Friend of Sinners, Pt. 1: "Every Saint Has a Past"
Every Saint Has a Past and Every Sinner a Future (LUKE 5:27-32)
Tony Campolo told how, upon arrival in Honolulu, he made his way unwittingly to a seedy part of town for a snack at 3:30 in the morning, to be surrounded by eight or nine prostitutes who had just taken the night off. He overheard the prostitute beside him saying to her girlfriend, “Tomorrow is my birthday,” but her friend rebutted, “So what do you want from me? You want me to get you a cake and sing, 'Happy Birthday?'“ The alarmed birthday girl protested, “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that's all. Why do you have to put me down? Why should you give me a birthday party now when I've never had a birthday party in my whole life?”
When the prostitutes left, Campolo decided to decorate the place the next night and give the birthday girl a surprise party with the help of the bartender, who happily chipped in the cake. The next day, the stunned girl was so taken back when the whole bar sang a birthday song to her. She first refused to cut the cake, then asked if she could keep the cake a little longer and, finally, for some unknown reason, dashed home with the cake after promising to return with it later.
Campolo offered to say a prayer for the woman before the stunned crowd, and after prayer, the bartender remarked, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Campolo replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.” The bartender sneered, “No you don't. There's no church like that. If there was, I'd join it.” (The Kingdom of God is a Party 3-8, Tony Campolo, Dallas: Word Publishing, 1990).
The story of Levi, whose other name was Matthew, was about a man who contracted with the Roman government to collect taxes from fellow Jews, pocketed the gain for himself and thereby was excluded from any form of community life, restricted to social life with peers within his profession, and often shunned and hated by countrymen, neighbors, and even relatives.
Levi’s transformation occurred when he met Jesus Christ one day. He later became an apostle and wrote the first book of the New Testament. When Levi excitedly gathered his colleagues for a feast with Jesus, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were offended and scandalized by Jesus’ association with Levi and others like him and posed this question to the disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Will a man’s past doom him to his future? Is repentance and change possible? Is salvation a momentary experience or an abiding decision?
The Coming of Jesus Makes Conversion Possible
27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. (Lk 5:27-28)
Jesus set out to look for Levi. After Jesus had called Simon, James and John (Lk 5:10), he saw Levi the tax collector sitting by himself, stopped by his booth, and said two words to him: “Follow me.” In all gospels Levi’s calling was mentioned, Jesus spoke the same two forceful words: “Follow Me.”
What was amazing about Jesus’ call to Levi was that Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Mt 9:9, Mk 2:14) all recorded Jesus’ two brief words to Levi in the gospels with equal passion, in the same way and at the exact length. Only Peter (John 21:19) and Philip (Jn 1:43) were given this directive, but their response was captured just once in the gospels. Nothing was special about their conversion; they were ordinary people, with normal jobs, receiving equal treatment. Remarkably, the gospels recorded, covered and highlighted Jesus’ direct invitation to the most tainted member of the apostolic band, Levi the tax-collector. It was a rare, intentional and meaningful recording. The news of Jesus’ reception of another apostle or citizen’s conversion did not quite grab the headlines or seize the imagination like that of the sinner Levi. Not like this, before this or after this. Jesus’ evangelistic target, effort and success were the toast of the gospels, the talk of town and the task of all tasks.
Jesus looked at Levi (Lk 5:27) the same way he looked at John and Andrew (Jn 1:38), the 5,000 he fed (John 6:5), or the woman the scribes and Pharisees incited the crowd to stone (Jn 8:10). Jesus did not consider him any different from others who needed salvation, forgiveness and hope. Levi was wretched, misguided and desperate, a demonized, a reviled, and an unloving, unlovable and unloved man. Jesus spotted him, sought him and saved Levi. Previously, Levi sat by himself, kept to himself and lived for himself. So Levi welcomed and appreciated the visit, the opportunity and the challenge to start all over again.
Levi reminds me of John Newton and the long journey he took before his transformation took place. Today we know Newton as one of the five greatest English hymn-writers in history, whose song “Amazing Grace” was dubbed America’s favorite hymn and his story often told poignantly.
Newton earned his money the most detestable way. Although Newton himself was made a slave when he was a young man for deserting ship, he too entered the industry, captured unsuspecting natives and transported ships of them for commerce along the African Coast. In 1748, when his ship ran into a violent storm that threatened to sink his ship on the way home to England, Newton cried for mercy, begged for forgiveness and got a reprieve when the storm passed. Newton kept his word, made up for lost time and quit his post, although he resisted initially.
Later Newton studied for the ministry, became a pastor when he was 39 years old and actively campaigned against slavery. He single-handedly wrote hundreds of hymns. In his old age, when reading was beyond him, Newton said, “Though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor yet what I hope to be, I can truly say I am not what I once was: a slave to sin and Satan. I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge that by the grace of God I am what I am!” (7,700 Illustrations # 2096)
In his death Newton's tombstone read, “John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.”
Jesus is willing, able and present to rescue, deliver, and transform sinners like you and I. To the world, you may be poison, a potential troublemaker, or a dirty rotten scoundrel, but to Him, you are precious, a potential child of God, and a poor lost sheep. You may be down on yourself, far from God and over your head with problems, but God goes out of His way, makes a way for you and calls you to follow Him. Levi did not ask or call for Jesus. Jesus did not bump into Levi or stop to rest. He “called” on and called to Levi.
The Company of Jesus Makes Change Natural
28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. 29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. (Lk 5:28-29)
The narrative now turned to Levi, and what he did naturally to show his sincerity, rebirth and transformation.
Interestingly, unlike the NIV, the Greek, Chinese and NASB emphasized that Levi left everything before he got up! Levi made up his mind, determined in his heart and resolved in his being to leave everything behind to follow Jesus. Getting out his chair and stepping out of his office were drastic steps to take. Levi left a controversial job, a distracting lifestyle, but a stable income. He would never find a more secure and lucrative job. In today’s world, it means leaving guaranteed stock options, corporate perks and a comfortable nest egg, and letting Jesus be the boss, director and person in charge of your life. Fittingly, Levi slammed the door, turned the key and closed the chapter on his old job or lifestyle. He had no pleasure in his old job, no allure for its pressure and no regrets at leaving it.
I remember my former neighbor who indirectly led me to Christ. His name was Lee. Lee was a very popular, successful but hedonistic soccer player. Players liked him. The soccer federation selected him for the national youth soccer team. Lee was a typical jock, had many girlfriends and passed around girlie magazines in clubhouses. He went to play professional soccer overseas and we corresponded, but this churchgoer’s relationship with God was a sham, meaningless and laughable.
Some time after Lee returned from abroad, he called me up, and I noticed that all his family members were not around when I visited him. Lee made a remarkable break from his old lifestyle that day. He took out a trash bin, reached under his bed for boxes and boxes of girlie magazines and asked me to help him burn them. It was a strange day. He locked the door and we burned them with a bucket of water nearby - just in case, and when burning them was too tiring, risky and long, we tore up the rest and threw it down the chute.
Lee’s transformation was unforeseeable but his carnal lifestyle was broken. He could have sold the magazines, gave them away or tear them himself, but he wanted someone to witness his clean break, serious intentions and true transformation.
Levi’s concern for his old job was replaced by concern for his old friends. He took out his savings, paid for a huge party and invited all his friends, many of them now his former colleagues who presently not only had an opportunity to listen to Levi and others’ testimony, but also to meet Jesus in person and hear the gospel for themselves. Levi was not a fanatic who sold his house, hid in seclusion or disappeared from family, friends and society. In fact, he desired nothing more than to include them in his witness circle, invite them to ask questions and introduce them to the Savior. He offered his house as a gospel center to make the occasion as informal, as homely and as pleasant as possible for the non-believing crowd. There was nothing more precious, joyous and meaningful to Levi than the turnaround and salvation of his former coworkers.
The new Levi was no longer feverishly chasing after riches, but calmly following behind Jesus. He had discovered a new purpose, a new pursuit and a new priority in life. He was done with the past, optimistic of the future and currently under new management.
Are you afraid of commitment to Jesus? Desertion by friends? Leaving or losing your all? You are never alone, poor or powerless if you have Jesus. For our sakes Jesus, though he was rich, became poor, so that through his poverty we might become rich (2 Cor 8:9).
The Commendation of Jesus Makes Criticism Bearable
30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and 'sinners'?” 31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Lk 5:30-32)
What Jesus said boiled down to three questions: Who needed a doctor? (v 31 “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”) Who did Jesus call? (v 32a “I have not come to call the righteous…”) And what was required? (32b “sinners to repentance”)
Who needs a doctor? You don’t have to be religious, but you’ve got to recognize what your condition is, who can help you and why you need help. Who is Jesus calling today? Not those who have the answers, but those who are looking for answers. What is required? Salvation is available to all who are willing to turn from sin and turn to God.
Levi had the right approach. Jesus commended and defended him. Like his master, Levi was not bothered by what others thought, what they noticed and what they said of those who came. Sinners needed the gospel, the opportunity was present, and Jesus was present to save. Levi’s friends were eager and willing to hear the account of Levi’s conversion, were longing for the opportunity to meet and hear Jesus in person and see what can be done for them, with them, and in them. Jesus did not condone the tax-collectors’ lifestyle but He welcomed their presence. He did not forbid, prevent or criticize their attendance or coming, but extended to them the same patience, love and forgiveness Levi received.
Once, Charlie Brown was upset at his dirty little friend Pig-pen’s presence at the same party with him. Charlie Brown saw Pig-pen heading to the house and exclaimed, “Good grief! He didn’t even change clothes! I can’t believe it!” He proceeded to lecture Pig-pen, “You’re not going to Violet’s birthday party looking like that?!!” Pig-pen looked at himself and asked, “So what’s wrong?” Charlie Brown threw his hands in the air and railed, “So what’s wrong?! You’re a mess, that’s what’s wrong!!” They won’t even let you in the house, Pig-pen! They’ll bar you at the door!”
Pig-pen said, “Oh, I don’t think so...” Charlie Brown raised his voice: “Of course, they will! You won’t be welcome at all! Your appearance will be insulting!” Before Charlie Brown could finish his words, the door swung opened and Violet invited them in: “Well! Pig-pen! Come in! Come on in! How nice to see you! How nice of you to come!”
Pig-pen brought out a gift and presented it to Violet with both his hands. Violet gushed, “Oh, thank you! You shouldn’t have!” As Violet left them, Pig-pen turned around, closed his eyes, thumbed his nose at Charlie Brown and declared, “The present was clean!”
Jesus’ response was fascinating. He did not fit, comply or live up to people’s expectations. In the presence of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, Jesus embraced Levi the tax collector, defended his methods and vindicated his actions. Jesus had come for sinner’s repentance. He himself would often suffer criticism, misunderstandings and rejection till his death for being in the company of lost sinners. The Pharisees did not understand why Jesus would associate with tax-collectors and sinners, but Jesus had no such reservations. He did not come to call sinners to eat, drink or be merry. He had come to call them to repentance, to return to and to reconcile with God.
Conclusion: It’s been said, “Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.” Jesus came for those who are less than perfect, those who are far from perfect, and those who are anything but perfect. God made Jesus who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). You can be like Levi, who understood, relinquished and transformed his past, or you can be like Pharisees and the teachers of the law with their stiff-upper lip, narrow mindset and false self-importance. Jesus Christ is the Great Physician to those who are sick, the Wonderful Savior to the confessing sinner and the Mediator to the Father.
Are you a channel of blessing to others, a vessel for God’s use and an instrument of God’s peace? God is not in the business of making lost sinners into sleeping saints or silent servants. He loves His children speak His name, share His love and seek the lost. Have you put your house in order, put others before yourself and put your money where your mouth and heart is?
At the beginnng of July you were kind enough to give me permission to present your message series entitled: Jesus Friend of Sinners to our congregation.
I want to thank you again for being so generous.
The series was a success...success meaning the listeners enjoyed the messages and I trust they learned a bit better just how much Jesus is truly the the friend of sinners...like me.
May God bless your life and service to Him.
If you are ever lost in Kalamazoo/Portage, Michigan, USA, please do contact me.
Thank you again.
Richard & Dianne H
Centre Avenue Church of God