In first century Palestine, if you aspired to be a tax collector you could expect to earn a very good standard of living. There was a problem though—to be successful you would have to cheat, swindle and be dishonest. Oh, and be good with extortion. On the other hand, those who were on the receiving end of tax collectors were not only taxed for their income, but for the staple foods they would grow and produce like grain, wine, fruit and olives. There were sales taxes, property taxes, emergency taxes and a number of other ways in which the Roman government obtained its pound of flesh from the populace.

Which makes the call of Matthew, the tax collector, quite a remarkable thing.

When Jesus called Matthew, and he “arose and followed him” (Matt 9:9),1 it signals perhaps the greatest sacrifice made of any of our Lord’s 12 disciples. Peter, for example, was a sherman; but there was no ethical problem with him going back to his enterprise, and we know from the gospel records that he did exactly that. But for Matthew, there was no going back to the kind of dishonest and often brutal occupation of collecting tax for the Romans. There was no going back to wining and dining with the rich and corrupt in “the house” (Matt 9:10, humbly recorded by the gospel writer about his own abode). One commentator records that “Abuses by tax farmers before and during this period in rural Egypt reportedly included torturing and killing for the sake of locating tax fugitives or beating an old woman because her relatives were behind on taxes. Extant documents indicate that to avoid such problems people sometimes paid tax gatherers bribes, in one case as high as 2,200 drachmas for extortion; a drachma was close to an average worker’s daily wage.”2

While the call of Matthew is a great example of denying yourself, taking up your cross and following Christ, the spiritual lessons that come from this apostle go far deeper. We are going to see how the meaning of Matthew’s name, the meaning of his other name, Levi, and the meaning of his father’s name, all point us to a remarkable spiritual message about a different kind of tax collection.

The name Matthew is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Mattithiah, a name of several Israelites in the Old Testament. It means “gift of Yahweh”. Tax collectors in the first century expected to receive gifts, in the form of bribes, but Matthew is entering a new vocation involving a very different kind of gift.

In the Old Testament, the name Mattithiah appears mostly in lists of genealogies and of Levites, but there is one specific Old Testament Matthew who is singled out in the divine record. He is found in 1 Chronicles 9, a chapter detailing the various duties of the Levites who served in the temple. Each Levite was given different tasks and responsibilities. Verse 28 says, “Some of them had charge of the utensils of service” so the jobs were very specific. “Others”, the record goes on to say “were appointed over the furniture and over all the holy utensils, also over the fine flour, the wine, the oil, the incense, and the spices” (v29) and it is then that we have mention of Mattithiah who, being “one of the Levites, the firstborn of Shallum the Korahite, was entrusted with making the flat cakes” (v31).

Making the flat cakes? The KJV says he oversaw “things that were made in the pans” but that doesn’t sound much better. However, this seemingly menial task has great spiritual significance. Notice again the context in which this Old Testament Matthew is mentioned. Other Levites, we are told, oversaw things like “fine flour, the wine, the oil, the incense, and the spices” (v29), all things that were necessary to keep the temple functioning. That was the call of the Levites, to make sure the worship of Yahweh could continue day in, day out. In the holy place of the temple fine flour and wine were needed to keep the table of showbread functioning. The bread didn’t make itself—it needed Levites to prepare it. Oil was needed each day to light the lampstand, and incense and the other spices so the altar of incense could keep burning. Mattithiah, who was charged with anything made in a pan, had a duty which we will see sums up this service of the Levites.

David also appointed duties to the Levites. Their duty, we are told “was to assist the sons of Aaron for the service of the house of the LORD…to assist with the showbread, the flour for the grain offering” (1 Chron 23:28-29) and so forth. They were to assist the priesthood and work in the house of God.

Now, the main offering that was made in a pan, overseen by Mattithiah, was the grain offering (see Lev 2:7-8 for example). This offering, called the “meat offering” in the KJV is made up of one Hebrew word, mincah, which simply means “a gift or present”. It is the same word, for instance, used for the “present” Jacob prepared for Esau on his journey home. It is fitting, therefore, that the man named “gift of Yahweh” was given charge of the offering which represents our gift of service in the house of God.

When you look at the recipe for the grain offering you will notice it was made up of three ingredients:“fine our…oil…frankincense” (Lev 2:1). These happen to be those same three staple ingredients needed to keep the table of showbread, lampstand and altar of incense running in the temple.

The lesson for us as spiritual Levites serving in the ecclesia, is to offer our mincah—our gift of service—and use our time, energy, skills and resources to keep the ecclesia functioning. Just as our, oil and incense were three things heavily taxed by the Roman government, so the world does take some of these things away from us. But our focus must be on using what we have been blessed with to make sure the house of God is not left without those things that keep it as an active light stand.

Intriguingly, when we look at the functioning of the first century ecclesia, we find that another Matthew appears, the apostle Matthias (a shortened form of Matthew) who replaced the traitor Judas (Acts 1:23-26). The first few chapters of the book of Acts detail the work of the early ecclesia as it is built up and organised by the spiritual Levites under the direction of their new high priest from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ. What is fascinating about the choice of Matthias in this context is that church tradition holds that he is the same man as the tax collector we know as Zacchaeus. While we cannot be certain this is true, Clement of Alexandria, one of the earliest of the so-called ‘church fathers’, records “So Zacchaeus, whom they call Matthias, the chief tax collector, when he had heard that the Lord had esteemed him highly enough to be with Him, said, ‘Behold, half of my present possessions I give as alms, and Lord, if I ever extorted money from anyone in any way, I return it fourfold.’ At this, the Saviour said, ‘When the Son of Man came today, he found that which was lost’.”3 While we can’t be sure Matthias and Zacchaeus are the same man there is another intriguing link between them. When Zacchaeus said he would restore “fourfold” anything he had extorted, he was invoking a principle in the Law for making restitution where a man had to repay “four sheep for a sheep” (Exod 22:1) if he had stolen anything. That Hebrew word translated “repay” happens to be the word shalam, which is the root of the name of Mattithiah’s father, where he is recorded in 1 Chronicles 9:31 as being “the firstborn of Shallum”.

Returning to the context in Acts, we find the early ecclesia acting as spiritual Levites and getting the ecclesia ready to function. After Peter preached about the sacrifice of Christ (Acts 2:36), the people listening were baptised (v38) and these actions together follow the pattern of the temple—the first item of furniture you would come to would be the altar of burnt offering, followed by the laver— representing the sacrifice of Christ and baptism respectively. Then the ecclesia started functioning as “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (v42), all of which are the spiritual antitypes of the furniture in the holy place of the temple. The lampstand (apostles’ teaching), table of showbread (fellowship and breaking of bread) and altar of incense (prayers) were all prepared by spiritual Levites offering their gift of service to Yahweh.

The connection between Matthew/Matthias/ Mattithiah and the work of the Levites is also significant because Mark records Matthew’s name as Levi (Mark 2:14), suggesting that he was a Levite himself. The name Levi means “joined”, and the original son of Jacob was so named after Leah had given birth to three sons, whereupon she hoped now Jacob would be a proper husband to her and be joined to her (Gen 29:34).

Before we look at the main lesson behind the call of Matthew, consider too that Mark mentions the name of his father—Alphaeus (Mark 2:14). This is the Greek form of another Hebrew name, which comes from a rare Hebrew word—used only twice in the Old Testament—and that word is helep, which means “a reward for service rendered”, or more succinctly, “remuneration or compensation”.

Now let’s have a look at one of the chapters in the Law which describes the work of the Levites. In Numbers 18:2 we are told that the Levites were to “join you and minister to” Aaron and his sons, living up to their name and pointing forward to the relationship between our high priest and those who are spiritual Levities working in the ecclesia.

In fact, the language of marriage is used typically to describe this relationship as the Levites became a “helper fit for” (Gen 2:18) the second Adam. We are told in Numbers 18:6 that the Levites were a “gift…given to the LORD” which, in the Hebrew, is the precise meaning of the name Matthew.

And what other role did the priest and Levites have? They were tax collectors! Verse 8 records that Aaron was given “charge of the contributions made to me” which included “every grain offering of theirs” (v9) and “the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain” (v12). These “contributions” came from the Israelite community and would have been collected by the Levites and given to the priesthood.

Unlike Matthew before his call, who owned a big house, the Levites had no inheritance (v19-20). Instead they were at the mercy of these contributions. Numbers 18 goes on to say regarding those contributions, “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting” (v21). The Levites were spiritual tax collectors, collecting the tithe that would provide them with the means to live. It was the “return for their service”, which is one of the occurrences of the word helep, the meaning of the name of Matthew the tax collector’s father. The other occurrence is found in verse 31 (“your reward in return for your service”) at the end of the context in which those things that were contributed and collected by the Levites effectively became the people’s tax.

Perhaps the spiritual counterpart to these contributions is found in what happened next in the early ecclesia as “all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45).

But, Matthew left his golden gains—for a far more meaningful calling. As those who have been joined to our Lord, we have been called to be spiritual Levites, given as a gift to him, gathering the contributions of our fellow brothers and sisters as we join together to offer our gifts of service in the house of Yahweh.

References

  1. Quotations from the ESV unless otherwise noted.
  2. Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew, 2009, p. 292
  3. Clement of Alexandria , Stromata 4.6.35.2.