This week I sat down and calculated my income taxes for the past year. Due to the extensive tax legislation that passed last year, there are quite a few changes this time around. Fortunately I was able to figure them out. I do my own taxes each year, and actually kind of enjoy it. Weird I know, but I am a math junkie... I could have been an accountant or maybe an IRS agent.
Last year the IRS notified me that I’d claimed a credit that we didn’t qualify for. After a long and arduous process that took several months, I was finally able to show them that I was right and they were wrong. Believe it or not, the IRS actually admitted their mistake and awarded us with the credit. Still, my interactions with the IRS were not fun. Nobody likes dealing with tax-collectors, not now and not centuries ago...
In this morning’s message, we are going to highlight 2 apostles rather than just 1. Of course you know what that means… the sermon will be twice as long as usual. Wait! Don’t leave. I am just kidding. I promise to have you out of here at the normal time. Today we are going to learn a little bit about Matthew and the other James (there were 2 apostles named James and we’ve already covered the first one).
I. GENERAL INFORMATION
The apostle Matthew is also referred to in Scripture as Levi and is stated to be the son of Alphaeus (Mark 2:14). He lived in Capernaum of Galilee where he worked as a tax collector. The name Matthew comes from the Hebrew and means “gift of God”. It is possible that he was the brother of James the Less, as both men had fathers named Alphaeus, but most experts reject this notion believing that the similarity was merely coincidental. The apostle James is almost always called either James the Less, James the Younger, or James the son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:3) in order to distinguish him from the other more prominent apostle who shared this name (John’s brother, the son of Zebedee). James the Less’ mother was named Mary, one of the women who followed Jesus closely, and he had a brother named Joses/Joseph (Mark 15:40-41). Some speculate that James the Less was in fact Jesus’ brother James, but this is highly unlikely (John 7:3-5).
Matthew is described as a hospitable person who invited Jesus to his home where he held a reception in the Lord’s honor. He was also penitent, and turned from the dishonest occupation of tax-collecting in order to follow Christ. By so doing, he walked away from a quite lucrative career. It is difficult to describe the character of James the Less because there are no stories specifically involving him in the Bible. Perhaps this indicates that he was a quiet and unassuming person who intentionally stayed out of the limelight.
Assuming that James the Less was not Jesus’ brother, he did not write any of the Bible. Some associate him with an early extra-biblical document called “The Gospel of James”, but again this is questionable. Matthew, on the other hand, definitely did write a book of the Bible - the gospel of Matthew. This gospel contains the Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commission, and many other important and beloved passages.
II. THEIR MINISTRY WITH JESUS
There is only 1 scene described in the New Testament that specifically involves Matthew. It is told in all 3 synoptic gospels (Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:14-17, and Luke 5:27-32). Jesus was walking through the city of Capernaum one day when he passed by the booth of a local tax-collector named Matthew. Jesus called out “Follow Me!” and Matthew immediately left his post and obeyed. This is quite remarkable because, as a tax-collector, Matthew probably had a relatively high income. The Romans employed willing Jews to exact taxes upon their own people to be collected and used by the empire. Jewish tax-collectors were regarded as traitors in Judea because they had sold out their own people on behalf of Rome.
Delighted that he had been chosen as an apostle, Matthew held a large and lavish reception at his home in Jesus’ honor. He invited several of his friends, also tax-collectors, and several others who were looked down upon by the Jews. Some pious Pharisees were present also, and they publicly rebuked Jesus for dining with tax-collectors and sinners. Jesus stated that He “had not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance”.
James the Less is included in the multiple listings of the apostles found in the New Testament (Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:13-16, Acts 1:13), but does not appear in any actual stories. Though never directly named, he was certainly present with the other apostles during the numerous events recorded in the gospels. The fact that he is not mentioned does not make him any less important or significant.
Both Matthew and James the Less walked with Jesus for 3 years. They heard His teaching. They witnessed His miracles. They were sent out to spread His message. They grew in their faith. They watched Him being arrested, knew of His crucifixion, and personally saw Him after the resurrection. Matthew and James the Less were there with the disciples when Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives into Heaven and the angels proclaimed that He’d someday return again.
III. THEIR MINISTRY AFTER JESUS WAS GONE
Matthew and James the Less waited in the upper room in Jerusalem with the other disciples until the day of Pentecost. While there they helped select Matthias as Judas Iscariot’s replacement. After the Holy Spirit fell upon them, the apostles split up and most traveled to distant places in order to spread the good news of salvation. A few remained in or later returned to Jerusalem. They all become bold and fearless witnesses for Jesus.
Tradition states that Matthew journeyed to several different places including Persia (modern-day Iran), but eventually ended up in the African nation of Ethiopia. Reportedly he was arrested there, impaled on stakes, and then beheaded. Meanwhile, James the Less is believed to have been seized by the Jews and thrown down from the pinnacle of the Temple. Upon hitting the ground, he was subsequently beaten to death. Both men died as Christian martyrs.
In all likelihood, before he met Jesus Matthew was an unscrupulous and dishonest man. Tax-collectors of this time were known to grossly overcharge citizens and pocket the extra money for themselves. He was probably despised by his own people, but willing to take the abuse in exchange for personal wealth. Yet when he met Jesus, everything changed immediately. Matthew came under powerful conviction, was sorry for what he’d done, repented of his sinfulness, and walked away from it. What a remarkable transformation!
Truth be told, James the Less has been tagged with a horrible nickname. “The Less” - really? Just because he was not as prominent or as well-known as the other disciples, does that somehow make him less? I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, the more I think about it the more fond I become of this description. Afterall, we were not created to make a name for ourselves, but rather to proclaim the name of Jesus. We should be making more of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and less of ourselves. Maybe I should call myself Russell the Less as a guard against pride and self-righteousness.
And so I close the message with 2 quick observations. First, we should all strive to show the penitent attitude of Matthew. We should be truly ashamed of and appalled by our sinfulness. This should lead us to genuine repentance. Second, we should embrace the humble anonymity of James the Less who did not seek to garner his own attention, but instead sought to promote Jesus. In her recent contemporary Christian song Francesca Battistelli sings, “I don’t need my name in lights, I’m famous in my Father’s eyes”. Can we and will we take the spotlight off of ourselves and put it on Jesus, where it rightfully belongs?
Next week… Thomas. I hope you’ll be here as we continue through this inspirational study together. I confidently anticipate that God will speak to us all through the message, without a doubt.