Bible Study from Calvary Chapel Newberg
with Tom Fuller
An Unknown Sickness
Luke only records the calling of two of Jesus’ disciples: Simon and Levi. There could be many reasons: Simon and Levi were from extremely different socio-economic classes. Simon was a fisherman and Levi and rich tax collector. Perhaps Luke wants to emphasize the fact that anyone and everyone can come to Jesus. They were also from different types of occupations: Simon a blue collar, Levi a white collar. There is also a contrast between how people felt about them. Simon was part of a business partnership with James and John (the family was well connected politically) whereas Levi was a social outcast as someone who worked for the hated Romans, extorting taxes from the Jews. In this section we also see the reaction of the religious leaders to Jesus and His disciples about the fact that people they considered not worthy were welcomed, and Jesus’ startling claims that the familiar and comfortable are not the path to the best future.
27 – 28
This is the only place that Levi is mentioned in Luke’s gospel. He’s also known as Matthew, who wrote the Gospel of Matthew. Levi was sitting in the “tax office” which was likely a toll booth where taxes were paid on goods traveling on the international highway that went through Galilee.
Tax collectors were hated by the Jews because they collected enormous taxes on behest of the Roman government, but they were simply private contractors who could essentially extort anything they wanted from the citizens as long as they paid their agreed upon amount to Rome. Because they were seen as supporting the Emperor, they were hated and considered ritually unclean.
It’s likely that Levi had heard Jesus speak in the area before – as we’ve seen, Jesus took the gospel out of the synagogue to the lakeshore and to anywhere where people were. So, like Simon, there came a time where Jesus wanted Levi to make a decision: continue to rely on his occupation of collecting tolls, or drop a lucrative business to follow Jesus.
We have no insight into Levi’s motivation, but we do know that he was sufficiently satisfied that he’d found something worth far more than money in Jesus. So he left it all behind—so much so that Levi invites all his tax collector friends to a big party in honor of Jesus. This was no secret disciple.
29 – 32
Levi hosts a “grand banquet”. This isn’t just an ordinary party. The Greek word mega is used to signify a big event. Levi invites the others who have also been rejected by the Jews—fellow tax collectors. It’s intriguing to me that so many came. You’d think that the tax collectors would see no need for Jesus—they had plenty of money and who needs friends when you can buy happiness, right? No, they realized they had a lack. Satisfaction goes way deeper than anything security through riches can purchase. There was some sort of inner need or at least curiosity that led them to come and check Jesus out. Many of them ended up following Him.
How about you? What things do you rely on to bring about security and satisfaction in your life? This age seeks to put anything in front of realizing our true lack and coming to Jesus to bring true fulfillment. But the things of this age are like candy bars—they look smell and taste great but only give us a sugar high then leave us flat and depressed.
So the religious leaders, mainly the Pharisees, didn’t like the fact that Jesus and His disciples consorted with “sinners.” In that culture, to sit down at the table with someone was the same as accepting them. They felt that isolation from what they considered bad would keep them “clean”. But Jesus dives right into the crowd and accepts those their society did not.
But notice what Jesus says. He doesn’t accept anything the tax collectors do that is against God’s commands (like “Thou shall not steal”). In fact, He basically acknowledges the fact that these people have violated God’s Law (“to call … sinners to repentance”) and calls on them to change their mind about their former way and cling to Jesus.
I find it ironic in that the Pharisees are just as “sick” as the tax collectors and just as much in need of Dr. Jesus to heal them. At least those at the party see their need—the Pharisees do not.
I think there is something that speaks to us today as well. Without getting into the midst of the debate—there have been many societal moral tidal shifts in the last fifty to sixty years. We have seen our culture, especially when it comes to sexual purity, shift well away from the way things work in God’s kingdom. We as Christians find ourselves in a difficult situation, much as Jesus did. If we hang out with those whom the Bible calls “sinners” then are we condoning the behavior?
Actually, no. Jesus didn’t put on a seminar on how to more effectively extort money, but neither did he shun the tax collectors as the Pharisees did. He dined with them, and shared with them the gospel: that all must repent and follow Him. Our problem is that our view of what constitutes sin is too light, and our view of God’s love is too narrow.
Revelation 22:15 tells us that even to tell one lie is enough to exclude you from heaven. But once we become a Christian, then should we put ourselves into a bubble and only hang out with other Christians? I don’t think so.
In fact, Paul the Apostle had some words of wisdom on this in his letter to the Corinthians:
1Cor. 5:9 “I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10 I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. 11 But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 12 For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? 13 But God judges outsiders.”
We hear the gospel, repented of what we’ve said, thought, and done that is not like God—relied on Jesus to cleanse us from those things and be changed into His character, then we need to reach out with love and acceptance to help others fall in love with Jesus as well.
But how about you? Do you know you are sick? Jer. 17:9 “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” The Pharisees didn’t think they were sick but were desperately ill. We all need to have Jesus, the Great Physician, visit us and heal us and love us.
But the Pharisees were more interested in surface shows of holiness rather than real purity.
33 – 35
Jesus was not against fasting (Matthew 4:2) but also encouraged His disciples to enjoy a good party like that held for Levi. The Pharisees fasted twice weekly, and apparently John’s disciples did the same. But Jesus’ point is that fasting has to have a reason behind it, not a schedule driving it. For now, Jesus the bridegroom, is among them, so it’s a time of rejoicing. Soon, after the cross, it will be time to fast.
This is a danger that we Christians can fall into. We create rituals and certain ways of doing things and then the ritual becomes more important than the reason we did it in the first place. Maybe at some time someone danced provocatively and that tempted someone to sin—so eventually there became a blanket prohibition on dancing, rather than focusing on the need for character transformation.
Jesus is doing something new—something internal, rather than external, which He demonstrates by another parable.
36 – 39
Jesus paints two pictures here. The first tells us that you can’t just patch the old Judaism. Jesus is going to create a new covenant, a new agreement between God and man. The old was based on man’s obedience and animal sacrifice. The new is based on Jesus obedience and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. In the same way you can’t take an un-shrunk piece of cloth and sew it onto an already washed garment—it will pull in as it shrinks and break off. So too, you can’t add to the Law with grace—it isn’t compatible but mutually exclusive.
Secondly He used the illustration of winemaking. Grape juice was put into animal intestines which were fresh—as the fermentation process released gases, the wineskin could expand to accommodate. But to pour unfermented wine into already stretched wineskins would be silly as the expansion would burst the skin and ruin the wine because the old skin can’t make room for the results of the new wine fermenting.
So too, the message of the gospel of grace can’t just be poured into the already used wineskin of Judaism, instead it is poured into the fresh wineskin of the church. The Law can’t “stretch” to accommodate grace—it has to be a completely new thing.
The problem the Pharisees faced is that the tried and true, the already fermented wine, so to speak, of the Law, was comfortable. The gospel isn’t comfortable to those accustomed to the Law.
So last time was about Peter realizing his need in the face of God’s amazing provision and holiness. This time it was about Levi seeing his sickness and need to rely on the Great Physician for healing.
So how about you? Are you more like the Pharisees who come with a skeptical mind to Jesus and judge the kind of people He accepts? Or are you more like Peter—astonished at His goodness and willingness to make clean the unclean. Are you, like Levi, ready to leave it all and follow the new way?