Matthew the author.
In our hurry to get into the book itself, we often overlook the author. That is a mistake. Knowing the author and his purpose in writing is important to our understanding of any piece of writing and certainly to our understanding of this gospel. In fact, as we better understand the man called Matthew and his passion for the Messiah and for his own Jewish people, what he wrote of Jesus takes on greater significance and deeper meaning.
Who was Matthew? The answer that immediately rolls off our tongue is that he is the Matthew who was the disciple and Apostle of that name, called by Jesus to become one of the twelve disciples. But in recent years that assumption has been challenged. The author does not sign his name to the manuscript. He includes no first person “we” memories of Jesus or first person recollections of what would have been his shared experiences with the other disciples. He even seems to use long passages from a previously existing source rather than personal eyewitness testimony - which the author must have had if he were the disciple Matthew. So, were we mistaken? I do not think so.
Who was Matthew? If you were to ask him he would tell you, as he does in his gospel, that he was just a man, a sinner, who followed Jesus. He would happily leave it at that and change the discussion to what was really his passion, the Messiah.
But of course, Matthew’s brief, humble reply would be only part of the story. History tells us that he was more than a humble follower of Jesus. He was also an Apostle to his people and the author of the book called by his name.
There are two lines of evidence, I believe, for Matthew’s authorship of the gospel that lead us back to what the church has for eighteen centuries accepted as true. The first is the conviction of the early church father Papias. Writing in the early part of the second century, Papias identified the author of the book as the disciple Matthew. Papias also tells us that Matthew wrote for Jewish Christians and perhaps wrote in the Hebrew or Aramaic language. To take the word of someone who lived as little as one generation distant from the author of the book seems reasonable. He certainly knew the events that surrounded the beginning of the church far better than we can know them from a distance of almost two thousand years.
The second line of evidence is a manual for conduct and practice in the early church called the Didache. It is dated to the late first or early second century (100-130 A.D.) and was considered the teachings of the Apostles. The Didache contains the Lord’s Prayer just as it appears in the gospel of Matthew as well as the Trinitarian baptismal formula as it is found in chapter 28 of the gospel. Along with these longer quotes, the Didache also uses many brief clips from Matthew’s gospel, words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount that are not found in the other gospels. The heavy dependence of the Didache on Matthew would indicate both the early and apostolic origin of the gospel of Matthew and the gospel's importance to the early church.
However, it is not the historical evidence for authorship that is most significant for our understanding of his message. It is the portrait of Matthew that emerges from the book itself.
Matthew clearly was a literate and knowledgeable reader of the Hebrew Scriptures. He quotes extensively from those scriptures, more than any of the other three gospel writers. And it was a knowledge that is understandable when we see in the gospels of Mark and Luke that Matthew was also known as Levi. That name identifies Matthew as a man belonging to the clan assigned to serve in temple ministry, a man who would have been well schooled in the scriptures of Israel.
Yet when we are introduced to him in the gospels he was a man who was working at the most despised of professions, a tax collector for the Romans, and consorting with sinners. How had he fallen? Why?
Perhaps Matthew’s personal experience of the “religion” of Israel is the answer.
Matthew would have grown up in a family intimately associated with religion. He would have seen personally the corruption and political compromise and deadness (the very things that Jesus confronted and that Matthew reported at length in the gospel). If he had been a young man serious about God, dead religion up close and personal must have been a terrible, disturbing disappointment. Like many young people today who become disillusioned by the emptiness of the religion they see in their churches, the only option seemed to be to walk away from it all. He didn’t end up serving drinks in a sleazy back street bar, but his job as tax collector and partier with sinners was not much different. It was as far away from the religion of his youth as he could get. Yet there smoldered in Matthew a hope. It was a passion that is evident in his frequent references to the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah, more than any other prophet, weeps in pain at the moral and spiritual decline of Israel. Yet this same Isaiah deeply hopes in the Messiah - whose portrait he so wonderfully draws in the powerful 53rd chapter of his message - the Servant of God who would take away the sin of his people. These were a people whom Isaiah pictures as an “afflicted city” (Isaiah 54:11), a people who were waiting in “darkness” (Isaiah 61:1). And that was Matthew. He was a pile of kindling waiting for a flame. Jesus was that flame.
It is not surprising after hearing Jesus preaching that the kingdom of God was present, after seeing the genuineness of Jesus’ character and seeing the power of his compassion, that Matthew would at Jesus’ word leave the tax booth to follow this incredible man. Jesus, he felt deep down and without question, was the hope of Israel. This man was his hope. This man was Messiah. Matthew could do no less than follow.
Matthew’s passionate surrender to the one he knew to be Messiah left him forever humbled. It is not insignificant that Matthew alone of the three gospel writers who tell of the Lord’s calling uses the name Matthew and not the name Levi. (In fact, he goes further. He calls himself simply “a man.”) The name Levi carried far more status than Matthew wished now to bear.
Nor is it insignificant that in the list of the twelve disciples included in all three gospels, Matthew alone would add to his name, “the publican.” (He might as well have written Matthew the sinner, for that is what he meant.) Yes, Matthew’s encounter with Messiah left him deeply and profoundly humbled, but it also left him with a burden.
Matthew’s passionate surrender to Messiah would turn him to his people with the message of the Servant Savior. He saw his people as the people described by Isaiah: “Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead” (Isaiah 59:10). Upon them the light had now dawned. And with the burden of a prophet, Matthew would spend the rest of his life speaking the message of Messiah Jesus, the Light. He would bear that burden to his people in Judea and then across western Asia. Out of that passion flow the words of the book we know now as the Gospel of Matthew.