Pastor Scott L. Harris
April 4, 1993
He Came For Sinners
One of the things we must always keep in mind when we are studying or even just reading the Scriptures is that context is king. We must understand the context if we are to understand what the passage means. Over the years, many have preached on the passages we are going to look at this morning by isolating them from their setting. Now to be sure, there have been some very motivating sermons arising from the story of the call of our Lord to Matthew to follow him and the resulting change in Matthew’s heart as seen by the feast he gives so that Jesus can speak to all of his friends. Jesus’ statement that He “did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” is a rich statement that could be preached on for days. There have also been many inspirational sermons presented on the nature of the new life we have in Jesus Christ based on what Jesus says in Matthew 9:17 about new wine being put into new wineskins. In fact there was a church renewal movement started about a decade ago based on this passage. However, those things are not the points of what Matthew is saying.
Turn with me to Matthew 9:9-17. This morning we are going to be examining this passage within its context. Recall that the theme of Matthew’s gospel is that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Matthew is continually stressing that point. In Matthew 8 and 9 we find that Matthew has carefully selected events in the life of Jesus without much concern for the chronological sequence of the stories. Instead we find that Matthew is carefully building a case that Jesus demonstrates authority in areas that only God has authority and thereby demonstrating that Jesus must in fact be God in human flesh. These different areas of authority build in their significance.
Early in Matthew 8 we find Jesus healing a leper with a touch, a paralyzed boy with just a command without seeing him, and Peter’s mother-in-law’s fever. Matthew then tells us that Jesus was healing every disease brought to him and casting out demons as well. Jesus has authority over sickness and disease. (See: Jesus’ Authority Over Disease). Then Matthew relates a story where Jesus demonstrated authority over nature itself by stopping the wind and calming the sea with a simple command of “Hush, be still.” (See: Jesus’ Authority Over Nature). Next, Matthew shows that Jesus has power over the supernatural when He casts out a legion of demons from two men by ordering them to “Be gone.” (See: Jesus’ Authority Over the Supernatural). Jesus has authority over sickness, disease, nature, and the supernatural. And then last week we saw that Jesus has authority to forgive sin. This power is of the greatest significance because sin is the root of all man’s problems, and more than anything else, man needs to have his sins forgiven. (See: Jesus’ Authority Over Sin). Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ authority to forgive sinners with the example of Jesus calling in His own life and the radical difference this offer of forgiveness was in contrast to man’s efforts to gain it for himself.
The context of the passage is the demonstration of Jesus forgiving sinners and the change in life that brings. The setting of the story is given in verse 9, “And as Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man, called Matthew, sitting in the tax office.
No text says how much time passed from Jesus’ healing and forgiving of the paralytic, but now we find that Jesus was going out from Capernaum, and according to Mark’s account, He was going along on the road by the seashore. As he is going along He comes to the tax office. This would be the place where toll fees and duty taxes would be paid by those traveling through the region on that road. Jesus sees a man sitting in the tax office. A man named Levi, or Matthew.
A FORGIVEN PUBLICAN
Matthew 9:9 says Jesus reached out to him saying, “Follow Me!” It seems so simple, but it is overwhelmingly significant. Last week I pointed out that the common thought among the Jews at that time was that a person who was handicapped was crippled in direct relationship to their sin or the sin of their parents or grandparents. That is why the paralytic man was such a good opportunity for Jesus to teach the religious leaders listening to Him that He had the power to forgive sins. When Jesus said to that man, “Take courage, My son, your sins are forgiven.” It was already assumed that man was a sinner in great need of forgiveness.
But now we have the example of Jesus calling one of the most despised classes of people in all Israel to follow Him. Tax collectors as a whole were despised. They were called “publicani” and seen as traitors to the nation. A publican was a national that bought a franchise from Rome that gave them the right to collect the taxes, the tribute, that Rome placed on the countries they had conquered. The advantage to the one who held the franchise to collect the taxes was that Rome asked for a fixed amount, but anything collected above that could be kept by the publican. This led to all sorts of abuses of the system. Now, no one enjoys taxes (except certain politicians that like to levy them). Even in our own country where we do have some say in our taxation through our elected representatives, few regard an IRS agent as an outstanding member of the community. Now imagine if that IRS agent was not collecting taxes for the benefit of your own community and nation, but for another nation, an enemy nation. Add to that indignation the fact that he was getting rich in the deal by collecting more taxes from you than you owed. That gives you some idea about the feelings against these publicans.
Alfred Edersheim reports that a Jewish publican was barred from the synagogue and forbidden to have any religious or social contact with his fellow Jews. He was ranked with the unclean animals. He was put in the class of swine along with robbers and murderers. He was considered a traitor, a congenital liar, and barred from giving testimony in a Jewish court as a person without position.
There were three kinds of publicans, and Matthew was in the worst category. There were the gabbai who collected general taxes such as those on land, property, and income. Next there were the great mokhes who held the franchise from Rome that allowed them to collect a wide variety of taxes including import duties, toll way fees, business taxes, etc. They had almost unlimited latitude in their power and could attach a tax to almost any article or activity including a boat, the fish caught, the dock where the fish were unloaded, a donkey, servants, goods, etc. They could even open private letters to see if a taxable business of some sort might be related to the correspondence. But the great mokhes protected their reputation to some degree by hiring others to do their dirty work. These were the small Mokhes, and that is what Matthew was. The gabbai were despised, the great Mokhes more despised, and the small Mokhes were despised the most.
It was to a small Mokhes named Levi, or Matthew (gift of Yaweh) that Jesus says, “Follow Me!” Matthew must have certainly known about Jesus either from personal experience in hearing Him in person or hearing about Him from the reports of the people. I tend to picture Matthew as a man who has heard the gracious words of our Lord, but looking at himself and saying to himself something like, “Jesus’ words are wonderful, but they could never apply to someone like me who is a publican.” But the day comes when Jesus is walking along the road by the seashore and comes upon Matthew sitting in his tax office and He says to him, “Follow Me!” It was clear to those who saw this take place, and it was clear to the early Jewish readers of Matthew’s gospel, that Jesus extended His forgiveness to even the most despised outcasts of society.
Our text says his response was simple and immediate, “And he rose, and followed Him. Matthew is modest about the personal cost of following Jesus. Luke tells us that “he left everything behind, and rose and followed Him.” Of all the disciples, Matthew paid the highest financial cost in following the Lord. There would be no returning to this job. Someone else would take his post. Matthew knew the cost and willingly paid it without hesitation.
Edersheim says of Matthew, “He said not a word, for his soul was in the speechless surprise of unexpected grace.” Matthew’s further response bears this out. There was no mourning at all about what he had left behind, but extreme joy over the grace extended to him. Luke tells that Levi gave a large banquet at his house for Jesus to whom also he had invited all his friends and co-workers, which since Matthew was restricted from common Jewish society, were the outcasts of Jewish society – other tax-gatherers, prostitutes and criminals. There is no doubt that Matthew wanted them to know what Jesus had done for him and could do for them too. This is what we find in verse 10, “And it happened that as He was reclining at the table in the house, behold many tax-gatherers and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples.” Here is Jesus, God in human flesh, the Holy one of Israel, dining with the outcasts of Jewish society.
THE PHARISEES REACTION
Matthew 9: 11 tells us that all this activity caught the attention of the Pharisees. “And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, ‘Why is your Teacher eating with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” This was not a question of inquiry, but a rhetorical question of rebuke to the disciples of Jesus. The point of their statement to the disciples was a challenge to them along the lines of, “how can you attach yourselves as followers of such a man who associates with such riff-raff.” They reasoned that if Jesus was really a man of God, then He should not be in the company of such sinful people. Jesus should instead be having a banquet with good and upright people like them. Of course, none of them had invited Jesus to a banquet, but regardless, Jesus should not be in the company of those kinds of people.
Now notice something about these Pharisees. First, why are they following Jesus around and standing around watching for who is coming to join Jesus for this banquet? Second, why do they put the challenge to the disciples of Jesus instead of to Jesus Himself? They are not interested in the truth about Jesus or what He teaches, otherwise they would have asked their questions of Jesus Himself. But they have already felt the sting of conviction of their sinfulness when they have talked with Him. Instead their effort is to intimidate the disciples. You would think they would have something better to do, but they are now interested in finding something against Jesus, and this, to them, certainly seems to be a case against Jesus. The Pharisees judged everyone else by their own standards and traditions. As far as they were concerned, righteous people associate with righteous people and sinners with sinners. Jesus claims to be from God, but He associates with sinners, therefore He could not be who He claimed.
Matthew 9:12 & 13 gives us Jesus’ response. “But when He heard this, He said, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'” Jesus makes three arguments against their premise that He should not associate with sinners ,and for His ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation as demonstrated by His willingness to associate with sinners.
One other point should also be made here. People who are sick but refuse to acknowledge it do not go to doctors. I am sure all of us know people like that. It is obvious to everyone else that there is a problem, but they say it is nothing, they’re okay, they will be fine, and they do not go to the doctor even though it is plain to everyone else they need a doctor. Only people who recognize that they are sick go to the doctor. The Pharisees were sick as could be because their hearts were twisted by self-righteousness, yet they saw themselves as in perfect spiritual health. They refused to seek the spiritual physician. The publicans and sinners knew they were sick. They wanted a spiritual physician.
Jesus did not come to call the righteous. If a person could have been truly righteous, there would be no need for a call. The self-righteous would not heed it. Jesus came to call sinners to Him. It is the poor in spirit that enter the kingdom of God. Repentant sinners receive mercy, grace, and salvation. Unrepentant sinners and self-righteous remain condemned in their sins.
What a wonderful truth this is to me because it means that Jesus’ came to call me to Himself. And if you will admit your sinfulness, it means He came to call you.
CONFUSION OF JOHN’S DISCIPLES
Matthew 9:14 brings out the response of another group to Jesus’ message of forgiveness from sin. “Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” It was a legitimate question, yet it also showed their lack of understanding concerning the kingdom of God and the nature of righteousness.
Please make sure you note that these are disciples of John the Baptist asking the question. They should not have still been following him for John had already told his disciples to follow Jesus and that Jesus must increase while he decreases (John 3:28, 30). But for whatever reason, they were still following John. My own view is that these were individuals more interested in reformation of Judaism rather than reconstruction of its very nature that Jesus was talking about. Their question to Jesus, while reasonable, gives evidence of their commitment to the same kind of traditions the Pharisees were following. The Old Testament only specifically commanded one fast per year which was on the Day of Atonement. Yet here they are fasting on the same, or at least similar, schedule as the Pharisees. In practical terms, they did a lot of the same things as the Pharisees, only they acknowledged their sinfulness and the Pharisees did not.
Jesus responds to them gently answering their question and then pointing out the more sweeping change He is bringing about.
OLD & NEW – TWO ILLUSTRATIONS
In the next two verses Jesus illustrates the more radical nature of what He is saying. Jesus is not looking for a reformation of Judaism as practiced by the Pharisees, but a reconstruction of it back to its original basis.
Matthew 9:17, “Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out, and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” Wine was stored in cured animal skins – leather pouches. As time went by, the leather would age and become dry, stiff, and brittle. If you put new wine into them, those leather pouches would rupture under the pressure created by the still fermenting wine. In ancient Israel in the process of making wine, it would be put into wineskins for storage after only aging for about a week. It would then continue to ferment. A new skin, which would be supple and pliable, would easily expand under the pressure increase as the fermentation continued. Fully fermented wine, water, etc., could be put in old wineskins, but new wine had to go into new wineskins.
Reformation of Pharisaical Judaism would not work. Jesus had authority to forgive sin based on mercy and grace. That could not be contained by the self-righteous works system of Pharisaical Judaism. A new container had to be developed to hold Jesus’ teaching about the regenerated heart of a forgiven sinner.
THREE EVIDENCES OF A NEW HEART
Jesus has authority to forgive sin, and He grants forgiveness to those who ask (1 John 1:9). This passage contains three evidences of the regenerated heart that has received that forgiveness.
First, there is a forsaking of sin. When a person truly understands their sinfulness, which comes as a result of the Spirit’s conviction, there is a corresponding desire to get away from it. Matthew’s response to Jesus’ call was without hesitation, leaving behind his sinful occupation. The regenerated heart will seek the same in following Jesus’ call and forsaking sin.
Second, there is an abounding joy in a forgiven sinner. His or her heart is full and desires to share that joy with others just as Matthew did in giving the banquet so that others could hear Jesus.
Third, while there will always be struggle against sin while we are in these earthly bodies, the forgiven sinner has a regenerated heart. There is new wine in a new wineskin. Legalism and ritualism have no place in such a person’s life, for they have entered into a relationship with God in which they are now forgiven. They have been made righteous by His grace. They can cease the vain endeavor to achieve it by their own effort.
Jesus has authority over sin. He can forgive it and will forgive yours if you will turn to Him. If you have received forgiveness, then rejoice and tell others. If you have not, today is the day of salvation. Recognize your sin, confess it to Him, and He will forgive you.
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