Death in the Church


Luke 5:27-39

Text Comment

v.27     The tax booth was likely to be on the outskirts of town, to catch travelers as they went from town to town. The taxes he collected would have been tolls or custom duties. The term used to describe him, translated here “tax collector” is that used of a lower level tax collector, the kind of man who would have reported to a man like Zacchaeus whom we will meet later in the gospel. [Bock, i, 493]

            This Levi is the same disciple also called Matthew and so the author of the Gospel that bears his name. Take note of the fact that there is no indication that he had already some interest in Jesus or had expressed that interest. Zacchaeus went looking for Jesus. But Levi was simply sitting there when Jesus singled him out and summoned him.

v.28     Great commitment is expressed with striking brevity. [Bock, i, 494] We shouldn’t miss the spiritual heroism in this. Matthew, being a tax collector, was almost certainly the most well-to-do of the Lord’s inner circle of disciples. The great banquet that follows is further evidence of that. For him to leave his living to follow Jesus represented a substantial financial sacrifice. The fishermen could simply go back to their trade if following Jesus didn’t work out; Matthew had burned his bridges. [Morris, 139-140]

v.29     Obviously Matthew invited his friends, people he knew, and many of them he would have known from his business. Though we are not told precisely how Matthew had come to recognize Jesus as Lord, perhaps in the very moment of his summons, now he wanted to introduce him to his friends. As the great Bishop J.C. Ryle once put it: “A converted man will not wish to go to heaven alone.” As we have already said tax collectors were not popular people in those days, thought of as virtual thieves by everyone else.

v.30     Luke has compressed the time. This conversation happened some time after the banquet. The Pharisees would not have been invited and had they been would not have accepted. Association with such people was the surest way to contract ceremonial defilement which they took care to avoid. What is more, table fellowship implied acceptance, friendship, and with their strict view of righteousness, being friendly with people who had no interest in holiness as they understood it was the equivalent of hypocrisy. The guest list at Levi’s home was not a roster of “the moral upper crust” of Galilean society! [Bock, i, 495]

v.31     A justly famous assertion of the Lord and he will repeat it at a later point in the gospel. He had come to save sinners and, on the Pharisees’ assumptions, these men were certainly sinners! As one wise man observed, “The church is the only fellowship in the world where the one requirement for membership is the unworthiness of the candidate!” [Robert Munger in Morris, 140] On another level, of course, this statement and particularly to a seasoned reader of the gospels, would be immediately understood to expose the Pharisees’ pride, but it does so indirectly. There is as yet no direct confrontation with the Pharisees or condemnation of their position. They didn’t see themselves as sinners and the surest sign of that was that they used the term to describe other people beside themselves and they had a penchant for looking down their noses on others who didn’t meet their standards. They were not interested in a physician because they didn’t think themselves sick. The righteous cannot repent and the Pharisees saw themselves as righteous. That was their fatal error! All this will become increasingly clear as we proceed. On the other hand, people whom other people despise and who know that they are outcasts in polite society find it easier to see their need. And their need was repentance. And Jesus had come to call them to repentance. He’s not accepting them as they are, he’s changing them. Luke is going to emphasize repentance in his Gospel, more even than Matthew or Mark.

v.33     Fasting and praying at set hours were commonplaces of religious life among the more serious in those days, the followers of John the Baptist and the Pharisees, and people were curious why the Lord’s disciples did not do as these others did.

v.35     There are times for fasting and times for rejoicing and this is the latter, not the former for Christ’s disciples. It will not always be so. But who among you fasts at a wedding. Weddings are always accompanied by food and rejoicing, not fasting and mourning. You never send an invitation out for a wedding, you parents of the bride, with a little note at the bottom saying, “We’re all fasting the day of the wedding, so there will be no reception.” Fasting is not the way to celebrate.

            But the day will come when Christ’s followers will fast. Remember, at this point no one, I mean no one, understood that the Lord would die, rise again, ascend to heaven, and that a long period of gospel advance through the world would follow. This is an early hint of things to come.

v.37     Just as tearing a piece from a new garment to patch an old results in the ruin of the new garment and an even uglier old one, so if you put new wine which is still fermenting into old skins that have lost their elasticity, you will end up with split skins and spilled wine.

v.38     Vv. 36-39 are offered in illustration of the irreconcilable differences in outlook uncovered in vv. 27-32 and vv. 33-35. The two principles cannot somehow be successfully harmonized. They are at war with one another. We are talking about contrasting viewpoints that will later be even more clearly defined as the person of Jesus vs. the round of religious performances, or, more simply, as the writers of the epistles will more succinctly describe it, the grace viewpoint vs. the works viewpoint. And Jesus is saying these are two religious principles that cannot be harmonized, they are at war with one another. You can’t put the new wine of Christ and his gospel into the old skins of Pharisaic self-righteousness and a system of salvation by good works. The result will be that the new wine of the gospel will split the old skins and be lost. The final sentence means that no one used to and comfortable with the Pharisee’s viewpoint is likely to welcome and embrace the Lord’s new perspective on sin and salvation, the biting new wine. Jesus is not here speaking of the merits of these two fundamentally different religious viewpoints, but of a person’s taste for one or the other. The Pharisees and scribes, comfortable and self-satisfied with their point of view, were unlikely to find Jesus’ attractive. We’re not talking about the new wine being better than the old, everybody knows that old wine is typically better than new wine; he’s not talking about that. He’s talking about taste. The proud haven’t cared for Jesus ever since.

            It is perhaps important to say at this point that the contrast here is certainly not between the true faith of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets and Jesus’ own teaching, as if he were bringing good news unheard of before. In the Gospels Jesus always identifies his teaching with that of the teaching of the ancient scriptures and the teaching of those great men and he always contrasts the teaching of the ancient scriptures with the teaching that was prevailing in Judaism at the time.

It is a fact of biblical revelation that every reader of the Bible must sooner or later come to terms with. The Bible’s story is in great part the story of the history of unbelief in the church. From the beginning to the end the great interest of biblical history is the struggle between faith and unbelief among the people of God themselves. Think of the Pentateuch with its detailed account of the unbelief of Israel in the generation of the exodus and the wilderness. Then, after the relatively happy account of the faithful generation that took possession of the Promised Land under Joshua, there follows the dismal account of Judges, as the people of Israel repeatedly lost interest in Yahweh’s covenant and made their peace with the paganism around them. Then in the account of Samuel we are treated to the interplay between some heroes of faith and a people who seem ready at the drop of a hat to reject the Lord to follow the ways of the culture around them. The Book of Kings is then the sad, depressing history of the triumph of unbelief in the northern kingdom, the ten northern tribes of Israel, and the waxing and waning of faith in the south, leading at last to the virtual eclipse of true gospel faith among the people, though there were, of course, a few notable exceptions and always a remnant of real believers. The prophets of the Old Testament were, like Jesus, preachers of repentance to a church that had lost its way. The ministry of virtually every one of them was to an unbelieving Israel, an unbelieving church. Think of Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea: all heralds of a message of judgment to a church that had rebelled against God and forsook his way. There were false prophets and corrupt priests on every hand. The Book of Kings describes one king after another who, having been entrusted with Israel’s fidelity to the Lord, in fact led Israel astray and away from the Lord. And even the true prophets of the church after the exileZechariah, Haggai, and  Malachi – had to deal in their day with an already waning faith among those who had had sufficient faith to return from Babylon to take up the pioneering life of rebuilding the people of God in the Promised Land. Throughout the history of the ancient epoch there seemed to be more unbelievers than believers in the church. We tend to think of the contrast between the church and the world and the Bible does use that contrast in a number of places. But in the Scriptures, more often than not, the contrast is between believers and unbelievers in the church.

And I use that term “church” advisedly. Twice in the NT Israel in the wilderness, unbelieving as she was, is referred to as “the church,” that is, as a previous generation of that same institution of which we read in Acts and the rest of the New Testament. The great early church historian, Eusebius, was speaking for every early Christian when he wrote, “All the old patriarchs must properly be called Christians; they all ate the same spiritual meat.” But, of course, Eusebius was speaking only of believers in the ancient church. There were plenty of unbelievers in her membership as well, just as there have been plenty of unbelievers in the membership of the Christian Church in the ages since Pentecost.

To be sure, the Bible often addresses the spiritual condition and describes the situation of the nations. God is the God of all mankind. Remember how often the prophets of the ancient scriptures turned their attention to the nations round about Israel and wrote oracles of judgment against those nations as well. They were unbelieving and deeply sinful peoples, but, honestly, they had more of an excuse. God had revealed himself to Israel, had done great things for her – delivered her from bondage in Egypt and settled her in the Promised Landthings that could never have happened had the Lord not intervenedhad made a covenant with her and given her his law with its promise to bless her wonderfully if only she remained faithful to him. But she did not. And when she was, by the grace and Spirit of God, restored to faith and obedience, it never seemed to last very long. It would be sooner rather than later that her eye began to wander and she began to lust for the world’s gods rather than the one, true and living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The Babylonian captivity wrung an attraction to the cruder forms of idolatry out of Israel for good. Never again would she be tempted by images of wood and stone, the false gods of the ancient near eastern pantheon. But unbelief in Israel simply took on different forms. By the time Jesus appeared on the scene that form was a highly developed and highly sophisticated ritualism and system of works righteousness, represented in its most pristine, attractive, and persuasive form by the party of the Pharisees. It was an idolatry of the self, of which there are many forms today.

Now the Pharisees were not bad people in the sense in which people use that phrase today. They didn’t kick dogs or refuse to help little old ladies across the street. They didn’t twirl their moustaches while foreclosing on the mortgages of the poor. They were principled men, serious about their religion, disposed to works of charity and care for the poor, and were in fact generally admired by the population as a whole. Friendship and friendliness were features of their portrait of the righteous man. True enough, as with virtually all puritan movements – and that was what Pharisaism was – they must have attracted their share of hypocrites, but as a class they were sincere and principled advocates of a serious religious program. [cf. Seward, Jerusalem’s Traitor, 14-15] There was much to admire about them and they were admired in part because of the demanding life to which they committed themselves. There weren’t that many of them, perhaps 6,000 altogether in Palestine in those days; but they represented, people would have thought, the cream of the Jewish faith. But they had, in fact, like their fathers before them, substituted something else for the ancient faith of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

This is going to be a principle presupposition of Luke’s Gospel as we make our way further into its account of the ministry of the Lord. Jesus encountered the Jews of his day as by and large enemies of the gospel and of the ancient faith. They didn’t accept that judgment of course, but it isn’t hard to show that Jesus was right. This is the burden of his illustrations in vv. 36-39. His religious principle and theirs were incompatible. They were so fundamentally at odds that they could not be harmonized, no matter how hard one tried.

Now to a modern ear that sounds intolerant, harsh, something that must be false. It is the orthodoxy of modern culture that all religious principles are versions of the same human search for God, that all religions lead to God, and that, therefore, religions should have no difficulty accepting one another as simply alternate versions of the same thing. No one should have thought that, no one who is familiar with the religious traditions of the world should ever think such a thing, no one who knows the history of religion would think such a thing, but many Americans who know little to nothing of these things assume that, in the words of Rodney King, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and the rest should “just be able to get along.”

But a reader of the Bible knows better. In the Bible not only are the other religions of the world false at bottom, deceiving their adherents about God, about themselves, about salvation, and about what constitutes a righteous life, but the true faith is susceptible to equally fatal corruption. The Pharisees still revered the Bible, or that part of it that we call the OT, all that had been written at the time. They were the inerrancy of the Bible people of their day. They believed in the one, living and true God. They were convinced monotheists in a polytheistic world. They believed in sin and in righteousness. But Jesus, a man everyone reveres for his wide spirit and his large heart, his willingness to accept all comers, his humility and his goodness, I say, Jesus condemned them as unbelievers and their religious program as the work of the devil. (He actually called it that on one memorable occasion!) Here he says in the most unmistakable way that you can’t be a Pharisee and his follower at the same time. The two things are impossible to harmonize. To become a follower of Christ would be, must be to cease to be a Pharisee.

There are, of course, many proofs that Jesus was in fact entirely correct about the Pharisees and their religious program. But we can let one suffice this morning. All through the ancient scriptures the center of Israel’s religious faith was sacrifice: blood sacrifice, atonement through the death of a substitute. It looms large in the Law of Moses, in the rituals of Israel’s worship, and in the teaching of the prophets. There were prophecies of a sacrifice still to be made for the sins of God’s people. But the Pharisees had forgotten all of this. In their theology there was no place for a redeemer who would die for the sins of the world. Obviously that was what Jesus was and is, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That is what the Old Testament prophesied he would be. That is the dead center of the biblical good news and always had been. Deny this, ignore this and whatever your religion is, it isn’t that taught in Holy Scripture and it isn’t Christianity. We are sinners. We need deliverance from our sin. Jesus provided that deliverance by offering himself as a sacrifice for our sin and therefore we must come to Jesus and follow him, which is another way of saying we must believe in Christ and repent of our sins. This and only this is the Christian faith! Jesus Christ the Savior at its heart and center.

That there is in Jesus the obliteration of our guilt, no matter how many sins we have committed and how great they are, is good news; shout from the housetops kinds of news; very good news! There is a thrill in this message! There is love all through it; and joy in believing it and receiving it. The Pharisees had no gospel; they never spoke of their message as good news. It would never have occurred to them to do so. It was all duty and obligation; what needed to be done lay in our hands to do; it was by and large a “pull oneself up by the bootstraps or a do-it-yourself view of salvation;:  there was no thrill in it; no great gift of God; no breathtaking condescension on God’s part to stoop down to do for man what he could not do for himself, no divine intervention to rescue us from a bondage from which we had pitched ourselves and from which we could not escape. There was nothing of the Miserere or the De Profundis in Pharisaism. No Pharisee would ever have written,

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”

And all of that completely blinded them to Jesus and the spectacular importance he was to have for all mankind. There has been over the past generation a concerted effort in biblical scholarship to rescue the Pharisees from the opprobrium that has been heaped upon them through the ages. But there is something quite dishonest about this effort to rehabilitate their theology. To be sure, as Jewish scholars have long pointed out and as recent biblical scholarship has trumpeted as a new discovery, one can find in the writings of Jewish rabbis an acknowledgement of human sin and the need for repentance. You can also find statements about God’s mercy and God’s grace. But there can be no doubt that they had a vastly different view of the human predicament and of its solution than did Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah or Jesus.

Few can deny that the Pharisees believed what the Gospels represent them as believing. Important Jewish scholarship admits that the Gospels’ portrait of the Pharisees is a fair one. We know that they had no real place for substitutionary atonement, for sacrificial death in their doctrine of salvation. That not only sets them apart from the faith of the Old Testament and from the teaching of Jesus, but that is why Pharisaism triumphed eventually and became the doctrine of all of Judaism. It wasn’t in the Lord’s day but it became so. The Judaism we know today, especially in its conservative varieties, is the heritage of the Pharisees. After the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 there was no more sacrifice and could be no more sacrifice because right sacrifices could only be offered there. However mistaken on that point the Jews may have been through the history of the OT, by the time of the NT that was one thing they all knew. Now there was no temple and there could be no sacrifice. But the Pharisees didn’t need sacrifice and could go on without it. And so Judaism became Pharisaic. The Sadducees, for example, tied to the temple as they were, disappeared almost immediately from Judaism because their message and their religion depended on the temple and it no longer existed.

And certainly no one can doubt that Jesus had problems, serious problems with the Pharisees; that he rejected their theology of sin and salvation root and branch, and that he placed his own message in diametrical opposition to theirs. It was Jesus, remember, who said that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees we will “never enter the kingdom of heaven.” [Matt. 5:20] Those are pretty strong words. It was Jesus, we will read later in Luke who compared two men in the temple: a Pharisee, a typical Pharisee, self-assured, unencumbered with a sense of sin and unworthiness before God, and a tax collector, a sinner like Levi, who knew himself a sinner and trusted the mercy of God for his forgiveness. And it was Jesus who at the end of that little parable said that it was the tax collector who went home justified, not the Pharisee. True enough, the Pharisee might well have objected to and been highly offended at Jesus’ characterization of his heart as proud and self-righteous, but, then, everyone who is proud and self-righteous objects to being told that he is. What does that prove? And whom are we to believe: the Pharisee or the Son of God?

What is so important about all of this and about both of these brief episodes in Luke 5 is that the reality of unbelief in the church and its nature, is still with us today. Much of Christendom today is unbelieving in the same sense in which Pharisaism was an unbelieving corruption of the true faith of the ancient scriptures. And the problem – though it takes many specific forms – is at bottom what it has always been. Some form of self-salvation has been substituted for the grand message of God’s condescension to sinful man, his initiative in meeting our need as guilty sinners, and the great love that motivated him to undergo such suffering on behalf of the undeserving. Whenever unbelief appears in the church, as it does again and again and again, it appears in that form, in the denial of salvation as the mighty achievement of God, made necessary by the thorough sinfulness and mountainous guilt of every single human being, through the incarnation of God the Son, in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, and, therefore, in our personal trust in (faith), following after (repentance), and grateful worship of Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. The Pharisees had no such idea and so had no taste for the new wine that Jesus had brought.

What we have in Luke 5:27-39 is a window on reality. Jesus is the watershed of humanity, all society divided into two great streams that move inexorably toward heaven or hell. It is Jesus; it is our view of Jesus and our commitment to Jesus, and our sense of his importance to us, that determines in which stream we are. And the heart of man is so inured, so hardened to this message; it is such a terrible blow to his pride; he is in himself a creature before the living God so insecure he can’t stand the thought that he is stripped bare and naked before a Holy God. So he comforts himself with a view of sin and salvation very similar to what the Pharisees would have taught in the Lord’s day. And as hard as it can be for Christians to understand, to most people in the world today the grand news of salvation through the love and sacrifice of God is either completely uninteresting or positively detestable. But to Levi who knew himself a sinner, who knew he was sick, the day the great physician appeared at his tax booth was a happy day indeed.

Now remember, it is no slander of the Jews or the Pharisees, it is not anti-Semitism to describe them as Jesus did. We will readily admit that the Christian church has found itself loaded with such people through the ages. It is a fault hardly unique to Judaism. Self-righteousness and self-confidence before God are the default position of the human soul, which is why people who ought to know better are always found returning to it. What is more, no Christian worth his or her salt will refuse to confess very readily that it is precisely with the temptation to think as a Pharisee (about oneself, one’s sin, and one’s salvation) that he or she struggles every day. Like them, we find ourselves comparing ourselves favorably to others, like the Pharisees did with tax collectors, and we think ourselves righteous in ourselves as if we were so good we didn’t need a redeemer. If even those who repudiate Pharisaism find themselves drawn to it all the time, surely it is not hard to explain why there are so many Pharisees in the church even today. It is not only a Jewish problem; it is as much a Christian problem because it is a human problem. It’s what sin does to the human heart.

My father was a student of hymns, something of a professional in that study as he was both a teacher of worship and a fine musician in his own right. One of my father’s favorite hymn writers was the English Anglican Henry Francis Lyte. Many of you, I know, treasure his hymns and rightly so: Abide with Me, Jesus I My Cross Have Taken all to Leave and Follow Thee, and Praise My Soul the King of Heaven are three of the finest English hymns ever written. Characteristic of Lyte’s hymns is the strongly personal element. In singing them the soul is addressing the Lord directly, seeking the Lord’s presence, help, power, and grace.

But Lyte was not always of that mind. He was once a Pharisee in exactly the way these men were Pharisees of whom we read this morning in Luke 5. He was in the church. Indeed, he was an Anglican minister. He was devout. He wasn’t one of those Anglican ministers, of whom there were many in his day, who were simply time-servers. He loved what he took to be Christianity – a system of doctrines and of practices – and advocated that system and that way of life to his parishioners. He was admired by his people as many Pharisees were admired. But he had never had any experience of the bridegroom and actually no thought that he needed a redeemer who would die for his sins. Though he read the Bible, that large part of the Bible’s message remained somehow invisible to him.

It was several years into his ministry that Lyte, through the death of a minister friend who happened to be a real Christian, first saw himself a tax collector and sinner, a sick man who desperately needed a doctor. However the summons came to him, it came as it had come to Levi sitting that day by his tax booth as he had for so many days before. Until then Lyte would have looked down on people he regarded as sinful and would have thought righteousness before God was acquired by being good and keeping commandments, by worshipping on Sunday and by participating in the rituals of that worship, especially baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He was, in other words, a fine specimen of a Pharisee.

But now, suddenly, he had met the bridegroom and drunk the new wine. There is a gravestone in the Brixham church, the tiny fishing village on the English Channel coast where Lyte was the minister for twenty-four years, most of which as an outstanding Christian pastor and a real follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, a gravestone that serves as a beautiful testament to his subsequent ministry. [Whether Lyte had anything to do with the writing of the epitaph (it is found in a building constructed after Lyte’s death) no one knows.]

What shall we write on this memorial stone?
Thy merits? Thou didst rest on Christ alone;
Our sorrow? Thou wouldst blame the selfish tear;
Our love? Alas it needs no record here.
Praise to thy God and ours? His truth and love
Are sung in nobler strains by thee above.
What wouldst thou have us write? A voice is heard,
‘Write, for each reader write, a warning word;
Oh bid him look before him and within.
Talk to his heedless heart of death and sin,
And if at these he trembles, bid him flee
To Christ and find him all in all, like me!

That is the heart and mind of a Christian!