1. The Call of the First Disciples. Ch.5:1-11
1 Now it came to pass, while the multitude pressed upon him and heard the word of God, that he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret; 2 and he saw two boats standing by the lake: but the fishermen had gone out of them, and were washing their nets.3 And he entered into one of the boats, which was Simon's, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the multitudes out of the boat.4 And when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Put out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.5 And Simon answered and said, Master, we toiled all night, and took nothing: but at thy word I will let down the nets.6 And when they had done this, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes; and their nets were breaking; 7 and they beckoned unto their partners in the other boat, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.8 But Simon Peter, when he saw it, fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.9 For he was amazed, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken; 10 and so were also James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left all, and followed him.
The call of his first disciples is regarded by many as opening a new period in the public ministry of Jesus. His work was now to assume a more permanent form. The growing popularity of his preaching indicated that the gospel was designed for the whole world. For such a proclamation a definite group of workers must be prepared. The growth of Christianity ever depends upon securing men who will publicly confess and follow Christ.
The scene of this call is described as being |by the lake of Gennesaret.| This charming sheet of water brings to mind so many scenes in the life of our Lord that it has been termed a |Fifth Gospel.| On its western and northern side were the cities in which most of his work was done; the eastern shores were not inhabited and thither Jesus would resort for rest.
Those whom Jesus called were fishermen, sturdy, independent, fearless. They were not strangers to Jesus nor had they been indifferent to spiritual truths. They had attended the preaching of the Baptist and had come to regard Jesus as the Messiah, but they were now called to leave their homes and their tasks and to become his constant companions and disciples.
On this occasion Jesus had borrowed the boat belonging to one of his friends to use as a pulpit and from this he had addressed the crowds. When he had finished his discourse, he gave to the four men he was about to call an impressive object lesson of the character of the work and of the great success which would attend their ministry if they would forsake all and follow him. He wrought a miracle especially impressive because it was in the sphere of their daily calling at a time and place where they were sure it was useless to fish. They were enabled by the guidance of Jesus to take such a draft of fishes that their nets were strained and their boats so loaded as nearly to sink. It was so plainly a manifestation of supernatural power that Peter felt himself to be in the presence of a divine Being and expressed the fear which all have felt when face to face with God. Jesus spoke the word which not only removed the terror of Peter but gave to him and his companions courage for all the coming years, |Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.|
So to-day Jesus is calling men to become his disciples. Obedience may involve sacrifice, but it is certain to result in the saving of human souls.
2. Jesus Cleansing a Leper. Ch.5:12-16
12 And it came to pass, while he was in one of the cities, behold, a man full of leprosy: and when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face, and besought him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.13 And he stretched forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou made clean. And straightway the leprosy departed from him.14 And he charged him to tell no man: but go thy way, and show thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing, according as Moses commanded, for testimony unto them.15 But so much the more went abroad the report concerning him: and great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed of their infirmities.16 But he withdrew himself in the deserts, and prayed.
Leprosy was regarded as the most loathsome and terrible of diseases. It existed in various forms but its invariable feature was its foul uncleanness. The leper was an outcast; he was compelled to live apart from the dwellings of men. He was required to wear a covering over his mouth and to give warning of his approach by crying, |Unclean! Unclean!| His case was regarded as hopeless; he was reckoned as dead. Loathsome, insidious, corrupting, pervasive, isolating, ceremonially and physically defiling, surely leprosy is a fitting emblem of sin; and this graphic narrative presents a parable of the power of Christ to cleanse and to heal and to restore. It is a vivid picture which Luke draws; the humble trust of the poor sufferer, his pitiful cry, the sympathetic touch of Jesus, the word of command and the instant cure. While Jesus forbade the man to arouse excitement by telling of his healing, he commanded him to report his case to the priest, that the highest religious authorities might have unanswerable testimony to the divine power of Christ, and also that the man might bring the offerings required by the Law and thus express his gratitude to God. Our Master does expect all who have felt his healing touch to testify of his grace and to show their gratitude by offering to him the service of their lives.
Such miracles could not be hid. The crowds so pressed upon Jesus that he was forced to withdraw to the desert for rest; and as the scene closed he who had startled the multitude by the manifestation of his divine power was left alone seeking help from God in prayer.
3. Jesus Forgiving Sins. Ch.5:17-26
17 And it came to pass on one of those days, that he was teaching; and there were Pharisees and doctors of the law sitting by, who were come out of every village of Galilee and Judaea and Jerusalem: and the power of the Lord was with him to heal.18 And behold, men bring on a bed a man that was palsied: and they sought to bring him in, and to lay him before him.19 And not finding by what way they might bring him in because of the multitude, they went up to the housetop, and let him down through the tiles with his couch into the midst before Jesus.20 And seeing their faith, he said, Man, thy sins are forgiven thee.21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, Who is this that speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone? 22 But Jesus perceiving their reasonings, answered and said unto them, Why reason ye in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, Thy sins are forgiven thee; or to say, Arise and walk? 24 But that ye may know that the Son of man hath authority on earth to forgive sins (he said unto him that was palsied), I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy couch, and go unto thy house.25 And immediately he rose up before them, and took up that whereon he lay, and departed to his house, glorifying God.26 And amazement took hold on all, and they glorified God; and they were filled with fear, saying, We have seen strange things to-day.
Leprosy was the symbol of the uncleanness of sin; paralysis of its impotence and pain. On the occasion of healing a paralytic, Jesus, however, did something more startling: he forgave sin. The poor sufferer had been borne by his four friends who were discouraged by no obstacles. When they were unable to enter the house where Jesus was, because of the multitudes which surrounded it, they went to the roof and let the sick man down through the tiles into the very presence of Christ. Their earnestness is a rebuke to us who make so little effort to bring our comrades within the healing influence of our Lord.
Jesus recognized the faith both of the man and of his friends and responded with an utterance which occasioned his hearers more surprise than had the opening of the roof, |Man, thy sins are forgiven thee.| No request had been made for such forgiveness, but Jesus read the heart. He saw the yearning of the sufferer for healing not only of his body but of his soul. He recognized his sorrow for the sin which had caused the sickness, and the anguish of remorse and immediately he spoke the word of pardon and of peace. Thus Jesus voiced the message which the world seems reluctant to accept. He declared that physical ills and social evils are less serious than the moral and spiritual maladies of which they are the symptoms and the results; and further, he expressed his claim of divine power to pronounce pardon and to remove guilt.
This claim at once aroused the bitter resentment of the scribes and Pharisees who were present and they began to reason: |Who is this that speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?| Their reasoning was correct. Jesus was a blasphemer worthy of death, or else he was divine.
To prove his deity Jesus proposed an immediate test: |Which is easier, to say, Thy sins are forgiven thee; or to say, Arise and walk?| Of course neither is easier; either requires divine power. Therefore, when at the word of Jesus the man arose and started for his home, |glorifying God,| it is not strange that |amazement took hold on all, and they glorified God.|
Thus the miracles of Christ were real proofs of his deity as well as expressions of his love; they were moreover parables of his ability and willingness to deliver man from the guilt and power of sin.
4. The Call of Levi. Ch.5:27-32
27 And after these things he went forth, and beheld a publican, named Levi, sitting at the place of toll, and said unto him, Follow me.28 And he forsook all, and rose up and followed him.
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house: and there was a great multitude of publicans and of others that were sitting at meat with them.30 And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with the publicans and sinners? 31 And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are in health have no need of a physician; but they that are sick.32 I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.
Nothing could further emphasize the sympathy of Jesus than his calling a publican to be his close companion and friend. These taxgatherers were everywhere despised for their dishonesty, extortion, and greed; but Jesus chose one of them named Levi, or Matthew, and transformed him into an apostle, an evangelist, and a saint.
There must have been something admirable in the character of the man; at least there was something inspiring in his example, for as soon as he heard the clear call of the Master, |He forsook all, and rose up and followed him.|
Probably he had more to leave than any of the twelve men who became apostles of Christ. He must have been possessed of wealth. At least, as soon as he was converted, he made |a great feast in his house| and invited |a great multitude of publicans and of others| to be his guests. He had the courage of his convictions; he was not ashamed of his new Master. He was eager to have his old friends introduced to Christ.
It was on the occasion of this feast that Jesus was criticized by the Pharisees for eating and drinking with publicans and sinners. He made this most significant reply: |They that are in health have no need of a physician; but they that are sick. I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.| By this statement Jesus emphasized and vindicated his conduct and defined his mission. A physician enters a sick room, not because he delights in disease or rejoices in suffering, but because he desires to cure and to relieve; so Jesus companied with sinners not because he countenanced sin or enjoyed the society of the depraved, but because, as a healer of souls, he was willing to go where he was most needed and to work where the ravages of sin were most severe. He came into the world to save sinners. Their conduct distressed him, their sins pained him; but to accomplish his task he sought them out and showed his sympathy by his presence and by his healing power.
Are there any who do not need the spiritual cure he can effect? Are any |sound;| are some not |sinners|? These questions each must answer for himself. Probably those who like the Pharisees are least conscious of their sickness are in most desperate danger. Then again, are those who know his power willing like the Master to go with his gospel to the places of greatest need?
5. The Question of Fasting. Ch.5:33-39
33 And they said unto him, The disciples of John fast often, and make supplications; likewise also the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink.34 And Jesus said unto them, Can ye make the sons of the bride-chamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? 35 But the days will come; and when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, then will they fast in those days.36 And he spake also a parable unto them: No man rendeth a piece from a new garment and putteth it upon an old garment; else he will rend the new, and also the piece from the new will not agree with the old.37 And no man putteth new wine into old wine-skins; else the new wine will burst the skins, and itself will be spilled, and the skins will perish.38 But new wine must be put into fresh wine-skins.39 And no man having drunk old wine desireth new; for he saith, The old is good.
The Pharisees were disturbed by the attitude of Jesus toward sinners. Much more were they distressed by his attitude toward the forms and ceremonies which to their mind constituted the very essence of religion. This attitude had been expressed by the failure of Jesus to require his disciples to observe the fasts which had become so prominent in the system of legalism taught by the religious leaders of the Jews. The Law of Moses prescribed no fasts. The rabbis had so multiplied them that a Pharisee could boast of fasting |twice in the week.| The disciples of John the Baptist were taught to fast frequently, not as an empty form, but to express the solemn character of the ministry of John who had come preaching |repentance unto remission of sins.| It was not strange, therefore, that the enemies of Jesus came to him with a complaint and with the question, |The disciples of John fast often, and make supplications; likewise also the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink.| In his reply Jesus stated distinctly the view his followers should take, not only of fasting but of all religious forms: |Can ye make the sons of the bride-chamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come; and when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, then will they fast in those days.| Fasting is an expression of sorrow. How absurd then would it be for Jesus' followers to fast while the heavenly Bridegroom was with them! They might express their distress thus when he should be taken away. Thus Jesus declared that fasting, like all religious rites, may be quite fitting if it is a true expression of religious feeling, but if it is a matter of form, of rule, or requirement, if it is regarded as a ground of merit, it is an absurdity and an impertinence.
Jesus added a parable which further indicates his attitude toward all the rites and ceremonies in which the Pharisees took such delight. He declared that he had not come to regulate the fasts and feasts or to amend the Jewish ritual. That would be like sewing a new patch on an old garment. This religion of ceremonies had served its purpose. Jesus had come with something, new and better. The life of freedom and of joy which he was imparting could not be bound up in the narrow forms and rites of Judaism. New wine could not be kept in old wine skins.
Christianity cannot be comprehended by any system of rites and ceremonies. It must not be interpreted as a set of rules and requirements; it must not be confused with any ritual. It controls men, not by rules, but by motives. Its symbol is not a fast but a feast, for its pervasive spirit is joy.
As reported by Luke, Jesus added a characteristic phrase indicating his tender sympathy, |And no man having drunk old wine desireth new; for he saith, The old is good.| Those who long have been accustomed to a religion of forms find it difficult to be satisfied with the religion of faith. We must be patient with them. It is not easy for them to give up the practices of childhood and it takes time for them to learn the gladness and the freedom of spiritual maturity offered to the followers of Christ.
6. The Sabbath Controversy. Ch.6:1-11
1 Now it came to pass on a sabbath, that he was going through the grainfields; and his disciples plucked the ears, and did eat, rubbing them in their hands.2 But certain of the Pharisees said, Why do ye that which it is not lawful to do on the sabbath day? 3 And Jesus answering them said, Have ye not read even this, what David did, when he was hungry, he, and they that were with him; 4 how he entered into the house of God, and took and ate the showbread, and gave also to them that were with him; which it is not lawful to eat save for the priests alone? 5 And he said unto them, The Son of man is lord of the sabbath.
6 And it came to pass on another sabbath, that he entered into the synagogue and taught: and there was a man there, and his right hand was withered.7 And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, whether he would heal on the sabbath; that they might find how to accuse him.8 But he knew their thoughts; and he said to the man that had his hand withered, Rise up, and stand forth in the midst. And he arose and stood forth.9 And Jesus said unto them, I ask you, Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good, or to do harm? to save a life, or to destroy it? 10 And he looked round about on them all, and said unto him, Stretch forth thy hand. And he did so: and his hand was restored.11 But they were filled with madness; and communed one with another what they might do to Jesus.
Jesus had aroused the anger of the Pharisees by his claim to forgive sins. He had further enraged them by his treatment of sinners. But he brought their hatred to a climax of fury by his attitude toward Sabbath observance. Henceforth they sought to destroy him.
The question of the Sabbath has never lost its interest. The followers of Christ need to stand firmly by the principles set forth by their Lord. These principles are few but fundamental: The Sabbath is a day designed for worship and for rest and is to be broken only by works of necessity and of mercy.
The first of these exceptions to the required rest of the Sabbath Day was illustrated by the case of the disciples who were accused by the Pharisees of breaking the Sabbath because as they walked through the fields they picked the ripened ears and thus, according to the interpretation of their enemies, were guilty of working on the Sabbath Day. Our Lord did not deny that the Sabbath law had been broken. He merely referred his enemies to the case of David and his followers who, forced by hunger, broke the Mosaic Law in entering the tabernacle and eating the |showbread.| Jesus argued that, when necessary to relieve their hunger, his followers were also justified in disregarding the law of rest.
An illustration of the second exception to the law of absolute cessation from labor was given |on another sabbath| when in the synagogue Jesus healed a man whose right hand was |withered.| The Pharisees regarded this action of Jesus as another breach of the law of rest. Jesus defended his action on the ground that it was dictated by mercy and that work which secured relief from suffering was allowable on the Sabbath Day. He replied to his enemies by a searching question, assuming the principle that refraining from help is the same as inflicting harm. He, asked them whether they regarded the Sabbath Day as of such character as to make it right on that day to do that which on other days was wrong: |I ask you, Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good, or to do harm? to save a life, or to destroy it?|
While Jesus taught that the law of rest might thus be broken to meet the necessities of man and to show mercy to those in need or in distress, he by no means abrogated the Sabbath. He declared, however, that |the Son of man is lord of the sabbath,| by which he meant that as the representative of men he had a right to interpret the Law for the highest good of man. He was justified in relieving the Sabbath from the narrow and burdensome observances which had been bound upon it by the Pharisees and to restore it to mankind as a glad day of rest and of refreshment and of fellowship with God.