his Lord and Savior. This is the proof of a real work of salvation. Levi made a decisive break from his old life – he left everything behind, and then a continuing pattern – he continued to follow, not just for a little while but for the rest of his life. That was the pattern. He was regenerated. He was a new creation. He had new longings, new aspirations, new affections, a new mind, and a new will.
Jesus: Enemy of the Self-Righteous
If anything could be more scandalous than calling a publican as a disciple; then going to the publican’s house for dinner with all his rowdy friends was it. Do not be in doubt, rowdy were the only kind of friends that Levi had. The Greek word that Mark used is hamartōlos and it means “devoted to sin; pre-eminently sinful, especially wicked.”
These are the kind of people that Bocephus invites over on Monday night. Only in this case, Bocephus – Levi – had been saved, and along with the rowdy friends there was the sinner’s Friend! Gathered together in Levi’s house (which had been paid for by the ill-gotten gains made off of honest folks) were the corrupt of Capernaum, and reclined in their midst, socializing and conversing with these pariahs of polite society, sat the pure, perfect, and sinless Son of Man.
The Pharisees had seen enough. John MacArthur describes the Pharisee’s reaction as follows:
They were shocked, outraged that Jesus and His disciples would associate with this crowd. [The Pharisees] were the moral majority. But…God’s not looking for a moral majority, He’s looking for a holy minority. [The Pharisees] were concerned with externals…with what you see on the outside…what appears, pious and religious. They were moral, they weren’t holy. They were void of grace, they were void of salvation. They were without God. Jesus was turning His back on the moral people and making sinners a holy people.
They still lacked the courage of their convictions, and were unwilling to display their disdain for Jesus directly. They were growing bolder, however, because they asked His disciples, “Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?” To these Pharisees (the word literally means “separatists”) Jesus’ behavior was unforgivable. How could this reputed teacher of God’s Word disregard their time-honored customs? Why would he associate himself with tax collectors and sinners? Why did he not care about avoid the ritual impurity that comes by keeping such company? Surely a prophet’s task was to denounce and damn such people, not to dine with them.
The Pharisees were wrong. Christ’s task was to die for sinners, and to call sinners to repentance. Remember those blessed eleven words! “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Christ was not at that banquet to lend credence to sinful behavior. He was there to call these sinners to turn from their sinfulness and to follow Him. Christ called Levi to follow Him; not to continue doing what he had been doing. And that is what Levi did. No longer was he the wicked lackey of Rome. The cruel extortionist was dead, and a new man created in Christ Jesus was born.
To the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:3-8) Jesus did not say: “You’re only human; it’s to be expected. Don’t worry about it. The Pharisees are no better than you. Maybe if your husband would have loved you more you wouldn’t have sought affection in the arms of another.” Christ said to that sinful woman, “I [do not] condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (Emphasis added)
This is not a surprise, because Jesus said:
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (John 3:17-19)
Whether you are a “good” person or an undisputed evil doer, all are sinners who fall short of God’s glory. All are condemned unless they believe. Only those who recognize their sin and repent of it will be saved. All must come to Christ as needy sinners. R. Kent Hughes writes, “The first link between my soul and Christ is not my goodness, but my badness; not my merit, but my misery; not my standing, but my falling; not my riches, but my need.” (p. 73)
Christianity is not for good people. It is for sinners. Christ is not the friend of the self-righteous. He is the friend of sinners. The church is not for people who think they’re righteous; it’s for people who know they are not. The church is not a museum of stain-glassed saints; it is a hospital for the sin sick. The task of Christ’s church is to light the darkness and salt the savorless. That is accomplished by dying daily to self, following Jesus, and directing others to do likewise.
Christ’s followers did not then and must not now isolate themselves from a needy world. Christ’s followers did not then and must not now assimilate to a sinful world. Following Christ is not a life of isolation or assimilation; it is a mission.
“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” That is good news indeed!