SCRIPTURE AND REVIEW
The scripture we take up to study is Luke 5:27-32. Jesus has been preaching and healing. He has already called some disciples: Peter, Andrew, James and John. Here we see him call another disciple, Levi, who is also called Matthew. We will see that Levi picks up right away on what Jesus’s mission is. Levi follows Jesus by adopting Jesus’s mission as his own.
27 And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me. 28 And he left all, rose up, and followed him.
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them. 30 But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?
31 And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. 32 I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:27–32)
What does it mean for a person to follow Jesus?
Imagine being part of an army battalion. A mission is handed down to your Captain to defend a particular city against enemy attack. Your Captain explains the mission and says, “Follow me!” What does following him entail, besides the obvious physical movement? It means to follow him in the mission that he has been given. If you go to your post, but let the enemy soldiers march by unchallenged, are you following your Captain? No, because you have not adopted his mission as your own.
In the same way, this passage teaches us that Jesus came with a mission to accomplish. Since he is our Captain, and we are part of his body (or his battalion, if you will), then his mission is our mission. Following Jesus means adopting his mission as our own. First, we see…
I. JESUS’S MISSION ADOPTED BY LEVI (5:27-29)
Luke 5:27 And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me.
Luke 5:28 And he left all, rose up, and followed him.
Levi was a “publican,” or a tax collector, which was one of that culture’s most despised professions. It was despised, not just because this is the man who comes to take your money and give it to government. Tax collectors, lawyers, and politicians are all despised in that sense. But the tax collectors in that culture were akin to traitors, especially if they were Jewish, because they took your money and gave it to the enemy.
Imagine the Russians invade and take over the United States. They set up their government and police force. Then, they start hiring Americans to help collect taxes. How would you feel about those Americans who became tax collectors? Well, this is Levi’s situation, except that it was the Romans and not the Russians. People viewed him as a traitor, as a despicable sort of man.
Who are the publicans in your life? Who are the people that you find despicable and almost unworthy of salvation?
Jesus walked up to Levi and said simply, “Follow me.” Obviously Levi must have known something about Jesus. More than that, he would have been a man under conviction. A person does not respond to Jesus (in the correct manner), unless they are under conviction of sin.
Many Christians today forget this and try to get people to follow Jesus for other reasons—that he’ll make you wealthy or healthy or help you live your best life now. Levi wasn’t following Jesus for the wealth, he already had wealth!
It’s only when we realize that we are sinners who are in rebellion against God (even if we are good, decent people) that we can follow Jesus for the right reason. Only when we realize that we are sinners, will we receive Jesus as our Savior.
Levi must have known that Jesus, in some way, was the answer to his sin problem. He wouldn’t have understood why or how yet, but he knew that he needed a Messiah and Jesus was him. His excitement over finding the solution to his sin problem comes out in what he does next—
Luke 5:29 And Levi made him [Jesus] a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them.
Levi probably didn’t understand much about Jesus’s mission, but he knew this: Jesus called to him, a sinner, to follow him. That was Jesus’s mission—to call sinners to repent and follow him. Levi knew that much and he adopted Jesus’s mission as his own. He called sinners (of the worst kind in his culture) to come to Jesus. Charles Spurgeon once said:
The more vile a man is, the more eagerly I invite him to believe in Jesus…“Look unto Christ, and you shall be saved.” (Elliot Ritzema and Elizabeth Vince, eds., 300 Quotations for Preachers from the Modern Church, Pastorum Series [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013])
Well, not everyone thought that Jesus did right by being around sinners. The Pharisees were some of those who questioned Jesus’s mission.
II. JESUS’S MISSION QUESTIONED BY THE PHARISEES (5:30)
Luke 5:30 But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?
The “scribes and Pharisees” were very careful about who they were seen with. The name “Pharisee” actually does mean “separated one.” In fact, there’s no way that they would have been at this banquet, so they probably asked this question afterwards. The problem with the Pharisees wasn’t so much the technical points of doctrine that they held to, but with their hearts. They were hypocrites—pretending to be holy, but inside full of disgust and hatred. As Jesus said, they were “whitewashed tombs.”
You can tell by the wording here that they are not asking an honest question, “Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?” First, it says here that they “murmured,” which is a negative term—you don’t murmur an honest question! You murmur (under your breath) sarcastically.
And then, in the Greek, the phrase “with publicans and sinners” comes before the phrase “do ye eat and drink,” which is a way of emphasizing it. Literally, it reads, “Why with publicans and sinners do ye eat and drink?” You can almost hear the sarcasm and hatred.
The Pharisees were right in that there must be separation between the holy and unholy, but they were wrong in their hearts about how they did it. Separation is a necessary part of being holy, and sometimes it is tricky for believers to practice correctly. Writing to the Corinthian Christians, the apostle Paul said:
9 I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: 10 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. 11 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. (1 Corinthians 5:9–11)
The Corinthians weren’t to disassociate themselves from unbelievers (neither were they to copy their sinful behavior)! Instead, they were to disassociate themselves from believers who were actively engaging in sinful behaviors.
Jesus modeled this for us. He ate with the sinners (while never sinning himself) and rebuked the religious for their hypocrisy. The Pharisees needed to see that, while being holy was important, so also was being a authentic witness to the sinners. They needed to have a heart for holiness and a heart for people.
Again, who are your publicans? Who are those that you have trouble having a heart for? What excuses do you make to not be around them?
Sinners have to sense that there is a chance of them receiving God’s love and grace for them to open up to the gospel. To the sinner, Jesus’s words and actions demonstrate God’s love to them. How about us? What do sinners think of us? That we are like Jesus? Or that we are like the Pharisees?
So Levi adopted Jesus’s mission and the Pharisees questioned Jesus’s mission. But what is Jesus’s mission?
III. JESUS’S MISSION TO SINNERS EXPLAINED (5:31-32)
Even though the Pharisees were speaking to the disciples, Jesus apparently jumped in and answered before his disciples could. First, he explained to the Pharisees that he was a caring doctor for sinners.
1. Jesus Was A Caring Doctor For Sinners
Luke 5:31 And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.
Jesus answers with an obvious truth: sick people are the ones who need doctors, not those who are healthy. He compares himself to the doctor, and for a doctor to help a sick person, they must get close to them.
This is actually a good illustration for us and our witnessing. Christians, in a sense, are all doctors. We have the responsibility to share Jesus with the sick and sinful (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:20 and the image of ambassadors).
What makes a good doctor? Someone who is compassionate and knowledgeable. Someone who has good bedside manner and explains the problem so you can understand. Someone who isn’t afraid to get close and touch their patients (they may put the gloves on as a precaution).
Christians would do well to follow the same protocols in our witnessing. Get close to the sinner, without being sinful yourself. Show compassion. Learn what the Bible says about their sin problem and it’s solution so you can share knowledge with them.
And there’s this: why do doctors doctor? They have a mission—to help people get over their sickness. They may even have to convince the person of their problem and call them to take the proper treatment. This is also Jesus’s mission (and, by extension, our mission also). He says this clearly in Luke 5:32—
Luke 5:32 I came not to call the [self-]righteous, but sinners to repentance.
Jesus wasn’t saying that there are people who are “righteous” apart from believing in Christ. He was using it in an ironic or sarcastic manner to refer to those who thought they were righteous. The point he was making was that is necessary to mingle with the sinners in order to call them to repentance.
Let’s stop here on the word “sinners.” Being a sinner means that you are separated from God (cf. Isaiah 59:2). You do not have a relationship with him and cannot have a relationship with him without Jesus Christ.
That people are “sinners” is a very hard thing for them to admit. We saw this in an exchange between Senator Bernie Sanders and Russell Vought. Sanders took issue with an article that Vought wrote in 2016 where he said, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology, they do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”
Sanders asked Vought if he thought that all Muslims and Jews are condemned if they don’t believe in Christ. He said, “In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?” Vought was never allowed to fully respond because Sanders kept shutting him off.
Later, another Senator defended Sander’s questioning by saying, “I’m a Christian, but part of being Christian, in my view, is recognizing there are lots of ways people can pursue their god.” Notice that this Senator has his “own view” of Christianity that doesn’t agree with Jesus who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).
People will be offended at the thought of being categorized as a sinner, but they are especially offended when you say that their own views about God cannot save them, only Jesus Christ can.
Jesus shows love and compassion to the sinner, but he also calls a spade a spade. Jesus was a caring doctor for sinners, and…
2. Jesus Called Sinners To Repent
Jesus seeks to “call” sinners to “repentance” (μετάνοιαν, NASF). Repentance is, simply defined, a change of mind, a change of direction, a change of life. It’s turning around and going the other way. It is “a comprehensive change of one’s orientation toward following God” (LTW).
Returning to the doctor illustration, repentance is like when we finally decide that we do need to go to the doctor and seek a cure for our condition. It’s admitting that we have a problem and that nothing we do ourselves will fix that problem.
3. Jesus’s Mission Stated
Luke 5:32 I came not to call the [self-]righteous, but sinners to repentance.
Now, when you take this verse as a whole, you find that it is a statement of Jesus’s mission. Throughout the Gospels, you see Jesus making similar statements that define his mission:
10 For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost. (Luke 19:10)
45 For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
10 …I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. (John 10:10)
For Christians, following Jesus means adopting his mission as our own. Granted, we can’t give our lives as a ransom for people like Jesus did. We can’t pay the penalty of sin with our blood.
But we are to seek the lost, we are to offer Jesus as the one who paid the penalty for their sins and who can give them abundant life. Much of Jesus’s mission, especially his attitude towards sinners, can be and should be the mission of every Christian.
We must befriend sinners, love them and show compassion, but we must also call them to repentance. Sinners sometimes just need to taste the breath of God’s grace shown through our love and compassion before they’ll open up to the idea that they need to repent.
Jesus came as a caring doctor, willing to help, so that he could call sinners to repentance. That was his mission. Is Jesus’s mission your mission?