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Explore the remarkable journey of Matthew, from his beginnings as a tax collector to becoming one of the most influential apostles. Understand his unique contributions to the Gospel and his transformation fueled by faith.
God’s criteria for choosing apostles for His Son, Christ Jesus, were far from the world’s expectations. As Apostle Paul aptly articulated, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” And the reasoning? “So that no flesh might boast in the presence of God.”—John 17:6; 1 Cor. 1:27-29.
This principle clearly exemplified in the case of the tax collectors during Jesus’ time. As per modern parallels, these tax collectors (referred to as ‘publicans’ in the King James Version) bear striking similarity to the corrupt internal revenue collectors in the present-day United States and elsewhere, thus justifying their infamous reputation. According to McClintock & Strong’s Cyclopædia, tax collectors were despised and detested, viewed as the embodiment of their nation’s humiliation under Roman rule. Owing to their notoriously unjust demands, they were mostly considered to be on par with harlots and sinners!—Matt. 9:10, 11; 21:31-32.
Despite the scorn from self-righteous religious leaders, Jesus extended his message to these spiritually unwell individuals. He stated to the Pharisees, who criticized his interactions with tax collectors and sinners, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”—Matt. 9:12-13.
One such tax collector was Matthew, whose name signifies “gift of Jehovah” [Merrill Frederick Unger et al., The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary]. Matthew oversaw the customs office for the Sea of Galilee, but he sought more than the potential profits of his career. He aspired to righteousness, recognizing his spiritual needs—an embodiment of Jesus’ teachings in Matt. 5:3, 6.
Hence, when Jesus extended his call, “Be my follower,” Matthew readily responded, echoing the obedience of Zebedee’s sons, who left their father’s fishing business. Like a pearl masked by layers of dirt, Matthew was seen by the religious elite as nothing more than a vile tax collector. God, however, recognized his true worth and potential. With the cleansing power of truth, Matthew transformed into a valuable pearl, reflecting God’s glory through his sincere heart.—John 7:24.
Matthew’s Transformation: From Serving Caesar to Serving Christ
Following his acceptance of Jesus’ invitation, Matthew narrates about a feast at a tax collector’s home to which Jesus was invited. The Pharisees expressed discontentment at this gathering, as mentioned earlier. However, Matthew, in his humility, doesn’t reveal the host of this feast. Luke sheds light on this by stating, “And Levi [Matthew] made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at the table with them.” (Luke 5:29). This event provided an opportunity for all Matthew’s friends and business associates to witness Jesus’ teachings firsthand. Interestingly, Mark and Luke referred to Matthew as Levi, his name before he became an apostle, similar to how Peter was initially Simon and Paul was Saul.—John 1:42; Acts 13:9.
Such a transition meant a complete life transformation for the previously despised tax collector, Matthew. His allegiance, once given to Caesar, now belonged to Jehovah’s King, Christ Jesus. Instead of serving under the harsh, oppressive regime of imperial Rome, Matthew now served in the realm of God’s kingdom, offering comfort and a beacon of hope for the grieving and oppressed.
Matthew’s role among the twelve apostles seems relatively understated, as the Gospel accounts provide scant detail about his contributions. It’s known that he was one of the twelve who accompanied Jesus during his preaching tours and was later dispatched to preach in pairs. He was present with Jesus during the institution of the memorial of Jesus’ death, witnessed the act of foot-washing of the disciples, and heard the comforting admonishments recorded by John.—Matthew 10; Luke 8:1; 22:28-30; John chapters 13 to 17.
Matthew was privileged to see Christ resurrected and received his parting guidance alongside the other ten apostles. He is also mentioned as being in the upper chamber shortly before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.—Matt. 28:16-20; Acts 1:13; 2:1-4.
Matthew’s Gospel: A Unique Perspective
The gospel attributed to Matthew has never faced serious contention over its authorship. Available evidence indicates it was likely written between 45-50 C.E., making it one of the earliest written gospels, pre-dating those of Mark and Luke. Seemingly, Matthew recognized the necessity and value of such a record early on and was guided by the Lord to meet this need ahead of his contemporaries.
The assertion that Matthew’s Gospel was originally composed in Hebrew is backed by external evidence dating as far back as the second century C.E. with Papias of Hierapolis. Eusebius cites Papias in his claim that “Matthew compiled the sayings in the Hebrew language” (The Ecclesiastical History, III, XXXIX, 16). Similarly, in the third century, Origen referenced Matthew’s Gospel. Eusebius quotes him as stating that the “first Gospel was written by Matthew, a former tax collector who later became an apostle of Jesus Christ, and was composed in the Hebrew language” (The Ecclesiastical History, VI, XXV, 3-6).
Fourth and fifth-century scholar Jerome, in his treatise De viris inlustribus (Concerning Illustrious Men), writes that Matthew “wrote a Gospel of Christ in Judea in the Hebrew language and script, catering to the converted Jews… Furthermore, the original Hebrew version still exists in the library at Caesarea, which was painstakingly gathered by the martyr Pamphilus” (translation from Latin text edited by E.C. Richardson and published in the series “Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur,” Leipzig, 1896, Vol. 14, pp. 8, 9). Following the original composition of his account in Hebrew, Matthew promptly translated it into Koine Greek, the vernacular of that era.
Matthew’s narrative does not shy away from referencing his humble occupation. Not only does he reveal his role as a tax collector at the time of his call, but he further acknowledges it when enumerating the twelve chosen ones, referring to himself as “Matthew, the tax collector.” He does not divulge the professions or occupations of the others. In their respective gospels, neither Mark nor Luke deemed it necessary to allude to this when presenting their list of the twelve.—Mark 2:14; 3:18; Luke 5:27-32; 6:15.
It appears that Matthew initially composed his gospel in Hebrew before translating it into Greek. Much like Paul, he was eager for his Jewish brethren to accept Jesus as the Messiah. He substantiates Jesus’ lawful claim to the Abrahamic promise and the Davidic kingdom covenant through his foster father, Joseph. He references the Hebrew Scriptures over 50 times, more than both Mark and Luke combined.
Matthew’s Integration of the Hebrew Scriptures: Matthew’s Gospel is replete with references to the Hebrew Scriptures, with estimates approximating a hundred instances. Roughly 40 of these references are explicit quotations from the Old Testament text. Included among these are Jesus’ own references to and quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures. These instances encompass the following: conflict within a household (Mt 10:35, 36; Mic 7:6); identifying John the Baptist as the prophesied “Elijah” (Mt 11:13, 14; 17:11-13; Mal 4:5); drawing parallels between Jesus and Jonah (Mt 12:40; Jon 1:17); the commandment to respect parents (Mt 15:4; Ex 20:12; 21:17); critiquing those who pay mere lip service to God (Mt 15:8, 9; Isa 29:13); the requirement for two or three witnesses (Mt 18:16; De 19:15); various commandments including those on marriage (Mt 19:4-6; Ge 1:27; 2:24); the desecration of the temple (Mt 21:13; Isa 56:7; Jer 7:11); rejection of Jesus as the cornerstone (Mt 21:42; Ps 118:22, 23); foes placed under the feet of David’s Lord (Mt 22:44; Ps 110:1); the sacrilege in the holy place (Mt 24:15; Da 9:27); the scattering of Jesus’ disciples (Mt 26:31; Zec 13:7); and Christ’s seeming abandonment by God (Mt 27:46; Ps 22:1). These citations also encompass Jesus’ rebuttals to Satan’s temptations (Mt 4:4, 7, 10; De 8:3; 6:16, 13).
Additionally, Matthew’s inspired utilization of prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures to validate Jesus as the awaited Messiah is noteworthy. This aspect would hold significant interest for Jews, the apparent primary audience of this Gospel. These fulfilled prophecies encompass Jesus’ virgin birth (Mt 1:23; Isa 7:14); his birthplace, Bethlehem (Mt 2:6; Mic 5:2); his return from Egypt (Mt 2:15; Ho 11:1); mourning over the slaughtered infants (Mt 2:16-18; Jer 31:15); John the Baptist paving the way for Jesus (Mt 3:1-3; Isa 40:3); Jesus’ ministry as a beacon of light (Mt 4:13-16; Isa 9:1, 2); his healing ministry (Mt 8:14-17; Isa 53:4); his extensive use of parables (Mt 13:34, 35; Ps 78:2); Jesus’ humble entry into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt (Mt 21:4, 5; Zec 9:9); and the betrayal of Christ for thirty pieces of silver (Mt 26:14, 15; Zec 11:12).
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a similar scope, documenting the same incidents, and offering shared perspectives, leading to them being classified as the “synoptic” Gospels. This term means “similar view” and does not suggest a synopsis of Jesus’ life. Each Gospel incorporates unique elements not found in the others. In this regard, Matthew’s account provides a more comprehensive record of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, the instructions given to the twelve disciples, Jesus’ rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees, and Jesus’ prophetic discourse regarding the signs of his second coming.—See chapters 5 through 7, 10, and 23 through 25.
Information Unique to Matthew’s Gospel
An exploration of Matthew’s Gospel reveals that over 40 percent of its content is not replicated in the other three canonical Gospels. Notably, Matthew presents a distinctive genealogy of Jesus (Mt 1:1-16), which diverges from Luke’s narrative (Lu 3:23-38). The comparison between the two suggests that Matthew provided the legal genealogy via Jesus’ foster father, Joseph, while Luke likely traced Jesus’ biological lineage.
Several events exclusive to Matthew’s account include: Joseph’s response to Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, an angel’s revelation to Joseph in a dream (Mt 1:18-25), the visitation of the Magi, the escape to Egypt, the infanticide in Bethlehem and surrounding regions (chapter 2), and the dream of Pilate’s wife concerning Jesus (27:19).
Furthermore, at least ten parables or allegories unique to Matthew’s Gospel are absent from the other accounts. Among these are four in chapter 13: the parables of the wheat and the tares, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, and the fishing net. Other singular instances comprise the parables of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18:23-35), the laborers in the vineyard (20:1-16), the royal wedding feast (22:1-14), the ten bridesmaids (25:1-13), and the talents (25:14-30).
Matthew occasionally furnishes additional specifics. For instance, while the Sermon on the Mount finds parallel elements in Luke’s account (Lu 6:17-49), Matthew’s rendition is more comprehensive (Mt 5:1–7:29). Matthew also supplements the miracle of feeding around 5,000 men, mentioning “in addition to women and children” (Mt 14:21), a detail omitted in Mark, Luke, and John’s accounts. While Mark and Luke depict one demon-possessed man in Gadara, Matthew speaks of two (Mt 8:28; Mr 5:2; Lu 8:27). Similarly, Matthew recounts the healing of two blind men, while the other synoptic Gospels refer to only one (Mt 20:29, 30; Mr 10:46, 47; Lu 18:35, 38). All narrations are factually correct since each event involved at least one person, but Matthew frequently elaborates on the numbers involved, likely a trait from his previous career as a tax collector.
Matthew particularly emphasizes the Kingdom theme, presenting Jesus as the Preacher-King. No other gospel gives us as much of Jesus’ public speeches, and Matthew includes at least ten Kingdom parables not mentioned by the others. He doesn’t delve into intricate details as Mark does, nor does he focus on chronological precision as Luke does. Instead, Matthew is captivated by the magnificence of the Kingdom theme.
Matthew’s account also uniquely includes certain events of Jesus’ life: Joseph’s doubts about Mary, the visit from the magi, the flight to Egypt, the massacre of infants, the return of the family from Egypt, and the decision to settle in Nazareth. Only Matthew discusses the thirty pieces of silver and its eventual use, the twelve legions of angels that Jesus could have summoned, Pilate’s wife’s dream, and Pilate’s act of washing his hands.
Reading through Matthew’s Gospel, one can discern his profound appreciation for the mercy extended to him by God. This mirrors the sentiments expressed by Paul, overwhelmed with gratitude for the grace bestowed upon him, allowing him to share the unsearchable riches of Christ with the Gentiles (Eph. 3:8; 1 Tim. 1:12). Uniquely, Matthew’s account emphasizes Jesus’ repeated declarations that mercy is more crucial than sacrifice. He is the sole narrator of the parable of the unmerciful servant, Jesus’ counsel to Peter about forgiving seventy-seven times, and what is often considered the most comforting of Jesus’ statements: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 9:13; 11:28-30; 12:7; 18:21-35; 23:23).
Matthew transitioned from a reviled tax collector to a revered apostle of Jesus Christ, thanks to God’s grace. Despite assuming a relatively minor role among the twelve apostles, he served his Master through both spoken and written words. His devotion to God’s service brought him immeasurable rewards in his role as an apostle and assured him of a magnificent heavenly reward.—Matt. 19:27-29.
A Reliable and Useful Narrative: As one of Christ’s closest companions during the latter part of Jesus’ life on earth and a direct witness to his ministry, Matthew was in an ideal position to compose a stirring and insightful Gospel account. This is exactly what we have in the historical chronicle of Jesus Christ’s life, written by this former tax collector. Enabled by the divine guidance of God’s spirit, Matthew was able to remember and precisely recount the teachings and actions of Jesus while on earth (John 14:26). Consequently, Matthew painted a true and convincing portrait of Jesus of Nazareth as the beloved Son of God, possessing divine approval, as the selfless servant who came “to minister and to give his soul a ransom in exchange for many,” and as the long-awaited Messianic King destined to return in glory (Mt 20:28; 3:17; 25:31). While on earth, Jesus highlighted his works and could rightfully assert, “The poor are having the good news declared to them” (11:5). Today, countless individuals, both natural-born Jews and non-Jews alike, derive immense benefit from the Kingdom’s good news as documented in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 4:23).
Indeed, Matthew was privileged to accompany Jesus during His earthly journey. However, one could argue that in some respects, we are even more privileged today, living in the era when Christ reigns in these last days. Today, we are on the cusp of seeing many more prophecies come to fruition than were present during Jesus and Matthew’s time (Matthew chapters 24, 25). If we mirror Matthew’s deep appreciation for God’s mercy and his eagerness to spread the good news, we too, will be generously rewarded both in the present and in the forthcoming world of righteousness.
The renewed creation, the new heavens, and the new earth will epitomize God’s purpose for the universe. It will be marked by the absolute rule of God and the realization of redemption’s ultimate aim: “Now the dwelling of God is with men” (Rev. 21:3).
As discussed numerous times on the Christian Publishing House Blog, God intended the earth to be inhabited by perfect humans, ruling over animals under God’s sovereignty (Gen 1:28; 2:8, 15; Ps 104:5; 115:16; Eccl 1:4). Despite the advent of sin, God did not deviate from His plans (Isa. 45:18); He salvaged redeemable humanity through Jesus’ ransom sacrifice. It appears that the Bible offers two distinct hopes to redeemed humans: (1) a heavenly hope, and (2) an earthly hope. Those with a heavenly hope seem to be limited in number and are destined to reign with Christ as kings, priests, and judges either on earth or overseeing earth from heaven. Those with an earthly hope are expected to enjoy eternal life on a paradise earth, aligning with God’s original intention.
In John 17:6, 9, it is expressed: “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.”