As a tax collector (or publican), Matthew collected taxes for Rome from his fellow Jews in Capernaum.
That in itself would be enough to make him feel like a political traitor—his profession was a symbol of Israel’s Roman occupation. But to make matters worse, tax collectors made their money by saying people owed Caesar more than they did and then skimming the extra off the top—and there was nothing anyone could do about it. As a result, tax collectors were right up there with prostitutes as the go-to example of the worst sinners.
So it was a big deal that Jesus asked Matthew to follow him and be one of his disciples. Matthew’s inclusion among the Twelve presents a powerful picture of how God partners with all kinds of people—even those you’d least expect—to accomplish his purposes. And despite the fact that Matthew would have been considered a religious outsider, Jesus brought him into the inner circle of what would eventually become the world’s largest religion.
Despite the fact that Matthew is one of the better-known disciples, he’s actually only mentioned seven times in the Bible.
Matthew in the Bible
Matthew is one of the few apostles whose calling is recorded in the gospels. All three synoptic gospels have a version of the same account:
“As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.” —Matthew 9:9
“As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.” —Mark 2:14
“After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.” —Luke 5:27–28
This doesn’t tell us much (other than that he was a tax collector in Capernaum since Capernaum is where this encounter takes place), but you’ll notice Mark and Luke call this tax collector Levi or Levi son of Alphaeus. Since these are parallel passages, and Levi is never referred to again, and Mark and Luke both include Matthew in the lists of apostles, it’s pretty safe to assume Matthew and Levi are the same people.
Most likely, “Levi” referred to the tribe Matthew was from, but it’s also possible that he had a Greek name (Matthew) and a Hebrew name (Levi), similar to how Paul was also known as Saul. Since Matthew/Levi was a Jew employed by Rome, that wouldn’t be surprising.
Immediately after calling Matthew to follow him, Jesus has dinner at Matthew’s house, and “many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.” The Pharisees—who were always trying to trap Jesus and make him out to be a fraud—were pretty bothered by this:
“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’
On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” —Matthew 9:10–13
The Pharisees see Jesus hanging out with the worst of the worst (in their estimation) and assume this is a reflection of his character. And it is—just not the way they thought. Jesus wasn’t eating with tax collectors and sinners because he was a sinner, too. He was eating with them to demonstrate God’s mercy and to mend the brokenness that came with being treated like religious outsiders.
By including Matthew among his disciples, Jesus showed that no one—not even those society considered irredeemable—would be excluded from God’s table.
Did Matthew write the Gospel of Matthew?
The Gospel of Matthew’s author is anonymous, but Matthew the Apostle is traditionally considered the author. The early church claimed he wrote it, and the attribution “according to Matthew” was added possibly as early as the second century. While there are credible arguments against his authorship, no alternative writer has been named.
How did Matthew die?
Traditions disagree on how and where Matthew died. Various accounts say he was beheaded, stoned, burned, or stabbed. One even suggests he died of old age, like John. Most scholars believe he was probably martyred, though.