Matthew [Măt'thew]—gift of jehovah.
This son of Alphaeus was a Hebrew with two names, a common thing in Galilee at that time. Mark and Luke, when recording Matthew’s call to discipleship, speak of him as Levi, but Matthew himself uses the name he has been loved by throughout the Christian era. In his despised occupation he was Levi, a name meaning “joined,” and joined he was to the world’s crooked extortionate ways and mercenary aims. He was also joined by his vocation to a hated foreign power under whose yoke orthodox Jews chafed.
Thus Levi and his craft were so detested that the very name publican or tax-gatherer was commonly associated with sinner (Luke 15:1). His original name connected him with the tribe of Levi, the priestly house set aside for sanctuary service. But this Levi degraded his holy name. Whether the Lord changed the name to Matthew when He called Levi or whether the new found disciple chose it himself, we do not know. Meaning “the gift of God,” Matthew’s new name magnified the transforming power of Christ and indicated that Matthew was like the One who called him, a gift to Israel and to the world.
The call to service came when he was sitting at the receipt of custom (Matt. 9:9; Luke 5:27) at Capernaum, the first world center, “the Great West Trunk Road from Damascus and the Far East to the Mediterranean Sea.” Matthew was a “publican,” which is not to be confused with the modern usage of the term as an English innkeeper. “Publican” is from the Latin word publicannus, meaning the collector of Roman taxes, the gathering of which was farmed out to minor officials ready to undertake this odious duty among their countrymen. A publican’s reward was that he could extort for his own benefit more than was due, so long as the extortion did not lead to revolt. This was why the publicans, as a class, were spoken of as “leeches.” They gorged themselves with money in the process of gathering money for the Caesars and consequently were reckoned to be outside the pale of decent society and of the synagogue.
“Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s Son, knew Matthew the publican quite well,” says Alexander Whyte. “Perhaps only too well. Jesus and His mother had by this time migrated from Nazareth to Capernaum. He had often been in Matthew’s toll-booth with His mother’s taxes, with other poor people’s taxes.” But the outcast was called by Christ to a better occupation, to better wealth than silver and gold, to serve a better King than Caesar. Without hesitation Matthew left all, arose and followed Christ (Luke 5:28).
To celebrate his surrender to Christ, Matthew entertained Christ and others to a feast in his own house (Matt. 9:10; Luke 5:29). This feast was a token of gratitude for his emancipation from a sordid occupation, and revealed a missionary spirit. Such an “At Home” served a threefold purpose:
I. It was a Jubilee Feast to commemorate his translation into a new life. Matthew wanted all and sundry to know that he was now a new creature in Christ Jesus.
II. It was a Farewell Dinner to declare his determination henceforth to follow and serve his new found King. It was his public confession of surrender to the call of Christ.
III. It was a Conversazione to introduce his old associates and friends to his new found Saviour, that they too might have an opportunity of hearing His wonderful words of life. Matthew sought to make a dinner party an evangelistic service. He knew many would come to his house to meet Christ who would not go to the synagogue to hear Him. Doubtless many publicans and sinners learned that day that Christ did not despise them.
Matthew became not only an apostle but also the writer of the first gospel. He left behind an undying image of his Lord. Matthew has given us The Galilean Gospel -unique in every way. When he rose and left all to follow Christ, the only things Matthew took out of his old life were his pen and ink. It is well for us that he did, since he took them with him for such a good purpose.
Matthew’s gospel is striking in that it alone gives us the Parables of the Kingdom. The theme of his book, known as “the Hebrew Porch of the New Testament” is The King and His Kingdom. Some fifty-six times he uses the word “kingdom.” In his record of the life and labors of Christ, Matthew has given us the image of Christ as it fell upon his own heart.
Trained to systematic methods and well acquainted with Jewish character and religion, Matthew was fitted to commend Christ to the Jews. He appeals to the student of Old Testament literature. As a writer, he is before us as an eyewitness of the events he describes and as earwitness of the discourses he records. As to his qualifications, Matthew had a love of truth and was sensible of the mercy of God, and the misery of man. In self-effacing humility, he loses sight of himself in adoration of his Hero. It is thus that his book can be divided in this three-fold way:
The early days of the Messiah (Matt. 1-4:16).
The signs and works of the Messiah (Matt. 4:17-16:20).
The passion of the Messiah (Matt. 16:21-28:20).