Feast of St. Matthew
Dear friends in Christ. Today the Church remembers St. Matthew, one of our Lord’s 12 apostles and one blessed to write an account of our Lord’s earthly life. All we really know for sure about St. Matthew is in the Gospel. St. Matthew, the son Alphaeus, was a tax collector for the Romans in Capernaum. He is also known as Levi. It is thought that Levi was his given name and that he was given the name Matthew after he became a disciple.
There is uncertainty about where St. Matthew preached and where he died. One tradition has him in Persia, while others have him in Syria, Greece, or Ethiopia. St.Matthew was an eyewitness of our Lord’s life and work; he proclaimed that good news about Jesus and was killed on account of that.
St. Matthew was, in a sense, an unlikely apostle. He was a tax collector. Most tax collectors were hated by the Jews because they worked for the Romans who conquered the land. As we saw with Zacchaeus, tax collectors could use their positions dishonestly. As we heard in today’s Gospel, Jesus called Matthew directly as he was sitting in his tax booth. Before this, Matthew must have heard Jesus preach and teach. Through the word that he heard, the Holy Spirit worked faith in Matthew’s heart. St. Matthew was a repentant sinner. He rejoiced in the Lord’s grace—especially when Jesus called him to follow Him. So happy was Matthew in Jesus’ grace, that he invited other tax collectors and sinners to dinner so that they, too, could hear the friend and Savior of sinners.
During the next 3 years, Jesus equipped St. Matthew, as He did the other apostles, teaching them and confirming that teaching with the miracles. Finally Jesus showed Himself alive to them after His resurrection. He then sent out His apostles, including Matthew, into all the world to preach the Gospel, the Good News that Jesus is the Savior of the world, that He paid the penalty of their sins, that He reconciled us to God and opened heaven to us.
The name “Matthew” means in Hebrew “Gift of God.” By giving St. Matthew faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit gave him the greatest gift, that gift of faith that trusts in and receives the blessings that Jesus won for us by His life, suffering and death. And St. Matthew himself was a gift of God to the Church. St. Matthew was given a great gift: he saw and heard Jesus; and St. Matthew himself was a gift of God to the Church as he was led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and preached Jesus; and as the Holy Spirit used Matthew as His penman to write the Gospel so that through it, people would come to know Jesus; that the Holy Spirit might work through it to create faith in the hearts of people down through the ages.
I. Today, the Feast of St. Matthew we remember that Matthew is Christ’s gift to His Church. That’s what the Holy Spirit tells us in today’s text: And He Himself, that is, Christ Jesus, gave some to be apostles. Jesus, the risen and ascended Lord, gave and still gives gifts to us, His Church.
How wonderful and glorious for us. But then the question, why is it that Jesus gives gifts to His Church? The Holy Spirit answers in our text: When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men. Jesus gives gifts to His Church, to His dear Christians, because He can. He can because He defeated our spiritual enemies of sin, death, devil and hell. When He defeated our spiritual enemies, Jesus ascended into heaven in triumph and victory. What Jesus came to do, He did! Since He destroyed the works of the devil, since He took away the strength of sin, since He conquered death, He can now give us, in grace, the fruits of His victory.
St. Paul comments in our text: Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? What St. Paul is talking about is this. Jesus ascended from earth to heaven. Earth was His starting point both for His ascension AND for His descending. So what was Jesus’ descending? It was what we confess in the Creed: He descended into hell. The very first thing that Jesus did when He came alive on Easter Sunday morning was to descend into hell. He didn’t go there to suffer; He already did that on Good Friday. But Jesus descended into hell to proclaim victory in the very stronghold of the devil. With Jesus’ descent into hell, Jesus took the devil and his hellish spirits captive and bound them to await the judgment and condemnation of the Last Day.
Luther points out in the hymn that the devil, this world’s prince, may still Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none, He’s judged; the deed is done; one little word can fell him. Although the devil is still our enemy until the Last Day, he cannot harm us; Jesus defeated him. The devil can accuse us all he wants to of sin and claim us for hell, but it is of no effect. God does not listen to him because Jesus came to this earth and as our Substitute kept God’s holy Law perfectly for us, that Law that God demands that we keep, so that if we don’t we earn His eternal wrath and hell. Jesus came and fulfilled that Law of God; He and did what we can’t! Now the devil can’t accuse of any sin and drag us down into hell; Christ kept that law for us, was sinless for us. Because God has already poured out His entire wrath on Jesus on the cross, His righteous anger over our sin has been stilled. In Christ, we sinful people are reconciled to the holy God.
On top of that, the devil is bound because as Christians we are no longer slaves to sin. The Lord creates a new self, the Christian, in us, and He gives us His Holy Spirit to guide, lead, strengthen us to do His will, to fight sin and to root it out. We are no longer slaves to sin, forced into from one sin to another and then finally to eternal death and condemnation in hell.
Because of the sins we actually do commit, we will die physically. But even here death is a defeated enemy. Jesus destroyed death’s stranglehold over us by His resurrection. And because He rose from the dead, we too will rise. On top of that, for the Christian, death must serve as the door our souls go through to reach the eternal bliss of heaven, where they will await the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.
Jesus defeated our spiritual enemies—sin, death, devil and hell. That’s why He came and what His death, resurrection and descent into hell did and proclaimed. Jesus gives gifts to us, His Church, because He is victorious over our spiritual enemies. The ascended Christ gives us the blessings He won for us.
B. He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things, writes St. Paul in our text. This is the other glorious thing. Because Jesus ascended into heaven, He fills all things, that is, He is present everywhere. Because the ascended Jesus is both true God and true man, He is present everywhere as God and man. Great is this mystery, but great is its comfort! Because Jesus is present everywhere, He can then exercise His power everywhere. No more is Jesus, the God-man, confined to one place at one time like He was during His earthly ministry. Now, He is everywhere and in a wonderful way with His Church. Because Jesus is with His Church, with you, me, and all Christians, and knows our needs and is working the best for us, He can give us His gifts, He can give us what we need.
II. What are those gifts that the ascended Jesus gives us? And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. These are all gifts that deal with the Word of God. Here we see why Jesus gives gifts to His Church—to build His Church.
Jesus, in His divine wisdom, chooses to build His Church, that is, to make and preserve Christians by means of His Word and Sacrament. Jesus, the head of the Church, is actively, intelligently and zealous in His work of building the Church. Unlike modern subdivisions that are slapped together in a matter of weeks, Christ’s Church is always “under construction,” all the way to the Last Day, the day when the last stone is placed, that is, the day that the last of the elect comes to faith. Because Christ is working to build His Church, to gather in all the elect from all over the world, He is forever giving the Church the necessary gifts through which He works to build His Church. He blessed the Church with the likes of St. Matthew who preached and wrote his Gospel. Through Matthew’s preaching and especially through his Gospel, Jesus is working.
In the same way, Jesus today gives His Church faithful pastors, teachers, missionaries and through them, that is through the Word they proclaim and the Sacraments they administer, Jesus is working to build His Church. Jesus promises His faithful servants, He who hears you hears Me. Through them and the Word they speak, Jesus is calling people to faith like He did St. Matthew in the tax office, building His Church one soul at a time.
By these gifts of Jesus to His Church, Jesus continues in His preaching office. He gives gifts to His Church because He can—He defeated our spiritual enemies— and now He is building His Church by having this Word go out into all the world. By it He creates faith in the hearts of people to receive the blessings He won for all and now offers them in the Word—forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, an open heaven, peace and joy of conscience.
Jesus gives the gifts of apostles, missionaries, pastors and teachers; He gives the gift of the Word, and by it gives us the blessings He won for us on the cross
Jesus not only gives apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to His Church, and works through the Word, to bring us to faith, but also to have us grow in the faith: that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness by which they lie in wait to deceive. Jesus gave His apostles and prophets to write the Scripture; and when modern day gifts of God, missionaries, pastors, and teachers faithfully proclamation this infallible word, Jesus is still at work by His Holy Spirit strengthening our faith, making us more and more certain that what it says is truth, preserving us from the faith destroying errors of the world around us, which may even be proclaimed by those claiming to be Christians. Jesus giving these gifts of His Word and faithful teachers of that word is Jesus’ guardian care of His Church and each Christian personally.
B. May we remember the first thing St. Paul writes in our text: But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Like He did with Matthew, in grace, Jesus has given each one of us a gift to use in the interest of the Church, to use to the glory of God, as Matthew did. He wants us to use that gift to serve one another. As we serve one another, we serve the Lord; and through our service the Lord is serving our neighbor. How mightily Jesus used and blessed Matthew’s work! He’ll do the same with our humble service to Him. Jesus has given His Church the gift of the Word and faithful proclaimers of the Word for the equipping of the saints [that is, all Christians] for the work of service, for the edifying of the body of Christ. With the gifts that Jesus in grace has given us, He wants to use each of us as His gift to the Church and to work through us to build His Church.
Jesus has and will always give gifts to His Church. Today we remember St. Matthew, who, like us, was a sinner saved by grace. We thank Jesus that He has given the Church, us, the gift of apostles, and today still gives faithful teachers of the Word. We pray that through that Word and the faith it creates and preserves in our hearts and lives, the Lord will use each one of us. We have received a gift from the Lord and may we be a gift of the Lord to another. INJ Amen.