We are calling this sermon series “Introducing Jesus.” Our hope is that, for the person learning about Jesus for the first time or for the person who has been a Christian for years, a careful look at The Gospel According to Mark will give us a fresh understanding and appreciation for who Jesus is.
One of the unique aspects of the Gospel According to Mark is how action-focused it is. Matthew, Luke, and John contain many more words of Jesus. If you read a red-letter Bible, you’ll find much more “red” in Matthew or Luke than you will in Mark. Instead, The Gospel of Mark shows Jesus as a man of action. In Mark, we find Jesus doing things and going places. It is no less inspired than the other Gospel accounts, but it shows Jesus to us from a slightly different angle.
As we have discussed in earlier sermons, it is likely that we are hearing/seeing Peter’s first-hand account of Jesus’ ministry through the writing and recording of Mark, who was not an eyewitness himself as far as we know.
In our text today in Chapter 2, we’ll see Jesus interact with several different groups in different ways. He’s teaching crowds by the Sea of Galilee; he’s calling Levi to follow him from his tax booth; he is reclining at table with a large group of tax collectors and sinners; he’s arguing with the Pharisees and scribes, and he’s answering questions from the disciples of John the Baptist. All this happens in a relatively short passage—just nine verses.
We’ve just concluded the season of Advent and Christmas, where we consider the coming of Jesus in the flesh—his incarnation. This passage shows the incarnation in action. We see Jesus, not merely coming to Earth, but reclining at table with sinners. We hear Jesus himself give us a mission statement for his coming to earth. We see the religiously zealous of the day wrestling with the meaning of Jesus’ presence among them.
What should you get out of this sermon today? Well, it depends. As we’ve said already, Jesus interacts with several different groups or individuals in this passage. How you hear this message will partly be determined by which of these groups you identify with, consciously or unconsciously. Are you just hearing about Jesus? Are you curious about who he is or what his ministry means? Are you a religious conservative, tempted to focus on outward expressions of religion or insulating yourself from the “world?” Are you confused about how the coming of Jesus should impact your own religion or personal joy?
Depending on where you are in your faith, I hope one of the following points will help you. We’ll be seeing in our text today:
Mark 2:13–22 (ESV)
The first scene in our passage takes us beside the Sea of Galilee. It makes sense that a crowd is following Jesus. Earlier in chapter 1, he was teaching in the synagogue and cast a demon out of a man. Then he healed many who were sick or demon possessed. he had just miraculously healed a paralytic, and also made bold declarations about his authority to forgive of sins. Verse 12 ends with “We never say anything like this!”
So, it’s not surprising that a crowd—the text says “all the crowd”—is following Jesus around. And, as the crowd was coming around he was teaching them. Mark doesn’t tell us specifically what Jesus was teaching at this moment. We have plenty of content from Matthew or Luke to imagine Jesus saying in this context. But, Mark doesn’t see that content as the key to his story. Instead, he focuses on what Jesus does next. However, before we move on, we should remember that teaching was a large part of the ministry of Jesus. And it wasn’t only part of his ministry while at the synagogue or the temple. He was teaching his disciples and the crowds as he went through his day to day life.
It is in the context of this teaching and healing ministry that Jesus calls Levi to follow him. I’ve labeled this point “An Invitation” but that might not quite capture the force of Jesus’ words.
I realize that we are accustomed to hearing Jesus say “Follow me” and seeing people leave everything to follow him. But, we should not stop being amazed at this. His followers were taking risks to follow this new teacher that spoke with authority and did amazing things.
He has already called Simon, Andrew, James, and John (four fishermen) in Chapter 1:16-20. Now he is calling Levi, a Tax Collector. We won’t find Levi listed among the lists of the twelve Disciples of Jesus. It is believed that this is the same person as Matthew. In fact, in Matthew’s account of this event in his own gospel, he calls the tax collector Matthew.
Though in our culture we make jokes about IRS agents and do have some aversion to Tax Collectors, it’s probably nothing like the attitude toward Jews who were Tax Collectors for the Romans in the first century. They were generally viewed as traitors to the Jewish people. They were often crooked and made their money by overcharging and fraud.
James Edwards highlights this in his volume in the Pillar commentary series:
The touch of a tax collector rendered a house unclean. Jews were forbidden to receive money and even alms from tax collectors since revenue from taxes was deemed robbery…
Jewish contempt of tax collectors is epitomized in the ruling that Jews could lie to tax collectors with impunity—a ruling, incidentally, with which both the houses of Hillel and Shammai (who normally stood poles apart) agreed…
It may be that contact with Levi was actually more offensive than contact with a leper since a leper’s condition was not chosen whereas a tax collector’s was.
- James R. Edwards, Pillar, 83.
This is who Jesus chooses to be his next disciple. In fact, we don’t have a record of Jesus calling all twelve of the disciples, but we have this account of the calling of Levi.
I think it is right to see this as an invitation to Levi to follow Jesus. But, we should remember that “follow” is more than “Come here for a minute” or “come look at this.” This was a command to lay aside every other competing priority to put Jesus first. The account in Luke’s gospel captures this more specifically for Levi.
Luke 5:28 (ESV) — And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
We don’t know what Levi had observed in Jesus’ ministry before this point. We don’t know if he had witnessed Jesus doing miracles or heard Jesus teaching. Certainly, it is reasonable to assume he knew something about this teacher before he left everything and followed him. But, whatever he knew or didn’t know, he responded in faith to Jesus’ command.
Jesus issued this specific command, “Follow me” to Levi, but there is a more general invitation to faith here in the passage. In verse 15,
Not only did Jesus call Levi, but Levi threw a party at his house and Jesus came and had a party with many tax collectors and sinners. As we’ll see in the next point, the Pharisees had something to say about this. But, for now, just notice the crowd that Jesus is with. Definitely NOT typical for a traveling teacher of the day.
Also notice that among this group were many that followed Jesus. Here’s another thought from Edwards.
The word for “follow” is used in the Gospels only of Jesus’ disciples, never of those who oppose him. Occurring nineteen times in Mark, “following” is a load-bearing term that describes the proper response of faith, and is indeed practically synonymous with faith.
“Following” is an act that involves risk and cost; it is something one does, not simply what one thinks or believes.
- James R. Edwards, Pillar, 81–82.
Levi is serving as an example to us here of how we should respond to Jesus. Levi believed. He risked. He followed.
All of us need to consider how Jesus is calling us to follow him today.
For some, this will mean leaving a world of unbelief and putting your trust in Jesus as the Son of God who came to earth as a man, taught us how to live, commanded us to follow him, and died on the cross to save us from the punishment of our rebellion against God.
For others of us, it is a call to hear his words and obey. It could mean leaving your vocation for gospel ministry (as Matthew did), but just as likely means working in your vocation as a committed Christ-follower.
But don’t fall into the wrong-headed idea that following Jesus can be an add-on to the rest of your life. Jesus will address that in vv. 21-22. Or to quote an email signature from our brother, Ken Auer, “Christianity is not a plug-in, it's an operating system.”
We’ve addressed Jesus’ invitation. Now let’s look at his Admonition.
This scene has Jesus at a dinner party with “many tax collectors and sinners.” As I said in the introduction and the title, this is Jesus’ Incarnation in Action. It is the Incarnation at work. Jesus is not only the Son of God made flesh; he is with those are fleshly. He is not limiting himself to the company of the Temple or the synagogues. This is Jesus dwelling with those he came to save.
One might expect after Jesus called Levi that they would go off on a company retreat together with the other serious students of God’s Word, and teach him the dangers of associating with the Romans or the wrong crowd of Jews. But, of course, that’s not what happens. Instead, Levi throws a party at his house and invites his tax collector friends and Jesus. Luke says, “Levi made him a great feast in his house.”
It’s quite possible that Levi’s job as a tax collector was to tax commerce, like commercial fishing. Wouldn’t you have wanted to watch the interactions among Simon Peter (outspoken loudmouth that he was), Andrew, James, John (the sons of Thunder), and Levi? We actually don’t know how that interaction went. What we do know is how the scribes and Pharisees responded.
They did have something to say about it. Mark simply portrays their question as an honest “Why does your teacher eat with sinners? Luke, however, in his account, gives us a bit more insight into their heart.
Luke 5:30 (ESV) — And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
I can imagine their tone, partly because of my own natural, sinful bent to be a self-righteous Pharisee myself.
They grumbled. In their own twisted way, they were trying to figure out who this Jesus person is. They’ve heard him teach with authority; they’ve observed him casting out demons; they’ve seen him heal miraculously. And then…he falls in with the wrong crowd, and seems to be happy about it. You might think that’s a minor infraction, but for Pharisees, this is a major misstep. In their view, either Jesus doesn’t have the discernment to know who he’s with, or he knows and he is still at dinner with them. Doesn’t he know that they will make him unclean, that this party could ruin his reputation, that it would make other people question how holy he was? Perhaps, they even wanted to believe that he could be the Messiah. But, couldn’t he see how hanging out with the wrong crowd could ruin his chances?
Whatever questions they had, Jesus clears things up by answering their question—well I don’t know if it cleared things up for them or simply blew their minds.
This is the second time this group is labeled as “sinners.” In verse 15, Jesus is reclining at table with tax collectors and sinners. What are we to make of that label? Is it that these were worse sinners than any others around? Probably not. After all, the whole passage is pointing to the wrongheadedness of the Scribes and Pharisees, who believed they took obedience to the Torah seriously.
One commentator helps us get at what might be going on:
This term cannot be understood in the generally accepted sense of “transgressors of the moral law of God” since Mark would then have written “tax officers and other sinners.” The term is technical in this context for a class of people who were regarded by the Pharisees as inferior because they showed no interest in the scribal tradition.
- William L. Lane, NICNT, 103.
The difference here really doesn’t boil down to people who are morally righteous vs. those who are morally sinful. Rather, it is between those who refuse to acknowledge their need for redemption vs. those who readily accept and recognize their need for it.
I called point number two “An Admonition.” By this I mean Jesus was giving the Scribes and Pharisees a correction, a warning, a reprimand. He did this by his actions as well as his words. He was modeling a way that they needed to change, and was also challenging their underlying belief system.
But where did they go wrong? That’s a pretty large question and could be a sermon in itself. If I can just speak generally for a moment, I’d like to highlight three things that I think they missed, which Jesus was correcting.
Firstly, and mainly, The Pharisees believed they fell into the “righteous” camp because they “cared about” the Law and the scribal traditions surrounding it. I don’t doubt that they worked hard at being righteous—as well they should. But, they mistook external obedience to certain laws or traditions as a sufficient measurement of true righteousness. They were religious—much more so than most of the other groups in Palestine. This is illustrated well in Luke 18:11.
Luke 18:11 (ESV) — The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
But, in the end, God requires more than a good effort on our part; he requires perfect obedience, which means we are all in desperate need of a Savior.
In other words, the Pharisees missed their need for a redeemer, for a Savior.
Secondly, the Pharisees, in their zeal to look righteous by following external commands, would overlook the heart issues in the law—mercy, forgiveness, humility, love.
Thirdly, the Pharisees missed what really defiles a person. They were deceiving themselves to believe that being around sinners would make them unacceptable to God. In a similar way, they were concerned about eating with unwashed hands or dishes that had not been cleaned in a particular ceremonial way. But unwashed hands or unwashed bowls pale in comparison to the damage caused by treating persons made in the image of God as if they make you unclean.
The combination of these wrong beliefs meant that the Pharisees were missing out on God’s mission to redeem mankind. By focusing on a narrow idea of holiness, they missed out on the broader mission of God to bring salvation to the lost.
Jesus does his demolition on these wrong beliefs by the simple statement in ver 17, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” This does not exclude the Scribes and Pharisees or you and me from salvation. It simply means that we must acknowledge that Jesus is our only hope for it, like a different tax collector in Luke 18.
Luke 18:13 (ESV) — But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
This is the essence of the Gospel message. This is the Good news.
Romans 5:8 (ESV) — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
…While we were still sinners. This is the message the Pharisees couldn’t understand. It is the message we must grasp for our own salvation, and for the mission God is calling us toward.
Jesus’ mission statement in verse 17 is hope and salvation for the lost, but it’s also a correction to our temptation to surround ourselves with those who are externally righteous instead of those who know they are spiritually sick.
We are at times much more likely to quote and live by “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Cor 15:33) than we are motivated by Jesus mission to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). We need to learn from Jesus and follow his example.
The last section of our text has quite a variety of themes or topics all squeezed together. Fasting, the Bridegroom, patching garments, and wine in wineskins.
One thing I noticed in this passage that I had not seen before was the joining together of the Pharisees with the Disciples of John the Baptist. We don’t usually see these two groups mentioned together. After all, John the Baptist often had rough things to say to the scribes and Pharisees. But, actually, the text doesn’t say that this group asked Jesus the question, it just says that both of these groups were fasting.
This is a fair question. This did not necessarily happen right after the previous verses. It sounds like it could have been a different occasion. But it is understandable that Mark would place it here because of the contrast of Jesus eating with Tax Collectors and sinners, while the Disciples of John and the Pharisees are fasting.
The Old Testament only required a fast on one day per year, the Day of Atonement (Ex. 20:10; Lev. 16:1–34; 23:26–32; 35:9; Num. 29:9–11). However, the Pharisees had developed a tradition of fasting on Monday and Thursday of each week as an expression of devotion.
This and the somewhat austere ministry of John the Baptist would have been in contrast to the public ministry of Jesus, who was eating and drinking with Tax Collectors and sinners.
Unlike the previous grumbling question from the Pharisees, however, this seems to be an honest question.
Jesus answers with three illustrations to explain that something NEW is going on—a wedding, a garment, and a wineskin.
We are somewhat accustomed to the image of Jesus as the Bridegroom at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, with the church being his bride. However, this was not an image from the Old Testament, and would have been somewhat new to them, especially in regards to the Messiah.
It is not clear what the disciples of John or the Pharisees were expressing in their fast. Was it a simple act of piety? Or was it entreating God to send the Messiah or deliverance? Or was it some expression of mourning? Regardless of the answer, Jesus’ presence removed the need for that fast. There is no need to fast for deliverance when the Deliverer is here. There is no reason to fast for God to send the Messiah when he is before your very eyes. There is no need to fast as an act of Devotion, when the object of that devotion is in front of you.
Jesus is not saying that fasting is not a legitimate help as a spiritual discipline or expression of mourning or piety or spiritual longing. In fact, he assumes that Christians should fast once he is taken away from them. Verse 20 says “then they will fast in that day.” In other words, after Jesus’ crucifixion, and then ultimately after his ascension, it is appropriate for Christians to fast (abstain from food for a period of time for spiritual reasons).
What Jesus is saying is that while he is there with his disciples, it should be a time of joy—of eating and drinking and celebration. And, fundamentally, this is a new era. The King has come; He has entered the world to make a way for sinners to be reconciled to God. This is a reason for joy and merrymaking.
Both of these parables are communicating the same thing as Jesus’ answer regarding fasting—something new is happening. Something significant. This is not just a minor adjustment to Jewish faith and tradition. Jesus is not merely another prophet; he is THE Prophet (Deuteronomy 18), and he is the fulfillment of so many of the Old Testament prophecies.
So, the coming of Jesus radically changes Judaism. But, the coming of Jesus into our lives also radically changes us. We cannot keep our old ways and just add in a little Jesus. One doesn’t say to Jesus, “Thank you for adding a little peace and forgiveness and joy to my agenda—to my plan. I will appreciate the gift of eternal life after I’ve lived this life my way.”
Instead, Jesus is calling us to a new kind of life—life in him. He is calling us to follow Him. He is inviting us to dine with Him. He is inviting us to be on His mission, to follow his agenda. We must leave everything behind in a sense to follow Him.
If we have a few moments left, I’d like to leave you with a somewhat extended quote from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. This is from his chapter called “Nice People or a New Man.”
We must, therefore, not be surprised if we find among the Christians some people who are still nasty. There is even, when you come to think it over, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones. That was what people objected to about Christ during His life on earth: He seemed to attract ‘such awful people’. That is what people still object to and always will. Do you not see why? Christ said ‘Blessed are the poor’ and ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom,’ and no doubt He primarily meant the economically rich and economically poor. But do not His words also apply to another kind of riches and poverty? One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realise your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing cheques, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God. Now quite plainly, natural gifts carry with them a similar danger. If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. ‘Why drag God into it?’ you may ask. A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness. Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognise their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered. In other words, it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom.
It is very different for the nasty people—the little, low, timid, warped, thin-blooded, lonely people, or the passionate, sensual, unbalanced people. If they make any attempt at goodness at all, they learn, in double quick time, that they need help. It is Christ or nothing for them. It is taking up the cross and following—or else despair. They are the lost sheep; He came specially to find them. They are (in one very real and terrible sense) the ‘poor’: He blessed them. They are the ‘awful set’ He goes about with—and of course the Pharisees say still, as they said from the first, ‘If there were anything in Christianity those people would not be Christians.’
There are two basic responses to the message this morning.
John 1:11–13 (ESV) — He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
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