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Jesus-shaped Christianity will grow out of the soil of a Story-shaped Gospel. The more we immerse ourselves in the Story and get to know the Gospels, the greater the impact the Gospel of King Jesus will have in and through us.
That is the burden of this series, which encourages Christians and churches to make the Gospels (and Acts) the primary documents for forming our Christian identity, theology, and calling.
For the next few weeks, we will give brief introductions to each Gospel to prime the pump for your individual and congregational study and contemplation. At the end of each, I will recommend a few good commentaries to take you further.
“Matthew probably functions as a discipling manual, a ‘handbook’ of Jesus’ basic life and teaching, relevant to a Jewish Christian community engaged in Gentile mission and deadlocked in scriptural polemic with their local synagogue communities.”
• Craig Keener
The Gospels are more than historical accounts of the life of Jesus. They are carefully crafted theological works designed to give each author’s inspired perspective on the Good News of Jesus. Each Gospel writer selected certain events and teachings from Jesus’ ministry and developed his own unique portrait for a specific audience.
When we study the Gospels, one goal is to understand the unique emphasis of each Gospel writer. Each evangelist tells the Story somewhat differently. The first three Gospels are called “synoptic” because they follow the same basic outline of events, but there are significant differences even in the approaches of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Seeing the unique emphasis of each author involves observing the way each one:
- Organizes his work (structure)
- Includes and excludes certain things in his work (selection)
- Emphasizes certain things in his work (significance)
Today, a brief overview of the Gospel of Matthew in these terms.
Papias, a bishop in the early church, wrote that Matthew gathered the stories and sayings of Jesus and put them together in a “Hebrew” style that was orderly in its approach. When one examines the structure of Matthew, two characteristics stand out:
1. The alternation of stories and teachings
Jesus’ teachings are gathered together into five “discourses” or “sermons,” with the stories of Jesus’ ministry placed in groups in between them.
- Stories (1-4)
- ch. 5-7: The Sermon on the Mount
- Stories (8-9)
- ch. 10: The Mission Discourse
- Stories (11-12)
- ch. 13: The Parables of the Kingdom
- Stories (14-17)
- ch. 18: The New Community
- Stories (19-22)
- ch. 23-25: The Coming Crisis
- Stories (26-28)
2. The clustering of material into groups of threes and sevens
There are many examples of this, including the threefold arrangement of Jesus’ genealogy (ch. 1), and the three parables that conclude the Olivet Discourse (ch. 25). Sevenfold groups include seven healings in ch. 8-9, seven parables (ch. 13), and seven woes (ch. 23).
Why would Matthew arrange his material so carefully? The conclusion of the book may give a key: “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (28:18-20, NIV).
The Gospel of Matthew is a Torah, a catechism, an instruction manual for the church. Matthew presents the Good News of Jesus in such a way that it can be taught easily in making disciples and teaching them Jesus’ way. The highly organized structure of the book lends itself to learning, memorization, and meditation.
Through inclusion and exclusion of various elements (which can only be fully appreciated through comparison studies with the other Gospels), and other ways of emphasizing themes such as repetition, Matthew highlights the following (among others):
1. Jesus, the new Moses: In Matthew’s early chapters, Jesus is portrayed as a baby with an unusual birth who is persecuted by an evil king who slaughters children in an attempt to kill him, who is forced to flee, and who returns “out of Egypt.” One might also mention how Jesus at the outset of his ministry ascends the mount to bring a new word from God to his people.
2. Jesus, Son of David and Son of God: “Son of David” is often used in contexts where Jesus ministers to the needy — he is the Promised King who has mercy on the poor and brings them healing (1:1, 9:27, 12:23, 15:22, 20:30-31, 21:9/15, 22:42-45, see Isaiah 35:5-6). “Son of God” appears at significant times in Jesus’ ministry where his special relationship with the Father is stressed (3:17, 4:3, 11:27, 14:33, 17:5, 24:36, 26:63, 27:40-43) and where humans perceive his identity (16:16, 27:54).
3. The kingdom of heaven: The kingdom is God’s reign over all people through Jesus Christ, the One who fulfills Israel’s story and presents himself as the Messiah, fulfilling God’s promises and inaugurating the Messianic Age (1:1, 2:1-12, 4:17/23, 5:19-20, 8:11-12, 11:12, 12:28, ch. 13, 16:19, 21:5, 23:13, ch. 25, 26:29, 28:18). The fulfillment of prophecy is introduced by a formula unique to Matthew (1:22, 2:15-23, 4:14, 8:17, 12:17, 13:14/35, 21:4, 26:54/56, 27:9). More than any of the other Gospels, Matthew makes the point that Jesus brought that for which Israel was waiting and hoping through the Hebrew Scriptures.
4. Jewish rejection and Gentile inclusion: Matthew is considered one of the most Jewish-oriented of the Gospels, emphasizing the Law and Jewish traditions and making the point that Jesus specifically limited his ministry to Jews during his lifetime. On the other hand, Matthew makes much of the positive responses of Gentiles to Jesus. He specifies God’s coming judgment because of the Jewish leaders’ unbelief (ch. 23) and proclaims the emergence of a renewed people of God that will welcome an influx of Gentiles (8:11-12, 22:43, 28:18-20).
5. The renewed community: The word “church” is found in the Gospels only in Matthew (16:18, 18:17), and Matthew includes an entire discourse about the lives and relationships of those who will live in the renewed community of the forgiven and forgiving (ch. 18). This community is to be extended throughout the world to include “all nations” (28:18-20).
6. The end of the age: All four Gospels are eschatological — they focus on the new thing God is doing and will do in the world, fulfilling his promises, and bringing about the new creation. Matthew has a profound focus on this, through the parables that foretell the consummation of the kingdom (ch. 13), the death of Jesus that portends the raising of the saints (27:51-53), the coming destruction of Jerusalem, the vindication of the Son of Man in fulfillment of the apocalyptic vision of Daniel (ch. 24, 28:18), and the carrying of the Good News to the ends of the earth (24:14, 28:18-20). All serve to point to Jesus as the One through whom God is inaugurating and will bring to consummation the Messianic Age of promise.
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At a climactic point in Matthew’s Gospel (27:33-54), Jesus dies on the cross after crying out with a loud voice. Matthew says that the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom and an earthquake shook the ground so that tombs were opened and the saints were raised. At that point, a Gentile centurion utters the words that bring our attention to the main point of the Gospel: “Truly this was the Son of God!”
Jesus the Messiah, Son of David and Son of God, the new Moses has come to inaugurate a new covenant to renew God’s people and spread the kingdom throughout the whole world until the consummation of all things.
And at the heart of the Story is a cross and empty tomb.
A few good commentaries on Matthew:
- Matthew for Everyone: Chapters 1-15, N.T. Wright
- Matthew for Everyone: Chapters 16-28, N.T. Wright
- Matthew (IVP NT Commentary), Craig Keener
- Matthew, Vol.1 (Ch. 1-12), Expositor’s Bible Commentary, D.A. Carson
- Matthew, Vol.2 (Ch. 13-28), Expositor’s Bible Commentary, D.A. Carson
- The Gospel of Matthew (Sacra Pagina), Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.