Jesus, Our Physician
I must confess to you that Bryn MacPhail has some foolish tendencies. If you would like an exhaustive list of those foolish tendencies, I invite you to speak to my wife immediately following this morning’s service. The foolish tendency that I bring before you today, however, is my tendency to avoid doctors.
Why is it that, while having only positive encounters with doctors in my life, I so dread my appointment with my physician? I think there are, at least, two reasons why I dislike seeing a doctor. First, almost always, there is a negative diagnosis. Even on the occasions where I was showing up because I was overdue for a physical, inevitably, my doctor would find some condition that needed attending to. I am probably not alone in saying that I find no excitement in receiving a negative diagnosis.
Secondly, and this is the foolish part, there is a prevailing attitude in me that says, ‘I don’t really need a doctor. I can beat this on my own.’ There is something very humbling about conceding that we lack the ability to remedy our own problems. I suspect it is the same defective part of my brain that prevails when I refuse to stop and ask for directions when I am lost.
I admit, there are many occasions when, foolishly, Bryn MacPhail does not want to ask for, or receive help from another.
We do not have to wade very far into the gospel accounts before we are confronted by the foolishness of such tendencies. We err if we view Jesus as the ultimate ‘self-help’ expert; we err if we view the gospel message as a ‘help wanted’ sign. No, Jesus comes to help the helpless.
This is precisely what we find in the account where Jesus calls Levi, the tax collector (Luke 5:27-32). Parallel accounts of this calling can also be found in Matthew 9 and in Mark, chapter 2.
Levi, known also by the name Matthew, is seen by Jesus sitting at his tax-collection booth. If there was a lengthy exchange between the two men, we know nothing of it. The only dialogue recorded for our edification is the two-word summons of Jesus: “Follow Me” (Lk. 5:27).
Again, if there was any hesitation on the part of Levi, we read nothing of it—only that he “got up, left everything and followed (Jesus)” (5:28).
There are, at least, two astonishing aspects to this exchange. The first astonishing aspect is that Jesus would call Levi in the first place. And the second astonishing aspect is that Levi would respond to the summons by leaving his occupation.
It is astonishing that Jesus would call Levi to be a disciple. As a tax collector, Levi was regarded among the most despicable of society. And, within the Jewish community, Levi was unacceptable on a number of different fronts.
Firstly, Levi was politically unacceptable. As a Jewish man, Levi collected taxes from Jews on behalf of the Roman government. Levi was regarded as a collaborator with the occupying authorities. He grew rich by extorting money from his own people and, as a result, he was politically unacceptable.
Secondly, Levi was religiously unacceptable. As a tax collector, Levi was considered ‘unclean’ and was therefore barred from entering the synagogues. And thirdly, Levi was socially unacceptable. Orthodox Jews were forbidden to go on a journey with tax collectors, they were forbidden to do business with them, and they were forbidden to dine with them (Boice, The Gospel of Matthew, 149).
And, yet, in spite of all this, it is astonishing to see that Jesus sought after, and called Levi to be His disciple. R. Kent Hughes says it well: “Jesus sought out the man no one else wanted” (Hughes, Preaching The Word: Luke; Vol.1, 184).
Almost equally astonishing is the fact that Levi answered the call of Jesus, left everything, and followed Him. 1st Century tax collectors were typically quite wealthy. It would have been a considerable sacrifice to leave behind a profession that paid so handsomely in order to follow a religious leader who was offering no stipend.
Bear, also, in mind that if following Jesus had not worked out, the fishermen could have returned to their trade. Levi, however, would not have that option. It is highly unlikely that the Romans would rehire someone who abandoned their office. For Levi, following Jesus was a definitive break from his previous way of life.
Impressively, there are no signs of reluctance in Levi’s decision. There are no signs of regret. Quite the contrary, Levi throws a party to celebrate his new direction. Jesus attends the banquet as the guest of honour, and “a large crowd of tax collectors” are also said to be in attendance (5:29).
But remember, Levi the tax collector was politically, religiously, and socially unacceptable within the Jewish community. This explains why the scribes and the Pharisees were startled by the news that Jesus was dining with Levi and his motley crew. Addressing Jesus’ disciples, they ask, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” (5:30).
Jesus, presumably overhearing the question, steps in and responds, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (5:31).
We know enough about Jesus’ view of the scribes and Pharisees to know that He did not actually regard them as “healthy” or “righteous” (see Matthew 23). The scribes and the Pharisees were only healthy and righteous in their own eyes. The scribes and the Pharisees would likely not tolerate anything less than a sterling diagnosis of their spiritual condition.
Much like Bryn MacPhail, who does not appreciate receiving a negative diagnosis from his doctor; the scribes and Pharisees were in denial about the status of their spiritual health. Much like Bryn MacPhail, who is determined to overcome every malady by sheer will power, the scribes and Pharisees believed they could fix any religious imperfection by relying on their meticulous compliance to rules.
The scribes and Pharisees were sick, but they would not recognize their spiritual condition. I can think of nothing more dangerous than to imagine yourself to be well when, in reality, you are desperately sick.
Sin has made all of humanity sick. Some people, fearing the Great Physician, have attempted to treat themselves by making adjustments to their outward behaviour. But this is like applying make-up to cover a facial blemish—the treatment is but superficial. We need to respond like Levi who, when called by the Divine Doctor, dropped everything in order to follow Him.
Arguably, there are many differences between Levi and the Pharisees, but it seems to me that the damning difference has to do with pride.
The Pharisees and scribes were unwilling to accept a negative diagnosis. Levi, by contrast, understood that he was sick, and was thus eager to be received by Jesus.
It has been rightly said that the difference between the army and Jesus Christ is that the army won't enlist you unless you are healthy, and Jesus won't enlist you unless you are sick, and that you admit to Him your impaired condition.
As a group of sick people then, J.I. Packer accurately describes our present context when he says that “The church (is like) a hospital in which nobody is completely well, and anyone can relapse at any time” (Packer, A Quest For Godliness , 65).
Friends, the gospel is not a ‘Help wanted’ sign, it is a ‘Help available’ sign. More than that, Jesus the Physician seeks out those who are sick.
House calls by doctors are less common in our day. In Jesus’ day, there were no hospitals or doctor’s offices. Doctors went to their patients. Jesus drew on this common pattern as He explained to the Pharisees why He was dining with ‘sinners’. As a spiritual doctor, Jesus was seeking out His patients—He was seeking out those who were sick.
What do we do when we see the doctor? Well, if we are prudent, we submit to our doctor’s leading; we yield to our doctor’s wisdom. And, as a patient, we do not place orders for the medication we prefer, but rather, we must trust the doctor to provide us with good prescriptions.
Friends, this must be our approach as we stand before the Great Physician. We must yield to His wisdom; we must trust that what He has prescribed for us is best.
The prescription, the medicine, the healing—it all comes from one source: the Lord Jesus Christ. We are not required to fix ourselves. We are not capable of fixing ourselves. Our task is simply to recognize our sickness, and to submit to the Great Physician.
Whenever I am near the ocean I am reminded of the time I nearly drowned as a young boy. I was playing in the ocean at Boynton Beach, Florida when an undertow caused me to lose my footing. When the ocean pulled me under, it felt like I would be permanently pinned to the ocean floor. It was a terrifying thing. I remember trying to get my bearings, and trying to figure out which way was up.
Anyone who has been gripped by an undertow knows the panic one feels—you wonder if you will ever break free. You feel totally helpless and, of course, since you are underwater you can't even yell for help.
After a few seconds of struggling underwater, I felt my grandfather's hand take hold of my upper arm like a vice grip. My grandfather, with the hand strength only a farmer could possess, pulled me effortlessly to the surface.
When my grandfather grabbed my arm, I remember yielding completely to his strength. I did not resist. The thought never entered my mind that I should show him that things aren't so bad; or that I needed to add to my grandfather's strength. All I thought was, yes! Thank you!
Friends, this is how it should be when God grips us. We should not pretend that we have everything under control. Our weakness qualifies us for God’s help; our sickness gives us entry into the office of the Great Physician.
The Doctor will see you now. Go to Him in prayer. Take the medicine He prescribes and you will be healed in the best sort of way. Amen.