Real Man 7: Mr. Despicable (Mark 3:18)

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Real Man #7 Matthew–Mr. Despicable

Part 9 Real Men from Mark 3:18


Being the intellectual reader that I am, I recently read Arnold Lobel’s classic treatise on the fallenness of mankind titled Frog and Toad Together.  As I read this classic, see if you can personally identify with it.

Toad baked some cookies.  “These cookies smell good,” said Toad.  He ate one.  “And they taste even better,” he said.  Toad ran to Frog’s house.  “Frog, Frog,” cried Toad.  “Taste these cookies that I have made.”

Frog ate one of the cookies.  “These are the best cookies I have ever eaten,” said Frog.  Frog and Toad ate many cookies, one after another.  “You know, Toad,” said Frog with his mouth full, “I think we should stop eating.  We will soon be sick.”

“You are right,” said Toad.  “Let’s eat one last cookie and then we will stop.”  Frog and Toad ate one last cookie.  There were many cookies left in the bowl.  “Frog,” said Toad, “let us eat one very last cookie and then we will stop.”  Frog and Toad ate one very last cookie.  “We must stop eating,” cried Toad, as he ate another.  “Yes,” said Frog, reaching for a cookie.  “We need willpower.”

“What is willpower?” asked Toad.  “Willpower is trying hard not to do something you really want to do,” said Frog.  “You mean, like trying not to eat these cookies?” asked Toad.  “Right,” said Frog.”  Frog put the cookies in a box.  “There,” he said, “now we will not eat any more cookies.”

“But we can open the box,” said Toad.  “That is true,” said Frog.”  Frog tied some string around the box.  “There, now we will not eat any more cookies.”

“But we can cut the string and open the box,” said Toad.  “That is true,” said Frog.  Frog got a ladder, put the box up high on a shelf.  “There,” said Frog, “now we will not eat any more cookies.”

“But we can take the box down from the shelf and cut the string and open the box.”

“That’s true,” said Frog.  Frog climbed the ladder, took the box down from the shelf, he cut the string, opened the box, took the box outside and shouted in a loud voice, “Hey birds, here are cookies.”  Birds came from everywhere.  They picked up all the cookies in their beaks, and flew away.  “Now we have no more cookies to eat,” said Toad sadly, “not even one.”

“Yes,” said Frog, “but we have lots and lots of WILLPOWER.”

“You may keep it all,” said Toad.  “I’m going home to bake a cake.”

We don’t have to look very far to find fault, do we?  All we have to do is honestly look in ourselves and quickly discover lack of willpower, pride, selfishness, anger, self-pity, envy, harshness, criticism, lust, fear, excuses, blame, and more.  I never cease to be amazed how people can act sinfully, then justify it, excuse it, blame others, rationalize it, call it normal, and give themselves plenty of grace—and all the while they condemn others for the same or similar sin.

Couples scream at each other and huff, “that’s just the way we are.”  Guys enslaved to porn excuse it with, “everyone does it.”  Some women are nice to some, then rudely cruel to others.  Yet you do realize that a person who is nice to you, but is rude to the waiter or the other driver is not a nice person.

Here’s the point–you and I are not nice people.  You are not normal—no one is normal.  You and I are not good–no one is good but God.  We are deeply sinful, flawed, broken, despicable people.  The only difference between our inner persons is this–some of us show our sinful natures outwardly more than others, but all of us are capable of horrible sin and cruel behavior.  And every person alive is tremendously guilty.

This is what Jeremiah the prophet meant when he said in Jeremiah 13:23, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”  And Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?”  Job 14:4, “Who can make the clean out of the unclean? No one!”

Our only hope is the transforming power of the Gospel of Christ.  Since creation, people have been trying to fix themselves by following a religion, living positive, or honoring a moral code–but nothing works.  Nothing changes the inner man, the real you.  So God, because of His great love for you became a man, took our punishment by dying on the cross for our sins, and now provides a way for us to be transformed inside out.

We can be born again, made pure.  Titus 1:14 says, “Who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.”  Christ forgives us and purifies us internally, even though we still battle with sin till heaven–we’re freed from its power.  We can now please, obey and grow in Christ.

Each day, as we remember how He saved us and depend upon His Spirit in obedience to His Word, we become different people.  Some of the changes are dramatic, some are subtle, but if we’re His children, He’s going to transform us.  Philippians 1:6, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”  But it doesn’t change the fact that all of us were rotten, despicable sinners internally, even if it didn’t show externally.

Super-innocent, isolated, overprotected children are just as sinfully rotten as those abandoned to gangs, on drug-filled streets.  So it should not surprise us that one of the disciples came from the outwardly obvious rotten side of society–the worst person in the first century Jewish culture.  A traitor to his people, and outcast to his community–he is a criminal, protected by the law in order to extort money from his own countrymen in order to live lavishly rich.  He is so vial, he is excommunicated from all synagogues, and despised by everyone from all walks of life.  He’s a tax gatherer.  His name is Matthew, Mr. Despicable and the next man in the list the gospel of Mark gives us in Mark chapter 3.

Open your Bibles and take out your outlines.  Shockingly, we are studying the gospel of Mark one word at a time–literally one name at a time, looking at each apostle Jesus chose to be a part of his team of twelve individually, and studying the entire New Testament to learn as much as we can about them so that we might embrace God’s ideal of real men.

Though it may not be popular today, God desires women to act like women and men to act like men.  He even says so in 1 Corinthians 16:13, “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.”  God desires men to act like men–to be responsible, engaged and initiate spiritual direction—to lead their families by example, to sacrifice for their wives, train their kids, provide for their needs, serve the body in their church, to witness to the lost and faithfully worship their Lord.

We have seen many of these truths as we have studied Peter the initiator, James the zealous, John the lover, Andrew seeing potential, Philip who battled with faith and Nathanael’s genuineness.  But notice who is next in Mark 3:16 to 18, “[And He appointed the twelve:] Simon (to whom He gave the name Peter), 17 and James, the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James (to them He gave the name Boanerges, which means, ‘Sons of Thunder’); 18 and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew.”

At this point things are heating up for Christ–the super-pious religious leaders are plotting to kill him.  The crowds are so great they actually might crush Christ.  So to serve the huge crowds and prepare for the future after He ascends to heaven, Jesus picks twelve men to carry on the work.  But one of them is hated by his own people–Matthew, the despicable one.

One of the great encouragements from studying the twelve apostles is the fact that they are all normal joes—regular, unrefined guys.  All twelve, with the exception of Judas Iscariot, were from Galilee, which was mostly a rural region consisting of small villages.  The people were not the elite or super-educated–they were hard-working fishermen and farmers, salt-of-the-earth types.  Today it’d be your construction, teamster, farmer, medical sales types.  These were the disciples.

Christ deliberately passed over the powerful, and chose men mostly from the dregs of society.  And thankfully that has been His plan from the beginning.  Isn’t that what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 1:26 and 27, “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.”

Christ disdains religious elitism–sadly, the religious leaders in Christ’s day were hypocritical proud celebrities.  They hated Christ because they hated being called sinners.  They would not acknowledge themselves as spiritually poor, blind or oppressed.  They were too self-righteous–the blind leading the blind.  They were so deluded by their external traditions and religion, they actually watched Christ do amazing miracles before their eyes, heard Him teach the Word of God with power, yet they rejected Him.  They hated His message of grace from God and not works, so they tried to kill Him as a despised interloper.

So it’s no wonder, when Jesus chose His apostles He didn’t draw from the religious elite, but instead chose simple men of faith who were, by every earthly standard, blue-collar commonplace.  Jesus chose lowly, regular men like me and like you–men who didn’t hesitate to admit their own desperate sinfulness, no matter if their sin was veiled or fully on display, like Matthew.

None of the twelve was more notorious as a sinner than Matthew.  Matthew is sometimes called by his Jewish name, “Levi the son of Alphaeus,” or as “Matthew” when listed with the twelve.  This is Matthew, the author of the gospel that bears his name.  For that reason, we might expect to have a lot of detail about him.  But the reality is, we know very little about Matthew.

The only thing we know for certain is this–he was a humble, self-effacing man who kept himself almost completely in the background throughout his lengthy account of Jesus’s life and ministry.  In his entire gospel, he mentions his own name only two times.  Once is where he records his call, and the other is when he lists all twelve apostles–his gospel was definitely not about him.

Matthew was a tax collector—a publican when Jesus called him.  That is the last credential we might expect to see from a man who would become an apostle of Christ, a top leader in the Church, and a preacher of the Gospel.  Tax collectors were the most despised people in Israel.  They were hated and vilified by all of Jewish society.  They were deemed lower than Herodians (Jews loyal to the Herod and Rome), and more worthy of scorn than occupying Roman soldiers.

Publicans were men who bought tax franchises from Rome, and then extorted money from the people of Israel two ways—one, to feed the Roman coffers and two, to pad their own pockets.  They collected tax for Rome, and charged more for themselves.  They often strong-armed people out of money with the use of thugs.  They were like mafia extortioners.  The first century Jews despised tax collectors, the same way people despise child molesters.  Most tax collectors were despicable, unprincipled scoundrels, which makes what Jesus does for Matthew all the more shocking.

#1  The Call of Matthew to Christ

Turn to Mark 2:13 to 14.  The Lord is preaching the Gospel around the Sea of Galilee, teaching the Word of God with authority and proving He has all authority by healing disease and illness.  He just finished healing the paralytic in verses 1 to 12 of Mark 2, proving He has the authority to forgive sins on earth.  This has caused the religious celebs to accuse the Lord of blasphemy, since in their minds, only God can forgive sin.

But it is God, the God-man, who has just forgiven sins.  But the leaders are so blinded, they won’t acknowledge Christ’s deity.  They remain silent during the healing of the paralytic, but will become more vocal now as Jesus now proves Himself the friend of the worst kind of sinner.  Look at verse 13, “And He went out again by the seashore; and all the people were coming to Him, and He was teaching them.”

After healing the paralytic, Jesus leaves Capernaum by Himself and walks along the seashore for spiritual refreshment and quiet communion with His Heavenly Father.  But many from town follow Jesus in wave after wave of people.  Like a magnet they’re drawn to Christ, and He lovingly ministers to all of them.

As Jesus walks back to Capernaum, He’s walking on the trade route between Syria and Egypt, making Capernaum one of the three main tax collection locations in Israel.  At the tax booth that day is a collector named Levi.  Read verse 14, “As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’ And he got up and followed Him.”

The gospel of Luke tells us Jesus actually stared hard at Levi–He intensely focused on Levi.  What was it like for Jesus to stare at you?  Picture yourself as Matthew.  You’re super wealthy, but it’s because you overcharge your countrymen in taxes.  As a result, you are despised for supporting Rome, and legally stealing from your own people.  People spit when they see you, and even their children hate you.

Unknown to all but God, Matthew’s heart is filled with guilt.  That’s why those remarkable words you heard Jesus say have stuck with you–Jesus recently said to a paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven,” in verse 5.  Then, proving Jesus could forgive sins, Jesus healed that man, you know.  You think, “I have made my living by sin–stealing from others.  No one is guiltier than me.  Could this be true?  Is it possible to be forgiven for all my sin, even my sin?”

As you ponder that thought, the one who forgives sins walks by, stops, stares intensely right through you, seeing directly into your guilty heart, and commands you to follow Him–proving there is no limit to how much Christ can forgive.  Proving there is no category of man beyond forgiveness.

This is an authoritative call.  “Follow Me, and keep following Me.”  And how did Levi respond?  “He got up and followed Him”–which is the response of faith, to follow and obey.  Matthew instantly and without hesitation “arose and followed Him.”  He abandoned the tax office.  He left his toll booth and walked away from his cursed profession forever.

This is scandalous–the most hated creature in society is now a believer and key follower of Christ.  Now from this point on in the gospels, Levi’s name is changed to Matthew, meaning gift of God.  Matthew is now a blessing and not a curse, both to God and to his own people.  Matthew literally walks away from everything and follows Christ.  Of all the disciples, Matthew gave up the most.  Luke 5:28 tells us, Levi literally left everything behind and rose and began to follow Him.

The decision was irreversible as soon as he made it.  There was no shortage of money-grubbing piranha who coveted a tax franchise like Matthew’s.  As soon as he stepped away, you can be sure someone else stepped in and took over.  But Matthew walks away from his career and his source of income.

All tax gatherers loved money and wanted wealth–otherwise they’d not betray their own people to be a tax collector.  So Matthew was a materialist–he loved to shop.  So why would he walk away from everything and follow Jesus, not knowing what the future held?  The best answer is this–whatever Matthew’s tortured soul may have experienced because of his profession.  Down deep inside, he was a Jew who loved the Old Testament Scriptures.  Matthew was spiritually hungry.  At some point in his life, most likely after he’d chosen his despicable career, he was smitten with a gnawing spiritual hunger.  Of course God was drawing him, and the draw was irresistible.

We know for a fact Matthew knew the Old Testament very well, because his gospel quotes the Old Testament ninety-nine times.  That’s more times than Mark, Luke, and John combined.  Matthew obviously had an extensive familiarity with the Old Testament.  In fact, he quotes out of the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets–every section of the Old Testament.  And he must have pursued his study of the Old Testament on his own, since he could not hear the Word taught in any synagogue, being excommunicated from temple and synagogue as a tax collector.

Apparently, in a quest to fill the spiritual void in his life, Matthew had turned to the Old Testament Bible.  Matthew believed in the true God.  He knew about the promises of a coming Messiah.  He obviously heard about Jesus, because sitting on the crossroads at a tax booth, he would have heard information all the time about this miracle worker who was banishing disease from Palestine, casting demons out of people, and doing miracles and saying the words Matthew was desperate to hear, “Your sins are forgiven.”

So when Jesus showed up and called him to follow Him, he had enough faith to drop everything and follow.  His faith is obvious, not only because he immediately dropped everything to follow Christ, but also the evangelistic banquet he held for Christ in his own home.

#2  The Celebration of Forgiven Sinners

Mark 2:15 says, “And it happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him.”  It happened–not the same day, but soon after his conversion.  Matthew throws an enormous party for Jesus.  He wants to honor Christ, who made it possible for him to be forgiven—to celebrate his new heart and new life, and finally to introduce all his friends to Jesus Himself.

Just like Andrew, Matthew’s first impulse was to invite his closest friends to his house, and introduce them to His Savior.  He was so thrilled to have found the Messiah, he wanted to introduce Jesus to everyone he knew.  So he held a massive banquet in Jesus’s honor, and invited everyone.  Matthew invited a large number of his fellow tax collectors, various scoundrels and social outcasts to meet Jesus.

Why did Matthew invite only lowlifes to his party?  They were the only kind of people he knew.  They were the only ones who would associate with Matthew.  He didn’t know any of the social elite well enough to invite them to his house–because Matthew was a tax collector, and tax collectors were on the same level socially as harlots.  And because Matthew was Jewish, he was a traitor to his nation and a religious outcast to his people, forbidden to enter any synagogue.

Therefore Matthew’s only friends were the riffraff of society–petty criminals, hoodlums, prostitutes and enforcers.  They were the ones he invited to his house to meet Jesus.  Yet according to the Bible, Jesus and the apostles gladly came and ate with such people.  Jesus had at least five disciples with him, and they all reclined like royalty to eat and fellowship together.

Of course the religious leaders were outraged.  Mark 2:16 says, “When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said  to His disciples, ‘Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?’”  They wasted no time voicing their criticism to the disciples.  But Jesus cuts right to the heart in verse 17, “And hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”

The scribes and Pharisees would not dispute that tax collectors and sinners were spiritually sick.  They were the sickest of the sick.  So how could they argue that the Great Physician should not minister to them?  Jesus exposes their wicked cold hearts.  The Lord says sick people are the very ones who need a physician.  You religious leaders avoid these people because of their sin, but they are ones who need you the most.  You should be reaching out to them.

So Jesus says, I did not come to rescue the self-righteous, but sinners to repentance.  God only seeks the truly repentant heart–not the hardened, self-righteous, religious one.  It’s the humble, repentant tax collector, not the self-exalting Pharisee who will be justified.  God cannot save those who refuse to see themselves as sinners.  Those who ignore, gloss over or trivialize their sin can’t be saved.

You can walk an aisle, pray a prayer, go to church, study the Bible, speak Christian-ese and still go to Hell.  Only those who understand by the grace of God the convicting work of the Spirit that they are super-sick with their own sin, are headed toward an eternity in hell, and trust in Christ’s work on the cross alone as payment in full for their sins can be saved.

There is nothing Jesus could do for the religious as long as they insisted on keeping up their pious, religious, hypocritical veneer.  But people like Matthew who were broken over their sin and prepared to confess their sin could be forgiven and redeemed.

Did you know that three tax collectors are specifically mentioned in the gospels, and each one of them found forgiveness?  There was Zaccheus in Luke 19:2 to 10, the publican mentioned in the parable of Luke 18:10 to 14, and Matthew.  Turn to Luke 18.  Did you know the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector could actually be a real life event, not merely a story?  Jesus says in verse 10, “’Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” 13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” 14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”

Notice the tax collector stood “some distance away.”  He had to.  He was not permitted past the court of the Gentiles in the temple.  In fact, tax collectors had to keep their distance from any group because they were so hated.  You probably didn’t know that the Jewish Talmud taught it was righteous to lie to and deceive a tax collector, because that was what a professional extortioner deserved.

You don’t agree with that, but you know why they said it–collecting taxes for Rome was bad enough, but these collectors were allowed to assess additional fees and add additional taxes that they could keep for themselves.  This made them rich at the expense of hard-working craftsmen, farmers, fishermen and businessmen.  That is Matthew, Mr. Despicable.  That is all we know about Matthew.

He knew the Old Testament, he looked for a Savior, he dropped everything immediately when he met Jesus, and sought to introduce all his outcast friends to the Lord.  He became a man of quiet humility who loved the rejected ones and gave no place to religious hypocrisy–a man of great faith and complete surrender to the lordship of Christ.  He stands as a vivid reminder that the Lord often chooses the most despicable people of this world, redeems them, gives them new hearts, and uses them in amazing ways.

We do know Matthew wrote his gospel with a Jewish audience in mind.  Tradition tells us he ministered to the Jews, both in Israel and abroad, for many years before being martyred for his faith.  The earliest traditions tell us he was burned at the stake.  So here was a man who walked away from a lucrative career without ever giving it a second thought–who remained faithful to the end, willing to give his all for Christ to the point of death.  What other truths can we walk away with from Matthew?

First  Christ can forgive any and all sin

Forgiveness is a thread that runs through the gospel of Matthew, especially after the account of Matthew’s conversion.  Of course even as a tax collector, Matthew knew his sin, his greed, his betrayal of his own people.  He knew he was guilty of graft, extortion, oppression and abuse.  But when Jesus said to him, “Follow Me,” Matthew knew inherent in that command was a promise for the forgiveness of his sin.  His heart had hungered for forgiveness, and that’s why he arose without hesitation and devoted the rest of his life to following Christ.

Are you ready to be forgiven, cleansed, washed, made whole?  Ask God to help you see your sin for what it truly is–a defiant, selfish, proud rebellion against God alone.  It is you wanting your way against God’s perfect, best way.  Let the Lord crush you under the weight of sin until you are so disgusted you know you have nothing to offer Christ.  Then put your entire hope in the death of Christ on the cross for your sins, trusting in God’s work alone to save you.

The shocker of our text today in Mark 2 was not only Matthew, but also his friends.  The last phrase of verse 15 says, “For there were many of them, and they were following Him.”  The bad friends of Matthew were now becoming the good friends of Christ.  Those who were filled with sin were turning from that lifestyle to follow Christ.  The worst criminals were trusting Christ and following Him.

Christ can and will forgive all sin from a heart that’s broken over its sin, desiring to surrender to Christ in order to be forgiven.  Do you want to be happy in this life?  Psalm 32:1, “How blessed [happy] is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”

Second  A transformed life can’t help but share the news

Andrew brings Peter to Christ, and Matthew brings Christ to his lost friends by throwing a massive banquet in His honor.  And almost any effort to share the good news is a good one.  Invite people to church, hand them a tract, write relatives a letter, sacrifice with an act of service, fix a car, make a gift, write a card, help with homework, hold a barbeque, watch their kids, watch their dog, mow their lawn when they are gone, watch their house for them, invite them to a picnic, a baptism, a beach trip, a men’s, women’s or couples’ event, bake them something, bring over a treat, thank them for being a good neighbor or friend, and so much more.

Why doesn’t it happen?  We’ve forgotten where we were without Christ and what He actually did for us.  And we have forgotten the power of the Gospel, and how the Gospel transforms even the hardest, proudest, nastiest, meanest people—like us.  Do not write anyone off.  Never say someone’s too hard to be saved.

The only danger to reaching out to crusty people is that others will misunderstand you.  Jesus’s reputation suffered because He shared the gospel with tax gatherers, harlots and drunkards–what did they say about Him?  Matthew 11:19, “Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  Yet, that didn’t stop Christ, and it shouldn’t stop any of you.  You can mix without joining in, because the Gospel can transform the second worst person you know.  The first worst person you know is you.  And if you’re thrilled you’re saved, you’ll want others to be saved.

Commit today to step out and make some dependent effort to share the joy of your salvation.  Think of three people right now you need to share with, and start praying.

Third  Stop making judgments of others

There are people who, when they are not invited to a party or wedding, get devastated and spend weeks speculating on motives.  They don’t like us, we are not important to them, we said something wrong, they are mad at us, they hate us–usually it’s none of the above.  They had minimal room and were forced to keep it small, or they figured you wouldn’t come anyway.

There are people who have certain professions that result in automatic evaluation–IRS agent equals mean . . . teamster equals lazy and surly . . . greeter at Wal-Mart means bad retirement plan . . . medical sales means you work for an elder of our church.  Matthew was hated because of his career, but he was also searching the Scriptures and seeking a Savior.

You don’t know what is going on in others’ hearts–that is why Jesus teaches in Matthew 7:1 to 5, “’Do not judge so that you will not be judged. 2 For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” and behold, the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.’”

Judging is not looking at outward obvious action–looking at outward obvious action is called observation.  Judging is trying to play God and guess heart motivation.  Why did they do that?  Don’t guess motives–how do you stop?  By realizing just how sinful you are, how corrupt your motives are, and how unable you are to play God.  Love others–love covers a multitude of sins.  Accept one another and stop being that person who is always offended, which is one more way to keep looking at yourself and not focusing on Christ.

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.