“And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. 10 And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? 12 But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. 13 But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
The general facts surrounding the man named Matthew can be easily summarized since very little is known about him. Matthew was the brother of James the Less, and the son of Alphaeus and Mary (Mark 2:14). It is interesting to note the three sets of brothers that are listed in the first twelve disciples. There is James and John, Peter and Andrew, and Matthew and James the Less. It is a special measure of God’s grace when family members come to faith.
Matthew was sometimes called Levi (lit. joined), which spoke of his family heritage. Matthew was from the tribe of Levi. The tribe of Levi had been set apart in a special way to conduct the worship of the Lord (Num. 3:6; Deut. 10:8). When the Law of Moses was given, the Levites were instructed to join with the sons of Aaron in spiritual service (cf. Num. 18:1-2).
The centuries passed, and this arrangement worked out fine. Generations came and went. Young people were instructed in the duties of the Temple, like Matthew. Beginning in childhood, Matthew would have been trained for the day he would enter into the holy work. But his heart wandered from the ways of God. He became hardened to the point that he could engage the enemies of Israel for money.
He disgraced his family, and his heritage. For a period of time, Matthew did not care what pain and grief he caused his parents, or what society thought of him. He would work for Rome. Having become a moral reproach to the Levitical priesthood, Matthew decided to be numbered among those responsible for the security of Roman revenue as a custom’s officer in Capernaum, in the territory ruled by Herod Antipas.
The popular title for this position was publicani, from the Latin publicanus, because of the close relation to the public purse. As a publican, Matthew was in a position to become very wealthy. Being a custom’s official was financially a very profitable occupation (cf. Luke 19:8; Luke 3:12, 18), but there was a heavy emotional and mental price to pay. Of all the types of people in the ancient world, the tax collectors were hated above all others. The Jews excelled all others in their hatred for publicans.
For Matthew to be a tax collector was for him to be a traitor to his own country. Rome enslaved the people of Palestine. To work for Rome was to be disloyal to one’s nation. That was bad enough. But there was something else.
The Jews were convinced that they should only pay taxes to God. For an orthodox Jew, Yahweh was the only person to whom it was right to pay tribute, and that was done through the local synagogue. Since Matthew did not work as a priest in the Temple, he was violating religious honor due to God. No wonder the Jews numbered the publicans among the murderers and robbers of society.
A common proverb of the day instructed the young men to, “Take not a wife out of that family wherein is a publican, for they are all publicans, or thieves, robbers, and wicked sinners.” Of course, Christ was aware of the intense social prejudice against publicans as a class of people.
In one of His parables, the Lord spoke of a publican, or tax collector, that stood afar off from the Temple (Luke 18:13). The publican stood far from the Temple in humility, and he stood far away from the House of God because he was not allowed by polite society to worship in the Temple. That reminds us that it is possible to put unnecessary religious barriers before individuals who are struggling to find their way back to the Church.
Now, there was some justification for the popular hostility of the Jews toward the tax collectors. They were notoriously greedy and unjust. It is a simple fact that individuals do grow bold in sin. And the bolder the sin, the bolder the person becomes in bad behavior. Because they were hard-hearted, the tax collectors invented a number of ways to extract money.
There was a production tax. One-tenth of a person’s crop of grain, and one-fifth of his wine, fruit, and oil went to the government. There was an income tax. One percent of a man’s income was taken. There was a poll tax. Everyone had to pay a portion of their income simply for the privilege of being alive. Men aged fourteen through sixty-five were taxed, and women twelve through sixty-five were taxed. One denarius or one day’s wage was the normal price extracted. There was an import and an export tax.There was a purchase tax on everything that was bought and sold.
For a poor people, politically enslaved, and economically challenged, all the various taxes amounted to a heavy burden. But Matthew did not care. He was ruthless enough to join in the collection of money from his own people. Then one day, in the providence of God, the Holy Spirit was sent to work on Matthew’s hard heart, and to bring conviction to his conscience.
Matthew was ready to change, because money no longer satisfied him. There is a limit to what money can buy. Money had not bought Matthew any friends, or love. The only people he could associate with were fellow publicans, and the local prostitutes. But, even then, Matthew never knew if others liked him, or his wealth. In his autobiography, As I See It, oil tycoon J. Paul Getty spoke of his five marriages, and wrote that he would give his considerable wealth for the true love of one woman.
Money had not bought Matthew a good conscience. While the heart of a person can become so callused that the misery of another is no longer seen or felt, there is a persistent thought that all is not right. There must be more to life than listening to people mutter under their breath, swindler, cheat, traitor, wicked man, crook. Because people have a moral standard of right and wrong, sometimes, with the aid of divine grace, they are ready to judge bad behavior, even in themselves. Charles Wesley wrote:
“I want a principle within,
Of jealous, godly fear;
A sensibility of sin—
A pain to feel it near:
I want the first approach to feel
Of pride, or fond desire;
To catch the wandering of my will,
And quench the kindling fire.
From Thee that I no more may part,
No more Thy goodness grieve,
The filial awe, the fleshly heart,
The tender conscience, give.
Quick as the apple of an eye,
O God, my conscience make;
Awake my soul when sin is nigh,
And keep it still awake.”
Money had not bought Matthew a good conscience. Money had not bought Matthew a place in the kingdom of heaven. There is only one way to enter into the kingdom and that is through the act of repentance. Repentance means to turn away from sin, and self, to the Savior. Repentance means to forsake the world as to its philosophy, its security, and its promises, in order to follow Christ. Matthew was a man who repented.
It happened one day while he was still sitting at the receipt of custom, at Capernaum on the Great West Trunk Road from Damascus, and the Far East to the Mediterranean Sea. Matthew looked up from his busy task of taking in money from the many travelers to observe the excitement of a crowd.
In the middle of the multitude was a special Man. Matthew saw Him, and knew who He was. By now the word had spread throughout Palestine. Far and wide people had heard about the Carpenter from Galilee who claimed to be the Son of God. His name was Jesus. Some said He was the Messiah. Others thought that He was a prophet like Jeremiah.
Suddenly, Jesus started to move towards Matthew. In front of the booth the Lord of Glory stopped, and quietly stared down. Into Matthew’s eyes the Lord looked, and beyond, that His gaze penetrated Matthew’s heart.
While others saw a publican, a traitor, a scoundrel, and an extortionist, Jesus saw a sad soul in need of a Savior. Jesus saw a person ready to be rescued from the emptiness of pursuing the tarnished treasures of time. Jesus saw a man who needed a friend. As the Friend of Sinners, Christ spoke to Matthew, and said simply enough, “Follow Me.”
Two words, and a man was moved. Two words, and a heart was changed. Two words, and a soul was rescued from the Kingdom of Darkness, and was transferred into the Kingdom of Light. Two words and a sinner was made into a saint.
Christ came to a man in the midst of sinful activity, and said, “Follow me.” “Stop what you are doing, rise up, and follow Me.” While some in the crowd gasped in astonishment, the angels in heaven exploded in triumphant praise. Somewhere else in the celestial City of God the redeemed of the ages rejoiced.
From one end of heaven to the other the news went forth that a new name had been written down in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Abraham! Isaac! Jacob! Come here. You sons of Aaron come here! Matthew has been saved. Matthew the Levite has come to faith. Matthew has repented. Matthew is willing to renounce his whole way of life. Jesus said, “Follow me,” and Matthew arose, and followed Him.
In the act of rising up to follow Christ, Matthew manifested that he was truly converted in several ways. Matthew suddenly wanted others to come to Christ. Matthew wanted others to meet the Master. Therefore, on the night of the day of his salvation, Matthew held a dinner party to celebrate.
Because Jesus was the Guest of Honor, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and His disciples (Matt. 9:20). In this way, Matthew began to witness to others that the most wretched and vile of men can know something about redeeming grace. May God grant us a longing to see souls saved. It is a sign of salvation.
Another sign of salvation is being the target of slander and scorn for righteousness sake. When the Pharisees heard of the dinner party Matthew held for the Lord, they became very critical. Approaching some of the original disciples, the Pharisees demanded to know why the Lord would eat with tax collectors, and others of ill repute.
The disciples did not know what to say so they asked Christ, who knew just how to respond. Jesus pointed out something very simple. “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Matt. 9:12-13). Matthew knew he was a sinner. He had hurt many people. Nothing would ever change that fact. Matthew had lived a life of rebellion by defying His God, denouncing His country, and showing disrespect to his spiritual heritage. Matthew’s passion had been inordinate for materialistic objects. But that was in the past. He was a repentant sinner, saved by grace.
As a saved sinner, as a Christian, Matthew manifested modesty. Humility touched his life, reflected in the fact that his name is not mentioned in his own gospel in any way that would call undue attention to himself.
This facet of Matthew’s character is worthy of being copied, for humility does not come easy to anyone. Perhaps one of the best definitions of humility has been given by Charles Fox, who wrote that humility is the willingness to be foolish enough to depend on Christ for wisdom, weak enough to be empowered with His strength, base enough to have no honor but God’s honor, despised enough to be kept in the dust at His feet, and nothing enough for God to be everything.
It was a blessed day in Church history when Jesus stopped before a social outcast, and said, Follow me. Matthew traded his tarnished treasures and personal ambition for accumulating inappropriate assets for a place in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew learned that there is more to life than the multiplication of stocks and bonds, as proper as that might be at the right time and place.
But there is more. There are eternal souls to be saved. There are people bound in sin to be set free. There is a Lord and Master to follow. No one who has ever fully followed Christ has been sorry. Matthew never regretted leaving the custom’s gate because he received the fullness of the Holy Spirit who inspired him to write a gospel narrative that shall live and abide forever. The gospel of Matthew is the gift of grace from a grateful heart.
Like so many of the Apostles, the end of Matthew’s life is full of legend and myth. Only two facts seem certain when all the evidence is considered. Matthew ministered to the saints in Egypt where he met a violent death, killed by a sword wound, for preaching the gospel. Death by violence in Ethiopia came (c. AD 60) because from the moment that he arose to follow the Lord, Matthew never turned back to his old life.