The Call of Matthew

By Mike Willis

And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him. And it came to pass as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners? When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mk. 3:13-17).

The call of Levi or Matthew contains several lessons for us which remind us of our need for humility and consciousness of our own sins as we work to bring others to Christ. Let us study these lessons.

The Conversion of Matthew

Matthew was a publican, from among a group who were notoriously unscrupulous in the collection of taxes. John the Baptist had singled out the publicans as one group of the “generation of vipers” who were called to repentance. Luke relates this about John’s charge to the publicans, “Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you” (Lk. 3:12-13). The publicans were notorious for over-taxing the people and pocketing what was in excess of the amount the state demanded.

Because of their extortion and position as agents of Rome, the publicans were socially rejected, religiously excommunicated, and politically viewed as traitors. Nevertheless, their job was lucrative. When Jesus called Matthew, saying “Follow me,” he forsook his lucrative position to become the Lord’s disciple. What a contrast he makes with the rich young ruler who rejected Christ to cling to his possessions (Matt. 19:16-22). How many of us would walk away from a high-paying job to be the Lord’s disciple?

Becoming a disciple of Christ meant new pursuits, new goals, new morals, and new friends. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). Certainly this was true for Matthew.

Having seen what Jesus had done for him, Matthew used his influence to introduce others to Christ. He invited his friends to a feast in honor of Jesus that they too might become acquainted with him. Matthew’s example of using his influence to bring others to Christ should be instructive to each of us. How many of us have opened our home to our neighbors and friends to introduce them to the Christ? When a new family visits where you worship, do you open your home to them to conduct a Bible study?

The Charge Against Jesus

When the Pharisees saw Jesus attend Matthew’s feast with publicans and sinners, they charged Jesus with sin saying he “eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners. ” The charge indicts Jesus with condoning sin and participating with sinners. Had Jesus joined with sinners in their conduct or bid them godspeed by his action, he certainly would have been guilty of sin (2 Jn. 9-11). However, that was not his purpose for being there. Some had placed the worst possible construction on Jesus’ actions. Some always will.

The truth is that Jesus was working with the publicans and sinners to bring them to repentance. Jesus did not turn his back on the social outcasts. He preached the gospel to the poor (Matt. 11:5) and ministered to the down and out. He fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory” (Matt. 12:20). He had interest in the soul of the Samaritan woman who had five precious husbands and was living with one who was not her husband (Jn. 4). He saw the value of every soul; it was worth more than all of the world (Matt. 16:26).

We must never forget the preciousness of one soul, regardless of how marred and despicable it may have become because of the defilement of sin. The homosexual, with his incurable disease of AIDS, is still a soul in need of God’s salvation. A few years ago, I drove down a street in Nashville, Tennessee where I saw a “street person.” The woman was at least 50-60 years old, her gray hair was long and matted; she obviously was in need of a bath. Though her appearance was repulsive and still lingers in my memory, I remind myself that she has a soul even as I do and that she needs the Lord’s salvation just the same as does the banker in our community.

We need to be careful not to allow our view of such people to fall to the level of that of the Pharisees who saw such men as contemptible sinners. Jesus says these people are sinsick and in need of healing; the Pharisees only saw contemptible, unclean sinners which could not be touched without contaminating one’s self.

They That Are Whole Have No Need Of A Physician

Jesus’ response to those who condemned him for eating with “publicans and sinners” was this: “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Mk. 2:17). Who are “they that are whole” who have no need of a physician? The physician is Christ and the healing is forgiveness of sins. The Scriptures teach that none is whole and without need of a physician (Rom. 3:23).

However, there are some who imagine themselves to be so righteous that they do not think they have need of a physician (cf. Rev. 3:17). In the context, these were the Pharisees who condemned Jesus for associating with “publicans and sinners.” The great Physician cannot heal the man who does not recognize that he is sick and in need of healing.

Jesus Came To Call Sinners To Repentance

The calling of Jesus is a call for sinners to repent. There is a mistaken understanding of the ministry of Jesus manifested among some who labor tirelessly among the social outcasts. Some who work among the vilest of sinners issue no call to repentance. They conceive of the gospel as a ministry to the physical suffering of drunks, drug addicts, and prostitutes. They hand out food, treat drunkenness, provide housing, and pay for medical help. But they do little for the soul! Without denying the physical suffering of these sin sick souls, I remind you that the gospel is not aimed at ministering to physical needs, but to spiritual needs. Some have confused those who want help with those who want a hand-out.

The Lord came to call sinners to repentance! The gospel is not a “come as you are” party. Those who promise grace without repentance misunderstand the gospel’s call. Jesus condemned the man who showed up at the wedding feast without white garments (Matt. 22:11-14), condemning those who do not clothe themselves in righteousness.

What this means for mankind is this: homosexuals (even those with AIDS) can come to Christ, but they must quit committing homosexual acts; adulterers (even those who have violated their marriage vows by committing fornication against their mates) and fornicators (even those with VD) can come to Christ, but they must quit committing sexual immorality; alcoholics can come to Christ, but they must cease drinking; drug addicts can come to Christ, but they must quit using drugs. The call of the gospel is a call to repentance!



The gospel invitation is extended to every man. It gives each of us the opportunity to begin anew, to have every sin which we have committed washed away by the blood of Christ. Regardless of what wicked deeds we may have committed, we can be born again (Jn. 3:5), sanctified and cleansed with the washing of water by the word (Eph. 5:26), that we might be without “spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27). If God could save those “publicans and sinners” of the first century, there is reason to believe that he can save me!


Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 5, pp. 130, 150
March 1, 1990