Chapter 5 contains a list of firsts. Jesus has returned from His first preaching trip to Judea and is once again teaching in Galilee, the land of the Gentiles. We will now witness the call of His first apostles: Peter (and Andrew), James and John, and Levi (Matthew). We will also witness Luke’s first mention of Jesus healing a Jewish leper, something that the rabbis taught could only be done by the Messiah. Following that story will be the healing of a paralytic, only this healing will have a twist. In addition to the healing, the man’s sins will be forgiven, and Jesus will be accused of blasphemy. Lastly, we will see the first real conflict with the Pharisees and scribes. They will accuse Jesus and His disciples of associating with the wrong kind of people; specifically, tax collectors and “sinners.”
What to look for in Luke 5
As you read each paragraph ask, “How is God speaking to me personally through His word?”
Look for Jesus’ encounter with Simon Peter. There will be more to this encounter than just a great fish story!
Look for Simon’s reaction to Jesus’ miracle with the fish, both in words and in action.
Identify two healings and note the significance of each.
Look for the call of Levi and how he responds to Jesus’ call.
Look for Jesus’ first run-in with the Pharisees and the scribes, and what they accuse Jesus of doing.
Look for the love theme that runs throughout the entire chapter.
5:1-3 In the first part of this chapter, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ teaching ministry. Word has spread about His miracles in Capernaum, which is near the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He has now gathered a crowd anxious to know more about Him and His message. The “lake of Gennesaret” gets its name from a small fertile plain on the northwest corner of the lake. Because the lake is located in Galilee, it is often referred to by its other name, the Sea of Galilee. It is called a “sea” because of its size, about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. (In the OT, it was called the “Sea of Chinnereth.” The Romans called it “Lake Tiberias.” It is the largest freshwater lake in Israel, and the lowest freshwater lake on earth.)
Jesus, knowing that sound travels better over water, gets into a boat and is taken a little way offshore so that He will be better heard by the large crowd. Jesus was teaching “the word of God,” though Luke does not elaborate on what exactly Jesus is teaching. The lesson here is that Jesus considered the word of God the most important thing He could give His followers.
In verse 2, Luke introduces his readers to “Simon.” Simon is his Hebrew name; Peter is his Greek name. Simon is obviously the owner of a small fishing business, as he owned two boats. Each boat was about 8 meters long (a little over 25 feet); thus, room for sail, four rowers and fishers, a helmsman, and nets. These boats could hold up to 15 people. Simon Peter, like most of us, was busy trying to make a living and run a small business.
The lesson here is that Jesus used whatever means was available to reach as many people as possible with the word of God.
5:4-7 Jesus instructs Simon to “put out into the deep water.” Deeper water yields bigger fish and more abundant schools of fish. Obviously, Peter and his crew had been out during the night fishing with lanterns. Peter, the experienced fisherman, indicates he’s already been fishing in the deeper water, without much luck. Nevertheless, he yields to Jesus in spite of his doubts. The result is a great haul of fish. (The lesson here is that without Jesus, all our efforts can prove for naught, but with Jesus, our efforts eventually bear fruit.) Note, too, that Peter “signaled to their partners.” Peter and his partners, James and John, will become partners in a new and greater venture of helping others experience God’s love. That “the nets began to break” is a picture that gathering in the lost will result in stretching the resources of the church to the limit.
5:8 It is quite likely that Simon had already heard of this man Jesus and, perhaps, had even heard Him teaching. He may even had been present when Jesus taught in the synagogue in Capernaum. Prior to the great catch of fish, however, Simon probably had the perspective, “Jesus is a fine teacher, but I don’t have time to get involved.” It is the response of many who are locked into their profession. However, when Jesus’ ministry actually affected him, he had a change of heart. And, his reaction was not just to say, “Thank you, Jesus. That was very nice of You.” Instead, Simon, aware of his spiritual imperfections, “fell down at Jesus’ feet” (an act of worship), and acknowledged that he was unworthy to have received His blessings. Undoubtedly, some of Simon’s remorse may have been his initial doubting of Jesus. Note, too, that Simon did not say, “I must be a really bad fisherman,” or, “That was terrific! Can I learn how to do that?” The first thing Simon did was to acknowledge his sin. All who come to Christ, in order to receive the full benefit of His blessings, must first acknowledge personal sin. Unfortunately, many Christians today pass over the issue of personal sin and skip ahead to the blessings and benefits. By doing so, they miss the number one reason Jesus came into the world, and fail to grasp the beauty and wonder of His grace.
5:9-11 Jesus’ response to Simon was like that of the angels who appeared to Zacharias, Mary and the shepherds—“Do not fear.” Jesus did not come into the world to judge the world, but to cast out all fear. Jesus then gives Simon a new purpose for living—“catching men.” Initially, Simon probably had no idea what Jesus meant by that; he would eventually understand the significance at Pentecost. The greatest gift the church can offer new converts is to give them a greater purpose for living.
When Peter, James and John come ashore, they obviously leave their work to the hired hands and begin following Jesus. This is the first use of the term “follow” by Luke. It will occur a number of times throughout the gospel narrative and will come to have great meaning. It will describe those who are committed to Jesus and begin to follow or, sadly, those who hear Him, decide not to commit to Him, and choose not to follow.
(On a somewhat humorous note, Mark records in his gospel [3:17] that when James and John left their nets to follow Jesus, their father, Zebedee, was quite unhappy about their leaving him with all the work. Therefore, Jesus later gave James and John the name “Sons of Thunder.”)
5:12 The next encounter Luke records is one of the most compassionate stories in the gospels. Leprosy is a hideous, contagious skin disease that is spread by physical contact with the person infected. It affects nerve endings in the skin and can result in terrible deformities and loss of limbs. There was no medical cure for it in Jesus’ day; therefore, lepers were considered “unclean” and colonized into camps away from uninfected people. The Jews knew well about Miriam’s sin against Moses, and therefore leprosy was considered the result of sin and a curse from God. Lepers were ostracized from society, unable to enter temple grounds, and left to fend for themselves, most ending up as scavengers for food and clothing. They were the most unloved people in Israel. This man is “covered” with leprosy. Whether his leprosy was the result of personal sin or not, leprosy is the universal biblical picture of sin. So there are two levels of meaning here: one is the physical level that prevents the man from becoming a functioning and accepted part of society, the other is the spiritual level that prevents the man from having a personal relationship with God. Being a leper meant that you were loved by neither man nor God. Obviously, when someone “covered with leprosy” approaches, the crowd scatters and he has immediate access to Jesus. This is a beautiful picture that the greater the sin the greater the grace. The leper prostrates himself before Jesus, a sign of complete submission, and states, “Lord, if You are willing, you can make me clean.” Notice that he does not say, “You can heal me.” Obviously, the man’s main concern is that he is unclean from a spiritual perspective. Jesus, out of his love for the man, recognizes both his spiritual and his physical needs.
5:13 Notice that Jesus “touched him.” He did not have to touch the man to heal him—He touched him to show that He loved him. It is an ultimate act of love. According to the law, touching the man would make Jesus Himself unclean. Jesus has no fear of being infected and knows that more than anything, this man needed to know that someone loved him enough to touch him. Touching the unclean is one of the most loving things any person can do. Therefore, God was visibly and physically extending His love to this poor man. The leprosy affecting him left immediately; this could not be faked and all who witnessed it were amazed.
Rabbinical teaching of the day stated there were certain types of miracles that only the Messiah could do; that is, the performance of these miracles would help the Jews identify the Messiah. These were known as Messianic miracles, and are based primarily on Isaiah’s prophecies. One of those miracles was healing a Jewish leper, something that had never been done in Israel. (Miriam’s healing was before the law of Moses was completed, and Naaman’s healing was the healing of a Gentile leper.) This is the first of the Messianic miracles that Luke records.
(The exact number of miracles required of the Messiah varies with the interpreter. There are four miracles that are usually agreed on, miracles that could be performed only by the Messiah: 1) the Messiah could heal a Jewish leper; 2) the Messiah could heal a mute demon; 3) the Messiah could heal a man born blind, and; 4) the Messiah could raise someone who had been dead four days. Even though Jesus fulfilled all of these miracles, most Pharisees and scribes failed to accept Jesus as the Messiah, a shocking violation of their own teachings.)
5:14 Mosaic law dictated that one had to prove his leprosy had left him by being inspected by the priests. The apparent contradiction here is that not all skin diseases were leprosy, and therefore, some skin diseases that looked like leprosy would in fact occasionally turn out to be something else. Therefore, some skin diseases were healed, but leprosy was never healed; that is, true leper could never be healed. The offering was a thank offering to God for the cleansing. It would also later serve as proof that a true leper had been healed—the priests had received the offering.
5:15 Teaching and healing—this summed up Jesus’ earthly ministry.
5:16 This is the second time Luke mentions that Jesus had to leave everyone in order to spend time with God. And where did He go to do this? “In the wilderness,” the very place where He was tempted and where demons were thought to dwell. But the point here is that in order for Jesus to have an effective prayer life, He had to get away from the crowd and the business of the day.
5:17 This verse opens in response to Luke’s observation in verse 15: “But the news about Him was spreading.” The Pharisees and teachers of the law obviously came to see what all the commotion was about, but not necessarily to learn from Jesus. Notice that in every verse where Luke writes of teaching and healing, the teaching always comes first. Note, too, that this is Luke’s first mention of the Pharisees—the heavyweights of the law of Moses are now a part of the picture.
5:18-26 This section will contain another proof that Jesus is the long awaited-for Messiah.
Jewish homes were often rectangular with an open courtyard in the middle. A protruding overhang or thatched roof helped shade the courtyard and keep out the rain. These men dug through the roof and lowered the man using ropes, a risky maneuver in itself. In was ingenious, however, and some bold and creative thinking went into finding a way to lower the man directly in front of Jesus. Notice that the text says, “Seeing their faith….” The healing that follows is not dependent upon the paralytic’s faith, but the faith of those who loved the man enough to take him to Jesus. Jesus then makes a remarkable statement: “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees are correct in their assertion that only God can forgive sins, but can’t bring themselves to consider that Jesus may indeed be God in the flesh. Jesus then asks a rhetorical question; that is, a question that has an obvious answer. “Which is easier to say…?” The point is clear. It is a lot easier to say “Your sins are forgiven” because how would anyone know if they are forgiven or not? But to say, “Get up and walk” is a lot harder because an observer will instantly know if healing has taken place, and if the healer is the real deal. If the man doesn’t get up and walk, then Jesus is a fake. If he does get up and walk, then Jesus is the real deal and therefore His other words about forgiveness must also be true. Now, this does not mean that the man’s paralysis was a result of sin. It simply means that, as a sinner like all men, Jesus is able to forgive sins. The event is loaded with irony.
This healing embodies many spiritual lessons. First, it is a picture that sin results in spiritual paralysis. Man cannot help himself and free himself from sin. Second, it is a picture of the resurrection. He who is paralyzed by sin is lowered down, and then raised up by the One who is able to forgive sins. Third, it is a picture of the church. Those who cared enough for the one paralyzed by sin brought him to Jesus. Fourth, those whose sins have been forgiven bring glory to God.
5:27-28 Tax collectors, called “publicans” in the KJV, were Jews employed by the Romans to exact taxes on the Jews. By keeping taxes high, the Romans could keep the oppressed people poor and therefore incapable of equipping an opposition army. Those Jews who collected the taxes were considered traitors and conspirators, and therefore hated by other Jews. The Pharisees labeled them “sinners” in that they were unclean by association with Gentiles. They were considered on the same level as prostitutes and pimps. Note, therefore, the similarities between the outcast Levi and the outcast leper. Additionally, tax collectors often defrauded the people by collecting more than what was required, therefore enriching themselves at the expense of those who were already poor. The Romans, of course, looked the other way.
Only God could see what was good in Levi, whose Greek name is Matthew. Regardless, when Jesus calls Levi to “Follow Me,” Levi immediately leaves his position and begins following Jesus. One wonders what Peter, James and John thought about Jesus calling a tax collector to become one of His disciples.
The lesson here is quite wonderful. Love opens the door for anyone to follow Jesus. The depth of people’s goodness or badness is measured only in their response to Jesus. Those who are truly bad and do really bad things will most likely not follow Jesus (e.g., an evil dictator). Those who are bad and try to cover it up by appearing to do good things will also not follow Jesus (e.g., the Pharisees, or any religious hypocrite). Obviously, those who are good and do good works in love will most likely respond positively to Jesus and follow Him (e.g., Peter). And, as in Levi’s case, those who are essentially good but doing bad things may end up following Jesus because they realize they have a spiritual need. The point here is that no one should automatically be counted out from following Jesus, as many prison ministries attest.
Finally, this is the second “Follow Me” call. So far, everyone called has followed. Unfortunately, Luke will record that not everyone called to follow will indeed heed the call.
5:29-32 Levi the tax collector is using his personal—but probably illegally gained—resources to hold a banquet for Jesus. Obviously, Levi’s only other friends are also tax collectors and their associates, most of whom were of dubious reputation. There may have women present, and most of them would probably be considered “loose women.” Jesus and His disciples are invited to attend the reception. It is a strange mix, to say the least. One cannot underestimate the risk that Jesus’ followers are taking for associating with those who were unclean and hated as much as the tax collectors and their associates. There were probably those who felt Jesus was being used and manipulated by Levi; that is, Levi’s motivation is for some sort of personal gain: “See, even a holy man thinks I’m okay.” Or, holding a reception for Jesus might be helping him to feel important, or make him think his sins are not so bad after all. Some would no doubt accuse Jesus of being naïve or irresponsible to validate the life of a tax collector. However, there is no indication that Levi ever returned to his former profession after his call to follow Jesus. No matter what the crowd might be thinking, Jesus seems to have had no problem associating with “sinners.” Why? Because His love for the lost was greater than the criticism of the crowd. Jesus’ answer to the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes is heavy with irony. The Pharisees think they are “well” and believe Jesus is talking about them when He refers to the “righteous.” In reality, they are as sick as those attending the reception, only they do not know it, which makes their sickness worse. The tax collectors are sinners (“sick”) and they know it. But they are not so sick as to deny their need for the forgiveness of sins.
Note, too, the word “grumbling” in verse 30. Though the Pharisees were questioning among themselves when Jesus healed the paralytic, this time they are grumbling out loud. This word has overtones of ridicule and condescension. The relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees is now in conflict, and hostility is just over the horizon.
Lastly, note once again the emphasis on repentance. Jesus does not say that His call is to heal everyone or shower everyone with Millennial blessings. He has come to lead sinners to repentance. This call should be the primary mission of the church.
5:33-35 The conflict that arose at Levi’s reception continues into the next paragraph. This kind of conflict is ageless and propels itself into the church today. It is a conflict of religious activity verses spiritual freedom. Paul will write about this conflict in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 14. Anywhere there is religious law, customs or mores, this conflict will raise up its ugly head. There are those who judge a person’s spiritual maturity based on whether or not they adhere to a certain set of rules, follow an unwritten code of behaviors, participate in rituals, or advocate spoken or unspoken social standards, most of which are arbitrary. And then there are those whose spiritual walk and maturity is not based on keeping a set of rules, but on something much harder—living by a greater principle to guide every situation individually. For the law-keeper, everything is black and white. There is no gray area, for gray areas are subject to interpretation, and only those in power can make the proper interpretation. For the freedom-seeker, however, every situation is gray; that is, the action is contingent on the context. In this case, Jesus is informing the Pharisees that one’s behavior is based—not upon a rabbinical standard that never changes—but on a greater principle that takes a different form in different situations. That Jesus’ disciples “eat and drink” fits the context of Jesus’ earthly ministry. With Jesus physically present, it is as if there is a wedding reception in progress. But there will come a time when prayers and fasting are more appropriate, that time being His death and ascension.
Obviously, Jesus is not advocating lawlessness. He is inferring that there is a principle greater than the spiritual disciplines of fasting and praying. That principle is like a river running through this entire gospel—it is the river of love. God cares for the lost, and He cares so much that “…He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
5:36-38 To illustrate Jesus’ point, He now alludes to that overriding principle of love, without actually saying what it is. This is the first of Jesus’ parables in the Gospel of Luke, and they are appropriate ones indeed. A parable is a story that teaches a spiritual lesson. It could be true but isn’t necessarily true. It can be understood by those who choose to believe, but is considered nonsense to those who don’t want to believe or don’t care. The key words in these parables are “new” and “old.”
There are actually three parables here, but they all illustrate the same common-sense truth. The first parable involves clothing. If you patch old material with new, the new will shrink when it is washed, and therefore tear. The same principle is true of the second parable involving wine skins. Unfermented grape juice was always put in fresh new wine skins so that as the juice fermented, the skin would expand. If the wine-dresser tried to ferment grape juice in an old wine skin that had already expanded, then it would burst because it had already been stretched. The third parable had to do with the wine drinker himself. Aged wine is better than wine that has not aged.
The point of all three parables is the same: you cannot patch something old with something new. It just doesn’t work. The spiritual lesson, of course, is pointing to the new covenant. What Jesus is bringing to the world is new, and it cannot be fit into something that is old. Applied to the complaint about the disciples eating and drinking, Jesus is alluding to the new principle coming that will completely eliminate the need for the Old Testament law. This will not only shake the foundations of Judaism to the core in Jesus’ earthly ministry, but it will become a huge issue in the ministry of the apostle Paul.
5:39 This last statement (the third parable) is actually a condemnation of the Pharisees. It seems at odds with the two other parables because, normally, aged wine is better than new. But Jesus is not talking about aged wine; He is talking about wine that has soured and turned to vinegar by oxidation. Jesus is actually saying to the Pharisees that they are so used to drinking the vinegar of the law that they will probably never change to the new, fresh wine. Why? Because in their eyes “the law is good enough.”
Questions for Your Personal or Group Reflection
In this chapter, Jesus calls for two individuals to follow Him—Peter and Levi. Describe the response of each. Notice that Peter had an emotional response and Levi had a social response. But both had one thing in common. What was it? When Jesus called you to follow Him, how did you respond? Now, the greater principle here is that Jesus bids us to come and follow Him every day. In what specific ways do you respond to His call?
What lesson did you learn about Jesus’ miracle in catching the fish? How do you plan to apply that lesson to your life? Is there something you need to do to increase the catch? What events in this chapter represent pictures of the church?
What does the leper symbolize? Are there people in your world who are outcasts of society? Would you be willing to “touch” them? Remember that there are many ways to “touch”: prayer, financial support directly, or financial support of those who do the actual physical touching.
There is a powerful love theme coursing throughout this chapter. Can you find all the instances where Jesus’ love manifests itself? Determine how God’s love is the central motivating factor behind Jesus’ earthly ministry. How will this message affect your relationships today?
How does sin paralyze one’s spiritual life? Can sin also paralyze emotional life? Social life? Relationships? Is there any sinful act in your past that is paralyzing some part of your life? Can you identify it? If so, are you willing to repent of it and start walking anew?
What part of the story about the paralyzed man represents the church? How does that principle affect your life?
Are you a law-keeper or a freedom-seeker? Or do you try to walk a thin line between both? If you do not have a set of rules and laws to guide your moral and ethical behavior, what principle do you use? Have you been able to discern that principle thus far in the Gospel of Luke?