Subtle shifts of center can have kaleidoscope effects on our view of biblical truth. Calibrating the proper center is crucial for the right understanding and application of Scripture in any passage.
The radiant message of Matthew 9:9-13 is that Jesus came to save sinners. The context shines the spotlight on Christ with glaring intensity. Christ and His mission are plainly the center and all else is designed to point to that center.
Here is a caution concerning subtle shifts. Seeking the authorial intent of a passage requires guarding from distractions—no matter how interesting, virtuous, or applicational they may be. This passage and its parallels are sometimes used in well-intended but off-center ways. It is not uncommon for this text to be used to urge Christians to pursue public company in immoral establishments. One commenting on this verse says, “Where is the presence of Christ visible in our bars, discos, and other places of entertainment?” Is this right?
In the next couple of days, we will look at seven principles that will help to rightly calibrate our understanding about this important passage and its related application:
1. It Really Is About Jesus
The passage is about Jesus, not us. It is about revealing more of His character and mission, not prescription for His followers. I hear those who will say, “But isn’t the church the body of Christ on earth appointed and empowered to carry out His mission?” Yes and no. Yes, we are the body of Christ on earth appointed and empowered to carry out His purposes through us—we are His hands and feet in this sense, but this is not precisely equivalent to His mission during the days of His incarnate journey to the cross. We only need to read in the opening of the next chapter (Matthew 10:5-6) to see clearly that this was a unique time within a unique set of circumstances for the God-man. The most important difference of all is that the gospel was accomplished by the historical body of Christ, not the church (1 Peter 2:24; 3:18; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 10:4-6). This first principle simply reminds us to see this passage as being about Jesus—the unveiling of His character and redemptive-historical mission.
2. No Moral Compromise
This passage cannot be used to justify moral compromise in the pretense of reaching the lost. Even if we took this passage as a precedent for our own practices, Jesus does not enter an immoral establishment or participate in anything remotely immoral or worldly. Jesus was the honored guest of a repentant believer who had recently been converted. The fact that “many tax collectors and sinners” also came, likely coming with unrepentant hearts, only means that unregenerate people were present. It does not mean that there were any sinful activities, abuses, or entertainment. Jesus did not, in the least, compromise His holy righteousness that exceeded the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). The thrust of this passage is not that righteousness is reduced, but that mercy is magnified.
3. Jesus Is A Physician Not A Facilitator
Jesus emphatically clarified that He came as a physician, not as a facilitator—a savior from sin, not a supporter in sin. Jesus’ concern is to heal the sick, not enable them to continue in their sickness. In Luke’s account we hear Jesus say, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32). “To repentance” speaks of the spiritual healing that He here alludes to. Jesus calls sinners not that they should remain sinners but that they would have the righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). He who has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17), has come to save sinners by offering Himself so that through repentance sinners may be found to have true righteousness, that is the righteousness of God that depends on faith in Jesus (Philippians 3:9).
While it is true that birds of a feather flock together, it is also true that doctors are expected to be among the sick. Jesus was not among birds of a feather; He was a doctor come to save lives. It is also worth noting that the great work of a doctor is to minister health to the unhealthy without himself contracting their illness. So it is with Jesus, our high priest who was “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners” (Hebrews 7:26). He ministered to sinners without sinning—He touched the sinner without touching their sin. Charles Spurgeon wisely said, “Lord, grant that if ever I am found in the company of sinners, it may be with the design of healing them, and may I never become myself infected with their disease!” Mercy doesn’t celebrate the character of the sinner; it celebrates the character of God.
4. Come, Don’t Remain As You Are
Jesus calls sinners as they are, but not to stay as they are. Matthew was healed by Christ as pictured in his “leaving everything” (Luke 5:28). Again, the doctor does not interact with the sick so that they may stay sick. Change is implicit in the healing metaphor. This passage cannot be used to present Jesus as mixing with sinners except for the purpose of changing their hearts.
In our next post, we’ll look at principle number five, “God’s Grace is the Lesson”. For more teaching on Matthew 9:9-13, listen to “Jesus Came to Call Sinners”.