Go back to the town of Capernaum of old. Ask the people in town, "Who is your chief sinner?" Who would they point out? One of their likeliest candidates would be the man sitting in the tax collector's boothLevi. If you are a small boy and you've done something wrong, you may hear your father say, "Don't do that! You don't want to grow up to be a criminal, do you?" In New Testament times, your father may have said, "You don't want to grow up to be a tax collector, do you?" That's right! They bunched the tax collectors together with the criminals, with the murderers and the thieves. And Levi chose to be a tax collector.
In New Testament days, a tax collector would buy his job and then do all he could to make a big profit. He would use all the tricks of the trade: lying, fraud, extortion, cheating, bribery. He was notorious for squeezing the little guy and swindling the government. And Levi chose to be a tax collector.
So what if they put him out of the synagogue? Levi took the job. So what if they called him a crook? He wore the badgetax collector. He sold out his religion, sold out his people, for the big buck. The Pharisees had him pegged. The townspeople had him pegged. Levi was a sinner. If anyone in town had a heart of stone, it was Levi. Levi chose to be a tax collector.
One day, Jesus met Levi, the tax collector. He did not deny Levi's problem. He didn't say, "Levi isn't all that bad." He knew about Levi's heart of stone. He knew that Levi was a sinner. He said that Levi was lost: lost from God, a slave to sin, bound for hell. If the paralytic needed to be raised from the bed of his sickness, Levi needed to be raised from the bed of sin's infection. If Lazarus was to be called out of a grave in Bethany, Levi needed to be called out of the grave of hell. Levi needed to be saved.
When the Pharisees saw Levi, they would turn their heads and spit. They hated sinners. They hated Levi. They thanked God that they were not like this tax collector. But one of the best Pharisees, Paul, would finally understand that "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23), that all are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1, 5). Paul would look at Levi and see himself. He would call himself the chief of sinners. He would admit that he was as bad as Levi, the tax collector. Do you see the lost of mankind in Levi? Do you see yourself in Levi?
Praise God! Jesus saw the sin-stained life of Levi and he did not turn his head and spit. Christ was drawn to Levi. He was drawn to Paul. He was drawn to sinners then; he is drawn to sinners now. Jesus came "to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). He came, he said, "to call ... sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:32).
Mike was a teenager. It was more than his scruffy appearance that made him look older. Mike's battle with drugs and alcohol was adding years to his age and sorrow to his soul. Mike was a sinner, and Christ came to save sinners.
Have you ever bought something, only to get home and find that it didn't work right? Has someone ever promised to do something for you and then not done it? Jesus came loaded with promises: the solemn vow of all the Old Testament promises and the fresh promises of his own lips. Was he God's Messiah, sent to save his people? Would he meet Levi's desperate need? And Paul's? And mine? And yours?
Jesus walked down the street in Capernaum. He walked down the street to meet Levi, a man paralyzed by sin, dead in sin, under the divine curse, far from God. When he got to Levi's tax booth, Jesus told him, "Follow Me." Money was piled high in his life. Leave it, Levi, and follow Jesus. Sin had captivated his soul. Rise up, Levi, and be reconciled to your God.
Wait a minute! You mean, leave this? The question seems natural. A man like Levi was sure to ask it. We look at Levi's lucrative business. He had insider information, power politics, and cold ambition going for him. His cash box was heavy with silver and gold. Leave it, indeed! "How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!" How hard it is for the materialist. "Then who can be saved?" Jesus answered, "The things impossible with men are possible with God" (Luke 18:24-27). Jesus turned to Levi, dead in his materialism, and said, "Follow Me." The grand old Bible call to decide between following idols and following the Lord (cf. 1 Kings 18:21) is renewed in Jesus. This call to turn from idols and follow the Lord comes true in Jesus. And Levi "left everything behind, and rose and began to follow Him." The amazing grace of God had come in Christ and transformed Levi.
Levi was dead in sin. But the dead in sin hear the voice of the Son of God and live (John 5:25). Levi had a heart of stone. But "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezek. 36:26). Levi was a sinner. But "I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it.... For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more" (Jer. 31:33-34). The Old Testament promises waited for the Messiah to fulfill them. The Messiah called out to Levi, and he rose up and followed him.
Jesus claimed the right to forgive sin when they brought the paralytic to him. Matthew, Mark, and Luke bring the two stories togetherthe story of the paralyzed man and the story of Levi (Matt. 9:2-9; Mark 2:3-14; Luke 5:17-28). You remember the story of the paralytic brought to Jesus for healing. Surprisingly, Jesus first said to the man, "Friend, your sins are forgiven you." This provoked the Pharisees: "Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?" How beautifully and clearly Jesus responded. "But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins," he said to the paralytic, "I say to you, rise, and take up your stretcher and go home." And he immediately arose and went home (Luke 5:20-25).
Jesus didn't step back when he was questioned. He carefully showed what it meant for him to have power to forgive sin on earth. He boldly added testimony to testimony and proof to proof. He then walked out of that house and down the streets of Capernaum to the office of the town's chief sinner, Levi. So that you might know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins, he said to this notorious sinner, "Follow Me." And Levi arose from the death of sin and followed him.
Jesus explained it this way in the parable of the prodigal: "For this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found" (Luke 15:24). And so that you might know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins, he went from there to the cross, where he died as the sacrifice for sin and rose from the grave so that all who believe in him would be raised to everlasting life.
The Day of salvation is here! The big bang of the new creation has begun. See it as Levi rises from the power of sin to become Matthew, the disciple, the apostle, the gospel writer. See it as Jesus is risen from the tomb. Death is swallowed up in victory. This Jesus is the friend of sinners. This provides assurance for all who trust in him. Yes, I am a Levi, but that doesn't destroy hope. It was to Levi that Jesus came, and Jesus is the Messiah who has come with the power of new life. "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us" (Eph. 1:7-8).
Mike's father and mother wanted him to come to church with them. They had come to know the power of new life in Christ themselves, and they prayed that Mike would find his hope in Christ. How glad they were when he consented to go.
That day in Capernaum, Jesus had an audience. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were watching as he raised the paralytic and as he raised Levi. They had gathered to examine this Jesus. Was he the Messiah? The wonder of salvation is to be heralded to men on earth, to angels in heaven, and even to hordes of demons and the prince of darkness (Eph. 3:10; 6:12). See it in the Pharisees. See the power of God in Christ give life to Levi. Here is a sovereign demonstration of the forgiveness of sin and the gift of new life. Christ has come to reconcile his people to God. Even tax collectors are brought into the family. Even the worst are led to repentance. The great confrontation between the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of heaven has begun, and the victory of heaven is sure. Jesus is the victor and his people are the beneficiaries.
Jesus urged the Pharisees to join him in this great work, to be part of the new Israel that was to proclaim the coming of the Messiah to the world. They stood on the sidelines and watched all this take place. What did they think? Jesus, don't disappoint us. Stay away from sinners like Levi. That's what they thought. Thank God that Jesus did not take their advice.
Mike went to church with his parents. Sure, he looked like a bum, but he was just a scared kid trying to find a place for himself in this worlda breathing place in his fight against drugs and alcohol. Now he had come to this church, where the good news was supposed to be preached. Then someone came up to him and snarled in his ear, "What are you doing here? We don't want the likes of you in our church."
How different Levi was! At once, he took up the business of introducing sinners to Jesus. And it is there, in the fellowship of the redeemed sinners, that the triumph and glory of Jesus is revealed. Where will you be found? With the Pharisees denying the power of Jesus or with Levi living out the joy of salvation in his life?
The author is the pastor of Falls OPC in Menomonee Falls, Wis. He quotes the NASB. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2001.