The Doctor and the Bridegroom
We’re calling this series “The Spread of the Kingdom,” because in these three chapters in Matthew we watch Jesus ministry expands, as the message of the kingdom reaches more people. And as that happens, we get to watch more and more people react and respond to Jesus and His message. And as that happens, we get the opportunity to learn a whole lot more about Jesus and His message.
Two weeks ago we saw Jesus’ message collide with two men who were interested in following Jesus. Today’s passage shows us two more accounts of people responding to Jesus and His person and His message. And just like with the prior “reaction” section, this portion of Matthew allows us to glimpse the mission and person of Jesus in new and important ways. So let’s dive in.
1. Jesus: The Doctor
a. The Call (v. 9)
Verse 9 begins by telling us that “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth.” Capernaum was a major hub with numbers of tax collectors working there. Taxes were paid to King Herod, the Roman puppet, who employed locals to harvest the taxes for him.
But the whole tax system was plagued with corruption. There was no standard tax on anything. Tac collectors needed to provide a minimum amount, but they could basically tell people to pay whatever, and they had to. The tax collectors would pass the base amount on up to their employers, and keep the profits for themselves. And everybody knew this was happening.
So tax collectors were among the most hated members of Israel’s society. Not only were they working for the foreign oppressors, but they were shamelessly robbing their countrymen along the way. Just think about the way in which “tax collectors and sinners” is a phrase that linked tax collectors together with all of the other low-life in Israelite culture, like prostitutes. They were the bad guys.
So Jesus walks past that point, and sees a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth. And Jesus says something to him. He says, “Follow me.”
I just love this. He doesn’t say, “You scoundrel.” He doesn’t say, “Don’t you feel any shame working for the Romans?” And He certainly doesn’t say, “What are the chances you might you be interested in following me sometime?” He just tells him, directly, “Follow me.”
Remember how this wasn’t what rabbis did? They waited for people to choose to follow them. But not Jesus. Jesus gives the command: “Follow me.” And for Matthew, at this point in history, this didn’t mean following Jesus’ teaching or example. This meant actually following Jesus.
Now, on what basis could Jesus say this? Matthew may have known about Jesus. It’s likely, if they were both based in Capernaum for a time. But he doesn’t tell us that. What’s more important is that Jesus knew Matthew and told him to follow.
And verse 9 finishes by saying that Matthew “rose and followed him.” Matthew, whose other name was Levi has traditionally been identified as the author of this gospel, and so it’s noteworthy that he doesn’t draw a lot of attention to this. Luke says that, “leaving everything, he rose and followed him” (Luke 5:28). Matthew doesn’t draw any attention to that. He just writes that he stood up and followed.
But this would have meant leaving everything. Leaving a source of income, a stable life. It’s likely that his job would quickly be taken by someone else, so there was no turning back.
And yet Jesus called him, so he just got up and he followed.
This is one more example of the call and cost of discipleship. Just like with the four fishermen in chapter 4, or the scribe and the son back in chapter 8, Jesus does not negotiate with people. He doesn’t beg, He doesn’t barter, He doesn’t butter up to people. He issues commands, and faithful disciples listen and follow, whatever the costs may be.
But don’t also miss what a mercy this is. Matthew was an outcast. What other rabbi would want him among his followers? What other religious person would be willing to give Matthew a chance?
Just think about the opportunities ahead of Matthew, especially if this is the same man who wrote this gospel. Think of the fact that, 2000 years later, we’re reading and studying his book. How many other tax collectors do we even know the names of, let alone are studying their works all these years later?
And don’t miss the greatest gift here: the invitation to know Jesus Himself, the most priceless treasure in the world.
So is Jesus’ call to Matthew a call to costly discipleship, or is it an act of kindness and mercy, graciously inviting Matthew to receive a gift he could never deserve? And the answer is yes. The hard call to follow Jesus is an act of grace.
b. The Feast (v. 10)
Now, Matthew’s version of this account continues to not draw a lot of attention to him. Luke 5:29 says that “Levi [which was Matthew’s other name] made a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them.”
Matthew’s account is much more humble when he writes in verse 10 that “as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.”
It sounds like someone who is not trying to brag about their big house and great feast. But what he does want us to notice—again, there’s that word “behold!”—is that many “tax collectors and sinners” were enjoying this meal with Jesus and His disciples.
Do you see what disciples of Jesus do? They invite other people to come to know Jesus as well. And there is Jesus, enjoying a meal with a group that included the most despised people alive in that day. “Sinners” is a category that again probably included prostitutes.
What we need to understand is that, to the Jewish people in that day, sharing a meal together wasn’t something you did with just anybody. Sharing a meal was an act of fellowship. It was an act of friendship and welcoming. That’s why the Jewish people did not share meals with the Gentiles. And good Jewish people certainly did not share meals with tax collectors and prostitutes and other public “sinners.”
I wonder how Jesus’ disciples felt at this meal. I wonder how uncomfortable those upright Jewish men felt sharing a meal with this company.
I’m sure Jesus was very comfortable. We’re going to see in a moment that these are the people he came for. And by eating with them, Jesus is making a very profound statement. He is making a statement that tax collectors and sinners are not beyond the reach of grace. They are welcomed to come and receive mercy and be a part of the people of God.
That picture gets even clearer when we think about the image of banqueting and feasting in the book of Matthew. Remember when 8:11 said, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven”? We saw there this imagery of the Messianic banquet, first described by prophets like Isaiah, that described a great banquet in the coming kingdom. And at least four times Jesus picked up and used this language Himself.
So don’t miss this: “the kingdom of God” and “a banquet” were images that Jesus deliberately connected together several times.
And don’t forget Jesus’ announcement that the kingdom of God was not just in the future but was at hand. So just think about this: if a banquet is an image of the kingdom, and the kingdom was at hand, already breaking in to their world, than what’s going on when Jesus sits down to eat a banquet with a group of people?
We’re seeing a picture of the kingdom. A deliberate picture of the kingdom. As my professor from my class on Matthew wrote in our class notes, “it seems likely that both Jesus and his opponents saw in his table fellowship a deliberate anticipation of the final kingdom.” [Wesley Olmstead, unpublished class notes for BLST 721, spring 2022].
So don’t miss the statement Jesus is making. Not only is He eating with people He shouldn’t be eating with, but He’s making a visual statement that tax collectors and sinners are invited to be a part of His kingdom.
And that’s a huge deal, because it suggests a major shift in the way that the people related to God.
According to the Pharisees, these people Jesus was eating with had no relationship with God because they didn’t keep the covenant law of Moses. I mean, these people made a career out of breaking the law of Moses. They were covenant breakers par excellence.
And here Jesus is, eating with them in a deliberate picture of the kingdom of God. No wonder people thought Jesus was abolishing the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17). But he wasn’t. He had come to fulfill them. And fulfilling the law and the prophets means that people’s relationship with God now flows, not through the law of Moses, but through Jesus. Through Jesus, they can find a forgiveness and a mercy they had no access to before.
c. The Criticism (v. 11)
And all of this would have felt rather new to people. Especially to the religious leaders, who come with a question in verse 11. “And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11).
It’s interesting that they went to the disciples, not to Jesus. People still do this all the time today, right? They don’t want to talk to the person they should talk to, so they find someone with a little softer ears to complain to. And I hope we can see that, although this was posed as a question, this is a criticism. You weren’t supposed to eat with tax collectors and sinners. So what is Jesus doing?
This is a helpful spot for us to stop and remember something important. We’re so used to “the Pharisees” being the bad guys. But we can’t forget that, to the people of the day, they were the good guys. And in fact, if we remembered all of Israel’s history, we might think they were the good guys too.
Remember how Israel’s problem, for hundreds and hundreds of years, was forgetting God’s law and worshipping other gods? And finally, after coming back from the exile in Babylon, this group of guys is determined not to make the same mistakes. They were going to keep the law, even if that meant inventing laws around the laws so that they never got close to breaking an actual law.
That seems silly to us today, but to the people of the day, it probably seemed like a really good idea. Doesn’t it seem like a good idea compared to Jereboam or Ahab or Manasseh, wicked kings who set up idols in the temple and burned their own children in the fire to other gods? Compared to them, don’t the Pharisees start to look like the good guys?
And here comes Jesus, and he’s eating a feast with a bunch of law-breakers, and it’s not hard to see the Pharisees thinking, “What in the world is going on? This is not okay!”
d. The Response (vv. 12-13)
But Jesus turns the tables on them. Somehow he finds out about the question, and when He replies He shows that, despite their appearances the Pharisees were the guys who weren’t getting it. The Pharisees were the guys who had totally missed the heart and character of God.
Jesus’ response comes in three parts. First, look at verse 12: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
In other words, Jesus is like a doctor, and those tax collectors and sinners are like sick people. And so the Pharisees’ question, “Why are you eating with them?” makes about as much sense as them asking a doctor, “Why are you spending time with all of those sick people?” Umm, because that’s his job!?
Don’t miss how important this statement from Jesus is. Jesus is acknowledging that these people were sick. And as the doctor, he was spending time with them not because he thought they were okay, but precisely because they were not okay and they needed His help.
So Jesus is not saying that their sin is no big deal. He is spending time with them because their sin is a big deal, and they need help. These people had cancer, and He was the surgeon.
We should also notice that, once again, we see a connection point between sickness and sin. Jesus is helping us see, yet again, that the ultimate point of his healing miracles was getting at the problem of our sin. His real work as a doctor is to heal our souls.
And that’s the first part of Jesus’ response. They’re sick, and he’s a doctor.
The second part of His response comes in verse 13: “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” “Go and learn” is a phrase that the rabbis would use to tell someone they needed to do their homework. And Jesus is telling them that for all of their study, they had missed some really important parts in God’s word. Like Hosea 6:6, which Jesus quotes here.
Now it’s really interesting, because Hosea 6:6 was written to the people before the exile who were very different from the Pharisees. Hosea was written to the people who were off worshipping other gods most of the time, and then would trounce into the temple of offer sacrifices to God as if there was no big deal.
And God is telling them that He doesn’t care about their outer acts. He wants their hearts. He desires mercy, which comes from the Hebrew word for steadfast, covenant-keeping love. Love for God expressed in love for other people.
And Jesus is making the point that, for all of the differences, the Pharisees are still basically making the same mistake. They are doing some right things on the outside. But their hearts are as far away from God as any idol worshipper.
By showing no mercy to tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees were demonstrating just how far their hearts really were from faithful love to God. And so the Pharisees needed to go and read the Bible and do their homework to learn what God was really after.
Thirdly and finally, Jesus tells the Pharisees, at the end of verse 13, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Yes, those people he was eating with were sinners, and that makes them the very people he had come to call to repent and enter the kingdom.
His mission was not to come and call righteous people. Because there are no righteous people. Jesus mission was to call sinners. That means that, as long as the Pharisees insisted that they were righteous, they’d always find themselves on the outside of Jesus’ kingdom. On the outside of Jesus’ healing mission.
He came to call people who knew that they were sinners. Just like a doctor, who can only help sick people if they know they are sick and recognize that they need help and healing.
So, there’s some really important truths there, and some really important lessons for us we’re going to come back to in a few minutes.
But first, let’s listen in on the second main encounter in today’s passage, when Jesus gets a question from the disciples of John, in verses 14-17.
2. Jesus: The Bridegroom
a. The Question (v. 14)
One of the things we want to notice right away is that there are some similarities between John’s disciple’s question, and the Pharisees question. They both have to do with eating! The Pharisees were concerned who Jesus was eating with. John’s disciples were concerned about Jesus’ eating in general, or, more specifically, why Jesus’ disciples did not fast.
Fasting, or taking routine breaks from eating, was an important part of the religious life of the Pharisees and, apparently, John’s disciples. It was a connected to prayer and was a way of expressing total devotion to God.
But every time they see Jesus’ disciples, they seem to be enjoying themselves and eating regular meals. They aren’t fasting. And they want to know why.
Isn’t it interesting that once again, Jesus is getting questioned for being less religious than the competition? Don’t miss that.
But also don’t miss that John’s disciples are coming from a different spot than the Pharisees. They go right to Jesus, instead of to Jesus’ disciples, and their question has much more of the ring of a genuine question. They’re not just complaining--they really want to know, because it seems like something is missing from this equation.
b. The Answer (v. 15)
And in verse 15, Jesus give them an answer. Except, not quite. Like He does in other situations, Jesus responds to their question with a question of His own. It’s not that He’s dodging, it’s that He wants them to really think about this. Verse 15: “And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?”
And you might ask, “What does this have to do with anything?” And the answer, it has everything to do with everything. Just look at what Jesus is saying. Jesus is saying that His disciples don’t fast because their life with Jesus is like wedding guests celebrating with a bridegroom.
That’s an important perspective on discipleship. Remember a couple of weeks ago how we looked at the hard call to abandon everything to follow Jesus, and how that cost of discipleship needs to be taken hand-in-hand with the understanding that following Jesus is the greatest privilege in the universe?
Well, don’t miss this. Following Jesus was like being a guest at a wedding. And wedding guests don’t fast. They have a good time. In Jewish culture, wedding celebrations weren’t over in an afternoon. They lasted for days and were a huge celebration with lots of food and wine.
And Jesus is saying, that’s what’s going on here. Because, He’s the bridegroom. John the Baptist Himself used this language about Jesus in John 3 (vv. 23-30). And it’s imagery that goes back to the Old Testament again, particularly from Isaiah and Hosea, where God compares Himself to Israel’s bridegroom (Isaiah 62:4-5, 54:5-6; Hosea 2:16-20).
And in Jesus, the long-awaited bridegroom has come. And it is a time for celebration. Not just spiritual celebration, but real, actual, feasting. Just like Jesus had just been doing at Matthew’s house with the tax collectors! Actual feasting that served as a preview of the great banquet feast coming in the final and fulfilled kingdom.
Now the rest of verse 15 is very important because it helps us understand that the fullness of the final kingdom had not arrived yet. Jesus was there for a time, but he knew a time was coming when he would be taken away. And then, He says, His disciples will fast.
It’s not hard to imagine His disciples not eating much in those hours and days after His death. But even after His resurrection, when He was taken up to heaven, the book of Acts records Jesus’ disciples fasting more than once (Acts 13:2-3, 14:23). Just like back in chapter 6 (vv. 16-18), Jesus here assumes that fasting will be a regular part of His disciple’s walk of faith.
But not then. Jesus was there as the bridegroom, and the joyful age of he Messiah had dawned, and in every part of his ministry, from his healing to his feasting, He was giving people a picture of that the New Creation is going to look like.
c. The Illustrations (v. 16-17)
And in verses 16-17, Jesus explains, with two different illustrations, that He had come to bring something new. The first is an illustration about putting a new cloth patch onto old clothes. The second is about putting new wine into new wineskins. And the point of both of these illustrations is this: Jesus had not come to “patch up” the old ways of doing things. Jesus had not come to give them a refill on the old ways of doing things. Jesus had not come to carry on business as usual.
Jesus had come to fulfill all the Law and the Prophets. The turning point of the ages had arrived. The dawn of the New Creation was upon them. And so people couldn’t just keep on doing things the way they always had. If they tried, they would lose everything.
And so these word pictures speak to both the disciples of John and the Pharisees, who were both struggling with Jesus in their own ways. The Kingdom of God was at hand. Nothing would ever be the same again. They needed to get with the program or be made irrelevant forever.
3. Us: Patients and Wedding Guests
And once again, as we think about what this all says to us, we can see how this whole passage begs our response. Matthew is not just telling us interesting things about Jesus. He wants us to consider who Jesus is and how we will respond to Jesus.
And so we want to consider here, given everything this passage says about Jesus, what does this say about us? If Jesus is the doctor, who does that make us? And if Jesus is the bridegroom, who does that make us?
Let’s start with the first one. If Jesus is the doctor, that makes us His patients. The sick people who need their physician.
Do you see yourself this way? Do you know how badly you need Jesus?
I wonder if you or I had been at that feast at Matthew’s house—how would we have felt? Would you have felt out of place, like the Pharisees, because deep down we think we’re pretty good people? Or would we have felt like we were among our people, because we understood that, regardless of how we look on the outside, we need Jesus just as bad as that tax collector or that prostitute.
This makes me think again about the church, and churches like ours, and how they so often become places where people act like they don’t need Jesus. We come together once a week to look fine and we act fine and try our best to convince people that we don’t really need the grace of the saviour we’re thinking about.
I heard a quote just this past week by Tim Keller, who said that a church should feel more like a waiting room for a doctor than a waiting room for a job interview.
And l just love that. You know what a waiting room for a job interview is like, right? Everybody dressed their best, acting their best, trying to project how awesome they are, and even though they might talk nicely with each other, there’s a big undercurrent of competition running through it all.
But a waiting room for a doctor is totally different. There, it’s a bunch of people who need help. And they need help together.
Now there’s a danger in talking about the church this way. We don’t want to give the impression that a church is a bunch of people who never grow, who never change, who stay stuck in the same ways of living as when they first came to Jesus. If Jesus is a good doctor, then you should be in a better and better spot the more you come to Him.
But you never stop coming to Him, because you never stop needing Him. It’s kind we have one of those conditions where, if we stop going to the doctor, if we stop going for our checkups, if we stop taking his medicine, we just go right back to where we were before.
So we all need the doctor. And that means that our church should be a welcoming place for people who aren’t okay. For people who don’t have it all together. And we gather around people like that, and, like fellow patients, we point them to the doctor.
But let’s remember that we’re not just patients of the doctor. We’re also guests of the bridegroom. The bridegroom has been taken away from us for a time, but we know He’s coming back, and our lives are shot through with a joyful anticipation.
And here’s the best news of all. We’re not just the wedding guests. We’re also the bride. The bride whom Jesus came down from heaven to seek and to save. The bride whom Jesus died for on the cross, giving Himself up for us to make us pure and beautiful and spotless (Ephesians 5:25-27). He’s still doing that work, day by day, week by week, in the lives of His people. And soon our bridegroom is going to come for us, like He promised.
And so we wait. And we wait with joy. And every time we gather to eat together, we see another little preview, a snapshot, of the final celebration waiting for us in the final kingdom.
Now I want to get really practical here for a moment, in terms of how we can put this passage into practice. I think that the greatest direct example to us in this passage comes from Matthew, a fresh disciple who, immediately upon following Jesus, invites his spiritually sick friends to come and feast with Jesus.
And I think that one of the best ways that we could put this passage into practice is by doing very much the same. I want to encourage you, as a way to put this passage into practice, to very deliberately share a meal with someone who needs Jesus.
Can you imagine what a difference we could make in this town if, in the next week or two, every family in this church invited their neighbours or someone else they know over for a meal? And prayed before the meal in Jesus’ name, and then got to know these people by asking them good questions about themselves, showing at the same time that you both know Jesus and genuinely care about them? And then see where it goes?
Maybe you can’t cook. Then order a pizza! Maybe your house is a disaster. Then clean it up! Or go to a restaurant. Why not start somewhere?
Throughout the history of God’s people, hospitality has been one of the most wonderful ways of breaking down barriers and practically inviting people to come and taste the goodness of Christ.
By the way, this is one of the big reasons why we only do our men’s and ladies’ bible studies once a month, and why we do them on a Sunday, and why we try not to pack our church calendar tight with all kinds of things all the time.
We don’t want you to be tied up in church activities every night of the week. We want you to have space in your schedule to actually get to know your neighbours and build relationships and invite fellow messy people to get to know Jesus.
We don’t want to be like the Pharisees, who stayed in their holy huddles and never got close to anybody they saw as dirty or bad. We want to be like Matthew, who got up and followed and then invited his fellow sick patients to join him at the wedding feast.
We’re going to sing here in a moment about the great work of Christ who came to save us. As we sing, remember that this town is full of people who will never hear this good news unless we share it with them. And maybe it’s over a bowl of soup at your kitchen table that you’ll have the chance to invite someone to come behold the wondrous mystery.