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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Luke 5

 

 

Verses 1-39

Chapter 5

THE CONDITIONS OF A MIRACLE (Luke 5:1-11)

5:1-11 Jesus was standing on the shore of the Lake of Gennesaret while the crowds pressed in upon him to listen to the word of God. He saw two boats riding close to the shore. the fishermen had disembarked from them and were washing their nets. He embarked on one of the boats, which belonged to Simon, and asked him to push out a little from the land. He sat down and continued to teach the crowds from the boat. When he stopped speaking, he said to Simon, "Push out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have toiled all night long and we caught nothing; but, if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done so they enclosed a great crowd of fishes; their nets were torn with the numbers; so they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. They came and they rifled both the boats so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this he fell at Jesus' knees. "Leave me, Lord," he said, "because I am a sinful man." Wonder gripped him and all who were with him at the number of fishes they had caught. It was the same with James and John, Zebedee's sons, who were partners with Simon. Jesus said to Simon, "From now on you will be catching men." So they brought the boats to land and they left everything and followed him.

The famous sheet of water in Galilee is called by three names--the Sea of Galilee, the Sea of Tiberias and the Lake of Gennesaret. It is thirteen miles long by eight miles wide. It lies in a dip in the earth's surface and is 680 feet below sea level. That fact gives it an almost tropical climate. Nowadays it is not very populous but in the days of Jesus it had nine townships clustered round its shores, none of fewer than 15,000 people.

Gennesaret is really the name of the lovely plain on the west side of the lake, a most fertile piece of land. The Jews loved to play with derivations, and they had three derivations for Gennesaret all of which show how beautiful it was.

(i) From kinnowr (Hebrew #3658), which means a harp, either because "its fruit is as sweet as the sound of a harp" or because "the voice of its waves is pleasant as the voice of the harp,"

(ii) From gan (Hebrew #1588), a garden, and sar (Hebrew #8269), a prince--hence "the prince of gardens."

(iii) From gan (Hebrew #1588), a garden, and 'osher (Hebrew #6239), riches--hence "the garden of riches."

We are here confronted with a turning point in the career of Jesus. Last time we heard him preach he was in the synagogue; now he is at the lakeside. True, he will be back in the synagogue again; but the time is coming when the door of the synagogue will be shut to him and his church will be the lakeside and the open road, and his pulpit a boat. He would go anywhere where men would listen to him. "Our societies," said John Wesley, "were formed from those who were wandering upon the dark mountains, that belonged to no Christian church; but were awakened by the preaching of the Methodists, who had pursued them through the wilderness of this world to the High-ways and the Hedges--to the Markets and the Fairs--to the Hills and the Dales--who set up the Standard of the Cross in the Streets and Lanes of the Cities, in the Villages, in the Barns, and Farmers' Kitchens, etc.--and all this done in such a way, and to such an extent, as never had been done before since the Apostolic age." "I love a commodious room," said Wesley, "a soft cushion and a handsome pulpit, but field preaching saves souls." When the synagogue was shut Jesus took to the open road.

There is in this story what we might call a list of the conditions of a miracle.

(i) There is the eye that sees. There is no need to think that Jesus created a shoal of fishes for the occasion. In the Sea of Galilee there were phenomenal shoals which covered the sea as if it was solid for as much as an acre. Most likely Jesus' keen eye saw just such a shoal and his keen sight made it look like a miracle. We need the eye that really sees. Many people saw steam raise the lid of a kettle; only James Watt went on to think of a steam engine. Many people saw an apple fall; only Isaac Newton went on to think out the law of gravity. The earth is full of miracles for the eye that sees.

(ii) There is the spirit that will make an effort. If Jesus said it, tired as he was Peter was prepared to try again. For most people the disaster of life is that they give up just one effort too soon.

(iii) There is the spirit which will attempt what seems hopeless. The night was past and that was the time for fishing. All the circumstances were unfavourable, but Peter said, "Let circumstances be what they may, if you say so, we will try again." Too often we wait because the time is not opportune. If we wait for a perfect set of circumstances, we will never begin at all. If we want a miracle, we must take Jesus at his word when he bids us attempt the impossible.

TOUCHING THE UNTOUCHABLE (Luke 5:12-15)

5:12-15 While Jesus was in one of the towns--look you--a man who was a severe case of leprosy saw him. He fell before him and besought him, "Lord, if you are willing to do so you are able to cleanse me." Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. "I am willing," he said. "Be cleansed." Immediately the leprosy left him. Jesus enjoined him to tell no one. "But," he said, "go and show yourself to the priest, and bring the offering for cleansing, as Moses's law laid it down, to prove to them that you are cured." Talk about him spread all the more; and many crowds assembled to listen to him and to be cured of their illnesses.

In Palestine there were two kinds of leprosy. There was one which was rather like a very bad skin disease, and it was the less serious of the two. There was one in which the disease, starting from a small spot, ate away the flesh until the wretched sufferer was left with only the stump of a hand or a leg. It was literally a living death.

The regulations concerning leprosy are in Leviticus 13:1-59; Leviticus 14:1-57. The most terrible thing about it was the isolation it bought. The leper was to cry "Unclean! Unclean!" wherever he went; he was to dwell alone; "in a habitation outside the camp" (Leviticus 13:45-46). He was banished from the society of men and exiled from home. The result was, and still is, that the psychological consequences of leprosy were as serious as the physical.

Dr. A. B. MacDonald, in an article on the leper colony in Itu, of which he was in charge, wrote, "The leper is sick in mind as well as body. For some reason there is an attitude to leprosy different from the attitude to any other disfiguring disease. It is associated with shame and horror, and carries, in some mysterious way, a sense of guilt, although innocently acquired like most contagious troubles. Shunned and despised, frequently do lepers consider taking their own lives and some do."

The leper was hated by others until he came to hate himself. That is the kind of man who came to Jesus; he was unclean; and Jesus touched him.

(i) Jesus touched the untouchable. His hand went out to the man from whom everyone else would have shrunk away. Two things emerge. First, when we despise ourselves, when our hearts are filled with bitter shame, let us remember, that, in spite of all, Christ's hand is still stretched out. Mark Rutherford wished to add a new beatitude, "Blessed are those who heal us of our self-despisings." That is what Jesus did and does. Second, it is of the very essence of Christianity to touch the untouchable, to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgivable. Jesus did--and so must we.

(ii) Jesus sent the man to carry out the normal, prescribed routine for cleansing. The regulations are described in Leviticus 14:1-57 . That is to say a miracle did not dispense with what medical science of the time could do. It did not absolve the man from carrying out the prescribed rules. We will never get miracles by neglecting the gifts and the wisdom God has given us. It is when man's skill combines with God's grace that wonder happens.

(iii) Luke 5:15 tells us of the popularity Jesus enjoyed. But it was only because people wanted something out of him. Many desire the gifts of God but repudiate the demands of God--and, there could be nothing more dishonourable.

THE OPPOSITION INTENSIFIES (Luke 5:16-17)

5:16-17 Jesus withdrew into the desert places and he continued in prayer. On a certain day he was teaching and, sitting listening, there were Pharisees and experts in the law who had come from every village in Galilee and from Judaea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was there to enable him to heal.

There are only two verses here; but as we read them we must pause, for this indeed is a milestone. The scribes and the Pharisees had arrived on the scene. The opposition which would never be satisfied until it had killed Jesus had emerged into the open.

If we are to understand what happened to Jesus we must understand something about the Law, and the relationship of the scribes and the Pharisees to it. When the Jews returned from Babylon about 440 B.C. they knew well that, humanly speaking, their hopes of national greatness were gone. They therefore deliberately decided that they would find their greatness in being a people of the law. They would bend all their energies to knowing and keeping God's law.

The basis of the law was the Ten Commandments. These commandments are principles for life. They are not rules and regulations; they do not legislate for each event and for every circumstance. For a certain section of the Jews that was not enough. They desired not great principles but a rule to cover every conceivable situation. From the Ten Commandments they proceeded to develop and elaborate these rules.

Let us take an example. The commandment says, "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy"; and then goes on to lay it down that on the Sabbath no work must be done (Exodus 20:8-11). But the Jews asked, "What is work?" and went on to define it under thirty-nine different heads which they called "Fathers of Work." Even that was not enough. Each of these heads was greatly sub-divided. Thousands of rules and regulations began to emerge. These were called the Oral Law, and they began to be set even above the Ten Commandments.

Again, let us take an actual example. One of the works forbidden on the Sabbath was carrying a burden. Jeremiah 17:21-24 says, "Take heed for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day." But, the legalists insisted, a burden must be defined. So definition was given. A burden is "food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, paper enough to write a custom-house notice upon, ink enough to write two letters, reed enough to make a pen" . . . and so on endlessly. So for a tailor to leave a pin or needle in his robe on the Sabbath was to break the law and to sin; to pick up a stone big enough to fling at a bird on the Sabbath was to sin. Goodness became identified with these endless rules and regulations.

Let us take another example. To heal on the Sabbath was to work. It was laid down that only if life was in actual danger could healing be done; and then steps could be taken only to keep the sufferer from getting worse, not to improve his condition. A plain bandage could be put on a wound, but not any ointment; plain wadding could be put into a sore ear, but not medicated. It is easy to see that there was no limit to this.

The scribes were the experts in the law who knew all these rules and regulations, and who deduced them from the law. The name Pharisee means "The Separated One"; and the Pharisees were those who had separated themselves from ordinary people and ordinary life in order to keep these rules and regulations. Note two things. First, for the scribes and Pharisees these rules were a matter of life and death; to break one of them was deadly sin. Second, only people desperately in earnest would ever have tried to keep them, for they must have made life supremely uncomfortable. It was only the best people who would even make the attempt.

Jesus had no use for rules and regulations like that. For him, the cry of human need superseded all such things. But to the scribes and Pharisees he was a law-breaker, a bad man who broke the law and taught others to do the same. That is why they hated him and in the end killed him. The tragedy of the life of Jesus was that those who were most in earnest about their religion drove him to the Cross. It was the irony of things that the best people of the day ultimately crucified him.

From this time on there was to be no rest for him. Always he was to be under the scrutiny of hostile and critical eyes. The opposition had crystallized and there was but one end.

Jesus knew this and before he met the opposition he withdrew to pray. The love in the eyes of God compensated him for the hate in the eyes of men. The approval of God nerved him to meet the criticism of men. He drew strength for the battle of life from the peace of God--and it is enough for the disciple that he should be as his Lord.

FORGIVEN AND HEALED (Luke 5:18-26)

5:18-26 Now--look you--there came men bearing on a bed a man who was paralysed, and they were trying to carry him in and to lay him before Jesus. When they could find no way to carry him in because of the crowd they climbed up on to the roof and they let him down, bed and all, through the tiles right into the middle of them in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said, "Man, your sins are forgiven you." The scribes and Pharisees began to raise questions. "Who," they said, "is this who insults God? Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Jesus was well aware of what they were thinking. He answered, "What are you thinking about in your hearts? Which is easier--to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins (he said to the paralysed man), I tell you rise, take up your bed, and go to your own house." And immediately he stood up in front of them and lifted up the bedding on which he was lying and went away to his house, glorifying God. Astonishment gripped them all and they glorified God and were filled with awe. "To-day," they said, "we have seen amazing things."

Here we have a vivid story. Jesus was in a house teaching. The Palestinian house was flat-roofed. The roof had only the slightest tilt, sufficient to make the rain water run off. It was composed of beams laid from wall to wall and quite a short distance apart. The space between the beams was filled with close packed twigs, compacted together with mortar and then marled over. It was the easiest thing in the world to take out the packing between two beams. In fact coffins were very often taken in and out of a house via the roof.

What does the passage about forgiving sins mean? We must remember that sin and suffering were in Palestine inextricably connected. It was implicitly believed that if a man was suffering he had sinned. And therefore the sufferer very often had an even morbid sense of sin. That is why Jesus began by telling the man that his sins were forgiven. Without that the man would never believe that he could be cured. This shows how in debate the scribes and Pharisees were completely routed. They objected to Jesus claiming to extend forgiveness to the man. But on their own arguments and assumptions the man was ill because he had sinned; and if he was cured that was proof that his sins were forgiven. The complaint of the Pharisees recoiled on them and left them speechless.

The wonderful thing is that here is a man who was saved by the faith of his friends. When Jesus saw their faith--the eager faith of those who stopped at nothing to bring their friend to Jesus won his cure. It still happens.

(i) There are those who are saved by the faith of their parents. Carlyle used to say that still across the years there came his mother's voice to him, "Trust in God and do the right." When Augustine was living a reckless and immoral life his devout mother came to ask the help of a Christian bishop. "It is impossible," he said, "that the child of such prayers and tears should perish." Many of us would gladly witness that we owe all that we are and ever will be to the faith of godly parents.

(ii) There are those who are daily saved by the faith of those who love them. When H. G. Wells was newly married and success was bringing new temptations to him, he said, "It was as well for me that behind the folding doors at 12 Mornington Road there slept one so sweet and clean that it was unthinkable that I should appear before her squalid or drunken or base." Many of us would do the shameful thing but for the fact that we could not meet the pain and sorrow in someone's eyes.

In the very structure of life and love--blessed be God--there are precious influences which save men's souls.

THE GUEST OF AN OUTCAST (Luke 5:27-32)

5:27-32 After that Jesus went out, and he saw a tax-collector, called Levi, sitting at his tax-collector's table. He said to him, "Follow me!" He left everything and rose and followed him. And Levi made a great feast for him in his house; and a great crowd of tax-collectors and others who were their friends sat down at table with them. The Pharisees and scribes complained at this, and said to the disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?" Jesus answered, "Those who are healthy have no need of a doctor but those who are ill have. I did not come to invite the righteous but sinners to repentance."

Here we have the call of Matthew (compare Matthew 9:9-13). Of all people in Palestine the tax-collectors were the most hated. Palestine was a country subject to the Romans; tax-collectors had taken service under the Roman government; therefore they were regarded as renegades and traitors.

The taxation system lent itself to abuse. The Roman custom had been to farm out the taxes. They assessed a district at a certain figure and then sold the right to collect that figure to the highest bidder. So long as the buyer handed over the assessed figure at the end of the year he was entitled to retain whatever else he could extract from the people; and since there were no newspapers, radio or television, and no ways of making public announcements that would reach everyone, the common people had no real idea of what they had to pay.

This particular system had led to such gross abuses that by New Testament times it had been discontinued. There were, however, still taxes to be paid, still quisling tax-collectors working for the Romans, and still abuses and exploitation.

There were two types of taxes. First, there were stated taxes. There was a poll tax which all men from 14 to 65, and all women from 12 to 65, had to pay simply for the privilege of existing. There was a ground tax which consisted of one-tenth of all grain grown, and one-fifth of wine and oil. This could be paid in kind or commuted into money. There was income tax, which was one per cent. of a man's income. In these taxes there was not a great deal of room for extortion.

Second, there were all kinds of duties. A tax was payable for using the main roads, the harbours, the markets. A tax was payable on a cart, on each wheel of it, and on the animal which drew it. There was purchase tax on certain articles, and there were import and export duties. A tax-collector could bid a man stop on the road and unpack his bundles and charge him well nigh what he liked. If a man could not pay, sometimes the tax-collector would offer to lend him money at an exorbitant rate of interest and so get him further into his clutches.

Robbers, murderers and tax-collectors were classed together. A tax-collector was barred from the synagogue. A Roman writer tells us that he once saw a monument to an honest tax-collector. An honest specimen of this renegade profession was so rare that he received a monument.

Yet Jesus chose Matthew the tax-collector to be an apostle.

(i) The first thing Matthew did was to invite Jesus to a feast--he could well afford it--and to invite his fellow tax-collectors and their outcast friends to meet him. Matthew's first instinct was to share the wonder he had found. John Wesley once said, "No man ever went to Heaven alone; he must either find friends or make them." It is a Christian duty to share the blessedness that we have found.

(ii) The scribes and Pharisees objected. The Pharisees--the separated ones--would not even let the skirt of their robe touch the like of Matthew. Jesus made the perfect answer. Once Epictetus called his teaching "the medicine of salvation." Jesus pointed out that it is only sick people who need doctors; and people like Matthew and his friends were the very people who needed him most. It would be well if we were to regard the sinner not as a criminal but as a sick man; and if we were to look on the man who has made a mistake not as someone deserving contempt and condemnation but as someone needing love and help to find the right way.

THE HAPPY COMPANY (Luke 5:33-35)

5:33-35 They said to him, "John's disciples fast frequently and pray. So do the disciples of the Pharisees; but your disciples eat and drink." Jesus said to them, "You cannot make the children of the bridechamber fast while the bridegroom is with them. But the days will come--and when the bridegroom is taken away from them in those days they will fast."

What amazed and shocked the scribes and the Pharisees was the normality of the followers of Jesus. Collie Knox tells how once a well-loved chaplain said to him, "Young Knox, don't make an agony of your religion." It was said of Burns that he was haunted rather than helped by his religion. The orthodox Jews had an idea--not yet altogether dead--that a man was not being religious unless he was being uncomfortable.

They had systematised their religious observances. They fasted on Mondays and Thursdays; and often they whitened their faces so that no one could fail to see that they were fasting. True, fasting was not so very serious because it lasted only from sunrise to sunset and after that ordinary food could be taken. The idea was to call God's attention to the faster. Sometimes they even thought of it in terms of sacrifice. By fasting a man was in essence offering nothing less than his own flesh to God. Even prayer was systematised. Prayer was to be offered at 12 midday, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Jesus was opposed radically to religion by rule. He used a vivid picture. When two young people married in Palestine they did not go away for a honeymoon; they stayed at home, and for a week kept open house. They dressed in their best; sometimes they even wore crowns; for that week they were king and queen and their word was law. They would never have a week like that again in their hard-wrought lives. And the favoured guests who shared this festive week were called the children of the bride-chamber.

(i) It is extremely significant that more than once Jesus likened the Christian life to a wedding feast. Joy is a primary Christian characteristic. It was said of a famous American teacher by one of her students, "She made me feel as if I was bathed in sunshine." Far too many people think of Christianity as something which compels them to do all the things they do not want to do and hinders them from doing all the things they do want to do. Laughter has become a sin, instead of--as a famous philosopher called it--"a sudden glory." Robert Louis Stevenson was right, when he wrote in The Celestial Surgeon:

If I have faltered more or less

In my great task of happiness;

If I have moved among my race

And shown no glorious morning face;

If beams from happy human eyes

Have moved me not; if morning skies,

Books, and my food, and summer rain

Knocked on my sullen heart in vain:

Lord, thy most pointed pleasure take

And stab my spirit broad awake;

Or, Lord, if too obdurate I,

Choose thou, before that spirit die,

A piercing pain, a killing sin,

And to my dead heart run them in!

(ii) At the same time Jesus knew there would come a day when the bridegroom would be taken away. He was not caught unawares by death. Ahead he saw the cross; but even on the way to the cross he knew the joy that no man can take away, because it is the joy of the presence of God.

THE NEW IDEA (Luke 5:36-39)

5:36-39 He spoke a parable to them like this: "Nobody puts a patch from a new garment on an old garment. If he does the new will tear it and the patch from the new will not match the old. No one puts new wine into old skins. If he does the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled and the skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into new skins, and no one who drinks old wine wishes for new for he says, 'The old is good.'"

There is in religious people a kind of passion for the old. Nothing moves more slowly than a church. The trouble with the Pharisees was that the whole religious outlook of Jesus was so startlingly new they simply could not adjust to it.

The mind soon loses the quality of elasticity and will not accept new ideas. Jesus used two illustrations. "You cannot put a new patch on an old garment," he said, "The strong new cloth will only rip the rent in the old cloth wider." Bottles in Palestine were made of skin. When new wine was put into them it fermented and gave off gas. If the bottle was new, there was a certain elasticity in the skin and it gave with the pressure; but if it was old, the skin was dry and hard and it would burst. "Don't," says Jesus, "let your mind become like an old wineskin. People say of wine, 'The old is better.' It may be at the moment, but they forget that it is a mistake to despise the new wine, for the day will come when it has matured and it will be best of all."

The whole passage is Jesus' condemnation of the shut mind and a plea that men should not reject new ideas.

(i) We should never be afraid of adventurous thought. If there is such a person as the Holy Spirit, God must ever be leading us into new truth. Fosdick somewhere asks, "How would medicine fare if doctors were restricted to drugs and methods and techniques three hundred years old?" And yet our standards of orthodoxy are far older than that. The man with something new has always to fight. Galileo was branded a heretic when he held that the earth moved round the sun. Lister had to fight for antiseptic technique in surgical operations. Simpson had to battle against opposition in the merciful use of chloroform. Let us have a care that when we resent new ideas we are not simply demonstrating that our minds are grown old and inelastic; and let us never shirk the adventure of thought.

(ii) We should never be afraid of new methods. That a thing has always been done may very well be the best reason for stopping doing it. That a thing has never been done may very well be the best reason for trying it. No business could exist on outworn methods--and yet the church tries to. Any business which had lost as many customers as the church has would have tried new ways long ago--but the church tends to resent all that is new.

Once on a world tour Rudyard Kipling saw General Booth come aboard the ship. He came aboard to the beating of tambourines which Kipling's orthodox soul resented. Kipling got to know the General and told him how he disliked tambourines and all their kindred. Booth looked at him. "Young man," he said, "if I thought I could win one more soul for Christ by standing on my head and beating a tambourine with my feet I would learn how to do it."

There is a wise and an unwise conservatism. Let us have a care that in thought and in action we are not hidebound reactionaries when we ought, as Christians, to be gallant adventurers.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Luke 5:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/luke-5.html. 1956-1959.

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