Matthew the tax collector looks like the last person we’d expect to follow Jesus. So how did he become a disciple?
Mathew the tax collector was first mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew (specifically, Matthew 9:9). One day, while Jesus was walking, he noticed a man sitting where the tax collector usually sits. That man’s name was Matthew. Jesus then told Matthew to follow Him.
Remember that tax collectors were among the most hated people in Jewish society. To begin with, they were traitors to their own nation because they “sold themselves” to the Romans to work for the government. Each tax collector purchased from Rome the right to gather taxes; and the more he gathered, the more he could keep. They were considered thieves as well as traitors; and their constant contacts with Gentiles made them religiously suspect, if not unclean. Jesus reflected the popular view of the tax collectors when He classified them with harlots and other sinners (Matt. 5:46-47; 18:17); but it was obvious that He was the “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19; 21:31-32).
Matthew opened his heart to Jesus Christ and became a new person. This was not an easy decision for him to make. He was a native of Capernaum, and Capernaum had rejected the Lord (Matt. 11:23). Matthew was a well-known businessman in the city, and his old friends probably persecuted him. Certainly Matthew lost a good deal of income when he left all to follow Christ.
Matthew not only opened his heart, but he also opened his home. He knew that most, if not all, of his old friends would drop him when he began to follow Jesus Christ; so Matthew took advantage of the situation and invited them to meet Jesus. He gave a great feast and invited all the other tax collectors (some of whom could have been Gentiles), and the Jewish people who were not keeping the Law (“sinners”).
Of course, the Pharisees criticized Jesus for daring to eat with such a defiled group of people. The Lord explained why He was fellowshipping with “tax collectors and sinners“: They were spiritually sick and needed a physician. He had not come to call the righteous because there were no righteous people. He came to call sinners, and that included the Pharisees. Of course, His critics did not consider themselves “spiritually sick,” but they were just the same.
Matthew not only opened his heart and home, but he also opened his hands and worked for Christ. Alexander Whyte of Edinburgh once said that, when Matthew left his job to follow Christ, he brought his pen with him! Little did this ex-tax collector realize that the Holy Spirit would one day use him to write the first of the four Gospels in the New Testament.
Matthew the Bridge-Builder: He Introduced a New Book
That book was the New Testament. If a Bible reader were to jump from Malachi into Mark, or Acts, or Romans, he would be bewildered. Matthew’s Gospel is the bridge that leads us out of the Old Testament and into the New Testament.
Each of the four Gospels has its own emphasis. Matthew’s book is called, “the Gospel of the King.” It was written primarily for Jewish readers. Mark’s book, the Gospel of the Servant, was written to instruct Roman readers. Luke wrote mainly to the Greeks and presented Christ as the perfect “Son of man.” John’s appeal is universal, and his message was, “This is the Son of God.” No one Gospel is able to tell the whole story as God wants us to see it. But when we put these four Gospel accounts together, we have a composite picture of the person and work of our Lord.
Being accustomed to keeping systematic records, Matthew gives us a beautifully organized account of our Lord’s life and ministry.
Matthew focuses on the kingdom. In the Old Testament, the Jewish nation was God’s kingdom on earth: “And you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Many people in Jesus’ day were looking for the God-sent Deliverer who would release them from Roman bondage and reestablish the glorious kingdom of Israel.
The message of the kingdom of heaven was first preached by John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1-2). The Lord Jesus also preached this message from the very beginning of His ministry (Matt. 4:23). He sent out the 12 Apostles with the same proclamation (Matt. 10:1-7).
However, the Good News of the kingdom required a moral and spiritual response from the people, and not simply the acceptance of a ruler. John the Baptist called for repentance. Likewise, Jesus made it clear that He had not come to overcome Rome, but to transform the hearts and lives of those who trusted Him. Before He could enter into the glory of the kingdom, Jesus endured the suffering of the cross.
Matthew was not only a bridge-builder who introduced a new book, the New Testament; and a biographer who introduced a new King, Jesus Christ; but he also accomplished a third task when he wrote his book.
Matthew Introduced a New People
This new people, of course, was the church. Matthew is the only Gospel writer to use the word church (Matt. 16:18; 18:17). The Greek word translated church means “a called-out assembly.” In the New Testament, for the most part, this word refers to a local assembly of believers. In the Old Testament, Israel was God’s called-out people, beginning with the call of Abraham (Gen. 12:1ff; Deut. 7:6-8). In fact, Stephen called the nation of Israel “the church [assembly] in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38), for they were God’s called-out people.
But the New Testament church is a different people, for it is composed of both Jews and Gentiles. In this church there were no racial distinctions (Gal. 3:28). Even though Matthew wrote primarily for the Jews, he has a “universal” element in his book that includes the Gentiles. For example, Gentile leaders came to worship the Infant Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). Jesus performed miracles for Gentiles and even commended them for their faith (Matt. 8:5-13; 15:21-28). The Gentile Queen of Sheba was praised for her willingness to make a long journey to hear God’s wisdom (Matt. 12:42). At a crisis hour in Jesus’ ministry He turned to a prophecy about the Gentiles (Matt. 12:14-21). Even in the parables, Jesus indicated that the blessings which Israel refused would be shared with the Gentiles (Matt. 22:8-10; 21:40-46). The Great Commission stated that the message would go “unto all nations” (Matt. 24:14); and the Lord’s commission involves all nations (Matt. 28:19-20).
When his book was read by members of the early church, both Jews and Gentiles, it helped to settle differences and create unity. Matthew made it clear that this new people, the church, must not maintain a racial or social exclusiveness. Faith in Jesus Christ makes believers “all one” in the body of Christ, the church.
What Can We Learn From Matthew the Tax Collector?
- God never gives up on us: During the Roman Empire, tax collectors were notorious for pursuing money and prosperity. They would collect more than the necessary amounts from people and thus increase their wealth. This might have been the case with Matthew. However, Jesus did not give up on him. Instead, the Lord took Matthew under His wing and disciple him so Matthew could become a channel of His blessing to others.
Jesus, in His love and tender mercies, will never give up on us. Even when we wear the filthiest clothes, the Lord will never forsake us. Like Matthew, the Lord simply wants us to come to him in repentance and humility. Another gospel records Jesus telling the story of a repentant tax collector asking for God’s mercy in the temple (Luke 18:9-14). Jesus used the tax gatherer’s humility to teach us He will forgive us regardless of how many bad things we might have done. As we come to Him, He will take us to Himself, dust us off, and clothe us with a new garment of righteousness.
- We must make the right choice: Matthew made the right choice when he chose to leave his job and follow Jesus. Like Matthew, we must make the right choice to follow Jesus. If anything hinders us from following the Lord, we must forsake those things and follow after Christ, where we can hope to find eternal life, joy, and peace.
- Don’t let hatred stop you from serving Christ: Matthew not only had to deal with the fact other Jews hated him. One of Jesus’ other disciples was Simon the Zealot (Matthew 10:4), who would likely have hated him. The Zealotsstaged mass riots and civil unrest to overthrow the Romans—if anyone hated tax collectors, they especially did.
As Christians seeking a greater intimate walk with the Lord, we must not let other people’s hatred or dislike of us stop us from pursuing Christ and eternal life. Instead, we should continue to seek after the Lord with all our hearts. As we continue to run the Christian race, we should be mindful of the many hindrances and setbacks we will encounter, especially at the hands of people.
- Matthew’s life is an example for all: We don’t know exactly why Matthew became a tax collector. Maybe he was greedy for money. Maybe he was an orphan who wanted to escape poverty. Maybe he wanted life among society’s elites. Regardless, he chose a greedy profession filled with people who could never get enough. Yet, after Jesus called Matthew, he forsook his profession and became a disciple of the Lord.
It doesn’t matter the type of lifestyle we used to live before those around us. Christ did not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners who need His grace and mercy. Our lifestyle will not stop God in His track from extending His love to us. As we come to the Lord in our filthiness, He will take us to Himself and turn us around, thus, making us become a lighthouse of His glory so that all men who see us will note that His name calls us.
- Matthew’s life points us to Jesus Christ and not to himself: Throughout the Bible, Mathew was not mentioned much, yet he wrote the first book of the New Testament, the Gospel of St. Matthew. Although not much is known about him, he clearly did a good job pointing us to Christ through his written words. Not only did he write a bestselling book about the rise Savior, but he demonstrated his love for Christ by freely giving his own life for the sake of the Lord and the cause of the gospel. His contribution and sacrifice made it possible for not only those of his generation to find Christ but for many other generations to follow.
- Matthew is a trailblazer: IfChristcan turn a sinner such as Matthew’s life around, He can do the same for anyone. The life of Matthew—tax-gatherer, pursuer of greed, a sinner who once had no hope—shows us that God is no respecter of persons. If God can do it for Matthew, He can do the same for us today. Therefore, let us follow the example of Matthew, who left a legacy for us to follow. We can confidently turn to Christ, the One sent to redeem us back to the Father.
- We must come to Christ just as we are:When Jesus called Matthew, he dropped everything and followed Him. Jesus is a loving Savior to all and will not reject any of us, even the vilest of sinners He will accept. It doesn’t matter how deep we are in sin or how great our sins are. He is always there to put His loving arms around us and welcome us into His kingdom. Therefore, we must come to Him just as we are and not try to become good in our own strength and then run to Him, hoping He will accept us based on our merits or good, clean living. We must remember that the love of God is wide and far-reaching. The love of God will envelop even the greatest of sinners if such sinners allow Him to rule in their lives.
As we take time out to contemplate the life of Matthew the tax collector, we should heed the lessons we can learn through this devout follower of Jesus Christ. He was a sinner, one who loved money. Yet, his contribution to the church made him a great beneficiary of the grace of God, which is given to everyone who seeks after the Lord with their whole hearts.
What Happened to Matthew the Tax Collector?
According to tradition, Matthew ministered in Palestine for several years after the Lord’s return to heaven, and then made missionary journeys to the Jews who were dispersed among the Gentiles. His work is associated with Persia, Ethiopia, and Syria, and some traditions associate him with Greece.
Tradition states that all of Jesus’ disciples went on to spread the Gospel, but only one died of natural causes. John, the author of Revelation, died of old age in Malta. The rest died martyrs, executed in various ways. According to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Matthew was killed in Ethiopia while carrying out the Great Commission that Christ commanded him and His other disciples to do:
18 And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. Matthew 28:18-20 (NKJV)
The New Testament is silent on the end of his life, but this we do know: Wherever the Scriptures travel in this world, the Gospel written by Matthew continues to minister to hearts.
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