Jesus hangs out with some sinners. Mark 2:13-17. Five stories of conflict

The literary structure of Mark 2:13-17

We’re in the Gospel of Mark today, looking at the call of Levi and the subsequent meal in his home. This is the second in a sequence of five stories of conflict. Last time the conflict was over Jesus’ claim to forgive someone’s sins. Today it’s his practice of sharing fellowship with sinners.

Let’s jump right in –

Mark 2:13-17

v. 13- “He (Jesus) went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them.”

As we have seen, Jesus was a celebrity, especially because of his ability to heal. Crowds followed him everywhere. He was always getting mobbed. And so here he takes advantage of this to continue to teach them about the coming of the kingdom of God (1:15).

v. 14 – “And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth. . .”

[Notice the parallels with 1:16-20, the calling of Peter, Andrew, James and John: Jesus took the initiative, he was “passing by”; it took place beside the sea; Jesus saw; there is a reference to occupation; the call “follow me”; and an immediate response of leaving their occupation]

It’s interesting that in the first gospel the name of the person in this story is “Matthew,” not Levi. And there’s also a James the son of Alphaeus, who is one of the twelve. Most likely Levi and Matthew are the same person. And perhaps Levi/Matthew and the apostle James, the son of Alphaeus were brothers. It’s hard to know how it all fits together with the information we have.

In any case, Levi was a tax collector (technically a toll collector). Specifically he would have been employed by someone to collect customs fees and road tolls. He most likely had a booth along the road through Capernaum, which was a significant trade route (the Via Maris from Damascus to Caesarea). The money would go to his boss, who would give the proper portion to Herod Antipas, who ruled in Galilee.

Tax collectors were despised and treated as outcasts, for several reasons. I’ll mention just two. First, they were seen as collaborators with Rome, Israel’s oppressive overlord, since they worked for Herod, Rome’s installed puppet leader. And also they were often dishonest and charged too much, to increase their own income. They are associated in the New Testament with prostitutes (Matthew 21:32), extortionists, the unjust, adulterers (Luke 18:11) and Gentiles (Matthew 18:17). None of these kept the Law of Moses and all of them were classified as “sinners.”

So Jesus sees Levi sitting at his toll booth, doing his work.

v. 14 – “. . . and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”

When he says, follow me, Jesus is asking Levi to leave his current life behind so that he can travel with Jesus, learn from him and minister with him, just as he has already done with Peter, Andrew, James and John.

It’s possible that Levi had previous interactions with Jesus. Peter did before his call from Jesus, even though Mark doesn’t tell us about them. So it’s possible. Either way, Levi makes a radical break. He leaves his career behind. We will see in a moment that he had a house. But one can also wonder, was he married? Did he have kids? Was he supporting his parents? Whatever his exact circumstances, he had to sacrifice to follow Jesus in this way.

v. 15 – “And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.”

[Jesus is a bit like David here collecting outcasts to himself – 1 Samuel 22:2].

The references “he” and “his” in the first phrase are vague. But it’s best to say that Jesus is eating in Levi’s house (Luke 5:29). Usually you would sit to eat. It was only for a special meal or banquet (Luke 5:29) that you would you recline, that is, lay on cushions or a couch and eat off of a short table.

“Sinners,” as we saw,  is a broad term that covers Gentiles and also Jews who don’t keep the Law of Moses in significant ways. Maybe they aren’t even trying. It’s a lifestyle of sin.

What’s going on here is that Levi, now a committed worker for Jesus, has invited his friends and coworkers, fellow tax collectors and sinners, to meet with Jesus, and to hear his message of the kingdom.

Many tax collectors and sinners were interested in Jesus and many “followed him,” our verse tells us, perhaps in the crowds that followed Jesus around, or perhaps as repentant disciples. (As Jesus said to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 21:31, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”)

And Jesus freely joins in with them in this feast.

v. 16 – “And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’”

The scribes of the Pharisees, or experts in the Law, want to see what’s going on. A meal like this would’ve been public knowledge in a small town like Capernaum. And they aren’t happy with what they see. They ask Jesus’ disciples, “What in the world is he doing?”

That’s because the Pharisees took a separation approach to sinners. The righteous must be separate from those that are morally or ritually unclean. And the walls of separation must be maintained. And they especially applied this to who you ate meals with.

To be with sinners (especially to eat with them) is to send the wrong message; one of condoning their disobedience to God. And in ancient cultures to eat a meal with someone did convey open fellowship with each other.

And then there is the concern that if you are with them you will be contaminated by them, through ritual impurity for sure, but also by means of bad moral influence.

Perhaps they even said, “if sinners want to repent, they know what to do according to the Law of Moses. Let them get their lives in order first. Then we’ll fellowship.”

So Jesus’ actions were disconcerting and threatening to their way of looking at things. He isn’t playing by their rules.

v. 17 – “And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

Jesus uses a common proverb to make his point: What good is a doctor who never goes around a sick person? Of course doctors have to be with them. How else can they help them? In the same way Jesus has come to call sinners to repentance and kingdom entrance; he calls them to be made whole. This is precisely why Jesus came. God sent him to do this.

Now, when Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” he acknowledges that there is a difference between a person who seeks to follow God and when they fail, finds forgiveness and moves forward – and a person who isn’t even trying to follow God; sinners who live a lifestyle of sin. And Jesus speaks of those who are righteous (Mark 6:20; Matthew 10:41; 13:17; 13:43; 25:37; Luke 1:6; 2:25; 23:50).

But we also have to acknowledge that with the coming of Jesus even these relatively more righteous ones are called to repentance in light of the fuller revelation of God’s will that he brings. (Just as those with faith in God are called to have faith in Jesus and his bringing forth the promise of the kingdom.) (This saying is similar to Luke 15:7, given in a very similar context, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”) (The Pharisees saw themselves as righteous – Luke 18:9, but Jesus often pointed out the ways that at least some of them failed in this regard.)

Instead of a separation approach, Jesus took a redemptive approach to sinnersYou have to be with them to give them the message of new life. Yes, this can seem scandalous because people might think that you’re condoning sin, or even sinning yourself. But the point is to be able to share the message of the kingdom and repentance and forgiveness and new life. So it’s worth the risk.

Instead of sin contaminating him, Jesus saw his love and truth as able to transform them; to make them well. Righteousness is contagious, not sin. Yes, you risk ritual impurity, and you do have to be careful of moral influence if it’s an area of weakness for you. But other than this, it’s worth the risk.

It’s no wonder that so many people responded to Jesus. They were used to rejection and scorn. And this didn’t lead to their transformation. But now Jesus comes to them, and he comes with grace – “I know you’re sinners, even notorious ones, but God is offering you the kingdom too. Repent and you can enter in and have new life.”

Let’s end with –

Some questions

 How do you treat sinners? Are you more like the Pharisees or more like Jesus? Here’s a test: There was a Christian man who went to biker bars so that he could be with those who needed Jesus. God put them on his heart. He sought to befriend those he could, to show them the love of Jesus. But when others in church found out about it they were shocked! John goes to bars every Friday night! We’ve never heard of such a thing. What’s he thinking? That’s not a place for good Christians to hang out. He should be thinking about his witness!

Do you agree with John or those in his church? Whose concern for witness is more genuine – John’s actual witness to people or the church’s concern for mere reputation?

Jesus calls us to be with sinners, not stay away from them. Unless, of course you have a weakness, that particular people or circumstances might tempt you to give in to. Short of this we are called to be with them, not just to hang out with each other, the “well” ones; those that we are comfortable with in the church building. We are to be with them so that we can share with them about Jesus, his love and his grace.

And this is not just about outside the church. Sinners should be welcome in our church. Do people have to clean up their lives before they come to church? No! Church is the place they need to be, to be able to get clean and be transformed by Jesus.

Do you introduce your friends to Jesus? Levi’s an excellent example. He immediately invited everyone he knew to a banquet so that they could meet Jesus and hear his message. In what ways might you connect your friends and co-workers to Jesus?

Are you struggling with sin? Are you stuck in a lifestyle of sin? If this describes you, Jesus comes to you today and he comes with love and grace. He comes to offer you new life; a new start; forgiveness. He comes to you as the good physician to make you well.

What must you do? Receive his grace. Be like Levi, repent of your sins and give yourself fully, radically and sacrificially to follow Jesus. This is the path to wholeness. I encourage you, respond to Jesus today.

What water baptism means

Series on baptism

We are continuing on in our series on baptism this morning.

We know that baptism is important:

  • It was crucial for John the Baptist. Matthew 3:6 says, “They were baptized by John in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” This was the proper response to his prophetic ministry.
  • Jesus used the symbol of baptism. A little later in time, John 4:1-2 notes, “. . . Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples).”
  • Jesus commissioned his disciples, including us, to baptize. He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . .” – Matthew 28:18-20.

But where does water baptism come from? And what does it mean? The answer is found in the water crossings that we looked at last time, and especially the Red Sea crossing. This is where it comes from, and this is how to understand what this symbolic water experience means.

From last week:

Slide2

You have a handout from last week – Passing through the waters chart  that summarizes the meaning of “the waters,” various water crossings and the five themes of water crossings and how water baptism fits with these ideas.

Today, I want to show you three ways that the New Testament makes this connection clear. So let’s dive in!

1. In the New Testament baptism is linked to these water crossings

The Flood is called a type of water baptism. 1 Peter 3:20-21 says,  “. . . eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you.” The word corresponds refers to an event that points forward to something in the future which is its counterpart. Another way to say it is that the flood gives us background and context for understanding what Christian water baptism is about.

The Red Sea crossing is called a baptism. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 – “ . . . our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” So here we have baptism language describing the Red sea crossing. Not only is it called a baptism, in the context of 1 Corinthians 10 it is used as an analogy to Christian baptism. These two things are alike.

So from these examples we can see that there’s a connection between water baptism and passing through the waters. Indeed, water baptism is a passing through the waters.

2. In the New Testament there is a historical connection with the Red Sea crossing

Remember that after the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea they went on to fail in their commitment to God in the wilderness. So, that generation of Israelites never went into the promised land. Thus when Joshua entered the promised land with the next generation they crossed through “the waters” again; through the Jordan river. The waters upstream were stopped and they walked through it on dry ground (Joshua 3).

This was a reenactment of the Red Sea crossing. God was symbolically reconstituting Israel after their failure in the wilderness. And then, low and behold John the Baptist comes baptizing people in the Jordan river! The symbolism is there to be seen. Like Joshua, John is calling for Israel to be reconstituted, to be made new. What I’m saying is that John was reenacting Joshua’s reenactment of the Red Sea crossing.

All we need to do, then, is recognize that Jesus continued John’s baptismal practices and we have an unbroken chain back to the Red Sea crossing:

  • Moses and the Red Sea
  • Joshua and the Jordan river
  • John the Baptist and the Jordan river
  • Jesus and Christian baptism

 Finally –

3. In the New Testament the five themes line up

 That is to say, the symbolism of Christian water baptism in the New Testament matches the five themes of water crossings that we looked at in the Old Testament.

  • The waters represent Satan, judgment, slavery to Sin and Death. These powers keep us away from God and seek to destroy us.
  • But God has intervened. Through Jesus God delivers us from Satan, judgment, slavery to sin and death. Because of what God has done, we are able to cross through to the other side.

1. When we come to the waters of baptism, we symbolically portray that we are leaving behind our old life through repentance. Our sinful past in the world is behind us now. This is our commitment.

As Peter says on the day of Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ . . .” Acts 2:38. Repentance means that we have a change of heart and mind so that we practice God’s will now. And repentance and baptism go together.

Here’s another way of saying it. Baptism portrays our death to sin – Romans 6:2-3. “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” This is another way of talking about “repentance” – our old life in sin has come to an end; it’s dead.

2. When we go through the waters of baptism we symbolically portray that we are set free and forgiven. All the powers of evil can’t touch us anymore because our sins are forgiven. They have no claim on us. That’s why we can go through the waters safely to the other side.

In a baptism context Paul talks about how we are set free from Sin & Death, which are personified as powers, who enslave us and seek to destroy us – Romans 6:7

Once again, Peter says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” – Acts 2:38. There is a connection between baptism and forgiveness.

3. As we come up out of the water on “the other shore,” as it were, we symbolically portray that we receive new life through the Spirit.

Baptism is associated with receiving the Spirit. After Peter’s invitation to baptism he says, “and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” – Acts 2:38. Also, water baptism is connected to our receiving “newness of life” in Romans 6:1-4. I’ll say more about this later when we look at Spirit baptism.

4. When we come up out of the waters we symbolically portray that we are now a part of God’s people. We have switched communities and allegiances. We have left the world and we are now a part of the church.

This is the communal component of baptism. This is usually just assumed in the New Testament, but it does come out in several places. Luke says, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Acts 2:41. These were added to the fellowship of believers, not just a spiritual, invisible reality but the actual, visible church of Jerusalem. They became a part of that congregation.

Paul says, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free. . .” –    1 Corinthians 12:13. Baptism incorporates us into a new community – the church.

5. When we come up out of the waters we symbolically portray that we commit to follow Jesus. We commit to a new way of life; to doing God’s will from now on just as Jesus has taught us.

Jesus talks about, “ . . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” – Matthew 28:19-20. Baptism is connected here to obedience to everything that Jesus teaches.

Peter calls baptism a “pledge of a good conscience toward God” in 1 Peter 3:21. This is covenental language, speaking to a commitment to do God’s will from now on.

 Slide3

I hope you can see in all this that baptism is rich in symbolic meaning and that it has to do with every part of beginning the Christian life. And anyone who comes to be baptized needs to understand what this all means and what they are saying when they go through it.

Let me end with a challenge. If there are any here who are not baptized this is an invitation to you. Is this what’s in your heart? If it is, I encourage you to seek this out as a public witness to your faith in Jesus. And I would be glad to talk to you.

And for those of us who are baptized, I ask, “Are you living out what water baptism means?” Maybe you did when you were baptized, but are you now? Make sure your life now lines up with what your baptism proclaimed.

For all of us, the world calls us to accept its symbols, its story, its values. But Jesus calls us to accept his symbols, his story, his values and to live out the reality of this before an ever watching world. Will you heed Jesus’ call this morning?

10 promises you can stand on

Series: Faith in God

Last time we talked about how, to have real faith, you need a word from God to stand on.  And when you don’t have a word to stand on, it’s called presumption, because you are presuming upon God to do something that he never said he would do. This leads us to have unwarranted confidence, which can lead to wrong actions, which leads to a mess.

As we saw, one of the things we need to do to avoid all this is to know what God’s promises are – their context, the scope of what they cover, and the conditions that are attached. We need to know what they mean. We need to know God’s will so that we can have faith in this and receive from God.

So today, I want to give you 10 promises that you can stand on; that apply to you. And I hope as we go through this, God will speak to you about where you need more of him and his blessings and that you will latch on to this by faith.  

1. God will forgive your sins

 “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” – Matthew 6:14

The condition certainly stands out right at the beginning. We have to give grace to receive grace. But if we do this, God tells us here, he will forgive our sins. As Psalm 103:12 says, God will remove our sins “as far as the east is from the west.” As 1 John 1:9 says, God will “forgive us our sins and . . . cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Others may not forgive us, we may struggle to forgive ourselves, but in faith we can stand on this promise that we are indeed forgiven by God.

2. God will give you the Holy Spirit

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” – Luke 11:13

In Luke 11 Jesus talks about asking with persistence in our prayers. And then he ends this teaching with this verse. So he is saying, ‘If we persistently ask for the Spirit, God will answer.’

It is the Spirit who gives us life. It is the Spirit who makes God’s presence known to us. It is the Spirit who gives us God’s guidance and comfort. It is the Spirit who empowers us to do God’s will and to minister in his name. So, this is a promise we all need. We need to be continually filled with the Spirit as followers of Jesus.

3. God will give you eternal life

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16

This is a familiar and popular promise and rightfully so. Because of God’s love for us and  what Jesus has done for us, if we believe in Jesus, we will not be judged, but we will have eternal life. That is to say, right now. No waiting. God’s life comes into us and this will continue on forever.

4. Jesus will set you free from bondage to sin

“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” – John 8:36

Just before this, Jesus talks about how “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” But the promise is that Jesus is both able and willing to set us free; to break the chains of our bondage so that we can serve God and live a new life.

This doesn’t mean that it will always be easy, and that there won’t be hard choices and difficult times ahead. But Jesus will give us what we need to remain free.

If this is where you are, I encourage you to claim this promise by faith. Ask Jesus to come and set you free.

5. God will provide for your material needs

“But strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” – Matthew 6:33

Notice the condition: seek the kingdom and his righteousness. Give this more thought and time than worrying about how you will gather up what you need for this life. And then, Jesus tells us, God will provide.

Now this is no promise of great wealth. In this scripture here (Matthew 6) the promise is for food and clothing. Like in the Lord’s prayer, we ask for daily bread. The promise is that God will give us what we need, not what we want. But yet, God’s provision is all we truly need.

6. God will providentially watch over you

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than sparrows.” – Matthew 10:29-31

Jesus spoke this to the disciples while teaching them about persecution and the danger of death. Jesus promises that God watches over us as his disciples and knows what goes on in our lives, down to the details.

If we find ourselves in danger, and we are walking with God – we don’t need to fear. God knows what’s going on. Whether it goes badly for us, or we are rescued, we know that we are in God’s loving hands.

7. God will give you wisdom

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” – James 1:5

We need to ask, and we need to ask in faith as James goes on to say. But if we do this, God will give us guidance and good judgment in how to make decisions and how to live our lives. And who doesn’t need wisdom, really, every day of our lives? What a great promise!“It will be given.”

8. God will give you peace

Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:6-7

We don’t need to be stressed out. Rather, we can lift up our burdens to the Lord, give them to him, and ask for his help. And the promise is that God’s peace will guard our hearts and minds to keep the stress away. Like a soldier keeping patrol.

Unless, of course we let our worries back in. We have to let go of them all, and give them to God knowing that he will take care of us.

9. Nothing God calls you to do will be impossible for you

“For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” – Matthew 17:20

 Jesus had commissioned and empowered the disciples to cast out demons as a part of their work. But they had a case they couldn’t handle. Why? Because they thought it was way too hard!

And so Jesus teaches them, and us, that whatever God calls us to do we will be able to do, if we simply trust in God to act for us in each situation. Even if it seems impossible, like moving a mountain from one place to another.

10. God will give you a blessed future

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven . . .. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” – 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

The promise is that Jesus will return. And when he does, all faithful Christians will be resurrected to new life, with a new body.

We have an amazing future ahead! Things might not be going well for us now, but we have blessings waiting for us. And we “will always be with the Lord.” We can keep this in mind when we are going through hard times. In faith, think on these things and be encouraged.

  1. God will forgive your sins.
  2. God will give you the Holy Spirit
  3. God will give you eternal life
  4. Jesus will set you free from bondage to sin
  5. God will provide for your material needs
  6. God will providentially watch over you
  7. God will give you wisdom
  8. God will give you peace
  9. Nothing God calls you to do will be impossible for you
  10. God will give you a blessed future

So these are some of the many “precious and very great promises” that God gives to us, to use the words of 2 Peter 1:4. We will not be presuming upon God if we ask for these things.

But we do have to trust in God to receive all that these verses talk about; to receive the blessings of God. As I have said several times now, without faith, we should not “expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:7). But with faith, “all things are possible” (Mark 9:23). We can receive all that God has for us.

And let’s not be satisfied with what we have already received. We need to up our game! For instance, we need more of the Spirit, some of us need more deliverance, we all need more wisdom, peace in difficult times and power to do God’s will. Let’s raise our expectations and trust in God to act for us, standing on his promises.