Matthew, from Publican to Apostle
WHOM did God choose to become apostles of his Son Christ Jesus? The high and mighty of this world? Not at all! On the contrary, as the apostle Paul well expressed it: “God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put the wise men to shame, and God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put the strong things to shame; and God chose the ignoble things of the world and the things looked down upon, the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are.” And why? “In order that no flesh might boast in the sight of God.”—John 17:6; 1 Cor. 1:27-29, NW.
“The ignoble things of the world and the things looked down upon”—how well that describes the tax collectors of Jesus’ day! Evidently these tax collectors (termed “publicans” in the King James Version) were very much like the corrupt collectors of internal revenue of the United States and other lands in modern times and therefore well deserved their reputation. McClintock & Strong’s Cyclopædia tells us that they “were notorious for their impudent exactions everywhere; but to the Jews they were especially odious, for they were the very spot where the Roman chain galled them, the visible proof of the degraded state of their nation. As a rule, none but the lowest would accept such an unpopular office, and thus the class became worthy of the hatred with which in any case the Jews would have regarded it”. No wonder that the tax collectors were repeatedly associated with harlots and sinners!—Matt. 9:10, 11; 21:31, 32, NW.
While the self-righteous religious leaders of the day had a veritable loathing for the tax collectors, it was to just such spiritually sick persons that Jesus came, even as he told the Pharisees, who had complained about his associating with tax collectors and sinners: “Persons in health do not need a physician, but the ailing do. Go, then, and learn what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice.’”—Matt. 9:12, 13, NW.
Matthew, whose name means “gift of Jah”, was one of those despised tax collectors. He seems to have had charge of the office of custom for the Sea of Galilee. Matthew, however, was different from most tax collectors of his day. He was not content with making tax collecting his career, regardless of how profitable it might have been. No, he was one of those whom Jesus termed happy because of appreciating their spiritual need and who hungered and thirsted for righteousness.—Matt. 5:3, 6, NW.
Matthew was a true sheep, and so when Jesus called “Be my follower” he at once recognized the voice of the Good Shepherd, and “thereupon he did rise up and follow him”. (Matt. 9:9, NW) Yes, just as readily as the sons of Zebedee left their father’s fishing business to follow Jesus so did Matthew leave his customs post. And to use another illustration, Matthew was like a pearl covered with grime. All that the self-righteous clergy saw was the grime, the contemptible tax collector. God, however, saw the pearl, the honest heart, that only needed the water of truth to cause it to shine with a beautiful luster to the honor of its Creator.—John 7:24, NW.
After telling of his call to follow Jesus, and his response to it, Matthew tells of a feast at the home of a tax collector to which Jesus was invited, causing the Pharisees to grumble, as already noted. Modestly, Matthew fails to tell who made this feast. Luke, however, identifies him for us: “Also Levi [Matthew] spread a big reception feast for him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax collectors and others who were with them reclining at the meal.” (Luke 5:29, NW) What an effective way for all his friends and business acquaintances to have a good witness given to them by Jesus! Incidentally, in this matter Mark and Luke refer to Matthew as Levi, his name before becoming an apostle, even as Peter’s name was Simon and Paul’s was Saul.—John 1:42; Acts 13:9.
What a change this meant for the despised tax collector Matthew! Instead of giving his allegiance to Caesar, he was now giving it to Jehovah’s king, Christ Jesus. And instead of working for cruel, ruthless, imperial Rome, as an instrument of oppression, Matthew was in the service of the kingdom of God, bringing comfort and hope of freedom to the mourning and oppressed.
Matthew seems to have played a minor role among the twelve apostles, as the Gospel accounts have very little to say regarding him. We know that he was one of the twelve that accompanied Jesus on his preaching tours and that later were sent out to preach, two by two. He was with Jesus on the night in which his Master instituted the memorial of his death, washed the feet of his disciples and gave those comforting words of admonition recorded by John.—Matthew 10; Luke 8:1; 22:28-30; John chapters 13 to 17.
Matthew also saw the resurrected Christ, and together with the other ten received parting instructions from him. Matthew is named as being in the upper chamber shortly before the holy spirit was poured out.—Matt. 28:16-20; Acts 1:13; 2:1-4.
That Matthew actually wrote the account bearing his name has never been seriously questioned. From the evidence at hand it seems that he wrote it sometime during A.D. 41-50, some years before Mark and Luke wrote their accounts. Evidently he early saw the value and need of such a record and so was used by the Lord to supply that need in advance of others.
In his account Matthew does not seek to hide his lowly profession. In fact, he not only tells us about it at the time of his call, but when listing the twelve called ones he again makes mention of that fact, referring to himself as “Matthew the tax collector”, although not mentioning the profession or occupation of any of the others. Neither Mark nor Luke thought it necessary to make mention of it when they listed the twelve.—Mark 2:14; 3:18; Luke 5:27-32; 6:15.
It seems that Matthew first wrote his book in Hebrew and then translated it into Greek. Like Paul, he seemed to be anxious that his Jewish brothers should recognize Jesus as the Messiah. He establishes Jesus’ legal right to the Abrahamic promise and the Davidic kingdom covenant through Jesus’ foster father Joseph. He quotes from the Hebrew Scriptures more than 50 times, which is more than Mark and Luke together.
Matthew’s Gospel generally makes the same approach, covers the same ground and events and takes a view in common with that taken by Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels. For this reason all three have been termed “synoptic” Gospels, meaning that they have a “like view”; not that they are a synopsis of Jesus’ life, for they are not. Each lists some things the others do not, and in this respect we find Matthew’s account far more complete than that of the others in respect to the sermon on the mount, the instructions the twelve received as they were sent forth, Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, and Jesus’ great prophecy concerning the sign of his second presence.—See Mt chapters 5 through 7, 10, and Mt 23 through 25.
Particularly does Matthew stress the theme of the Kingdom. To him Jesus was the Preacher-King. No other writer gives us so much of Jesus’ public discourses, and he gives at least ten of the Kingdom illustrations not mentioned by the others. He did not concern himself with details, as did Mark, nor with chronological accuracy, as did Luke. He was carried away with the grandeur of the Kingdom theme.
Among the incidents of Jesus’ life peculiar to Matthew’s account are Joseph’s suspicions regarding Mary, the visit of the magi, the flight into Egypt, the massacre of the infants, the return of the family from Egypt, and why they settled in Nazareth. Matthew alone tells us of the thirty pieces of silver, and the use to which that money was eventually put, he alone mentions the twelve legions of angels that Jesus could have asked for; the dream of Pilate’s wife and Pilate’s washing his hands are likewise mentioned only by Matthew.
As we read Matthew’s account of the life of Christ we become aware of a keen appreciation of the mercy that God showed him. In this respect he was also like Paul, who was overcome with gratitude that to him, “a man less than the least of all holy ones, this undeserved kindness was given” of being a minister of God, an apostle of Christ Jesus. (Eph. 3:8; 1 Tim. 1:12, NW) Matthew alone gives us Jesus’ repeated insistence that mercy and not sacrifice is required; he alone gives the illustration of the unmerciful slave; he alone gives us Jesus’ admonition to Peter to forgive seventy-seven times; and he alone recorded what some consider the most comforting of all of Jesus’ words: “Come to me, all you who are toiling and loaded down, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you and become my disciples, for I am mild-tempered and lowly in heart, and you will find refreshment for your souls. For my yoke is kindly and my load is light.”—Matt. 9:13; 11:28-30; 12:7; 18:21-35; 23:23, NW.
Matthew, the despised tax collector, through God’s undeserved kindness, became an honored apostle of Jesus Christ. Content to play a minor role among the twelve, he served his Master both by the spoken word and by the written. And he had no occasion to regret having dedicated his all to God’s service, for he received many times more as he served as an apostle and had the sure hope of a glorious heavenly reward.—Matt. 19:27-29.
We may think, What a wonderful privilege Matthew had, to be associated with Christ Jesus as he walked this earth! True, but may it not be said that in at least some respects ours is a greater privilege to be living now, when Christ has returned and rules in the midst of his enemies? Today far more prophecies are being fulfilled than when Jesus and Matthew were on earth. (Matthew chapters 24, 25) If we appreciate God’s mercy to us as much as did Matthew, and are as eager to make known the good news as was he, we likewise will be richly rewarded, both now and in the new world of righteousness.
I have made your name manifest to the men you gave me out of the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have observed your word. I make request concerning them; I make request, not concerning the world.—John 17:6, 9, NW.