Matthew Week 1
Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament Studies
First in the Canon
Though the Gospel According to Matthew wasn’t the first of our gospels to be composed (most scholars now believe Mark is the oldest of the four), already by the second century many Christians were showing their admiration for this book by placing it first in line among those ultimately included in our New Testament canon.
There are, no doubt, many reasons for this. For one thing, Matthew has given us a tightly ordered, compelling storyline that pauses at key points to provide a carefully organized presentation of Jesus’ teaching. Among the four gospel writers, it is Matthew who provides us with five skillfully crafted sermons on specific themes of the Christian life:
- discipleship (Chapters 5–7)
- mission (Chapter 10)
- parables about the kingdom of heaven (Chapter 13)
- church discipline (Chapter 18)
- what to expect in the future (Chapters 24 and 25)
Clearly, one of Matthew’s central goals was to provide the church with a kind of teaching manual for following Jesus. For a community commissioned to “make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19), Matthew’s gospel was considered truly useful.
A more likely explanation of its priority, however, is to be discovered in the ease with which Matthew’s gospel enables a smooth transition out of the Old Testament story and into the New. Indeed, Matthew’s intense focus on Jesus as the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures facilitates this gospel’s role as a kind of literary hinge on which the two unified yet different testaments swing.
Matthew sets the tone for the rest of the New Testament by insisting as loudly as he can that believers cannot understand Jesus and the new covenant he brings apart from the knowledge of God made known in the history and literature of the people of Israel.
EnlargeMatthew as the Introduction to the New Testament
The opening line of the gospel makes this intention absolutely clear. “The account of the genealogy [literally ‘genesis’] of Jesus the Messiah” immediately brings to mind the story of creation in Genesis and its early genealogies (see Genesis 2:4 and 5:1). [Author’s Note 2]
We’re then informed that this Messiah is “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham,” titles associated with two centrally important figures from Israel’s history that were loaded with significance for first-century Jews. The first, “Son of David,” had by that time become a kind of official designation for the promised deliverer-king who would save Israel from its bondage to foreign oppressors and establish the royal throne of Israel forever (2 Samuel 7:4–17).
The companion title “Son of Abraham” strikes two other notes, one loudly and one softly, to create what likely would have been a surprising chord for sensitive first-century hearers: the louder note rings out that this messianic deliverer-king is the one destined to fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham, which promised that through Abraham’s lineage “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3); but the softer, more subtle tone sings out to remind us that the son of Abraham is Isaac, the beloved son of the promise, the one given over to be sacrificed (Genesis 22:1–19).
The very first verse, then, hints strongly at Matthew’s intention for writing: to establish that Jesus is the hoped-for deliverer-king, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, whose sacrifice would pour forth God’s blessing to all the nations in such a powerful way that it could be rightly understood as bringing about a kind of new creation.
A “Jewish” Gospel
This brief glance at the first verse points to something often noted about Matthew’s gospel, that it is very “Jewish” in style and theme. At one level this is a strange thing to say, because Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jewish! But when we compare Matthew with the other canonical gospels, the description can be seen to be appropriate for a number of reasons.
First, as we have already noted, it is impossible to miss this gospel’s repeated concern to identify particular events in Jesus’ life as the direct fulfillment of specific Jewish scriptures. On as many as 16 occasions, either Matthew himself or someone in the gospel narrative pauses to point out that ancient scriptural prophecies are being fulfilled (1:22–23; 2:5–6; 2:15; 2:17–18; 2:23; 3:3–4; 4:14–16; 8:17; 11:10; 12:17–21; 13:14–15; 13:35; 15:7–9; 21:4–5; 26:54–56; 27:9–10). All told, Matthew will quote the Old Testament more than 60 times and allude to it beyond our capacity to count; he does this far more often than the other gospel writers do.
As we read along it becomes obvious that the Old Testament functions as the firm foundation on which the entire gospel story is built. The constant emphasis on fulfillment provides the sense that the world is governed by God’s design, and that everything that occurs represents the timely unfolding of an ancient plan revealed long ago to God’s people Israel. Again, on Matthew’s terms, there is simply no way to understand Jesus apart from the Old Testament story of Israel.
Second, we note Matthew’s interest in underscoring the ongoing validity of the Jewish law. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” Jesus warns his followers:
I come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (5:17–19).
In accordance with the Jewish law, readers are expected to make offerings (5:23–24), to fast (6:16–18), to pay the temple tax (17:24–27), to keep the commandments (19:17), and to observe the Sabbath (24:20). Indeed, though the Scribes and the Pharisees are not to be imitated, their teaching is to be followed because “they sit on Moses’ seat” (23:1–2). When Jesus condemns them, his critique is not that they are observing the law, but that they do not properly practice the full truth of what they preach. We’ll have more to say on this topic when we get to the Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5–7).
Finally, we find that Jesus’ mission in Matthew is described as being exclusively directed to the people of Israel. Already in 1:21 we’re told that he is to be called Jesus because “he will save his people from their sins.” In 2:6 the coming Messiah is prophesied to function as “a ruler to shepherd my people Israel.”
When Jesus sends his disciples out in mission, Matthew alone has Jesus telling them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5–6). When Jesus encounters a Gentile woman who begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter, Matthew alone has Jesus telling her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (15:24; compare this with Mark 7:24–30).
Add to this the many times where Matthew uses the word “Gentile” negatively as a synonym for “pagan” (e.g., 5:47; 6:7, 32; 18:17; 20:25) and you get the strong sense that we are dealing here with a Jewish-Christian author who was originally writing to a Jewish-Christian audience.
But a closer look reveals that the “Jewishness” of this gospel is far more complex than one might think at first glance. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (1:2–17) breaks with custom to include four women who were non-Jews who played decisive roles in the outworking of God’s plan: Tamar (Genesis 38) and Rahab (Joshua 2) were Canaanites; Ruth was a Moabite (Ruth 1:4), and “the wife of Uriah,” Bathsheba, was a Hittite by marriage (2 Samuel 11).
Later, when the Messiah of Israel is born, Gentile “magi” astrologers from the East recognize his birth and come to worship him, but the Jewish King Herod wants him killed (2:1–12).
When the aforementioned Gentile mother of the demoniac is told that Jesus’ mission is reserved for “the lost sheep of Israel,” she responds with such faith that Jesus says “Woman, you have great faith!” and then he heals her daughter (15:28).
At the end of the gospel, when Jesus’ female disciples encounter the angel at the empty tomb, they are instructed to tell the disciples to meet Jesus not in Jerusalem, the Jewish capital city, but in Galilee, a region identified earlier as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (4:15). When the disciples arrive, they encounter a risen Lord who commissions them to go “make disciples of all nations” and not Israel alone (28:19).
This emphasis on the inclusion of Gentiles in Jesus’ mission is matched by a series of striking passages that express sharp critique and even outright rejection of Israel’s leadership. Jesus will refer not to “our synagogues,” but “their synagogues,” as though he and his followers are not associated with this central institution of Israel’s worship (10:17).
When condemning the hypocrisy of the Pharisees’ “tradition of the elders,’” Matthew alone has Jesus telling his disciples, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit” (15:13–14).
Later Jesus will tell the Jerusalem authorities, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43). This will be followed by an extended, bitter attack on the hypocrisy of the Scribes and the Pharisees, where Jesus will shout, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth” (23:33–35).
A Gospel for Jew and Gentile Alike
Given Matthew’s insistence that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who cannot be understood apart from the history and literature of the people of Israel, it would be a huge mistake to follow the shameful lead of some of our forebears in the faith who have foolishly slandered Jews as “Christ killers” or downplayed the authority and significance of the Old Testament for Christian faith. Let me instead offer some perspectives that might help to explain the evidence we’ve just considered.
Historians who study the religion and politics of first-century Palestine will tell us that Matthew’s gospel provides us with a snapshot of a period in time in which Christians had not yet separated from Judaism.
The conflict in Matthew’s gospel, therefore, is not between “Christians” and “Jews” but between Jews who followed the Pharisees and Jews who followed Jesus. These two groups were involved in a struggle over which of them it was who truly represented the authentic people of God. Pharisaic Jews were the larger group; they were associated with the synagogue, looked to Moses as their authority, and were looking forward to the restoration of the nation of Israel.
Jewish followers of Jesus, by contrast, were likely the smaller group suffering some degree of persecution at the hands of the larger group. They looked to Jesus as a new Moses (a theme we’ll consider in depth) whose fulfillment of the covenants opened the way for God’s blessing to be poured out on all nations, Jews and non-Jews alike.
It is significant in this regard that Matthew’s is the only gospel to insist that Jesus started a new community called “church” (16:18; 18:15, 17, 21). Anchored in a leadership of 12 disciples to symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel, the church of Jesus is understood to be the restored people of God, the re-established Israel ruled by God’s faithful Messiah.
That is an historical explanation. But what is the significance of all this for us — who read this gospel two thousand years later as scripture, as God’s word for us today? Much can and will be said about this over the next 10 weeks, but for now let me limit myself to two points.
First, Matthew wants us to know that the gospel of Christ and the new covenant it introduces offer both an essential connection and a necessary disconnection with the people of Israel and the Old Testament scriptures they handed down to us. Most of us are not ethnic Jews, and we do not now follow the law as Jesus’ ancestors did. Fair enough.
But do we read the Old Testament as Christian scripture that is relevant to our lives today? Have we sought to understand Jesus on fully biblical terms as the Messiah of Israel, the people whose God is the same God we worship, the One God who long ago called all creation into being and later delivered a specific people out of Egypt to speak and act as obedient representatives of God’s will for the world?
Christians schooled on a selective reading of Paul’s letters may be tempted to think that the Old Testament is obsolete, and that obedience to God’s commands is irrelevant given the grace and forgiveness offered to all who express verbal faith in Christ. Matthew will pose a strong critique of such assumptions, and we in the church desperately need to hear his correction. Get ready to be challenged.
Second, by extension, Jesus’ teaching will follow ancient Jewish tradition by presenting us with two ways of being human before God, one righteous, the other unrighteous [Author’s Note 3]. The latter will sometimes be described as worldly, pagan, and “Gentile”; at other times, religious, exclusive, and arrogant. It thinks in terms of “us” and “them,” “enemy” and “friend,” “ruler” and “subject,” “saint” and “sinner.” It is quick to judge but slow to offer mercy and forgiveness. It conceives of God’s salvation as a privilege claimed by some rather than a gift offered to all. It thinks and acts according to the logic that governs this world. The other way, Jesus’ way, is ordered according to the logic of God’s kingdom and is designed to produce a people who are trained to think and speak and act as ambassadors for that kingdom.
The Gospel of Matthew teaches us to walk in this way. As we read this gospel together, may we be good students of Jesus, ready to learn what it means to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our might [Author’s Note 4].
Questions for Further Reflection:
- Christians believe that the second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God, came to walk among us in ancient Israel as a Jewish male named Jesus. To what extent does your concept of Jesus keep his Jewish ethnicity in mind? What difference does it make that Jesus was Jewish?
- We have noted that Matthew’s gospel finds its grounding and basis in the history and literature of Israel. On the basis of this statement, how prepared do you feel to understand the Gospel of Matthew? To what extent is knowledge of the Old Testament required for a right understanding of the New Testament? Conversely, to what extent is knowledge of the New Testament required for a right understanding of the Old Testament?
- “Christians schooled on a selective reading of Paul’s letters may be tempted to think that the Old Testament is obsolete, and that obedience to God’s commands are irrelevant given the grace and forgiveness offered to all who express verbal faith in Christ.” What role should obedience play in the life of the believer? In your day to day life, how do you pursue the relationship between salvation in Christ and being committed to obedience?
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