You would have thought that the disciple who gave his name to the first Gospel in the New Testament would be well known to us, that we would have loads of information about him, that there would be lots of references to him in all the gospel accounts. But that is not what we find.
There are only 7 Bible references to Matthew: His call (recorded in the synoptic Gospels), and his inclusion in the lists of the apostles (synoptic Gospels and Acts). Matthew does not appear at all in John’s gospel.
(Matthew 9:9) As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
(Mark 2:14) As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
(Luke 5:27–29) After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.
You will have noticed that Matthew is called Levi in Mark and Luke (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27), and Mark tells us he is the son of Alphaeus. James the son of Alphaeus is also listed among the Apostles (Mark 3:18; Matt. 10:3; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). If it is the same Alphaeus, which seems likely, this suggests that Matthew and James were brothers like James and John, and Peter and Andrew. I am not going to say anything more about this here, but it is interesting to note that three sets of brothers appear to be in the group of disciples, and other Bible evidence shows us that faith can so often run like a vein of gold through a family. Don’t be discouraged if you have family who are not believers. Pray for them and see what God will do.
Early church writings suggest that Matthew travelled to Ethiopia where he became associated with Candace, identified with the eunuch of Acts 8:27. These accounts tell us of Matthew’s martyrdom in that country.
I want to pick up on a few things for this morning.
Matthew was a tax collector
Jesus called a tax collector to be an apostle. I sometimes think the significance of this and the impact it would have had on the people around him is lost on us.
To the Jews, tax collectors were the lowest of the low. They were often Jews, but they were employed by the Romans. They represented an occupying force and its ability to control the people. They had a reputation for being greedy and dishonest. They would have been viewed with the same hatred as collaborators were during the Second World War.
When we read the gospels just notice how frequently the phrase “tax collectors and sinners” occurs. Have you ever thought about that? They weren’t even considered to be deserving of association with sinners! No self-respecting Jew would ever associate with a tax collector, the only friends a tax collector would have would be other tax collectors. And yet …
Jesus often initiated contact with those people who were outcast by society: lepers, publicans, sinners, prostitutes. Jesus not only forgave sinners, he openly associated with them even though it meant that he was criticized for it. Tax collectors seem to be in a category all of their own.
On one occasion Jesus says this: Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him (Matthew 21:31–32). In other words he was saying to his listeners “the tax collectors and sinners are entering heaven before you are”!
There are three specific tax collectors we can read about in the Bible …
- Zacchaeus. Was a short man who Jesus chose to eat with. Zacchaeus is touched so much by Jesus he changes. In fact, so much so, he promises to pay back 4 times anything he has cheated from people. Jesus declares “today salvation has come to this house!” You can read the Bible’s account of this in Luke 19:1–9 there is a saying which says you can tell what is important to someone in two ways. What do they give their time to? What do they give their money to? One of the marks of true salvation I would suggest is that it affects our purse strings.
- Jesus tells a parable to contrast self-righteousness with true repentance, and uses a tax and a pharisee to do so. In Luke 18:9–14, we read that he concluded the tax collector who truly repented was justified when the Pharisee was not. This unnamed tax collector teaches us that true repentance is in the heart. It does work out in our daily lives, it is seen in our actions and in our words, but ultimately, what is seen comes from our heart attitudes. That is what the sermon on the mount is all about. But we must be wary of believing that it is our actions which make us Christian. When we do that, we become like the Pharisee in this parable.
- Jesus chooses Matthew, a tax collector to be one of his disciples. That Jesus would do this would have been shocking to those around him. Matthew immediately left his tax booth and followed Jesus. True faith is in the inner man, it affects our pockets, and ultimately, it is seen in our lives. Baptism is an outward sign of an inner change. True faith means leaving the old life behind and living a new life in Jesus. Jesus says “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). When Matthew left his booth to follow Christ, his commitment was total, and it was permanent.
Why? Why associate with and commend people who society at large, let alone “the righteous” wants nothing to do with?
Some teach that if we are to remain pure as Christians, then we are better off not associating with the world. But or Jesus, this would be a false thing. Jesus sees not what people are, but what they could be. He doesn’t pigeonhole them according to what they are, what they have done, where they have come from. He looks beyond what they are to what potential they have in God. You do not compromise holiness when you relate with a sinner, on the contrary, holiness is characterized in the way it reaches out in mercy to those in need. God can take a sinner who is responsive to Him and make a total transformation. On the other hand, the most righteous and Holy person, who is not responsive to God is useless to Him.
Jesus’ argument to the Pharisees’ complaint shows us that that is really what He wants. He wants us to reach out to those who are unlovable.
The first truth of the Gospel is that Jesus does not follow this way of evaluating people.
It seems to me that people when presented with the Gospel fall into one of two categories.
Firstly, many people will adopt the narrative of modern society which asserts that “sin” (whatever it is) is in the eye of the beholder, that every person is capable of and responsible for individually determining what sin is. As long as I don’t hurt anyone by my actions, the argument goes, no one has the right to impose their morality on me. In fact, it is not uncommon for people to get very upset and say things like “how dare you judge me!”, then those same people will vigorously attack and criticize people who have opinions, values and now even ancestors which are not in line with their own assessments of what is right and wrong, what is good and bad. In our modern society, the assessment of whether something is sin or not is determined not by the Bible, not by the word of God, but by personal or group opinion.
Secondly, people may well accept the existence of morality beyond personal opinion, and they may even understand and assent to God. They will, however when presented with the message of the Gospel reject it because they have believed the lie that we have to live in such a way as to deserve the forgiveness that Jesus. They will articulate it something like this: “you don’t know what I’ve done” or “I’m beyond help” or “God can’t (won’t) forgive me”.
This is a disastrous misunderstanding of the nature of God, the power of the cross and truth of the Gospel. Jesus’ inclusion of Matthew, a tax collector, one of the despised and hated in society teaches us this.
“the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives” (Charles Wesley, To God be the Glory).
“Amazing Grace” writer, the reformed slave trader John Newton said this in his later life “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Saviour.”
Interestingly, if you read the book “The Cross and the Switchblade” which is a testimony by David Wilkerson of his work among the gangs in New York, you will read his account of an encounter with gang member Nicky Cruz. Nicky had threatened to kill him, and in his book he says this to him, “You could do that, you could cut me in a thousand pieces and lay them out in the street and every piece would love you.” But as I said it, I was thinking: and it wouldn’t be a bit of good — not with you, Nicky — there’s no love on earth that could reach you” (The Cross and the Switchblade ch 7).
We so often make assessments of each other. We must understand that God’s assessment of them is not ours! Jesus’ choosing of Matthew speaks right into this, as does God’s choice of all sorts of people:
- Cyrus king of Persia. A foreign pagan king who cannot be more ungodly is described by God through the prophet Isaiah as “my shepherd”, and as his “anointed” (Isaiah 44:28).
- Jesus references Naaman the Syrian and the widow in Zarepath, both of whom are gentiles (Luke 4:24–28).
- He stops and talks to a Samaritan, not just a Samaritan, but a Samaritan woman, and a loose Samaritan woman at that! (John 4:1–42).
- He tells a parable about a Samaritan man to show the Jews how to act in a neighbourly way (Luke 10:25–37).
- He says of a Roman centurion that he has never seen such faith as his in the whole of Israel (Matthew 8:5–13).
Way to alienate chosen people Jesus!
As an aside: don’t fall into the trap of equating churches and church leaders as we know them today with the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus day. The Pharisees and scribes were leaders in society and they not only were religious leaders, but were far more political and influential in nature. They were concerned with and protective of their influence and power in society at large. They had political influence, and they had legal authority over people. They represented the Jews politically before Rome, they had the authority to set and collect taxes (which is really interesting given their hatred of the people who collected taxes for the Romans!). They had the power to arrest and to try and to convict people of criminal offences (AND to carry out the sentence). They are far more like your local civic leaders, your local councillors or your MP than they are like the pastor, minister or vicar of your local church!
Some thoughts …
- Don’t rely on society to inform you as to who has value in God’s eyes and who doesn’t!
- Don’t believe that your own personal assessment of your value is anything like God’s.
- Don’t allow others to dictate to you your value either.
You need to know this.
Jesus loves you, and He died for you. He says to you, “come and follow me”, and there is nothing in your background or in your reputation which can stop you from following that call and knowing his peace in your heart. Unless you let it.
Matthew was rich
The Bible doesn’t specify that Matthew was rich, but he was a tax collector, and given what we know about tax collectors in Jesus’ day, it is highly unlikely he was poor!
When people talk about Jesus and Christians, there is often a focus on the poor, on Jesus’ and God’s concern for the poor, on those who are unable to care for themselves.
It is not without reason that God calls the people of Israel to care for the fatherless and the widow, two examples of people who are totally and completely unable to provide for themselves. The Torah is replete with laws that call Israel to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. Concern for the poor is a GOOD thing! I say this now because I don’t want you to misunderstand what I am about to say.
One consequence of this focus is to imply that God prefers the poor above all else. Most notably it is shown in an understanding of Christianity called liberation theology which believes that wealth should be redistributed to the poor (with the use of lethal force if necessary).
However, if set aside that focus on the poor and really read the gospels, at times Jesus seems to positively favour those who are not poor.
Many among Jesus friends and first followers were not poor by the standards of the day. James and John as we have noted in previous weeks lived in a family which was wealthy enough to have hired men working for them. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were both religious leaders of their day, both would have been wealthy, and both followed Jesus. Tax collectors were certainly not poor, yet Jesus seemed to spend lots of time with them.
The issue for Jesus was not wealth in or of itself, but our attitude towards it. We have in many ways distorted things and almost relegated people who are not poor as less deserving of Jesus than those who are. But the Jewish law itself says, “_Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.”_ Leviticus 19:15 (NIV). In other words, neither poverty, nor riches should influence the value we place on people.
And this is the point I want to make.
- When wealth and its accumulation takes the place that God should have in our lives, this is a problem for Jesus.
- Wealth can provide for us security, yet Jesus teaches our security should be in God.
- Wealth can provide status, but Jesus says that we should not fight for status like people do.
- Wealth makes us feel significant, and Jesus says you are significant because God loves you.
- Wealth gives us the ability to increase our possessions. Jesus says that our possessions are worthless. As I heard this week, you can take your stuff to heaven when you die, but it will be destroyed by fire when you get there (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:13).
Wealth is not wrong in and of itself, but, far too frequently, it can get in the way of our relationship with God, which is why Jesus challenged the rich young man to sell all his possessions and follow him.
Matthew did exactly that, he abandoned the comforts of this life because he had found something far more valuable than all the world’s riches.
Paul says Philippians 3:7–8 (NIV) “whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.” Paul is not talking about money here, but the principle remains. Peter articulates it like this: trials come “so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” 1 Peter 1:7 (NIV)
Matthew left his booth
We read that when Jesus called Matthew, he left his booth and followed him. Matthew Immediately left his booth to follow Jesus.
- He left the old life behind
- He did it straight away, no hesitation.
Leaving the old life.
Jesus says a number of things about leaving the old life. He says, “no one who looks back to the plough is fit for service” and “go and sell all your possessions, give your money to the poor and then come follow me”
He even talks about leaving family. He says “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37–38)
The point here is that one of the biggest barriers to faith is the love of the life and an unwillingness to leave it behind.
Illustration of a friend of mine (I’ll call him Dave). Dave had been a Christian, but sadly as is all too common, he had drifted away from the church and from Jesus, and when I was working with him, he had no intention of ever being a Christian again. After a couple of years working alongside him, and talking to him, I remember one occasion when he said this “I know that following Jesus again is the right thing to do, and that I should do it. The problem is that I know there are some things in my life which are not compatible with doing that and frankly, I am not ready to give them up. I don’t WANT to”.
Dave understood that to authentically follow Jesus, there are things which we all enjoy which are incompatible with our faith which we must leave behind. Certain habits and attitudes, actions and things in our lifestyles which we have to get rid of. Many people are like Dave, they are not prepared to pay the price of peace with God.
Paul was in that place, but when confronted by the Saviour, the choice he made was to pay that price. Looking back on all the things he used to do, the type of person he was, he can reflect on them and say Philippians 3:7–8 (NIV) “But whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ”.
Matthew had no hesitation in following Jesus. Interestingly the people who hesitate in the Gospels are those who have something to lose, either materially, or in terms of social standing. So, The rich young man who came to Jesus and asked what he must do to be saved, had too strong a love of his wealth and his status, so he went away sad.
We have the description of people who say to Jesus “I will follow you Lord … but first”
So for example in Luke 9:59–62 Jesus said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
Almost an Angel is a secular film in which Paul Hogan plays a man who dies and is sent back as an angel for a second chance at being good. Setting aside the idea that angels are dead people sent back to help humans in need (which couldn’t be more unbiblical if it tried), ignoring how the film portrays what he sees after he has died, and how God is portrayed (by Charlton Heston), it makes a number of very interesting comments on faith, the church and spirituality in general. One thing which Paul Hogan’s character says is “I was planning to get religious right before I died” is the default of many people all over the world. But the massive weakness of this approach is that no one knows when they are going to die! The only way to be sure is to come to Christ NOW.
There will come a time when it is too late to follow the Lord, I know Scripture tells us that “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9), but the very next verse says that when he comes it will be swift and unexpected, and it will be too late for those who have refused.
2 Peter 3:10 “the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”
As Augustine said in the third century “it’s never too early to come to Christ, but at any moment it could be too late”
Do not delay! God says do not delay …
Isaiah 55:6 (NIV) “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.”
2 Corinthians 6:2 (NIV) “In the time of my favour I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation.”
Matthew threw a party (Mark 2:13ff)
Interestingly, Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus also centred around a meal.
When we see heaven portrayed on our televisions, we most frequently see it shown as some kind of bland colourless ethereal place, harps playing in the background, everyone dressed in white. There is little or no atmosphere.
Christians, however don’t see heaven like that. The most common metaphor for heaven I hear Christians use is that of worship, almost like the best most wonderful worship service we have ever experienced.
However, the most common picture of heaven the New Testament paints, and the one Jesus uses most is that of a party, of a feast!
We have the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14:15–24 which describes heaven as a great feast, and the king (God) sending an invitation out to all who will come. We also have the parable of the wise and foolish virgins which describes a great wedding banquet, Isaiah describes God in this way, “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines”_ (Isaiah 25:6).
Luke 13:29 People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.
Revelation 19:9 “Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”
The image crops up all over the Scriptures,
David describes God preparing a table for him in the presence of his enemies (Psalm 23:5).
In Revelation 3:20 John records Jesus saying “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Note “eating” depicting relationship and fellowship.
Heaven will be a banquet, a celebration, a party!
Jesus describes rejoicing in heaven whenever a sinner comes to faith (Luke 15:7,10), and our eternity will be a blast!
The great news is this …
ALL are invited
So, the question we must each answer for ourselves is “have YOU accepted the invitation?”