Dear friends of Vital Signs Ministries,January 2020
For this month’s letter, Claire suggested something a little different; namely, sending along an edited version of the sermon I preached last Sunday at Grace Bible Church. The sermon dealt with Jesus’ “Follow Me” invitation to Matthew. The account is described in three of the gospels but I selected Luke 5:27-32 to concentrate on.And in addition to the exposition of the passage, I made some connections to what we believe are a very important spiritual discipline; that is, the making (and keeping!) of resolutions. It is, of course, a sanctification duty that goes way beyond a New Year’s wish list. In fact, resolutions are the ongoing practice of the Christian who truly desires to grow in Christ, to pursue higher priorities, to be changed more and more into the likeness of the Savior. For this letter, I will skip the sermon’s introduction and go right to the exposition of the text. Here we go.
The first part of this chapter (Luke 5) records the calling to discipleship of Simon, James, and John who, we are told, “left everything” to follow Jesus. Then here we read of the same call to Levi, or as he is better known, Matthew. You see, Jesus’ public ministry is shifting into high gear as He begins to assemble a team of men to learn from His teaching and example. The Lord’s purpose is to inspire, train, and transform them into men who would eventually be used by the Holy Spirit to (as it is put in Acts 17:6) “turn the world upside down.”
Now, because this is a fairly familiar passage, it is all too easy to miss the truly remarkable, ironic, even audacious moment that the calling of Matthew represents. After all, Matthew wasn’t just an ordinary fellow. He was a member of a highly despised exploitation class — tax collectors. And in this role, he was living very high off the monies he drained from the population. Here’s how this system worked…
The Jews were a conquered people, living under the very heavy thumb of imperial Rome. Yet they were frustrated and shamed still further by having to pay exorbitant taxes to the very people who had conquered them. Furthermore, those taxes were not only extensive, but the way in which they were confiscated was egregiously offensive and unfair. You see, the Jews (the greater portion of which were poor and struggling) had taxes imposed upon not just property, but also upon travel, merchandise and business transactions, and a special levy to pay for the administration of the Roman government in Israel and Rome’s occupying army. Yet this still wasn’t all. The Jewish leaders required of the people another tax that was used (ostensibly, anyhow) for the maintenance of the Temple. These various taxes constituted a heavy, heavy burden.
Oh yes; one other matter. The Roman tax system was fundamentally and thoroughly corrupt. How so? The tax collectors were wealthy men (sometimes organized into companies) who would bid for the annual lease (or franchise) to collect the tax revenues. The highest bid won the franchise, and that person or tax corporation would then immediately pay the money into the Roman treasury. Thus, before an Israelite had paid a single denarii in tax, Rome already had its stash of cash.
You see the problem? The Roman governor had what he wanted and therefore had no reason to oversee how much the tax collector raked in or what methods he used to do so. It should be no surprise to learn then that the collectors turned out to be greedy profiteers. And with neither outside governance or personal scruples to deter them, they gouged and cheated and overcharged the people without mercy.
It was a despicable business and the Jewish people had learned to dread and hate anyone involved in it. Tax gatherers were viewed as rogues and cheats. And, because most of them were men hired from among the Jews themselves, these scoundrels were also seen as traitors to the nation of Israel, to her people, and to Jehovah God. They were, after all, mere toadies to Rome, groveling to the despised oppressors even as they enjoyed the profits and perks of being aligned with them.
So despised were the tax collectors that they were not allowed to participate in Temple services. They were considered unclean. They couldn’t hold public office. They couldn’t serve as a witness in a Jewish court. Not even was their money allowed to be given as alms in the Temple. Naturally, because of their position, one wouldn’t dare insult a tax man to his face. But the disgust and disdain people held in their hearts for these fellows must have been intense.
Can you see then how Jesus’ simply talking to Matthew was an outrageous offense to many Jews, let alone Jesus inviting him to be one of His disciples? How dare this no-account rabbi, already controversial, do such a thing?
Matthew, as I suggested earlier, had apparently done very well for himself in this system. Like Zaccheus, the “chief tax gatherer” from Jericho who also received special notice from Jesus, Matthew seems to have been a rather big wheel in the tax machine.
He isn’t a door-to-door solicitor. Oh no; he has made enough to own a big house and has the ready means to throw a big party.
The tax booth that Matthew is manning here in Capernaum was located on a main highway of Israel – the one that runs from Damascus down the Jordan Valley to the Sea of Galilee and then on westward to the coastal road that leads to Jerusalem. Therefore, it looks like the taxes that Matthew collected were not merely on residents but also on travelling merchants and the exchange of goods…perhaps also on the commercial property of the fishermen, craftsmen, and merchants of the area.
In such a position, Matthew would likely have known Aramaic and Greek (maybe even Latin). He would have known the value of wool and linen, of gold and silver, of barley and olives and fish and so on. He would have known arithmetic, how to keep records, probably also how to delegate tasks to others. He would also have known how to negotiate his way around the Roman-dominated system of life in Israel.
But, even if Matthew was a learned and skilled person, how could that compensate for the profound offense which was going to be felt by the general population – and especially the Pharisees – with this willingness of Jesus to include a villainous, despised tax collector into His intimate circle of friends?
And, from another direction, why would Matthew — an obviously successful businessman who enjoys the profits, the status, and the physical protection of Rome — why would Matthew suddenly leave all this behind in exchange for an uncertain, controversial, even dangerous life as an itinerant disciple of Jesus of Nazareth? After all, Matthew must have realized that once he left his tax office, he would have to deal with not only poverty and a highly dubious future; he would also face (without the protection of Roman soldiers) the wrath of the public whose economic lifeblood he had been draining.
Here are the two basic answers to those questions. 1) Why would Jesus choose Matthew? Because He loved Matthew. Yes, Jesus had a world-shaking ministry in store for Matthew and a glorious future for him. But, even those blessings emerge from the Lord’s deep love for this sinner – a love that offered him three marvelous things (please note them): the forgiveness of sins, a fresh and wholesome start over, and a surprising power from on high to live a new and holy life.
And 2) Why would this tax collector leave it all to say yes to Jesus’ invitation? Well, whatever else Matthew possessed and whatever else was in his past, it’s obvious that he lacked the meaning and peace he knew the Lord was offering him. And so, by faith (simple and fledgling as it might have been), he chose to obey the call of Jesus when it came. However radical the changes life would probably take now, Matthew trusted in Jesus’ love and light and righteousness.
“Follow Me.” It was a revolutionary invitation with so very, very much at stake. As I said, we don’t know what was happening in Matthew’s life. We don’t know how the Spirit may have been convicting, challenging, enlightening him before this moment. Nor do we know what all he understood about Jesus’ miracles and claims to be Messiah or of exactly what Matthew might have imagined this invitation to discipleship would entail. We only know this: Jesus said “Follow Me” and Matthew “left everything behind and got up and began to follow Him.”
Do you see why I think this is such an appropriate text for making resolutions, of making new vows to God dealing with progress in our walk with Him? For the foundation of our own sanctification is how we respond to Jesus’ ongoing call. Yes, over and again, He says to you and I, “Follow Me.” What’s our answer?
Do we say, Yes, Lord; I’m all in? Where do you want me to go? What do you want me to do? What do I need to leave behind? What do I need to pick up? What changes would you have me make with my use of time, my relationships, what I’m watching, my money, my life’s priorities, my expectations and goals? I’m all in, Lord, because I know You can be completely trusted, that You love me with an overwhelming love, that You want my best and will forever perform it in and through me whenever I humble myself and act in faith. Yes, indeed, Lord; I’m leaving all my worthless stuff behind and following wherever You lead me.
This is a marvelous text regarding the matter of resolutions because it so vividly illustrates those 3 things I mentioned earlier about our resolutions being successful when we act according to these superb truths. 1) Through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to pay the penalty of our sins, we can be completely and forever forgiven. And yes, that means His blood can cover even the greatest and most notorious of our sins. 2) God’s marvelous mercy grants His children (over and again) new beginnings, clean slates, fresh starts. And 3) God’s grace also gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to live a new and holy life.
Is this decision going to cost Matthew? You better believe it! Obedience always costs. And so, yes, the keeping of the resolutions we make before God will cost us too. That’s the nature of sanctification. There will be sacrifice and self-denial. There will be taking up your cross daily. But will Matthew win in the end — and win more than he could dare imagine? Yes. The same is true of today’s disciples…you and me.
But, wait a second. This account of Luke 5 isn’t complete until we look (at least briefly) at what happened after this invitation. And that, of course, is Matthew’s party. The text informs us that Matthew gives “a big reception” attended by “a great crowd.” The guests included some of Jesus’ disciples but were mostly his tax-collecting colleagues. That, of course, only makes sense. For those would have been the people he knew and probably the only ones who would have dared accept his invitation. But I think it also suggests something about the dramatic change in Matthew’s life, one might say, in his new resolutions. I believe that Jesus’s words in verses 31 and 32 (“It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”) as well as the parable of the new wineskins He gives a few verses later, suggest that the primary purpose of Matthew’s party was to introduce his friends, acquaintances, and maybe even a few of his enemies to the same miracle-working, sin-forgiving, life-changing Jesus to Whom he had just recently committed his life.
Note though, there were others on the scene, others who were only observing the party from the outside. These were a group of Pharisees and their scribes who actually wouldn’t have been caught dead at the party even had they been invited. That’s because the whole, extremely complex Pharisaical system was based on a strict separation from evil. However, their take on evil wasn’t that taught by the Old Testament Scriptures which they claimed to follow. No, evil to a Pharisee was anything that didn’t fit the rituals, rules, and ceremonial piety that they had fashioned over generations – rituals and rules that quite often were decidedly contrary to God’s Word.
Among those rules were ones forbidding any contact whatsoever with “sinners.” And to these hyper-legalistic religious leaders, “sinners” were not only all Gentiles but also those many, many Jews who failed to toe the complicated, arbitrary, and self-righteous lines of conduct set by the Pharisees.
These Pharisees exemplified spiritual pride in its most virulent (and ultimately, even violent) forms. They were not lovers of God; they were lovers of self. They cared not for true holiness or mercy; they were on the constant hunt for status and power. And though morally responsible for the enlightenment, edification, and loving service to the people of Israel; they had utterly failed them. Remember how Jesus called the religious leaders false shepherds, false prophets, hypocrites, white-washed graves, a brood of vipers? They had so twisted God’s Word into their own rules and justifications, they could no longer see straight.
And because Jesus represented true spirituality…because His life was clearly marked by both righteousness and mercy…because His teaching was so clearly and profoundly reflective of the wisdom of the Old Testament…and because the people were so drawn to Him (and thus away from the monopolistic authority of the Pharisees and their pals), they hated Jesus from the very onset of His public ministry.
That hatred caused them to oppose everything Jesus did, no matter how noble and pure, no matter how gracious and loving, no matter how supernatural and authoritative. They sought to trip Jesus up and ridicule Him. And when that didn’t work, they made up lies about Jesus and spread them abroad in order to try and turn the people against Him. They would eventually hire false witnesses at a corrupt trial to get rid of Him forever. It does sound pretty familiar, doesn’t it…like the lies and sinister schemes so constantly employed by modern journalists and academicians and Hollywood actors designed to destroy pro-life advocates, champions of biblical sexuality and marriage, and conservative politicians?
But back to the scene. The Pharisees are mocking Jesus and attempting to misrepresent this social event. According to their carnal and thoroughly thoughtless rules, Jesus was sinning simply by talking to Matthew. Furthermore, there were additional “sins” with Jesus being inside Matthew’s house, by His eating with “sinners,” by His eating from “unclean” utensils (those not ceremoniously purged of Gentile associations), and so on. Indeed, anything Jesus did that wasn’t granted the Good Pharisee Seal of Approval was to be considered anathema. And, as you know, those “sins” at other times in Christ’s ministry included speaking to a Samaritan woman, exposing false teachers, applying the prophetic truths of the Scriptures, healing people on the Sabbath, cleansing the Temple of profane money-changers, etc.
But, of course, Jesus wasn’t “in sin” by doing these things. As always, He was simply about His Father’s business including the offering of the glorious good news to sinners (all of us) who so desperately need those 3 things I’ve underscored already: forgiveness of sin, fresh starts, and the power to live life in the Spirit.
Matthew had created the party as an opportunity for Jesus to connect with sinners (like Matthew himself) in order to share good news about liberation and purpose and joy and everlasting life. And it is this that Jesus stresses in His response to the Pharisees’ criticism. Had the religious leaders of Israel heeded the clear teaching of the Law and the Prophets, they would have embraced that same mission. But, as it is, Jesus’ response is a pointed rebuke. Don’t you care about conversion? Don’t you want to see people changed and come into communion with God? Is not the faith of Abraham and the patriarchs a wonderful gift to be shared with, as the Old Testament continually emphasized, the whole world?
To be sure, Jesus is confronting these hypocrites with their error and their stubborn pride. But He is appealing to them as well. Indeed, He is issuing the same invitation to them as He did to Matthew and then to his houseguests — come, follow Me, find peace and joy and eternal life.
It is, of course, the ongoing mission of Jesus Christ to seek out and save the lost. But we must acknowledge our need for salvation. We must accept the cold fact of our sin and helplessness. And we must accept the exclusivity of Jesus’ offer of salvation: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by Me.”
And so this morning, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, I encourage you to consider carefully the resolutions you should be making to be a better servant of your Lord’s. For He is right now the very Savior Who first rescued your soul. He is today (and throughout your every tomorrow) the God of forgiveness, fresh starts, and the provider of the spiritual power you need to grow further in gratitude and holy behavior.
And, if you are not a believer in Jesus Christ, I encourage you to consider these same exquisite truths right now, right where you sit. Let Jesus save your soul as you simply trust what He accomplished on the cross in your behalf and thus you can begin your own “audacious” new adventure with Him today.
Okay, that was one of the longest LifeSharer letters you’ll ever receive!
Still, I hope you found it worthwhile reading and perhaps even of some value in making relevant, biblically-centered resolutions in the coming year. Next month, we will review some of our ministry activities including the “When Swing Was King” outreach, the prayer presence at the abortion mill, and our participation in both the National March for Life in Washington, D.C and the Nebraska Walk for Life in Lincoln sponsored by our friends with Nebraska Right to Life. And, as always, please know our gratitude is deep for all of you who pray for us, who encourage us in various ways, who donate to help our work financially, and who keep in contact with our articles and posts in the blogs, Facebook, and the Vital Signs Ministries website. Thank you so much.