“The Red Letters”
February 17, 2019
Let Jesus speak to your heart the simple words of life.
I. “I am willing: Be clean” (Luke 5:12-16)
II. “Friend, your sins are forgiven” (Luke 5:17-26)
III. “Follow me” (Luke 5:27-32)
Back in the days before computer apps and cell phones many of us had print Bibles in what was called the “Red Letter Edition.” or “Words of Christ in Red.” I’m sure some of you still do. The words probably spoken by Jesus, even the ones in Revelation and quotes elsewhere are printed in red. If you fan through the New Testament end of a red letter edition, you’ll see some places with big blocks and whole chapters of red letters. The Sermon on the Mount is three chapters. John 14-17, called the upper room discourse, is whole pages of red. Even Luke 11-17 is more red than black. But the section of Luke we’re in, like many pages in the Gospels has only a few red phrases. Jesus is healing or teaching or doing some miracle and the Gospels record only one or two key phrases, key things Jesus says that crystalize what is really happening in the incident. Luke 5 is one of those chapters and the beautiful key truths that Jesus shares here in just a few words allow us to fall in love with the red letters. Today we get let Jesus speak to our hearts the simple words of life.
Luke 5:12-30 is three episodes. Each has a wonderful phrase in red letters. We begin in Luke 5:12-16, a story of Jesus and a leper. While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 13And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. 14And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 15But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.
Jesus was in Galilee, in one of the towns, when a man approached who was covered with leprosy. Leprosy, in Biblical times, could have been any disease of the skin, including, but not limited to Hanson’s disease, which we call leprosy. It isn’t actually a skin disease, but an infection that kills nerves, and allows skin disease to flourish. It begins with the extremities. With the nerves that transmit pain dead, the fingers and toes, hands and feet, legs and arms become open to any cut or infection. The disfiguration of lepers is a secondary effect. As Leon Morris says: It was a greatly dreaded and particularly dreadful disease.
At the same time, leprosy was difficult to distinguish from curable skin diseases. So the Old Testament is explicit in its regulations for such infections. Let me just read you a little bit from Leviticus 13 to remind you what these are like:
“When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a case of leprous disease on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests, 3and the priest shall examine the diseased area on the skin of his body. And if the hair in the diseased area has turned white and the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a case of leprous disease. When the priest has examined him, he shall pronounce him unclean.” Same chapter, verse 45: “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” So the leper was shunned, outcast, and isolated from people and from God.
Imagine the impact of of being declared unclean, year after year, and having to say of yourself, “I’m unclean, I’m unclean.” Our former District Superintendent, John Thompson, died of a lymph cancer just under his skin. I saw him at a meeting once rub his sores so much that blood soaked through the sleeve of his shirt. It was a struggle. But imagine how much worse it would have been if he had been declared outcast, unclean, and unworthy: a leper. He couldn’t have attended a meeting. I couldn’t have sat by his bedside and read him Scripture. He would have been utterly alone. That’s how it was for this leper.
But Jesus. This leper, this outcast comes in faith and hope. He throws himself on his face before Jesus and makes a declaration of faith: Lord, if you will, you can make me clean. He believed in the Lord’s power. In response, Jesus makes the first of his red-letter statements in this section. Well, actually, first, he does something that says almost as much as his words. Luke says he reached out his hand and touched the man. It might have been months, years, since anyone had reached out and touched this unclean one. If anyone had they too would have become, ritually, unclean. Yet Jesus was willing to cross that barrier, to break down that wall, to extend his hand to one who was unclean and diseased.
And then he says: I will. Be clean. That’s the red-letter truth. Jesus was not willing that the leper should stay in his disease, in his uncleanness. Jesus loved him even in his suffering, and wanted to make him whole. He simply said “Be clean” and he was cleansed. We can imagine his strength restored, his muscles and skin restored, the ravages of the disease on his limbs and even on his face reversed, and the presence of the infectious bacteria removed. It’s fantastic. Normally when you touch a leper you become ritually unclean. But Jesus touches the leper and the leper become actually clean. Gail and I have been watching the videos from the Bible Project that go along with their reading plan, and the one on holiness took us to the scene we heard about last week:
”So later in the scriptures we find this really interesting story by a prophet named Isaiah. He has this crazy vision where he's in the temple and he's right in God's presence. He's totally terrified.” “Yeah. He knows the rules. He shouldn't even be in there. And he's worried about being destroyed.” “And then this crazy creature called a Seraphim.” “Yeah, that is a crazy creature.” “Totally. So it flies over with a hot coal. And then it sears Isaiah's lips with the coal and says something really weird... "Your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for." “So this burning coal somehow makes Isaiah pure.” “Yeah, its remarkable because normally if you touch something impure it transfers its impurity to you. But now here's this new idea where you have this coal, this very holy and pure object, and it touches Isaiah and it transfers its purity to him. Isaiah isn’t destroyed by God's holiness, he's transformed by it.” “So Jesus, he went around touching people who are impure... people with skin diseases, a woman with chronic bleeding, or dead people... and when he touches them, their impurity should transfer over to Jesus ... but instead, Jesus' purity transfers to them and actually heals their bodies.” “Jesus is like that holy coal in Isaiah's vision.” That’s what we are seeing when Jesus says “I am willing, be clean.”
Then he orders this leper not to say anything to anybody, but to go to the priests, as the law proscribed, to be examined for cleanliness and a complete cure. He was to offer the elaborate sacrifices Moses details in Leviticus 14. In this he would be restored to all he’d lost. Not just cured, but cleansed, restored to life, to his family, to the community, and to worship. Jesus says that this will be a proof, a witness of God’s power to the priests and to the people.
Now despite Jesus’ command that the man remain silent, word of this cure, added to the prior things that Jesus had done, created even larger crowds, who not only came to be cured of diseases, but also came to hear Jesus teaching. But Jesus refused to get totally focused on the works of ministry. Instead, he modeled for us a balanced life of dependence on God. He came away and went to quiet places. And he prayed. He made time with God a priority.
But what’s the significance of this incident? I hope we lepers have figured this out. Leprosy is not only a horrible disease, but the symbol of a more devastating disease called sin. Because leprosy was so visible and involved the decay or corruption of the body it served as an excellent symbol of sinfulness. Sin corrupts us spiritually the way leprosy corrupts physically. Sin disfigures our lives. It sends us outside the camp, separated from fellowship with God, and isolates us in our misery. Each of us, seeing in our own hearts selfishness and pride, envy and bitterness, lust and anger must, with this leper cry: unclean, Unclean. There is no hope of restoration unless we come to Jesus in faith. He responds when we approach. He touches us. He says “I am willing - be clean.”
The next incident in Luke’s gospel carries this further. It’s the account of the man lowered through the roof. Luke 5:17-26. On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, 19but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. 20When he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” 21And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 25 Immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26Amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”
Are you imagining this? Maybe these five young men had been friends in their teens, before the horrible accident that had left one of them paralyzed, doomed to lie on an old stretcher, year after year, as his friends went on with life. But on that day the paralyzed one tells his friends that he believes Jesus, the healer who has come to Capernaum, can cure his paralysis. So they pick up his mat and, nearly running, they cross the square to the home where Jesus stays. As they arrive, they see a crowd bursting the home at the seams. The doorway is ten, fifteen deep in people, and at each of the windows a crowd is craning to see. In that moment of letdown they just stare dumbfounded at their dashed hopes.
Then one of them notices a length of rope on the ground. The friends huddle a moment, then pick up the mate and climb the outside stairway of the house, to the roof. Two of them start to remove roofing tiles, setting them out of the way, while the others prepare a rope sling for the mat. As the tiles are removed above the teacher, a silence falls on the crowd, and every eye looks up to see the sky blocked by the stretcher as they lower it down to the feet of Jesus.
It’s an enchanting scene. Jesus must have smiled as he saw what they had done, pleased with their audacity and faith. Notice what the text says: When he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” This is, without doubt, the second red letter text in today’s passage. Friend, your sins are forgiven.
Jesus, in that crowd of Pharisees and teachers, displayed just as much audacity as these men had in their faith. He goes to the root of the problem. This paralysis, whatever its cause, was only a surface issue. The deeper issue for that man, as for all of us, is sin. Here, for the first time, Jesus claims, in word and in deed, the power to forgive sin. This did not sit well with the Pharisees and teachers of the law. They had come out to see a man, a healer, and to judge his teaching, and here they find him doing something that ought only be done by God: Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?
Recognize that their theology is good: Sin, even when directed at people, is an act of disobedience and rebellion against God. Only God can pardon those acts. The thing that kept these Pharisees from real insight was their blindness to the fact that Jesus was God. For one thing, he knows what they are thinking. He is omniscient, all-knowing “Why do you question in your hearts? 23Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” On the one hand, anyone can say sin is forgiven. There is no way to prove it or disprove it. To say ‘get up and walk’ demands an immediate display of Jesus’ power and authority. On the other hand the actual forgiveness of sins was a power that was limited only to God himself, and was of more ultimate significance than even the healing. But Jesus is God. He can do both.
Verse 24: “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” I have authority to forgive sins, but that’s not visible. I have the authority to heal, and I’ll show it right now. By showing you the one I am claiming the other. Verse 25: “Immediately he rose before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26Amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen extraordinary things today.’” Luke is reminding us by this story, that Jesus is God. It is God the Son himself who says to this man: Friend, your sins are forgiven. And it is God and God alone who can say to you: Friend, your sins are forgiven. That’s what he wants to say to us. If you have never come to him recognizing your sinfulness and your need, then today you ought to have the audacity of these men and go to him for your healing, which is forgiveness, Go to him confessing your sin and placing your trust in him, and he will say to you: Friend, your sins are forgiven. And if you have been a believer for nearly 50 years and still struggle with sin, as I do, then you can go to him in repentance and trust, and he will say it again: Friend, friend, your sins are forgiven.
This remarkable man, Jesus, loves you. He says to you: I am willing - be clean. Friend, your sins are forgiven. And one more thing: Follow me.
This is found in the incident with Matthew the tax collector, verses 27-32: After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. 29And 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. 30And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
The calling of the tax collector, and the banquet he gives, is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Matthew Levi is called by his other name, Matthew. Jesus comes him to while he is sitting at his booth, collecting taxes or tolls, and Jesus says to him, quite simply, “Follow Me.” This is the third of the red letter phrases that appear in our text. Notice the radical nature of this discipleship. It meant leaving behind everything. It was a complete change in his life, a new direction, a new focus, a new preoccupation, and a new authority. Everything is counted as nothing, so that Jesus might be all in all. This is our response to his cleansing and forgiveness. It is to set aside things we value for ourselves and take up things that please Jesus. “Leave the old life behind. Trust in me. Listen to my words. Spend time with me in prayer. Walk with me. Serve me.”
Levi, the tax collector, does that. Having met the Lord, he wants to introduce his friends to Him. He holds a banquet for Jesus at his house, an evangelistic outreach, using the relationship he has with his peers to bring them in contact with Jesus. Notice who those people were. A large crowd of tax collectors and sinners. Of course they were. Those were his friends. Tax collectors were the dregs of society. They were viewed the way we view drug dealers. They were well off, but it was at the expense of people’s lives, and they were despised for it. But this was Levi’s crowd. They were the ones he wanted to tell.
It reminds me a bit of what happened to me when I became a Christian: I was 13 and had been in Boy Scouts for several years when I was saved. My peers were the guys in my scout patrol. I’ve told you before about that first camping trip, where I took the patrol into the only lighted spot in the camp, the men’s room, so I could explain to them from the Bible, how I had become a Christian, and how they could. Now my friends weren’t quite the dregs that Levi’s were, but Jesus was happy to meet us as we prayed there on the floor in the men’s room.
Naturally, the Pharisees and teachers of the law didn’t quite understand Jesus’ perspective. They saw this banquet going on, and pulled aside a few of his disciples, asking “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
How can you have fellowship with, and tacitly give approval, even hospitality, to this group of sinful outcasts from religious society? And Jesus, either once again reading their thoughts, or simply overhearing their words, gives them this answer: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Jesus isn’t saying that the Pharisees and teachers were in fact spiritually healthy and righteous before God. But they thought they were, and that was their downfall. It is those who recognize their sickness, those who feel their sinfulness, who he heals and saves. These tax collectors, these sinners of various sorts, had no illusions they could somehow earn salvation. They knew they were powerless to help themselves or to change their status. When Jesus came to them, they were the ones more able to hear his message. So also, today. The prideful assumption that I’ve got it made, that I’ve got my act together, that I can make it on my own, is the greatest stumbling block to Christ’s saving work.
In our culture, with few absolutes and a subjective morality, it’s harder and harder to recognize that you need Jesus, that there is something wrong with you that you can’t fix. As a result, the Gospel is often most effective with people who have somehow reached rock bottom, given up on themselves. Jesus wants followers who will turn from themselves to him, who will repent of their sinful lives, so that they can hear him say “I am willing, be clean.” And hear him say “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” And then hear him say “Follow me.”
Back in the early days of the Jesus film, from Campus Crusade, God did remarkable things as the movie was translated into many languages. Mozambique, for example, was embroiled in a cruel civil war at the time, and the suffering was compounded by famine. 500,000 people were herded into refugee camps. It was here that a Jesus film team came. The camp was chaos, the people hungry, the heat oppressive, and the stench of human waste filled the air. As the team set up their equipment they could see the witch doctors, dancing and chanting on the edge of the clearing. The believers prayed, asking Jesus to bind the power of Satan and open the eyes of spiritually blind people, living in misery.
As darkness fell, more than a thousand people crowded into the small dusty clearing. When it was dark enough, the film began. One who was there says that it was during the scenes of the crucifixion that they sensed something unusual was happening. Everyone began to cry: women, men children. A mournful wailing gradually rose from the crowd into a relentless crescendo. Within minutes people throughout the clearing were confessing their sins. Rivers of tears poured down their dirty cheeks. Some were on their knees, some stood with eyes closed and arms raised, some lay prostrate on the ground.
The film team turned off the projector. and rushed to pray with and counsel those seeking God. One team member says: “The sense of God’s presence, his power and holiness was so great that no one could do anything but confess their sin.” These people could see their need for God’s forgiveness. Finally one of the team members said: “We need to finish the film, so that they will know the good news of the resurrection.” The interpreter explained to the crowd: “Jesus died to make payment for our sins, but death could not hold him.” He pointed to the screen, and shouted with uncontrollable joy. “He was raised from the dead.” The crowd exploded as if a dam had burst. Everyone began cheering, dancing, hugging one another. An invitation was given for those who wanted to receive Christ to come to the front. But they couldn’t: they all wanted to accept him as Savior and Lord - all one thousand people.
Jesus is still willing to touch those who most need him. From Mozambique to Texas he says: I am willing. Be clean. Friend, your sins are forgiven. Follow me.