In Christian history, many believers have given their lives to follow Jesus. The first to be martyred was James in Acts. Shortly after, Stephen was killed for his faith. Persecution has been a mark of the church ever since. Amazing, isn’t it. That the religion most persecuted in history is the same one that has repeatedly pushed living in peace with one another. It’s almost as if there’s a spiritual force fighting against it.
In the 20th century, it is estimated 26 million Christians were killed for their beliefs. From AD 33 to 1900, 14 million Christians died for their faith. That is 65% of all martyrs happened in the prior century.
This is part of the cost Jesus spoke of in His parable in Luke 14:28, “For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it?”
At war with Jesus’ statement is the air of easy grace that pervades modern culture. Similar to the Prosperity Gospel, it says that God makes it easy for those who believe in him. I ask instead, what makes us better as people and Christians that we think God intends such ease when so many of our brothers and sisters have died for their faith?
A Lutheran pastor in Germany in the 1930s saw this same “easy grace” in his own nation. Disturbed by this lax Christianity, pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship, where he lays out what it costs to follow Christ. It is an eyeopening book for those used to easy grace.
Bonhoeffer has been criticized because while he demolishes easy grace, the book is commonly misunderstood to set discipleship as something only a few can attain. It reads almost as a mystical gift, granted only to those God so chooses.
However, whatever his mistake may have been, we must remember that the cost of non-discipleship is far greater. That was the problem Bonhoeffer worked against. He saw in his churches how many Christians just attended. They did not allow the Spirit to change their lives. The country was nominally Christian, so they went with the flow.
That country was Germany, just prior to World War II. Because of their lax lives in Christ, most Germans did not stand against Hitler until it was too late. Bonhoeffer was arrested and eventually killed by the Nazis because he had joined a rebel cell and plotted to assassinate Hitler.
As you count the cost of your own life in Christ, turn to Matthew 9:9-13 and imagine yourself as Matthew. He was a tax collector, hated by his own people because he collaborated with the Romans. Tax collectors were not paid a wage or salary from the government. They were expected to keep a commission of the taxes. The tax collector would be told by his superiors that he needed to farm $6,000 from the city this month. Of that, he would turn over $5,500 to his manager and keep the rest as his payment.
However, all of them charged people more than what they owed and kept a bigger portion than the government said they should. The authorities looked the other way as long as the tax collectors sent in the requested amount.
Matthew 9:9-13 ¶ As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him. 10¶ Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. 13 “But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Today, we will talk about Matthew the man, the disciple, and the apostle.
Matthew the Man
He is fully known as Matthew Levi, son of Alpheus. Matthew didn’t know that day how following Jesus would cost his life. He knew when he got up from the tax collector’s table that his job was gone. While the others could go back to their jobs should this rabbi fail, Matthew could not. Matthew was one of those who if a detective would say, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
As a tax collector, he was highly educated in math and writing. He would have been literate in Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew to work in Judea and Galille.
Of the Twelve, Matthew was undoubtedly the wealthiest. He had just gotten most of it through dishonest means. I imagine that Matthew and Zacheus had some conversations about how Jesus had saved them. They probably knew one another in their work. At the very least, they knew of each other.
As I said before, tax collectors were despised in most of the Empire. Some things never change. There’s even an old Irish tale where the Devil himself considers tax collectors to be scum of the earth. The Jews saw tax collectors as traitors. Since he worked in Galilee, we can conclude that Matthew worked for Herod Antipas, who paid tribute to Rome. Rome didn’t ship in imperial citizens to do the nasty work. They hired locals. We’ll never know what drove Matthew to collaborate with the invaders. Was he already a dishonest man? Was he merely desperate for a job? The Bible doesn’t say, and nothing of his life prior to his calling is mentioned.
What little we know, we glean from clues in the Bible. Matthew lived in Capernaum, the same city that Jesus called home. Capernaum was formerly the home of the prophet Nahum, centuries before. It was once called Elkosh, but after Nahum’s ministry, it was renamed Capernaum, “city of Nahum.”
Being a tax collector, this was Matthew’s assigned district. I imagine that he had heard Jesus preaching on the street before this day. Matthew hung on the fringes of the crowd as Jesus spoke of redemption and repentance. How many times did those sweet words prick his heart? How many times did he almost walk to Jesus and say, “cleanse me, rabbi”? Did Jesus ever make eye contact with him while preaching and give Matthew that look that said, “Come here”? I imagine that He did because Matthew follows when called that fateful day.
Yet something always brought him back to that table. Maybe it was the money. Maybe he couldn’t forgive himself so couldn’t imagine a rabbi praying for him. Matthew know exactly how much people hated him. He could see it in their face when they paid their taxes. The snarl, the curl of the lip, the disrespectful way they slammed the money onto the table. All of that said, “I hate you, traitor.” Because collaborators were worse than invaders. They had sold out to the invaders to steal from their own people.
Matthew was a man who knew how much he needed to be saved. The others, like those fisherman, hadn’t lived a life of being hated by their own countrymen. Matthew knew the need for redemption on a much more personal level than they. Every night he had to sleep, knowing how he had betrayed his people. Never say to yourself, it’s just a job, it doesn’t matter what I do, it’s who I am that matters. As Matthew knew, what you do defines who you are. He was a traitor because he had acted as a traitor. Everyday at his table, he robbed his own people and gave most of the money to the invaders.
Matthew was a man who had to stand alone when he went to the Temple in Jerusalem. No one would stand near him. He was shunned. It was a tax collector like Matthew who Jesus told about in the story, the man who cried out in the Temple, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
This man, Matthew, changed the day that Jesus called him away from the table.
Matthew the Disciple
Matthew doesn’t say much about his life after he becomes a disciple, either. His focus is on Jesus. Our focal character is often seen with Thomas the Doubter in the Gospels. When Matthew, Mark, and Luke lists the Apostles, they place Matthew and Thomas together. Peter and Andrew stand together in the lists because they are brothers. James and John are the same way. We have no indication that Matthew and Thomas are related, but the Bible gives another clue as to why they stand together in the lists.
Others in the list are put together who have something in common. Notice that Judas Iscariot is next to Simon the Zealot. Both their nicknames, Iscariot and Zealot, tell us about their personalities and priorities. Zealots were members of the rebel underground, plotting to throw off Roman oppression and restore Judea as an independent kingdom. I’m sure he didn’t think much of a collaborator being invited into the group! The Iscariot, or Ish Sicaroth which means man of the short dagger, were also members of this underground but more highly trained, respected, and feared. The zealot and the dagger man shared a link in their devotion to country. Likewise, we can conclude that Matthew and Thomas share something.
We all know about Thomas’ most famous moment—his doubting. What we often forget is how Thomas was the only one of the Twelve who understood the prophecies of the Messiah’s death! Only Thomas comprehended how the Son of David would die.
When the others told Thomas how Jesus had returned from the dead, Thomas expressed doubt and said he would not believe without seeing Jesus and the scars. Thomas was a man who appreciated facts.
Similarly, Matthew was a man who appreciated figures. He kept records for his work. He knew the approximate wealth of everyone in his district. When we read the Gospel of Matthew, this trait of tracking things comes into focus. Matthew is extremely detailed in his gospel. Mark writes in a very hurried fashion to benefit his Roman audience. Luke is detailed, telling of how Jesus spent time with the outcasts and traces Jesus all the way back to Adam as the Messiah for the whole world. Matthew writes in a Jewish style, heavy on details, linking back to the Scriptures, drawing forth lessons and teachings from prophecies that the others don’t.
Matthew uses Hebrew idioms that the others don’t. For example, Matthew is the only Gospel writer to use “Kingdom of Heaven.” When Mark and Luke record the same saying of Jesus, they say “Kingdom of God.” Why? Because Matthew was writing to the Hebrews and used Hebrew styles.
One can easily imagine Matthew keeping records of Jesus’ teachings and sermons. Matthew records 23 parables, more than either Mark or John and only 5 behind Luke. He alone tells us how Joseph considered putting Mary away and how God gave Joseph visions.
Matthew gives a detailed genealogy of Jesus, but he puts within it little markers of Jewish style. He breaks it up into three sections of 14 names each. From Abraham, named as the first Hebrew, to David is fourteen generations. From David to the captivity, 14. From the captivity to Jesus, another 14. Why 14? He skips a couple of names when we compare this list to others in Scripture, so the number 14 is chosen for a specific reason.
Unlike our system of separate letters and numbers, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin allowed letters to double as numbers. You would either write out the full number in words, or you could use the letters as numbers. Matthew presents Jesus as the ultimate son of Abraham and David. The Hebrew consonants of David, dWd (vowels were unwritten at this time), add up to 14. Daleth is 4, Waw is 6, and the final daleth is another 4. David’s name is 14 and the ultimate son of David will be explained in three groups of 14. If you are curious, Abraham’s name adds up to 123.
It wasn’t enough for Matthew to just follow Jesus that day. He immediately invited others to learn of Jesus as well. Matthew invited the people whom he knew best, fellow tax collectors and sinners. By the word sinner, we can assume prostitutes were on the list. Why would Matthew be friends with prostitutes? Because normal people shunned both of them. The outcasts could only make friends with one another. Once Matthew responded to Jesus, he was able to invite others immediately. Others like him, who knew they were sinners. Who knew the sickness in their soul. Others who hadn’t hardened their hearts to stone just yet.
There is a very interesting statement Jesus makes when the Pharisees confront him about the sinners he has surrounded himself with. He says, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” He isn’t saying that the Pharisees don’t need Him. He is saying that the sick who recognize their sickness will respond to Him as a healer. There is no one who is righteous, but those who think they are righteous will not respond.
Matthew responded, knowing he was not righteous. He became a disciple, and Matthew the disciple was one of the eye witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. As an eyewitness and one of the chosen Twelve, he became an Apostle, chosen to share the redeeming words of Christ with those who needed it the most.
Matthew the Apostle
The Apostles first ministered in Jerusalem, then Judea, Samaria, and finally the uttermost parts of the earth, just as Jesus had told them to. Matthew ministered first to the Jews in Judea, writing the Gospel that bears his name. According to the early bishop Papias, who was taught by one of John’s converts, the Apostle Matthew wrote in Hebrew having collected the sayings of and about Jesus. Origen and Jerome also report that Matthew wrote first in Hebrew. Jerome even said he touched the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew while visiting the library of Caesarea.
Matthew ministered to Jews for about 15 years, then he went forth as a missionary. He established churches to the east in Persia, Syria, and south of the Caspian Sea. We do not know how he died for Christ save that he died for his faith. Some say he was burned, others stoned, and yet others beheaded. What they agree on is that he died a martyr for Christ.
Matthew the Apostle found another place where his life matched the teaching of Christ when he wrote down the parable of the soils. Instead of being rocky soil, which receives the word with joy but withers under hardship and persecution, Matthew was good soil. Good soil that brought forth a return that is still being measured today. Even in the face of persecution and death, Matthew stood firm.
The man who changed the life of Matthew claimed all of his life. Matthew died for the man who died for him. The man who got up from that table in Capernaum had never been the same since. When redemption comes to you, it is an amazing gift. I have seen how Christ changes people.
Jesus said that day Matthew converted that He desired “mercy and not sacrifice.” Matthew wrote instead of how Jesus had been the perfect sacrifice. How His sacrifice allowed God’s mercy to wash over the world. It cost Matthew to preach these things. It is Matthew who records Jesus saying, “what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” As Matthew wrote that down in his gospel, I bet he smiled. He gave up profit for his soul.
Matthew lived that question. He could have continued as a tax collector, gaining money every day. Growing in influence and power among the other tax collectors, even up to being Herod Antipas’ head tax collector in the region. But he gave it all up for Jesus. He forfeited the world and gained his soul.
Nothing comes without cost. All of the Twelve gave their lives for Christ except John who died of old age. Burned, hung, speared, stoned, beheaded. Peter and Andrew were crucified as Jesus had been. Mark was drug behind horses until he died. One of our denomination’s superintendents overseas became a Christian because he was fired from his job simply for attending a revival service. If it’s so illegal, it must be worth exploring more, he decided.
What has discipleship cost you? We live in the country with the most religious freedom in history. One does not have to have any religion, or one can practice any of them. However, a day is coming to this world when all Christians will be persecuted. Are you ready to live in that day?
Perhaps a more urgent question is what has non-discipleship cost you? Have the ways in which you haven’t tried to grow for God impacted your walk? In the first Assemblies of God church I attended, eight weeks in a row a message from the Lord was given that the congregation needed to spend more time in their Bibles.
Christians who don’t pay the price of discipleship will pay the price of non-discipleship. It is seen in lax Christian lives. Those who don’t pray don’t grow in Christ. These often think they are stronger Christians than they are. Some may not even be Christians any longer because of choices they have made. Those who don’t grow falter and stumble in their walk. When persecution comes, they die on the vine.
What price do you need to pay, today? Perhaps you need to spend more time in prayer or more time in the Word. Perhaps the cost to you is a monetary cost and you need to give more to missions. Our church supports missionaries who minister in some of the same places that Matthew did. Their lives are sometimes endangered.
What has it cost you to follow Christ? The price of discipleship may be high but the price of nondiscipleship is even higher.