Matthew was a tax collector in the city of Capernaum. Early in the first century, tax collectors were hated by their fellow countrymen because they represented the oppression of the Roman Empire. They were often unjust, abusing the system to overcharge the people and pocket the difference. The Jewish community of Israel especially loathed these thieves and liars, branding them amongst the worst sinners of the community.
Matthew was also known as Levi son of Alphaeus. Levi may have been his original name or an association with that tribe of Israel. Although Jesus had a disciple known as James son of Alphaeus, there is no evidence that he was a relative of Matthew. Some scholars believe that Jesus gave Matthew his name, meaning gift of God, after he became His disciple.
One day while Matthew was sitting at his tax booth Jesus passed by and said, "Follow me" (Matthew 9:9) and he immediately left behind his job, his wealth, and his past ways to follow Jesus. This encounter is recorded three times in the Bible (Matthew 9:9–13; Mark 2:14–17; Luke 5:27–32). In each account Jesus calls Matthew, Matthew responds by leaving behind everything, and then Matthew invites Jesus to a banquet at his home. While there Jesus and His disciples eat with other tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees are confused as to why Jesus would spend time with such people. Jesus replies, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:31–32).
In the eyes of the world Matthew may have seemed like an unlikely candidate for a disciple of Jesus. The Pharisees based their standard of holiness on self-righteous works and perfection under the Jewish law. No one, not even themselves, could live up to that expectation. On the other hand, the Romans admired wealth, power, and one's position in society. Apart from being an Israelite, Matthew was doing pretty well for himself in that respect. However, Matthew recognized his sin and need for a savior. Not only that, but he did something few rich people could ever do, and gave up the riches of this world for the gift of eternity with God (Matthew 19:16–22, 24–28). From God's perspective Matthew was the right man for the job. As a future leader of the church he would be able to show unbelievers they needed forgiveness for their sins, Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for their sin, and only through believing in Him would they gain salvation for their souls.
As a disciple of Jesus, Matthew worked alongside his fellow disciples to share the gospel. Interestingly, there is no mention of him managing the finances for the group despite his experience and knowledge of the subject. He may have chosen to avoid that role knowing money's powerful temptation into sin. After Jesus' resurrection, Matthew was a leader in the new church and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do miraculous things. History indicates that he took the gospel abroad to an area known as Ethiopia south of the Caspian Sea and possibly parts of Persia, Macedonia, and Syria. Eventually he died a martyr, as was the fate of all of the other disciples except John.
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