Saturday, October 9, 2010

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


  1. Christ also invited the rich young man to give away all his money to the poor and follow Him, but he didn't. Matthew, on the other hand, did. Why do some follow Him and others don't? The reason is known only to them and to God alone. (1 Corinthians 2:11). Remember also the people in that place where He could perform no miracles because of their unbelief: why was the paralitic healed, but they weren't? (Why did the former have faith, and the latters not?). -- Again: 1 Corinthians 2:11.

  2. Lucian - First off, I’ve noticed many time in your apologetics, especially when I used to read the Orthodox Apologetics blog, that you continually respond to an argument by quoting one verse and essentially declaring victory. This is a very shallow argumentation, and if you are going to continue trying to enter dialogue with people, you had better attempt some greater study into the subject you are addressing. Your citation of 1 Corinthians 2:11 is simply another example of this. Paul is not saying that the reason a person has faith is between them and God. 1 Corinthians 2:11 is comparing the privacy of the Spirit of God’s knowledge to that of a person’s own thoughts to himself. The apostle is essentially saying, “Just like only you know your own thoughts, only God, in the Spirit, knows His own.” He’s talking about the knowledge God has of Himself, and that this wisdom is bestowed on Christians, which is shown in the following verses: “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (v. 12-13). Paul is no where talking about the matter of a person’s faith, or that this faith is only known between God and a person. Therefore your citation of 1 Cor 2:11 is misplaced and completely erroneous.

    Now, you ask the question of why some have faith and some do not. That’s a very good question. You mention the rich young ruler, although you bring him up as if I did not even mention him in my post, which I did. In fact, I mentioned twice that he did not follow Christ, and explained how it was related to the story of Matthew - this latter point at the very end of my post. One thing you might ask yourself is: where did a sinful tax collector with no desires to follow God suddenly drop his profitable career and become an impoverished disciple destined to be martyred, all because of two words? Where did that faith come from?

    The passage you make reference to regarding those who had unbelief (Matt 13:58) is actually misquoted in your response; it does not say Christ could not perform miracles because of their unbelief, but that he did not. Christ was in complete control of His miracles, and when He desired to make them happen, they happened.

  3. Tony,

    your interpretation of how I supposedly understand 1 Cor. 2:11 is false.

    Your interpretation of 1 Cor. 2:11, however, is true, and I agree with it. (The Apostle's words are clear).

    No-one knows what goes on inside a man's heart, save himself, and God. -- which is why your following sentence is out of place:

    where did a sinful tax collector with no desires to follow God suddenly drop his profitable career and become an impoverished disciple destined to be martyred, all because of two words?

    I didn't mean "couldn't" the literal way you seem to imply. He didn't because His miracles require faith from the subject, and they had none. Same with Matthew and the young rich man: you can't know what went on inside their hearts: no-one can, save themselves and God.

  4. Lucian - Actually, I don’t see how my summation of your use of 1 Cor 2:11 was false because you have yet to defend it. You simply repeated your argument. You even admitted that I was correct in my exegesis of it, but my exegesis was to demonstrate why your use of the passage was erroneous. I can’t be right and wrong at the same time.

    Furthermore, your conclusion “Well we don’t know what was in their hearts at the time” is simply making a special pleading for ignorance. No, I don’t know 100% what was going on in Matthew’s mind every hour of the day, nor do I pretend to. However, I know what scripture says concerning the state of mind: there are none righteous, and none seek after God or understand Him (Rom 3:10-12); we are, before conversion, dead in our trespasses and sin (Eph 2:1), and are by nature “children of wrath,” as is all mankind (Eph 2:3); we were, before being reconciled through Christ, enemies of God (Rom 5:10); finally, we know that faith and redemption are a gift from God (Eph 2:8-9; Rom 3:24). What we know, therefore, was that as a practicing sinner Matthew had no faith to follow Christ, or he would not have been continuing in that sin, and at the very least there should have been some hesitancy in his following of Christ. The state of man is one that is unable to come to God unless God first comes to us - of this scripture is clear. Therefore, to throw your hands up and say “Well you don’t know what Matthew was thinking!” is to avoid the argumentation and simply strain gnats.

  5. All I can tell you is that the above is a completely different approach than the one presented before. (Even if it consists in merely explicitely stating aloud the before-unsaid-but-implied ideas).

    I won't really engage in undoing your already made-up mind, but to a cetain extent I'll try (a futile endeavour, but one that has to be done):

    I could tell you that being dead in one's sins in no way implies the lack of the activity of the undieing worm of our conscience, that constantly eats away at our brain. I can also tell you that not finding the ability in oneself to actually follow God's commandments in no way implies the absence of the impotent fight between good and evil in our souls (powerless insofar the former for some reason always gets its S kicked by the latter, all our eforts being crushed). I could also tell you that the lack of liking God's ways more than the sinful ways to which we've already been enslaved, addicted, and accustomed to in no way invalidates the existence of our mental or logical approval of the truthfulness of God's voice inside us. (We know the truth; we *want* to be able to follow it; we like it considerably less than sin [ie, we don't really *want* it], etc). -- and there's a fight, and there's a struggle, and there's a presence, and there's a conscience, and there's guilt. The question is: how does it became fruitful instead of impotent?

    This is the unseen but real difference between Matthew and the rich man, between those who followed Christ and were healed by Him, and those who rejected Him and remained in their sins and ilnesses. (Yes, I know you don't and won't agree, but I had to say my part).

  6. Lucian- I actually recognize what you say. The problem you present is that your views conflict with scripture. You say, for example, that “not finding the ability in oneself to actually follow God's commandments in no way implies the absence of the impotent fight between good and evil in our souls.” Yet the apostle Paul tells us, quoting the psalms: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks God” (Rom 3:10-11). You say “being dead in one's sins in no way implies the lack of the activity of the undieing [sic] worm of our conscience, that constantly eats away at our brain.” Yet the apostle Paul says that those who were dead in their sins and trespasses (Eph 2:1) were likewise “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2). Likewise he says “even when we were dead,” it was God who made us “alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4-5). You say “that the lack of liking God's ways more than the sinful ways to which we've already been enslaved, addicted, and accustomed to in no way invalidates the existence of our mental or logical approval of the truthfulness of God's voice inside us,” and that “we *want* to be able to follow” God’s truth. Yet the apostle Paul states that before salvation we were literally enemies of God (Rom 5:10) and that we were by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:3), as well as the aforementioned quote that “no one seeks God” (Rom 3:11).

    Man is completely unable to come to God on his own. A desire may be present, but the energy will be misdirected, as it was for Cain and the Pharisees, who were by all means seeking desirable things (one to find sacrifice worthy for God, the other to become deeply spiritual). Even Paul, speaking to the Athenians, calls them “religious” (Acts 17:22), but tells them that their pagan worship is in error (Acts 17:29), and that “these times of ignorance” God has overlooked, and now men are being called to worship Christ, the Son of God. (Acts 17:30-31).

    What, then, is pleasing to God? What work can we do? Christ was asked this very question by the false disciples (John 6:28), and He replied: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him who he was sent” (John 6:29). Yet we have established that man is on his own completely unable to do this - so how is this possible? Christ answered that much later on with: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…” (John 6:44). This is why I discussed what Christ says regarding the rich young man and why it was related to Christ. The disciples, discerning the difficulty in true fellowship with Christ, seem despaired, but are told that with God all things are possible. All things - even converting and preserving unrepentant and practicing sinners like Matthew or Saul, both of whom became great men for the early church.

    What you have presented is wonderful philosophically, but it is simple unscriptural.

  7. A desire may be present

    That's what I was saying. [I didn't say that we secrete our own power or devise our own worship and get to design our own religion..]

    What you have presented is wonderful philosophically

    It's not "philosophical", it's the story of my life. (My existence is not an abstraction..)

    The problem you present is that your views conflict with scripture.

    I go on from the premise that the Scriptures are true, and thus cannot contradict reality.

    And it's not my views that contradict scripture, it's my views (and experience) that contradict your own views of scripture. -- and that's a different story altogether..

    "Synergy" -- you keep using that term: I do not think it means what you think it means... just saying... (don't shoot the messenger..)

  8. Lucian - As you saw, I didn’t deny the existence of a desire, but then read the rest of that: the energy will be misdirected, because mankind is incapable, on his own, of coming to God. I’ve already explained how and why through scripture.

    Now you respond to my calling your analysis of sanctification by saying it’s “not ‘philosophical,’ but the story of my life.” That’s nice, but (not wanting to sound mean) personal opinion does not equal the will of God. There are many Mormons who take personal experience to be equal to canon, and would likewise argue to a naysayer that scripture cannot contradict “reality.” I do not believe in a reality because of what I personally know or think, I follow a reality as described by the word of God, Who is the Great Designer of this very reality we are living in.

    When you say: “And it's not my views that contradict scripture, it's my views…that contradict your own views of scripture”…well, again, your entire apologetics style is to go to someone’s post (or make one of your own), respond with one scriptural citation, and basically act as if you’ve already won the debate. All you’ve provided in this discussion is one passage (which is not even related, and I showed why), then back up your theology with nothing but your own personal experiences and beliefs. Then you tell me that it’s a case of “You have your verses, I have mine.” If you had shown me some scripture to prove your point, or at least presented a study of the scriptures on the subject, that argument might be valid. As such, I can only reject it.

  9. From where I'm standing, there's no contradiction between the Holy Scriptures and my own experience. They illuminate eachother.

    [I also agree with the Mormons on the fact that human beings have the ability to feel a burning in their chests... but how exactly this proves that polytheism is true is beyond me... -- do stomach-cramps prove the existence of unicorns?].

    Not really sure what you want me to "prove" to you: that sinful men, dead in their sins, have a conscience that eats at them? I know I had it... and since I'm in no way unique or special, then so does everybody else:

    St. Paul also seems to agree on the existence of conscience and moral law in unregenerate pagans, for instance:

    Romans 2:14  For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15  Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;

    His idea is that the moral and mozaic Laws, and our conscience, reveal to us the gravity of our own sinful state, but don't give us the power to change it: This is the work of God's grace which came through Jesus Christ, Who also sent us the Holy Spirit.

    God does the first two steps: He creates us, and gives us a conscience, the Law, and the Gospel.. to which we may respond -or not- by calling upon Him to save us from our wretched state.. which He as a loving Father promised us that He'll do if we'd ask Him to.. -- So what exactly seems to be the problem?

    the energy will be misdirected, because mankind is incapable, on his own, of coming to God.

    Who said anything about "on its own"? Did Christ desert us? Are we orphans? Did He lie when He said that He'll be with us always, even unto the end of the world? Don't we know the Gospel? Haven't we heard sermons? Don't we read the Bible? Don't we have a conscience? Didn't Saint Paul write that we can do all things through Christ Who strengthens us? Didn't the Saviour Himself promise us that whatever we'll ask the Father in His Name will be granted unto us? Didn't Saint Paul say that whosoever shall call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved? -- Again: what seems to be the problem?

  10. Lucian - First off, let me highlight the first part of your post:

    “there's no contradiction between the Holy Scriptures and my own experience. They illuminate eachother. [sic]”

    Do you realize what you just said? Your experience “illuminates” scripture? Are we therefore supposed to take personal experience to be equal with scripture? Pardon me, but since when does personal experience have such power? Again, if this were true, we’d all be Charismatics. Heck, if we’re going to hold personal experience on par with scripture, then I still win because I believe my own testimony to be an example of the position I uphold. In fact, I still have testimonies written during my Eastern Orthodox days where I say that, if I were Calvinist, I would call the pull God gave me after college towards Him to be “irresistible grace.”

    The fact is, neither you nor I can base theology on personal experience. If we dare do so, then we are introducing eisegesis into scripture. If you are going to argue, “Well this is what I experienced, so that proves my point,” then please don’t even bother responding.

    As for your contention at the end about where Christ is in our salvation - I’m not saying Christ is out of the picture. However, I ask you this: are you saying that on the final day, when we all stand before God, that you will be able to stand before His power and say to Him, “I’m here because I did a little on my part.” If you say yes, then you demean God’s power. If you say no, then you fall into my camp, and we have no argument. Matthew would not be in your camp in that regard, and I showed that in my post. The blessed evangelist only emphasized two things in his gospel concerning himself: his own sinful state, and the glory of God.

  11. Tony, I thought you brought out some very good points, especially regarding all of the events surrounding Matthew's calling—that being Christ's sovereignty over the miracles He performed. I guess sometimes I just read too fast and don't stop to notice everything.