MATTHEW THE GOSPEL WRITER
Believers in Jesus Christ have much to be thankful for when they consider the work of the gospel writer, Matthew. His contribution to the New Testament is a major one considering that the Holy Spirit used him to write one of the four gospels telling the life and ministry of Jesus while He walked this earth. Here I will examine the life and character of Matthew, the apostle, and portray how his life was impacted and completely changed when he encountered Jesus of Nazareth.
Matthew – A Jew of Jesus’ Time
I suspect that the times in which Matthew lived were not much different from our own. Political tension with the occupying Roman legions in Jerusalem and throughout the land of Israel must have kept the Jews in a constant state of internal resentment. Religious pressures from the Jewish hierarchy insisting that the Jews keep all of the laws of both the Torah and the Talmud, were a daily burden. The hectic pursuit of property and possessions in the arena of trade and commerce kept people in a frenzy of worry about this life and its cares.
At that time, no prophet had been heard from in Israel since Malachi, some four hundred years before. One day, however, people were astir talking about someone named John. He was telling the Jews to repent of their sins because the kingdom of God was at hand. John was announcing the arrival of Someone very important in God’s plan for the Jews. “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance. but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:” (Matt. 3:11, KJV).
Shortly into John’s ministry, Jesus came from Galilee to where John was preaching at the Jordan River and began His public ministry to the people of Israel. Everywhere Jesus went He stirred people from their ignorance and apathy. The religious leaders were very skeptical of Him. However, the common people were attracted to Him because of his miracles of healing and deliverance, His authoritative teaching, and because of His compassion for the lowly and forgotten.
It was to this religious, politically oppressed nation, Jesus embarked on His mission to save the world. He began by choosing some individuals out of the crowds, specifically asking them to be His followers. A very diverse crew was this group He called out—ordinary people in all types of trade. One of the not-so-ordinary people Jesus chose was someone whose name was Levi.
Levi The Tax Collector
It’s probable that Levi’s parents named him after one of the Jewish patriarchs, Levi the son of Jacob. From this son descended those whom God chose to be the priestly line, of which were Moses and his brother Aaron. It was the Levites whom God ordained to maintain the temple and all of the vessels of worship.
History gives us some background on this Levi whom Jesus chose to be a disciple.
“He was a Jew. His father’s name was Alphaeus. His home was at Capernaum. His business was the collection of dues and customs from persons and goods crossing the Sea of Galilee, or passing along the great Damascus road which ran along the shore line between Bethsaida, Julius and Capernaum.”¹
How did this Jew named Levi ever become a tax collector? What drove him to seek a profession that assisted the very government of tyranny that suppressed his own people? What made him betray his own priestly name and pursue a vocation that caused his fellow Jews to despise him? Was it only greed?
I think we may find a clue to answer these questions in the very gospel account that Levi (whose name was changed to Matthew), later wrote. It could very well be that before Jesus came into the life of this tax collector, Levi had totally given up on his heritage and the hope of a Messiah because of the hypocrisy he saw in the religious elite. He saw how these leaders lived double lives and he wanted nothing to do with their system of empty rules and regulations. They don’t look too much different than the pompous religious elites of today. Ours have reduced Jesus to a sentimental pacesetter and dwindled His powerful repentance/salvation gospel message to an impotent mishmash of do-good, social justice catch-all of community ideals. Matthew is the only gospel writer to record Jesus’ scathing rebuke of the religious leaders, the Pharisees and scribes. Bible translators have termed this section ‘the seven woes’, seen in chapter twenty-three of Matthew’s gospel.
“But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves…
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. ”
(Matt. 23:13-15, 23-25, 27 & 28, KJV).
Jesus exposed the real creed by which these leaders lived their lives – IMAGE IS EVERYTHING. Instead of giving glory to God by their lives, they were glorifying themselves, and it showed.
Though Levi had every right to despise this system of hypocrisy, nonetheless, his pursuit in the opposite direction left him with the hopelessness of a man without a country. He must have daily felt the despising of the Jews as he exacted dues and taxes from them to give to the hated Romans. I’m sure he would hear his countrymen referring to him as a dog. “The epithets dog, dead dog, dog’s head were used as terms of reproach.”² This would have been especially hurtful since every Jew knew that a dog was considered one of the unclean animals.
This wealthy tax collector from Capernaum, the city built by Rome and often referred to as the Exalted City because of its beauty, seemed to be carving his own niche in a hostile environment. He came across as a person who was undaunted, fearless and getting everything he wanted. But was he?
The ‘Dog’ Turns Disciple
“Tax collectors have never been popular, but they were especially hated in the Roman Empire. Originally they were paid on a commission basis, so the more taxes they could collect the more they could keep for themselves. As a result they badgered the public and extorted money over nearly every transaction. Jews who became tax collectors were considered traitors because they took money from their own people in the service of pagan Rome. Tax collectors were called ‘wild beasts in human shape’ and classed with assassins and robbers. They were forbidden to enter a synagogue, their money was considered unclean…For Jesus to add such a man to his team was akin to a Billy Graham enlisting a Mafia mobster to help in an evangelistic campaign…”³
Healing of a Broken Man (Part 2)
1 William Smith, L.L.D., “Matthew,” Smith’s Bible Dictionary, MacDonald Publishing Company, p. 387.
2 William Smith, L.L.D., “Matthew,” Smith’s Bible Dictionary, MacDonald Publishing Company, p.147 & 148.
3 Bill Counts, “I.R.S. – Roman Style,” Once A Carpenter, Harvest House Publishers,1975, p. 48.