Follow Me

The calling of Levi is a simple story. Jesus sees Levi, Jesus says "follow me," Levi follows. That's it. But there's more happening under the surface of this apparently simple story. In this message, Benjamin Shanks explores the literary, political and religious subsurface of the story of the calling of Levi in Mark 2:13-17. This message will encourage you in what it means to follow Jesus.


Sermon Transcript


Mark chapter 2, if you have a Bible and chapters, verses 13 to 17.

Thanks, Sandra, for the reading.

This is the ninth message in our Gospel of New Beginnings series.

We're working our way through the whole Gospel of Mark this year.

And as we've said every time, there's a different message in the morning and night.

So if you want to get the full picture, go to the brand new website, to the resources section, and then click series or sermons, and you'll find the message to catch up on.

Our passage tonight is a relatively unique one because it appears in three of the four Gospels.

It appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in almost exactly the same form each time.

I know Sandra has just read for us the Mark version, but I'll read that again just quickly, and then I'll read the other two versions.

Mark 2.13, 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 Alphaeus, sitting at the tax collector's booth.

Follow me, Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

This is Matthew's telling of the same story, Matthew 9 verse 9.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew.

Matthew is the same person as Levi, just a different name.

Saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth.

Follow me, Jesus told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

Finally, Luke's version of the story, Luke 5, 27.

After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at the tax booth.

Follow me, Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything, and followed him.

It's such a simple story, all three times that it appears.

It's interesting when you compare stories that appear multiple times in the Gospels, often there's different bits that they emphasize, different details, but we have almost exactly the same story appearing three times.

And it's such a simple story.

You could summarize the plot of this passage to Jesus is walking past and he sees Levi, he says, follow me, Levi gets up and follows him.

It's a simple story, that's all there is to it.

And yet I would put to you tonight that beneath the surface of this simple story, there's a lot more going on.

Certainly in Levi's heart, even though Jesus just walked past him and said, come follow me, and he did, that's the story that we're told, so much more was happening within Levi.

There's all this stuff happening under the surface that comes beneath what is a simple surface story.

I would put it to you tonight that our following Jesus is the same.

On one level, it's as simple as saying, yes, I will follow you.

But beneath the surface of all of our lives, life is complex and there's all these implications and ramifications for what it means to follow Jesus.

And yet it really is just as easy as saying, yes, Lord, I will follow you.

So we're going to explore, I think, three of the subsurface movements beneath this passage.

The title of this message is two words that appear in all three tellings of this story, follow me.

Firstly, the literary subsurface.

It's a simple story.

Jesus sees Levi, he says, follow me, and Levi follows.

But beneath the surface, I think Mark, the author, is inviting us to see that there's some literary cool stuff happening under the surface of this story.

So Mark 2.13.

Once again, Jesus went out beside the lake.

Once again, Mark is saying this has happened before.

He's calling us to think of the last time that Jesus walked beside a lake.

And when you turn your Bible back and kind of work back through the sermons on the Easy to Use website, for instance, you would find that the last time Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee was Mark 1.16, which says, as Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.

Come follow me, Jesus said, and I'll send you out to fish for people.

At once they left their nets and followed him.

I think Mark, through the use of that word once again and the repetition of key themes, is putting these two stories together.

And when we hold these two literary pieces together, we see they're almost identical stories.

We have Jesus walking beside the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus sees ordinary people at work.

Jesus says to said ordinary people, follow me, said ordinary people, get up and follow Jesus.

It's the exact same story both times, but Mark, I think, draws us to one difference between these two stories, and that is that the lads in Chapter 1 were fishermen, but Levi is a tax collector.

That's pretty much the only difference here.

The reason that is significant is fishermen could always go back to their occupation if the whole Jesus thing didn't work out.

Let's just say Peter, James, John, and Andrew, the four who received the call, let's just say they follow Jesus and, like, Jesus gets killed or something, and the whole thing falls apart.

They could always go back to fishing.

In fact, that's exactly what they did.

John 21 verse 3, this is after the crucifixion of Jesus, after the resurrection, after He appears to them in person, but before the giving of the Spirit.

So we're in that 50-day period between the resurrection and Pentecost.

The disciples...

Well, I'll read John 21 verse 3, and I'll read it with a bit of drama that kind of conveys...

I'm going out to fish, Simon Peter told them, and they, that's six of the other 12 disciples, they said, we'll go with you.

Nothing better to do.

So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

The disciples, because Jesus hadn't yet given the Spirit and birthed the church and set off the events of the Book of Acts, they just go back to what they had known.

These fishermen went back to fishing after they had followed Jesus.

The difference is with Levi that as a tax collector, he could not return to his job.

Because a tax collector is, it might be a hated, despised job, but it's also a highly valued job.

A lot of people wanted that job.

And so Levi knew if he steps outside of this booth, he cannot return to that job.

He is once and for all leaving behind his old life.

And that means that his decision to follow Jesus is far more costly than the others.

They could always go back to their previous life.

But Levi, I think he's kind of a...

Because he was a tax collector, he's probably an accountant type personality.

So he's probably seen Jesus.

Jesus has said, follow me.

And Levi is running the calculations.

He's thinking of all the stories that he's heard.

He's thinking, I can never come back, but Jesus is calling me, and what do I do?

And he just gets up and follows Jesus.

And he can never go back.

And so he follows Jesus for the rest of his life.

It's a cool story, I think.

Instagram bios tell you a lot about a person's self-identification.

I want to just humble myself a little bit and read you some of my Instagram bios over ten years.

The first Instagram bio I ever had was ten years ago, when I was like thirteen or fourteen, and it was this, eat, sleep, skate.

That was just the three things I did in life.

My second one, probably days or weeks or months later, was skate, surf, sup, GoPro, guitar.

He is greater than I.

Because I was still a Christian, so I wanted to get a bit of a Christian thing in there.

And then I probably, my faith was coming alive, and I thought, no, I need a better Instagram bio.

So I put a quote up, and the quote was, only one life will soon be passed.

Only what's done for Christ will last.

And then I went back to the skate thing.

Skate, surf, photography, this, that's new.

GoPro, music, he is greater than I.

So I'm still a Christian, but the skating's come back.

And then this is my favorite one when I was about 15.

Amateur filmmaker.

Photographer, skater, surfer.

And then I went back to the quote thing.

Aspire to create, create to inspire, it's really moving.

And then I got really meta as a 17-year-old, and I said, don't quote life, live life.

After that, in this sort of same thought of trying to live life as we have it, I had Hakuna Matata, which means no worries.

And I had that for like years, five or six years, until this week, as I've been working on this passage, I said, it's time to change my bio one last time.

And I changed it to apprentice of Jesus.

That's not to make, no, stop that.

That's not to make you think anything special of me.

The reason that I say that is to humble myself, but also to make the point that the call to follow Jesus cannot be one of six or seven things that equally lay claim to the allegiance of our life.

When it comes to the deepest part of our life, it cannot be skater, surfer, photographer, musician, GoPro, follower of Jesus.

Jesus comes to Matthew and he says, follow me, and Matthew, Levi, sorry, Levi knows that to say yes to follow Jesus is to say no to everything that he's ever known and to say I am a follower of Jesus and that is all that matters now.

Not that Jesus takes Matthew or took me away from skating or music or any of these things, but now the only thing that matters for me and for you if you follow Jesus is that you follow Jesus.

And it's not one of five equally weighty things.

That's what it is to follow Jesus, is to leave behind the old life.

And I think that's the literary subsurface beneath this passage.

Secondly, there is a political subsurface movement beneath this simple story.

Remember, the story is Jesus sees Levi, Jesus says follow me, Levi follows.

But beneath the surface, there's political stuff happening.

I want to just ask you to bear with me for about two and a half minutes.

We're going to do a brief lesson on the political history of first century Palestine.

It'll take two and a half minutes and then we'll move on.

Caesar Augustus was the emperor of Rome.

The Roman Empire was a lot of Europe, the top part of Africa and the Middle East at the time that Jesus was born.

The way that Caesar and the way that Rome ruled things is they often had kind of puppet kings to rule and lead different parts of the empire.

The puppet king of the area of Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon at the time Jesus was born was Herod the Great.

This is the Herod who ordered the massacre of the infants that we read about in Bethlehem, and he was also the one who renovated the second temple to make it one of the most amazing buildings in the ancient world.

Upon Herod the Great's death, his kingdom was split three ways to his three sons.

Herod Archelaus was given Judea and Samaria, which is where Jerusalem is in the south.

Herod Antipas was given Galilee, which is further north around where our story actually happens.

And Herod Philip was given what seems like the worst of all the lands, Golan Heights up the north, and the Decapolis in the east.

So the whole kingdom that was Herod the Great has now broken into three.

And when you traveled in the first century from one king's territory to another, when you crossed the border, you would have to pay a toll, a tax, to use that road.

And that tax was collected by tax collectors.

Well, tax collectors were Jewish contractors who effectively bid for the contract or the right to collect the tax at a particular booth.

Now, as long as these tax collectors gave to Rome what they promised, anything that they charged above was theirs to keep.

So tax collectors became very wealthy very quickly and very hated very quickly.

They were one of the most, if not the most despised, low thought of people in the first century.

Because, I mean, no one likes the person who has to collect the toll on the road or the parking ticket person.

But you add to that the fact that this is a traitor.

Tax collectors are Jews who have betrayed the Jewish people and sided with the Romans in oppressing them.

You can see the picture that tax collectors were just utterly hated.

They were the worst of the worst.

Now, on the road from the Decapolis in the northeast of Palestine down to Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, that crossed a border.

And there was a toll booth on that road in Capernaum, and there was a man who sat at that toll booth, and his name was Levi.

And Levi would have heard all day every day for years, as long as he worked at this post, he would have been spat on and shouted at and hated on and thought so poorly of by everyone who passed by.

Year after year after year, all those who passed by would have hated him until one day a preacher, miracle worker, rabbi from Nazareth walked past, and he didn't hate Levi, but he said, follow me.

And Levi runs all the calculations, and he gets up and he follows Jesus.

And in that moment, it's not like Levi's entire life was transformed, that the text tells us he didn't pay back everyone the way that Zacchaeus did.

He might not have been transformed in that moment, but that moment was the beginning of the process of transformation for Levi.

We read in the next passage in Mark 2, 15, that while Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.

So the scene has happened at the toll booth.

Levi has gotten up to follow Jesus, and now next minute, Jesus is eating at Levi's house, talking with Levi's friends, eating Levi's food in his life, all up in everything that he's doing, and that's exactly the picture of what it is to follow Jesus.

It's true that there is an aspect in which following Jesus is a lights-on regeneration, forgiven, justified, born-again moment, but also to follow Jesus is to open the door of your heart, your home, to let Jesus in and begin the process of transformation.

That's what it meant for Levi, was to make that radical step and to follow Jesus, but then to let him into his home.

And that means that for us to follow Jesus is a lifelong pursuit.

The life of a follower of Jesus is one of year after year, day after day, progressively opening more and more of ourself and who we are to his transformative power, to recognize that he has come to remake us and transform us in his image.

That's what it is to follow Jesus, is to let him into our life, the way Levi let him into his house.

That's the political subsurface.

Thirdly and finally, there is a religious subsurface thing beneath this story.

Remember the story is Jesus sees Levi, Jesus says follow me, Levi follows.

Beneath the surface, there's religious stuff happening.

Mark 2, 16, when the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw Jesus eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples, why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?

The religious tension here is a tension between two parties who are as far apart on the spectrum as you could possibly be.

On the one hand, we have Pharisees and teachers of the law.

These are those who truly, most of them, hopefully, the good ones, love God.

They want to honor him, worship him, and be holy because he is holy.

And so therefore, the Pharisees say, well, how could I love God?

I'm going to do what he says.

And they read every single commandment and all the extra kind of explanations of the commandments, and they do exactly what it says.

And when they mess up, they sacrifice, and they are just perfect.

They follow the law as well as they possibly can.

On the other side of the spectrum of this religious divide, this tension is the group that was given the kind of label, tax collectors and sinners, and it was not a good thing to be called, obviously.

And these were those people who didn't even try.

They didn't even care about the law of God.

They didn't try and live it out.

They were not repentant for their sin necessarily.

They weren't sacrificing.

They weren't following the law.

In fact, they were living in sin.

Tax collectors and sinners are on totally opposite sides of this spectrum.

When the Pharisees come to Jesus and His disciples, and they ask, Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?

I think the Pharisees are saying, Jesus, there's a line here.

We're not all the same.

We Pharisees are perfect before God.

We're righteous.

We do the right thing.

You should hang out with us.

Don't hang out with those tax collectors and sinners.

They're not right with God, and they're not even trying.

The Pharisees are saying, There's a line.

There's a divide here.

And what I think is just insane is, Jesus actually agrees.

He kind of agrees that, Yeah, there's two different types of people here.

But the irony of this whole passage is, Jesus makes it very clear which side of the line he belongs on.

Jesus says in 2.17, On hearing this, Jesus said to them, It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.

I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.

Jesus is associating himself as strongly as he possibly can with this side of the spectrum, with the tax collectors and the sinners.

And I think when he said this, I don't know if they did this in the first century, maybe it's a 21st century thing, I think he said righteous, because he was kind of joking.

It was ironic that he was calling these people righteous, as in you think you're righteous, you do all the right things technically, and yet you have no room for the kingdom of God, is the criticism that he brings against the Pharisees.

We've said a few times in this series that the central message that Jesus brings in any of the Gospels, but especially in Mark, is the kingdom of God.

Mark 1 verse 14 to 15.

Jesus went into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God.

The time has come, Jesus said, the kingdom of God has come near.

Repent and believe the good news.

Jesus, in his ministry, his teachings, deliverances, healings, miracles, parables, everything Jesus does is bringing heaven into earth, bringing the kingdom of God to the earth.

And Jesus says that the condition, the qualification is to repent and believe.

That's all you have to do, to access the kingdom, to step into the kingdom is to repent and believe.

And yet the Pharisees are here, and they don't see any need to repent, because they think that they're right with God.

So they continue on their stubborn way, and they miss the kingdom of God, and they miss Jesus.

Instead, here's Levi in our story, who has lived a life that he's probably ashamed of, he's ripped people off for a long time, he's hurt people, he recognizes in Jesus the offer of a second chance.

He sees the grace of Jesus, and he says, I've got to take that.

He repents, the word repent in Greek is metanoia, which means rethink, as in change direction.

Levi was heading this direction, but at the invitation of Jesus, Levi turns and follows Jesus.

The Pharisees can't do that, because they think that the way that they are going is right.

Jesus says, to receive the kingdom, to follow Jesus is to repent and believe.

So, what would you say your response is more like?

Which party?

The Pharisees or the tax collectors and sinners?

I think there's a danger or a temptation for those of us who have been following Jesus for a while to think, and I've done the repentance thing, I did that five years ago, six years, whatever.

I did that in the past, now I'm good with God and I can keep moving forward.

And that's true, that you've been forgiven and you don't have to constantly keep doing the same things.

But when Jesus says, repent and believe, I think he means, repent as in, do it once and be forgiven, but more so, it's a pervasive attitude of repentance before God.

It is the attitude that says, my way is not the right way, and I constantly, every day, need to receive the grace of God and believe in Him and repent and turn to His way.

And that is something that Pharisees cannot do because they don't think that they've done any wrong.

So for us to follow Jesus requires repentance, that we turn from our way and take His way.

And I was thinking this morning, that's not even, it's not even like Jesus made that a rule.

It's like, why did you make that a rule?

It's kind of logical and mathematical, as in, if we are going this way in our life and every, all our habits and everything we do is taking us this way, Jesus says, come follow me.

You can't follow Jesus unless you turn and follow Him, unless you repent of the way you have been going to follow Him.

And yet I find in my heart often, and you might relate, this sort of tendency that I'm already on the right track.

Thanks God for blessing this track.

But maybe Jesus is heading this way and He's calling me to follow Him.

We are called, as followers of Jesus, to a pervasive spirit of repentance and humility.

That's what it is to follow Jesus.

And I think that's kind of the religious subsurface beneath the simple story.

So like an inflatable ball that you put under the pool pops up again.

Let's go to the surface story again and move on from this deep stuff.

The story is simple.

Jesus sees you.

He says, follow me.

But that third part hasn't been written yet.

Will we follow him?

The calling is as simple as that.

Yes, we all have our stories and our histories.

And the calling to follow Jesus means giving up your life and all the stuff that comes with that.

But really at the surface level, Jesus says, follow me.

He says that to all of us.

And our part is to repent and turn to him and follow him.

Three sort of summaries of what we've said.

From the literary subsurface, to follow Jesus means to leave our old life behind.

Levi knew he couldn't go back once he stepped out to follow Jesus.

From the political subsurface, to follow Jesus means to let him into your house, your life, your relationships, your work, study, marriage, school, to let him in and transform you from the inside out.

And from the religious subsurface, to follow Jesus means to repent, to say my way is not bringing life, it is bringing death, but accept the grace of God that he has given us in Jesus, in the cross that has made a way for all of our sin to be dealt with and forgiven, and to believe and to take his grace and to take his new way of life.

That's what it is to follow Jesus.

So that's just the two words that Jesus leaves us with, follow me.

And then I think it's our part to follow him, and to wake up tomorrow and to follow him, and Tuesday to follow him, and then in a year to still be following him.

And as we do that, he transforms us from the inside out, and we find the best kind of life that we could ever have.

One way that people demonstrate that they want to follow Jesus is by being baptized.

And we've had, I think, 11 baptisms in the past four weeks.

And we have another one tonight, well, at least one tonight.

We have one locked in for tonight.

Someone, I won't spoil who that is, is going to testify Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior.

They want to follow Him and keep following Him.

But as is our new practice in 2024, if you too would like to be baptized, we have a bunch of different size clothes out the back.

As soon as the music starts, just head out the back and you can be baptized.

For now, let me pray and then we'll worship together.

Lord Jesus, we thank You for the story we have before us.

We recognize You are calling us to follow You now the same way You did to Levi and the same way You've done to so many.

And I pray You would give us now the humility of Spirit to receive Your invitation to follow You.

Give us grace to grow in faith and to learn what it means to be a follower.

When we wake up tomorrow in the next day, in the next day, show us the ways that You would have us live differently because You have saved us and called us to a new life.

We want to follow You and glorify You.

In Your name we pray.