In yesterday’s Morning Worship we observed A Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church sponsored by the Voice of the Martyrs ministry. This sermon refers to a video which we watched at the beginning of the service showing the testimony of a young woman persecuted for her faith. For more information and to watch the video click here.
What does it mean to follow Jesus? We usually seem to interpret following Jesus in terms of moving to a particular location or taking a certain job. But Jesus is very clear about what it means to follow him. In this morning’s text we see the call issued to the author of this gospel, Matthew.
As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him. Matthew 9:9
The Call of Matthew
Here we have the first mention of the author of the Gospel of Matthew. He recounts his call by Jesus in the third person. This was a common practice of the day. For example, John doesn’t refer to himself at all by name in his gospel.
In this account we see Matthew’s humility in identifying himself as a “tax collector”. This was the worse thing you could be in the eyes of the Jews. A tax collector was one who, though a Jew himself, collected taxes from his fellow Jews on behalf of the Romans. As you can imagine, he was not a popular man. We get an idea of the stigma of being a tax collector in that day in the next two verses (10-11). They were ostracized, identified with sinners, and Jesus’ eating with them was a cause of stumbling to the elite Jews. But Matthew tells us his background in order that we might understand the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who reaches out to the outcasts of society. No one who society looks down upon is too low for Jesus to reach out to them!
Matthew’s custom station was probably located on the edge of the Sea of Galilee where commercial ships would arrive and Matthew would collect the custom duties from them.
The calling of Matthew is also recorded in Mark 2:14 and Luke 5:27-28, but they both call the disciple “Levi”. It was common for first century Jews to have two or three names. Here Matthew uses the name with which he becomes known for later, otherwise we would have the Gospel of Levi.
Notice that Matthew’s obedience to Jesus’ call was immediate. Luke adds the detail that Matthew “left all” to follow Jesus. Again we see Matthew’s humility in not stating his own personal cost in following Jesus.
In this text we are only given the curt command by Jesus, “Follow Me.” All of what this means is not fleshed out in this context. But the other uses of this phrase in the gospels makes it clear what all is implied by these words.
Following Jesus is Not Optional for the Christian
First, let me say that following Jesus is not optional for the Christian. Some teach and others apparently believe that it is possible to be a Christian and not be a follower of Jesus. In other words, they can profess Jesus as their Savior but not obey Him as their Lord. This idea is foreign to the New Testament. Jesus said in John 10:27, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” Who follows Jesus? Those sheep which are known by the Jesus and who hear His voice. The next verse says, “And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” The only ones who can claim the promise of eternal security are those who are following Jesus. This is not a promise for mere professors of Jesus, but for His followers. Following Jesus is not optional for Christ’s sheep.
Following Jesus is Costly
The call to follow Jesus is costly. One must be willing to forsake all to follow Jesus! We saw in Matthew 8:22 Jesus’ response to the man who pledged to follow Jesus, but with an exception. “But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’”
When Jesus called the two pairs of brothers: Peter and Andrew and James and John, they understood that they were to forsake all.
Then He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him. (21) Going on from there, He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them, (22) and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him. Matthew 4:19-22
This was also the experience of Matthew according to Luke 5:27-28 who records that when called by Jesus, Matthew “left all.”
Likewise Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler who came to Him asking what good thing he could do to inherit eternal life:
Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” Matthew 19:21
But not only is it costly materially to follow Jesus, it can also cost you your life. This is what our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church around the world already know. It is costing them something to follow Jesus. They are shedding their blood for the privilege of following Jesus. According to the teaching of Jesus, this is to be expected.
Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 16:24,
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.
What does it mean to take up one’s cross? It doesn’t mean to wear a golden cross on a necklace or as a lapel pin. It means to take up an instrument of death and carry it with you to the place of execution. As the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer was killed for his attempts to resist the Nazism of his day. Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart!
Are you a follower of Jesus? Are you willing to follow Jesus now that you know what it means? There are many professing Christians who have been sold a false bill of goods. Come to Jesus, the preachers say, and everything will be hunky-doory. You’ll get everything that you get when you play country music backwards: your wife back, your truck back, and your dog back. That’s not what Jesus is offering. Instead Jesus is offering hardship and death. Jesus is calling for absolute submission to His kingly authority, and nothing less.
We have trouble understanding this in America. But our brothers and sisters around the world who are being persecuted have no problem at all understanding the words of Jesus.
We need to be prepared for this type of persecution when it comes. I said when, not if, it comes. Persecution is coming. Maybe not in my lifetime, but soon. And if we keep preaching the same old cotton candy gospel, our children and grandchildren are not going to be prepared to stand in the day of trouble. I want our children and grandchildren to stand firm in the hour of persecution like we saw our sister today.
We need to pray for those who are being persecuted. Hebrews 13:3,
Remember the prisoners as if chained with them—those who are mistreated—since you yourselves are in the body also.