The Call of the Disciples
5:1 Now Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing around him to hear the word of God. 5:2 He saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gotten out of them and were washing their nets. 5:3 He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then Jesus sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
Although this passage is not incorrectly termed ‘The calling of the first disciples’, the focus is very much on Peter. It is clear that the Lord had befriended him, and that he had both heard Jesus’ teaching and witnessed his miracles. The leaving of his fishing nets and following of Jesus is not, then, quite so sudden as we might otherwise suppose.
One day = ‘It came to pass’; ‘Once’: indefinite as to time.
Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret – Another name for the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has been thrown of the Synagogue, and so he preaches in the open air. It was just so with the early Methodists: finding the church pulpits closed to them, they preached in the highways and byways.
The people crowding around him and listening – Ordinary people relish plain, faithful preaching of the word of God. Yet how many of these savingly believed?
A person may listen to 100 sermons. Just one of these might be heard and received as ‘the word of God’: but that is the one that will make all the difference.
Word of God – either, the word that is from God, or that is about God. Stein, amongst others, favours the first of these. This is a frequent expression in Luke’s writings (Luke 8:11, 21; 11:28; Acts 4:31; 6:2, 7; 8:14; 11:1; 13:5, 7, 44, 46, 48; 16:32; 17:13; 18:11).
‘It is fashionable in some circles…to play down the importance of preaching in the church. It is claimed that the gospel is conveyed much less effectively by what we say, than by what we do and what we are. There is no avoiding the fact, however, that in these opening scenes of the ministry of Jesus the way God’s message ‘comes across’ is by words: one man speaks, other men hear.’ (Wilcock)
‘Christ was a popular preacher; and though he was able, at twelve, to dispute with the doctors, yet he chose, at thirty, to preach to the capacity of the vulgar.’ (MHC)
The Lake of Gennesaret – The Sea of Galilee, near Capernaum, the home of Simon. It is also called the Sea of Tiberias. It is thirteen miles long by eight miles wide. It lies 680 feet below sea level. Although not very populous nowadays, in the days of Jesus it had nine townships clustered round its shores, none of fewer than 15,000 people.
We can imagine Jesus being pushed back by the crowd, until there was nowhere else to go except in the water or in the boat.
Washing their nets – The nets were made of linen. If they were not washed and stretched out to dry, they would rot. What a thankless task, cleaning nets of seaweed that had yielded no fish at all that night!
‘It had probably been a night of storm on the Lake. For, the toil of the fishermen had brought them no draught of fishes, and they stood by the shore, or in the boats drawn up on the beach, casting in their nets to ‘wash’ them of the sand and pebbles, with which such a night’s work would clog them, or to mend what had been torn by the violence of the waves.’ (Edersheim)
‘Exactly where Jesus taught beside the lake cannot be said for sure, but a possible location is a natural amphitheater situated halfway between Capernaum and Tabgha to the south, where the land slopes gently down to a natural bay. Israeli scientists have verified that this bay can transmit a human voice effortlessly to several thousand people on shore.’ (Edwards)
‘In asking a favor of Simon, Jesus frees him of any debt he may feel toward Jesus for the healing.’ (Edwards) Little did they know that he was soon to make another generous gift to them!
Simon – This was not his first encounter with Jesus. The Lord had recently visited his home, and healed his mother-in-law (Lk 4:38f).
He sat down and taught the people – Hendriksen remarks: ‘Many a time [Jesus] preached or taught at the regular synagogue service, as has already been shown (Luke 4:15, 16), and in Judea also in the temple (Mt 26:55). But he did not limit himself to synagogue and temple. Sometimes he chose a convenient spot on a mountain as his pulpit (Matt. 5:1), or a house (Luke 5:17f.), or a desert (Mark 8:1, 4), or a cemetery (John 11:38). In the present instance speaking while seated in a fisherman’s boat meant not only a more comfortable position but also a better view of the audience and even better acoustics.’
5:4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” 5:5 Simon answered, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing! But at your word I will lower the nets.” 5:6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets started to tear. 5:7 So they motioned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they were about to sink. 5:8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 5:9 For Peter and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 5:10 and so were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s business partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 5:11 So when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
“Put out into deep water” – Jesus’ instruction is counter-intuitive, for the best fishing was to be had at night, and in shallow water. We can imagine the glances that these seasoned fishermen exchanged.
‘Think of Peter’s possible excuses: “I’ve been working all night and I’m tired;” “I know a lot more about fishing than some carpenter;” “The best fishing is at night, not in the day time;” “All these crowds and loud teaching has scared the fish away;” “We already washed our nets;” “Jesus may know religion but he doesn’t know fishing”‘ (Guznik)
We may, however, legitimately ask whether we have ever felt that Jesus couldn’t possibly understand our needs, or feelings, or experiences. Let us be reassured from this that he does.
Night-time was the normal time for fishing on this lake; the fish would be sold the following morning. If they had caught nothing at night, how could they hope to catch anything during the day? But Simon trusts the Master enough to take him at his word. ‘The night was past and that was the time for fishing. All the circumstances were unfavourable, but Peter said, “Let circumstances be what they may, if you say so, we will try again.” Too often we wait because the time is not opportune. If we wait for a perfect set of circumstances, we will never begin at all. If we want a miracle, we must take Jesus at his word when he bids us attempt the impossible.’ (DSB)
Edwards muses: ‘We need not ask what goes through the mind of a professional fisherman in a foul mood when a nonfisherman orders him to do again in bad conditions what he has already tried and failed to do in good conditions.’
As Edwards says: ‘Two voices are audible in Peter’s reply—the professional fisherman and the fledgling disciple, the man of this world and the man of faith.’
Wilcock: ‘As long as Simon’s boat is being used for a pulpit, the owner has no objection to Jesus’s saying in it what he likes. But when it reverts to being a fishing-boat, it is Simon’s once more, and Jesus no longer has a say in how it is to be used. Fishing is Simon’s job. In the same way, people will listen to Jesus, will consider what he says, and will even ask him to ‘make them better’ when they are sick; but for him to do as he does in this fourth episode, and to interfere in their job, their home, their leisure, that is another thing altogether. Those matters have nothing, surely, to do with ‘religion’.’
It was one thing for Jesus to use Peter’s boat as a pulpit. But it was quite another for him to give Peter fishing lessons. What was it about grandmothers and eggs? But Jesus knows more than we do about the everyday events and tasks of our lives. And the religion of Jesus has as much to do with Monday-to-Saturday as it has to do with Sunday. Peter’s response to God’s messenger is an example of faith to all of us.
‘Like Mary, who submitted to the angelic herald at the annunciation in spite of her bewilderment (1:29), Peter trusts the word of Jesus in spite of all experience to the contrary.’ (Edwards)
It was, perhaps, fairly easy for Simon to trust Jesus with regards to teaching, miracles, and demons. But it can be harder to trust him in areas where we feel confident, and think we know best. We must trust Jesus even when the evidence of our senses points to the contrary. We must believe that he can grant us success even when we have failed in the past.
As Calvin says, ‘no apology can be offered for our disgraceful conduct, if, while we call him our Lord, and King, and Judge, (Isa 33:22) we do not move a finger to perform our duty, to which we have ten times received his commands.’
A large number of fish – Christ is able to achieve in a short moment much more that we could achieve over a long period by our own efforts.
They signaled their partners in the other boat – As Edwards says in a footnote, ‘Commentators enjoy speculating why the fishermen signaled rather than shouted. The miracle left them speechless (so B. Weiss); their comrades were too far away to be heard (Plummer); shouting would be discourteous to Jesus (Bengel) or betray their success and attract other fishermen (Bailey) or scare the fish (Bovon). The last suggestion seems reasonable, although one can imagine that motioning rather than shouting attracted less attention to themselves—and to their wounded dignity as fishermen!’
Simon Peter – ‘Luke provided at this point the full name by which Simon is known to the readers of his Gospel because this event marks the call of the great apostolic leader.’ (Stein)
“Go away from me, Lord’ I am a sinful man!” – Cf. Isa 6:5. If we compare ourselves with other people, we might conclude that we are no worse than they. But when we have glimpsed the moral purity and power of Jesus, then the only possible response is one of awe. ‘Jesus does not call the righteous who seek to justify themselves by some standard other than himself; he calls sinners like Peter who drop their defenses and yield to his transformative love and forgiveness.’ (Edwards)
Peter’s reaction shows that he certainly considered what had just happened to be a miracle. Stein suggests that the story should be read as more than a miracle, however. We can understand Peter’s reaction better if we regard this as a theophany, involving a call to service (as in Isa 6:5; Ex 3:4–6; Judg 6:22–23; 13:22–23; Ezek 1:28–2:2; Rev 1:17).
“Lord” does not necessarily imply divinity. Often, it was no more than the equivalent of ‘Sir’. Peter would not come to a fuller and truer view of who Jesus is until Lk 8:22–26; 9:18–20.
‘Ever since Adam fled from the presence of Jehovah in Paradise, the presence of God has been rather a ground of fear and dread, than of hope and joy to fallen man’ (Charles Simeon).
R.C. Sproul reminds us that demons experienced similar fear in the presence of Christ.
William Taylor (The Miracles of our Saviour) suggests that ‘here, as later on the Mount of Transfiguration, we might almost affirm that he knew not what he said…Most certainly, this petition of his was entirely different from that of the Gadarenes when they besought Jesus to depart out of their coasts.’
‘Note, Those whom Christ designs to admit to the most intimate acquaintance with him he first makes sensible that they deserve to be set at the greatest distance from him.’ (MHC)
‘His humility and awareness of his sin do not disqualify him from service; they are the prerequisite for service. Simon’s response recalls the reaction of earlier great servants of God like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who also bowed low in humility when they caught a glimpse of God’s presence (Isa 6; Jer 1:1–10). Jesus does not call those who think they can help God do his work. God does not need or want servants who think they are doing God a favor. Jesus calls those who know they need to be humble before his power and presence.’ (Bock)
Sinners must, with God’s help, overcome this natural aversion to holiness in order to come to Christ for cleansing and forgiveness. ‘Thus, instead of making his sinfulness a reason for entreating the Lord to depart from him, he should rather have urged it as a plea for mercy, saying, with David, “O Lord, for thy name’s sake, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great (Psa 25:11).” (Simeon)
What exactly was it about Jesus, and what was it about himself, that made Peter react in this way? Would we not expect a response of gratitude and joy for this overflowing gift?
Although the title ‘Lord‘ can just mean ‘Sir’, the context here, together with the way it is repeatedly used in Luke, demands that we see it as a lofty – even divine – title.
‘Our sense of sin is in proportion to our nearness to God.’ (Thomas D. Bernard)
Hendriksen comments: ‘In the presence of the holy God sinful man trembles. Other examples: Abraham (Gen. 18:27, 30, 32); Manoah and his wife (Judg. 13:20); Job (Job 42:5, 6); Isaiah (Isa. 6:5); the apostle John (Rev. 1:17). This applies even to groups: Israel (Exod. 20:19; Deut. 5:25); the nations (Isa. 64:2).’
‘Although men are earnest in seeking the presence of God, yet, as soon as God appears, they must be struck with terror, and almost rendered lifeless by dread and alarm, until he administers consolation. They have the best reason for calling earnestly on God, because they cannot avoid feeling that they are miserable, while he is absent from them: and, on the other hand, his presence is appalling, because they begin to feel that they are nothing, and that they are overpowered by an immense mass of evils. In this manner, Peter views Christ with reverence in the miracle, and yet is so overawed by his majesty, that he does all he can to avoid his presence. Nor was this the case with Peter alone: for we learn, from the context, that astonishment had overpowered all who were with him. Hence we see, that it is natural to all men to tremble at the presence of God. And this is of advantage to us, in order to humble any foolish confidence or pride that may be in us, provided it is immediately followed by soothing consolation. And so Christ relieves the mind of Peter by a mild and friendly reply, saying to him, Fear not. Thus Christ sinks his own people in the grave, that he may afterwards raise them to life.’ (Calvin)
Bock remarks that ‘Simon Peter and Jesus represent different sides of the theology that undergirds the community Jesus is forging. Simon, for his part, knows that he is a sinner who is not worthy to experience the benefits of God’s power and presence. There is no presumption that God owes him anything. Jesus, exemplifying God’s grace, makes it clear that such a humble approach to God is exactly what God will use.’
“Don’t be afraid” – Cf. Lk 1:13, 30; 2:10; 8:50; 12:32; Acts 18:9; 27:24.
We would have expected Jesus, in response to Simon’s confession of sinfulness, to have pronounced words of forgiveness. It is possible that he was afraid of losing face in full sight of that large crowd. More likely, he senses the vast moral gulf between himself and the Lord.
Simon was stricken with a sin of guilt and unworthiness which is the natural response of any person in the presence of the divine. (cf. Jud 13:21-22) Jesus’ words, however, were comforting and reassuring. (cf. Lk 1:13,30) The call to discipleship was in terms of Simon’s present occupation. If Christ were to call someone in a modern-day occupation, what words might he use? (E.g. to a journalist: “Follow me, and you’ll have some real news to share!”)
“From now on you will catch men” – As France remarks: ‘catching fish is a skill requiring training, experience, and patience, and so is evangelism.’ And again: ‘“Fishing for people” is a vivid metaphor that aptly encapsulates the essentially missionary nature of the Christian faith. We do not merely wait for recruits to volunteer; we go looking for them.’
Several commentators remark that the expression used here means catching fish alive (in contrast to normal fishing, which involves killing and eating the fish). According to John Drury, the underlying word is used in the LXX for rescuing from the peril of death, rather than the capture of animals. This may be so; although, as a metaphor, the saying works perfectly will either way.
Still, it is noteworthy that the underlying word is used in only one other place in the NT. In 2 Timothy 2:26 Paul speaks of those have fallen into the trap of the devil, ‘who has taken them captive to do his will.’ Conclusion: if we do not catch people for Christ, the devil will catch and use them for his own evil purposes.
‘Like Moses’ experience as a shepherd, David’s as a commander and Joseph’s as an administrator, the background of these disciples as fishermen can provide them a perspective that will help them for their new task.’ (NTBC)
William Taylor reflects that:-
- Some preachers do not use any net at all. They are not attempting to catch anything, except perhaps the approval of others.
- Others use a net with meshes so wide that they let everything through. They speak of the gospel as something distant, rather than a message to be promptly believed; as an abstraction, rather than a life to be lived.
- Still others used a net with meshes so narrow that they would let no one through. Their hearers feel only despair.
Let the preacher so present the gospel that the hearer says to himself, “That means me.” Then he is fishing with a proper net.
Rabbinic disciples usually chose their own teacher. Jesus chooses them.
They…left everything – Cf. v28.
Leaving the two boats laden with that valuable catch of fish behind! (Not abandoned, though: according to Mt 4:22 they left their father Zebedee there, and according to Mk 1:20 also the ‘hired men’). ‘Jesus had not come along with them to give them a good catch and a good day’s wage; Jesus had come to change their professions and priorities forever.’ (Life Application Bible Commentary)
Matthew Henry: ‘When they had brought their ships to land, instead of going to seek for a market for their fish, that they might make the best hand they could of this miracle, they forsook all and followed him, being more solicitous to serve the interests of Christ than to advance any secular interests of their own. It is observable that they left all to follow Christ, when their calling prospered in their hands more than ever it had done and they had had uncommon success in it. When riches increase, and we are therefore most in temptation to set our hearts upon them, then to quit them for the service of Christ, this is thank-worthy.’
We must assume, then, that the miraculous catch of fish was a metaphor for their ultimate success in catching people.
These men were not only being called to discipleship; they were being called to apostleship. Christ does not necessarily require all believers to forsake their ordinary way of life in order to follow him. Still, each of us might ponder the question: What have I given up, or what am I prepared to give up, in order to be a follower of Christ?
What, exactly, to you think might have been included in ‘everything’? What is it about Jesus Christ that makes him attractive enough for people to ‘leave everything’ and follow him? What, exactly, have you ‘left’ in order to be a follower of Jesus Christ?
France comments: ‘In Lk 14:33 we are told that an essential requisite for discipleship is to “give up everything you have,” and in 18:29–30 disciples are those who have left home and family for the sake of the kingdom of God. On the other hand, the continued availability of a boat for the journeys of Jesus and the Twelve (8:22, 37), along with the likelihood that Jesus was based in Simon’s home in Capernaum, cautions against too absolute an understanding of the phrase “left everything.”’
Peter Eaton (Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol 1) observes that the implied call to discipleship does not come at the beginning of the day, after a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast. It comes after a sleepless, backbreaking and fruitless night of fishing, followed by a busy day. And he gives them a job to do. He asks them to keep on working.
‘Must all disciples leave their vocations to serve Jesus? How is the call to believers like and unlike this call to Peter? The answer to that question emerges in the history of the church. As the New Testament letters show, not everyone is called into full-time ministry. In fact, Paul kept right on working as a tentmaker as he ministered. The important element is that the call to walk with Jesus takes on a priority, so that we are prepared to be whatever or wherever God calls us to be. For some, like the healed Gerasene demoniac, it means staying home to testify to Jesus (8:38–39). For others it means traveling with Jesus. For some, it may mean the mission field; for others, it may mean the mission field at their daily job or in a parachurch ministry. The mission is “catching men.”’ (Bock, NIVAC)
It is noteworthy that a man with such power and authority should choose disciples to be with him. Indeed, Jesus will rarely be found except as accompanied by the Twelve. And this will be the pattern until just before the end, when in the Garden of Gethsemane they fail to support him in prayer.
Stein observes a number of parallels with the call of Isaiah: ‘The Lord in his glory appeared to Peter (cf. Luke 5:5–7 with Isa 6:1–4), and this is followed by a sense of sinfulness and unworthiness (cf. Luke 5:8–9 with Isa 6:5–7) and then by a divine commissioning (cf. Luke 5:10–11 with Isa 6:8–13).’
Healing a Leper
5:12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came to him who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed down with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 5:13 So he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing. Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. 5:14 Then he ordered the man to tell no one, but commanded him, “Go and show yourself to a priest, and bring the offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
While Jesus was in one of the towns – It was forbidden for a person with leprosy to enter a town, Lev 13:46: the man may have approached Jesus on the outskirts, or even have been so desperate that he ignored the rule.
Covered with leprosy – Leprosy was a term used for a variety of skin diseases, no doubt including psoriasis and dermatitis as well as the bacterial infection we call leprosy. Approximately 10 million people around the world today still suffer from true leprosy. Luke alone describes the severity of this man’s condition: he was covered with leprosy. The severest form of leprosy was terribly disfiguring. Sufferers were obliged to keep away from other people, Le 13:45-46. They could not earn a living and so depended on charity. Although no blame could be attached to the unfortunate sufferer, their was a deep shame in having leprosy. Indeed, such a person was regarded as as good as dead – socially outcast and ceremonially unclean. We can think today of certain disorders which give rise to an element of social rejection. Are we willing to associate, as Jesus was, with such people? He began, be it noted, where the rabbis left off – for their attitude towards leprosy was one of helpless rejection. So willing was the Messiah to be identified with such sufferers that he himself became one who ‘was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.’
When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground – The attitude of the rabbis was so negative and helpless, that he would have fled from them. But he perceives that Jesus is different. He knows, no doubt, something about his teaching, and has heard tell of his healing ministry. And so he approaches the Saviour with lowly reverence, and with implicit trust.
“If you are willing” – he does not doubt Jesus’ ability to heal him, but is unsure about his willingness to do so.
“You can make me clean” – Leprosy was regarded as a dirty, defiling condition. Accordingly, the man refers to healing as cleansing.
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man – The words and actions of Jesus are varied according to the needs of the one afflicted. The man seems to have kept himself at arm’s length. Lepers were shunned, and this may have been the first time for years that the man was touched by anyone other than another leper.
Jesus didn’t have to touch the man. He could have healed him just as effectively at a distance. Why then did he touch him?
Jesus’ touch spoke volumes. Mk 1:41 tells us that he was filled with compassion. The example of Jesus here was a great inspiration to Francis of Assisi, whose life was changed by meditating on it.
‘Jesus touched the untouchable. His hand went out to the man from whom everyone else would have shrunk away. Two things emerge. First, when we despise ourselves, when our hearts are filled with bitter shame, let us remember, that, in spite of all, Christ’s hand is still stretched out. Mark Rutherford wished to add a new beatitude, “Blessed are those who heal us of our self-despisings.” That is what Jesus did and does. Second, it is of the very essence of Christianity to touch the untouchable, to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgivable. Jesus did-and so must we.’ (DSB)
“I am willing…Be clean!” – In a single breath, Jesus indicates both his willingness and his ability to heal the man. What almighty grace is revealed in the words, “I am willing!” What powerful compassion is evidenced by the command, “Be clean!” Result: an instantaneous cure. The deliverance is as immediate and as complete as was the casting out of the demon, 4:35-36.
Immediately the leprosy left him – In contrast to many alleged healings today, this was an instantaneous and permanent and observable cure of a severe, chronic and observable physical condition.
Leprosy is represented in Scripture as symbolic of sin, Isa 1:6. But do we realise how much more loathsome and shameful the spiritual disease is than its physical counterpart! This story of a remarkable outward healing, however, carries a powerful message about Christ’s willingness and power to cleanse us from the debilitating and disfiguring condition of sin.
Wiersbe comments: ‘This man not only needed to be changed, but he wanted to be changed. Lepers were required to keep their distance, but he was so determined that he broke the Law and approached the Lord Jesus personally. Throughout his Gospel, Luke makes it clear that Jesus was the Friend of the outcast, and they could come to him for help. The man humbled himself before the Lord and asked for mercy. By the grace and power of God, this man was changed! In fact, Jesus even touched the man, which meant that he became unclean himself. This is a beautiful picture of what Jesus has done for lost sinners: he became sin for us that we might be made clean. (2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pet 2:24) Jesus is not only willing to save, (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9) but he is also able to save; (Heb 7:25) and he can do it now. (2 Cor 6:2)’
Matthew Henry comments: ‘1. What we must do in the sense of our spiritual leprosy. (1.) We must seek Jesus, enquire after him, acquaint ourselves with him, and reckon the discoveries made to us of Christ by the gospel the most acceptable and welcome discoveries that could be made to us. (2.) We must humble ourselves before him, as this leper, seeing Jesus, fell on his face. We must be ashamed of our pollution, and, in the sense of it, blush to lift up our faces before the holy Jesus. (3.) We must earnestly desire to be cleansed from the defilement, and cured of the disease, of sin, which renders us unfit for communion with God. (4.) We must firmly believe Christ’s ability and sufficiency to cleanse us: Lord, thou canst make me clean, though I be full of leprosy. No doubt is to be made of the merit and grace of Christ. (5.) We must be importunate in prayer for pardoning mercy and renewing grace: he fell on his face and besought him; they that would be cleansed must reckon it a favour worth wrestling for. (6.) We must refer ourselves to the good-will of Christ: Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst. This is not so much the language of his diffidence, or distrust of the good-will of Christ, as of his submission and reference of himself and his case to the will, to the good-will, of Jesus Christ.
2. What we may expect from Christ, if we thus apply ourselves to him. (1.) We shall find him very condescending and forward to take cognizance of our case: (Lk 5:13) he put forth his hand and touched him. When Christ visited this leprous world, unasked, unsought unto, he showed how low he could stoop, to do good. His touching the leper was wonderful condescension; but it is much greater to us when he is himself touched with the feeling of our infirmities. (2.) We shall find him very compassionate, and ready to relieve us; he said, “I will, never doubt of that; whosoever comes to me to be healed, I will in no wise cast him out.” He is as willing to cleanse leprous souls as they can be to be cleansed. (3.) We shall find him all-sufficient, and able to heal and cleanse us, though we be ever so full of this loathsome leprosy. One word, one touch, from Christ, did the business: Immediately the leprosy departed from him. If Christ saith, “I will, be thou justified, be thou sanctified,” it is done; for he has power on earth to forgive sin, and power to give the Holy Spirit, 1 Cor 6:11.’
Jesus issues a twofold command: negatively, he says, “Don’t tell anyone” – It may be simply that Jesus means, “Don’t just say that you’ve been healed; go through the proper legal procedure, which will demonstrate that you have been completely cleansed.” The man was not only healed, but Jesus made sure that his standing in the public and religious life of the community was restored. However, we also recall that Jesus had forbidden those delivered from demon-possession to speak of their experience, 4:35, 41. So we may add further reasons for this instruction not to tell people about the healing?-
With regard to his friends: although Jesus’ miracles were a form of attestation of his ministry, he did not perform them primarily to impress the crowds, (cf Mt 12:39; Jn 4:48; 20:29) but to demonstrate compassion on the needy. For another perspective on Jesus’ priorities with respect to wonder-working, cf Lk 10:17-20.
With regard to his enemies: a further reason why Jesus sought to limit his wider fame may have been that he did not wish to inflame the antagonism which was already against himself, cf Mk 5:17ff.
Positively, Jesus instructs the man: “Show yourself to the priest” – This was the normal validating procedure for a person claiming to have been cured of leprosy Lev 14:1-32. He went to the priest, who would satisfy himself of the recovery; then a sacrifice would be offered, and the person would take his place back in the community. One wonders how many successful recoveries the average priest would have witnessed!
“As a testimony to them” – ‘People would know that he had been a leper and would be slow to accept him. But if a priest had inspected him and accepted his offering, there was proof that he had been healed.’ (Morris)
Incidentally, Jesus’ words here show his normal attitude towards the law of Moses. But we will immediately go on to learn how he came into conflict with the law, as understood and taught by the teachers of the day.
How important is it that miraculous claims today are verified in some way?
Even though there is a rising tide of opposition to Jesus, he does nothing to deliberately antagonise his opponents. What can we learn from this today?
5:15 But the news about him spread even more, and large crowds were gathering together to hear him and to be healed of their illnesses. 5:16 Yet Jesus himself frequently withdrew to the wilderness and prayed.
Yet the news about him spread all the more – Mk 1:45 tells us that the healed man took the lead in this, even though he had been charged to keep quiet about the healing.
We must suppose that many of these people were attracted to Jesus simply because of what he could do for them. ‘Many desire the gifts of God but repudiate the demands of God.’ (DSB)
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed – It was not Jesus’ plan to become a popular miracle-worker. In the midst of great need and great popularity he felt the need to be alone and to be much in prayer. Those who would do much good publicly, in service to the world, must spend much time privately, in communion with God.
Even though his mission at this time was very largely to teach and to heal (v15), he would often withdraw from the crowds in order to spend time on his own with his Father. Why?
‘People were clamoring to hear Jesus preach and to have their diseases healed, but Jesus made sure he often withdrew to quiet, solitary places to pray. Many things clamor for our attention, and we often run ourselves ragged attending to them. Like Jesus, however, we should take time to withdraw to a quiet place to pray. Strength comes from God, and we can get it only by spending time with him.’ (Life Application)
It was partly, perhaps, their awareness of Jesus’ own habits of prayer that prompted the disciples to ask, “Teach us to pray,” Lk 11:1.
‘How much prayer meant to Jesus! It was not only his regular habit, but his resort in every emergency, however slight or serious. When perplexed he prayed. When hard pressed by work he prayed. When hungry for fellowship he found it in prayer. He chose his associates and received his messages upon his knees. If tempted, he prayed. If criticized, he prayed. If fatigued in body or wearied in spirit, he had recourse to his one unfailing habit of prayer. Prayer brought him unmeasured power at the beginning, and kept the flow unbroken and undiminished. There was no emergency, no difficulty, no necessity, no temptation that would not yield to prayer.’ (S. D. Gordon)
Healing and Forgiving a Paralytic
5:17 Now on one of those days, while he was teaching, there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting nearby (who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem), and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 5:18 Just then some men showed up, carrying a paralyzed man on a stretcher. They were trying to bring him in and place him before Jesus. 5:19 But since they found no way to carry him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down on the stretcher through the roof tiles right in front of Jesus. 5:20 When Jesus saw their faith he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
The crowd – A typical house in Capernaum could have held about 50 people, standing.
They went up on the roof – The houses would have had had an external staircase for accessing the roof.
Through the tiles – Mark’s description of the friends digging through a clay roof appears to fit the situation more accurately. Luke describes the roof in terms that would have been more intelligible to his Hellenistic readers. Both evangelists agree that the men lowered the patient through the roof, and the details of what, exactly, they removed in order to do so are not important.
Their faith – That of the paralysed man and his friends. This faith was evidenced by their determination in bringing the man to Jesus: they obviously believed that Jesus had the ability to heal him. Here is an example of ‘taking the kingdom of heaven by force,’ Mt 11:12.
“Friend, your sins are forgiven you” – This could be understood as ‘God forgives you’ (a prophetic statement similar to Nathan’s in 2 Sam 12:13). The passive expression was characeristically Jewish way of making a pronouncement while avoiding saying the divine name. It would have been understood as, ‘God forgives you.’ The tense signifies, ‘God forgives you at this moment.’ (Lane) However, the statement could also be understood as ‘I forgive you’, which is clearly an assumption of the divine prerogative. The scribes obviously chose to understand it in this sense, since they were already looking for reasons to condemn Jesus.
Jesus’ response seems unexpected and incongruous. However, the OT frequently links healing with forgiveness, so that healing is often an outward sign that forgiveness has taken place, 2 Chron 7:14; Ps 103:3; 147:3; Isa 19:22; 38:17; 57:18-19. Indeed the terms ‘forgiveness’ and ‘healing’ are sometimes used interchangeably, Ps 41:4; Jer 3:22; Ho 14:4. ‘Jesus’ healing miracles are sacraments of forgiveness’ (Cranfield).
The forgiveness of sins takes priority over the healing of the body. Such forgiveness is a deeper need on our part, and a surer sign on Christ’s part, than the healing of the body. Indeed, we must always feel uneasy about supposed miracles which are not rooted in this deeper moral soil. They are, are John is apt to tell us, ‘signs’ pointing to the person of Christ and his spiritual mission, and not merely ends in themselves.
The Jews tended to make a very direct connection between sin and affliction: the greater the affliction, the more serious the sin must have been which caused it, Job 4:7; 22:5-10; Lk 13:4. Jesus himself combatted this error on a number of occasions, Jn 9:1-2. Still that there is a general connection between sin and suffering is not to be doubted: if there had been no sin, there would have been no disease. Jesus’ reaction here may well have been with a view to bringing to the surface this relationship, asserting that the forgiveness of sins has priority over physical healing, and perhaps addressing a particular need in this man.
William Lane comments: ‘Healing is a gracious movement of God into the sphere of withering and decay which are the tokens of death at work in a man’s life. It was not God’s intention that man should live with the pressure of death upon him. Sickness, disease and death are the consequence of the sinful condition of all men. Consequently every healing is a driving back of death and an invasion of the province of sin. That it why it is appropriate for Jesus to proclaim the remission of sins. It is unnecessary to think of a corresponding sin for each instance of sickness; there is no suggestion in the narrative that the paralytic’s physical suffering was related to a specific sin or was due to hysteria induced by guilt. Jesus’ pronouncement of pardon is the recognision that man can genuinely whole only when the breach occasioned by sin has been healed through God’s forgiveness of sins.’
‘All the miracles of healing are in a sense parables of the soul’s deliverance from sin, and therefore the prominent place they occupy in the Gospel story is amply justified.’ (Bruce, The New Testament Documents)
Note that Jesus does not merely proclaim forgiveness, as Nathan had done to David, 2 Sam 12:13; he actually provides it.
Wright, assuming that this was ‘probably Jesus’ own house’ suggests that the words of forgiveness were first of all for the man having been the cause of damage to the roof. Then, Wright speculates, there was something in Jesus’ voice that made those around him realise that some deeper kind of forgiveness was also meant. It was this that made the onlookers uneasy. This interpretation seems an unnecessary complication, and not warranted by the text itself.
Question: if Jesus could pronounce forgiveness of sins before crucifixion, then why was it necessary for him to be crucified?
5:21 Then the experts in the law and the Pharisees began to think to themselves, “Who is this man who is uttering blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 5:22 When Jesus perceived their hostile thoughts, he said to them, “Why are you raising objections within yourselves? 5:23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 5:24 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralyzed man—“I tell you, stand up, take your stretcher and go home.” 5:25 Immediately he stood up before them, picked up the stretcher he had been lying on, and went home, glorifying God.
Teachers of the law – A closed order of legal specialists who had been set apart by the laying on of hands. Jesus came into conflict with them because of his refusal to observe the oral law, which they regarded as binding.
This marks the beginning of human opposition to Christ in this Gospel. The opposition grows in intensity: it begins with the Teachers of the Law thinking to themselves; next they complain to the disciples, 2:16; and then to Jesus himself about the disciples, 2:24; but before long they are accusing him of being in league with the devil, 3:22. But all of the these are but the festering of the murderous hatred which was there at the beginning.
Jesus brings an unavoidable conflict with him. This conflict is between love of God and love of self, between divine law and human tradition, between freedom and bondage, between outward act and inner attitude, is inevitable. When we call a truce in such a battle it is a sure sign that we in danger of sacrificing the whole Christian enterprise.
“Blasphemy” – In Jewish teaching, not even the Messiah could forgive sins. Jesus’ claim to do so was tantamount to a claim to deity – hence their accusation of blasphemy. The punishment for blasphemy was death by stoning, but the evidence had to be incontrovertible. The suspicion of blasphemy became the basis for the condemnation of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, 14:61-64.
How easy it is to see supposed faults in others, and to be blind to one’s own follies! ‘The combination of rigidity in teaching, narrowness of expectation about the Messiah, prejudice about the unpromising pedigree of Jesus (see 2:7 this fellow) and, sadly, maybe more than a little jealousy at his success, causes serious, religious men to be on the side of evil not good, Satan not God. It is a chilling experience to test our attitudes and actions by such criteria.’ (English)
It has been suggested that Mark and Luke is mistaken in putting these words into the mouths of the teachers of the law, and that Matthew (Mt 9:3) corrects them by dropping the phrase. A Dead Sea Scroll called ‘The Prayer of Nabonidus'(4Q242) , written and copied by Jews, contains the words, ‘… an exorcist pardoned my sins. He was a Jew…’. This looks like the privileging of an extra-biblical source over a biblical source. For all we know, a public display of pardon by an exorcist might have aroused the ire of these scribes just as much. And, in any case, it is common knowledge that people will readily exaggerate (turning, ‘God can forgive sin’ into ‘only God can forgive sin’) if not actually fabricate, when it suits them.
Jesus knew what they were thinking – Cf. Jn 2:25; Heb 4:12. Jesus knows the inner secrets of the heart. He reads people’s thoughts like a book.
“Which is easier…?” – The point is that both are impossible for man, but easy for God. The scribes could do neither, but Jesus could do both. And both signify the presence of God’s kingdom, Isa 53:5-6; Jer 31:34; Eze 36:25-27; Mic 7:18; Zec 13:1.
‘Some Jewish teachers accepted miracles as verification that a teacher was truly God’s representative; others did not regard miracles as sufficient proof if they disagreed with the teacher’s interpretation of Scripture.
Jewish teachers knew that only God could ultimately forgive (on the Day of Atonement in response to sacrifice); but they also recognized that healing ultimately came from God. Both were from God but could be announced through God’s agents acting according to his will. Josephus shows us that many false prophets in Jesus’ day claimed to work miracles but actually failed to work them; some of Jesus’ critics may have placed him in this category. His act in front of these witnesses, however, should have challenged them to rethink their case.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)
“But that you may know…” – Presumably spoken to the teachers of the law, although some (e.g. Cranfield and Lane) think that this is a Markan commentary (see next note). This would seem to define the main purpose of the miracle in this instance. One purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to attest to his deity. One reason he healed men’s bodies was that they might know that he also has power to heal their spirits.
“The Son of Man” – A favourite self-designation of Jesus, occurring some fourteen times in this Gospel. However, in most instances it ‘provides the key to Jesus’ self-disclosure to his disciples’ – it seems unlikely that he would have used it himself before his critics. It may be a Marcan explanatory statement (others of which are found in Mk 2:15; 2:28; 7:3-4,19; 13:14) (Lane). The phrase itself is probably derived from Dan 7:13. It portrays Christ especially in his perfect and representative humanity. Yet even in his humanness he has “power on earth to forgive sins.” No angel, no minister, no earthly priest has the power to forgive sins. But Jesus has, and it is to him we must apply for forgiveness. The best of men are but signposts and witnesses to this divine forgiveness.
5:26 Then astonishment seized them all, and they glorified God. They were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen incredible things today.”
“Incredible things” – paradoxos – strange, extraordinary, unexpected things.
What exactly was it that impressed these people about Jesus? What might cause people today to say such things about Jesus Christ?
The Call of Levi; Eating with Sinners
5:27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. 5:28 And he got up and followed him, leaving everything behind.
France characterises the ‘big idea’ of vv27-39: ‘The joyful inclusiveness of Jesus’s ministry contrasts with the joyless ritual of formal religion.’
Jesus has just called three fishermen to himself – unsuitable candidates, in the eyes of many, he now calls someone who is even nearer to the edges of decent society.
‘When Jesus called Levi, he accomplished three things: he saved a lost soul; he added a new disciple to his band; and he created an opportunity to explain his ministry to Levi’s friends and to the scribes and Pharisees.’ (Wiersbe)
A tax collector – ‘Levi…was likely a customs agent, charging import duties on wares brought through this town on important nearby trade routes. Even more than the fishermen, he has a secure and prosperous job, which he abandons to follow Jesus’ call.’ (NT Background Cmt’y)
‘None can justify themselves in their unbelief, by their calling in the world; for there is no sinful calling, but some have been saved out of it, and no lawful calling, but some have been saved in it.’ (MHC)
‘The Jews, who bore the Roman yoke with more impatience than any other nation, excommunicated every Israelite who became a publican; and the disgrace extended to his whole family. Nobody was allowed to take alms from one, or to ask him to change money for them. They were even classed with high-way robbers and murderers, or with harlots, heathen, and sinners. No strict Jew would eat, or even hold intercourse, with them.’ (Geikie)
‘Luke makes a great deal of Jesus’s controversial openness to tax collectors; see 7:29, 34; 15:1, and note especially the parable in which a tax collector is the unexpected “hero” (18:9–14) and the story of the “chief tax collector” Zacchaeus (19:1–10).’ (France)
Levi – This was his given name; his ‘Christian name’ was Matthew: that is what he calls himself in Mt 9:9; 10:3, and that is the name given to him in all the lists of the disciples, Mt 10:3; Mk 3:18; Lk 6:15; Acts 1:13. According to Mk 2:14 he was son of Alpheus. His response to Jesus’ call would not have been completely out of the blue: he would have heard Jesus teaching around Capernaum, and he would have seen the miracles.
It is quite possible that it was Jesus himself who gave the name ‘Matthew’ (meaning ‘gift of Jehovah’) to Levi. Cf. Mk 3:16; Jn 1:42. However, it is also possible that he had two names from the beginning; cf. Jn 11:16.
‘The name Levi may be an indication that he was from the tribe of Levi, and therefore was familiar with Levitical practices…As a tax collector he would have been trained in secular scribal techniques, and as a Galilean Jewish Christian he would have been able to interpret the life of Jesus from the perspective of the OT expectations’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)
His tax booth – Levi was a collector of taxes under Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. His booth was probably on the major route which linked Syria and Egypt and which passed through Capernaum. Taxes were collected on merchandise that passed on this route.
“Follow me” – And Levi did so, leaving everything, including his lucrative business, v28. Jesus was a magnet, not a repellent. Which are we?
‘We find not that Matthew looked after Christ, or had any inclination to follow him, though some of his kindred were already disciples of Christ, but Christ prevented him with the blessings of his goodness. He is found of those that seek him not. Christ spoke first; we have not chosen him, but he hath chosen us.’ (MHC)
Important Romans would pay considerable sums of money in the treasury for the right to collect revenue on exports from and imports to a province. They often sub-let this privilege to ‘chief publicans’ (like Zacchaeus) who in turn appointed others (such as Levi) to do the actual collecting. Booths were located at places such as Caesarea, Capernaum, and Jericho.
Tax Collectors would charge whatever the traffic would bear – often very large sums. They therefore had a reputation as extortionists. But they were also regarded as traitors, since they in the service of foreign oppressors.
Mt 9:10-11; 11:19; 21:31-32; Mk 2:15-16; Lk 5:30 7:34; 15:1; 19:7.
‘Of all people in Palestine the tax-collectors were the most hated. Palestine was a country subject to the Romans; tax-collectors had taken service under the Roman government; therefore they were regarded as renegades and traitors.
The taxation system lent itself to abuse. The Roman custom had been to farm out the taxes. They assessed a district at a certain figure and then sold the right to collect that figure to the highest bidder. So long as the buyer handed over the assessed figure at the end of the year he was entitled to retain whatever else he could extract from the people; and since there were no newspapers, radio or television, and no ways of making public announcements that would reach everyone, the common people had no real idea of what they had to pay.
This particular system had led to such gross abuses that by New Testament times it had been discontinued. There were, however, still taxes to be paid, still quisling tax-collectors working for the Romans, and still abuses and exploitation.
There were two types of taxes. First, there were stated taxes. There was a poll tax which all men from 14 to 65, and all women from 12 to 65, had to pay simply for the privilege of existing. There was a ground tax which consisted of one-tenth of all grain grown, and one-fifth of wine and oil. This could be paid in kind or commuted into money. There was income tax, which was one per cent. of a man’s income. In these taxes there was not a great deal of room for extortion.
Second, there were all kinds of duties. A tax was payable for using the main roads, the harbours, the markets. A tax was payable on a cart, on each wheel of it, and on the animal which drew it. There was purchase tax on certain articles, and there were import and export duties. A tax-collector could bid a man stop on the road and unpack his bundles and charge him well nigh what he liked. If a man could not pay, sometimes the taxcollector would offer to lend him money at an exorbitant rate of interest and so get him further into his clutches.
Robbers, murderers and tax-collectors were classed together. A tax-collector was barred from the synagogue. A Roman writer tells us that he once saw a monument to an honest tax-collector. An honest specimen of this renegade profession was so rare that he received a monument.
Yet Jesus chose Matthew the tax-collector to be an apostle.’ (DSB)
Levi got up, left everything, and followed him – The same is said of Simon, James, and John in Lk 5:11. In saying that Levi ‘left everything’, Luke records a detail that Matthew himself leaves out. ‘Had Matthew said this, it would have been a commendation of himself, utterly unlike the evangelists. No men were ever farther from praising themselves than they were.’ (Barnes)
This looks like a remarkably sudden response. However, it may well be that Matthew already knew Jesus. (Peter, Andrew, James and John had known Jesus for something like a year before their call (Mt 4:18-22; Jn 1:35-51).
Hendriksen (on Matthew) comments: ‘It is well-nigh certain that Matthew, who lived and worked in Capernaum, the very place which Jesus had chosen as his headquarters, had had frequent previous contacts with the Master and that when the call came he had already surrendered his heart to him and the cause he represented.’
Levi made a considerable sacrifice in giving up his lucrative business. Moreover, in comparison with the fishermen, it would have been much harder for him to return to his livelihood.
He left wealth and secure employment. But he gained far more than he lost.
‘We wonder how much Matthew knew about Jesus. Our Lord’s friendship with Peter and his partners would put him in touch with the businessmen of Capernaum, and certainly Matthew had heard Jesus preach by the seaside. Matthew instantly obeyed the Lord’s call, left everything, and followed Jesus. He was so overjoyed at his salvation experience that he invited many of his friends to rejoice with him.’ (see Lk 15:6,9,23) (Wiersbe)
What is meant by ‘left everything’, since we read in the next verse that ‘Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house’? ‘Matthew disregarded every hindrance, and gave up himself entirely to Christ, but yet did not abandon the charge of his own domestic affairs. When Paul, referring to the example of soldiers, exhorts the ministers of the word to be free and disentangled from every hindrance, and to devote their labors to the church, he says: “No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of life, that he may please the commander,” (2 Tim 2:4) he certainly does not mean, that those who enroll themselves in the military profession divorce their wives, forsake their children, and entirely desert their homes; but that they quit their homes for a time, and leave behind them every care, that they may be wholly employed in war. In the same manner, nothing kept Matthew from following where Christ called; and yet he freely used both his house and his property, as far as the nature of his calling allowed. It was necessary, indeed, that he should leave the custom-house: for, had he been detained there, he would not have been a follower of Christ.’ (Calvin)
Although it is likely that Levi had already heard about Jesus, and that Jesus explained his call in more detail than is recorded here, the response is nevertheless remarkably decisive.
5:29 Then Levi gave a great banquet in his house for Jesus, and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 5:30 But the Pharisees and their experts in the law complained to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 5:31 Jesus answered them, “Those who are well don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. 5:32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Then – It seems that this took place some while after the call of Levi, Mt 9:18 informs us that the visit of Jairus took place during this meal, whereas Mk 5:21 and Lk 8:40 tell us that that visit did not take place until after the Lord’s return, at a later time, from the country of the Gadarenes (JFB).
Levi held a great banquet – To eat with someone was a sign of friendship. This is another detail self-effacingly omitted by Matthew himself.
Hendriksen (on Matthew) suggests that this banquet may be considered as a kind of ‘farewell’ meal, marking the dramatic change from the old life to the new.
‘What is so wonderful about Levi is that surrendering everything made him “the happiest man in the world.” (Hendriksen)
‘Jesus’ invitation for Levi to follow him constituted a great honor, especially for one who would have normally been excluded from religious circles. That Levi should respond by throwing a party for him is not surprising; repaying honor was an important part of social life in antiquity. Table fellowship indicated intimate relations among those who shared it, and given the nature of ancient banquets, it was natural for a well-to-do person to invite his (former) colleagues and also subordinates to a feast.’ (NT Background Cmt’y)
‘Levi wishes to celebrate by introducing Jesus to his friends. Such is often the case with recent converts to Jesus. Unchurched friends are often the first to hear about the new discovery. So it should be. The tragedy is that after people have been in the church for a time, they find it hard to relate to outsiders. Jesus does not suffer from this problem; he consciously makes an effort to associate with those outside his community. He does not run or hide from the world in need, but engages with it realistically so its real needs can be addressed. Often what wins an outsider to God is a genuine friendship. Despite Levi’s low social status, he feels free to associate with Jesus. Jesus’ invitation has made that clear.’ (IVP NT Cmt’y)
‘Unlike some church people in many parts of the world, Jesus was totally relaxed in the presence of ‘sinners’ and outsiders of every kind. They loved to be with him.’ (Green, on Matthew)
‘Jesus’ willingness to have table fellowship with such a sordid group undermined basic Pharisaic standards of acceptable behavior. The ancient world found a great symbolic value in sharing a meal. Not only were ritual factors to be considered, eating meals together also symbolized the most solemn and intimate of social relationships’ (College Press)
‘This feast was made expressly for our Lord, and was attended by many publicans, probably men of wicked character; and it is not improbable that Matthew got them together for the purpose of bringing them into contact with our Lord to do them good. Our Saviour did not refuse to go, and to go, too, at the risk of being accused of being a gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners, Mt 11:19. But his motives were pure. In the thing itself there was no harm. It afforded an opportunity of doing good, and we have no reason to doubt that the opportunity was improved by the Lord Jesus. Happy would it be if all the great feasts that are made were made in honour of our Lord; happy if he would be a welcome guest there; and happy if ministers and pious people who attend them demeaned themselves as the Lord Jesus did, and they were always made the means of advancing his kingdom. But, alas! there are few places where our Lord would be so unwelcome as at great feasts, and few places that serve so much to render the mind gross, dissipated, and irreligious.’ (Barnes)
A large crowd of tax collectors and ‘sinners’ – ‘The tax-collectors were regarded by the Pharisees as religiously ‘unclean’ because they worked for the Romans and hated because they fleeced their fellow-Jews and filled their own pockets very successfully. The sinners who are here associated with them included prostitutes, criminals and other people with an unsavoury reputation.’ (NBC)
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law – lit., ‘the Pharisees and their scribes’. They would scarcely have attended the banquet themselves; but either they observed what was going on, or they heard about it later. Either way, they involved themselves, not to rejoice, but to find fault.
Pharisees – The very word means ‘separated ones’, and this implies the exclusion of sinners. Jesus, on the other hand, welcomed them.
‘A contrasting attitude emerges in the grumbling among Jewish leaders. Their commitment to purity, their sense of what God requires of them and their fear of risking exposure to the world cause them to shun outsiders and criticize those who try to relate in a healthy and engaging way to sinners.’ (IVP NT Cmt’y)
‘Those Scribes and Pharisees had a view of religion which is by no means dead.
(i) They were more concerned with the preservation of their own holiness than with the helping of another’s sin. They were like doctors who refused to visit the sick lest they should be injured by some infection. They shrank away in fastidious disgust from the sinner; they did not want anything to do with people like that. Essentially their religion was selfish; they were much more concerned to save their own souls than to save the souls of others. And they had forgotten that that was the surest way to lose their own souls.
(ii) They were more concerned with criticism than with encouragement. They were far more concerned to point out the faults of other people than to help them conquer these faults. When a doctor sees some particularly loathsome disease, which would turn the stomach of anyone else to look at, he is not filled with disgust; he is filled with the desire to help. Our first instinct should never be to condemn the sinner; our first instinct should be to help him.
(iii) They practiced a goodness which issued in condemnation rather than in forgiveness and in sympathy. They would rather leave a man in the gutter than give him a hand to get out of it. They were like doctors who were very much concerned to diagnose disease, but not in the least concerned to help cure it.
(iv) They practiced a religion which consisted in outward orthodoxy rather than in practical help. Jesus loved that saying from Hos 6:6 which said that God desired mercy and not sacrifice, for he quoted it more than once. (compare Mt 12:7) A man may diligently go through all the motions of orthodox piety, but if his hand is never stretched our to help the man in need, he is not a religious man.’ (DSB)
“Why do you eat and drink…?” – For to do so was to be contaminated by them. The rabbis said, ‘The disciples of the learned shall not recline at table in the company of the people of the soil.’
‘To eat with someone, usually referred to as table-fellowship, was a sign of friendship and compatibility. By eating with these people Jesus was identifying with them.’ (Evans)
Tax collectors – Jewish tax collectors and their families were despised and treated as outcasts. They could not act as witnesses and were expelled from the synagogues.
‘Sinners’ – The term is used here for people dismissed by the Pharisees as inferior because they had no interest in the scribal tradition. Such people, for example, did not eat their food with ceremonial cleanness, and it was a disgrace for a Jesus to share in a meal with them. The rabbis had a rule which said, ‘The disciples of the learned shall not recline at table in the company of the people of the soil.’ The term includes notorious sinners and also those who refused to observe the law of Moses as interpreted by the teachers of the law, Jn 7:49. The term was applied to tax collectors, adulterers, robbers, and the like. Jesus welcomes notorious sinners, without condoning their behaviour, v32. Such people are ‘the lost’ who must ‘be found’, Lk 15:1-4; 19:10.
Blomberg (NAC) explains that two groups of people would have been designated ‘sinners’: (a) ‘the people of the land’ – the vast majority of ordinary people who did not follow the strict code of the Pharisees; (b) notorious sinners, . Here, says Blomberg, it is the second group that is being referred too (Jesus and his disciples were themselves ‘people of the land’ and would not have provoked criticism by eating with their own kind).
These terms denote two well-known groups of people who were despised by the Pharisees.
Jesus’ reply is not in terms of his own liberty (“I can enjoy a meal with whoever I want to”) but in terms of doing good.
Accepting for the sake of the argument the Pharisaic distinction between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘sinners’, Jesus explains why he is associating with the latter: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” – Variations of this maxim can be found in both Jewish and non-Jewish sources. Its validity would not have been questioned by the Pharisees.
These are ironic words. ‘There are, of course, no “healthy” under God’s expert examination, but there are lots of people who think they are. Such people do not see their need of a doctor, although they harbour germs of the same fatal disease of sin which they condemn in its cruder forms in others.’ (Green, on Matthew))
‘The remark takes the Pharisees’ perspective, though it does not endorse their righteousness. Jesus’ point is that those who know they need help will respond to the Physician.’ (IVP NT Cm’ty)
‘When he associates on intimate terms with people of low reputation he does not do this as a hobnobber, a comrade in evil, “birds of a feather flocking together,” but as a physician, one who, without in any way becoming contaminated with the diseases of his patients, must get very close to them in order that he may heal them!’ (Hendriksen, on Matthew))
‘When Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners,” we must understand what he was saying. He was not saying that there were some people who were so good that they had no need of anything which he could give; still less was he saying that he was not interested in people who were good. This is a highly compressed saying. Jesus was saying, “I did not come to invite people who are so self-satisfied that they are convinced they do not need anyone’s help; I came to invite people who are very conscious of their sin and desperately aware of their need for a saviour.” He was saying, “It is only those who know how much they need me who can accept my invitation.”‘ (DSB)
‘The first step toward healing sin sickness is admitting that we have a need and that we must do something about it. False prophets give a false diagnosis that leads to a false hope; (Jer 6:14) but the servant of God tells the truth about sin, death, and hell, and offers the only remedy: faith in Jesus Christ. The religion of the scribes and Pharisees could offer no hope to Matthew’s friends, but Jesus could.’ (Wiersbe)
‘What a wonderful Physician Jesus is! He comes to us in love; he calls us; he saves us when we trust him; and he “pays the bill.” His diagnosis is always accurate and his cure is perfect and complete.’ (Wiersbe)
‘Alas! let those that never saw, or felt the evil of sin, be told of rest, peace, and pardon in Christ, they will but despise it as a thing of no value, Lk 5:31 “The whole need not a physician, but those that are sick.” Bid a man that thinks himself sound and whole go to a physician and he will but laugh at the motion; if you offer him the richest composition, he will refuse it, slight it, and it may be, spill it upon the ground. Ay, but if the same man did once feel an acute disease, and were made to sweat and groan under strong pains, if ever he come to know what sick days and restless nights are, and to apprehend his life to be in imminent hazard; then messengers are sent, one after another, in post-haste to the physician; then he begs him with tears to do what in him lies for his relief:he thankfully takes the bitterest potions, and praises the care and skill of his physician with tears of joy. And so the patient’s safety and the physician’s honour are both secured.’ (Flavel)
‘I used to bristle when I heard someone accuse Christianity of being a “crutch” religion, a faith that attracted the poor and the crippled and those who could not quite make it on their own. But the more I read the Gospels and the Prophets, the more willingly I admit to a “crutch” faith. Those who make such disdainful comments about Christianity are usually self-confident, successful over-achievers who have made it on their own by looking out for number one, without asking anyone for help.
Frankly, the gospel has little offer people who refuse to admit need. Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus said, and those who mourn, and the persecuted. Basic repentance requires me to come prostrate before God and admit that God, not I, is best qualified to tell me how to live. (Perhaps for this reason Jesus singled out the wealthy as the group least likely to enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (Yancy, Church Why Bother?, p56)
‘Over against the Pharisaic idea of salvation by segregation Jesus sets up the new principles of salvation by association.’ (W. Manson)
Here is one of Jesus’ ‘mission statements’ (Bock, IVP NT Cmt’y). For others, see Lk 7:34; 12:49, 51; 18:8; 19:10.
‘Jesus does not disagree with the Pharisaic assessment of those who live beyond the edge of respectable society: they are sinners. But he brings to bear a radically different perspective. Where Pharisaic interest stopped short at assessment, Jesus? concern moves on to treatment: the sinners are sick and needing to be helped, not contaminating and deserving to be spurned. At the heart of Jesus’ mission is the calling of sinners to repentance.’ (WBC)
What did Jesus mean by the words ‘righteous’ and ‘sinners’?
This is why Jesus is associating with such people: it is to meet their need. He befriends them, not to show approval for their life-styles and behaviour, but to bring healing and forgiveness. “I have not come to call the righteous” – Either Jesus is speaking hypothetically (“- supposing any could be found”) or he is referring to those who think they are righteous..
Ryle quotes Stella, a Spanish commentator, as saying, ‘You must not understand from this, that Christ found some who were righteous. For the sentence of Paul is true: “all have sinned.” Christ calls these Scribes and Pharisees righteous, not because they were really so, but only according to the common estimation and appearance of them.’
“I have…come” – ‘Of Jesus alone it may be said in real and literal sense that he came to the world, for he existed from eternity before his incarnation.’ (Geldenhuys)
“…but sinners to repentance” – or, ‘to reform’. Only Luke adds this. To those who like to stress that Jesus meets people ‘where they are’ we need to say, ‘Yes, but he doesn’t leave them there’. As Evans says: ‘by associating with the unrighteous, Jesus is not advocating a lowering of proper biblical standards of righteousness. On the contrary, the purpose of his ministry is to make it possible for the fallen to be lifted up to God’s standards of righteousness.’
‘Jesus’ offer of the kingdom to all on the condition of repentance led to the charge that he associated with tax-collectors and sinners, which his opponents considered offensive to God’s righteousness. (Mt 9:10-13; 11:19; Mk 2:15-17; Lk 5:30-32; 7:34; 15:2) The offense probably lay not in the fact that Jesus taught that God would forgive the repentant, but that Jesus actively sought out sinners and offered them the possibility of eschatological forgiveness. In Jesus’ opponents’ view, sinners ought to take the initiative.’ (EDBT)
‘That we are sinful was taught by Jesus. He made no special point of emphasizing this. It was simply taken for granted. (Mt 7:11) What is extraordinary about Jesus’ attitude is that he did not see this as an ultimate barrier between us and God but as a platform from which to rise. Indeed, we must start with the frank recognition of our helplessness if we are to make any progress at all. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance,” is how Jesus put it. (Lk 5:32) Jesus saw the tragic consequences of sin everywhere, rebuked the self-righteous who would not acknowledge their own sinfulness, and severely criticized those who caused other people to sin. (Lk 17:1-2) But Jesus looked beyond sin to the ultimate intention of God for us. Our sinfulness is not the essence of what we are but rather a distortion of that essence. Salvation in God’s kingdom restores us to what God intended us to be. ‘ (EDBT)
Christ’s invitation is not to the self-righteous, but to sinners. And these are not told to repent and then come, but to come, that they might repent. Here is the fundamental difference between the religion of Christ, and all others, including Rabbinism. These latter demand life, the former imparts it. Indeed, the very word ‘Pharisee’, meaning ‘separated one’, implies the exclusion of sinners.
Jesus came to call the sinners, the lost, the straying, the beggars, the burdened, the hungry and thirsty. See Mt 5:6; 11:28-30; 22:9f; Lk 14:21-23; ch 15; 19:10; Jn 7:37f. This is in accord with God’s revelation generally, Isa 1:18; 45:22; 55:1,6,7; Jer 35:15; Eze 18:23; 33:11; Ho 6:1; 11:8; 2 Cor 5:20; 1 Tim 1:15; Rev 3:20; 22:17.
Do we have the same attitude as Jesus? Or are we too ready to dismiss people as ‘unsavable’ because of their reputation? Associating with the ungodly and the unlovely involves risks. That is why, no doubt, James enjoins involvement with such people but also to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (Jas 1:27) There is a danger of Christians developing their own subculture, and becoming increasingly isolated from the world. We need to keep in mind the example of Jesus: he was sustained by a life of communion with the Father, and fellowship with his disciples, from which base he could go into the most unlikely of places and win people to faith.
The gospel is like a phone call. The caller asks, “Is there anyone there who answers to the name of ‘sinner’?” The kingdom is ‘for sinners only.’
‘The highest vocation of the church of Christ always remains to call sinners to repentance to the glory of God. The church must never be satisfied to preach to “respectable” people only, but should continually be engaged in evangelising those who have fallen into sin or who religiously are outsiders. If Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance, this is also the supreme function of his church.’ (Geldenhuys)
N.T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God) favours a national, rather than a personal understanding of ‘repentance’ in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is calling upon the nation to repent of a desire to overthrow the Romans by force. Yet our Lord’s teaching on repentance in the present passage is in the context of his eating and drinking with tax collectors, who were hardly likely to harbour a desire to wage war against the Romans, with whom they were in collusion.
France invites the preacher to ask: ‘What are some contemporary examples of ministries that similarly go outside the church’s comfort zone to reach those in most need? What could we do to expand our ministry in this direction? Are there dangers in such outreach? Why is it not more prominent in modern Christian ministry?’
The Superiority of the New
5:33 Then they said to him, “John’s disciples frequently fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours continue to eat and drink.” 5:34 So Jesus said to them, “You cannot make the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? 5:35 But those days are coming, and when the bridegroom is taken from them, at that time they will fast.”
‘Jesus’ meal with sinners is not the only thing that bothers the leadership. He hangs out with outsiders and he does not follow the usual practices of piety.’ (Bock)
They – Mt 9:14 identifies the questioners as disciples of John; Mk 2:18 makes it clear that both John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting at the time.
Jesus did not disapprove of fasting in itself, Mt 6:16-18.
The required public fasts were only three in number: the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29,31 23:27-32; Num 29); the day before Purim; and the ninth of Ab, commemorating the fall of Jerusalem.
In the time of Christ, the Pharisees fasted twice a week (on Mondays and Thursdays), Lk 18:12. They would wear sackcloth, rub ashes on their faces, and sucked their cheeks in to look as gaunt and as miserable as possible – so as to show God (and people) how pious they were.
John’s followers were probably fasting in mourning for him.
How likely would Christians today be accused of being ‘too cheerful’?
The bridegroom – The Messiah is not represented in the OT as a bridegroom. But God himself is. As Edwards (Pillar, Mark) says, ‘At the baptism Jesus is declared to be God’s Son and is endowed with God’s Spirit. His divine status and empowerment combine in his exousia, his divine authority, to defeat demonic powers (Mk 1:25) and even to forgive sins (Mk 2:10). The imagery of the bridegroom recalls not a messianic function but the person of God himself. In this suggestive metaphor Jesus continues, naturally and without arrogance, to presume the prerogatives of God to himself. The upshot of the wedding imagery is thus not unlike the forgiveness of sins in Mk 2:7, which invited hearers to supply their own answer to Jesus’ identity. Both episodes are provocations to see that the role and mission of God are now present in Jesus.’
Here, then, Jesus identifies himself with the OT bridegroom, Isa 5:1; 54:5–6; 62:4–5; Ezek 16:6–8; Hos 2:19, who is God in covenant relation with Israel. See also Mt 25:1-14; Rev 21:2. Jewish weddings were particularly joyous occasions. Celebrations could last up to a week, and fasting was unthinkable, since fasting was associated with sorrow.
Is the Bridegroom still with us today? Is ours a time for feasting or fasting?
When the bridegroom will be taken from them – Clearly a reference to our Lord’s death (and possibly reminiscent of Isa 53:7; see also Lk 2:34f and its anticipation of Jesus’ violent death). According to Jesus’ teaching in John 16:16–22, the disciples grief will turn to joy.
Edwards (Pillar, Mark), remarks that this is ‘an abrupt and dismaying image. In a normal wedding it is the guests who finally leave the groom and bride to begin life together. But Jesus interjects the alien thought of the groom being forcibly removed from the wedding celebration.’
Stein (NAC) explains that the time of grieving would be ‘between the period of Jesus’ ministry and the time between his arrest and resurrection (Lk 24:17–20; cf. also John 16:20; 20:11–13). The period after the resurrection was not characterized by sorrowful fasting but rather by joy (Luke 24:41, 52; Acts 8:8; 13:52).’
“They will fast” – ‘This expression has led many to suppose that from the time when our Lord Jesus Christ left the world, literal fasting from meats and drinks at certain seasons, was to be the duty of all Christians.
There seems no ground for this sweeping conclusion. That fasting and abstinence were occasionally practised by believers after our Lord’s ascension is clear and plain. That all who may find the practice useful and helpful to their souls at the present day are right in fasting, if they do it without ostentation, is also plain. But the utter absence of any direct injunction, or command to keep fasts in the Church of Christ, either in the Acts or Epistles, and specially in the Epistles to Timothy and Titus, makes it clear that the matter is one which should be handled with caution, and on which every one must be “persuaded in his own mind.”
The words before us appear to have a deeper meaning than any mere abstinence from food. They seem to foretell that the period of time between our Lord’s first and second advent must be a time of mourning and humiliation to all true believers. They describe the state of mind in which all true Christians should live until their Lord returns. It is a time for daily and hourly self-denial, and mortification. The time of fulness and satisfaction cannot be till we see the Bridegroom amongst us again.’ (Ryle)
Although, as noted, we think first of the period between Jesus’ arrest and his resurrection as a time of grieving, there will be other times of trouble, when fasting will be appropriate. ‘“Conflicts on the outside, fears within,” is how Paul described the long haul and lonely watches of Christian discipleship (2 Cor 7:5). It was with reference to sustaining the life of faith and growth into Christ-likeness that fasting continued to be practiced in early Christianity. The discipline of physical privation in fasting was an aid to watchfulness, contrition, and strength and sensitivity in Christian life.’ (Edwards, Pillar, Mark)
Hendriksen: ‘The important truth which Jesus here reveals and which makes the passage so practical and filled with comfort especially for today is that for those who acknowledge Christ as their Lord and Savior the proper attitude of heart and mind is not that of sadness but that of gladness. If it be true that “God with us” (Immanuel) spells joy for believers, should not “God within us” (the situation on and after Pentecost) awaken in every child of God joy unspeakable and full of glory? It was in order to bring such abounding joy that Jesus came on earth and that he, through his sacrificial death, brought salvation full and free. See Luke 2:10: “good tidings of great joy”; 24:52: “they … returned to Jerusalem with great joy”; John 15:11: “that your joy may be full”; 17:13: “that they may have my joy made full in themselves.” The apostles learned that lesson (Rom. 5:11; 15:13; Gal. 5:22; Philippians, the entire epistle; 1 Peter 1:8; 4:13; 1 John 1:4; 2 John 12).’
5:36 He also told them a parable: “No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old garment. If he does, he will have torn the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 5:37 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 5:38 Instead new wine must be poured into new wineskins. 5:39 No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is good enough.’ ”
As France remarks, ‘the Pharisaic reaction is well exemplified by the response of the Church of England to John Wesley and George Whitefield in their open-air preaching to miners, which violated regulations regarding preaching and parish boundaries. The formation of the Methodist Church (despite Wesley’s own reluctance) is an example of new wine needing new wineskins.’
France also says: ‘It is easy for us to recognize in the old cloth and the old wineskins the rule-bound approach of Pharisaic Judaism, against which so much of Jesus’s teaching will be directed in this Gospel. But it is not only in Judaism that overly formal religion can occur, and large areas of Christian church history and of church structures today also show more resemblance to old wineskins than to the new wine of the kingdom of God. There are still “righteous” people in Christian churches who show little appetite for a gospel of salvation for the “sick.”’
‘The old is better’ – lit. ‘good.’ The idea is of a man who is drinking old wine and does not even think to compare it with new wine. Morris: ‘He is not even comparing them. He is so content with the old that he does not consider the new for a moment.’
This verse appears to conflict with Mark’s account of the parable (Mk 2:18-22).
Some think that Luke is consciously ‘correcting’ Mark’s account, because he wishes to stress the continuity of the old with the new.
But it is better to view this as ‘an ironic comment on Jews who rejected the new wine of the gospel and held that the old ways were better.’ (NBC)
Harper’s Bible Commentary agrees there may be here ‘a recognition that even among the new, the followers of Jesus, there remains a clinging to the old ways of Judaism.’ This interpretation does not entail a desperate attempt to harmonise the two accounts.
Stein says: ‘In order to maintain consistency with the meaning of the previous statements, this verse should be interpreted as an ironical condemnation of those who cling so closely and dearly to the past that they are not open to the present realization of God’s kingdom.’
Garland: ‘The image, however, does not endorse the old over the new but alludes to “the difficulties those who cling to old ways of thinking and living have with accepting new ways of thinking and living.” Such preferences hamper acceptance of the new. This saying explains why the Pharisees criticize Jesus. They are mired in a mind-set that clings to the old and rejects the unexpected, new things that God is working through Jesus “today” (Lk 22:20).’