Last time we studied Jesus’ calling of the three fishermen as His disciples – Simon (whom He would later rename Peter), and the sons of Zebedee (also called the sons of thunder), James and John. Recall, that Simon had been frightened after the miraculous catch of fish that nearly sank his boat, and – recognizing his own unworthiness in the presence of God’s Holy One – had begged Jesus to depart from him, and that Jesus had reassured him saying, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.”
Continuing in Luke 5, now, we see Jesus’ calling of another of the gospel writers, the tax collector – Matthew.
Luke 5:27-32 (Matt. 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17)27After these things He went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” 28So he left all, rose up, and followed Him.29Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. 30And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”31Jesus answered and said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Both Mark and Luke call this tax collector by the name “Levi.” Only Mathew calls himself by the name “Matthew.” The traditional view is that Levi and Matthew are two names for the same tax collector, but the evidence for that assumption is indirect and incomplete. Apart from the name, all three accounts of Jesus calling of a tax collector to be His disciple are virtually identical…
Luke 5:27-2827After these things He went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” 28So he left all, rose up, and followed Him.
Mark 2:14As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him.
Matthew 9:9As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him.
Furthermore, the stories of the meal in the tax collector’s house that evening are quite strikingly similar in all three synoptic gospels.
The only instances we find associating someone named Matthew with the profession of tax collector are found in the gospel of Matthew (Matthew 9:9 & 10:3). To muddy the waters even further, we find that only Mark refers to the tax collector disciple (Levi) as the son of Alphaeus. All the other gospels (including Matthew) mention Alphaeus only as the father of James.
We’ll stick with the traditional assumption, solely because only one tax collector is mentioned in other lists of Jesus’ disciples elsewhere in the gospel accounts. We must remember, though, that the absence of something in the text doesn’t prove it doesn’t exist. For all we know, this tax collector, Levi, disappeared from the scene, and Jesus called another tax collector, Matthew, who also threw a party that night in His honor.
So, as all good textbook writers say when confronted with a problem they can’t solve themselves, let me just say, “The solution to this problem is left as an exercise for the reader.” Leaving that sticky wicket behind, though, let’s move on to the more important aspects of these callings.
First, we see that Levi’s call was sudden, simple, and brief, and that his response was just as sudden and complete. Just as the three fishermen did, we see Levi (Matthew) here forsake all the aspects of his previous life at the briefest of words from Jesus. In this, Matthew (and the fishermen) model the new birth that Jesus spoke of to Nicodemus…
John 3:3Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Luke 5:29-3029Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them. 30And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Tax collectors were almost universally despised in Roman-occupied Israel. They were de facto legalized extortionists. Just like the position of High Priest, tax collecting positions were bought from the Roman occupiers as profit-making concessions, and tax collectors kept for themselves anything they could extract from the people over and above what was required by the Roman government.
Jesus Himself used tax collectors (taken as a whole, not specific individual tax collectors) as reprehensible illustrations of sinful people in His teachings…
Matthew 5:46-4746For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?
Yet we see in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees at Levi’s house, His heart of love and reconciliation for the individual tax collector, and indeed for all people…
Luke 5:31-3231Jesus answered and said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
The point here is subtle. These Pharisees very likely missed it, as we might also if we’re not careful. Jesus didn’t come to call the righteous, but…
Romans 3:10As it is written:“There is none righteous, no, not one;
On the contrary. He came to call sinners to repentance…
Romans 3:23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
Only those who are sick – all mankind, dying of the lethal diseases of sin and rebellion – are in need of the Great Physician’s healing. Just before His final entry into Jerusalem to fulfill His mission, Jesus made this point more fully in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee…
Luke 18:9-149Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ 13And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Luke 5:33-35 (Matt. 9:14-17; Mark 2:18-22)33Then they said to Him, “Why do the disciples of John fast often and make prayers, and likewise those of the Pharisees, but Yours eat and drink?”34And He said to them, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them; then they will fast in those days.”
These guys were really contrary. Jesus could have come preaching “Motherhood and Apple Pie,” and these guys would have found something wrong with His message. Indeed, Jesus Himself poked them back a little bit on one occasion a little later in His ministry…
Matthew 11:18-1918For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”
On this occasion, though, Jesus once again used their protestations as an opportunity for preaching the Gospel. First notice the abrupt change of subject they made after Jesus’ remark that He had come to call sinners to repentance. Without doubt, some of them were feeling the sting of God’s conviction in this, and sought to turn it away through a little self-indulgent self-righteousness, seeking to justify themselves by pointing out their own fasting, and likening it to that of John the Bapist’s disciples. No doubt they had heard of Jesus’ baptism by John, and were hoping that Jesus would be impressed with their similar piousness.
Jesus simply ignored that aspect of their question, and gave instead the first reference in the gospel accounts to the majestic metaphor of Himself as the bridegroom of those He has chosen out of the world. He often used the symbolism of the bride and bridegroom, being bound together in holy union, as an analogy for His children’s salvation in Him, but this story here in Levi’s home is the first reference we find to His use of this beautiful analogy in His ministry on Earth.
We rejoice in our betrothal to our Lord, here in this earthly flesh, at a distance, anxiously awaiting His call to consummate our marriage with Him in the Spirit in which we will dwell forever in His immediate presence. And yes. We do fast now and again in repentance, and in solemn remembrance of His suffering, and His separation from us until the hour of that call.
Luke 21:25-2825“And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; 26men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.”
Revelation 19:7“Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.”
Luke 5:36-3836Then He spoke a parable to them: “No one puts a piece from a new garment on an old one; otherwise the new makes a tear, and also the piece that was taken out of the new does not match the old. 37And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine will burst the wineskins and be spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined. 38But new wine must be put into new wineskins, and both are preserved. 39And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better.'”
The thread running through all of Luke 5 is the idea of the new birth in Christ. As we have seen, the lives of the four men whom Jesus called to Himself in this chapter were suddenly and radically changed at a mere word from Jesus. In this final parable of the chapter, Jesus speaks of the need for spiritual rebirth in symbolic terms, and closes with a wonderful word of encouragement for the new creature in Him.
When we hear and obey the call of Jesus, as these men did, we are indeed freed from the shackles of the sin which previously bound us, and the ever-present burden of the specter of death.
Romans 6:5-115For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. 7For he who has died has been freed from sin. 8Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. 10For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:1-21There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.
2 Corinthians 5:17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
God knows that we need a complete transformation in order to be saved. It is not sufficient that we hear and believe the Gospel. We need to be completely purged of our sinful nature in order to be made into a fit dwelling for God’s Spirit. This is the total transformation that Jesus spoke of to Nicodemus. Without rebirth in Christ, our sinful nature would make us an unfit dwelling for God’s Spirit, and break our own spirits trying to accommodate Him in an untenable compromise. Thus, both the new wine and the old wineskin would be destroyed.
This teaching is quite clear in the parable. Then Jesus throws a monkey wrench into the works.
Luke 5:39And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better.'”
What is Jesus trying to teach us here? For the Christian believer who is born again in the Spirit, this is a disturbing word indeed. We know in our heart of hearts how unfit we really are (even as born-again believers) to be the dwelling of His perfect Spirit. Paul’s agonized words ring in our ears.
Romans 7:15-2415For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. 16If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. 19For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. 20Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 21I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. 22For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
As King Solomon so succinctly put it…
Proverbs 26:11As a dog returns to his own vomit,So a fool repeats his folly.
Yet, God surely knows our nature, and the world of temptation in which we dwell as pilgrims.
Psalm 103:8-148The LORD is merciful and gracious,Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.9He will not always strive with us,Nor will He keep His anger forever.10He has not dealt with us according to our sins,Nor punished us according to our iniquities.11For as the heavens are high above the earth,So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;12As far as the east is from the west,So far has He removed our transgressions from us.13As a father pities his children,So the LORD pities those who fear Him.14For He knows our frame;He remembers that we are dust.
Hebrews 4:15For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.
Thus Jesus gives a much-needed word of encouragement here at the end of this parable. He knows that we will sometimes remember fondly our previous lives of sin, and be tempted to return to them. Furthermore, the connoisseur of fine wine knows that even the poorest wine will likely improve with maturity, if it is properly cared for. It is this encouragement that Jesus gives us here, just as Paul admonished the Philippian church.
Philippians 1:3-63I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, 4always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, 5for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, 6being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ;
Indeed Paul answered his own question.
Romans 7:24-25a24O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Another aspect of this last verse in Luke 5 that we shouldn’t overlook pertains to our friends and family who knew us in our years BC (before Christ). Most people are discouraged to find that the reaction of our unsaved loved ones to the news of our new salvation in Christ is not always as enthusiastically positive as we might have hoped, to say the least. Many of our friends and family might say something like, “You know, you were a lot more fun before you got religion.” Some of them may get pretty nasty and sarcastic about it, especially if they notice us stumble back into one of our old sins. This can be crushing for us, especially since we will almost certainly continue to struggle with sin after being saved.
Practically, in many cases, new believers are better off simply turning away from the people of our old lives altogether, lest we be dragged back into the mud along with them.
1 Corinthians 15:33Do not be deceived: “Evil company corrupts good habits.”
This turning away from loved ones toward Jesus must be intentional and complete. No new birth can be painless. But although it is soul-wrenching, it is often necessary. Jesus knows the pain this can cause. We can take encouragement (mixed with a little word of warning) in His response to Peter’s boast after Jesus preached the Gospel to the rich young man who was unwilling to leave his riches to follow Jesus.
Mark 10:28-3028Then Peter began to say to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You.”29So Jesus answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, 30who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life.