St. Matthew: The Galilean "Gift of Jehovah"
"And He said to Saint Matthew, 'Follow Me,' and he arose up and followed Him."
(Matthew 9:9, Mark 2:14, and Luke 5:27)
Roman overlords during the time of St. Matthew, assigned specific locations to Jewish publicans or tax collectors to collect unfair and unpopular taxes for the Romans. The publicans were also free to collect extra revenues for their own profit and routinely did so. Often collaborators with the Gentiles, these tax collectors were commonly known to be dishonest and fraudulent. Other Jews immensely hated the tax collectors and referred to the tax collectors with contempt and called them "unclean".
The Jews despised the "unclean" tax collectors so much that most refused to allow family members to marry into a family that had a publican among its members. The wealth of a tax collector was not influential among the Jewish population. Many publicans were also banned from religious worship and community affairs. No society gatherings nor commerce and trade were conducted with tax collectors.
The Lord Jesus Christ with the power to forgive and undo all trespasses and wrongdoing, called out to Matthew the publican, "Follow Me!" St. Matthew immediately and without questions, left all his earthly interests and his occupation and position to become a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. St. Jerome states that St. Matthew saw "a glowing and majesty which appeared in the countenance of the Lord Jesus Christ piercing St. Matthew's soul attracting him to follow the Lord. He who called St. Matthew outwardly by His Holy Word at the same time moved him inwardly by the distinctiveness of His Grace."
From St. Matthew's immediate willingness to follow the Lord Jesus Christ we can assume he was a man of deep spiritual conviction. This was also evident by St Matthew's concern for his former colleagues whom he invited to dinner at his home. The Lord Jesus Christ was the guest of honor at this dinner and we can conclude that St. Matthew's intent was to lead others to the Lord Jesus Christ. St. Matthew's discipleship from the conception was one of mission that led to the beginning of the gentile church.
St. Matthew, whose name meant "gift of Jehovah", followed the Lord Jesus Christ through His earthly life and wrote his Holy Gospel according to His teachings. St. Matthew's Holy Gospel is often referred to as the "Holy Gospel to the Jews". The Holy Gospel of St. Matthew was originally written in the Aramaic language of the Jewish converts. Papias, a second century Christian author, preserves this tradition that St. Matthew wrote the sayings of the Lord Jesus Christ in Aramaic, the common language of the Jews at the time of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that others freely translated St. Matthew's writings into Greek.
Many believe the Holy Gospel of St. Matthew to be the first written Holy Gospel. St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (AD 67-107), was one of the earliest witnesses to the existence of the Holy Gospel of St. Matthew. It was thought to have been written during the years St. Matthew resided in Antioch, where the church comprised a diverse community of Jewish and Gentile Christians.
All believe the Holy Gospel of St Matthew to have a large number of quotations from the Old Testament, which show how the Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled God's Words to Israel. St. Matthew shows conclusively that the Lord Jesus Christ established the New Covenant through His death and Resurrection, and will continue to guide the Church until the end of the ages.
After Pentecost, St. Matthew, filled with the Holy Spirit, preached for fifteen years in Judea and then journeyed to preach the salvation taught by "The Great Teacher" (the interpreter of God's Law through the Sermon on the Mount) to the nations of the East and in Ethiopia. The Coptic Orthodox Church venerates this holy evangelist as a martyr though the time, place, and circumstances of St. Matthew's death are unknown.
What we know for certain is St. Matthew's courage in service. St. Matthew immediately left all to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. His heavenly mission kept him focused throughout his earthly life. The Lord Jesus Christ commanded His holy apostles, "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul, but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28). If the faithful apostles had not been courageous during their generation, the Truth and their writings might have been lost among all that was vain. The blood of the martyred apostles watered the seeds of faith they scattered throughout their lands of evangelism.
What are the lessons we can learn from St. Matthew's example? Spiritual leadership is not inherited, nor is it obtained from a wealthy government position. Worldly glory and material possessions do not advance us in the sight of the Lord Jesus Christ. Further, spiritual leadership is not lost due to old age as there is no retirement in spiritual leadership. Nor is there old age in spiritual life itself.
God is not biased. He can foresee in us complete obedience, great faith, strong love, and a readiness to work in His Service for His Holy Name. He will prepare us for the spiritual service if we place complete faith in Him. As He said to Joshua, "This day I will begin to magnify you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you" (Joshua 3:7). As with St. Matthew, from the day this saint followed the Lord Jesus Christ, he ardently evangelized starting with those he was employed with.
Today, from this we can practically learn that spiritual leadership is not gained solely by attending service meetings, teaching Sunday School classes on Sunday, reading books, nor by imitating the example of other leaders. It is through God that spiritual leadership is achieved. Spiritual leadership is a divine gift that comes from God.
"But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ" (Philippians 3:7).
May we all follow the Lord in faith, love, humble obedience and a willingness to serve others in His Holy Name, as the great St. Matthew before us.
H.G. Bishop Youssef
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States