Calling sinners to repentance
But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Matthew 9:12-13
In the previous paragraph (vs 1-8), our Lord demonstrated his authority to forgive sins. Now it was never a question that sins needed to be forgiven. But there were two mistakes made by people in Jesus’ day about the forgiveness of sin. The first was who could forgive. Recall that the scribes were shocked that Jesus claimed to have the power to do it. That misunderstanding was cleared by the miracle of healing that he performed on the paralytic. The second misconception was who could be forgiven. The confusion concerning the objects of forgiveness is dealt with in our text. Another way to put it would be: who is the intended audience of the gospel, this message of forgiveness? And the unequivocal answer of our text is that Jesus receives and calls sinners to embrace the gospel.
Now it is especially important in our day to come to grips with the message of this text for two reasons. One is that one of the mistakes the church has made many times throughout its history is to retreat from the world. Now this not only happened in the past when Christians retreated into monasteries, but also in our day when Christians have retreated into their own little evangelical enclaves, trying to put as much distance between themselves and the world as possible. Our Lord never retreated from the world; rather, he advanced into it, shining his light into the darkness. You see this in the text. Our Lord did not hesitate to sit down with Matthew and his friends who were the riffraff of society and enjoy a feast with them. Though it shocked the respectable Pharisees (v. 11), our Lord had no problem doing it. In the same way, Christians should not be afraid of associating with sinners. After all, our Lord had the reputation of being “a friend of publicans and sinners” (Mt. 11:19). I wonder if our unwillingness to associate with those who do not share our faith in Christ is more a product of fear than it is of faith.
But there is another reason this text is important. Throughout the history of the church, and especially in our day, people have used Jesus’ words to advocate for the very opposite of seclusion, worldliness. We hear a lot in these days of Jesus being a friend of sinners. And I am glad that he was and is! But what many people mean by this is that Jesus was okay with sin. “Don’t condemn sinners!” we are told, “because Jesus hung out with sinners.” And depending on what the current favorite vice of the culture is, our Lord’s words are used to evaporate any condemnation against it. In other words, our Lord’s words and actions are used to justify depravity. And they are used to silence those who would call sin for what it is.
However, you cannot look to Jesus to justify either seclusion from world or conformity to it. Our Lord’s words, “I am not come to call the righteous but sinners” (v. 13) are actually an overt condemnation of both of these positions. Rather, in these words, Jesus calls his disciples to lovingly confront the world with truth and to call sinners from sin. And in doing so, our Lord announces the essence of his mission in the world. So in that sense this passage is incredibly important. If you want to answer the question, “Who was Jesus and what was he about?” the answer is in our text. John MacArthur explains, “This statement [verse 13] contains a full perspective on Jesus’ ministry, a summary of the message of Christianity, a close-up of the nucleus of the gospel, and the basic rationale behind the Incarnation.”
In this text, we learn the following things about the mission of Jesus. First, he was sent to call sinners. The Son of man receives sinners. Not just respectable sinners, but the worst sorts of sinners. Second, he refuses those who see themselves as respectable and righteous. In other words, there is a sense in which our Lord’s call is not universal, for it does not include those who see no need of the gospel. It is directed to those who see and feel their need for a Savior. He has come to call those who are weary and heavy laden – to these he offers rest (cf. Mt. 11:28-30). Third, his call cannot be divorced from repentance. Salvation from the guilt of sin cannot be separated from salvation from the grip of sin – both sin’s grip on you and your grip on sin. As the angel put it to Joseph in Mt. 1:21, our Lord’s mission is to save people from their sin, not in their sins.
Brothers and sisters, let us follow our Savior on his mission, mimicking his methods and sharing his message.
 John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus, Revised and Expanded (Zondervan: 1994), p. 67-68.