What was amazing about Jesus’ call to Levi was that Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Mt 9:9, Mk 2:14) all recorded Jesus’ two brief words to Levi in the gospels with equal passion, in the same way and at the exact length. Only Peter (John 21:19) and Philip (Jn 1:43) were given this directive, but their response was captured just once in the gospels. Nothing was special about their conversion; they were ordinary people, with normal jobs, receiving equal treatment. Remarkably, the gospels recorded, covered, and highlighted Jesus’ exclusive claim upon the most tainted member of the apostolic band, Levi the tax-collector. It was a rare, intentional, and meaningful recording. The news of Jesus’ reception of another apostle or citizen’s conversion did not quite grab the headlines like the sinner Levi. Not like this, before this, or after this. Jesus’ evangelistic target, effort, and success were the toast of the gospels, the talk of town, and the task of all tasks.
Jesus looked at Levi (Lk 5:27) the same way he looked at John and Andrew (Jn 1:38), the 5,000 he fed (John 6:5), or the woman the scribes and Pharisees incited the crowd to stone (Jn 8:10). Jesus did not consider him any different from others who needed salvation, forgiveness, or hope. Levi was wretched, misguided, and desperate, a demonized, a reviled, and an unloving, unlovable and unloved man. He spotted him, sought him, and saved Levi. Previously, Levi sat by himself, kept to himself, and lived for himself. So Levi appreciated the visit, the opportunity, and the challenge to start all over again.
Levi reminds me of John Newton and the long journey he took before his transformation took place. Today we know Newton as one of the five greatest English hymnwriters in history, whose song “Amazing Grace” was dubbed America’s favorite hymn and story often told poignantly.
Newton earned his money the most detestable way. Although Newton himself was made a slave when he was a young man for deserting ship, he too entered the industry, captured unsuspecting natives, and transported ships of them for commerce along the African Coast. In 1748, when his ship ran into a violent storm that threatened to sink his ship and way home to England, Newton cried for mercy, begged for forgiveness and got a reprieve when the storm passed. Newton kept his word, made up for lost time, and quit his post although he resisted initially.
Later Newton studied for the ministry, became a pastor when he was 39 years old, and actively campaigned against slavery. He single-handedly wrote hundreds of hymns. In his old age, when reading was beyond him, Newton said, “Though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor yet what I hope to be, I can truly say I am not what I once was: a slave to sin and Satan. I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge that by the grace of God I am what I am!” (7,700 Illustrations # 2096)
In his death Newton’s tombstone read, “John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.”