The Book of Luke, The Calling of the Disciple, Levi or Matthew As We Know Him – Lesson 64
We are at the celebration of Levi or Matthew as we know him and the dialogue between the Lord Jesus Christ and the Pharisees and scribes continues as they assail him for his rejoicing with those who rejoice.
The Pharisees and scribes always seem to come across in the scriptures as folks who think that rejoicing is somehow condemned by the law and that a proper law keeper is to be glum, dour, hard-faced and stern.
Luke 5:33-39, And they said unto him, Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink? 34And he said unto them, Can ye make the children of the bride chamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? 35But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.
It is easy to see in the questions asked that the act of fasting was something that was being put on by those practicing it so as to promote an outward appearance toward what they thought of as a holy look.
The question was asked as to why the disciples of Jesus were not involved in fasting and prayers.
Self righteousness majors in the outward.
While true righteousness, which God imparts though Jesus Christ is of the heart and what shows on the outside is a direct result of what has taken place in the heart.
In other words the outward is not put on but is a reflection of what is inward, what is in the heart.
It proceeds from the heart honestly, and is not put on dishonestly.
Peter taught this same principle when writing to wives in:
I Peter 3:1, Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; 2While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. 3Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; 4But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.
This is a message that the inward is to affect the outward and not the other way around as it was with the Pharisees and scribes.
Both of the questions of the Pharisees involved eating and drinking.
The first question, asked and answered above, concerned those with whom Jesus ate and drank.
The second question applies pressure even further.
It is: Why do Jesus’ disciples eat and drink at all, since both the disciples of John and those of the Pharisees were practicing fasting.
Before we get into this let’s look at what fasting had become in this part of Israel’s history:
Norval Geldenhuys’ Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, p. 198
“In the Old Testament fasting is ordered only on the Great Day of Atonement as a definite institution (Lev. xvi. 29, where “afflict your souls” also includes “fasting”). But fasting was also practised voluntarily as a sign of mourning (2 Sam. i. 12), at times of disaster and national calamities (Neh. i.4), as a sign of repentance for sin (I Kings xxi. 27), and the like. Thus originally it bore a rich religious significance. During the Babylonian exile, as a result of the lack of the sacrificial services, the opinion arose more and more that fasting was a meritorious work that would be rewarded by God. Thus the practice of fasting assumed an increasingly outward and formal character and lost much of its religious value. For this reason the prophets during and after the exile took such drastic action against it. True fasting, they proclaimed, consisted not in abstaining from food and drink but in renouncing sin (Zech. vii. 5 ff.). Still the degeneration grew apace, so that in the time of Jesus it had become a fixed practice with the Pharisees and many other Jews to fast regularly twice a week (Luke xviii. 12) with much outward display and hypocrisy (Matt. vi. 16, ix. 14).
Jesus’ attitude towards fasting briefly amounts to this, that He rejects it as a religiously meritorious ceremony bearing a compulsory, ceremonial character; but He practised it Himself at times and permits it as a voluntary form of spiritual discipline (Matt. iv. 2, vi. 16-18).
It was such a voluntary religious practice that the first Christians observed fasting (Acts ix. 9, xiii. 2, 3, xiv. 23). But after the third century it degenerated in many cases to an obligatory and supposedly meritorious formality as it is still to be met with today among Roman Catholics, Jews and Mohammedans.
Now the Pharisees had asked this question: Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink?
I think we could also interpret this question in this manner.
“Why are your disciples able the enjoy life, while we merely endure it?”
In the system of the Pharisee there was no way that a man could enjoy life and still be holy!
Didn’t a man have to put on a glum face so that everyone would see that they were fasting?
There was a great contrast between the attitude of the Pharisees with that of the “sinners.”
The sinners are celebrating; the Pharisees are grumbling.
The sinners are happy; the Pharisees are sad.
The sinners are enjoying life; the Pharisees only endure life.
The sinners are joyful, the Pharisees are grumbling to the Lord Jesus.
Jesus gives a very extensive answer to this question, because a number of factors are involved.
His first answer deals with the immediate question, the obvious issue, the fasting question.
Fasting was a sign of repentance, which was not in the vocabulary of the Pharisees, who thought themselves righteous, and therefore repentance was not necessary.
Luke writes later in Luke 7:29-30 of this very thing:
And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John. (Which was a baptism of repentance) 30But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him.
John the Baptist had referred to himself as the friend of the bridegroom, and the Messiah as the bridegroom (John 3:29).
Jesus used this marriage picture and pointed out the fact that the friends of the bridegroom do not fast while he is present with them, but only fast in his absence.
Jesus, the bridegroom, is present with His friends and followers, and therefore it is only right for them to rejoice.
For Jesus’ disciples to fast while He was present would have been for them to act unsuitably.
There would be a time, Jesus indicated, when He would not be present, a time when fasting would be proper for His disciples.
There is a very simple, but crucial principle underlying our Lord’s explanation:
REJOICING IS RIGHT FOR ALL WHO DELIGHT IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD IN THEIR MIDST, AND IN THE FELLOWSHIP WITH HIM THAT THIS BRINGS.
Centuries before the time when Christ was ministering, David had written: in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore. (Psalm 16:11).
Of course those who were followers of Jesus found pleasure in the reception which Levi put on, because they were with Jesus.
They were sinners, but they were forgiven sinners.
There is no greater joy than that of fellowship with God.
For the Pharisees, who knew not God, being in His presence was agony, not ecstasy.
This is the natural reaction of the unrepentant sinner.
There is a principle here which of utmost importance to Christians which underlies the explanation of our Lord.
Joy, not sorrow, not sadness, should be the dominant characteristic of the Christian.
The Christian life includes sorrow and suffering and sacrifice, but these should not be the themes of our life.
Suffering and sacrifice happen, but they should not be the sum total of your life.
Joy is the goal, it is the climax, and it is the reward of forgiveness and fellowship with God.
Why is it that there are so many sour pickle Christians around, who are more like the Pharisees than those who attended Levi’s reception?
By their life these sour pickle Christians attempt to convince you that you must sacrifice all pleasure and joy to serve and follow Christ.
The opposite is true.
The only lasting and ultimate joy is found in being forgiven by Him, and being in fellowship with Him.
They try to convince you to think of God as distant, uncaring, and unpleasant.
But our Lord Jesus Christ has shown us over and over that God loves us, that He cares for us, that He has come, and that He takes pleasure in the fellowship of forgiven men and women.
Satan tries to warp our conception of our walk with the Lord.
Knowing and serving God brings joy beyond measure which should be our strength and our goal.
It is also the joy of the saint which should draw others to Christ as well.
No sad sack Christian impresses the sinner to come to Christ nor does the sour Christian find welcome at God’s throne.
Jesus went on to deal with a deeper issue, that being the difference and competition between “old” and “new.”