Jesus called Matthew out of one of the most reviled professions: tax collector. Matthew responded in faith to become a trusted apostle and beloved author.
There’s so much we would like to know about Matthew and all 12 apostles, but the Bible gives us few details beyond the stories of the most famous ones, Peter and John and the notorious Judas Iscariot.
But we can learn from the few details the Bible does give us about Matthew, the apostle and author of the first Gospel. His example of faith and his dedication to his mission stand as an example to us today.
Facts about Matthew
Matthew was also known as Levi, and we are told his father’s name was Alphaeus. He thus may have been the brother of another apostle, James the son of Alphaeus. However, the Bible doesn’t specifically tell us they were brothers as it does Peter and Andrew (Matthew 4:18) or James and John (verse 21). Because of that, many believe Matthew and James the son of Alphaeus weren’t brothers.
The lists of disciples usually pair Matthew with Thomas. Jesus sent His 12 apostles out “two by two” (Mark 6:7), so Matthew likely worked closely with the one sometimes known as doubting Thomas for his unfortunate statement recorded, not by Matthew, but by John:
“Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Thomas soon regretted those words, and he did believe when he saw Jesus.
Then Jesus said, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (verse 29; see our article “Dealing With Doubt”).
Today we can read these eyewitness accounts, but we cannot personally see Jesus. By believing, we can participate in that blessing Jesus gave.
Another thing we know is that, before his calling, Matthew worked as a tax collector in Capernaum, which was Jesus’ base of operations in Galilee (Mark 2:1, 14).
Matthew the tax collector
Matthew tells us Jesus saw him “sitting at the tax office” (Matthew 9:9).
“The tax office was a toll booth set up alongside a highway to levy taxes on merchandise transported on that road. Matthew probably worked for Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee” (NKJV Study Bible, note on Matthew 9:9).
Why did people dislike tax collectors so much?
“Tax collectors were considered traitors by the Jews. They were despised because they generally collected more than necessary and pocketed the difference, vastly enriching themselves” (ibid.).
But Matthew didn’t focus on what he was giving up. He focused on the fact that he was a sinner and needed and deeply appreciated the mercy Jesus extended to him. And he believed in this miracle-working Messiah and His mission.This system of taxation had a long history and a bad reputation throughout the Roman Empire. “The system was very open to abuse, and the publicani seem to have been prone to extortion and malpractice from the very beginning, so that while the grossest excesses were restrained by the government, and cases sometimes brought to justice, a generally bad reputation has come down to us. Cicero considered such occupations as that of customs officer vulgar on account of the hatred they incurred” (New Bible Dictionary, 1982, “tax collector”).
Tax collectors, called publicans in the King James Version, were often mentioned in the same breath as sinners and harlots in the accusations of the Jewish leaders. For example, Matthew recorded such derogatory remarks about his former profession in 9:10 and 21:31.
John the Baptist told the tax collectors who came to be baptized, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you” (Luke 3:13). And Jesus used tax collectors as a recognized example of selfishness in Matthew 5:46-47. But He also used the hated tax collector as a humble contrast to the self-righteous Pharisee in His parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).
Though most tax collectors were crooked, there were exceptions like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). And likely Matthew gained some knowledge in his former profession that helped in his new calling.
“As a civil servant of Rome, Matthew would have to be proficient in both the language of his people (Aramaic) and of the ruling authorities. (The Romans used Greek, not Latin, in the East.) The numerical details, parables regarding money, and the monetary terms all fit in with a tax collector. So does the concise, orderly style” (Believer’s Bible Commentary, 1995, p. 1202).
Jesus calls Matthew
The Bible doesn’t give a lot of the background about how Jesus knew and how He chose the 12 apostles. Obviously, these men knew Jesus and His teaching before they received their call. They clearly were already convicted and were ready to make a deep and lasting commitment. That does not diminish the magnitude and suddenness of this change in their lives. But their decisions were not shallow or spur-of-the-moment.
Matthew briefly records his calling: “As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ So he arose and followed Him” (Matthew 9:9).
Luke notes that Matthew “left all, rose up, and followed Him” (Luke 5:28). Luke also gives more details of what happened after that, some of which Matthew humbly omits.
“Then Levi gave Him a great feast in his own house. And there were a great number of tax collectors and others who sat down with them.
“And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, ‘Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” (verses 29-30).
Jesus Himself answered: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Matthew 9:12-13).
Matthew and the other disciples recognized their sins, while the scribes and Pharisees overlooked their own.
Matthew the disciple
Think of all that Matthew gave up to become a disciple of Jesus! Though he was probably not as rich as Zacchaeus, who was a “chief tax collector” (Luke 19:2), Matthew had enough to throw a “great feast” for Jesus (Luke 5:29).
So when he gave up all, what did he give up? The stability of a lucrative job. The certainty of where his next meal would come from. The comfort of knowing he could sleep in his own bed and control his own life.
But Matthew didn’t focus on what he was giving up. He focused on the fact that he was a sinner and needed and deeply appreciated the mercy Jesus extended to him. And he believed in this miracle-working Messiah and His mission.
It seems Matthew, like all the disciples, was honored and excited to join in that mission.
Matthew the author
Matthew was a skilled author who used a variety of literary techniques to get his message across.
One important tool he used was the asking of questions. “Perhaps in no other literary work do questions function so importantly as they do in the gospel of Matthew. These questions raise some of the most significant issues of the book. They also create an air of suspense and lead the reader to provide his or her own answers to the questions” (A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, 1993, p. 384).
This is only one of the techniques Matthew used.
“The gospel does, indeed, teach about Jesus. But it does so by literary means, including narrative, rhetorical devices, and metaphor. The story that Matthew tells, moreover, is not a series of self-contained units but a coherent whole. The final effect is to unfold to the discerning reader the meaning of who Jesus is and what he taught” (ibid., p. 386).
The Gospel of Matthew
The text of the first book of the New Testament does not name its author. But “the universal testimony of the early church beginning with Papias (c. A.D. 135) is that the apostle Matthew wrote it, and our earliest textual witnesses attribute it to him” (Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, 1994, p. 2).
Each of the Gospels has unique elements and emphases. Commentators summarize the themes of the book of Matthew in different ways.
“The Gospel of Matthew presents Christ as the Son of David and the son of Abraham. Because He is portrayed as King, His genealogy is traced to King David; and the place of His birth, Bethlehem, the home of David, is emphasized. Seven times in this Gospel Christ is spoken of as ‘the son of David’ (1:1; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30; 21:9; 22:42). Only in Matthew does Christ speak of ‘his glorious throne’ (19:28; cp. 25:31). Moreover, only here in the Gospels is Jerusalem referred to as ‘the holy city’ (4:5) and ‘the city of the Great King’ (5:35).
“Since it is the Gospel of the King, Matthew is also the Gospel of the kingdom; in it the word ‘kingdom’ appears more that fifty times and the expression ‘the kingdom of heaven,’ which is found nowhere else in the N.T., appears about thirty times” (The New Scofield Study Bible (NIV), introduction to Matthew).
The book of Matthew serves well as a bridge from the Old Testament to the New.
“By direct quotation and indirect allusion he keeps pointing his reader to the words of the law and the prophets that have come to fulfillment in the coming of God’s Messiah, Jesus. More than 130 different passages from the OT are cited” (The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, 1971, p. 610).
“[Matthew] shows how Jesus came to fulfil the Old Testament, but at the same time to judge the Jews for their unfaithfulness to their religion. No other Gospel denounces so forcibly the hypocritical outlook of the Pharisees” (Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible, 1973, p. 470).
Only in Matthew
Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible lists these parables, miracles and events that are found only in the Gospel of Matthew (p. 474):
- The tares.
- Hidden treasure.
- The pearl.
- The dragnet.
- The hard-hearted servant.
- The workers in the vineyard.
- The two sons.
- The marriage of the king’s son.
- The 10 bridesmaids.
- The talents.
- The two blind men.
- The dumb man who was possessed.
- The coin in the fish’s mouth.
- Joseph’s dream.
- The visit of the wise men.
- The escape to Egypt.
- Herod’s massacre.
- Pilate’s wife’s dream.
- The saints resurrected in Jerusalem.
- The bribing of the guard.
- The Great Commission.
For more about the Gospel of Matthew, see our article “The Gospel of Matthew.”
Matthew, man of faith
Though we know little about Matthew’s life before his calling or after his last mention in Scripture, we can tell from his response to Jesus’ calling that Matthew was a man of faith. He was willing to give up a stable and lucrative career for a difficult and precarious life as a disciple.
The long, dusty miles; the constant press of people with great needs; the hatred from the religious authorities; the uncertainty of where the next meal would come from and where they would sleep—Matthew willingly endured all this because He believed in the Messiah. He believed in the mission. He believed in the wonderful future Jesus promised. And he loved the people he was called to serve.
Matthew’s beliefs and his actions set a pattern that all men of faith can strive to follow.
Read more about other men of faith in the Bible in this section on “Men of Faith.”