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Keeping the Right Company

Jesus' example of befriending sinners is the model for Christian mission.

It is often said that you can tell what a person is like by the company he keeps. Look at his friends, and from them you can deduce what his character is like. There is some truth in it. Birds of a feather, as we often say in the proverb, flock together. But you know it's not the whole truth by any means for the simple reason that you have to consider the motives of people for the company they keep. Why do they choose particular people to fraternize with? It is possible to seek people's company not because you like what they are and acquiesce in what they are, but because you hope to have some influence in changing them?

Teachers, for example, spend their lives in the company of children not because they prefer the company of children to the company of adults, but because they regard it a great privilege to have some share in developing the potential of children to become adults. Again, social workers spend their time with problem families not because they prefer families with problems to families without problems, but because they hope to be able to help to solve the problems in the families they serve. Now that's elementary, isn't it? But it was a failure to discern, to recognize, this and to inquire into the motive of Jesus in fraternizing with publicans and sinners that led the Pharisees to make a false judgement about him.

Jesus was the friend of publicans and sinners, so they assumed he preferred their company to the company of the righteous. In fact they assumed that he approved of their sinful conduct. It doesn't seem to have occurred to these Pharisees that Jesus might have kept bad company for a good reason. But he did, you know. So should we. The problem we're going to face is that most of us don't have any bad company, as we ought to have if we are followers of Jesus.

It's going to be very challenging for us this morning to consider whether we are more like the Lord Jesus in the company he kept or more like the Pharisees, who avoided that company. There is a great deal of Christian Pharisaism in the church today. So, you see, what we're going to consider from the passage set for us this morning has something to do with mission.

It is also very relevant to the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first day of Pentecost, because the Holy Spirit is a missionary spirit. If Jesus kept bad company, so does the Holy Spirit. He's reaching out to people—to people we often neglect and avoid. He loves them more than we do. That's the theme.

Would you be good enough to take your Bible and turn to Mark's gospel, chapter 2, and I read from verse 13. "Jesus went out again beside the sea [that's the Lake of Galilee]; and all the crowd gathered about him, and he taught them. And as he passed on, he saw Levi the son of Alpheus [you know from the other gospel that his name was Matthew; he's the same person] sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, 'Follow me.' And he rose and followed him. And as he [Jesus] sat at table in his [Levi's] house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. The scribes and 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?' 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.'"

This story of Levi Matthew is usually taken as a model of conversion, because Jesus called him and he rose up and followed him. But it seems that it is incorporated by the three synoptic evangelists in their Gospels much more, because it was a model of mission than that it was a model of conversion. What is most important in the story is not the response that Matthew Levi gave to the call of Jesus but its sequel, namely, the dinner party. That was the real essence of this story.

It's an exquisite little drama which Matthew, Mark, and Luke record in their Gospels. In this little drama are three actors, and the attitudes of these three actors to sinners or to outsiders are contrasted with one another. That's the whole point. First, there is Levi Matthew, who, after responding to the call of Jesus, throws a party for his colleagues in order to introduce them to Jesus. Second, the Pharisees, who criticize Jesus for accepting the invitation to the party and attending it. Thirdly, there is Jesus himself, who defended his behavior by likening himself to a doctor.

We've got to ask ourselves where we fit in the drama. Are we like Matthew Levi, or are we like the Pharisees, or are we like Jesus? Their attitudes are contrasted. Every one of us belongs somewhere, so don't switch off. This is for you and me.

Levi Matthew invited his "sinner" friends to Christ.

We begin with Levi Matthew. Verse 40: "And Jesus saw him sitting at the tax collector's office." Well, tax collectors were regarded as unclean by the Jewish rabbis on three counts: politically, because they were in the employment of the hated Roman occupation of Palestine; ceremonially, because their job brought them into constant contact with Gentiles; and morally, because they were almost always dishonest. That is, they were guilty of extortion, and they exploited their clients by demanding more tax than they had any right to demand. So politically, ceremonially, and morally they were despised and even hated by the common people, and the Pharisees, the scribes, and the Jewish rabbis condemned them. That's why they are bracketed with sinners—publicans, that is tax collectors, and sinners. But Jesus did not regard them as being beyond the pale. On the contrary, here was one Levi Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth, and Jesus called him to himself.

Jesus Christ has room in his kingdom community for disreputable people like Levi Matthew and disreputable people like us. Christianity is not a religion for the respectable. It is a religion for the disreputable. Jesus had room for people like that. He called Levi Matthew.

Moreover, Levi Matthew responded wholeheartedly. It's Luke actually who says he left everything. Luke has a particular interest in money matters—the poor, the rich. There's more in Luke than in the other Gospels about these. Levi Matthew left everything and followed Jesus. And the first thing he did as a follower of Jesus was to arrange a party in his own home to which he invited his erstwhile colleagues and Jesus, because he wanted Jesus to meet them and he wanted them to meet Jesus. He wanted to bring them together, and what better way to bring them together than a dinner party in his own home?

I learned two elementary mission lessons from this sequence of events. Could we learn them together?

Levi Matthew couldn't invite his friends to meet Jesus until he'd met him himself. Is it too elementary to say that? It's the first lesson we have to learn in Christian evangelism. The first and major and indispensable prerequisite for evangelism is our own personal conversion. We have to know Christ before we can make him known. It had been the same with Andrew, who, when he met Jesus, went to fetch Simon. It was the same with Philip, who met Jesus and then went to fetch Nathanael. And now it is the same with Levi Matthew, who finds Jesus, or is found by him, and goes out to win his colleagues.

Many years ago I used to lead a thing at St. Peter's called "The Children's Church." There was a little girl who was a member many years ago. Jillie was 10 at the time. We'd been studying Matthew's Gospel, and in those days at the end of the year we set these poor kids an examination, a written examination. Having asked them 30 academic questions, I permitted myself a final, personal one. This is what I said, because we'd been studying the Gospel of John, chapter 1: "Andrew brought Simon to Jesus. Philip brought Nathanael to Jesus. Whom have you brought to Jesus?"

Do you know what Jillie answered? "I have brought myself to Jesus." She was quite right. Have you? You can't bring anybody else till you've brought yourself.

If I may turn from a child of 10 to an Archbishop of Canterbury, here is a lovely quotation that some of you know from William Temple: "It's quite futile saying to people, 'Go to the cross.' We've got to be able to say 'Come to the cross.' There are only two voices that can issue that invitation. One is the voice of the sinless Redeemer, with which we cannot speak, and the other is the voice of the forgiven sinner who knows himself forgiven. And that is our part."

So the first lesson is, we've got to know Jesus ourselves before we make him known. The second is that once Levi Matthew had met Jesus himself, it was the most natural thing in the world that he should want to introduce his friends to him. New converts ought to be discouraged from dreaming about exotic and distant places to evangelize. The first thing Jesus says to them is, "Go home to your friends and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you." Our friends and our family, our colleagues at work, and our neighbors where we live—these are the people who have the first call on our evangelistic witness, and our home is the best place in which to introduce them to Jesus. There are many people today uncomfortable about accepting your invitation to come to church tonight to the invitation service, but they'd accept your invitation to come to your home. That's where they can relax. In the home among friends and neighbors we can talk freely of Jesus. Well, that's the first thing Levi Matthew did. Let's copy him.

The Pharisees' mistake was separating themselves from sinners.

Now secondly, let's go to the Pharisees. You know, don't you, that the word Pharisee means more or less "separatist." And that is what they were, unlike the Sadducees. To oversimplify the difference between them, the Sadducees compromised with Roman culture. The Pharisees held themselves aloof from it altogether. We can applaud the motive of the Pharisees. They wanted to live a holy life. They wanted to live a righteous life. They wanted to live a life that was pleasing to God, which is fine. Their mistake was that they interpreted holiness in terms of insulation. They thought the best way to be righteous is to avoid contact with the unrighteous, so they were shocked to see the company Jesus kept. Why, he even went into the home of a tax collector and a sinner! He even made friends with disreputable people like that! In their view, Jesus was contaminated by that company. But they had a false view of holiness. The Pharisees didn't understand the meaning of holiness.

True holiness is quite different from Pharisaic holiness. True holiness is not a matter of our external contacts. True holiness is a matter of the heart. It's the pure in heart, Jesus said, who see God. It's the heart that is at the heart of holiness in the Sermon on the Mount. The Pharisees didn't understand the meaning of holiness.

Well, the tragedy is that ever since those days, there have been in the Christian church many Christian Pharisees and many Sadducees. The Christian Sadducees are so determined to live in the real world and not isolate themselves from it that they adopted its standards and surrendered the standards of Jesus Christ. The Christian Pharisees are so determined to live a holy life and not surrender the standards of Jesus that they withdraw from the world altogether. The Sadducees were conformists, and the Pharisees were separatists. Both got it wrong. Jesus was neither.

Christ came to sinners to save sinners.

So we turn, thirdly, to Jesus himself. You will remember in verse 16 the Pharisees complained to the disciples of Jesus: "Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

Jesus overheard the complaint. He didn't apparently give the disciples an opportunity to reply. He replied to the Pharisees' question himself. He said—his actual phrase you'll see in verse 17—"Those who are well do not need a doctor, but those who are ill; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." As a doctor spends his time with the sick not because he likes sickness nor because he approves of being sick (still less because he wants to perpetuate disease in the world), but because he is dedicated to healing, just so, Jesus mixed with tax collectors and sinners—and still does—not because he likes their ways or approves of them (still less because he wants to encourage and promote sin in the world), but because he came into the world to save them. He is the physician of our souls.

Christianity, Jesus taught here, is a rescue religion. The doctor has no relevance for those who are well. You don't go to the doctor if you are well. You only go to the doctor if you're sick. So Jesus Christ has no relevance to the righteous, but only to those who are sinners. Now please listen carefully to this; don't misunderstand this point. Not that there are any righteous people who don't need Jesus, but rather there are people who think they don't need Jesus. He didn't come for them, the . The people Jesus came for are those who humble themselves to acknowledge the fact of their sin and guilt and their need of his forgiveness. But for those who are , he has no message except that it's time they humbled themselves.

Now this reaching out to people in need, this outreach to sinners that we call mission, is of the very essence of the being of God. It tells us what kind of God he is.

Christ came into the world to save sinners, and his entry into the world in order to reach us was not a superficial entry. He didn't just touch down upon the earth as the Apollo astronauts touched down on the moon and then withdrew again. They never identified with the moon. They would have been dead in a moment if they'd tried to. The Apollo mission—it's interesting that it's given the same name—is quite different from the mission of Jesus. Jesus identified with the earth. He identified by incarnation. He entered into our world by assuming a human nature. He exposed himself to our temptations. He experienced something of our loneliness and of our pain. And on the cross he even bore our sin and died our death. It was total identification. He entered right into the world where we are in order to reach us for God.

So the way of Jesus was poles apart from the Pharisees'. The Pharisees' philosophy was withdrawal. Jesus' philosophy was involvement. The Pharisees' philosophy was insulation from the world. Jesus' philosophy was identification with the world. And the Holy Spirit, whose wonderful coming we celebrate today, has the very same nature. He is God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have the same nature, and it is a nature that is given to outreach. In other words, love. Reaching out in love. God is love. The Father is love. The Son is love. The Spirit is love. Reaching out in love to those who need to be loved and to be rescued.

There is, as some writers have said, something centrifugal about the being of God. He flings himself out into the world. So the Father sent the Son, and the Son sent the Spirit and sent the church into the world. That's mission. That's why Jesus said that any believer who is filled with the Holy Spirit—you know what happens—out of his innermost being there flow rivers of living water. He cannot keep the Spirit to himself.

William Temple, in his Readings in John's Gospel, says, "Nobody can be indwelt by the Spirit of God and keep that Spirit to himself. Where the Spirit is, he flows forth. And where there is no flowing forth, he is not there." That's striking isn't it? You cannot keep the Holy Spirit yourself. If he fills the Christian, the believer, he overflows. We drink sips of water, as it were, when we receive the Spirit, and the sips are transmuted into rivers that flow out into the world of drought and need.

So, Pentecost was just as much a missionary event as the Incarnation. There's an interesting book called Pentecost and Missions written by a DAmerican called Harry Boer, who worked for many years in West Africa. His whole theme is that the great motivation for missions in the Book of Acts was not the Great Commission, which isn't mentioned once, but the Holy Spirit. Let me just quote: "One hardly knows where in Acts to look for a distinction between church and mission. Restlessly the Spirit drives the church to witness, and continually churches rise out of the witness. The church is a missionary church, because the Spirit is a missionary spirit. This is the very essence of God himself."

So you see, the mistake the Pharisees made was worse than being a mistake about the meaning of holiness. It was actually a mistake about the very being of God. They misunderstood the nature of God. They thought he avoided sinners, whereas God doesn't avoid sinners. God loves sinners. He comes after them. He went after them to the desolate agony of the Cross. He has come after them in the Holy Spirit. He is pursuing them himself today.

A way even more dramatic than the imagery of the doctor is that of the shepherd who goes out after the lost sheep to seek and to save. It is the unique thing in the Christian religion. Bishop Steve O'Neil used often to say that it is at this point Christianity is different from every other religion. Even in Judaism, if a sinner came back to God, God would accept the sinner. But Judaism never taught that God went out into the wilderness like a shepherd to seek and to save the lost. Neither does any other religion. Only Christianity: God in Christ, God through the Holy Spirit reaching out to people in need.

Well, we've looked at the three actors of the drama. We've seen that Matthew Levi by throwing a party for his former colleagues understood more of the heart and the mind of Christ than the Pharisees, who avoided contact with people like that and criticized Jesus for his contact.

What about us? Where do we fit in the picture? Do we care for outsiders like Matthew, who understood the mind of Christ, or do we avoid them like the Pharisees?

Two things in conclusion. One is, this is a personal question—for me and for everybody here. Do we have any Christian friends? Could we be described as Jesus was: the friend of publicans and sinners? Are all our friends Christians? If so, we are more like the Pharisees than we are like Jesus. We need to be the friends of publicans and sinners.

Yes, we shall be criticized for it. Matthew was. Jesus was. The fact that we're not criticized for it shows the measure of our departure from the example of Christ. It's a personal thing. I found in university missions again and again that the mission succeeds in a university when the Christian students are infiltrating the Christian segments of university life. But when the Christian Union is a little holy hospital, and all they have among their friends is themselves and one another, and they don't have any friends that are Christians, and they're not in the rugby 15 or football 11, or they don't play at the games, they don't get into the student union, and they avoid contact—no mission will ever succeed where Christian students are not in contact with Christians. It's a personal question.

Second, it is a church question. It's a question as to whether our church is penetrating the secular world around it for Christ. I know our director of evangelism is very concerned about this. We thank God for our Clubhouse, which is a Christian community center in the parish that has a constant outreach. We thank God for the visitors who came two by two, house to house in visitation with the message of Jesus. We thank God for our invitation services like tonight.

But if we made a careful survey of the parish—the BBC next door, St. George's Hotel on the other side, the Polytechnic of Central London, the business houses, the professional institutions—I think we would still find that there are whole secular segments of our local society that have never even begun to be penetrated by the followers of Jesus Christ. So let us determine not to be like the Pharisees. Let us repent of Pharisaic Christianity or evangelical Pharisaism, and let us determine to follow Jesus like his apostle Matthew, to make friends with unbelievers, to love them, and to seek to introduce them to Christ.

John R. W. Stott is the president of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity and rector emeritus of All Souls Church in London, having served at All Souls since 1949.His speaking and writing ministry has been extensive and includes the authoring of books, including The Gospel and the End of Time.

John R. W. Stott

Preaching Today Tape # 46


A resource of Christianity Today International

John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (www.langham.org), a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."

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Sermon Outline:


I. Levi Matthew invited his "sinner" friends to Christ

II. The Pharisees' mistake was separating themselves from sinners

III. Christ came to sinners to save sinners