The Calling of Matthew

As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him. [Matthew 9:9]

Some time ago, a friend and I were having a Bible study over Skype, and, while going through the book of Matthew, came across this verse. I then asked my friend this question: “Was it Jesus who made Matthew follow Jesus, or was it Matthew who made Matthew follow Jesus?”

It’s worth noting that the calling of Matthew is not merely an isolated incident, but one in a series of stories told by the evangelist through this section of his gospel. Within two chapters, we find: demons cast out of two men (Matt 8:28-34); a paralytic healed (Matt 9:1-8); Matthew called (Matt 9:9); a woman healed by touching Christ’s cloak (Matt 9:20-22); the synagogue ruler’s daughter raised (Matt 9:25-26); and two blind men healed (Matt 9:27-31).

Each of these incidents have one thing in common: at Christ’s word, something instantaneously happened. His sovereignty was seen in all these events. Earlier in the gospel, a Roman centurion had been so self-assured of Christ’s authority that he asked not for a display of healing but rather Christ’s mere command for healing. He showed this great understanding with the words, “I also am a man under authority” (Matt 8:9) – not that he put himself on equal with Christ (his humility, further illustrated in Luke’s account, affirms this), but rather that, as one with military authority, he fully grasped the reality of divine authority. Such authority was on full display for this generation.

That Matthew’s conversion follows the story of the paralytic (as it does in the gospels of Mark and Luke) is most likely no idle thing. Christ had told the judgmental Pharisees that the healing was “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matt 9:6), and with but one command made the paralytic stand up and walk. In an instance Christ showed that He had authority over the forgiveness of sins of men and their physical conditions. He had command over the spiritual and physical, for just as He had command over the demoniacs he had commands over the crippled.

Then we come to Matthew, said to be “sitting in the tax collector’s booth.” The position of tax collector was infamous across first century Judea:

In Jesus’ day, the Roman government collected several different taxes from the people of Palestine. Tolls for transporting goods by land or sea were collected by private tax collectors, who paid a fee to the Roman government for the right to assess these levies. The tax collectors made their profits by charging a higher toll than the law required. The licensed collectors often hired minor officials called publicans to do the actual work of collecting the tolls. The publicans extracted their own wages by charging a traction more than their employers required…Normally a publican charged 5 percent of the purchase price of normal trade items and up to 12.5 percent on luxury items…The Jews considered a tax collector’s money to be unclean so they would never ask for change. If a Jewish man did not have the exact amount that the collector required, he borrowed from a friend. Jewish people despised the publicans as agents of the hated Roman Empire and the puppet Jewish king. Publicans were not allowed to testify in court, and they could not tithe their money to the temple…

Yet the Jews divided the tax collectors in two classes. First were the gabbai, who levied general agricultural taxes and census taxes from the people. The second group were the mokhsa, the officials who collected money from travelers. Most of the mokhsa were Jews, so they were despised as traitors to their own people. Matthew belonged to this class of tax collectors. [pg. 529-530; Packer, J.I., and M.C. Tenney, eds. Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1980]

Christ found Matthew exactly as He had found Saul – that is, in the midst of his sin. Saul was on his way to exterminate Christians when Christ appeared to him, and Matthew was busily going about his horrible business when Christ appeared. Matthew Henry wrote regarding Christ’s appearance to Matthew: “As Satan chooses to come, with his temptations, to those that are idle, so Christ chooses to come, with his calls, to those that are employed.” Finding Matthew thus, Christ utters two words: “Follow me.” The Greek word used here for “follow” (ἀκολούθει) is an imperative – in other words, it was a clear command. At this utterance, it is described (even by Matthew himself) that the disciple immediately “got up and followed Him.” Matthew did what the rich young ruler (Luke 18:21-23) could not do: he gave up his profitable business and followed his Lord

Some have attempted to explain Matthew’s conversion by stating that he knew Jesus before this incident. Others have said that there might have been some further discussion than this text implies. However, there is nothing to suggest in the text that Matthew intimately knew (outside of hearsay) our Lord, nor that anything developed more than what took place as recorded by all three synoptic accounts. Even the apostle John, who goes into far more detail about the life of many apostles previous to their calling, is noticeably just as silent about any previous interaction between Christ and Matthew. The only thing we do know is that Matthew was living a life that alienated him from believers of God and ethnic Jews in general. We also know that it was Christ who spoke first – had Christ not opened His lips, the future evangelist may have continued in his sin.

Matthew, within his own account, puts far less emphasis on himself and far more on Christ. Whereas Mark and Luke both refer to him by the more noble name of Levi (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27), Matthew refers to himself as simply Matthew. Likewise, whereas Mark and Luke both account that it was Matthew’s house which Christ ate at that day (Mark 2:15; Luke 5:29), Matthew keeps the owner of the house anonymous (Matt 9:10). Finally, whereas Mark and Luke place Matthew before Thomas (Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15), Matthew not only puts Thomas first but includes the sin of which he was guilty. That is, he gives himself the title of “the tax collector” (Matt 10:3). Those who would seek to put an emphasis on Matthew forget the blessed apostle never even gives himself much credit. In fact, he placed his emphasis on only two things: the sin for which he was guilty, and the righteousness of Christ.

The immediate nature of Matthew’s response, in fact, shows what could only be a divine pull. It was done without thought, consideration, or contention. The disciple literally discards what was a high paying job for a much more poverty stricken life with Christ. Matthew Henry argues: “The call was effectual, for he came at the call; he arose, and followed him immediately; neither denied, nor deferred his obedience.” His conversion was so complete, in fact, that we find in the next verse Matthew’s publican friends coming to his house to meet Christ. Many theologians (including John Chrysostom, Matthew Henry, John Gill, and Adam Clarke) believe these publicans to have been invited at the request of Matthew, who also wanted them to meet and possibly join with Christ. Matthew was, in many respects, the perfect convert: he humbled himself, glorified God, and sought to bring others to Christ. It was not a gradual conversion, nor one that happened over a long length of time after much debate and forceful words – it was instantaneous and complete.

We then come back to the question posed at the beginning of the post, which is who made Matthew get up and follow Jesus: Matthew or Jesus? We have already established that Matthew’s calling was complete – likewise, we had established earlier that this is one in a chain of many stories in which Christ instantaneously heals people. The paralytic did not get up because he had been feeling better than morning and was on the verge of getting up himself when Christ gave him the command to rise and pick up his bed; he also walked away forgiven of his sins. Matthew Henry wrote on the similitude with the disciple’s calling:

…the same divine, almighty power accompanied this word to convert Matthew, which attended that word (Matt 9:6), Arise and walk, to cure the man sick of the palsy. Note, A saving change is wrought in the soul by Christ as the Author, and his word as the means. His gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). [from his commentary]

Christ ordered the demons out of the demoniacs, and it was done. Christ ordered the paralytic healed, and it was done. Christ ordered the dead girl to rise, and she rose. Likewise, Christ ordered Matthew to follow, and Matthew followed.

Those who would argue a synergistic approach must then ask themselves the question: was it possible, even with a one percent chance, of Matthew rejecting the call? Can we imagine for a moment, after Christ’s words “Follow me,” Matthew simply raising an eyebrow at the Savior and then continuing on with his work? What power, then, could such a Savior hold? What power could a Lord be said to have if that Lord could heal the sick and lame yet could not conquer the sinful heart of man? What power could a Conqueror of Sin be known by if He could not conquer one man’s sins? John Gill wrote that Matthew’s calling “was entirely owing to the free, sovereign, and distinguishing grace of Christ, and which was powerful and efficacious.” John Calvin wrote that in Matthew “Christ intended to give a remarkable example, that we might know that his calling was not from man.” Matthew had as much power to say “No” as the paralytic did to say “But Lord, I can’t get up!”

When the rich young ruler had left, and the danger of attempting to enter the kingdom with earthly wealth was explained, the disciples had asked “Then who can be saved?” to which Christ replied: “The things that are impossible with people are possible with God” (Luke 18:26-27). The calling of Matthew was but one of many testaments of this fact in the Gospel story.

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The image at the top of this post is a Photoshopped version of The Calling of Saint Matthew by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

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