Sermon preached on Luke 5:12-32 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 09/05/2021 in Novato, CA.
In today’s passage we have three episodes detailing Jesus’ continued ministry of word and power. A good summary of all three episodes can be given with the last sentence in verse 17. It says, “And the power of the Lord was with him to heal.” Each of these passage deals in one sense with Jesus’ power of healing. Let us spend time to review them each, one point at a time, and see how they all complement each other in explaining Jesus’ powerful ministry of healing.
Let us begin in the first episode and look at Jesus cleansing this leper. This is verses 12-16. The summary here is how Jesus makes the unclean clean. We have this leper. He’s covered in leprosy, verse 2. He is physically diseased, and thus would be referred to as unclean. This standing among Israel meant that he had to live alone, outside the city, and if anyone came near him he had to cry out, “Unclean, unclean”, lest they touch him and catch his disease. This was according to Leviticus 13, and it was basically a sort of quarantine of the sick to try to keep the healthy well. But you can imagine how sad and lonely this would have been. Some of us have had to quarantine just for a few days recently due to COVID-19. Imagine a presumably permanent quarantine like this.
So, you can appreciate that this man begs Jesus to heal him. He falls down on his face before Jesus begging him. This is great humility. This is great desperation. This is great faith, for he believes Jesus can heal him. Yet, apparently what he didn’t know is if Jesus was willing to heal him. He knows Jesus can, but will Jesus heal him? That is why he pleads for Jesus to have mercy on him in healing him. He says, “If you will, you can make me clean.” So then, I love Jesus’ response. He says “I will be clean.”
But notice what Jesus does at the same time. He touches the man. Maybe under ordinary circumstances such a note would not have been noteworthy. Sure, Jesus touches people often when he heals them. But this is a leper, someone who is presumably so contagious to the touch that he had to live separate. You didn’t go around touching lepers if you could avoid it. The concern would be that if you touch someone unclean that you would become unclean. Jesus touches this unclean man. But Jesus doesn’t become unclean in touching him. The reverse of the norm happens. By the power of God, Jesus the clean one, makes the unclean clean by his touch.
So then, he instructs the cleansed man to go show himself to the priest and make the appropriate biblical offerings that were instructed in Leviticus 14 to give upon his cleansing. In short, that offering involved two birds, one killed, and the other alive one dipped in the blood of the dead bird then set free. It symbolized life from death. And that is what this cleansed man had found. He really does get his life back. He’s able to go back and engage in normal society again. Not only that, his going to the priest highlights something even more important that he can do again. He can once again go to the temple and worship God. Before he would not have had access to the temple. He probably felt in some way cut off from his communion from God. Maybe that is why he as a leper wondered if Jesus would even be willing to heal him. But in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we see that Jesus indeed is not only able to make the unclean clean, but is heartily willing to do so. And this point of the man’s renewed access to God in the temple, hopefully shows that the ramification of this healing was more than just physical, but also religious and spiritual.
Interestingly, as the report of this miracle got out, it only continued to result in Jesus having to more and more go to desolate places. There’s an ironic picture there, that while Jesus cleanses a leper so he can leave the desolate places and go back together with the peoples, this contributes to Jesus needing to withdraw himself more to desolate places. While Jesus makes the unclean clean, it’s like he takes on some of the effects of their uncleanness. What an ironic but beautiful picture of how Jesus saves us, by bearing our burdens so we can be liberated. Yet, if there was any felt-sense of an outcast leper being cut off from God, we see that Jesus in his desolate places shows that God was actually not far – as Jesus used that solitude for the very purpose of prayer and communing with God.
Let’s turn now to our second episode in verses 17-26 to see Jesus heal a paralytic. We can summarize the big point in this episode that Jesus shows he has authority on earth to forgive sins. But Jesus showed that authority in the context of his authority to heal this paralytic. We already pointed out the amazing statement in verse 17 here that referenced Jesus power of the Lord that was with him to heal. That is the preamble given to this miraculous healing of the paralytic. Yet, after the text emphasizing his power to heal, and then seeing this paralytic being so surprising lowered down to Jesus by his friends from the roof to be healed, Jesus does the unexpected. He declares that the man’s sins are forgiven. Clearly, the friends had brought the paralytic man to Jesus be healed of his paralysis. In their dramatic moment-interrupting fashion of lowering him to Jesus from the roof, everyone saw the man, and surely the crowd presumed the man’s biggest need was to be healed. Yet Jesus forgives the man and for the moment is silent about any healing.
This of course, becomes the place people ask about how one’s sins are connected to one’s physical health problems. Sometimes Scripture shows how God has chastened or punished an individual for their sin by giving them a health issue. Yet Scripture also admonishes us that we can’t assume that connection – just because someone has a health issue doesn’t mean it was because they did some specific sin. We live in a fallen, sin-cursed world full of miseries, and surely most of the time people have illnesses that are not directly related to a person’s sin. But people see this man come paralyzed and see Jesus forgive him and immediately wonder if his paralysis was due to his sin, and that’s why Jesus is forgiving him. Well, all I can say is that such is possible, but the text certainly doesn’t demand us to make that connection. All humans are sinners. And Jesus may in fact be making the important point that while we humans tend to think things like our physical ailments are our greatest need, the reality is that our sickness from sin is even a greater need.
Yet it is when he announces this man’s forgiveness, that Jesus finds opposition from the scribes and Pharisees. These become regular opponents to Jesus during his earthly ministry. The scribes were the trained and educated theologians of the day, think roughly like a pastor. The Pharisees represented the most popular form of Jewish religion during that time, emphasizing a strict adherence to the Mosaic law. A major problem with these Pharisees is that their zeal for law keeping tended to them looking to justify themselves before God in their own eyes, and failing to recognize how sinful they still were. They generally didn’t realize how much they too needed the very thing Jesus gives this paralytic – the forgiveness of sins. But the thing they get specifically upset about here, is that they don’t think Jesus has the right to grant such forgiveness. They rightly think that such a prerogative is God’s alone. But, of course, their miscalculation here is to not appreciate that Jesus as both the Christ and the Son of God in the flesh wields that divine authority.
So then, Jesus goes on to demonstrate that by the miracle. He asks which is easier to say to the paralytic, your sins are forgiven, or to rise up and walk. Obviously, in a sense it is easier to say your sins are forgiven, because there would not be any immediately visible way to prove if that is true or not. But if you say to get up and walk and the man can’t get up and walk, then everyone would see that you don’t have the power and authority you claim. So, Jesus uses the miracle to demonstrate that his words are indeed not just words, but words that come with the power of the Lord. Jesus’ speaking forth this paralytic’s healing is then offered as proof to the scribes and Pharisees that he also has authority on earth to forgive sins.
The result is that everyone, the healed man, but also everyone else, starts to glorify God when the man gets up and walks! This man’s physical healing being connected with his forgiveness of sins shows again that Jesus’ concern is not only about physical healing, but also and especially spiritual. Likewise, the fact that the crowds end up glorifying God, also shows that Jesus’ ministry was not simply about a ministry of mercy like a doctor to heal bodies, but to promote true religion and lead the people into a right relationship with God, one that worships and glories God.
Let’s turn now in our third point to look at the third episode here in verses 27-32. This is Jesus’ calling of Levi into discipleship. We can summarize this episode that Jesus has come to call sinners into repentance. We know from elsewhere that this Levi is also known as Matthew, who becomes one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. We are told here that this Levi is a tax collector. That is significant for this passage because the tax collectors among the Jews bore the stigma of being sinners. We note that language in verse 32, of the so-called righteous versus the sinners. Among the Jews, these tax collectors were held in contempt for at least two reasons. One, they were seen as collaborators with the hated Roman government which represented how Israel was not its own master but subjects of a Gentile government. Two, and what John the Baptist had pointed out in chapter 3, they were notorious for collecting more taxes than they were authorized to do. In other words, these tax collectors typically extracted more money from the Jewish people than what the Romans were requiring for the purposes of getting rich themselves. That’s call stealing. Tax collectors were notorious for being thieves. When John the Baptist addressed this in a call for repentance, he didn’t say that the tax collectors needed to stop being tax collectors, but they needed to stop overcharging people so as to line their own pockets. So then, we see in this passage how the tax collectors bore this stigma as a sinner.
So, when Jesus here calls Levi into discipleship, he gives him that memorable call of, “Follow me.” Levi promptly obeys, and is described as leaving everything, like how Peter, James, and John had been described back in verse 11 when they left their jobs as fisherman to follow Jesus. This surely means that he does stop serving as a tax collector in order to full time take up the role as one of Jesus’ close disciples who will go with him and learn from him.
But then we see something else that Levi does in verse 29. He holds some big feast, not only for Jesus, but where he invites a whole bunch of his tax collector friends. What a wonderful picture of a way to evangelize, by the way. You hold an event where a bunch of your friends are introduced to Jesus! We can think of various applications for such today. Now, I remind you that tax collectors had the stigma of being these notorious sinners for the reasons mentioned. And that becomes the context for another complaint by the scribes and the Pharisees, per verse 30. They grumble about Jesus because he and his disciples are there eating and drinking with such tax collectors and sinners.
Now to be fair, we should recognize a certain truth behind the concern of the scribes and Pharisees. There is a way in which associating with people who are notoriously wicked, can be bad. The Apostle Paul, for example, in 1 Corinthians 5:11 speaks against associating with people who claim to be Christian but are living in notorious sin – he says not even to eat with such people. Yet, Paul there also says he is talking about people who claim to be Christian, and not the world in general. Paul there has concerns that you don’t want your table fellowship with someone to be perceived as approving of their hypocritical confession, nor do you want their sin to rub off on you. So, there is certainly a time and place for exercising discretion in terms of with whom you eat and drink and spend time together.
But that’s not the case here. And Jesus makes that clear in his response to the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus says that he’s come to call sinners to repentance. His spending time with these sinners is not to approve of their sin. Nor is it to join with them in their sin. It is because they need a prophet to come to them and call them to repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus sees that a harvest for the Lord is ripe with these sinners and he is meeting with them to be about that harvest. Or to put it in the language earlier in this chapter – we see Jesus trying to be a fisher of men, to try to catch alive for his kingdom these tax collectors. It’s not that he wants sinners in his kingdom. He wants former sinners in his kingdom. But Jesus has to first reclaim and convert these sinners into saints. That is the work he is about at this very feast. So then, while there is a certain true concern of wisdom raised by the Pharisees here, their misapplying such wisdom has only exposed their own folly. As the religious leaders among the Jews, they themselves should have been looking to do the very thing Jesus is trying to do here in helping such sinners.
Of course, what the Pharisees should also recognize, is that everyone is a sinner. We can clearly recognize Jesus’ point that people who were notorious for their sin especially needed to be called to repentance and find God’s mercy. Yet, the Pharisees needed to realize that all have fallen short of the glory of God. All are sinners before a holy God and need God’s forgiveness. Whatever relative sense the Pharisees might have thought themselves more righteous than the tax collectors, they needed to be justified in God’s sight by grace, not by their insufficient works. This is a message that Jesus will also be communicating to the Pharisees. But here, Jesus focuses his point on how sinners need to someone to help them find healing from their sin.
And that is the analogy Jesus gives here to make his point. Jesus says in verse 31, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” He speaks there with an analogy of physical sickness but he is making a point about people’s souls. Sinful people are sick in their hearts. They have a sickness in their souls. They need a spiritual doctor, so to speak. Jesus is inferring that he is the physician of their souls. He can cure our hearts that in the words of Jeremiah are desperately sick; beyond cure (Jeremiah 17:9).
Saints of God, it’s this imagery of Jesus being a physician to heal sinners that really ties together all three episodes we’ve studied today. Think of what we’ve seen. In the first episode with the leper, there is a physical healing. Then in the second episode with the paralytic Jesus does a physical healing to show that he can heal a sinner from their sins. Then in this third episode with the tax collectors, we see sinners being healed spiritually by Jesus with the analogy of a physical healing. Jesus is the Great Physician! Today, we see Jesus’ concern for healing people’s body. Today, we especially see his concern to heal people’s souls.
God cares about us both body and soul, though often we can let our physical health needs especially consume us. But today’s passage reminds us especially of our spiritual health’s priority. We are all sinners. We all need Jesus to heal our souls.
So then, will you heed Jesus who calls you to repentance? Will you ask Jesus to forgive your sins? He has the power and authority to do so. Will you beg Jesus to make you clean? He “wills” to do so. Will you glorify God in your healing? For indeed, he heals us and cleanses us so we can be in restored fellowship with our heavenly father in communion with the Most High.
This is message us Christians have found in Jesus. Let us be renewed in that today. And this is the message we must bring to non-Christians as well. The poor reaction of the scribes and Pharisees today reminds us that there is a temptation in the church where there can be certain people we think don’t deserve God’s grace. Let us resist such an attitude because if anything they need it all the more. Let us see that the church is God’s physician to the lost world because the church has been sent by Christ into the world with his message of healing and grace. Let us then not only be recommitted ourselves today to know Jesus as the physician of our sinful souls, but also let us be recommitted to proclaim Jesus as the physician of souls to all the others sinners of this world. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.