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Evangelist Matthew: from Publican to Herald of Salvation

The Evangelist Matthew was one of the 12 Apostles of Christ. He is known as Levi in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Matthew was the brother of the Apostle James of Alphaeus. He was a Galilean from Capernaum and worked as a publican of Rome. Matthew’s life in Christ, as an Apostle, began like this: As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So, he arose and followed Him (Mt 9:9).
 
Publicans were cruel and greedy tax collectors who collected taxes from their fellow Jews and gave it to the Roman overlords. They would keep some of the money as a profit for themselves. The term publican for the Jews was practically synonymous with “public sinner” and even “idol-worshipper.” To even speak to a publican was considered a sin, never mind to associate with them. 
 
In fact, Christ was criticized by the Pharisees for having eaten with them: Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard that, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (ibid 9:10-13).
 
There are many examples of repentant sinners who began a new life in Christ; Zacchaeus, St Paul and St Mary of Egypt are just a few to mention. Matthew repaid fourfold to all he cheated and gave his remaining possessions to the poor, just like Zacchaeus, a fellow tax collector did. 
 
Matthew was an eyewitness to the earthly life of Jesus all the way to His Ascension and was present in the upper room at Pentecost. He went on for several years preaching the Good News in Palestine. The Gospel of Matthew does not name him as the author, yet, all the early manuscripts attribute Matthew as the author. It was written between 70-80 AD, after the destruction of Jerusalem, while Matthew was living in Antioch. 
 
According to Papias, a 2nd Century Christian author, Matthew recorded the sayings of Christ in Aramaic which was the common language of the Jews at that time. So, this Gospel was originally written in Aramaic by Matthew but later translated into Greek by someone else. 
 
The original Aramaic text has not survived, only the Greek. However, the Greek text has a Judaic style to it. This is evident in its Aramaic expressions and forms and references to the Old Testament, especially the Prophets. 
 
Moreover, Matthew gives details of Jewish religious observances and often uses Judaic style and techniques of argument. Although numbered first in sequence of the four Gospels, Matthew’s Gospel was written after Mark and actually drew on Mark as a source. 
 
The narratives of Christ are presented by Matthew in three sections, instituting three characteristics of the service of the Messiah: Prophet, Priest and King. As Prophet, He is the Source of revelation, thus fulfilling the Prophets and the Law. As Priest, He is the High Priest who is sacrificed for the salvation of mankind. As King, He is King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev 19:16), the One who sits at the Right Hand of the Father and will come again to judge the living and the dead; separating the goats from the sheep (ibid 25:32).
 
The Gospel of Matthew being the first book of the New Testament serves as a transition from the Old Testament to the New. It is a bridge linking the two Testaments together as one. Moreover, the last book of the Old Testament is the Book of Daniel. It is considered part of Apocalyptic literature. This type of writing speaks about the eschaton (last days) and the life to come in the Kingdom of Heaven. 
 
In the Book of Daniel, we hear about a mountain that grew out of a small stone which is an image of the Kingdom of God. Then the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled all the earth…whereas you saw the stone cut out of the mountain without hands, it grounded to powder the clay, the iron, the copper, the silver, and the gold. Thus, the great God has made known to the king what must come to pass after this. The dream is true, and its interpretation is trustworthy (Daniel 2:35,45).
 
Similarly, Matthew’s Gospel has an apocalyptic style to it. It speaks of the eschatological revelations of the Kingdom in the Second Coming of Christ within the daily spiritual life of the Church. As we hear in one of the stichera at the vespers for the Feast of St Matthew:
 
In days of old, as the earth lay waste in evil, the prophet Daniel was endowed with clearness of sight. He beheld a stone, cut without human hands from a mountain: a stone which ground the riches of earthly kingdoms to dust. In the fullness of time this all-wise Lord came down to earth: passing by the customs-house, He chose you to be His herald, He called you, who once served an earthly kingdom, to serve Him, the light of the world, pray to Him, blessed Matthew, that He may enlighten and save our souls. 
 
The Prophet Ezekiel envisioned four living creatures: this was the likeness of their faces: the face of a man, the face of a lion on the right side of the foursome, the face of an ox on the left, and the face of an eagle (Ezek 1:10). St Gregory the Great says: for because he began with Christ’s human begetting, Matthew by right is signified by the human.  Each creature is a type of Christ who became a man (Matthew) in the incarnation, an ox (Luke) on the Cross, a lion (Mark) in the Resurrection and an eagle (John) in the Ascension. 
 
These same living creatures are also mentioned in Revelations 4:6: and in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was a flying eagle. St Irenaeus says that the likeness of a man is a symbol of our Saviour’s Incarnation. 
 
The Apostle Matthew preached the Good News throughout Syria, Media, Persia, Parthia and eventually Ethiopia is where he was martyred. He was placed upside down in the midst of a fire bier. When the fire was ignited, it flared up but did not harm the Evangelist; his body remained untouched by the flame. 
 
Fulvian, the pagan ruler, ordered that more wood be added to the fire. He also commanded that twelve idols be placed around the fire. However, the flames melted the idols and flared up toward Fulvian. Out of fear and desperation, Fulvian turned to Matthew for help. By the prayer of the Apostle, the flame was miraculously extinguished and Fulvian was saved.
 
Ironically, Matthew’s body remained in the fire and his soul departed to the Lord. With love and humility, he cared more for the well-being of his persecutor than himself. This is exemplary of what it means to be Christ-like. 
 
O Apostle and Evangelist Matthew, supplicate for us before the Lord our God!

 

-John Athanasatos 

A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.

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