No one can receive Christ without being made new. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of Mark’s gospel, explaining that it is impossible simply to add Jesus to our lives and otherwise remain unchanged.
This morning, we will continue our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark. I will be reading Mark 2:13–22. I ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the gospel:
Then He went out again by the sea; and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them. As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him.
Now it happened, as He was dining in Levi’s house, that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”
When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting. Then they came and said to Him, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?”
And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins.”
He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Lord, we invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit to illumine this text to our understanding and pierce our souls with its truth. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Jesus Sees Levi
As early as the second chapter of Mark, the gospel writer alerts us to the gathering storm approaching the ministry of Jesus. He gives us insights into occasions that provoke conflict between our Lord and the religious leaders of His day. In verse 13, we hear of the calling of the fifth disciple that Mark references, the disciple known as Levi, also known in the New Testament as Matthew.
Let us read the contents of that call: “Jesus went out again by the sea”—we are speaking here of the Sea of Galilee—“and all the multitude came to Him, and He taught them.” This was good news because, remember, He left their presence briefly since the people were more concerned with His healing power than listening to Him teach and preach about the coming of the kingdom of God.
We remember that Jesus told the people that His mission was to teach and preach. So, because He was not able to do that earlier, He left Capernaum and was now back, resuming His teaching ministry. We are told that as He passed by the crowd and the sea where He had been preaching, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office.
Let me comment briefly on that. There was not a building by the Sea of Galilee that was the county tax assessor’s headquarters. The tax offices in this part of the world at that time would have been little booths or shanties, crudely erected along the busy byways of villages and cities, particularly where commerce was involved near the border.
As I have told you before, Capernaum was a place of no mean substance. It was very important as a resource for the fishing industry, and it exported fish to various nations round about. So, it would be strategic for the tax collectors to set up a way station there along the Sea of Galilee.
A Hated Tax Collector
The Jewish people were subjected to a heavy and oppressive tax levied by the Roman Empire. There were taxes on property and commerce, and it was set up that people bid for the opportunity to be a tax collector. To win the bid, you would set an amount you believed you could accumulate of moneys received from those taxes, and if the government liked your projected bid, you could be selected as a tax collector.
This was the way being a tax collector worked: you had a quota, and when you filled that quota, everything that you could garner above that quota became yours. The tax collector worked on a commission basis. Though this was Roman in origin, the Romans sublet this taxation industry to their vassal kings, so within Israel the tax collectors would report to the Jewish kings as well as the government of Rome. This system of taxation was one of the most greedy and corrupt that the world has ever known.
In any case, it was a lucrative business for anyone who was able to be a tax collector. All a Jewish person had to give up was his Jewish identity, social status, and membership in the synagogue, because if you were a Jewish tax collector in Israel, you were seen as a quisling, a traitor. In fact, anybody who dealt with you as a friend would be considered unclean. You would automatically be expelled from the synagogue, disgraced in your family, and a social pariah, despite the fact you would at the same time be exceedingly wealthy.
So, it was scandalous that Jesus would walk up to a toll shanty, look at the tax collector, a Jewish man by the name of Levi, and say to him, “Follow Me.” That Jesus selected a tax collector to be part of the Twelve was as unthinkable as one could imagine. It is not by accident that this episode is placed in Mark’s gospel so close to Jesus’ healing of the leper. As scandalous as Jesus’ touching the leper was, it was even more scandalous that He would invite into His company a social leper like a tax collector.
Dinner with Sinners
To make matters worse, we are told that after Jesus called Matthew into His entourage and Matthew arose and followed Him, He then went to dinner in Levi’s house. There were many tax collectors and sinners who sat together with Jesus and His disciples. If we read this closely in the original language, they were not just sitting, they were reclining, because this was not your average dinner. This was a feast, perhaps of celebration.
Not only Levi, but the whole company of tax collectors associated with him—the whole group of hated people and the am ha’aretz, the people of the land—were invited to the sumptuous feast, where Jesus was the guest of honor. That was like throwing gasoline on the fire. After inviting one tax collector to join Him, Jesus went to a feast with a multitude of tax collectors and sinners.
When the scribes and Pharisees saw this, they were fit to be tied. They said to Jesus’ disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?” When the Pharisees called people sinners, they were thinking of the rank-and-file Jews who were not committed to the in-depth study of the things of God and the law of God, so they just went the way of the culture and followed the customs of the day rather than the details of the law.
The Pharisees were named “Pharisees” because they were the separated ones. They were the ones most committed to keeping the law of God. They grew to believe that salvation came from segregation; that is, they segregated themselves and distanced themselves from anybody who was loose in their moral life. So, it was important for them to maintain their holiness and sanctity by having no dealings with people who were sinners. There are Christians like that, who believe there is some point of sanctity in avoiding any contact with unbelievers or pagans. I have to tell you a story that will get your attention.
Ministry to the World
Several years ago, somebody called me and said that her husband loves to play golf and would love to play golf with me. She said, “Will you take my husband out for a round of golf at Heathrow Country Club for his birthday?” I said, “I’ll be happy to do it.”
So, I took him out for eighteen holes of golf, and then after the round we went into the men’s grill, and it was time for him to leave. He then saw me sitting with my friends at the club, many of whom are now members of this congregation but who were not believers at the time.
This man was so upset that I was friendly with those in the country club that he took it upon himself to call the Ligonier Ministries board of directors and lodge a complaint that I was mixing with them. The occasion he saw me doing that was when I took him out to play golf. I just could not understand that, because this was how Jesus did His ministry.
Jesus did not just keep Himself in a convent or in a monastery somewhere. He was where people the people were, where pain existed, because He cared about people. We are not supposed to love the world. We are not supposed to imitate the world. But we must minister to people who are in the world. That is how Jesus did His ministry.
The Sick Need a Physician
The religious establishment of the day could not stomach that Jesus, who was supposed to be a rabbi, would have dinner with tax collectors and sinners. So, they came to the disciples of Jesus and said, “Why is He doing it?” When Jesus heard that, He gave the answer. He said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
What good is a doctor who only associates with well people? I read in the “ticked off” section of the Sentinel this past week that a lady who worked in a doctor’s office wrote a letter saying: “I can’t stand that people who are sick keep coming into the office with their contagious diseases. If they’re sick, they should stay at home.” I wonder how her boss, the doctor, felt about that advice, because it is silly for doctors to spend all their time with people that are well. We need doctors because we get sick. It is one thing to be involved simply in preventative medicine, but when we are sick, we call the doctor. Jesus said, “What could be sillier than for the Messiah, the Son of God, to spend all of His time with the righteous?”
There was some irony dripping from the words of Jesus when He said to the Pharisees: “Those that are well don’t need a physician, just those who are sick. And I’ve come not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” He could have tacked something else on to the end of His statement, but He did not. The implication was there in His answer: “If you really want Me to spend time with the sick, I’m going to come to your house next, Mr. Pharisee,” because they were the sickest of the sick in that time. Jesus’ answer did not satisfy His enemies.
Time to Feast, Not Fast
We then read from Mark’s account that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees were fasting. Remember that John was an ascetic. He came out of the wilderness. He was given to practice self-denial, and he also had disciples who followed him. We encountered them in the book of Acts—people who were disciples of John the Baptist who later became the disciples of Jesus. They, along with the Pharisees, were involved in fasting.
In the Jewish law, the law of Moses, the only time fasting was required of people was during the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. However, customs developed over the centuries among the Jews that were favored by the rabbis to fast on other occasions, particularly on occasions of national import, mourning, and so on.
Fasting also became associated with repentance. If somebody was guilty of a severe sin and that person came to repentance, he would manifest his repentance by going through periods of fasting. In the case of the Pharisees, they made fasting a duty for themselves twice a week. They did not eat from sunup to sundown, not for twenty-four-hour periods, but they fasted two days a week, and they saw that as a badge of personal piety.
So now, the Pharisees saw Jesus associating with sinners, and not only that, but they saw that His disciples were not fasting. Jesus did not criticize fasting. He gave a place for fasting in the kingdom of God, but there is a time and a place for everything, and Jesus was saying, “This is not the time to fast.” Why?
Jesus used a metaphor of the bridegroom and reminded them of what happened in their own culture at the time of a wedding. Weddings in Israel did not last twenty minutes or a half an hour, followed by a reception that went on for a couple of hours, and then everybody went home. A wedding feast, as we see in Cana, lasted for a week. If it were the remarriage of somebody who had lost a partner to death, that would only go three days. But the first marriage would go on for an entire week, and it was a time of eating and drinking.
The last time anybody would want to be involved in a fast was when they went to a wedding feast. It was not the time to fast. It was the time to party. It was the time to eat and drink. That was what the culture was about. Jesus said: “Nobody fasts at a wedding while the bridegroom is there. There’s no fasting. Rather, everybody is rejoicing. Everybody is celebrating.”
Nowhere in the Old Testament, beloved, does the Bible refer to the Messiah as bridegroom. That image is just not there. The bridegroom in the Old Testament is God, and the bride is the nation of Israel. But in the New Testament, the bridegroom is the Son of God, and the bride is His church.
Jesus was claiming more than His messiahship when He referred to Himself as the bridegroom. Jesus was saying: “I’m the Son of God. I am here, bringing you the kingdom. As long as the bridegroom is in your presence, this is the time you should be celebrating, not fasting, because the kingdom has come in your midst. You’re not going to have the bridegroom with you forever. The day is coming where the bridegroom will be snatched away from you.” He was referring to His own execution and departure from Earth. “Then,” He said, “will be the time to fast. But while I’m here, it’s time to feast.” This is a remarkable metaphor.
Your Old Ways Cannot Contain Christ
Then Jesus switched His metaphors and said, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse.” I do not understand this because I do not mend clothes or know how to sew, but apparently if you have a garment shrunk from being washed and then rip a hole in it, if you match a new piece of unshrunk cloth to the hole, put it in the washing machine, and then that piece shrinks, what happens? Not only does it tear loose, but it exacerbates the tear in the cloth. He said: “Nobody does that. Even Sproul would not do that if he had to sew pants, which fortunately he does not.”
Then Jesus used the illustration of the wineskin. In the ancient world, the standard wineskin was goatskin. They would get a new goatskin or wineskin, put new wine in it, and when you put the wine in the goatskin, the wine would ferment, and gases would emit from the fermentation that would cause an expansion and stretch the wineskin.
New wine went with new wineskins because new wineskins had room for expansion. Every Jew in Israel understood that you did not put new wine in an old wineskin because the old wineskin had already been stretched to the max. If you put new wine into the old wineskin, and that new wine began to ferment and expand, what would happen? The wineskin would be pushed to the breaking point. It would burst. You would lose the wineskin and the wine.
So, Jesus said, “You can’t take the new and force it into the old structures, because the old structures won’t be able to bear it.” He was not condemning the Old Testament. He was not condemning the law of God. It was the traditions that had developed among the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus challenged.
Jesus said: “I come with good news. I come with the breakthrough of an entirely new situation. Your King is here, and that’s new. You can’t deal with the King unless you make room for Him by getting rid of the structures that would make it impossible for you to receive Him.”
Happy New Year, folks. It is a new year, and that happens every year, but Christ does not come every year. This is something so transcendentally new that you cannot receive Christ into your life without being made new yourself. The newness of Christ is what transforms you, and if you try to be a Christian and keep your old ways, it will not work. You will burst, and you will lose the precious wine that has come to us in Him.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.