Of the twelve disciples chosen by the Lord to be with Him, only two were later used by the Holy Spirit to write Gospels. One of these was John and the other was Matthew. Why Matthew? Why not Peter or Andrew? If you examine the lists of the disciples (Matt. 10: 2–4, Mark 3: 16–19, Luke 6: 13–16, and Acts 1: 13) you will find that they are always divided into three groups, the persons in each group always being the same even though the individual order may change. Peter, Andrew, James and John always form the first group, being clearly the prominent ones of the twelve. Matthew is always in the second group of four. Again of the twelve, only three are silent and Matthew is one of them. Of the other nine, each have something recorded that they said, but what is recorded of Matthew is not what he said, but what he did. Peter became the appointed leader (see Matt. 16: 18) and hence is always named first in all the lists (while Judas Iscariot is always last), and is recorded as speaking more often than the rest. Yet while some of us very often have a lot to say in meetings of the saints, this may not always render us suitable for every service. There is not a word recorded that Matthew ever said, but what he did is recorded. My point is, that what we do is very often of greater importance in the eyes of God than what we say. Furthermore, what we say should always be in correspondence with what we do.
There are some who refuse to read anything unless they know the author––hence they would not read this article. Sadly some of them, and others too, also often judge an article by who the author is, rather than by its contents. There are nine books in the NT whose authors do not identify themselves and Matthew is one of them. I understand that from earliest days there has never been any question raised as to who wrote the first Gospel, but the fact remains that Matthew does not tell us that he did so. All this is quite in keeping with the divine design and in accord with what the Spirit of God has been pleased to reveal about Matthew. So just what do we know about Matthew, and why was he chosen to write the Gospel that bears his name?
All that we are given to know must be culled from the lists of the twelve (already referred to), Matthew’s conversion (recorded in Matt. 9: 9–13, Mark 2: 13–17, Luke 5: 27–32) and an incident recorded only in Luke 19: 1–10. Let’s look at the lists first.
In the four lists given of the disciples, Matthew and Luke form the twelve into pairs, but they are not identical. In these two accounts Matthew is always paired with Thomas. Luke puts Matthew first, but Matthew, as is fitting when speaking of himself, puts Thomas first and himself last. The principle is given by Paul in Phil. 2: 3 “each esteeming the other as more excellent than themselves”. However, Matthew, in speaking of himself, adds something that Luke omits. He says “Thomas and Matthew the tax-gatherer” (Matt. 10: 3––my emphasis). Luke in divine grace ignores Matthew’s past, Matthew does not. What lesson can we draw here? While others may account of us as to what we are in Christ, and acknowledge what we now do in the Lord’s service, we ourselves must never forget what we have been. The one who had been caught up to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12: 2), spoke of himself as the first of sinners (1 Tim. 1: 15) and never forgot that he once persecuted the assembly of God (1 Cor. 15: 9). Let us look now at the accounts of Matthew’s conversion and we will see this attractive self–effacing attitude continued.
Peter says to the Lord, speaking for the whole twelve in a general way, “Behold, we have left all things and have followed thee” (Luke 18: 28), and this was true. However, I mentioned earlier that Peter, Andrew, James and John formed the first group of four into which the lists of the disciples are always divided. The Spirit of God records that these four (Luke 5: 11 and compare with Matt. 4: 18–22), along with one other, are said to have left all to follow Christ. That one other is Matthew. Yet I would not know this from Matthew’s account. He simply records “And he rose up and followed him” (Matt. 9: 9). It is Luke that records “And having left all, rising up, he followed him” (Luke 5: 28––my emphasis). What should we learn from this? If you recount your conversion to others, do not speak of what you have given up and left, however much it may be––leave that for others to tell, otherwise it may only turn into a fleshly boast.
Now let us read a little further in Matthew’s account of his conversion. The scene changes from the tax–office to the house. Whose house? Matthew’s? Here is the description that Matthew gives. “And it came to pass, as he lay at table in the house…” (Matt. 9: 10). If we only had Matthew’s account of this occasion, we would never have known for sure whose house it was, because Matthew in that self–effacing way of his, does not even tell us that. Never broadcast abroad any little bit of service that you do for the Lord and His people. Mark tells us in his account whose house it was as does Luke. I will use the latter because he not only tells us this but much more. Luke records “And Levi made a great entertainment for him in his house,” (Luke 5: 29). Matthew had left all, had followed Christ and now makes this great entertainment or reception (for such is the literal meaning of the word) for Him in his house. Note the words carefully––it is “for him”. The rest of the disciples were there and others also who could enjoy that feast, but the One object of Matthew’s attentions, the One for whom he had laid on this “great entertainment”, was Christ alone. Is there not an important lesson here? You can have the material well–being of your fellow men before you without even thinking of Christ. You can even have the eternal welfare of men before you and yet not have Him before you. I even think that you can have the well–being of the people of God before you without having Christ as the object. Yet if He is the grand object before the soul, then saints and sinners alike will be served in every way. All service is primarily to the Master. Yet in serving Him, others will be served in turn.
Now you will have noticed that while Matthew always refers to himself as Matthew, both Mark and Luke in giving us the details of his conversion refer to him as Levi. Comparing the three accounts, it is clearly one and the same person. Most of the twelve disciples were identified by two or more names. In the lists of the twelve, Matthew is called Matthew but in the accounts of his conversion by both Mark and Luke he is called Levi. Mark says “Levi the [son] of Alphaeus” (Mark 2: 14). This may mean that he was the brother of James (also given in the lists as the son of Alphaeus). However, this information from Mark does seem to indicate that Levi was Matthew’s genetic (family) name. Levi means “joined”. Perhaps it is suggestive of the bond that would naturally hold him to his lucrative profession as a tax–gatherer which the Lord broke with just two words “Follow me”. Certainly each one of us naturally are in bondage to sin and only Christ can set us free: “If therefore the Son shall set you free, ye shall be really free” (John 8: 36).
Lastly, let us look at another conversion, that of Zacchaeus in Luke 19: 1–10. We are told several things about Zacchaeus and the main feature, essential to understanding the incident of his conversion, is that “he was little in stature”. However, the Spirit of God also records something else which is not exactly essential to the story, namely that “he was chief tax–gatherer”. Not just that he was a tax–gatherer, but that he was chief. Now while there is nothing directly to say that Zacchaeus was chief to Matthew, it is difficult not to draw this conclusion when the Spirit of God describes him in this way. Certainly what is made very clear by the Holy Spirit is that he had a burning desire “to see Jesus who he was”. What caused that desire? Sure, there were many tax-gatherers, but even if Zacchaeus was not Matthew’s chief, there were not so many in that hated profession that Matthew would be unknown to Zacchaeus. When a subordinate in a lucrative profession suddenly leaves it all in response to a couple of words from a complete stranger––it could produce no other response than what it did from Zacchaeus––“to see Jesus who he was”. I believe Matthew’s conversion led to the conversion of Zacchaeus. Certainly this is very often the way that God works using one conversion to lead to another. When people are converted, and I mean converted, then others take notice.
So this is the apostle Matthew, one of the twelve, from whom not a word is recorded what he said, a self–effacing man who left all for Christ and who when the time came the Holy Spirit used to write the first Gospel.
Let’s now come back to this question of why Matthew was chosen to write the first Gospel. The contents of the book make it abundantly clear that the Jew is especially before the mind of the Spirit of God. Christ is presented here in relation to Israel as their Messiah, as the Son of David (Matt. 1: 1). Thus to carry any weight with them, the human author must be a Jew––Luke being a Gentile would not do . Furthermore the Jew would expect the Messiah to be with His people on earth (Ez. 43: 79, Zech. 2: 10, 11; 8: 3, 8). Hence the appropriateness of using one of the twelve who were his constant companions throughout His ministry. So far, of course, Matthew was an eminently competent witness for the Jew, and far more suitable than Mark or Luke would have been, who were not, as far as we know, personal companions of Christ. Having said that, both Peter and Andrew as members of the inner circle of four disciples appear to be more suited than Matthew (of the other two, James died early, and John did indeed write a Gospel). Yet what marked Matthew out as distinct from the twelve and from the leading four was his peculiarity in having been a tax–gatherer. Although a Jew, he was in many eyes the worst kind of Jew, for he was in the employment of the Gentiles and that to the disadvantage of his own countrymen. The Jew identified the tax–gatherers, although Jews, with the Gentiles (see Matt. 18: 17). They would look upon him with more suspicion than even a stranger. This might make it appear, at first sight, all the more extraordinary that the Holy Spirit should employ such a one to give the account of Jesus as the Messiah. However, we must never forget that God says “neither are your ways my ways” (Is. 55: 8). God has a significant lesson for the Jew in His choice of vessel. Israel must, and will come into blessing not from a privileged position, but solely as “objects of mercy” (Rom. 11: 31). Matthew, as a despised tax–gatherer is a witness of the mercy and grace of God in being chosen to be a companion of Christ. Thus the choice of Matthew and the whole tenor of his book would remind the Jew “that the tax–gatherers and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21: 31). Thus the admirable propriety of employing Matthew, the tax–gatherer, and the consistency with the scope of his task, are apparent.