I Came to Call Sinners

April 25, 2021 / No. 4086

Mark 2:13-17

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 a physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.

In Mark 2 we have four confrontations between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees, and one more at the beginning of chapter 3. Today we look at the second of these five confrontations.

Last week, in the first, we looked at the conflict over the authority and the identity of Jesus. Did He have the right to forgive sins? Jesus demonstrated that He had this right by His power of healing the man that was sick with the palsy. He had the divine right to do this.

In today’s conflict, the dispute is over Jesus’ association with publicans and sinners. Jesus answers this by saying, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” In this passage we will see the compassion of the Savior over against the cold-hearted, self-righteousness of the Jewish leaders. We will see that the One who has the right to forgive sins is also a merciful Savior to all who come in sorrow and repentance to Him.

The story begins in verses 13 and 14 with the unlikely call and conversion of Matthew. Jesus is preaching on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. And, as He moves down the road, He passes what is called here the “receipt of customs,” or we would say, the tax office. And He does this very purposefully to call one of the tax collectors, Levi, who is also called Matthew, to follow Him.

What stands out in this passage is that the choice was entirely Jesus’ choice. The command came from Jesus, the initiative was from Jesus. Levi, or Matthew, was not tucked away in the back of the crowd when Jesus started appealing and pressuring His audience to make a choice entirely their own to come forward and make a decision to be a follower of Jesus. Not like that at all. Levi was not at a meeting. He was collecting taxes, at work, making money. And he missed the preaching altogether. But Jesus did not miss him, There you see who makes the choice. The Good Shepherd leaves the flock and comes searching for His lost sheep. He calls him by name. Jesus speaks a command to Levi, an individual: “Follow Me.” And Levi rose and followed Him.

This teaches us that choice, absolute choice, does not belong to us but to God. We do have desires. But we are creatures with limitations. And often we are disappointed because we cannot get what we choose. But God is sovereign. And especially now in salvation. In Romans, chapter 9:21, “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” That is on the foreground here. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who has come to seek and to save those whom the Father has given to Him. Later on, in the Upper Room, He will say to the twelve disciples: “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” And we can picture Levi nodding his head in agreement.

These are not difficult words to understand. They are so simple. The problem is believing these humbling words, that God has found me, a sinner, that God has chosen me, and not the other way around. As you read through Scripture from cover to cover, this is what you see. God is not portrayed as a helpless spectator who gazes into some crystal ball and can see ahead of time who will choose Him and then takes note of it. That is not election at all! No, Jesus says, “I have chosen you.” To Levi, He says, “Follow Me.” In other words, from a personal point of view, the explanation for your being a Christian and a believer today is that God loved you in Jesus Christ from before the foundation of the world. And now, in time, He has come and found you by the power of the gospel and the inworking of His Holy Spirit, which together are the effectual call. And He has called you to Himself according to His eternal choice in election. That is a wonderfully encouraging thought, especially when we see who we are by nature. We see that in this message by looking at this man Levi.

Who was he? In the text, we see two things. First, his name and lineage tell us that he is a Jew. Levi is a Jewish name. Second, we see that he is a tax collector or publican. And that leads us to a third thing, this: that he is despicable, the scum of society because, as a Jew, he works for the occupying, foreign government. And he does that for his own personal gain. To become a tax collector, you had to buy a franchise through a bidding process. Really, what you promise the Roman authority is that, in a year, you would give him a certain amount for collecting taxes in a certain region. Then, how you raised that money was entirely up to you.

Levi is described as sitting at the receipt of customs. This indicates that he was the tax collector who dealt directly with the public, collecting tolls and export and import taxes. Capernaum was on a main trade-route, and the last main town before you pass from the region of Herod Antipas to the region of Herod Philip. Everything that went by land or water was taxed: letters, goods, animals. They would count the packages and count how many wheels and how many animals and so on. This was Levi’s task. Through this, the publican, or the tax collector, often became wealthy. You can think of another tax collector in Jericho, Zacchaeus, who was wealthy. Levi himself, we will see here, had a sizable house.

So, here he is, a Jew, and a tax collector, who is considered a traitor and a thief, who had gotten wealthy by stealing from his own countrymen. That is how he would have been viewed and treated. You did not invite a tax collector to your home. That would spoil the atmosphere. They were not allowed in the synagogue or the temple. They were forbidden legal rights. They were not allowed to be witnesses in court dealings. Essentially they were excommunicants. Here was a man who was used to being maligned and mistreated, cursed by the people. He was the scum of low-life.

Now Jesus comes and calls this man into His band of disciples. He does not treat him disrespectfully, throwing money on the ground for him to pick up. No, He comes right up to him, loves him, looks him in the eye and says, “You, Levi, follow Me.” Is not that extraordinary? And is that not beautiful? And you see that that is the point of the passage. Jesus came for people like this. Jesus had a plan to use people like this in His kingdom.

And, it becomes the pattern. Simon, the Zealot, was a revolutionary. Mary Magdalene was demon-possessed. The Samaritan woman was five times married. A Roman centurion, a Syro-Phoenician woman, a murderous thief. And these were not called simply as tokens to satisfy a minority. Jesus was not thinking, “Well, I should have a tax collector among the twelve.” But among these kinds of people, He labored and worked. These were the sinners that became central to His ministry. And Levi becomes Matthew, an apostle who writes the first gospel account. If you look down to verse 15, you see that many of the publicans and tax collectors followed Him. Think of the tax offices that day, at that time, closed all over Galilee. And the people slipping by and saying to each other: “Where is the inspector, where is the tax collector?” “Oh, he has become religious. He is following Jesus.” And Jesus was not embarrassed to company with such.

There is one more thing for us to note here about Levi. This takes us back to the sovereign call of Jesus. That is the genuineness and the completeness of his conversion. He did not simply, in a pressured environment, pray a prayer, sign his name on a card, and two weeks later find himself back in his former lifestyle of sin. No! When Jesus says, “Follow Me,” we read at the end of verse 14 that “he arose and followed him.” When God comes and converts a man, He works graciously in his heart, and this changes his mind about sin and changes the entire direction of his life. That is conversion. It is lifelong, it is on-going.

What did this mean for Levi? First it meant that he admits that he is a sinner. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 10, verse 3, when Levi lists the disciples, he gives himself a nickname: Matthew the publican. Why does he do that? He does not identify any of the other disciples with a nickname except Judas, who betrayed the Lord. And this is what he is saying: “I’m just a sinner. That is all I am. Despised by my fellow men.” Can you imagine what Peter and James and John thought of this choice of Jesus? Matthew, a publican? And he is saying, “God in His grace has called me.” This is what it means for any one of us to be followers of Jesus. As Paul says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” First, admitting you are a sinner in humility.

Second, to follow Jesus meant for Levi that he became a student of the Word and teaching of Jesus. That is what it meant to follow Jesus in His ministry, to listen to His authoritative teaching, to be a student. Levi learned everything from the Lord. And we, too, follow Jesus by following His Word in the Scriptures. And we never stop doing that. Every day we say, Today, I’m going to be a disciple of Christ by following what He has told me in His Word, by believing all that He says in the Scriptures. Now we do not get to walk in His literal steps in Galilee and Judea, but He teaches us from the Bible, through the Word preached, and He calls us to follow Him.

Then, third, following Jesus for Levi meant a complete turning from his former life. He was not just spicing up his life with a little religion, a little of Jesus. No. This was different even than the conversion of those who had been fishermen. Theirs was a noble calling. But Matthew could not see for a little while how this would go and then fall back into his former occupation. In fact, in Luke’s gospel we read that he forsook all and followed Him. This changed his entire life. That is true conversion. Maybe you continue in the same job or live in the same house after conversion, but you say, “This is not mine. It belongs to the Lord because I belong to the Lord.” That was true of Matthew. And that is immediately evident in what follows in verse 15.

“It came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house [that is, in Levi’s house].” Now, we do not know when that happened. It could have been the same day, or it could have been a week later. But you see what is taking place here. Matthew has a house; he has some wealth. He uses this to gather his former friends together at a feast with Jesus. Jesus is the honored guest. And in verse 15 we read that they “sat at meat,” that is, that they reclined at a banquet. And this verse also tells us who was there: there were many publicans and sinners with Jesus and His disciples. And the end of the verse tells us that these many now were also followers of Jesus. That is a remarkable thing. Because what it is telling us is this, that as soon as Matthew began to follow Jesus, he went back to his former friends. He shared with them what God in His greatness had done for him, and he called them to follow Jesus with him. He gathered them together for this meal. We could call this meal a conversion party. And Jesus was there. Matthew is not ashamed to bring Jesus right into his home. And Jesus is not ashamed to be there with publicans and sinners.

This again points to how far conversion has gone in the life of Levi. He is not just a public Christian, but when he goes into his private home, Jesus is there with him. He honors the Lord in his private life, in his home life. So often that is the most difficult place to be a follower of Jesus, especially if you are a new convert. In that little space called home are the disagreements and the disappointments and the heartaches of family life. There we can be under pressure, we are ill, the money runs out. Or, here is a family that does not share in our love for the Lord and our desire to follow Him. Unbelieving parents who do not like it when their children begin to follow the Lord. Or children who find it hard when suddenly everything in the home changes because the parents are now following the Lord. And then, there is the constant watching of the world: You say that you follow Jesus, but look at how you behave in your private life.

Levi is going to follow the Lord also in his home. And he wants his family and his friends to see that and to know Jesus there, too. So, he brings Jesus right into his home. And look at his guest list: publicans and sinners. That is a new word in the passage. Generally speaking, all of us are sinners. We know that. But the word is used in a derogatory way to refer to a specific segment of the population who did not comply with the laws of the scribes and the Pharisees. These people were labeled “sinners” by the Jewish leaders. And this label refers really to the non-religious Jews. Included under this label were not only publicans, but the criminals, the unclean, the immoral. We have an example of one of those in John 8, the woman caught in adultery—a sinner. These, with the publicans, were treated as outcasts by the religious in Israel and by the synagogue. Again, they were excommunicants. These are the ones now whom Matthew brings into his home and that Jesus banquets with.

There is an important word of application here for us. First, a cautionary word. Jesus, by His attendance at this party, does not condone or excuse sin. It is not uncommon for some to take this story as an excuse for going back to the lifestyle and relationships of their state of unbelief and slipping back into the pleasures of a former life of sin. No, Jesus was in Levi’s house for one reason, and it was their salvation.

But on the other hand, and there is a fine line here, it is easy for us to follow the pattern of the Pharisees and the route of isolation and to have the idea that somehow we are more holy if we do not talk or associate with known sinners. So, we avoid interaction with all unbelievers.

Later, when Paul writes to the Corinthians, he says this in I Corinthians 5: “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.” Did you catch that? He is saying that, as Christians, there is a responsibility towards a brother who sins, which includes a change in your relationship to him so that you do not hang out with him anymore as though his sin is OK. But, when it comes to unbelievers in the world, these people are in need of the gospel. And you are not taken out of the world, but you are left in the world to be there for the spiritually sick and needy. And that includes using hospitality as a means of giving witness to them—not just to hang out as friends, but to bring them into living contact with Jesus Christ in your home and through their contact with you.

Really, this is about understanding sin and living in humility. And the Pharisees were wrong on both counts. They viewed sin not as a heart issue or a personal issue, but in a very external way. In their thinking, sin is in the deed. If you could look all polished and clean on the outside, if no one else could point at your murder or adultery, then you were righteous. And taking this view of sin, you had to stay away from anyone and everyone that might be defiled by acts of sin.

So, you have Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. What did the Levite and the priest do when they came down the road and saw this beaten man? Well, they thought to themselves, “This guy has been involved in some bad business.” So they crossed the street, they walked past him at a distance so as to avoid becoming defiled. They refused to acknowledge that they themselves were already and personally defiled with sin. And the real problem was not just their view of sin but their view of themselves. There was no humility. They saw themselves as righteous. They were the ninety-nine who needed no repentance, or the older brother who refused to rejoice at the return of the prodigal.

We should be warned here. Every believer or church that holds to doctrinal and moral convictions runs the risk of becoming Pharisaical in perspective and practice. And of justifying isolation with a desire to be holy. The danger is that the church or individual becomes so smug and self-assured that the message that is conveyed to the unbelieving world is no longer a message that salvation is barred to the self-righteous but the way is open to sinners who know their need, but instead, the message becomes this: That if you just wizen up a bit and become like us, you will be fine.

We must never forget that the church is a company of saved sinners and that the church is a hospital for those who are sick and dying spiritually. Really, this is what Jesus clarifies in the confrontation here with the scribes and Pharisees. They come and they say, “How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?” Now, it is most likely that this happens, that the disciples are leaving Matthew’s place. And these Jewish leaders see here an opportunity to undermine Jesus’ influence on His disciples. You see here it is very indirect. And, really cowardly. They use their label: sinners. How could Jesus share a meal and fellowship with sinners? They see this as a compromise. How could He be a religious leader and eat with these people?

Look at Jesus’ answer. What does He do? He does not defend these sinners. Nor does He go after these Pharisees for their self-righteous labeling of others. He could have done that. But, instead, He says, “You are right. They are sinners. And I came for sinners. I didn’t come for the righteous. I didn’t come for those who have no need of repentance. But I came as a doctor, not for the whole, but for the sick.” Which doctor goes to college and medical school for more than a decade of education and refuses to help the sick but says, “I did this so I could drive a sports car and play golf.” What would you say about a doctor like that? And Jesus is saying, “I came as the Great Physician to labor among the sick, to heal them. It is not the healthy, the whole, that need a physician, but the sick. This is why I came.”

There is something in what Jesus said here that is probably even more offensive to the Pharisees and the scribes, but for us very beautiful. It is in those words, “I came.” Jesus is conscious of the fact that He has come from heaven, that He is sent of the Father into the world. And He says, “I came for sinners. I’ve come as a doctor. The hospital is open, the sinners are welcome.” And, of course, that speaks not only of His divinity and His eternal past, but it also looks ahead to the cross on which He would lay down His life, not for the self-righteous, but for sinners, for a Levi, a Zacchaeus, a Mary Magdalene, a Peter. And, in that cross, He does His work for us sinners.

So, we are left with a question in this message: How do you see Jesus? Is it through the eyes of the Pharisees, or are you one of these publicans and sinners?

Sinners. I came to call sinners to repentance. Oh, the mercy of our Savior!