Why Twelve? Mark 3:14-19 (Part 2)

Jesus went up to the mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James, son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges which means ‘sons of thunder’), Andrew, Philip, Bartholemew, Thomas, Matthew, James, son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.     

                     Mark 3:14-19 (NIV)

Horsham 21st Feb 2012

The choosing of the twelve disciples is undoubtedly one of the most critical points in the story so far. Getting it right would be the key to the success or failure of Christ’s mission.  My last post looked at the life challenges faced by the twelve disciples, but  I’ve found myself  asking the question, ‘why twelve?’. Of course my Sunday School teacher would have said something like this – ‘Well, there were twelve tribes of Israel, so obviously there would be twelve disciples.’ I guess that this much is obvious, but why? I have heard it said from the pulpit that twelve was the normal number of disciples who would be associated with a rabbi at that time. My research suggests otherwise.

Gamaliel, a senior rabbi of the 1st Century who is mentioned in Acts 5, has been said to have claimed 500 disciples (although not necessarily at the same time!) (i), one of whom was a young man called Saul (who became the Apostle Paul) (Acts 22:3). If true, Gamaliel was an exception.  My reading suggests that most rabbi’s would typically have had no more than three or four followers at any given time. So, why twelve?

Let’s think about where this scene takes place. If I want a bit of peace and quiet I tend to go to the local forest, or to the top of the South Downs close to my home. We’ve read that Jesus was in the habit of going to the mountainside to pray (Luke 6:17),  but it’s a mistake to think of this excursion in the same way as my relaxing trip to local quiet places and beauty spots.

This is more of ‘a place where people went to plot revolution. And what Jesus now does is amongst his most revolutionary gestures.’(ii)

This was no spur of the moment decision. This was a really important part of Christ’s plan. After spending the night in prayer, Jesus chooses these twelve men to be his disciples – to send them out with authority to teach and cast out demons (Mark 3:14). So, in this place with a hit of the revolutionary, why twelve?

‘It is fascinating to me that Jesus did not choose ten, eight or twenty. He chose twelve, certainly calling to mind the Old Testament structure of the twelve tribes of Israel.’ (RC Sproul) (iii)

The fact is that the ‘Sunday School’ response is essentially correct, but it has rather more of an edge that we might think. The number twelve isn’t a hugely important number in Judaism, but of course it does crop up repeatedly throughout Scripture with reference to those twelve tribes, basically routed on the families of the sons of Jacob. But in Jesus’ day, the twelve tribes didn’t even really exist.

Every Jew knew that there were twelve tribes of Israel – or at least there had been… Ten of the tribes had been lost seven centuries earlier when the Assyrians invaded and carried them off. But the prophets had spoken of a coming restoration, and a great many Jews were longing for it. (iv)

So, on the mountain where revolutions are plotted, this young Rabbi calls to himself a higher than average number of disciples who will follow and learn from him.

‘[…]  by choosing twelve disciples to become the twelve Apostles, Jesus established a symmetry between the Church of the Old Testament and the Church of the New Testament.’ (v)

Turns out my Sunday School teacher was right – although I’m not sure she appreciated how radical this was. in appointing twelve disciples, Christ was setting out a key part of his manifesto, firmly and visibly placing his mission to the Old covenant, as he set about enabling the New.


(i) Gamaliel is an established historical figure who held a high position as a leader and teacher in the Sanhedrin at the time of Christ. I have seen references in several articles about there being 500 disciples who, over time, learned ‘at the feet’ of Gamliel. I am grateful to teacher and author Lois Tverberg who makes reference to this suggestion on her blog  at The Reality of Disciples and Rabbis – Our Rabbi Jesus  and refers to Chapter 19, “Education and the Study of Torah” in The Jewish People in the First Century, by Shmuel Safrai (Fortress, 1988)  for more information on the style of Rabinical teaching.
(ii) Tom Wright: Mark for Everyone, p32 (Kindle Edition))
(iii)RC Sproul, an Expositional Commentary, Reformation Trust (Kindle Edition) p55
(iv) Tom Wright, ibid
(v) RC Sproul, ibid

Twelve men who changed the world: Mark 3:13-19

Jesus went up to the mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James, son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges which means ‘sons of thunder’), Andrew, Philip, Bartholemew, Thomas, Matthew, James, son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.                           Mark 3:14-19 (NIV)

Horsham, 19th February 2024

Some years ago my wife and I applied for a job with a Christian charity in West Sussex. We knew that the job would be demanding and life changing for us both. Before applying for the role, we prayed together  over the application, and then, a few weeks later, we found ourselves travelling across the country for an interview with some of the trustees. It was a lengthy and challenging interview and we returned home exhausted. Other couples were interviewed. A few weeks later we took a call from one of the Trustees with the invitation to take up the role. Without hesitation, we accepted the offer. It was only after the initial rush of excitement that reality began to sink in. Accepting the invitation would mean resigning our current well paid jobs, moving home, leaving our church and friends, relocating to an area where we knew nobody, taking up residence in a mobile home and taking a huge drop in salary. But in our hearts, we were taking the path that we believed Christ had offered us. Life changing.

In the Gospel story, we know that the drama of his healing work has led to loads of people following Jesus. Amongst this mass of people there are some who have been specifically invited to follow.

Simon (later called Peter), Andrew, James, and John, fishermen on the Capernaum shore and Levi (Matthew) have already been mentioned. Remember that the main source for Mark’s Gospel is this very same Simon, later called Peter, it is not surprising that he mentions at this early stage the specific calling of his closest friends. Some time later, as his popularity and profile increase, there comes a time when Jesus is ready to take a decisive step, choosing twelve from amongst the group to be his closest friends.

In the previous verses we saw Jesus trying unsuccessfully to move away from the crowds. Now, somehow, he manages to evade the masses and get to the mountainside. Twelve of his closest associates are invited to join him. I’m wondering how these guys felt when received the invitation to be his disciples. For each of them, this is a big deal. These twelve are to be his disciples (those who have been called to follow as students or apprentices) and also Apostles (those who would undertake his commission to build the Church).

A ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to follow this charismatic young rabbi. There must have been an incredible and overwhelming rush of excitement, but I wonder whether it might have been tinged with or followed by a moment of pause or recollection when they realised just how life changing it was going to be. Matthew had already walked away from a well paid job. Peter, Andrew, James and John had walked away from the family business. All twelve of them signed up to follow Jesus, leaving home and family members. Life changing.

Jo and I prayerfully went ahead and confronted the challenges of our new role. The blessings of that season of His grace were extraordinary and long lasting. Twelve ordinary young and largely unschooled men accepted their life changing challenge to follow Jesus. Together, they changed the world.


Pursued by the crowd: Mark 3:7-12

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. 10 For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. 11 Whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” 12 But he gave them strict orders not to tell others about him.

Horsham, 8th February 2024

There’s a lot going on here. There is the hint that Jesus has withdrawn to somewhere quiet with his disciples, but we should remember that he has based himself in Capernaum on the shore of the Lake, so he’s still quite close to home. Whatever his intention,  the celebrity of Jesus means that he will not find much peace and quiet today. A substantial crowd is following his every move. People are flocking from all over the place to be near him. Idumea is at the south of Galilee, perhaps 100 miles away. Tyre is on the Mediterranean coast, a similar distance away. Sidon was around 30 miles north of Tyre, and both were gentile, rather than Jewish cities. You get the picture. In context, all kinds of people have travelled huge distances on foot. Many people in this crowd had travelled a very long way over several days to be there. Many of them did receive healing (v10).

Jesus has made clear that his purpose – his mission – is not to heal, but to preach (Mark1:38). Yet Mark makes clear that these people have not risked everything by travelling through dangerous countryside to hear him speak. This is not a crowd which wants to hear Jesus talk about the Kingdom of God. It is a crowd who have heard about the healing power of Jesus and want to experience or at least witness it.

People who wanted healing were pressing against him, desperate to touch him. People with evil spirits were being thrown to the floor as the spirits found themselves in the presence of Jesus. They scream that this is the Son of God,  but he silences them – not because they are wrong, but because such a declaration would place Jesus in peril of his life. At His command, the demons fall silent See also Mark 1:34).

So, the sick are here. The demon possessed are here. And of course the disciples are here. A growing band of people who have been called by Christ or have simply decided to follow. These are not yet the established group of 12, but a larger, less coordinated group of enthusiastic but untrained people who have decided that this radical young rabbi is worth following.

I was once in a slowly moving crowd so dense that one had no control over oneself. As the road narrowed and the density of the crowd grew stronger, I could lift your feet from the ground and be carried along by the mass of bodies. A dense crowd can be dangerous.  Such a crowd is following Jesus and his disciples, out of the town and towards the Lake. The press of the crowd could so easily push Jesus into the water, so he procures a boat to avoid the crush.

From the safety of the boat, Jesus puts himself at distance from the hordes who want to touch him. From the boat, his voice amplified by reflection n the surface of the water, can reach the crowd gathered on the gently rising ground beside the Lake. From the boat, Jesus has control. He can fulfill his mission. Having met so many people at their point of need and offered healing. The one who is the Son of God can now preach the Kingdom of God.

Healing on the Sabbath: Mark 3:1-6

1‘Another time, Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled had was there. 2 Some of the were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ 4 Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is it lawful to do on the Sabbath? To do good, or to do harm?’ But they remained silent. 5He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out to begin to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

Horsham, 7th February 2024

It’s the sabbath, and Jesus is in the synagogue. He knows that the Pharisees are trying to catch hm out, but he’s not hiding away.  Mark leaves us in no doubt that they are watching what he is up to. They have an agenda.  ‘The Pharisees and teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath.'(v2)

The rules about what you could, or could not do on the Sabbath went into great detail. In essence, the Sabbath is for rest, so all work was forbidden. The complexity came in the interpretation of the term work, and over generations, the interpretation had become very complex indeed.  It does not sit well with us that the act of healing was forbidden because it constituted work. It was legitimate to take immediate action to save a life on the Sabbath, but supportive medical care was not permitted. Even when someone was seriously injured the amount of treatment which could be given was minimal. Even a broken leg could not be set in a splint on the sabbath. (i)

There’s no indication that this man’s life was in danger. Jesus had, of course, the opportunity to ignore the man and sidestep the issue. But no, he makes the man stand where everyone can see him. The Pharisees are watching. They ask Jesus a question ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’ (Matthew 12:10). Jesus puts the spotlight back on them – ‘Which is it lawful to do on the Sabbath? To do good, or to do harm?’ This isn’t a trick question. It’s familiar ground for experienced religious leaders of the day. Almost a rhetorical question. They remain silent. ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?  How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ (Matthew 12:11-12). No great problem there.

And then it happens. Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand, and it is healed.

You have to picture this scene. At the front of the synagogue stands a man with a badly damaged hand. In front of everyone, including the Pharisees, ‘it was completely restored, just as sound as the other.’ (Matthew 12:13). As far as we know, Jesus didn’t touch the man. He hasn’t used words which might cause offence. Yet it’s a visible miracle, witnessed by everyone at the synagogue. The man has been healed. On the Sabbath.

In my Church, there would be whoops of delight and shouts of praise and thanksgiving if even a much lesser miracle was performed.  We don’t know how most of the people reacted, but we do know something of the Pharisees. Here, in the synagogue which was a place ‘where men were assembled to hear the Word and to worship.’ (ii) I might say the same of my Church. Yet here in the synagogue were deeply religious people who, rather than celebrating the presence of God, were looking to catch out the one who has claimed to be the Son of Man and just demonstrated that the power of the Holy Spirit is working through him.

‘I am the Lord, who heals you.’ Exodus 15:26

Jesus is confronted with a man who is suffering and unable to work because of his badly damaged hand. We can easily see his dilemma as ‘is it better to heal such a man, or to allow his pain to continue unnecessarily,’ but there is a deeper question here.  Which is more appropriate for the Sabbath – to do good by healing this man – or to do harm by plotting and scheming against a fellow Jesus, even planning his murder.

As we have mentioned before: ‘When Jesus began openly to violate the Sabbath traditions, it was like declaring war against the religious establishment.’ (iii)

Mark wants you to notice the evidence that Jesus truly is the Son of Man. As the war between Jesus and the religious authorities moves into a new phase, he wants you to notice that the agenda of the most committed and dedicated religious men of the day is to reject and destroy Jesus. Such is their determination that they are ready to form alliance with the Herodians(iv) to rid themselves of Jesus.

Mark has his own agenda. To present the one who claims to be the Son of Man to you. By showing you these cameo ‘flashpoints’ of growing conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment, Mark is insisting that you too take a side.

(i) Wm Barclay, New Daily Study Bible, Gospel of Mark, Loc 1614
(ii) Ryle, p34
(iii) W. Wiersbe, Be Diligent, p38
(iv) The Herodians were in effect a political party whose allegiance was to Herod Antipas, the King installed by the Roman Empire. As collaborators with the occupying power, they were not natural bed-fellows of the Pharisees.

Lord of the Sabbath: Mark 2:23-28

23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” 25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Dringhouses: 2nd February 2024

It might seem strange to us that it was perfectly lawful for a hungry traveller to pick corn from the fields if he or she were hungry, provided they didn’t start using a sickle or other equipment to  harvest their lunch (Deuteronomy 23:25) (You and I, and certainly your local farmer, might regard this as theft!). Their actions were called into question not because of their appropriation of a free meal, but  simply because they were doing it on the Sabbath.

The Jewish law had specific rules about what could and could not be done on the Sabbath, and ‘work’ was specifically prohibited. The oral tradition which had elaborated on the law had introduced myriad specific prohibitions. As a rabbi, the Pharisees would demand that Jesus adhere to these rules and regulations.

‘When Jesus began openly to violate the Sabbath traditions, it was like declaring war against the religious establishment.’ (i)

In short, picking grain and removing the husk to eat was specifically not permitted.

‘We see from these verses what extravagent importance is attached to trifles by those who are mere formalists in religion.’ (ii)

Jesus knows that he and his disciples have driven a coach and horses through the restrictions, but he uses Scripture to show that he and his disciples are acting within God’s law.

‘It seems fantastic to us, but to the Jewish Rabbi’s it was a matter of life and death.’ (iii)

David is a revered and honoured King within Judaism, and Jesus points at the Scripture which tells the story of David and his men eating bread which had been placed as a sacrifice in the Tabernacle to Nob and was only to be eaten by the priests. (1 Samuel 21:1-6). The Pharisees were quick to point out that Jesus was in error, although they could not argue that in the case of David, human need was put before the Law. The Sabbath, says Jesus, was created for mankind, not to constrain, but to benefit.

‘Human beings were not created to be the victims and the slaves of the Sabbath rules and regulations, which were in the beginning created to make life fuller and better.’(iv)

Thus far, Jesus is holding his own against the challenge of the Pharisees, but he has yet a point to make. We have seen before Jesus taking the loaded phrase ‘Son of Man’ and applying it to himself (Mark 2:3-12). ‘ In doing so, he made a statement which he now affirms. ‘The Son of Man,’ he says, ‘is Lord, even of the Sabbath.’ (v28). 

Jesus is heralding a time of change. A paradigm shift of perspective in relationship between God and man in which the trappings of the old religion could not constrain the power of the new.

‘Jesus action, and it’s explanation, were a coded messianic claim, a claim that in him the new day was dawning in which even Israel’s God-given laws would be seen in a new light.’ (v)

There can only be one response from the Pharisees and the religious establishment. The extravagant behaviour of this young rabbi is drawing the attention of the people. To them, his claims of divinity are blasphemous and absurd. In short, he is out of control and at risk of undermining their own place and power in society. He has to be dealt with. He has to go!

(i) W. Wiersbe, Be Diligent, p38
(ii)JC Ryle, The Gospel of Mark, p29
(iii) Wm Barclay, New Daily Study Bible, Gospel of Mark, ‘Piety, Real and False’ Loc 1532
(iv) ibid, Loc 1549
(v) NT Wright, Mark for Everyone, p26

Matchless Distinctiveness of the Gospel: Mark 2:21-22


21 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. 22 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”

Dringhouses, York 31st January 2024

In the west, we have largely become unfamiliar with the practice of mending clothes using patches. In most cultures clothes are patched to extend the life of a garment rather than for decorative effect. Nonetheless we all know that some materials are prone to shrink when they get wet or are washed at the wrong temperature, and recognise that if you take an old pair of pre-shrunk jeans patch them with a piece of new cotton fabric, it’s likely that next time you wash your jeans the cotton may shrink and tear away from the denim.A friend of mine enjoyed making his own wine. He bottled the wine in new glass bottles and stored them in a cupboard. The problem is that unless you get the timing right, new wine is likely to continue fermenting. One evening, he came home from work to find that there had been an explosion in the cupboard. The gasses from the fermenting wine had created sufficient pressure to cause the glass bottles to shatter. The fruits of his labours had been reduced to a sticky mess and a pile of broken glass.

It’s important that until the fermentation process is complete, the container in which new wine is stored has a degree of elasticity. In Jesus time, the obvious container was a new wineskin. However, over time, a wineskin would lose its elasticity. If you put new wine in an old wineskin, the result would be a sticky mess.

So, two simple and timeless images – but why did Jesus use them.

The Jewish leaders and Pharisees were dedicated religious people. All of their energy was committed to achieving righteousness before God. They expected others to do the same and all of their teaching was directed towards that goal. It was instructional and detailed. Conform to the rules, not only of the Mosaic Law, but also to the oral traditions of Judaism and you could demonstrate if not prove your own righteousness.  Jesus came along with a very different approach.

‘Jesus knew quite well that he was coming with a message which was startlingly new; and he also knew that his way of life was shatteringly different from that of the orthodox Rabbinic teachers (i).’

He came to introduce something new, not to patch up the old (Wiersbe, p36). To squeeze the Gospel message of divine grace into the existing religious structures would never work. Jesus was not interested in compromising his message to make it acceptable to the established religious order. To do so would be like putting new wine into an old wineskin. You get the point. We need to learn something from that.

John Macarthur describes these verses as representing and affirming the ‘matchless distinctiveness of the Gospel‘. The key point is that Jesus Christ is unique. His power and authority are unmatched in all creation. Christianity is in every sense different from every other religion and every other culture. To water down the message of the gospel in order to make it acceptable to our culture or to other faiths is like patching an old piece of cloth with new, or putting new wine in an old wineskin. It simply won’t work.

‘Salvation is found in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”(Acts 4:12)

(i)    Barclay, Gospel of Mark, Mark2:21-22 (Kindle Loc1494)

The Tax Collector: Matthew 2:13-14


‘Once again, Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi, son of Alphaueus sitting at the tax collectors booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

Horsham. 24th January 2024

Jesus had told his disciples that his main purpose was to preach the good news of the Kingdom of God. Here he is teaching, and as ever, he quickly attracts a crowd.

In my class at school there was a young man called Martin who was a bit of a bully. When we reached the fifth form (nowdays in the UK it’s called Year 11) we were paraded in front of the careers teacher to talk about what we wanted to do when we left school. I wanted to be a lighthouse keeper (true story). Martin, the bully, wanted to be a tax man, an ambition which he later achieved. His slightly unusual career choice didn’t make him any more popular. There’s a sense in which nobody much likes the tax man.

2000 years earlier, a guy called Levi  had a similar life plan. He was a tax collector (in Matthew’s Gospel he appears with the Greek version of his name, Matthew). He was in Capernaum, collecting taxes from people as they travelled through the town. He was almost certainly working for the man we know as Herod Antipas, who was in place as the local ruler under the protection of Rome. He was, in effect, collecting taxes on behalf of the Roman occupiers. Yet he wasn’t a Roman – he was a Jew.

We don’t know much about Levi. We don’t know whether he had set out to become  a tax man or whether this was the only job he could get. We don’t know whether he was good at the job. We don’t know whether he had been dishonest (and shouldn’t assume that he was}, but many of his peers were. His job was to gather a fixed amount of tax to pay his masters. They weren’t particularly bothered how he did that. Bullying was acceptable, even expected, and they were happy for him to keep any excess above his target which he managed to get. A forceful attitude was helpful, and as you might start to see, if you were good at it, tax collector could be a lucrative job. On the downside, we can assume that Levi was not the most popular man in Capernaum. He was a Jew, but he was outside the mainstream community. He was unclean. He was working for a hated occupying enemy. He was a collaborator.

The picture we have is of him sitting there at his booth, surrounded by coins and the trappings of his trade, haranguing passers by and demanding their taxes. In the noise and bustle of the busy scene, in a dusty and noisy street, this young rabbi walks by.  Jesus lived in the town and it’s unlikely that this was the first time that he’d passed that way. We have seen that it’s probable that everybody in Capernaum knew who Jesus was, but we don’t know whether Levi had actually met him before, but it’s inconceivable that they didn’t know who each other was.

This story appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospel. In all three, Jesus words are the same. ‘Follow me.’ Nothing more. No sermons. No protracted arguments. Just that. ‘Follow me.’ And that’s exactly what he does.

The rules were simple. If a tax collector left his job, the Romans wouldn’t allow him to get it back. Levi did just that.

Here’s the reality. Levi had been working for Herod Antipas, the one who thought of himself as the King of the Jews. Now, he abandons everything to follow Jesus, the one who really was the King of the Jews.

Fast or Feast: Mark 2:18-20

18Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, ‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not? 19Jesus answered ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is still with them? They cannot as long as they have him with them. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

Milton Keynes 29th January 2024

This story appears in each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 9:14-15; Luke 5:33-35).  In each case it follows the stories of the calling of the tax collector, and the subsequent feast at the house of Levi / Matthew. The emphasis on this sequence of events, picked up in each of the Gospels affirms that the context is important. There is the implication that the feast with the tax collectors and friends may have been taking place at a time when others were fasting. After the horror that Jesus is eating with people who are unclean, comes the despair that he is eating whilst those who are seriously religious are fasting.

Every Jew was required to fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:32). Fasting was also associated in Scripture with times of mourning, despair and appeal to God. Over time, the oral traditions of Judaism had added some very strong additional rules about fasting, including commemorative fasts and twice weekly fasting as an act of piety and commitment. The Pharisees followed these rules to the letter and it is likely that this question arises because Christ and his disciples were engaged in feasting when others were fasting during one of the midweek fasts.

‘How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?

Scripture uses marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between God and his people. In the Hebrew Bible, the worship of other gods is described as spiritual adultery (Jer 3:8 and elsewhere), and Israel described as the bride of God (Jer 31:4 and elsewhere). In the New Testament, the Church is described as the Bride of Christ (eg Rev 19:7, 21:2), presenting the Messiah as the bridegroom.

Most people in the time of Jesus lived relatively frugal lives. Feasting was reserved for the big occasions, and marriage was a big occasion. An occasion not of mourning or despair, but of joy. The marriage feast could last for several days, and there was even a tradition that it was unlawful for those invited to fast during the marriage celebrations.

Jesus answered ‘How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is still with them? They cannot as long as they have him with them.

Once more, Christ is aligning himself with the Jewish understanding of Messiah. Whilst he, the Bridegroom, is with his companions, of course they would not fast. Of course, when the marriage ceremony is complete, the bridegroom is separated from his guests and life returns to normal.

20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

Yet even now, Christ, the Messiah, knows that his path leads to a time when his companions will fast, not because of the Pharisaic requirement, but because they are mourning. Christ points forwards to a time when he, the bridegroom, will not just leave, he will be taken. Even now, Christ, the Messiah, knows that he is on the path to the cross.

Dinner with the Bad Boys: Matthew 2:15-17


While Jesus was having diner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with Him and His disciples, for there were many that followed him. When the teachers of the Law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.’

Horsham 25th January 2024

Luke’s Gospel affirms that in following Jesus, Levi left everything behind. ‘He burned his bridges, and enthusiastically invited some of his sinner friends to meet the Lord Jesus.’ (i)

Just occasionally, I feel overwhelmed by God’s grace. It’s not just that he is a gracious God, but it’s that he would consider me, even me, to be worthy of His grace. I know my own life history. I haven’t always been good. I don’t deserve his grace.

This is a story about a man called Levi. This is a story which reassures us that God’s love and grace is for everybody.

Levi was a tax collector. Tax collectors were considered to be really bad people. They were generally excluded from the synagogue and would have no support from the religious community. Here we meet a bunch of them together. They’re eating together. They’re socialising together. We don’t know for sure who the other ‘sinners’ referred to here would have been, but they would have been people who either broke the moral law or failed to observe the scribal law (ii)

As far as the Pharisees are concerned, the idea of associating with these people was wholly wrong. To share a meal with them was unthinkable. Yet here is Jesus in the same house, at the same time, sharing a meal with the bad boys. For a rabbi and his disciples to be having dinner with them was, in the view of the Pharisees, unacceptable.

We have already seen Jesus mixing with those who are physically sick, and we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus and his disciples are now meeting with other people on the fringe of society. We shouldn’t be surprised that the group of religious leaders who were by now following Jesus didn’t like this. Perhaps it was to avoid a confrontational conversation with Jesus that they launch their attack on his disciples.

This was an early stage in Christ’s ministry. His disciples still have so much to learn. It is Jesus who responds to the Pharisees’ questions.

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’ (v17)

People who were sick were often regarded as ‘unclean’ and were to be avoided. Until their health was restored they were excluded from taking part in the life of the synagogue, and everyone would avoid them. Unable to work or mix with people at the market, the sick could quickly become desperate and isolated. But of course what they really needed was not religious rules and exclusion – they needed a doctor.

To Jesus, the sinfulness of Levi’s friends did not mean that these were people to be avoided. It meant that they were people in need. They were spiritually unhealthy. They didn’t need to be abandoned in the mire of religious rules and exclusion – they needed a doctor.

Whatever else we learn from this encounter, we learn that Levi, who we also know as Matthew, is a man on the outside of society. He mixes with other people who are on the outside of society. Yet Christ has sought him out. This is the man who leaves everything to follow Jesus and became one of his closest friends. This is the man who becomes an evangelist and apostle. This is the man who came to write the first Gospel.

This is the man whose story should leave us in no doubt that Christ can, does and will extend his welcome, love and grace to anyone. To everyone. Even me. Even you.

(i) Wiersbe p34
(ii) Barclay, Gospel of Mark, Mark 2:15-17