Levi, AKA Matthew

The day began like any other for Levi, the son of Alphaeus, the tax collector of Capernaum. Tribute and customs were levied on goods passing on the busy trade routes to the north of Galilee, and Levi had undertaken this employment. His instructions came from the Roman authorities and the business could be very lucrative, particularly if the official was unscrupulous in his dealings. To the Jewish mind, such individuals were beneath contempt. Collaborators with the hated Romans, quislings, were spoken of in the same breath as sinners (Mt. 9:11), harlots (Mt. 21:32), and, worst of all, Gentiles (Mt. 18:17).

That day, however, would be indelibly etched on the memory of Levi: the day when, from among the passing crowd, a Man paused in front of Levi’s bench and spoke just two words that completely revolutionized his whole life! Two words which saw the son of Alphaeus abandon the service of an earthly monarch in order to serve, and later record, the inspired Word concerning the King of kings!

We do not know just how often Levi, or Matthew, had seen the Lord Jesus since He had moved to Capernaum (Mt. 4:13). He must have known of this carpenter from Nazareth, as he later records that “Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching…and preaching…and healing all manner of sickness…His fame went throughout all Syria…and there followed Him great multitudes of people” (Mt. 4:23-25). In chapter 8 of his Gospel, Matthew gives details of the Lord’s power over disease as He deals with leprosy, palsy, and fever. Then, in verse 26, the Lord demonstrates His power over the elements and, in verse 32, He demonstrates His power over demons. In chapter 9, Christ is seen as the One having “power on earth to forgive sins” (v. 6), causing the multitude to marvel and glorify God “which had given such power unto men” (v. 8). Maybe Matthew saw in the Lord Jesus One whose power so evidently eclipsed the mighty power of Rome that it determined his response to the Lord’s words that momentous day in Capernaum.

It is always a fruitful exercise to compare the Gospel records. When Mark records the call of Matthew, he tells us that the Lord “saw Levi the son of Alphaeus” (Mk. 2:14). Luke says He “saw a publican, named Levi” (Lk. 5:27). Matthew, in his characteristic, self-effacing way, simply says, “He saw a man, named Matthew” (Mt. 9:9). Matthew is saying, in effect, “He wasn’t concerned about my family background or my occupation; He saw me for what I was and knew all about me!”

Matthew means “Gift of Jehovah.” If, as is most likely, his name of Levi indicates that his ancestry could be traced back to the priestly tribe, it would remind us that, in Numbers 3, the Levites were given as a gift to Aaron and to his sons in recognition of their fidelity following the matter of the golden calf. Many years later, this son of Levi would be numbered among “the men which Thou gavest Me out of the world” (Jn. 17:6)—entrusted to the keeping and engaged in the service of a priestly Man of a far higher order than that of Aaron.

Matthew’s unique viewpoint

It is one of the most interesting and attractive aspects of Scripture that the burden of inspiration did not deprive the writers of their individual characters and personalities. It has been noted by others how Luke draws on his medical knowledge with his words and phraseology. Likewise Matthew, the astute accountant, has a keen eye for monetary matters and value. Of all the Gospel writers, only Matthew speaks of gold, that most precious of commodities in every age. Only Matthew writes of silver. (The word used by Luke in 15:8 is drachma, which denotes a coin rather than the metal.) Again, it is only in Matthew’s Gospel that we read of talents—the other writers deal in pence or farthings. A talent was a substantial sum and Matthew appreciated that. It is Matthew who, alone of the Gospel writers, recalls the tribute money in the fish’s mouth (Mt. 17:27). And only Matthew takes time to count the “reward of iniquity” in the hand of the betrayer and tells us it was thirty pieces of silver.

We are indebted to Matthew to learn something of what it cost others to show their appreciation of the Savior. He alone tells us of that arduous journey undertaken by wise men from the east as they brought their precious gifts. He reminds us that, when called by the Savior, Peter and Andrew “straightway left their nets,” and James and John “immediately left the ship and their father, and followed Him.” Later, after the dark hours of Golgotha, only Matthew tells us that it was a rich man who undertook the burial of the Lord Jesus; he added further that it was “his own new tomb” that Joseph gave, “which he had hewn out in the rock.” That was a costly day for the rich man from Arimathaea, but it placed a large deposit on the balance sheet of heaven!

Matthew’s sacrifice

While taking time to emphasize the sacrifice of others, Matthew is very reticent when it comes to his personal cost. He deeply appreciated the Lord’s gracious act in calling him to follow. Hence, when recording the names of the apostles, he added after his own name, “the publican” (Mt. 10:3). Matthew would have sung with feeling, “Amazing grace…that saved a wretch like me!” With this in mind, we note the response of Matthew, as written by his own hand, on receiving the command from the Master: “he arose and followed Him.” It is left to Luke to give the complete picture. He tells us that Matthew “left all, rose up, and followed Him” (Lk. 5:28). Luke’s addition literally means, “he abandoned everything!” There was no question of finishing the day’s work and starting tomorrow. Peter, Andrew, John, and others could re-launch their fishing boats if occasion required (Jn. 21:3), but there was no going back for Matthew; he “burned his boat” that day in Capernaum!

The Synoptic Writers all tell us of the feast which followed Matthew’s call. Matthew says, “Jesus sat at meat in the house” without specifying whose house it was. Mark says, “Jesus sat at meat in his house,” which could mean the Lord’s dwelling place. Again we are indebted to Luke for recording the generosity of this self-effacing man. He tells us that “Levi made Him a great (mega) feast in his own house.” No expense was spared! The guest list caused consternation among the religious hierarchy as Matthew invited his former workmates at the tax office to come and meet his new Lord and Master. Love for the Savior should manifest itself in love for the sinner on the part of those who are His own! This is a challenge to us all.

In his Gospel, Matthew records eight occasions when different ones worshipped the Lord Jesus. From the brief personal record concerning Matthew, we can appreciate that he was well qualified to write on this subject. Many readers will be aware that the first mention of worship in the Scriptures is in Genesis 22, the well-known story of Abraham and Isaac. We recall that worship on that occasion involved sacrifice, obedience, and faith. For Matthew, the command of the Lord Jesus to “Follow Me” produced the same virtues. As Luke records, “he left all”—that was sacrifice; “he rose up” in obedience; “he followed Him”—the pathway of faith. Worship was not just an academic exercise for Matthew; he wrote from heart experience.

That day in Capernaum, Matthew closed the door and turned the key on his old life. With firm resolution, he fell into step with a despised and rejected Man.