Two Men Transformed
All of us have personal characteristics and traits we do not like. Perhaps these were what drove us to Christ in the first place. Just like Matthew and Thomas, the subjects of this lesson, we can find a change and the grace to continue to grow into what we can be as we turn our lives over to our Savior, Jesus.
Although somewhat obscure compared to some of the others, these two apostles are very well known by many. What we know of Matthew and Thomas for certain is contained in Scripture so that will remain our focus.
The information from Scripture about Matthew is straightforward. He is identified as Levi, the Son of Alphaeus (Mark 2:14) and simply as Levi (Luke 5:27). He is universally accepted as the author of the book of Matthew.
The calling of Matthew is recorded in each of the gospels except John. Matthew was a tax collector at Capernaum. There is no indication he had any previous interaction with Jesus, but it is possible that he had heard of Him as the Lord traveled and taught in that region. On the life-changing day of his calling, Matthew was manning his tax booth when Jesus invites the tax collector to follow Him (Matthew 9:9). Jesus is passing by the tax booth and simply says to Matthew, "Follow me." Matthew immediately leaves his booth and follows Jesus.
In Luke 5:27-32, we see the detail of Matthew's actions immediately after Jesus called him. Just like Andrew and Philip, Matthew introduces his friends to Jesus. Matthew puts together a banquet and invites his friends to come meet Jesus. Given his social status as a tax collector, his friends were primarily other tax collectors. The religious leaders saw this as a scandalous event and used it to question the motives and purity of Jesus since he was associating with "tax collectors and sinners." We gain wonderful insight into Jesus and his motives as he responds to the criticism by stating:
"Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."
- Luke 5:31-32
We do not have any indication Matthew was dishonest or engaged in questionable practices; however, because of his associations, he would be considered guilty by association. Tax collectors were among the most despised professions in the Jewish society. They were looked at as traitors and collaborators since they served Rome. They were seen as dishonest and unclean because of their association and were a visible target for the hatred the Jews felt towards the Romans.
There were two types of tax collectors. One type collected general taxes such as property, income and poll taxes. These taxes were imposed directly through the Roman government and less subject to graft. The other type collected more arbitrary taxes such as duty on imports and exports, tolls on beasts of burden and axles of vehicles or whatever else they wanted to tax. In addition to the stated tax, they usually added additional amounts that they collected for themselves.
There were also different levels of tax collectors. There were the "chief tax collectors" such as Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-2) and those that interacted directly with the public, such as Matthew.
Tax collectors were frequently referenced together with prostitutes and other low-level social groups. However, choosing Matthew was consistent with Jesus' method of going to those needing him the most, just as Jesus stated at Matthew's banquet.
Jesus referred to tax collectors on several occasions. One of the best-known references is found in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:10-14). In this parable, Jesus draws a sharp contrast between the self-righteous Pharisee praising himself before God and looking down upon the tax collector standing in the corner. There the tax collector stands penitent before God, not even able to look up to God. He pleads with God for mercy. As Jesus draws the contrast, it is the humble and contrite tax collector who is forgiven and accepted by God. I suspect Matthew hung on every word, fully understanding the emotion of the tax collector in the parable.
In addition to the parable mentioned above, Jesus refers to tax collectors in other settings. We read of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:2-10. Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see Jesus. Jesus spends the afternoon with Zacchaeus, changing his life forever. There is the collective mention in Luke 15:1, Matthew 21:31 and Luke 7:28-29 where Jesus teaches that those at the lowest level of Jewish society were justified and accepted before those seen as righteous. It was not position, acceptance, or rejection by society that saved them, but their level of willingness to turn to Jesus.
Matthew was willing to leave all his worldly riches and follow Christ. Matthew put into action the words of Jesus about laying up treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). Indications are that when Jesus called him, he simply left the money on the table and walked away into a new life.
What We Learn from Matthew
Matthew gives us four "great" lessons:
He gives us the detail of the greatest sermon, His; Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). During this sermon, Jesus reveals the simple and direct application of God's expectations of citizens in His Kingdom.
Matthew gives us what some call the "Great Commitment" in Matthew 10:37-39:
"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
He also provides us the answer to the question of the "Great Commandments" in Matthew 22:36-40:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."
Matthew records the details of what is referred to as the "Great Commission" (Matthew 28:18-20):
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
Perhaps Matthew was seeking change in his life when Jesus called him. Matthew could recall that moment and state, "I used to be despised by many, but now I'm loved by the Master." That is a statement echoed by many as we experience the change in our lives as we also encounter our Lord.
In the next apostle, we see a man who also had doubts and misgivings. He was not the only one to doubt, but because he vocalized it, that is how he is known.
We do not know much about Thomas except his listing among the twelve apostles in the gospels and Acts, and the incidents recorded by John. We do not know his profession, education, or associations.
He is known as Thomas the Twin (John 11:16). Some versions of Scripture use the term "Didymus" which means twin.
The first time the gospels record him speaking is in John 11 when Lazarus has recently died, and Jesus wishes to return to Bethany to raise him from the dead. After trying to persuade Jesus not to return, John records:
"So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
- John 11:16
We read another statement from Thomas in John 14:5-6. Jesus is preparing the apostles for His upcoming torture, death, and eventual return to heaven. Thomas asked Jesus how they could know where He was going. In this event we have another insight into the mission of Jesus stated in John 14:6:
"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
Perhaps unjustly so, but Thomas gained the identity of "Doubting Thomas" because of the incident that happened in John 20:24-29. After the resurrection of Jesus, the apostles were together, except Thomas. We do not know where Thomas was or why he was not with the others. When Thomas arrived, they told him they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. Thomas did not believe them and stated that he had to see and touch the nail marks in His hand and place his hand into Jesus' side before he would believe. Jesus then appears and invites Thomas to do just what he had said. This led to one of the greatest statements of faith in Scripture: Verse 28, "My Lord and My God." From that moment on, Thomas was never a doubter, but a faithful follower into eternity.
What We Learn from Thomas.
Thomas shows us the Lord forgives.
All the apostles doubted and abandoned the Lord to some degree. As stated, when Jesus appeared to the apostles and invited Thomas to touch Him, Thomas immediately praised Jesus as Lord and God. There was no more doubt of the resurrection of Jesus nor of who He was. Jesus did not condemn Thomas for not believing, rather He blessed Thomas in his belief.
We all go through or have gone through a period of not believing who Jesus is. Some even doubt that Jesus could possibly be what He claims or could possibly forgive them for their sins. Yet Jesus is always ready to forgive those who turn to Him, as seen by Thomas' life.
Thomas teaches us to remain faithful to the Lord.
Although there were times when his faith was weak, Thomas remained faithful to our Lord. We see in Thomas a willingness to follow Jesus, even in the possibility of losing his life. Therein lies one of the greatest paradoxes, and greatest promises given by Jesus. We must be willing, as He demonstrated, to lay down our life for Him to gain life, also through Him (Matthew 16:25; John 15:13).
Tradition and non-biblical writings record that Matthew carried the gospel to Persia and Ethiopia. Matthew was believed to have died around AD 60 in Ethiopia. Some scholars think Matthew died of natural causes, but most scholars claim he was killed. There are several ways Matthew was believed to have died, including burned, stoned, stabbed, or beheaded.
There is little information about the life and death of Thomas beyond the mentions in scripture. Tradition relates that Thomas carried the gospel to India. It is believed by some that Thomas was killed by being stabbed with a spear. It is possible that this is fictionalized because of Thomas' statement about touching the wound in the side of Jesus (John 20:27).
Matthew and Thomas show us that no matter who we are or what we become, no matter our doubts or fears, Jesus wants us to come home to him. We have learned that they continued to be positive instruments for God. Through their example, we can see that we, too, can use our gifts to become all Jesus wants us to become.
Matthew and Thomas represent two distinct responses to Jesus. Matthew unhesitatingly left his former life and followed Jesus. Thomas followed Jesus but had a notable moment of doubt. Both men are honored because eventually there was no doubt from either of them that Jesus is indeed Lord, Savior and King.
We stated that Matthew gives us four great lessons in his gospel. There is one more lesson Matthew gives, the Lord's "great invitation" (Matthew 11:28-30). Here Jesus states:
"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
Matthew and Thomas needed rest. Both learned to trust our Lord and indeed, to take up His yoke.
Matthew would like our song, "Take My Life and Let It Be." He would especially have liked the fourth verse:
"Take my silver and my gold;
Not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use every power
as thou shalt choose."
Thomas would love the old gospel song, "He Lives."
"I serve a risen savior, he's in the world today.
I know that he is living whatever men may say.
I see his hand of mercy, I hear his voice of cheer,
and just the time I need him, he's always near.
He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!"
- Summarize biblical information about Matthew.
- Why were tax collectors despised and how does this fit the type of individual Jesus could use in His ministry?
- Summarize the "great" lessons Matthew recorded in his gospel and why these are important to us.
- Summarize why Thomas is referred to by so many as "Doubting Thomas" and what is the true nature of Thomas?
- What can we learn from Thomas?
- What lesson do you take away from the life of Matthew and Thomas?