Guest Post: How to Welcome Sinners into Your Church, part 1 by Dan Wakefield

Dan Wakefield currently serves as a pastoral intern at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Coconut Creek Florida. This article and the two to follow are edited from a recent sermon Dan preached in our church.

In a recent series, Pastor Jeff Smith demonstrated how we as Christians should respond, not only to the recent Supreme Court decision, but also to the overall condition of this nation as it spirals away from God.  He showed, from the Scriptures, that humble sorrow is an expected and righteous response to our nation’s rejection of God and his rule over us.  We ought to be grieved at the state of this nation.

But it might also be good to consider another aspect of this topic.  We have looked at a zoomed out, big picture response.  But what I want us to do today is to zoom way in.  I want us to think about how we should respond, not to the state of the nation, but to individual people.  What I mean is this: how will we respond when people living sinful lifestyles walk into our church?

We know that we ought to be grieved over the state of our nation and the fact that sin is being celebrated in the streets.  It ought to be a burden on our hearts that God’s commands are discarded and His holy name is thrown into the mud all over this country.  But how should we respond when people from the world come into this church?  How do we interact with people out in the world who we rub shoulders with?  I want us to answer those questions by looking at the example of Jesus in the Gospels, and then drawing out some practical applications for us living in the 21st century.  Our passage will be Mark 2:13-17.

The account of the call of Levi is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Clearly, the gospel writers wanted to emphasize it as an important lesson for us.  We are going to consider two main lessons from this account, and then some application.  Today’s blog post will be the first main lesson.

1.     The Pharisees’ attitude toward lost sinners

We see something amazing happen in this passage.  In the midst of Jesus’ teaching ministry, he walks by the tax booth of a man named Levi.  Levi wasn’t a believer at this point in the story; not until Jesus walked up and said two simple words to him: “follow me”.  And without question, this man gets up and immediately becomes a follower of Jesus.  What a testimony to the power of God! Levi is so overjoyed with his new-found faith that he immediately throws a dinner party with Jesus as the guest of honor.  He also invites many others to come to the party, perhaps friends from the tax-collection business and others who were known publicly as sinners.  Perhaps there were also prostitutes and other adulterers there.  What a sight that must have been.  A group of people most blatant in their outward transgression of God’s law were eating dinner with Jesus and his disciples.

But the Pharisees were not pleased with what they saw.  Evidently, some of their number saw Jesus participating in this dinner and were disturbed.  In verse 16 they ask, “And when the scribes and Pharisees saw Him 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?’”

It is not hard to see from the Scriptures that the Pharisees hated such people.  This is partly because of who the tax collectors were.  During this period of history, the nation of Israel had been conquered and was occupied by the Roman Empire.  And since it now was under the jurisdiction of the empire, the people had to pay Roman taxes.  The tax collectors in Israel were usually Jewish men working for the Roman government.  Not only were they working for the enemy nation, they were often charging more than the Romans demanded and keeping the extra for themselves.  As a result, they were viewed as both thieves and traitors by the Jewish people.

But there was another reason why the Pharisees hated Jesus’ dinner company.  All of the guests at Levi’s party were known publicly to be sinners.  They were people despised by the Pharisees because of their blatant disregard for the laws and the traditions of the Jewish religion.  And in their pride, the Pharisees thought that they were morally superior to such people.  Consider this parable Jesus tells in Luke 18:9-14.  “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”  And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raisehis eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”

You see, the Pharisees thought that they were righteous before God because of all their religious rituals and traditions that they kept.  But their pride and lack of compassion showed them for who they really were.  They drew near to God with their lips but their hearts were far from Him.  Jesus said to them in Matthew 23:28 – “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”  Such pride and hypocrisy did not result in compassion to those who were known as “tax-collectors and sinners”.  It resulted in disgust and condemnation.  Jesus also said in Matthew 23:13 – “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”

The Pharisees were more concerned with who was outwardly “clean” than with those who honestly desired to pursue peace with God.  In their minds, anyone who had lived a life of disregard for God and religion were automatically excluded from the kingdom.

So why were they so concerned about who Jesus was eating with?  Why did they even care?  Because they knew that everyone considered Jesus to be a prophet from God.  He Himself was claiming that He had been sent by the Father.  And here He was, eating with tax-collectors and sinners.

Remember the story in Luke 7?  Jesus is invited to a Pharisee’s house for dinner, and a woman known publicly for her sin comes and anoints Jesus’ feet with oil.  Remember what the Pharisee says to himself?  “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”  The Pharisees believed that God would have nothing to do with such vile people because they wanted nothing to do with such people.  Not only were they jealous of Jesus’ popularity, they were also disgusted that someone claiming to be sent by God would be spending His time with the “unclean” sinners of society.

The Pharisees’ attitude toward those who were outwardly wicked showed the true condition of their hearts.  While claiming to be righteous in God’s eyes, they were nothing but hypocrites.  They pretended to care about the truth, but really only cared about themselves.

Next time, we will consider Jesus’ attitude toward lost sinners.

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