Reading the Bible with Dead Guys: J. C. Ryle on Mark 2:13-17

This article is part of the Reading the Bible with Dead Guys series.

Reading the Bible With Dead Guys is a weekly blog series giving you the chance to read God’s Word alongside some great theologians from church history. With content adapted from the Crossway Classic Commentaries series, these posts feature reflections on Scripture by giants of the faith like John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, John Owen, and more.

Today we’ll hear from J. C. Ryle (1816–1900) on Mark 2:13-17.

“He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.

And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’” - Mark 2:13-17

The calling of Levi; Christ the physician

The person who is called Levi at the beginning of this passage is the same person who is called Matthew in the first of the four Gospels. Let us not forget this. It is no less than an apostle and an evangelist whose early history is now before our eyes.

1. Christ's power to call people to be his disciples

First, we learn from these verses the power of Christ to call people out from the world and make them his disciples. We read that he said to Levi, when "sitting at the tax collector's booth" (verse 14), "Follow me." And at once he "got up and followed him." From a tax collector he became an apostle, and a writer of the first book in the New Testament, which is now known all over the world.

This is a truth of deep importance. Without a divine call no one can be saved. We are all so sunk in sin, and so wedded to the world, that we should never turn to God and seek salvation unless he first called us by his grace. God must speak to our hearts by his Spirit before we ever speak to him. Those who are children of God, says the 17th Article [of the Thirty-Nine Articles], are "called according to God's purpose by his Spirit working in due season." Now how blessed is the thought that this calling of sinners is committed to so gracious a Saviour as Christ!

We are all so sunk in sin, and so wedded to the world, that we should never turn to God and seek salvation unless he first called us by his grace.

When the Lord Jesus calls a sinner to be his servant, he acts as a Sovereign; but he acts with infinite mercy. He often chooses those who seem most unlikely to do his will, and furthest off from his kingdom. He draws them to himself with almighty power, breaks the chains of old habits and customs, and makes them new creatures. As the lodestone attracts the iron, and the south wind softens the frozen ground, so does Christ's calling draw sinners out from the world, and melt the hardest heart. "The voice of the Lord is mighty in operation." Blessed are they who, when they hear it, do not harden their hearts!

We ought never to despair entirely of anyone's salvation when we read this passage of Scripture. He who called Levi still lives and still works. The age of miracles is not yet past. The love of money is a powerful principle, but the call of Christ is even more powerful. Let us not despair even about those who sit "at the tax collector's booth" and enjoy abundance of this world's good things. The voice which said to Levi, "Follow me," may yet reach their hearts. We may yet see them get up and take up the cross and follow Christ.

Let us hope continually, and pray for others. Who can tell what God may be going to do for anyone around us? No one is too bad for Christ to call. Let us pray for all.

2. Christ as Physician

Second, we learn from these verses that one of Christ's principal roles is that of a Physician. The teachers of the law and Pharisees found fault with him for eating and drinking with tax collectors and "sinners." But "on hearing this, Jesus said to them, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick'" (Mark 2:17).

The Lord Jesus did not come into the world, as some suppose, to be nothing more than a law-giver, a king, a teacher, and an example. Had this been all the purpose of his coming, there would have been small comfort for us.


J. C. Ryle

One of seven expositions on the Gospels written by Ryle. Students of God's Word will appreciate his insights and practical applications taken from the book of Mark. A Crossway Classic Commentary.

Diet sheets and rules of living are all very well for the convalescent, but not suitable to the person laboring under a mortal disease. A teacher and an example might be sufficient for an unfallen being like Adam in the Garden of Eden. But fallen sinners like ourselves want healing first, before we can value rules.

The Lord Jesus came into the world to be a physician as well as a teacher. He knew the needs of human nature. He saw us all sick of a mortal disease, stricken with the plague of sin, and dying daily. He pitied us, and came down to bring divine medicine for our relief. He came to give health and cure to the dying, to heal the broken-hearted, and to offer strength to the weak. No sin-sick soul is too far gone for him.

It is his glory to heal and restore to life the most desperate cases. For unfailing skill, for unwearied tenderness, for long experience of people's spiritual ailments, the great Physician of souls stands alone. There is none like him.

But what do we know ourselves of this special role of Christ's? Have we ever felt our spiritual sickness and applied to him for relief? We are never right in the sight of God until we do. We have got nothing right in religion if we think the sense of sin should keep us back from Christ. To feel our sins and know our sickness is the beginning of real Christianity. To be aware of our corruption and abhor our own transgressions is the first symptom of spiritual health. Happy indeed are those who have found out their soul's disease! Let them know that Christ is the very Physician they require, and let them consult him without delay.

This article was adapted from J. C. Ryle's commentary on Mark, part of the Crossway Classic Commentaries series edited by Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer.

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