Levi: The calling of Levi

Ernst-August Bremicker

Levi — also named Matthew — was one of Jesus’ disciples. He also wrote the gospel that describes the Lord Jesus as the promised King who came to earth in order to save His earthly people, Israel, from their sins. Three gospels tell us about Levi’s initial encounter with the Lord Jesus and his calling to discipleship. Here are some brief thoughts about the account given by Mark.

‘And he went out again by the sea, and all the crowd came to him, and he taught them. And passing by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax-office, and says to him, Follow me. And he rose up and followed him’ (Mark 2:13–14).

The Lord Jesus visited the Lake of Gennesaret many times during His unceasing ministry as the perfect servant. There on the trade route He found Levi who was going about his daily business at the tax-office. In Jewish society, tax-gatherers were despised and classed along with sinners because they were collaborating with the Roman occupying powers to collect taxes for them.

We do not know whether Levi had already heard about the Man of Nazareth. Be that as it may, his reaction was spontaneous and positive when the divine servant addressed him with the challenging words: ‘Follow me’. Levi was overwhelmed. All of a sudden, his life was turned upside down. Nothing was as it had been before. It was all different now. He left everything as it was and followed this man who had called him to do so.

If we look closely we will notice, first of all, three things the Lord Jesus did, and then three things Levi did. This will be for our instruction.

What the Lord Jesus did

  1. Jesus passed by. Nothing in the pathway of the Lord Jesus — the heavenly stranger — was a matter of chance. Every aspect of His commission here had a clear objective, down to what He did, when He did it, why He did it and how He did it. So it was part of the divine plan to meet Levi that very day at the tax-office. He wanted to call him so that he might follow Him from that very moment onwards.

Applying this to ourselves, we should never forget that the Lord Jesus also visits us. His intention is not only to save us from eternal destruction and punishment for our sins but to call us to follow Him here on earth where He is now rejected.

  1. Jesus saw him. When the Lord Jesus was here He saw the misery and desperation of man, and that people longed for healing and peace. He could see this more than anybody else. He not only looked on the outward appearance, but His eyes took account of the root of the matter. He saw and knew Levi’s heart. His searching look must have struck Levi forcibly because he got up immediately in order to follow this stranger.

The Lord Jesus is no longer here so we cannot see Him looking at men like this. However, He still looks into hearts today in a spiritual way and knows their condition. May His look make our hearts warm and burn for Him, so that we — like Levi of old — follow Him too.

  1. Jesus talked to him. The Lord Jesus did not hesitate to get in touch with a despised tax-gatherer. He addressed him and talked with him. The Pharisees and the scribes might think themselves so much above men like Levi that they ignored them whenever they could. But not so our Lord Jesus. He knew their needs and was there to help them. He did not say very much but it was very important and life-changing: ‘Follow me’. It was enough to give an entirely new perspective to Levi’s life.

This applies equally to us. In a certain sense we also hear the Lord Jesus speaking. Through His word, the Holy Bible, He talks to every one of us in order to motivate and challenge us to follow Him. There is no one too good or great, and no one too bad or small to be His disciple. We are all called to follow Him here on earth until the moment when we will be with Him in glory.

What Levi did

  1. Levi sat at the tax-office: It was his daily job to collect money from the Jewish people on behalf of the Romans.  No doubt a man could make a good income from this profession in those days. Anyhow, he was sitting there going about his job. We may well think that he had settled down in this (financial) world and that his work filled his life. 

Every man by nature has settled down in this world. He feels at home here and the things it offers fill his life. The things that tie us to the world vary from person to person: money, prestige, success at our profession, family life, fun, a hobby, sport, music or anything else. They all keep us busy and will always be a hindrance to following Jesus.

  1. Levi rose up. The words of the Lord struck Levi in such a way that he got up and left everything that had occupied his life until then. From now on, following the Lord Jesus was more important than everything else.

If we want to follow the Lord Jesus then we also have to rise up. We have to give up things that, so far, have been very important to us. This is clearly illustrated in the life of the apostle Paul (read Philippians 3). He had to give up many things — not necessarily bad things — in order to be wholly concentrated on the Lord Jesus. This can also be seen in his ministry. When he preached the gospel in Ephesus, people there had to burn their books of charms (Acts 19:19). They had to finish with their old life of magic and witchcraft. Our problems might be totally different, yet it is necessary to deal with matters that could hinder us from getting up and following the Lord Jesus. To rise up always requires spiritual energy; only overcomers can do this.

  1. Levi followed Him. It is true that Levi had a lot to give up. His old life was gone. But that was not all. He could only give up his old life because he now had a new object. Following Jesus was much more to him than the things he had to leave behind because He filled his life. Levi stopped following his own way and interests. His life had a new orientation: he followed the one who had found him and called him.

Following the Lord Jesus who is still rejected in this world will only be possible if we have realised that it is much greater gain than loss; we gain the most wonderful person, the one who loves us and who died for us. It is certainly true that He goes with us in our lives but the real question is whether we are ready to follow Him — in His footsteps — where He leads (1 Pet. 2:21). To follow Him is a personal decision. Levi took that decision once for all. So did Paul. They never stopped following Him; their lives could be described by one word: Christ! (cf. Phil. 1:21)!

Perhaps we all confess that we are following the Lord Jesus. But are we really doing it? Are we, like Levi, aware of the consequences? To follow Jesus is not a mere confession. Nor is it to fight for a good idea, a religion or a doctrine. We follow a person and this person should be our object of interest and love. We do not follow other men, however gifted and attractive; we follow the Lord Jesus. The more we appreciate the greatness of this wonderful and unique person, the more rival claims will fade into the background.

Today, the Lord Jesus is still calling people to follow Him and if we respond to His calling our lives will be entirely changed. Have we really heard His voice, and are we really following Him? To do so still has consequences but it is worth it. Yes, we will have to give up things and leave them behind, but we will gain much more in following in His steps. May the example of Levi encourage us to rise up and follow our wonderful and gracious Lord.