Now let's turn in our New Testaments to Mark chapter 2, and we are looking this morning at 'The Saviour To Sinners' found recorded in verses 13-17. Mark chapter 2 verse 13: "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".
Last week we entered chapter 2, and I think I said to you that from chapter 2 verse 1 to around chapter 3 verse 6 each account of the Lord Jesus moving in Palestine is marked and tinged with controversy, and that is the particular note that is struck right throughout these five records. The reason being that Jesus and His disciples are challenging the Pharisees' norm, their unwritten rules, their interpretations of the law, and their particular interpretive traditions. Because of that the Pharisees challenged Jesus and His disciples, and in this account they are challenging Him for eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners in Levi's house. We know it's Levi's house because of what Luke says in Luke 5:29.
Now, what was Jesus doing with a bunch of tax collectors and sinners in Levi the tax collector's house? Well, simply He was there because He had called Levi, and we saw in verses 13 and 14. He had said 'Follow me', and Levi followed, and Levi welcomed the Lord Jesus into his home, and served the Lord Jesus there. It's interesting, isn't it? That's the way we all should be when Jesus calls us. When He calls, we should follow; and when we follow, we should be welcoming the Lord Jesus into our lives and into our homes, and we ought to be serving Him there just as Levi did.
Now Jesus' behaviour caused a storm. It was unthinkable for a rabbi, or even any decent Jew, to frequent such a home, and pow-wow with a rabble like these tax collectors. So the Pharisees were aghast, and they asked the disciples, not having the guts to ask Jesus themselves, verse 16: 'Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?'. Now you ought to be asking the question: why was it such a big thing to the Pharisees to see Jesus and the disciples eating with this motley crew? So I have to tell you a little bit about tax collectors, and why they were so despised in Jesus' day.
The title 'tax collector' became euphemistic for the scum of the earth. Though the Lord Jesus, of course, would not have subscribed such a view to a tax collector, even the Lord Jesus understood how tax collectors were seen in His generation. For in Matthew 18, when He addresses His disciples concerning future church discipline, He says in verse 17: 'And if he shall neglect to hear them', that is the offender, 'tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican', a tax collector. So the Lord Jesus understood that a tax collector was seen as an outcast of society, but why were these so despised? Well, the Romans in the Roman Empire collected taxes of the nations in their empire through a system that was called 'tax farming'. What was that? Well, it was a bit similar to the farming out of franchises, like filling stations, or fast-food restaurants and newsagents. The Roman government would have given a district a fixed tax figure, and then they would have sold the right to collect those taxes to the highest bidder.
So the buyer was to hand over the assessed figures that the Roman government set every year, but they were allowed to keep anything that they had collected over and above that assessed, fixed figure. Here's where the problem came, because most of the ordinary Jewish people weren't given a record of what they were expected to pay in the Roman taxes, so there was great potential for the tax collector to tell them a figure that was extortionate over the figure that was due. Now the system in Palestine at that particular stage consisted of two groups of taxes. The first was stated taxes, that comprised of poll tax - men aged 14 to 65, women from 12 to 65, had to pay simply for breathing. That was very unpopular, that's why Margaret Thatcher became so unpopular not so long ago, because of this poll tax that taxed you just for being alive. Then there was another stated tax, a ground tax, and that required 1/10 of all grain, 1/5 of wine and oil production to be given over. In some places there was also exacted a tax on fish, and that possibly was the case here in Capernaum where the fishing industry was very strong.
Not only was there the poll tax and the ground tax, but there was an income tax that came to about 1% on all that you earned. Now in those stated taxes there wasn't much room for extortion on the part of the tax collector, but where he could fiddle the figures a little bit was in the second type of tax, and that was duties. This was wide open to abuse. There were separate taxes for using roads, there were taxes for docking in the harbours, there was a sale tax on certain items sold, as well as import and export duties - and believe it or not, taxes were even paid on carts. Even a wheel on a cart, a rickety old cart being pushed down a road, could be taxed by a tax collector.
So envisage this: you're wondering down the road with your wee bag of shopping on your cart, and all of a sudden you meet a tax collector. He stops you and he asks you to empty the bags and see what you're buying, and unpack your big bundle, perhaps, on your back - and he charges you anything that he wants. A figure comes into his mind, he charges you. Now if you can't pay it, do you know what he does? He says: 'Oh, I'll lend you the money', and then he gives you the money and he puts extortionate interest on it, and therefore you are in his pockets. These tax collectors were trained extortionists, and you can imagine how they attracted a criminal element right away. Most tax collectors were thugs.
So we can see why they were despised. First of all they were dishonest individuals. Most collected far more than they were required to pay the Romans. So a Jewish tax collector was not only siding with the enemy, the Romans, but further oppressing his own people by lining his pockets in the process of helping the enemy. All that a loanshark means to us today, is what a tax collector was in Jesus' day. John the Baptist recognized the extortion of the tax collectors. In fact, when we look at Luke chapter 3 and verses 12-13, we read these words: 'Then came also publicans to John the Baptist to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you'. Don't rip off the people!
Now a great illustration of the type of extortion that a tax collector was guilty of is found in the character of Zaccheus, and he was a chief tax collector. He was a boss with other tax collectors below him. He amassed a considerable wealth in the Jericho area, and the reason why we know this is that in Luke 19 where we have the account of his conversion, his statement to the Lord Jesus of repentance is amounting to an admission of the vast extortionate practices that he was involved in. Look at verse 8: 'Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold'. Now that implies that he could restore him fourfold. Matthew Henry, the Puritan, in his old commentary says: 'A faithful, fair dealing publican was so rare, that even at Rome one Sabenus, who kept a clean reputation in that office, was after his death honoured with this inscription on his grave: Here lies an honest publican'. It was hard, yea even impossible, to find an honest publican - that's why they were despised: because they were dishonest.
But not only were they despised because of dishonesty, they were also disloyal. You see, the provinces of the empire were considered by Rome as booty. They plundered physically those nations by their armies, but they also plundered them financially by tax collectors. So for a Jew to be a tax collector in Palestine was to be a traitor, to be a defector, a turncoat, a collaborator with the occupier. Now you will know, I'm sure, that the bond between Jew and Jew is usually far more close than it is between members of other races, since the Jew is usually isolated and persecuted for his nationality and his religion. So you can understand how awful it was for other Jews to see a man of their own nation siding with the enemy to rip them off. They were seen, as one has said, as lackeys of the Romans, much as the French hated Nazi collaborators during the war.
In the eyes of the community this disgrace extended to your whole family. So the likelihood is that if you were a tax collector, your family hated you as well because of the shame that you brought upon them. Tax collectors, therefore, were hated and despised because they were dishonest and disloyal, but thirdly they were defiled. You see, a tax collector was regarded in the Jewish religion as ceremonially unclean on account, first of all, of his continual contact with Gentile sinners, and also for his need to work on the Sabbath day collecting taxes. So the rabbis taught, in their religious interpretation of the laws of Judaism, that you should not talk, walk, and above all you should not eat with a tax collector. Now I hope you can understand the import of what we read in verse 16, that '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?'. They could not understand Jesus.
Now the response that Jesus gives is the core, I believe, of the truth that the Holy Spirit wants us to get in his account. The truth is, verse 17, Jesus reacts and says after hearing what they say or perceiving what they have said: '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'. What was His answer? Jesus is come to be a Saviour to sinners. Now if you hear nothing else that I say to you this morning, hear that: Jesus has come to be a Saviour to sinners. So therefore His point is: 'Who else would you expect me to be with?'.
In verse 17 Jesus identifies two types of people: the well and the sick. What He is doing is, He is saying that the well don't need a doctor, do they? But the sick do! The logic of His illustration is simply: because doctors exist to help sick folk, generally speaking doctors are surrounded and taken up in the company of sick folk. Therefore it follows that it is the sick folk that get the help of the doctors. He was obviously illustrating how the Pharisees considered themselves to be the righteous ones. They were whole, they were well, in other words they were without need of any help and assistance. This was righteousness used in this verse in an ironic sense, Jesus is not talking about people who are genuinely good, but people who think they are good because of their self-righteousness. Also of course the Pharisees considered the tax collectors sinners, they were the sick ones. We feel that it is implied that the tax collectors themselves considered that they were sick - I think that's a vital point: they saw themselves the same way as the Pharisees did, as sick and in need of help. But here's the vital point: the Pharisees considered themselves well, when really they were sick. The sinners considered themselves sick, so Jesus made them well, because - here it is - Jesus has come to be a Saviour to, what? Hello? Sinners.
Now this is evidenced in this portion of scripture over and over again and again, but there are four things that I want to highlight where we find proof that Jesus has come to be a Saviour to sinners. The first is in Levi's conversion. Levi is sitting at the Tollgate on the great West Road from Damascus to the Mediterranean, and this would have been also the customs office at Capernaum. It was the landing place for many ships that traversed the Sea of Galilee, or coasted from town to town. So here he is, a tax collector collecting taxes for Herod Antipas, and the verse says that he was stting, verse 14: 'sitting at the receipt of custom' - that is the Greek word 'epi', which you could translate properly as 'on'. He was sitting on the seat of custom, and this was an elevated platform or bench which was the principal feature of the toll office. So when you were getting to the toll, like you do on the motorway down south or across the water, you see this person on an elevated platform - well, this was greater than this, these people were sitting up high and you had to pay them your money if you were wanting to get through.
You would have seen there, up in that high place, a despised Jew; one who was despised because he loved money more than God, he loved money more than morals, he loved money more than his religion, he loved money more than his fellow countrymen - yet this is the man Jesus approaches and calls! 'Follow me!' - that was more than an invitation, that was an imperative statement. It means that He is issuing a command: 'Follow me!', and the verb 'follow' is in the present tense, so that means that Jesus was commanding Levi to begin an action and continue that action habitually. If I could put it like this, He says: 'Start following me, and continue as a habit of life to follow me'. This wasn't a wee dander that Jesus was inviting Levi to take with Him, or 'Look into these affairs my life, and my miracles, and my words, and see what your conclusion is' - no, no! Follow me now, for the rest of your days, follow me! Do you know what it literally means? The Greek language indicates that this command was 'Follow with me', 'Follow with me' - so the idea is not 'I'll lead you, and you follow behind', but 'Be my companion'. Jesus is literally saying to Levi: 'Accompany me'. Now imagine this, feel the weight of this: the perfect, spotless, incarnate Son of God is saying to a despised, dishonest, disloyal, defiled tax collector, 'Accompany me'. 'Be in the same way as me', is how it could be rendered, 'Walk the same road as me'.
Luke tells us in his record of this event that Levi left everything behind at the seat of custom, and followed Jesus. He left his luxury, his affluence, his sin, all those things that he was accustomed to, to walk the road that Jesus walked - a road of suffering, of holiness, of separation and self-sacrifice. Now here is the salient point: Jesus has come to save sinners, but Jesus calls sinners to repentance. They have to leave their sin, and leave those selfish things that keep them from Christ. Matthew left them, and in a moment - I'm sure Mark loves this fact - immediately. I wonder how close you are following Christ today? Do you know the evidence that you have really started to follow Christ in the beginning is how you're following Christ now? That's the evidence: examine yourself now, and see whether you be in the faith.
Here is Jesus wanting a man that nobody else wants. Here is Jesus wanting as His companion somebody that everybody thinks they are justified in hating as an enemy! Why? Jesus makes him whole, though he is sick. Now of course you should know by now that we're talking about Matthew, we know that from other gospel records. Possibly, just like Saul, and like Simon, Levi's name was changed to Matthew as Saul was to Paul, and Simon to Peter - by Jesus, perhaps. Do you know what Matthew means? 'Gift of God', that's what it means. This man who was a stigma, a shame upon his people, is going to be a gift of God to them - how do we know that? Because he penned Matthew's gospel, the gospel to the Jews.
Jesus is come to save sinners, and then secondly we see it evidenced in Jesus' company. Levi organises a meal in his house to introduce his friends to Jesus. This wasn't modern evangelism by the way, this is happening now in the first century. So here is a crowd that Jesus could not have contacted in the synagogue because they wouldn't be allowed in, and He meets them in Levi's house. It says that 'He sat at meat with them' in the Authorised Version. Now that could be translated, 'He reclined at the table with them', that is the literal sense. There He is reclining in the Eastern way at the table with them - now what does that convey to you? I'll tell you what it conveys to me: He was comfortable with them. I'm not saying He was comfortable with their way of life, but He was comfortable to be there. The danger is that as Christians today - if you like alliteration you'll like this, there's five C's in this one - we can live in cloistered Christian communities of comfort and convenience. Cloistered Christian communities of comfort and convenience, communities where we don't need to befriend non-Christians in order to introduce them to Jesus, where we hardly ever have a non-Christian in our home unless he's doing some DIY work around the house - and then as soon as we can get it done, pay him the money and get him out.
Jesus never partook in any of these sinner's sins, and we must say that - but we must be like the Lord Jesus Christ and get among people like this, who Jesus was among. I don't know who ever taught this years ago: 'When you get saved, young man, young woman, you need to give up your non-Christian friends' - that is nonsense! Now yes, you need to be careful who your best friend is, and who your peers are, and who your role models are, and who is rubbing off on you - but if you give up all your non-Christian friends, who are you going to bring to Christ? Sinners were there because, it says of them too, 'They followed Him'. Now here's the big question that I'm asking myself, and I want you to ask yourself, and we need to ask as a church: why is it that the crowd followed Jesus to Levi's house, and the Pharisees didn't? I mean to converse with Him, and follow Him in the sense that Levi and the rest of them followed Him. Because Jesus came to be the Saviour of sinners, and these sinners knew that they were sick - the Pharisees didn't!
Now here's the third evidence: the fact that Jesus came to be the Saviour of sinners is evidenced in the scribal controversy that was there. 'He eats and drinks with publicans and sinners', the Pharisees said to the disciples. Do you know what 'Pharisee' means? It literally means 'detached one'. These Pharisees were religious separatists, and they separated from all those who were not their co-religionists, or hadn't the particular rabbinical interpretation of the law that they had. In other words, they were self-righteous, they were people who majored on externals, what you did outwardly rather than what was going on internally in the heart. They were following the letter of the law, but there was no spirit of the law in their actions or their words. They were legalists, they felt that they could earn God's favour by their righteous living, and because of that they became a 'holier than thou' crowd with not a little bit of arrogance.
Now Kent Hughes in his commentary says these words which I think are very apt for us today: 'Perhaps none of us espouse such pharisaical beliefs, in fact we loathe them, but many of us live them out nevertheless. We come to Christ and in our desire to be godly we seek out people like us. Ultimately we arrange our lives so that we are with non-believers as little as possible. We attend Bible Studies that are 100% Christian, a Sunday School that is 100% Christian, prayer meetings that are 100% Christian. We play tennis with Christians, and eat dinner with Christians. We have Christian doctors, Christian dentists, Christian plumbers, Christian veterinarians, and even our dogs are Christians! The result is that we pass by hundreds without ever noticing them, or positively influencing them for Christ. None of us are Pharisees philosophically, but we can be practically. Do loansharks, cheats, prostitutes flock to my house, to my church? How would I react if they did?'.
Did not Jesus pray in John 17 and verse 15: 'I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil'? We are meant to be in the midst of the world, in the midst of worldly people, praying to God that He will keep us from the evil, but that we might win some from the fire. C. T. Studd, that old missionary, said: 'Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell, I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell'.
Jesus came to be as Saviour to sinners, and then fourthly and finally this is evidenced in His divine commission, the commission that Christ was given. He says: 'I came because the whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance' - verse 17. 'I didn't come to people who are whole', that is 'people who are strong' literally is the word, 'people who are able' - that's people who think they are able, think they are strong, think they're righteous. Now don't get Jesus wrong here, it's not that He has no use for moral people, or He doesn't like good citizens and upstanding individuals - but He's talking here about people who think that their morality will commend them to God! Jesus can't do anything with somebody like that.
He came for the sick, that is the same word as 'diseased' in chapter 1 verse 32, literally 'those who are having it bad', those who are having it bad. Sinners. Now when this word 'sinner' is used here, it doesn't mean essentially a transgressor of the law, it means an outcast, a notorious individual in the society, a stigmatised person - those that the Pharisees and the religion of the day despised. Those are the ones who Jesus came to save!
Now, let me show you in the closing moments how Christ Himself illustrated this. I could tell you a load of stories about this, that and the other, but He told plenty of stories about this, and we need to see them again. Look with me at Luke 18 and verse 10: 'Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners' - was he looking at the tax collector? - 'unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you', Jesus said, 'this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted'.
Turn with me then to Matthew 21, to another story, verse 28: 'But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you'.
Luke 15 is a portion of Scripture that we all know, many verses of it off by heart. Look at the introduction, perhaps, to this record which we ignore half the time, verse 1 of chapter 15: 'Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. And', to that backdrop, 'he spake this parable unto them, saying, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?'. Then we read: 'I say unto you, that likewise', verse 7, 'joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine righteous, self-righteous, which need no repentance'.
Look at verse 8, another parable, a woman having ten pieces of silver and loses one, she cleans the house till she finds it - verse 10: 'Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth'. Then the most famous of all, verse 11: 'A certain man had two sons' - now we love the prodigal. He goes into the far country and he spends everything in riotous living, wine, women and song. We preach the gospel over and over on this and it's wonderful, but we miss out the half of the story - the elder brother! Verse 25: 'His elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked: What are these things?'. Like the Pharisees: 'Why is He eating with publicans and sinners?'. 'And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee' - what did he see himself as? He was worthy, he was honourable of his father's goodness. How did the prodigal see himself? Look at verse 19: 'I am no more worthy to be called thy son', verse 21, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son' - what is it? It's all an illustration to tell us that Jesus came to be a Saviour to sinners.
That's why Matthew says in his account of this story: 'Go ye and learn', he records Jesus saying to the Pharisees, 'what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance'. Now, so what? What's my point? If you are saved this morning, you are converted, you need to revel and rejoice in the wondrous grace of God as a believer that He calls sinners like you. If you can't see yourself as a sinner, you're not one of the saved. If you are not converted today, you need to repent and believe this gospel.
Can I read three portions of Scripture for the believers chiefly, but the unbelievers can enter into this as well, and revel in it. In everything that we have said as a backdrop to these verses in this message, listen to God's word, all three portions are from the writings of Paul. Romans: 'For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us'. 'Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord'.
Listen to 1 Timothy: 'This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners', Paul says, 'of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting'. Can I say this: I have scoured the Scriptures, and I can't find one clear account of Jesus calling directly a Pharisee, other than Paul the apostle - is that not interesting?
Finally Titus 3: 'For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life'.
Can you not shout this morning: 'Hallelujah! What a Saviour!'. Is He your Saviour? Believer, is He your cherished Saviour?
Lord, I have a terrible fear in my heart for myself, that I have lost the wonder of the grace of God to me - and I don't know if it's true of all the folk gathered here, but I suspect it might be. Lord, may You thrill us afresh with the amazing wonder of the grace of God in Christ, that He can come to tax collectors and command them individually to follow Him - yet He leaves all the religious folk, and ignores them. Lord, help us to see ourselves as the tax collector, as the sinner, not just at the moment of our conversion but every day from it; that we might always resort to the Great Physician, the Saviour of sinners, for our wholeness and our well-being. Save those who feel their sickness here today, for Christ's sake, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Evangelical Church in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the fourteenth recording in his 'Studies In Mark' series, entitled "The Saviour To Sinners" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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