In part 1 of this series we considered the biblical word imagery of a path to travel. As we thought about the way of Christ, we ended on the idea that the Way of Christ is toward a glorious rest but is not the path of least resistance. In this part I want us to begin describing Jesus’ way in more specific terms.
Before we begin to positively identify the way of Christ, it may be helpful to describe this path by way of negation. I have a short list of denials, just three. We won’t spend much time exploring these denials, but they will hopefully be helpful. First, Jesus’ way is not a one-time decision or a prayer prayed, but it is a life of active faith. Second, Jesus’ way is not a life of sinless perfection, but it is a life fighting against sin. Third, the way of Christ is not a casual pursuit in life, but it is a purposeful quest of life.
Jesus is Calling…
Do you like hymns? I love them. I first began to regularly attend church as a teenager and my church back then sang nothing but hymns, with nothing but a piano for accompaniment. When I write the words, “Jesus is calling” I can almost hear the melody of the piano and the quiet vocals singing this hymn of “invitation”. “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me?” Can you hear it? Ha. You definitely can now if you have a church background anything like mine (You can thank me later).
In the synoptic gospels (Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5) we are told how Jesus called Matthew (aka Levi) to follow Him. There was no “heads bowed and eyes closed” moment. There was no gentle tickle of the ivories to help stir emotion. In fact, it seems that Matthew wasn’t even in the “church service” that day because the text clearly tells us that Matthew was sitting at his place of business when Jesus looks to him and says, “Follow me.” We aren’t given all the details, all three accounts are short, but each story highlights the apparent scandal.
The religious right was scandalized at Jesus’ willingness to associate Himself with Matthew’s class of people. What class of people is that? The tax collecting kind. Why would the profession of tax collecting incite disgust in those first century Jews? Matthew, a Jewish man, was working in conjunction with his countrymen’s Roman oppressors. Matthew was part of a corrupt system of taxation that extorted, abused, and hurt his own Jewish people. In Jesus’ first century context, Matthew would have been considered to be “the scum of the earth”, to use a modern phrase.
This issue was highlighted by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Seemingly because it was an important example of God’s grace. Let’s consider God’s grace upon “the scum of the earth”. The grace of God that is given to us through Jesus Christ is not contingent upon our worthiness or merits. Jesus called Matthew the tax collector to follow Him, not because there was something worthy in Matthew to be called. No. Jesus called him to follow because Jesus is worthy to be followed. Jesus’ love for Matthew wasn’t contingent upon Matthew’s character but Jesus’ own character. Jesus looked upon Matthew and did not discard him like so many of his contemporaries. Jesus looked upon Matthew and received him because Jesus had come to “call sinners to repentance”. Are you a sinner? I am too. In my opinion, that is one good reason to love this passage. Jesus came for, and calls people like me and you to follow Him.
Burdens are Lifted…
Imagine the comfort Matthew must have felt when Jesus singled him out personally to become a disciple. All three accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tell us that after Jesus called Matthew to be a disciple there was a dinner, a kind of party. Mark tells us the merry gathering took place at Matthew’s own home. Not only was Matthew called to follow, but he was truly accepted by Jesus. Jesus came to Matthew’s own home. Matthew apparently invited his friends, and his close associates who were all of the same “class” as he was. The Pharisees were indignant. How could Jesus eat with such people? Remember, Jesus came to call sinners to repentance, but the Pharisees were appalled.
Can you imagine the relief? Undoubtedly there was a burden lifted when Matthew was accepted and chosen by Jesus. Matthew, and sinners like him, had been rejected by all the religious teachers they knew up until now (Mark 2:16). Think about being completely rejected by all the people you looked to as “men of God”. How might that affect your religious affection toward God? I imagine it would cause a person to assume that God also had rejected them. So when Jesus accepts, chooses, and dines with Matthew and his friends, how would that have affected their religious affections? Matthew likely felt an enormous burden lifted by Jesus’ grace, kindness, and reconciliation. Can you remember the burden that Jesus lifted for you when you first believed? Praise God for the ease of a sinful burden lifted by Christ.
From Worst to First…
Have you experienced a come from behind victory? The feeling is amazing. Everyone else seemed to marginalize you but somehow you kept plodding your way through the obstacles for the “W”. That is a great experience. I think Matthew might have felt a little like. What an amazing few years it has been for Matthew. I wonder if he had given much thought to how far he had come. Once upon a time, he was “the scum of the earth”, but he was now one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. He was hand picked by the Messiah Himself. The twelve enjoyed the thrill of watching the Messiah work and having a role to play in assisting Him. Matthew was now important, popular, and an influential religious leader.
To help us illustrate the success that Matthew had been enjoying as a hand picked disciple of Jesus, look at Matthew 18. Peter, James, John, Andrew, Matthew, and the others had been enjoying such success that they had no doubt in their minds that Jesus, their Messiah, was soon going to overthrow the Roman oppressors. A seemingly common debate among the inner twelve (Matt 18, Matt 20, Mark 9, Luke 9, Luke 22) was centered upon the question who of them was “accounted the greatest”? And therefore, which one of them was to be “the greatest in Christ’s kingdom”? How did this become their concern? They had been experiencing amazing results from their tour with Jesus. Jesus was “winning” they thought, and would soon defeat the Roman oppressors to usher in peace and prosperity in Jerusalem as King. Before Matthew was a disciple of Jesus, he was a “nobody”. But now, as one of Jesus’ closest friends, he was a “somebody”. He was on the “winning team”. How did that feel? I imagine there was a certain level of comfort that he found as a disciple of Jesus.
The World Ain’t All Sunshine and Rainbows…
Do you like Rocky movies? The fictional character of Rocky Balboa is a great “worst to first” story. In the sixth installment of the movie franchise, titled “Rocky Balboa”, the main character gives a rousing speech to his struggling son. He says, “let me tell you something you already know, the world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place…”. Rocky was right, we did already know that. But our natural tendency is to forget how hard this world is after we experience a measure of success. I think this forgetfulness happened to Matthew and all the disciples. Their ministerial success seemed to have given them tunnel vision. Jesus was actively telling them He was going to be betrayed, killed, and resurrected, but the disciples were seemingly blindsided when Jesus’ words became reality.
The disciples ideas of what Jesus’ kingdom was going to look like came crumbling to the ground as Jesus was condemned to death by crucifixion. The world had never before proven itself to be so “mean and nasty”. The disciples all forsook Jesus and fled (Matt 26) for their lives. Matthew seemingly lost everything. Did he follow the wrong person? Was he another fool? How could God allow such evil to be committed against His Christ? As readers of the gospel accounts we can see the end from the beginning, but Matthew must have been terrified.
Then Sings My Soul…
Jesus, the Son of God, was lifted up between heaven and earth. God’s righteous wrath against sinners was poured out upon Jesus in their place. Jesus suffered, as it were, the hell we deserved. He bled and died, as the song says, “to take away our sins”. But when Joseph retrieved the body from off the cross, the story simply looked to have been another tragedy. Jesus’ corpse was wrapped quickly for burial and put into Joseph’s own tomb. Then, on the first day of the week, a group of women came to visit Jesus’ tomb. They did not come to investigate His promises of resurrection, but to complete the burial process that was hurried by Joseph and incomplete. What they saw when they arrived at the tomb was completely unexpected. Jesus had been predicting His own death and resurrection, but none of His followers had expected any of this. The women arrived and the tomb was empty, and an angel stood by to declare to them the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. Imagine the joy that filled Matthew’s heart when He saw his resurrected Lord face to face. He is alive!
Paul, last of all the apostles, wrote to the church in Philippi (Phil 3) and summarized the “way of Christ” for us in these words; “the fellowship of His sufferings”. There are many modern American Christians that mistakenly assume that Jesus’ death on the cross was meant to win comfort and ease for His followers. No. That is certainly not what Jesus won for us in this life. Jesus’ victory is our victory, but our comfort and rest is not for us yet today. The way of Christ is toward a glorious rest but that path is characterized as “the fellowship of His sufferings”.
After Jesus’ resurrection, His apostles were taught by Him again. We have no clear record of Jesus’ post-crucifixion sermons, but undoubtedly they were no different than the pre-crucifixion sermons. Why? Because the cross was always in Jesus’ view as He taught. For example, Jesus predicted his disciples would find Jesus’ way to be dangerous in Matthew 5: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake…”. Jesus’ death did not ensure Matthew a health and prosperous life. Jesus’ death provided eternal life and provided it a model for Matthew to live now that was purposeful and painful. Paul didn’t call it the “fellowship of His sufferings” in jest. According to Foxe’s book of martyrs, Matthew was martyred while doing the work of an evangelist on the continent of Africa. The way of Christ is not the path of least resistance. It is an active life of faith that walks side by side with brothers and sisters journeying toward our glorious rest. The Way of Christ is not a path of ease. Believers are walking side by side down the same path that our Saviour walked before us. We are part of the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.