Mark 2:13-28 | The Kingdom of God is for You
As Mark shows us the authority of Jesus over everything, he includes the conflict with the religious leaders that authority created. We saw one of those last week and we’re going to see three more of them today. Let’s read it now.
Jesus Calls Levi
13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
A Question About Fasting
18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. 21 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
Jesus Is Lord of the Sabbath
23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” 27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
For some in Jesus’ day, his kingdom drawing near was not a comfortable sight. While the sinners and tax collectors find a home with Jesus, the Pharisees and other devout Jews struggle to reconcile Jesus’ mercy with his holiness. The word Pharisee means “separated one.” There were really “religious.” They cared a lot about the rules, even if that meant separating themselves from others, even those who they knew needed God. Religion has a way of doing that, doesn’t it?
So here are these religious Pharisees thinking, “How can this man, this rabbi, this one who claims to forgive sins—how can he recline with sinners and allow his disciples to do what is not lawful? How can this man be the Christ?”
But Mark makes it clear that Jesus is just that. He is the King of God’s Kingdom. He was misunderstood by the religious leaders, but Mark goes to great lengths to make Jesus clear to us.
So what is Mark making clear to us here? Well, through these interactions we see that there are two ways to welcome Jesus. We can welcome him with total openness or with total scrutiny. We can accept his salvation on his terms or we can reject his salvation because of his terms. There is no in-between. But the good news for all who will hear is that his terms are the best deal for sinners this world will ever see. And we’re all sinners—even the best behaved among us. His offer is total forgiveness for our total sin, if only we’ll have him.
In a way, these Pharisees and devout Jews do us all a great favor. In observing Jesus and questioning him, they give us further insight into the kingdom of God. More than merely theological debates, these stories are revelations of the radical, even scandalous, nature of the kingdom of God.
What are those revelations? There are at least three.
The kingdom of God is for sinners (vv. 13-17)
The kingdom of God is radically new (vv. 18-22)
The kingdom of God is for you (vv. 23-28)
The kingdom of God is for sinners (vv. 13-17)
Jesus goes down by the sea and calls Levi the tax collector to follow him. Soon after, Jesus is sitting in Levi’s house, reclining at table with his friends. The Pharisees want to know “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus’ answer is simple. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” It’s a common-sense answer, a proverbial quote known far and wide. A doctor must go to the sick. What good is a doctor who never does? But coming from the mouth of Jesus to the Pharisees in front of his new tax collector and sinner friends, it had a different slant. It posed a question even as it affirmed a truth. It was as if he was saying, “Do you understand your sickness? Do you understand the sickness of sin? Do you understand the illness of the soul? Do you understand that no good you’ve done or could ever do will remove the evil of sin from your heart? Do you understand my salvation?”
We are all—every one us—diagnosed with a sickness unto death. And the sinners and tax collectors he sat among saw it. They saw their sickness. So they welcomed the Physician.
But the Pharisees didn’t. They were concerned with the optics of it all. How could a rabbi sit with those people? Jesus says he can because it’s the entire reason for his coming: to call not the righteous, but sinners. In reclining with the tax collectors and sinners, while it proved to be bad optics for his budding ministry, was the precise reason for his ministry. He was not there for those who had no need of him. He was there for those who had a great need for him.
So here’s the question we need to answer this morning: Do we sense a personal need for Christ or do we think we’re doing just fine? Do we need a Physician or can we heal ourselves?
The Bible makes it quite clear that no one is righteous. But there is a difference between affirming that biblical truth and feeling the need for a rescue. A religious person can recognize the evil inside while thinking better behavior will atone for it. But the one for whom Christ came recognizes no good from within can atone for the sins of the heart. The Bible is screaming to us from Genesis 3 onward that we need a rescue, we need a Savior.
There are really only two types of people in this world, no matter the religion. There are those who know their need for a savior and those who see no need for one. And the kingdom of God exposes both.
We see the difference in the narrative. There are two sets of people. We have Levi and his buddies on the one side and the Pharisees on the other.
What do we know of Levi? We know from other parts of the Bible that he’s also called Matthew, the author of the gospel. We also know from this passage that he was a tax collector. Tax collectors in that day were seen as unclean people. Many of them around there were Jews, and to get the job, they bid the amount of tax revenue they could take in to the Roman government. The open jobs went to the highest bidder. Some taxes were fixes and you couldn’t charge more than the going rate, but others had looser definitions. Tax collectors would take advantage, collecting their quota and pocketing the excess. They were traitors to the Jewish people they extorted.
The Pharisees would have nothing to do with such men. They avoided fellowshipping with such people to maintain their ritual purity. And they considered reclining with those unversed in the Law, such as these “sinners” to be a disgrace. But Jesus didn’t seem to mind. Apparently, they were the ones for whom he came.
The Pharisees didn’t like that. They are the bad guys in this story, no doubt. But is there not a Pharisee in us all? Somewhere, deep in our heart, there is a prejudice against others. Yes, the Pharisees didn’t associate with sinners and tax collectors, but the sinners and tax collectors didn’t associate with them either. They were of separate worlds, and that was fine with each. In every one of us, there is a world in which we live and world in which “those people” live, isn’t there? And if “those people” were to come in this room right now, their presence would make us uncomfortable.
But in God’s kingdom, there aren’t us and them. There’s just us and Jesus, and we have to deal with the mercy he’s shown to all. Notice Mark says the disciples were with Jesus in Levi’s house. I wonder what they thought about Levi when Jesus called him? I wonder what they thought about entering his house with all those tax collectors? Remember, the first disciples of Jesus were fishermen. They worked hard to make a living. Remember, too, that it was beside the sea working in his booth that Jesus called Levi. That must have taken the disciples back to their fishing days when they would come to shore, and a man like Levi—maybe even Levi himself—sat in his booth, taxing the fish they caught. And now here is this man among them—one who, if he had not extorted them, his certainly friends had. What would they do with this? What kind of rabbi is this Jesus?
Well, it turns out, he’s the kind that saves sinners. What we see in the calling of Levi is Jesus’ continued call of the unclean, unwanted, even despised people into his kingdom. Levi was not a man any other rabbi would have wanted. The Pharisees didn’t. But Jesus did! So he went and got him.
In response, Levi invited Jesus home for dinner. When you realize Jesus doesn’t just tolerate you but wants you, it changes everything. For a man cast outside the religious circles of his day, a rabbi who wanted him to follow him was unthinkable. When Jesus came along, Levi couldn’t help but invite him among his friends. And Jesus wasn’t above attending.
Years later, another sinner, this time a Pharisee, would understand Jesus. In speaking to his disciple, Timothy, the Apostle Paul said that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom—notice this personal pronoun—“of whom I am the foremost.” Charles Spurgeon notes that between that world saves and that word sinners, there is no adjective. It matters not that you are a tax collecting sinner or a murderous sinner or an obedient-to-tradition sinner. All that matters is that sinners are in the world and you are among them. That’s what Jesus is saying! He came for the sick, are you sick enough for Jesus?
We need not simply better behavior; we need a rescue. We need a Savior. We need one who will dine with sinners and befriend them. And that’s who we have in Jesus.
We have two options before us. We can stand at the door questioning Jesus’ methods or we can join his party raging inside. We can be like the elder boy in the parable of the prodigal son, angry that we’ve always obeyed but never received, or we can be the prodigal enjoying the welcome home. Jesus is saying, “Your brother has come. It’s fitting to celebrate and be glad. The dead are alive! The lost are found! Come, join the party.” Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
Are you sick enough for the Good Doctor, Jesus? If so, rejoice! The kingdom of God is at hand, and it’s coming for you! And when you get inside, you’ll see that it’s something radically new from what this tired world has been giving.
The kingdom of God is radically new (vv. 18-22)
Once we see that the kingdom of God is for sinners, we begin to see how radically new it truly is. Since the fall, the kingdom of God has been attacked from outside and inside. Even the law of God was misused. By the time Jesus arrived, the Jewish world in that day was weighed down with laws. Some were from God. Those were to be obeyed. But some were from the Jews themselves, additions to the law of God that, in the end, distorted God’s law and had the reverse effect of his original intention. That’s how it always is with us, isn’t it? We have an amazing ability to complicate the purposes of God.
When Jesus appeared, the Jews expected him to fall in line with the status quo. And when he didn’t, it proved troublesome. It angered the Pharisees, and it confused the common Jew. That’s what we see in verses 18-22. It’s not the Pharisees who question Jesus but the “people.” They want to know why the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Jesus’ don’t.
God’s law really only required one fast—on the day of Atonement. But over the years, other fasts were added to the calendar: important holidays and so forth. And if you were a Pharisee, you were so holy that you fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. And they must have made a show of it because later on, Jesus told his disciples, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
But Jesus’ disciples didn’t fast at all, and that was confusing. So Jesus answered by appealing to a cultural norm. “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” No, he says. They cannot. That wouldn’t be right. When something joyous occurs, no one thinks of avoiding food. When something joyous occurs, everyone wonders what’s for dinner! How are we going to celebrate? Weddings in Israel were not an afternoon affair. They lasted a full week. All week long, everyone would eat and drink. No one was fasting. Everyone was celebrating. Jesus is saying his disciples are doing the same.
He didn’t say his disciples would never fast. Indeed, a time would come when they must—when the bridegroom is taken. But while he is here, it makes no sense to fast. Jesus is merely saying his disciples know the time of things. They’re aware the feasting is here, even if the fasting will come later. He’s saying to them that something new has come, and as long as the new is here, the old way of things cannot be forced to work.
To illustrate, Jesus uses two brief parables. “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins”
Both parables serve the same purpose: the new cannot fit with the old. You can’t sow a new patch of cloth on an old garment without creating more harm. Why? Because the old is shrunk down by washing. A new piece of cloth isn’t. When it’s washed, it’ll shrink and tear a hole greater than the one it patched. In the same way, you can’t put new wine into old wineskins without them bursting. The expansive, fermenting new wine will cause the skin to stretch and burst.
What’s he saying? You can’t fit the kingdom of God into old religious forms. Man-made traditions and ceremonies and outdated religious structures are simply not suitable for the new wine of the gospel. It’s too expansive. The joy is too great. It’s growing too fast. You can’t put it into the status quo. God’s kingdom isn’t just for Jews; it’s for Gentiles too. It’s for the unclean, the ungodly, the tax collectors and sinners, the losers of this world! Christ has come, and he’s filling God’s purposes up. He’s the new patch. He’s the new wine. The times, they are a-changin’!
Jesus is not the poster boy for old-time religion. He’s not the Bible Belt co-pilot. He’s not the post-modern homeboy. Jesus is the covenant-making God filling up the old in himself and pouring out the newness we long for. He’s the perfect Jew, obeying the law to the fullest as it was originally intended. And that’s so radical, and so different-looking, that everyone wonders, “Who is this guy?” Well, he’s the King of God’s coming kingdom, that’s who. Doesn’t his kingdom look better than the one you’ve been living in—the one where you never measure up, where you never find a place, where you never have peace, where you never have joy? Well, forget all that now! Yes, there’s a time to fast, but even then, with Jesus, the joy is deep. No gloom! God’s kingdom is a happy one! The gospel is fermenting, and it tastes good!
Here’s the question: will we hold onto the status quo or will we make room for Jesus and join the wedding celebration?
To hold on to man-made religion when the entire purpose of religion is standing before you is to reject the pure, living water for the sewer. It’s to make mud pies in a slum instead of accepting Jesus’ offer of a holiday at sea. It’s to miss the point entirely. And Jesus is here, saying to us this morning, “Don’t miss me! I’m here for you!”
The call of the gospel is actually mind-blowingly simple. It seems too good to be true, but it’s the truest thing in this world. As we swim in the ocean of counterfeits, Jesus stands to proclaim the good news of the gospel, and it’s so real it takes us aback. Jesus Christ has come to save sinners, and you can’t fit that inside any man-made religion. It just doesn’t work. All that we need to do, Jesus did. All that we needed to avoid, Jesus avoided. All that we need to be, Jesus was and is. So give it up your self-salvation project and come to him. You will never be successful, but he already has been! He will justify you by his life, death, and resurrection. All you have to do is accept his free gift of grace!
One theologian (Gerhard Forde) puts the shock of the gospel this way.
“We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works. To the age-old question, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ the confessional answer is shocking: ‘Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!'”
When we accept that, we start to look like people having too much fun. We free up. Yes, we still struggle. Jesus never promised a life with him apart from suffering. Quite the opposite, actually. But he also promised a joy and peace that surpassed understanding—to ourselves and to the watching world, especially to stiff religious people.
So, do we look like people freed from something? A church where people are freed from something is compelling. It makes people wonder what’s going on. And when they ask, we get to say, “Jesus is here!” That’s it! His newness has come and filled up all our sadness, cleansed all our sin, removed all our excuses.
We are professionals at building barriers between God and us, but God is a professional at tearing them down. Way back in the Old Testament, he told the prophet Isaiah to “remove every obstruction from my people’s way.” The prophet Malachi said the Great Day of the Lord for God’s people would make them like “calves leaping from their stalls” (Malachi 4:2). Don’t we want that freedom, that joy?
Let’s refuse to put weights on our already weighty life. Let’s refuse to add rules where God is silent. Let’s refuse to make following Jesus a burden. We’re here to enjoy the journey with him together!
That’s so maddening to serious religious people. A joyous church, full of the Spirit’s freeing power, following the Lamb wherever he goes is a threat to the status quo. Fine! Let’s be that threat! Jesus was. So if we’re following him, I guess we will be too! Okay by me. How about you?
All it takes is to enjoy the savior. If you do that, you’ll find our third point to is true, that the kingdom of God is for you.
The kingdom of God is for you (vv. 23-28)
In verses 23-28, the Pharisees come again. This time they’re mad about Jesus’ disciples breaking the Sabbath. The Pharisees worked really hard to obey, and Jesus and his disciples just don’t seem to care. To avoid doing any work on the Sabbath, the Pharisees created a list of 39 different activities that one could not do on the Sabbath. Strange way to avoid working, huh?
Among those 39 activities were probably are least two that Jesus’ disciples were breaking. They probably violated the “Sabbath-day journey” and they certainly reaped grain. The Sabbath-day journey was defined as less than 2,000 paces. So if you walked any more than a little over half a mile, your were a Sabbath-breaker. Presumably, Jesus’ disciples went further. And along their way, they picked grain and as they rolled it in their hands, they harvested it. So they “did what was not lawful on the Sabbath.”
In response to the Pharisees’ question, Jesus uses an old Pharisaical device. He appeals to Scripture. “Haven’t you read your Bibles?” he asks. Of course they have! But they missed something. David did this same kind of thing. He went into the temple on the Sabbath when he was on the run from Saul, and he took the showbread. You can go back and read this in 1 Samuel 21. The point is this: Jesus is saying, “David did this, and something greater than David is here.”
But David didn’t just take the showbread for himself. He took and gave it to his men with him. In the same way, Jesus gave the grain to his disciples. How can he do such a thing? Because he knew the original intention of the Sabbath. How did he know that? Because he is Lord of the Sabbath. See that in verse 28?
Now that’s just an absolutely astounding thing to say. We saw last week Jesus say he had the authority to forgive sins. Here he says he has the authority to say what the Sabbath is for because he’s Lord of it. Jesus is once again claiming deity.
Jesus knows what the Sabbath is for. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” When he made it, there were no rules about walking 2,000 paces, or reaping grain, or healing the lame (as we’ll see next week). We were not made to be slaves to the Sabbath. The Sabbath was given as a good gift from God for our restoration.
And so we see in this a very simple but life-altering truth. We can complicate the kingdom of God all we want. We can put restrictions on it. We can make it hard to get in to. We can make it burdensome. But when we do that, we make it the opposite of the kingdom of God. We make it the kingdom of this world. Just as the Sabbath is for our rest, so too is the kingdom of God! In bringing the kingdom, Jesus is not adding a burden to our already weighty life, he is bringing relief and restoration!
In bringing the kingdom, he’s bringing the Sabbath rest we long for. The author of Hebrews tells us that “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” (Hebrews 4:9-10) How do we enter God’s rest? By entering his kingdom. How do we enter his kingdom? Through Jesus Christ. When Jesus says he is Lord of the Sabbath, he means that he is the Sabbath. Jesus is our rest. And he’s rested from his works. You can rest from yours. Stop trying to save yourself! Enter God’s rest in Christ!
Everyone on the planet is either currently on or has been on a self-salvation project. But Jesus says, “Forget about that. I’m here to complete that project for you. You can’t do it, but I can, and I have.”
Here’s Christ’s kingdom offer: all our striving and trying for all his finished and accomplished. That’s not for the “good” people over there somewhere, because they don’t exist. It’s not for the people who achieve some great state of perfect obedience, because they don’t exist either. It’s for people like you and me: sinners in need of a savior. To our weary, worn out, self-justified-out hearts, Jesus Christ’s call is simple. “Come to me, and I will give you rest.”
So, why do his disciples do what is not lawful on the Sabbath? Wrong question. Rather, why do the Pharisees make God’s Sabbath law into a chore? Why do we work so hard for love that is freely given in Christ? Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. Following him is doing what is lawful. Total openness to Jesus is obedience.
Jesus doesn’t do away with the law. He fills it up in himself so that as we follow him, as we draw life from him, as we live in his kingdom, we find the rest we’ve longed for. For the first time in our lives we actually obey the law in him.
Do you need that rest? Then go to the only One who can give it because he is it. Go to Jesus. His kingdom is for you, my dear sinner. And, amazingly, it’s for me too.