The worst illness of all

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector's booth. 'Follow me,' Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: 'Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?'

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.' (Mar 2:13–7)

The extent of our Lord's forgiveness

In the previous study we saw how Jesus announced to the Jews that he had authority to forgive sins. And to prove that what he was saying was true he healed a paralysed man in front of their eyes. The man got up, picked up his mat and went home, much to the amazement of everyone.

Jesus still has authority, and is willing, to forgive the sins of all who turn to him in repentance, and in this passage he demonstrates the extent of his forgiveness by asking a Jewish tax collector to become one of his disciples.

If we had been Jews living in Jesus' day, we would have understood what that meant. At the time of Christ Palestine was under Roman occupation. The Romans ruled over the Jews and exacted taxes from them to finance their empire. They did this by recruiting local Jews to collect the taxes on their behalf.

They preferred to use local people because a local person knew everyone in the area. This made it more difficult for anyone to escape paying the taxes they owed because they were known personally by the tax collector.

But, in Jewish eyes, anyone who collaborated with the Romans was a traitor to their people. Furthermore, these tax collectors were notoriously corrupt: they not only collected the taxes due to Rome, but also some for themselves (Luk 3:12–3). And, as a result, many of them had grown rich by robbing their own people.

Consequently, under Jewish law no tax collector could appear as a witness, they were not allowed to act as a judge in a dispute, and they were excluded from the synagogue.

They were the most despised members of Jewish society. In fact, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law didn't refer to them as sinners; in their opinion they were worse than sinners. These men were in a league of their own and were known as 'tax collectors', as distinct from sinners, as the passage we are studying shows.

So you can imagine there were some surprised looks when Jesus invited a tax collector to become one of his disciples. And, of course, that was not a mistake—Jesus was demonstrating to the Jews the extent of his forgiveness because, in Jewish eyes, a tax collector was beyond forgiveness.

Power in the blood

I remember talking to a Christian woman many years ago and, in the course of conversation, she confessed to me something she had done in the past. She said to me, 'Would God even forgive me for doing that?' I said, 'Yes. Jesus died for you, and the Bible tells us that the blood of Jesus Christ purifies us from all sin (1Jo 1:7).'

She had only been a Christian for a short time; she loved the Lord and wanted to go on with him, but this one thing kept haunting her, and in her mind she couldn't believe that God would forgive her for having done such a thing.

As I spoke to her and assured her of God's forgiveness, a smile came to her face as if a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders, and she went away rejoicing.

We need to understand the power that is contained in the blood of Jesus Christ—the blood that God himself shed for the sins of the world. We need to know this power, not only for our own benefit, but also for the benefit of others.

One day you might meet someone who will say, 'Yes, I accept what you say about Jesus Christ, but you don't know what I've done in the past. God would never forgive me for the sins I've committed.' There are some people who genuinely believe they are beyond forgiveness, but that is not true.

Sin is an illness

When the Pharisees asked why Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners, he said that it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill.

Jesus described sin as an illness, which is what it is: sinners are spiritually ill. We know that physical illness is rife in the world and brings much suffering and problems to mankind, but it cannot compare with the suffering and problems caused by sin.

I don't know the facts, but probably the majority of children born into the world are free from physical illness—at least initially. But everyone born into the world is infected by sin. We inherit it from our parents who, in turn, inherited it from Adam. There is no way we can escape it.

Not all physical illness leads to death but sin, if left untreated, leads to spiritual death (Rom 6:23), which is eternal separation from God spent in a place Jesus referred to as hell.

God's remedy

However, God has wonderfully provided a remedy for our sins by offering his Son as a sacrifice for sin—once and for all; the righteous for the unrighteousness—to reconcile us to God.

We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2Co 5:20–1)

We meet nice people and pray, 'Lord, save that person!' Why do we make that request? We ask the Lord to save them because we cannot bear the thought of such nice people going to hell. But Jesus didn't come just to save nice people, he also came to save evil people—the sort of people we would feel uncomfortable being with.

The Pharisees couldn't believe it when Jesus started to associate with tax collectors and sinners, because they didn't understand the purposes of God. But there is no sinner, so depraved, who cannot be cleansed by the blood of Christ; and that is why Jesus is such good news for the world today.

Paul wrote that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, to which he added:

…of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. (1Ti 1:15–6)

Charles Wesley, the hymn writer, echoed his words:

Oh for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise,
The glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace.
He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me.

Conclusion

Paul described himself as the worst of sinners, but Jesus saved him. Levi was a notorious sinner, but Jesus saved him.

The Bible says there is only one sin God will not forgive, and that is blasphemy against the Spirit (Mat 12:31–2). But apart from that, no matter what sins we've committed, or how many times we've committed them, if we turn to God in repentance he will forgive us. And that is the message from our study today.

'Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.' (Isa 45:22)

Michael Graham
January 2002
Revised June 2019

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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