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The Gospel of Matthew: The Least You Need to Know

Last night I decided I needed to revamp my introductory lecture on the Gospel of Matthew. (Not like I had anything else to do, right?) Here’s what I came up with, fresh from having test-driven it in class today.

The Gospel of Matthew strikes a CHORD with many readers. Here is a summary of the least you need to know about this important New Testament book.

Centrality

The Gospel of Matthew was not the first Gospel written—that honor almost assuredly goes to Mark. But in many ways Matthew was and is the “First Gospel.” It is first in the New Testament canon because it has been first in the mind of the church for most of Christian history. Matthew is preeminently a Gospel for the church, and it shows. In modern times, scholarship has largely abandoned Matthew in favor of Mark, but Matthew continues to exert a powerful influence over the life of the church because it seems so expertly designed to meet the church’s needs in training disciples.

Matthew contains many of the most famous Jesus texts, especially the Sermon on the Mount, which has been an inspiration even to nonbelievers. Most do not even realize Luke has a “Sermon on the Plain.” Christians learn Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father and may not even realize that there is an alternative wording in Luke. The same goes for Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes.

History

Matthew interweaves his community’s history with the history of Jesus himself. (John does the same thing, and gets more credit for it, but a similar impulse can be detected in Matthew.) It is possible to read between the lines of Matthew’s Gospel and discern what the Matthean community was experiencing in their historical setting. The hostilities Jesus experienced with the Pharisees echo the Matthean community’s frictions with post-70 rabbinic Judaism, for example.

Because of this interweaving, we sometimes see hints of theological and missiological development in Matthew. Jesus limits his mission to Israel in Matthew 10:5-6, for example, but by Matthew 28:19 is commanding the disciples to make disciples of all nations. Matthew inherits Mark’s depiction of the disciples as misunderstanders of Jesus and his mission, but also depicts them as men of faith who readily confess Jesus as the Son of God (compare Mt 14:32-33 with Mark 6:51-52, and Mt 16:15-23 with Mk 8:29-33).

Organizing and Collecting

Matthew was a master of organizing and collecting Jesus materials in a form that was most suitable for the needs of a teaching church. He arranges most of Jesus’ teaching materials into five major blocks:

  • Matthew 5–7: the Sermon on the Mount (ethics)
  • Matthew 10: missionary instructions (evangelism)
  • Matthew 13: parables of the kingdom of God (exposition)
  • Matthew 18: relationships and reconciliation in the church (ecclesiology)
  • Matthew 24–25: signs of the end-times (eschatology)

This arrangement of materials results in an alternation of narrative and teaching materials. It also means that sayings of Jesus that may be widely dispersed in Mark or Luke have been brought together (for ease of reference?) in Matthew.

Reading and Reflecting on the Torah

Scholars seem to be agreed that Matthew was written by a reflective Jewish believer in Jesus. Some see in Matthew 13:52 an oblique self-reference to the author: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Did the author see himself as such a “scribe trained for the kingdom”? His formulaic use of Old Testament quotations (“to fulfill what had been spoken by Lord through the prophet,” “for so it has been written by the prophet,” etc.) suggest he was part of some kind of interpretive school or at least that he was reading the Jewish Bible in light of a more or less established tradition of Christocentric interpretation.

The author of Matthew certainly had great respect for Torah. Matthew’s Jesus insists that he has come not to abolish the Torah but to fulfill it, and insists that not even the smallest letter or pen stroke will pass from it (Mt 5:17-18). Rather than doing away with the Torah, Matthew seems insistent on preserving it. The Torah is binding—but only as reinterpreted in light of Jesus.

In this light, it is important to notice the prevalence of the theme of “righteousness” in Matthew. Joseph decided to divorce Mary quietly because was a righteous man (Mt 1:19). Jesus persuaded John to baptize him “to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15). Righteousness is obviously a key theme in the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus calls his disciples to a degree of righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5:20). Later in the Sermon on the Mount, he warns against “practicing your righteousness” (NRSV “piety,” but it’s the same Greek word as “righteousness”) before others in order to gain human praise.

Matthew’s interpretations of Torah did not sit well with others. There are indications that the disciples of Jesus face persecution even from other Jews (Mt 5:10-11; 10:17, 22-23). Like the Gospel of John, Matthew is dealing with a situation in which some Jews are arguing with others over Jesus and his message.

Diversity

But Matthew’s community was not exclusively Jewish. Although it was clearly shaped within the matrix (or matrices) of Jewish “Christianity,” there is evidence in Matthew for the inclusion of Gentiles. The aforementioned missionary instructions to the disciples, at first to Israel only and later to all the world, may reflect stages of development in the history of the Matthean community. (“To the Jew first and also to the Greek” was also the pattern for Paul.) If the scholars are right who locate Matthew’s community in Antioch, then Acts 11:19-26, which describes how Hellenistic-Jewish missionaries first preached Christ to non-Jews in Antioch, may offer us a glimpse of this time of transition from an entirely Jewish to an ethnically mixed congregation.

A number of episodes in Matthew seem to hint at the repercussions of this openness to Gentiles. The story of the healing of the centurion’s servant (Mt 8:5-13) ends with Jesus amazed that an outsider would have such great faith and pronouncing that the time would come when all the nations would be included in the kingdom:

“Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…” (Mt 8:10-11)

Then, however, comes the sad realization that Gentiles will in fact be more receptive than the descendants of Abraham:

“…while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mt 8:12)

There is a similar sad realization that the Jewish establishment will reject Jesus’ mission in the parable of the wicked tenants (Mt 21:33-44). In Mark’s version of the story (Mk 12:1-12) the religious authorities discern that Jesus is talking about them. Matthew’s Jesus flatly states that this is the case: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produced the fruits of the kingdom” (Mt 21:43).

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