Scene of Activity
Jesus calls Levi to follow Him. Levi responds by accepting the invitation.
Then - instead of heading back to Peter’s home - Jesus accepts Levi’s invitation to head over to his house for dinner.
Knowing that Jesus and His other followers would be hanging out, Levi invites all of his friends to come and also hang out with Jesus.
The result of the evening is that many of Levi’s friends have the same encounter with Jesus that he had earlier in the day.
But.... there were a group of party crashers that evening....
Mark 2:16 “And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him (Jesus) eating with the tax collectors and sinners, they said to His disciples, “How is it that He eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners?”
First Question: Who had beef with Jesus?
1. Jewish Scribes....
They were the distinguished, educated, professional, legal community within Israel.
They were the “unbiased authority” when it came to the Jewish law and traditions.
Their jobs would associate them with lawyers, government ministers, and judges.
In some cases, scribes would even copy documents such as the Holy Scriptures.
2. The Pharisees....
They were a “political party” among the Jews that rose to prominence during the Second Temple period following the failed Maccabean Revolution.
One of the most famous Pharisee was a 1st century historian named Josephus who claimed the Pharisees received the “backing of the common man” in contrast to the more elite, liberal Sadducees. You might say they were in the “majority.”
The Pharisees were the “conservatives” or the “fundamentalists” of the day. They believed in a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, and accepted the extra-Biblical authorities (Talmud and Mishna) as divinely inspired as well.
The biggest difference between them and their contemporaries is that they believed all Jews had to obey the laws of purity (which applied to temple service) outside the temple. They stressed a strict obedience to these Jewish laws and traditions in the attempts to stay off assimilation. You might have described them as “nationalists.”
As Josephus noted, “the Pharisees were considered the most expert and accurate expositors of the Jewish law.” Their authority was considered so great they claimed prophetic or Mosaic authority for their interpretation of Jewish laws.
Second Question: What was their beef with Jesus?
1. Their first issue was the fact Jesus “ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners.”
It’s easy to think the issue was the company Jesus kept. And though it’s true that would be an issue all into itself, this would become secondary to a greater problem these party crashers had with Jesus.
To understand the underlying issue you need to understand the significant place food and sharing a meal with someone had in the middle east....
The Jews viewed eating together as a mystical experience.
Because food could defile a person....
And they believed you became what you ate....
- They were extremely particular with their dietary guidelines.
Because sharing a meal was a very communal experience....
And they believed you’d become one with the person you shared the experience with....
- They were extremely particular with whom they shared a meal.
Basically, eating with someone identified and unified you with that person.
The scribes and Pharisees’ issue with Jesus was deeper than the fact He hung out with questionable characters. And.... I even think it ran deeper that the fact Jesus would choose to identify Himself with sinners.
2. The issue was the fact Jesus “ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners” but the core problem was the fact Jesus choose the sinners instead of them!
These were men of establishment. They were religious. They were wealthy. They were men of power and prestige. They represent the religious elite - the “it” crowd - the holy rollers. These men were experts in the law and zealous in their obedience to it. These men were seen as holy. They were the best Judaism had to offer.
They couldn’t understand why Jesus would choose to eat with sinners when He could spend His time socializing with them? Jesus’ answer is simple....
Mark 2:17 “When Jesus heard it, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Jesus is direct in explaining His behavior....
The Z.A.I.T reads Jesus’ response as, “Why am I hear with these tax collectors - and these prostitutes - these immoral people? Why am I hanging out with sinners? Why am I spending time with the lost? Because they are the very people I came to save! I came to heal those who are sick and to call to repentance those who are lost....”
First Observation: Jesus was great with sinners.
I think it’s awesome that Jesus had the ability to be in the presence of sinners - convey the reality that He wasn’t condoning their sin - and yet still be able to demonstrate a tangible love for them - that they were willing to repent and turn from their sin.
Jesus was able to reject a person’s sinful behavior in such a way that....
The person wasn’t offended or placed on the defensive.
The person didn’t feel judged, condemned, or alienated.
Instead, the person sensed such a genuine love from Jesus....
That a love for Jesus only seemed logical and decent.
We would be wise to adopt the heart of Jesus when dealing with the lost around us.
Second Observation: Jesus was direct in His intentions.
Sure Jesus was called “a friend of sinners,” but please don’t allow liberal Christians to twist this into meaning something it doesn’t. There are those who try to frame Jesus’ love of the sinner as meaning He was tolerant and accepting of the sinner’s sin.
I hear people say all the time.... “Jesus loves me just the way I am.” And my answer is simple.... “Your absolutely correct, but you forget that Jesus loves you so much He wants to make you into something better that what you presently are.”
Jesus didn’t come to just “hang out” with sinners, and by doing so justify their continued sinful behavior. Jesus came to save people from their sin. Jesus came to transform lives by changing them from the inside out.
Third Observation: The party crashers totally missed the message.
I think it’s sad, but I can image these scribes and Pharisees listening to Jesus’ explanation - nodding their heads in agreement - walking away satisfied with His response - and Jesus kind of standing there in disbelief.
I can see these guys reasoning amongst themselves, “You know I was a little upset Jesus choose to hang out with those people instead of us, but His answer really made a lot of sense. He’s evidently a Rabbi with a heart for the lost of Israel. And He was clear men like us who are “well, have no need of a physician” and the “righteous” like us “have no need for repentance.” I guess I understand why He’s keeping the company He does.”
Here’s where they miss the point....
1. Who are the “well” or “righteous” people Jesus was referring too? Was it the scribes and Pharisees standing there? Was it the priests back at the temple? The irony is that no one fits this description and as experts of the law they should have known this. What Jesus was saying - I believe with a certain level of sarcasm - they took literally.
2. According to Scripture “we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God” making everyone “sick with sin” and “unrighteous” before the Most High.
Though the scribes and Pharisees might have tried harder to be moral - upstanding citizens than Jesus’ present company, they were just as lost in their sin.
God had been clear to Israel that to disobey one law was to transgress the entire law. Think about it this way.... How many lies do you have to tell to be a liar? How many people do you have to kill to be a murderer? How many times do you have the cheat on your spouse to be a cheater? The answer is just one.
3. The issue with these religious leaders was the reality.... they simple didn’t realize - they were simply oblivious too - or they simply ignored that truth they were all just as sick and lost as the sinners they looked down upon and judged.
Of all the people Jesus would have issues with.... it was these self-righteous religious leaders. In the remaining verses of chapter 2, Mark provides two examples of how Jesus was constantly looking for opportunities to poke holes into this man-induced, religious facade.
The basis for their self-righteousness was moral comparisons.
Mark 2:18-22 - We’re doing something for God that you aren’t doing.
Mark 2:23-28 - We’re not doing something for God you are doing.
Mark 2:18 “The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting. Then they came and said to Him, “Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?”
Though we know little of the disciples of John, we do know the religious Pharisees fasted two days a week. On two separate occasions they would deny their bodies physical sustenance as an outward demonstration of their love, dedication, and devotion to God.
The nature of their question is based in their own self-righteous perspective. I can hear them say, “We fast - even the disciples of John fast - why is that your disciples don’t show the kind of devotion to God that we do?” Basically, “we’re doing something for God that you aren’t doing”.... which gave them their basis for self-righteousness!
The problem with their logic is simple.... think about it this way.... if you’re doing more for God than what’s required by God are you more righteous for it?
Though I don’t want to go off on a rabbit trail, I do think it’s important to address the idea of fasting as we know it from Scripture and church history. Not only will this help address this particular question, but I think it’ll help correct some misconceptions floating around Christian circles today.
Traditionally, fasting can be seen as the act of willingly abstaining from some or all food or drink for a given period of time. This can be done for physical or health reasons.
Practically, fasting - as the act of willful abstinence - can simply mean taking a break from something you find necessary or enjoyable such as food, drink, sex, entertainment, etc.... with the intention of increased physical pleasure or enjoyment once you’ve returned from the fast.
Spiritually, fasting is seen by many religions as a way to deny your flesh something it desires - in order to allow your spirit to grow stronger or more dominant over your flesh.
Establishing the Biblical framework for fasting:
The only time we find “fasting” mandated specifically in the Law of Moses was for the “Day of Atonement” (Leviticus 16:29-30, 23:27-31, Numbers 29:7) which came only once a year. This custom was also called “the fasting day” (Jeremiah 36:6) or known simply as “the fast” (Acts 27:9).
The first mention of fasting in the Bible is when Moses fasted for 40 days while God was providing him the Law in Deuteronomy 9:7-21.
It’s interesting to note that there is no mention of fasting in Genesis - meaning none of the patriarchs fasted (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph).
The only individual fasting mentioned in Scripture (aside from Moses) in the O.T. was David, the people of Nineveh, and the Jews of Persia. In the N.T. we find the prophetess Anna, Jesus, Paul, and Barnabas only mentioned.
King Jehoshaphat, the prophet Joel, and Queen Esther called for national fasting.
Isaiah chastised the Israelites in Isaiah 58 for unrighteous methods and motives in their fasting. And Jesus reiterated Isaiah’s recommendations in Matthew 9.
The only mention of fasting in the Pauline Epistles was in 1 Corinthians 7:5-6 when Paul said to the Corinthians, “you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again (sexually) so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment.”
Extra-Biblical Jewish and Christian writings placed a greater importance upon fasting than it seems the Bible does. For both the Jews in Jesus’ day and the Roman Catholics later on, fasting was seen as a way to prove your loyalty to God and bring the flesh into submission. Sad to say, many Christians feel the same way today.
In Protestantism, the reformers rejected the Catholic traditions and criticized fasting as a purely external observance that can never gain a person salvation.
John Calvin argued against fasting by saying the entire life of the religious should be "tempered with frugality and sobriety" in such a way as to produce "a sort of perpetual fasting". He taught a lifestyle of fasting.
The Swiss reformer Zwingli rejected fasting altogether. It’s been said he led a revolt against Lent with an ostentatious public sausage-eating demonstration.
So what does this all mean.... if you want to fast for traditional or practical reasons, go for it. But if you feel compelled to fast for spiritual reasons, I think you might be misguided and may I dare say be caught into the same self-righteous trap of the Pharisees. Let me explain my case....
1. The Bible never mandates the new testament believer to fast.
It’s not commanded like communion, baptism, prayer, or even witnessing.
Though Jesus addresses fasting, He addresses the concept in the context of the religious, Jewish culture of His day. Though He personally fasted during the 40 days of wilderness temptation, He never commissioned the disciples to fast.
Though Paul addresses fasting in 1 Corinthians, he does so in the context of a practical exercise and goes further to make sure it’s not interpreted as a command.
2. Fasting is not a tool for gaining victory over the flesh.
I heard one respected pastor describe fasting as taking time to feed the “white dog of the spirit” while starving out the “black dog of the flesh.” The problem with this analogy is that it simply isn’t Biblical.
Wouldn’t denying the flesh - by the works of the flesh - in the end foster pride in the flesh? Self-denial doesn’t automatically mean spiritual refreshment.
Just because you refuse the flesh doesn’t mean you’re feeding the spirit.
I’ll hear people say they’re going on a fast in order to re-prioritize their life. “I need to give my spirit an opportunity to grow stronger while I beat back down my flesh.” Though well-intended, this to isn’t a Biblical approach.
Are we actually able to beat down the flesh? If I’m able to gain a personal victory over one area isn’t it true I tend to fall into pride in another. It’s been said, “If self could dethrone self it would wear the victors crown.”
Sad to say people with this view end up fasting a lot.
Ephesians 6 is clear how we gain victory over the flesh.... “if we walk in the Spirit, then we won’t fulfill the lust of the flesh.” This sounds a lot more like Calvin’s approach to fasting. Instead of exerting the effort to deny the flesh through a temporary fast, spend your energy walking in the Spirit.
3. Fasting has no bearing on my relationship with God.
Do you realize you don’t need to do anything to show your dedication to God, but follow Jesus? Fasting doesn’t earn me heavenly dollars when I’ve already been given an eternal inheritance. It doesn’t purify my spirit when I’ve already been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb.
I’ve also heard pastors teach that fasting is important because it brings you closer to God. I couldn’t disagree more.... if a “work” could bring me closer to God.... or make me more righteous before God.... or cause God to listen more intently to my prayers then you’ll have a difficult time rationalizing a large portion of Romans. Not to mention, it’s by Jesus’ work on the cross that I can “boldly enter the throne of grace.” Fasting doesn’t expedite this process.
4. Fasting can lead to a false sense of moral standing.
As it had been with the Pharisees, these men saw the act of self-denial through fasting as a way to show their dedication and devotion to God (though God had never asked them to do this more than once a year).
This act was nothing more than an empty, religious ritual that created a false sense of self-righteousness. These men, like some Christians today, went so far that they used fasting as the justification that they were more righteous than Jesus’ disciples.
Though fasting isn’t a bad thing, and I’m not advocating there isn’t a place for fasting in the life of the believer.... we come back to the root question.... If you’re doing more for God than what’s required by God (fasting) are you more righteous for it? The answer is clearly no!
If you want to fast - fast for the right reasons, but never think it increases your relational status with God - causes God to listen more intently - or makes you more righteous than the brother that doesn’t partake of the same fast.