Before Jesus goes to the cross, he is brought before two political leaders: Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas. Both find him innocent, but both don’t let him go. This was no accident; it was God’s plan to rescue sinners. Brian Watson preached this sermon on March 22, 2020.
The last time I got on a plane to travel somewhere, I didn’t rent a car, which is what I would normally do. Because I wasn’t there long and didn’t need to drive much, I got a Lyft. That’s L-Y-F-T. It’s a ride service similar to Uber. Both are technically called transportation network companies. If you have a smart phone, you download the app, set up a source of payment, and then enter in where you want to go. You can see how much the ride will cost and how far away drivers are. In most cases you can get picked up within a few minutes. The app tells you who your driver is, what he or she is driving, and shows you on the map where the car is. It’s quick and easy and quite amazing.
These companies that use technology to connect driver and rider are changing a whole industry. It used to be that if you wanted a ride, you had to call a cab. But now the whole taxi industry is threatened. Cab drivers in London have fought to remove Uber from their city. In the States, companies like Uber and Lyft have caused the number of taxi rides to decrease rapidly. Taxi companies were slow to embrace new technology, while the new services use technology to make it easy for customers to get rides.
This is what one writer said about this sea change in the transportation industry:
We empathize with the taxi drivers, but the scenes of older players getting itchy is a scene we have seen many times. Surely the horse cart owners wouldn’t have liked it when cars started being used by all and sundry. Similarly, now we can see the same kind of contest taking place between traditional TV and the on-demand content industry led by the likes of Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix.
Whenever the new kid on the block disrupts the way things are supposed to be, emotions seem to get the better of many of the old players. Instead of being upset with the new kid, these old players need to realize that the new kid could not have succeeded if they (the old players) had done their job right and met the needs of the customers in a better manner.
New ways of doing things threaten those who are attached to the old ways. That’s true with businesses, technology, politics, and just about everything else. It’s even true with religion. And when new ways come along, those who are attached to the old ways can become angry and resent the new, even if it’s better. Often that’s because those who are attached to the old ways end up losing power.
When Jesus walked the earth two thousand years ago, he brought something new, something better. In some ways, his ministry was a continuation of what we see in the Old Testament. Like the prophets of old, he called people to repentance, to turn from doing what is wrong and to turn back to God. But in significant ways, he did something new. He actively reached out to outcasts, and he would eventually fulfill and even replace the elements of the Jewish religion, including the law, the temple, the system of animal sacrifices, ceremonial washings, and more. And when Jesus started to do this, some Jewish leaders, including one group called the Pharisees, were threatened. We’ll read about this today as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke.
So, without further ado, let’s first read Luke 5:27–32:
27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
This event is one of several stories in this section of Luke that shows Jesus calling people to follow him and/or Jesus getting into disputes with the Pharisees. Last week, I said that the Pharisees were a group of Jewish lay leaders. They weren’t priests and they didn’t have political power. But they were experts in the Torah, the law given to Israel, and they tried to apply that law to all areas of life. The word “Pharisee” comes from a Hebrew word that means “separated.” They believed that Jews needed to be separated from Gentiles and “sinners.”
But Jesus had no problem reaching out to those sinners. And on this occasion, he calls a tax collector named Levi. This same man is probably also known as Matthew, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples.
To understand this passage, you have to know something about tax collectors. Tax collectors had a bad reputation. There are two reasons for that: one, they helped the Roman Empire collect taxes. As you may know, during the time of Jesus, Palestine was under Roman rule. This meant that Jewish tax collectors were viewed as something like traitors. The second reason is tax collectors had a reputation for being dishonest, collecting more money than they should. When some tax collectors came to John the Baptist to be baptized, he told them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (Luke 3:12). So, tax collectors are often lumped together with “sinners.”
Levi was a tax collector who sat at a tax both, collecting taxes from travelers as they passed through this city, which is likely Capernaum. Capernaum was the last village on the road from the region of Galilee, which was ruled by Herod Antipas, to the region of Gaulinitus, which was ruled by Herod Philip. For travelers leaving Galilee, this was the last chance to collect taxes. For those entering Galilee, it was the first chance to collect taxes. Either way, it was an ideal spot to collect more money.
What’s important to see is that Jesus intentionally chooses this man who would have been despised by many. He says, “Follow me,” and Levi follows. We can only imagine how authoritative Jesus must have been for Levi to get up at his word.
When Levi follows Jesus, it is a picture of repentance, which is a turning from one’s old ways of sinning and a turning to God. It is often called a change of mind, but it’s more than that. It’s a change of the whole orientation of a person’s life. It’s doing a 180-degree turn.
And in Luke’s Gospel, celebration follows repentance. So, we see that he has a feast at his house, and he invites Jesus as well as tax collectors and “others.” These were probably Levi’s associates and friends. This shows a couple of important things. One, when someone turns to Jesus, away from an old life, it doesn’t literally mean we must leave everything. Levi still had his house and his friends. And it’s not a turning away from fun and joy. Instead, it’s cause for celebration. Two, when someone starts to follow Jesus, that person should share Jesus with others. Levi tried to connect his friends with Jesus. And he did this in a very effective way: around a table of food.
This is a wonderful thing. But the Pharisees didn’t think it was so wonderful. So, sometime later, when the Pharisees and the scribes (who were experts in the law) find out about it, they grumble to Jesus’ disciples. If you’re familiar with the Bible, you know that “grumble” is a loaded word. It’s what the Israelites did after God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Though God had removed them from oppression through a miraculous redemption, the people complained against Israel’s leaders, Moses and Aaron (Exod. 15:24; 16:7–8; Num. 14:2, 26–35; 16:11; 17:5, 10). They often did this because they didn’t trust that Moses and his brother were leading them in the right direction. Moses realized that the Israelites were ultimately grumbling against God. He said, “Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord” (Exod. 16:8). So, Luke is telling us that the Pharisees are on the wrong side. They are against God because they are doubting Jesus.
The Pharisees ask the disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” In their minds, this would make Jesus and his disciples unclean. They are thinking, “You shouldn’t contaminate yourself by hanging around with those people.” A couple of chapters later in Luke, Jesus will say something he attributes to the Pharisees. He says, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). Not only is Jesus hanging around with these outcasts, but he’s feasting with them. He’s eating and drinking wine!
This confounds the Pharisees. They can’t imagine that Jesus could hang around sinners and yet not sin himself. In his commentary on Luke, Darrell Bock writes, “Jesus associated with sinners and condemned all sin—their sin as well as the sins of others.” Jesus certainly wasn’t doing anything wrong by associating with sinners. It’s not as if merely eating and drinking with them would make him unclean or sinful.
Perhaps the real reason why the Pharisees were grumbling was because Jesus threatened them. They couldn’t refute his teachings or deny his miracles. So, they tried to slander him. In another commentary I’ve been reading, David Garland writes this:
Pharisees did not have hereditary ties to positions of power as the priests and village elders did, and therefore their social status was unstable. Their standing in society derived from their knowledge of Jewish law and traditions. They constantly struggled to exert their influence in society and to recruit new members. Their rules built up social boundaries and kept members united to one another. The throngs of people drawn to Jesus by his authority and power and the good news of his message threatened their own power to affect persons. Their grumbling may be attributable to their fear that they were in danger of losing influence.
The Pharisees were threatened, and they surely thought Jesus was wrong to spend any time with the so-called sinners. Jesus knows this and he responds by saying that only the sick need a doctor, and that he came not for the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance.
The problem with the Pharisees—and the problem with a lot of religious people today—is that they don’t really view themselves as sick, or as sinners. They think they’re okay, but it’s those “other people,” whoever they are, that are the bad ones. But the Bible is quite clear in saying that all human beings, with the exception of Jesus, are sinners. All of us have turned away from God. We have ignored him and rejected him. We have failed to love him the way we should. We have failed to love other people the way we should. This applies to each one of us.
Jesus came for the people who knew they were sick, who knew they were sinners. People who realize their need can turn to Jesus in faith for healing, to be reconciled to God. People who think they’re fine, thank you very much, are people that Jesus can’t help. Only those who realize their need can be helped by Jesus. In Jesus’ day, the people who realized their spiritual bankruptcy were often the people who were despised, the people who had clearly made a mess of their lives.
As I said earlier, in a way, this is nothing new. People of faith have always realized that they need God. They need God because he is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He is the giver of every good gift. He is the one who fulfills the deepest longings of our souls. He is the one who gives us life after death—and true life even before we die. By calling people to turn back to God, Jesus wasn’t doing anything new.
But Jesus was already threatening the old ways of Judaism, and in time he would do some things that would forever change how people relate to God. At this time, the Jews were under the so-called “old covenant” that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai, after they left Egypt. In his death, Jesus would inaugurate the new covenant, which promised true knowledge of God, forgiveness of sins, a transformed life, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:25–27). In the old covenant, the temple was the place where God met with his people. But Jesus would replace the temple. The “place” where we meet God isn’t a building. This building is not God’s house. No, God’s house is Jesus. In fact, the church is now God’s house, because it is the body of Christ on earth and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Jesus would put an end to the system of animal sacrifices, because his death on the cross is the only true sacrifice for sin. God is a perfect judge, and he must punish all evil. There are two ways he does this. He will condemn all evil people who do not turn to Jesus. But for those who turn to Jesus and trust him, their sin is punished at the cross. Jesus also put an end to all ceremonial washings, because his death makes us clean. And other things like circumcision and Sabbath observance were also set aside.
These old ways of relating to God couldn’t coexist with the new ways that Jesus and his apostles would establish. Jesus makes this clear in the next several verses. Let’s read Luke 5:33–39:
33 And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” 36 He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”
The “they” of verse 33 who speak to Jesus was probably a crowd, speaking sometime after the feast. Luke has compressed time in this passage, so it seems like everything is happening at once. A crowd is asking Jesus about why he does things differently from John the Baptist and the Pharisees. After all, their followers often fasted, not eating in order to focus on praying.
Fasting was a significant part of Judaism. On the annual Day of Atonement, the people were supposed to fast (Lev. 16:29). In the Old Testament, fasts were also held to remember the destruction of Jerusalem (Zech. 7:3, 5; 8:19), to indicate repentance (1 Kgs. 21:27; Isa. 58:1–9; Joel 1:14; 2:15–27; Jon. 3:5–9), to mourn (Esth. 4:3), or to seek guidance from God (2 Chron. 20:3; Ezra 8:21; Jer. 36:9). The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Mondays and Thursdays. Fasting was a way of spending focused time with God.
But Jesus says that God is here. He calls himself the bridegroom. In the Old Testament, God is likened to the husband of Israel, his bride (Isa. 54:5–6; 62:4–5; Jer. 2:2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 2:14–23). The metaphor of marriage shows how God is the protector and provider of his people, and it shows that the relationship between God and his people should be exclusive. They shouldn’t worship anyone else other than God. The fact that Jesus says this is not a time of fasting, and that he is the bridegroom, is a hint that he is God.
Jesus also hints that he won’t always be on earth. He says that the bridegroom will be “taken away,” which might be a reference to his death. There will be a time for fasting later, but ow is not the time. Time spent with Jesus is a feast. Elsewhere in the Bible, various images of Jesus’ return and the new creation he will establish depict a feast (Isa. 25:6–9; Rev. 19:6–9). We may fast now to spend time in focused prayer, or to seek guidance from God, or to mourn, but in eternity, there will be no need to fast. We will feast with Jesus.
Jesus made it clear that the old ways of the old covenant couldn’t mix with the new ways of the new covenant by using a couple of analogies. The first was about clothing. You can’t patch a hole in an old garment with a new piece of cloth. The new piece of cloth will later shrink and then be torn, and the whole thing will be ruined. And the new piece of cloth won’t match the old, anyway. In a similar way, you don’t put new wine in an old wineskin. When wine is made, it ferments, releasing some gas that would stretch the wineskin. Old wineskins were already stretched. They were hard and brittle. If you put new wine in those wineskins, they would burst. So, you put old wine in old wineskins and new wine in new wineskins. The basic point is that something new had arrived, and in order for anyone to be reconciled to God, they had to follow Jesus.
Verse 39, if taken alone, makes it seem like the old wine of the old covenant is better than the new. But that’s not Jesus’ point. His point has to do with human nature. People often prefer what they’re accustomed to. They like the old. When something new comes along, they don’t like it. They don’t even want to try it, because they don’t see anything wrong with the old. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” they think. But the old covenant couldn’t make people right with God. The law said, “If you obey, you will be my people” (Exod. 19:5–6). What the law did was reveal how sinful people are. We can’t obey perfectly. And even if we followed rules, we would do so for the wrong reasons. Christianity is very different from other religions. Other religions say, “Do this and you get to God/Paradise/Nirvana.” Christianity says, “You can’t do enough to get to God. All your actions are tainted with selfishness, pride, and greed. If we’re really honest, we would see that we often fail our own standards, let alone God’s standards.” But Christianity also teaches that God came down to rescue us, apart from the law. Salvation is a gift. It isn’t something earned. And it can only be received by faith, by knowing that we have a need, a problem that we can’t fix, and that Jesus provides the answer.
Now that we’ve gone through this passage, what does it teach us? How does it affect our lives?
I think there are two ways that it applies to us today. One has to do with relating to God. If we are going to have a right relationship with God, we have to realize that we are sick, and that Jesus is the only physician who can heal us. We have to realize that we are not righteous on our own, that we’re sinners, rebels against God. And we have to realize that only Jesus’ perfect life credited to us can make us righteous, and that only Jesus’ death on the cross can atone for our sins. The response to Jesus is the same today as it was almost two thousand years ago. We must trust him, repent, and follow him.
If you’re not sure where you stand with Jesus, if you’re on the fence about him, or if you think you’re a Christian but you’re not really turning away from sin and following Jesus, I would urge you to start today. And I would love to talk to you. We will either be with Jesus or we will be against Jesus. To be apathetic about Jesus is to be against him. Levi knew that Jesus was authoritative. He must have sensed that Jesus could give him what he truly needed. So, he left his old way of life and followed him. That’s true today, too. We can’t just dip a toe into Christianity. We have to dive in. Jesus isn’t just something we add to our lives. Jesus becomes our life. If we’re responding to him rightly, Jesus will reorder our lives. Our priorities will change. The way we spend our time, our money, and our energy will change. Our jobs may not change. Our location may not change. But our lives certainly will change.
And that applies to Christians. Repentance isn’t just something we do at the start of our lives as Christians. We need to continue to turn back to Jesus. We are prone to wander, as the hymn says. We need to keep coming back to Jesus.
Real repentance is owning our guilt and our sin. It’s not justifying ourselves. It’s not blaming others. It’s not being defensive or manipulative. Real repentance is saying, “I’m wrong and I need to change.” Real repentance is admitting that we’re sick and turning to the one who can heal us. Real repentance will lead to real change, to new ways of living.
Are there areas in your life where you need to repent? Have you been called to repentance by others? Have you truly repented? Perhaps you’re not even aware of the changes you need to make. Be honest with yourself. Ask God to reveal your own sin. Ask him to show you where you need to repent and to give you the strength to change.
The second way this passage applies to us is in the life of this church. The Pharisees were lay leaders who grumbled at God’s appointed leader. Fortunately, that never happens in churches today! Yes, I’m being sarcastic. People still grumble today, just as they did in the days of Moses and Jesus. Grumbling against God’s leaders, when they are following God’s word, is really grumbling against God himself. I know there have been grumblings in this church. I would ask the grumblers to repent.
People often grumble when changes are made. They preferred the old ways of doing things. Yet changes are often needed. Sometimes changes are needed because the old ways weren’t God’s ways. In other words, sometimes the old ways weren’t biblical. In some cases, they were contrary to what Scripture says. That is often true of how the church was structured, or the ways that we did things. If our old ways are man-made traditions, we will have to change in order to conform more closely to the Bible. Sometimes the new ways of doing things are really the old ways laid out in Scripture. Man-made traditions and biblical commandments are often like old garments and new patches: they don’t mix. They are often like old wineskins and new wine. The old traditions hinder the growth of what is biblical. The church is always in need of reformation, and that is true of this church. We will either gladly reform, eager to be more biblical in how we operate, or we will be fighting against God.
Sometimes, changes are made not to conform more to Scripture, but simply for the sake of reaching new generations. We can’t and won’t change the Bible or our basic doctrine. The object of our worship—the one, true, living, triune God—doesn’t change. But musical styles come and go. All our favorite hymns were once new, and favorite hymns of previous eras have been forgotten. Paint and fabric colors change as trends come and go. The same is true of clothing. Our meeting times, our programs, the way we try to reach out to our community—all these things may change. But the mission, purpose, and identity of the church don’t.
I think the reason why people often grumble against such changes is because change is threatening. Sometimes, lay leaders feel that they are losing power and control. And it’s often the case that people who have been in churches for decades think they own the place. They build their identity around a particular church and its old ways of operating. When changes are made, they may feel like they are losing a piece of themselves. But we shouldn’t build our identity around a particular local church, or around particular traditions or programs. Our identity should be Jesus Christ. He doesn’t change. Local churches will change. Programs will come and go. So will traditions. Musical styles change. The way we dress changes over time. So will the look of the building. These things don’t matter so much. If we build our identity on the Rock, Jesus, we won’t find other changes so threatening. If we set aside our pride, we might even enjoy those changes. We might find that the new wine is actually better than the old.
We should also ask this question of this church and of ourselves as individuals: Are we inviting other people to meet Jesus? Levi started following Jesus, and one of the first things he did was invite others meet him. He did that in a very personal way, by holding a feast. Are we inviting non-Christians into our lives and our homes to meet Jesus?
Let us turn to Jesus, the Great Physician, for healing. Let us keep turning back to him, time and again, whenever we slip and fall. Let us follow him. Let us follow our leaders as they follow Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). And let us not grumble when necessary changes are made. To quote the book of Ecclesiastes:
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this (Eccl. 7:10).
- Karla Adam and William Booth, “In London, Black Cabs Win a Battle against Uber. But Is the War Over?” The Washington Post, October 17, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/in-london-black-cabs-win-a-battle-against-uber-but-is-the-war-over/2017/10/17/8a2c1468-a395-11e7-b573-8ec86cdfe1ed_story.html?utm_term=.7af13754953a ↑
- An article published nearly two years in the Los Angeles Times states that the number of tax rides in that city had fallen 30 percent. Laura J. Nelson, “Uber and Lyft Have Devastated L.A.’s Taxi Industry, City Records Show,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-uber-lyft-taxis-la-20160413-story.html ↑
- Syed Irfan Ajmal, “Ridesharing vs. Taxi—Watch This Exciting Duel of the Century Unfold,” Ridester, October 30, 2017, https://www.ridester.com/ridesharing-vs-taxi/amp/ ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 497. ↑
- David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 251. ↑
- “Be Thou My Vision” contains these words: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” ↑
Jesus didn’t come to call people who were already spiritually healthy, people who were self-righteous and religious. No, Jesus came to call sinners to repentance. Learn what this means, and how it should change the way we think about God and the human condition. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 5:27-39.
There always have been, and there always will be (well, until Jesus returns), misunderstandings about Christianity. Some people think that Christianity is moralism. It’s all about toeing the line, obeying the rules, and generally having a miserable time. The writer and atheist H. L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Many people see Christians as dour, “holier than thou” killjoys who talk more about what they’re against than what they’re for. Perhaps atheists, agnostics, and generally irreligious people see Christianity as just another religion, one in which you’re supposed to follow the rules if you want to get to heaven.
Other people see Christianity in a different light. I once met a young man whose pastor was a father. This young man was not a Christian. He said he didn’t think it was fair that a good person, say, a doctor who dedicated his life to going to third-world countries where he would serve the poor, could go to hell because he didn’t follow Jesus. Other people, perhaps people who follow strict religions, think that the idea of grace is a ticket to sin. They don’t think it’s fair that a murderer could be forgiven. And they think that if we’re simply forgiven all our sins, then there’s nothing to keep us from continually sinning.
I suppose those misunderstandings about Christianity exist because of false teachers. There have been some people who have stressed obedience so much that they hardly mention God’s mercy and grace. They have falsely given the impression that Christianity is primarily about obeying a set of rules and striving to be a good person. And I suppose there are others who have falsely taught that God’s grace doesn’t place any demands on us, so we can sin abundantly so grace would abound abundantly. Today, it seems that the false teaching regarding Christianity leans toward universalism. Universalism is the belief that, in the end, everyone will be reconciled to God. In other words, universalism teaches that everyone will be saved, everyone will be with God forever.
The passage that we’re looking at today, 1 John 2:1–6, if misunderstood, could cause someone to think that Christianity is all about not sinning, or that everyone’s sins are paid for. But when rightly understood, this passage speaks against such things. John’s letter is so important because it gives us a fuller picture of what it means to be a Christian, and as we study this letter, we’ll discuss false versions of Christianity.
So, without further ado, let’s read the whole paragraph, and then I’ll explain it.
1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
John begins by telling his readers one of the reasons why he is writing to them. He calls them “little children” because he is an old man, and he probably feels a sense of fatherly love for these Christians. Because he loves them and cares for them, he says that he writes so that they may not sin. If that were all he wrote, it would be easy to misunderstand John’s message and think, “So, Christianity is all about not sinning!” Well, the truth is that Christians shouldn’t sin. They shouldn’t want to sin, but not for the reasons that some might think.
You see, John is concerned about three things in this letter. You may say he’s concerned about the head, the heart, and the hands. He wants his readers to truly know God. He wants them to have correct beliefs about Jesus. He also wants them to have a right love for God and for others. That love should reflect God’s love for us and it should motivate everything that we do. And he wants his readers to live rightly. So, rightly understood, not sinning isn’t about trying to earn something from God. It’s about trying to live the best life, the one God wants for us. When we sin, we’re going against God’s design for our lives. Not sinning doesn’t mean life will be easy or fun, but when we sin less, we’ll naturally experience more of God’s blessings. But our desire not to sin shouldn’t be motivated by a desire to earn something from God. It should be motivated by love for God and thanks for what God has done for us. We shouldn’t want to sin because it is harmful to us and it is displeasing to God.
We don’t want to miss the second half of verse 1. John says that is we do sin, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” John knows that we’re going to sin, even though our goal should be to sin less and less. Toward the end of chapter 1, he writes that if we say we don’t sin, we’re liars (1 John 1:8, 10). Though John’s statements about not sinning seem rather strict, I don’t think he expects that we’re going to reach a level of sinless perfection in this life. And the good news is that if we sin, we have an advocate, a defender. The Greek word is παράκλητος, which is used in John’s Gospel to refer to the Holy Spirit. It is sometimes translated “helper” or “comforter.” Jesus promised his disciples that “another Helper” would come to them, the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:16–17). The first Helper, our champion, defender, Lord, and Savior, is Jesus himself.
What does it mean for Jesus to be our advocate? A couple of other passages shed light on this issue. Here is Romans 8:33–34:
33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
And here is Hebrews 7:23–27:
23 The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, 24 but he [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.
These passages state that no one can condemn God’s chosen people, true Christians, because Jesus makes intercession for them. He is a forever-priest, never failing to intercede for his people. Unlike the priests of the Old Testament Israel, he will never die, and he has no sins of his own to atone for.
To be our advocate, or to intercede for us, means that Jesus is pleading our case before God the Father. It’s as if he is saying to the Father, “Look, I died for them! I took the penalty that they deserve! And, look again, I’m the righteous one! My perfect, sinless life is credited to them. Father, when you consider them, look at what I’ve done.”
Jesus is also praying for us. Perhaps it’s best to consider a passage from the Gospels that shows what that looks like. While on earth, Jesus prayed for his disciples. When Jesus tells Simon Peter that he will betray Jesus, Jesus tells him, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32). Jesus prayed for Peter. He prayed that his faith wouldn’t fail, even though Satan wanted to sift him like wheat, or remove him from Jesus’ flock. What’s interesting is that the first “you”—“Satan demanded to have you”—is plural. Satan wanted the disciples, not just Peter. And Jesus says he prayed individually for Peter. According to Mark Jones, a pastor and theologian, “There is no Christian alive who has not had Christ mention his or her name to the Father.”
Think about that: If you have real, abiding faith in Jesus, it is because the Father chose you from before the foundation of the world, and because Jesus died for your sins (Eph. 1:3–10). And Jesus is now—right now!—pleading your case before the Father. And he will always do that. That means if you fail—and you will—Jesus is always pleading your case. He will never give up on you. His sacrificial death on the cross is more than enough to pay for your sins. His righteous life is more than enough to present you acceptable and blameless in God’s eyes. That is great news.
Now, let’s move on to verse 2: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” That word, “propitiation,” is a big one, and it can be translated in different ways. Sometimes, it’s understood as “expiation,” which means extinguishing guilt, or making atonement. Propitiation includes that idea but goes further. It means to gain or regain favor, or to appease. The idea is that Jesus not only wipes away the guilt of the sinners who trust in him, but he also makes the Father favorable toward them. Robert Peterson puts it this way: “Propitiation is directed toward God and expiation is directed toward sin. Propitiation is the turning away of God’s wrath, and expiation is the putting away of sin.”
The idea goes back to the Old Testament sacrifices for sin. Even before God gave Israel the law, it appears that some sacrifices made God favorable once again toward humanity. In the days of Noah, the people on earth were wicked, and God sent a flood to judge the world. He saved only Noah and his family. After the flood waters subsided, Noah offered up a sacrifice. We read this in Genesis 8:20–22:
20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
It seems that the smell of the sacrifice pleased God and made him favorable towards humanity. He promised never to curse the ground again and destroy every living creature on earth. This sacrifice seems to have satisfied God’s righteous demand for sin to be punished.
One other Old Testament passage sheds some light on Jesus’ sacrifice. In Leviticus 16, we read about the Day of Atonement. This was one day a year when the sins of Israel would be wiped away and paid for. The high priest first had to offer the sacrifice of a bull for his own sin (Lev. 16:6, 11–14). Then he took two goats. One goat would be killed and the other would be the “scapegoat.” The blood of the goat that was killed would purify the tabernacle and the altar of all the sins of Israel, which corrupted their worship of God (Lev. 16:15–19). The high priest would then place his hands on the live goat, symbolically transferring the sins of Israel to this goat, which would then be released into the wilderness. In Leviticus 16:21–22, we read these instructions concerning Aaron, Moses’s brother and the first high priest:
21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.
In that way, all the sins of Israel were removed.
Of course, these actions didn’t actually accomplish anything. That’s why I said they were symbolic. Hebrews 10:4 says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Animals can never be substitutes for human beings. We need a human being who can step in for us. We also need a human being who is a perfect sacrifice, one who is infinite, who can take on the sins of millions and even billions of people who come to him, one who will never change. There’s only one person who can fulfill that role, and that is Jesus. He takes away the sin of everyone who is united to him. And he makes God propitious, or favorable, toward us. Paul, borrowing the sacrificial language of the Old Testament, says, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Jesus willingly died for us, and his sacrifice was pleasing to the Father. As 1 Peter 3:18 says, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”
John then also says that Jesus makes propitiation for the whole world. This, again, is verse 2: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” I think this needs some explaining. This may be a verse that attracts universalists. They might say, “Ah, Jesus has taken care of the sin problem of everyone in the world! I don’t think that’s what John means at all. Let’s think through this a bit. First, we should note that in the Greek, it doesn’t say “for the sins of the whole world,” but only “for the whole world.” Now, maybe that doesn’t affect the meaning much, because “sins of” is implied.
But, second, we need to look carefully at how John uses “world” in this letter. One of the ways that we read the Bible well is by paying attention to how an author uses language. We may think we understand a sentence when we’re reading it because we’re reading it the way we would use that language. But what we’re trying to do is understand what John meant. So, look at 1 John 2:15–17:
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
That first sentence seems quite absolute: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” So, love nothing physical, right? Wrong. Look at how John defines “world” in verse 16: “all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” But, wait a minute! Didn’t God create everything in the world? In 1 Timothy 4:4, Paul writes, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” So, in this passage, John means that we shouldn’t love “worldly” things, things that take us away from God, things that cause us to covet and to be proud. He doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love each and every “thing” in the world.
Then look at 1 John 5:18–19:
18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.
19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
John says that those who are “born of God” are protected and the evil one, Satan, cannot touch them. Then he says that “the whole world” lies in the power of Satan. Clearly, “the whole world” cannot include Christians, who are not touched by Satan. So, “the whole world” doesn’t mean everyone in the world, just as “all that is in the world” doesn’t mean every single thing and/or person in the world.
Third, we need to use some basic reasoning. If Jesus indeed was the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, in the sense of “for every single person without exception in the world,” that would mean that everyone’s sins would be removed. God would be favorable toward every single human being. We might wish that were the case. Indeed, it would be nice to think that all human beings will be saved. But that’s not what the Bible says. John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Ephesians 5:6 says, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” God’s wrath will come upon those who reject Jesus. But if Jesus were the propitiation for all the sins of every single person in the world, no one would face God’s wrath.
So, what does John mean? I think he means that Jesus is the only savior. He is not just the savior for first-century Christians living near Ephesus. He is the world’s only savior. There is no one else who can make God favorable toward you and forgive you for ignoring him, rebelling against him, rejecting his word, and doing what is wrong. There is no one else who will plead your case before God. No pastor or priest on earth can do that. No politician can. No celebrity or teacher or professor or employer is qualified to do that. The only one God the Father will listen to without fail is his Son Jesus, the perfect, righteous, great high priest. And Jesus only prays for his disciples. In John 17:9, Jesus told the Father, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” In short, there is no other savior, and to be reconciled to God, you need to come to Jesus and have a right relationship with him. As much as we would love everyone to be saved, that is not going to happen. Many people simply don’t want to have a relationship with the true God. They want to have a god of their own design, a god they can create and manipulate and control.
But in the end, Jesus will save people of all kinds throughout the world. Revelation 5:9 says to Jesus, “you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Jesus died for the sins of his people. The free offer of the gospel should be made to all people, but not all will put their trust in Jesus and follow him.
Obviously, if this is true, then having a relationship with Jesus is of the utmost importance. How do we know that we are united to Jesus? How do we know that we are reconciled to the Father on the basis of Jesus’ works? Look at verses 3–6 again:
3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
One way that we can know that we know Jesus is if we keep his commandments. If we say we know Jesus but we don’t do what he says, we’re liars. But if we keep his word, we can know that we are “in Christ.” If we’re united to Jesus, we should live like he did.
To clarify things a bit, the commandments of Jesus are not only his “red-letter words,” but also the words he delivered through his apostles (see 2 Pet. 3:2). Jesus spoke in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the apostles wrote Scripture in the power of that same Spirit, so we shouldn’t drive a wedge between the two. Paul’s commands are ultimately Jesus’ commands. So are John’s. Generally, we can say that all of these commands can be summed up in loving God and loving others, though we must be careful to pay attention to the specifics of the ethical principles that run through the whole Bible, in particular the commands found in the New Testament.
Does this mean that only those who obey all Jesus’ commands all the time belong to Jesus? Well, John has already told us that everyone has a sin issue, and he assumes that we will sin and therefore continue to need our advocate, Jesus. So, he can’t mean that we must perfectly obey Jesus’ commandments in order to be united to him. He didn’t write, “Little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. For if you sin just once, you will be kicked out of God’s family.”
What John must mean is that true Christians are generally becoming more and more obedient to Jesus. We can’t say we’re Christians and then ignore Jesus and his apostles. People do that, of course, but they’re liars. The truth is not in them. If we know Jesus, we will listen to his word and do what he says. We may not obey perfectly, all the time, but there will be evidence that we obey.
Some of Jesus’ own words, found in John’s Gospel, shed light on this reality. In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the “good shepherd,” and he calls his people his “sheep.” He says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14). Then, later, he says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Those who belong to Jesus’ flock pay attention to what he says, and then they act.
Later, also in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that those who love him obey him. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21). “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). What about the one who doesn’t keep Jesus’ words? “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:24).
Those who are united to Jesus trust him, follow him, and love him, even if they do so imperfectly. There is no such thing, according to the Bible, as a person who is reconciled to God apart from Jesus. There is no such thing as a Christian who is not a follower of Jesus. There is no such thing as an obedient Christian who doesn’t love Jesus, or someone who loves Jesus but doesn’t obey him.
We do what Jesus says not because we’re trying to earn something from him. We obey because we love him. We trust our shepherd. We trust that his commandments are for our good. And so, we listen. We love Jesus because he first loved us and gave himself for us. We obey not only out of love, but also out of gratitude. In Christian ethics, motivation matters. Those who obey God trying to gain something from him don’t understand the gospel.
What this means is that true Christians continue to grow in obedience. We’ll never be perfect in this life, but we should more and more follow the example of Jesus’ obedience to the Father. Jesus knew Scripture, and so should we. Jesus prayed to the Father, and so should we. Jesus loved others and had compassion on those who were needy, and so should we. But, of course, Jesus is the God-man, completely perfect. We won’t be perfected until we’re with Jesus, living in a new creation. But we should aspire to grow.
John Newton, a former slave trader and the author of “Amazing Grace,” captured this well when he said, “I am not what I ought to be; but I am not what I once was. And it is by the grace of God that I am what I am.” If we’re honest, we must admit that we’re not yet what we ought to be. But if we’re Christians, we should be able to look back at our lives and say, “By the grace of God, I am not what I once was.”
If you are a Christian, start following Jesus. Start with the basics. Read the Bible regularly. Pray regularly. Meet with Christians regularly. Be part of a local church where you serve and are served by others. As you read the Bible and grow in your understanding, live out what you read. Start ordering your home according to Scripture. Husbands, you are the head of your home and should love your wives. Wives, honor and respect your husbands. Parents, raise your children with discipline and instruct them in the things of the Lord. Children, obey and honor your parents. Employees, work hard as if you’re working for God. Be honest. Don’t steal. Don’t covet. Be faithful to your God and your spouse (if you have one). If you’re not married, don’t have sexual contact with others. Love other people. Pay attention to the poor and needy around you. Be generous. Be careful what comes into your eyes and ears. Be careful about what comes out of your mouth.
These are all very basic things, but they’re all important. And we should do these things because they are good for us, because they’re pleasing to God, and because we love him. If you’re a Christian, you need to obey Jesus.
Now, if you’re here today and you’re not following Jesus this way, what are you waiting for? I promise you that there is no ultimate hope outside of Jesus. There is no relationship with God outside of Jesus. There is no deliverance from death and despair outside of Jesus. He is our only hope. If you want to know more about what it means to follow Jesus, I would love to talk to you.
One last word: All that talk of God’s wrath, and of sacrifices, may seem odd to you. I understand. However, that shows that God is serious about justice. God cares more about justice than we do. And living our lives for anything other than God is injustice. Living our lives for something or someone else actually harms us and it destroys God’s world. So, God is right to care about justice.
I want to close with these wonderful words by a theologian named David Jackman:
[God’s] wrath is neither an emotion nor a petulant fit of temper, but the settled conviction of righteousness in action to destroy both sin and the sinner. The glory of the gospel is that we have an advocate who pleads for mercy on the ground of his own righteous action when he died the death that we deserve to die. Once the penalty has been paid, there cannot be any further demand for the sinner to be punished. God has himself met our debt. He came in person to do so. The cross is not the Father punishing an innocent third party, the Son, for our sins. It is God taking to himself, in the person of the Son, all the punishment that his wrath justly demands, quenching its sword, satisfying its penalty and thus atoning for our sins.
- H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writings (New York: Vintage, 1982), 624. ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 179. ↑
- Robert A. Peterson, Salvation Accomplished by the Son: The Work of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 85. Propitiation is mentioned also in Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; and 1 John 4:10. ↑
- See also Lev. 1:9; 2:1–2; 3:3, 5; 4:29, 31. ↑
- Quoted in David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 43. ↑
- David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 46–47. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 2:28-3:3. Those who are united to Jesus will strive to live righteous lives because Jesus is righteous. But we won’t be the people we ought to be until we see Jesus face to face. The great promise for Christians is that we will be like Jesus because we will see him.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on chapters 29-31 in the book of Job. Job recalls his old life, describes his current miseries, and swears that he is innocent. Do our lives match up with Job’s? Can we say that we have lived a good life? What last words would we say about ourselves? What last words would others say about us? What last words would we say before the judgment seat of God? How can we be right in God’s eyes? These questions are explored.