In the previous paragraph (vs 1-8), our Lord demonstrated his authority to forgive sins. Now it was never a question that sins needed to be forgiven. But there were two mistakes made by people in Jesus’ day about the forgiveness of sin. The first was who could forgive. Recall that the scribes were shocked that Jesus claimed to have the power to do it. That misunderstanding was cleared by the miracle of healing that he performed on the paralytic. The second misconception was who could be forgiven. The confusion concerning the objects of forgiveness is dealt with in our text. Another way to put it would be: who is the intended audience of the gospel, this message of forgiveness? And the unequivocal answer of our text is that Jesus receives and calls sinners to embrace the gospel.
Now it is especially important in our day to come to grips with the message of this text for two reasons. One is that one of the mistakes the church has made many times throughout its history is to retreat from the world. Now this not only happened in the past when Christians retreated into monasteries, but also in our day when Christians have retreated into their own little evangelical enclaves, trying to put as much distance between themselves and the world as possible. Our Lord never retreated from the world; rather, he advanced into it, shining his light into the darkness. You see this in the text. Our Lord did not hesitate to sit down with Matthew and his friends who were the riffraff of society and enjoy a feast with them. Though it shocked the respectable Pharisees (v. 11), our Lord had no problem doing it. In the same way, Christians should not be afraid of associating with sinners. After all, our Lord had the reputation of being “a friend of publicans and sinners” (Mt. 11:19). I wonder if our unwillingness to associate with those who do not share our faith in Christ is more a product of fear than it is of faith.
But there is another reason this text is important. Throughout the history of the church, and especially in our day, people have used Jesus’ words to advocate for the very opposite of seclusion, worldliness. We hear a lot in these days of Jesus being a friend of sinners. And I am glad that he was and is! But what many people mean by this is that Jesus was okay with sin. “Don’t condemn sinners!” we are told, “because Jesus hung out with sinners.” And depending on what the current favorite vice of the culture is, our Lord’s words are used to evaporate any condemnation against it. In other words, our Lord’s words and actions are used to justify depravity. And they are used to silence those who would call sin for what it is.
However, you cannot look to Jesus to justify either seclusion from world or conformity to it. Our Lord’s words, “I am not come to call the righteous but sinners” (v. 13) are actually an overt condemnation of both of these positions. Rather, in these words, Jesus calls his disciples to lovingly confront the world with truth and to call sinners from sin. And in doing so, our Lord announces the essence of his mission in the world. So in that sense this passage is incredibly important. If you want to answer the question, “Who was Jesus and what was he about?” the answer is in our text. John MacArthur explains, “This statement [verse 13] contains a full perspective on Jesus’ ministry, a summary of the message of Christianity, a close-up of the nucleus of the gospel, and the basic rationale behind the Incarnation.”
In this text, we learn the following things about the mission of Jesus. First, he was sent to call sinners. The Son of man receives sinners. Not just respectable sinners, but the worst sorts of sinners. Second, he refuses those who see themselves as respectable and righteous. In other words, in a true sense our Lord’s call is not universal, for it does not include those who see no need of the gospel. It is directed to those who see and feel their need for a Savior. He has come to call those who are weary and heavy laden – to these he offers rest (cf. Mt. 11:28-30). Third, his call cannot be divorced from repentance. Salvation from the guilt of sin cannot be separated from salvation from the grip of sin – both sin’s grip on you and your grip on sin. As the angel put it to Joseph in Mt. 1:21, our Lord’s mission is to save people from their sin, not in their sins.
Let us more fully consider these three truths together.
First, Jesus receives sinners. In no case was the more publicly and clearly displayed than in the calling of Matthew. We are told that “as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him” (ver. 9). Matthew was a tax-collector located in Capernaum. However, you need to understand that this was a profession that no self-respecting Jew would have held. Tax-collecting was done for and in the name of the Roman Empire, which imposed heavy and burdensome taxes upon those whom they conquered. So for Matthew to take such a job was to become a traitor to his Jewish identity. In fact, this was so odious to other Jews that tax-collectors were excluded from the synagogue, their testimony could not be accepted in a court of law, and they were considered as ceremonially defiled and unclean. One commentator has noted that although touching a leper was bad enough, that would have been not nearly as shocking as it must have been to see Jesus walk up to Matthew’s tax booth and call him to follow him.
But if it was bad enough to work for one’s enemies, the way tax-collectors conducted their business was even worse. Their position was a franchise that they bought into. Basically, the Romans let men bid for this position, and who won the bid was determined by who they believed could collect the most taxes. Each tax-collector was then given a quota, but whatever they collected above and beyond the quota was theirs. This of course led to rampant corruption on the part of the tax-collectors who used their position to line their pockets with the money of their fellow countrymen. We see an example of this in Zacchaeus, another tax-collector that Jesus befriended (cf. Luke 19:1-10). When he met Jesus, and his life was changed, he said, “Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” (ver. 8). We don’t know if Matthew himself had taken advantage of others in this way, but certainly his position put him in the category of a thief and a liar in the eyes of the respectable.
So Matthew was a sinner. But he was not just a sinner. There are respectable sinners and there are notorious sinners. Matthew was one of the latter. And he hung out with other undesirable characters. Because of his job, the only friends Matthew could have made would have been others who also had been pushed to the fringes of society.
This shocked the Pharisees. “Pharisee” means “separated one,” and they prided themselves on being separate from those who were sinful and ceremonially unclean. Remember the Pharisee’s prayer in Luke 18? “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican [tax-collector]” (Luke 18:11). They just couldn’t believe that God would even look on such people. But in that story, our Lord went on to compare the prayer of the Pharisee with the prayer of a tax-collector who felt the burden of his sin and who could only smite his breast and beg God to have mercy on him, a sinner (ver. 13). Remember the conclusion of the story: “I tell you, this man [the publican] went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (ver. 14). God justifies and saves sinners.
I think that our Lord loved to highlight this fact by intentionally calling those who the religious would have thought unredeemable. It is not just true that God forgives sins. It is also true that God forgives the worst of sinners of their sins. He shows mercy to outcasts like Matthew. He redeems persecutors like Paul. And he does this to prove to you and me that he will forgive our sins too, when we follow his Son. The apostle Paul put it like this: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:15-16).
What is also amazing about this is not only does he forgive sins, but he desires the fellowship of those whose sins are forgiven. By this time no doubt Matthew had heard of Jesus. He had probably seen his miracles and heard his teaching. Perhaps his life had already begun to change. But as he sat there at his tax booth, he probably would never have entertained the notion that Jesus would ever want to have him as one of his close disciples. And yet that is exactly what happened.
Our Lord is still calling Matthews to follow him. If you think that you are not worthy to follow him because you have messed up so badly in the past, that does not disqualify you. Because Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. We don’t bring anything to the table. We don’t bring any qualifications. We simply bring ourselves to be changed by the grace of Jesus Christ.
But this not only says something about how God looks at sinners, it also by implication says something about how we should look at sinners. Yes, God delights in showing mercy (cf. Micah 7:18). But if God delights in showing mercy, then so should we. This is why Jesus told the Pharisees, “But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice” (ver. 13). This is a quotation from Hosea 6:6. What Jesus is saying is that though the Pharisees made such a big deal about ceremonial purity and sacrifices and external religious performances, what God really wants from us is mercy. He wants us to reach out to sinners, not to comfort them in their sins but to encourage them to part with their sins for Christ. He wants us to recognize that the only difference between us and the worst sinner is the grace of God. And if we feel that, then we are going to show mercy. We will reach out to sinners, like Jesus, instead of holding them at arms’ length, like the Pharisees.
Calvin makes an interesting observation that the reason why Matthew associated with the dissolute was because no one else would be his friend. The religious culture of his day basically pushed him into the shadows. He explains that “when the publicans saw themselves cast off as ungodly and detestable persons, they sought consolation in the society of those who did not despise them on account of the bad and disgraceful reputation which they shared along with them. Meanwhile, they mixed with adulterers, drunkards, and such characters; whose crimes they would have detested, and whom they would not have resembled, had not the public hatred and detestation driven them to that necessity.” It makes me wonder if the church is guilty of that. Do people ever avoid the church for the society of sinners because we refuse, like Christ, to receive sinners? Are we in some sense aiding and abetting the work of the Devil by pushing the Matthews of the world into the necessity of mixing with the openly wicked? It is a question worth pondering.
The second thing our text teaches us is that Jesus refuses the righteous. We are told that after Jesus had called Matthew, that Jesus went to eat a meal at his house with Matthew and his friends (ver. 10). This enraged the Pharisees even further. They accosted the disciples, and asked the accusatory question, “Why does your Master eat with publicans and sinners?” (ver. 11). To this our Lord responds, “They that be whole need not a physician but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (ver. 12-13).
Basically, the Pharisees couldn’t understand why Jesus wanted to hang out with the sinners instead of them. It was so offensive. They were the ones who loved the Bible! They were the ones who sought to implement the teaching of the Law into all areas of life! Their attitude was mirrored in the thoughts of another Pharisee who had invited Jesus into his house but who then witnessed a woman who was a social outcast washing Jesus’ feet: “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). They just couldn’t imagine why a teacher of the Law, as Jesus claimed to be, would identify with such people.
Jesus’ response is instructive. He is a physician, and physicians aren’t in the business to help people who aren’t sick. He did not come to call the righteous (those who are whole) but sinners (who are sick). Now it’s important to understand that he is using irony here. He was not implying that the Pharisees were actually righteous or whole. They weren’t. Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount? “Except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). In other words, the “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees was completely deficient. No, Jesus did not say they were righteous because they actually were; he said it because they thought they were righteous. They considered themselves in the category of the righteous and people like Matthew and his friends they put in the category of the sinner.
In other words, Jesus is saying that he did not come to save those who don’t think they need to be saved. He did not come to offer forgiveness to those who felt that they were already righteous. Rather, he came to seek and to save the lost. He came, not only to heal the sick, but to heal those who know they are sick. He came to call sinners who know they are sinners to repentance.
What does this mean? It means that part of conversion to Christ involves a real understanding that we are sinners. This means more than just an acknowledgement that we have sinned. The Pharisees would have done that. I think a good test of whether or not we believe in our need for Christ and the grace of God is this is to put ourselves in the position of the man who knows that he is sick, really sick. Now a man may be sick and not know it. But such a person isn’t going to go to the doctor. But the person that really believes that something is wrong is going to seek the advice and help of their physician. They know something is wrong. Do you know something is wrong, fundamentally wrong between you and God? A good way to determine whether or not you understand this is to ask yourself if you think that you are worthy of God’s judgement. “And if my soul were sent to hell, thy righteous law approves it well.” Can you say that? Any Pharisee would have admitted that he sinned from time to time. And yet no Pharisee would have also admitted that he was exposed to God’s wrath because of those sins. His good was good enough to cover up his sins. Is that the way we feel? Because if it is, then it will be impossible for us to authentically hear the call of Christ in the gospel.
To believe this, we have also to believe that in the final analysis our sins are against God. And it is to understand that God is so highly exalted and holy that to sin against him is the worst sort of evil, no matter how that sin takes particular expression. It is to say with King David, “Against you, you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight: so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4, ESV).
Another test whether or not we really understand our sinfulness and need of Christ has to do with our attitude towards sin. Again, put yourself in the position of the sick person who knows their sickness. Solomon put it this way in his prayer, “What prayer and supplication soever be made by any man, or by all thy people Israel, which shall know every man the plague of his own heart . . . then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive” (1 Kings 8:38-39). Do you know the plague of your own heart? A person who understands their sick condition is not going to be okay with it. They are going to want to be rid of whatever it is that is causing their ill health. In the same way, a person who understands that they are a sinner is going to want to be rid of sin. They are not going to be content to go on living in the quagmire of their moral filth. Do you? It is one thing to cry over your sin because of the consequences it has brought. It is another to turn from it altogether. Only those who truly turn from their sin prove that they really understand their condition in sin.
Which leads to our third and final point. You cannot divorce the call to forgiveness from the call to repentance. Or, to put it another way, you cannot separate the call to embrace Christ as Prophet and Priest from the call to embrace him as your King. And the simple reason is that those who know that they are sick are going to want to be rid of the sickness. Now the sickness that Christ has come to heal is the sickness resulting from sin. Those who are sick of sin are going to want to be rid of the sin in every aspect. We have to turn from sin if we want to turn from Christ.
That’s why Jesus said, “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (cf. Luke 5:32). Remember that the message that our Lord began to preach at the very outset of his ministry was one of repentance. The idea that being saved means nothing more than intellectually accepting Jesus into my heart as Savior is so far removed from the Biblical idea of salvation as to have nothing in common with it. Those who are saved are those who follow Christ. And those who follow Christ are those who have turned from their sin and whose lives are increasingly becoming the Beatitudes.
To do this, you must see that Jesus Christ is worth it. You must see that here is such an extraordinary person that it is worth it to part from your dearest sin, no matter how precious you may perceive it to be, in order to have Christ. Matthew saw this. I think one of the reasons he is putting his conversion story here in the middle of this narrative about Jesus’ miracles is to underline the fact that one of the things that brought him to Christ and enabled him to leave everything for Christ is just the fact that he saw in Jesus more than a teacher. Here was a man who could heal leprosy at a touch, who could heal a sick man at a distance, who could calm storms and cast out demons. Here was the Messiah. Yes, he was worth it.
Though Matthew doesn’t tell us this, Luke records that Matthew left everything to follow Christ (Luke 5:28). It was one thing to leave your fishing business for Christ. You could always go back to fishing if it didn’t work out. But when he left his tax booth, Matthew was making a radical decision. There was no going back, because the Romans would have replaced him with someone else. And yet there is no hint of regret. In fact, he gives Jesus a party in his own house. Before, he was taking money from his fellow countrymen. Now all he wants to do is to give Jesus to all his friends.
Is Jesus worth it? Yes, I believe he is. My prayer is that you would join me in following him. Let Paul’s word become ours: “Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:8-11).
 John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, Revised and Expanded (Zondervan: 1994), p. 67-68.
 R. C. Sproul, Mark (St Andrews Expositional Commentary), p. 45.