A few years ago, a few friends and I road tripped to Colorado to do a bike ride from Durango to Silverton. The route went through two mountain passes that topped out at almost 11,000 feet. I remember as I was nearing the top of the final climb, I was going slow enough that I kept wondering if it would be faster to just get off my bike and walk.
But, then I looked up and saw a sign just ahead; I had made it to the summit.
Immediately, everything changed.
The road started going down. I could catch my breath. I could enjoy the scenery, and I was going fast enough that I didn’t even have to pedal. Just getting over that mountain pass made all the difference.
The gospel of Luke gives us the story of how Matthew became one of the twelve disciples of Jesus.
Before he met Jesus, Matthew was a tax collector. During the Roman rule, the Roman government would hire Jewish men to collect taxes from the Jewish community. This system encouraged corruption and extortion, and the profession was viewed as being made up of traitors, cheaters, and liars. They were socially, morally, and religiously outcasts of the society.
But then something happened that changed everything for Matthew.
After this he [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi [again that’s Matthew], sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
– Luke 5:27-28
That’s it for Matthew’s story. One day he’s sitting at a tax booth, scamming people, and the next, he leaves everything and follows Jesus.
He’s all in.
And pretty much that’s all that’s said about him in the rest of the Bible, except for the mention of him being one of the twelve disciples following Jesus.
There’s something about his story — and stories like his — that for a long time in my life confused me.
I grew up going to church as a young kid, more so when I was younger but less toward high school. And throughout that whole time, I made some assumptions about church and Christianity based on what I had observed of people who said they were Christians. You see, I always thought church was just a lame hobby where you tried to be good person. It was this one-hour religious thing, where you wore clothes you normally didn’t wear, and talked like you normally didn’t talk.
So, what it seemed like was there were some people who were really into it, but most people were content to be on the fringe. Half in and half out. Like, “We’ll come on Sunday some. But we’re not coming to your weird potluck in the fellowship hall. That’s not us.”
That influenced not only how I viewed church but how I viewed God.
I thought, as long as I was morally in that middle ground with everyone else, then me and God were okay too — that God was just happy to be included as if he was just looking for some friends. Low commitment required. The goal was to try to live life, be a good guy, and sprinkle a little religion on there every once in a while.
So “all-in” stories of complete life-change like Matthew really confused me.
There was no promise attached to it like riches or blessing, and no real direction for what would happen next. All Jesus said was, “follow me.”
Why did Matthew leave everything? Why couldn’t he just keep doing what he was doing, go to church, try to be a little less shady, and sprinkle a little religion on there?
Why couldn’t he just stay in the middle ground?
It wasn’t until I went to college and attended a church there with some of my friends that I finally got it. I finally understood, because the same thing that happened to Matthew happened to me. I met Jesus. Not literally. Matthew literally met Jesus. But it felt like that. I was introduced to who Jesus really is, as he’s revealed himself in the Bible.
Suddenly, I was all-in. Everything changed for me — my values, my dreams, my purpose, the way I ordered my life, the way I viewed other people — everything changed.
But, the truth is just knowing who Jesus is, is not enough. Jesus came to Matthew and then he called him to do something. He simply said, “Follow me.” But then Matthew had a choice to make — to stay or follow.
And, so do we.
What does it look like to follow Jesus?
In his Gospel account, Matthew recorded what Jesus, himself, said is the answer to this question as he was speaking to his disciples.
It’s what changed everything for me.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
– Matthew 16:24-25
This is probably very different than what the disciples originally pictured when they signed up for all of this.
But, notice, this description is who Jesus is as a person, and what he did for us —he humbled himself, denied himself, and went to a cross.
He’s saying that’s what it looks like to follow him.
It’s just not about what we get out of it. It’s not about personal gain. And it’s not about all the great things we get to do.
So, what do you get by following Jesus if you’re not getting stuff from him?
You get Jesus.
Looking at Matthew’s story, that’s all that Jesus offers him. He just said, “Follow me. If you leave everything you know and come with me, you get me.”
So this is what I realized as a half-in, half-out supposed “Christian.” When Jesus says, “follow me,” he’s only giving you one way to do it: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him.
There’s no middle ground.
No hanging onto your shady tax collecting business. No hanging onto your sin. No hanging onto living life with just a little religion sprinkled on it.
You must leave all of that behind and follow him.
And when you do, everything changes.