The Gospel of Matthew: an introduction

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  

For the next few months our Gospel reading will be coming from the Gospel of Matthew. It might be helpful to know that the idea of a Gospel, or “the good news” wasn’t original to early Christianity. Years before Christ, in Asia Minor, this was inscribed for the Emperor’s birthday: “The birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of glad tidings, which have gone forth for his sake.” We’ve got to make a distinction then between Imperial glad tidings and what our Gospel is about.



One way to tell the difference comes from the Greek language. In the New Testament, ‘gospel’ is more than just glad tidings, its special meaning is based in a Greek verb, not a noun, which is translated ‘to proclaim news of salvation’.   Consistent with the Old Testament, this act of proclaiming the news of salvation was firmly tied by Isaiah to the messenger of God who proclaims glad tidings concerning the breaking in of God’s sovereign lordship. In Matthew 11:5 Jesus makes this connection with Isaiah’s conviction. The Apostle Paul, both in Romans and 1st Corinthians, follows the same course by saying ‘gospel’ means the proclamation about Christ and the salvation which has come in him. From a New Testament point of view Gospel is always the living word proclaimed. An evangelist, it follows, is the one doing the proclaiming.


As a literary form, our Gospels are unlike anything before them. They weren’t intended to be Grecian biographies—they lack interest in the external and internal history of the hero, they have no character sketch, no chronological order, and don’t even pretend to offer an historical setting. They aren’t like ancient memoir literature where stories of the lives of great men are collected, nor or they like Hellenistic miracle narratives in which the great deeds of ancient miracle workers were glorified. And the authors completely recede behind their subject matter. We might like to think so but, our Gospels weren’t written for the sake of remembering Jesus or to glorify his miracles. The principle purpose and the leading interest is that of awakening and strengthening faith. Jesus’ sayings and deeds were collected out of his life and repeated in the form of a simple narrative in order to show early Christian congregations the very foundation of their faith and to provide a basis for the mission of preaching, instruction, fellowship and explanation. The Gospels were written to be used by congregations in worship, in spiritual development and outreach. In the Gospel of John, the author states that the reason for the book is ‘in order that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this faith you may possess life by his name.” A Gospel is supposed to be transformative.


But as I said at the beginning, it is the Gospel of Matthew with which we are going to become quite familiar with the over the next few months. Most of us already know that the Gospel of John stands apart from the other canonical gospels. In John’s Gospel you get the feeling that Jesus is a well known figure in Jerusalem circles, where as, in the other three, the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, in Jesus’ adult life and ministry he comes to Jerusalem only once, in the passion narrative. There is no way a reasonable person can harmonize John with the other three.

The other three are called the synoptic Gospels – that means that the arrangement of the material and contents are similar. The course of Jesus’ life and ministry is represented in each in a similar fashion. In them, Jesus carries on his ministry almost exclusively in Galilee and on the whole his public appearances take place according to the same sequence. His journey to Jerusalem and his trial are similarly reported and all three close with the crucifixion and resurrection. Even though Matthew and Luke include much richer material than does Mark yet they coincide in their reports of the course of Jesus’ activity. What they do present, each in their own way, is anecdotal, consisting of many different bits of narrative and discourse.   Quite different from John, the language Jesus uses is the same in the synoptics. These three Gospels complement and actually depend on each other despite the ways in which they differ in content and form.


The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke contradict one another. Matthew tells his story from the perspective of Joseph and Luke tells his from that of Mary. For Matthew, Bethlehem is the home of Jesus’ family and in Luke it is Nazareth. Matthew makes a big deal out of the visit of the Magi and the Flight to Egypt. Luke evidently didn’t think those stories had a place in his rendition. And you can’t miss the fact that the Gospel of Mark includes no birth narrative at all.


Matthew dedicates 25 chapters to the public ministry of Jesus, Luke has 21 and Mark 15—and there are differences at every turn. And to make things even more confusing, each of them include special material evidently from unknown sources. Where all three do carry the same general story, often Matthew and Mark will agree against Luke on the details. Often Mark and Luke will agree against Matthew and sometime Matthew and Luke agree against Mark. That, by the way, is called the synoptic problem. As much as they have in common, Matthew, Mark and Luke are all different. Our new challenge is to pay special attention what Matthew has to tell us of the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.


Scholars think that the Gospel of Matthew is dependent upon the older Gospel of Mark. One thing that means is that Matthew couldn’t have been written before the year 70. The oldest known witness for the existence of The Gospel of Matthew is Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch who was martyred in 107. That means that in all likihood Matthew was written somewhere between the year 80 and 100, some 60 to 70 years after Jesus. The late apostolic theological attitude and the Greek language precludes the tax collector Matthew, called Levi in the other Gospels, from being the author. What scholarship tells us is that the author of Matthew, whose name we do not know, was a Greek speaking Jewish Christian who had some rabbinic training and was bound to a form of a Jewish tradition which assimilated the sayings of Jesus to Jewish views. This author endeavored to proclaim the meaning of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah for the church of all nations. In this way the Gospel of Matthew became in the truest sense the ecclesiastical Gospel, the Gospel of the Church.                


Matthew organizes his collection of material from a topical point of view. To achieve this end he employs a series of “formulas”, the use of schematic numbers, like 7 parables each with a similar beginning and ending formula to make them easier to remember, ten miracle stories, seven woes against the Pharisees.   Up until chapter 13 he follows Mark’s general outline and geographic organization closely. So, for what reason did Matthew, by means of scattered rearrangement, abbreviation and reformulations and by inserting extensive additional material fundamentally transform Mark’s report? About half of Matthew has no parallel in Mark. It seems obvious that since the formula quotations emphasize the ‘fulfillment’ of the scriptural sayings in the person of Jesus he was seeking to prove that Jesus was the goal of the Old Testament revelation of God. He brings out sayings which support the unconditional validity of the Law of Moses: “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments …shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven” and in another place Jesus says: “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law”. “So practice and observe”, he tells his readers “whatever they (the scribes and the Pharisees) tell you”. He quotes Jesus in a way that would seem to limit his activities to Israel: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans” and “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. When Matthew takes up the Lord’s prayer he does so in a Jewish liturgical form with its sevenfold petition and the formulation of the plea for forgiveness. From his Jewish-Christian stand point Matthew transformed Mark in order to defend Christianity and to make it acceptable to his Jewish Christian readers with the intent of proving that Jesus was the Messiah long watched for by the Jews.    

Though written for a Christian congregation consisting primary of people of Jewish birth, what we have to conclude is that according to its author, Jesus’ message is intended for all people. That follows from his inclusion of the great commission of the Risen One to disciple all the nations, from his statement to the effect that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached to the whole world” and from his expansion of the parable of the wedding feast to invite anyone you can.  


The Gospel of Matthew is a book for a congregation which needed to be strengthened in its recognition of Jesus as the Christ in an ongoing controversy with contemporary Judaism and which needed direction through Jesus’ word for the life of the church and for ethical decision making. The Gospel of Matthew seeks to meet these needs.


After Jesus had been baptized by John and had undergone great temptation and was on the cusp of his ministry, with Matthew leaving these words floating in the air: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” we begin our trek with Jesus with Matthew as our guide. Here, in Matthew 4: 12- 16, it is generally agreed, that Jesus begins his public ministry.


Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  


As I encountered this passage again, three things lept out of this passage for me. Did you catch how Matthew points out the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and the expansion of that promise to the Gentiles.   The second is that here, for the very first time, we hear Jesus’ understanding and proclamation of the good news and it is the same as the message of John the Baptist. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That message is still good today. Turn around, change directions, choose the kingdom as your new destination. But what might be most easily missed is that at the very moment when Jesus is about to take that first step into public ministry he learns that his mentor, his cousin, his earliest spiritual director John the Baptist has been arrested by Herod. A chill ran up my spine as I realized how very precarious was the whole of Jesus’ ministry at that moment. Can you put yourself in his shoes for a moment?


And here for us is a lesson that I think we desperately need. At the very threshold of following the leading Jesus had experienced as he came up from the river after his baptism by John, his resolve is challenged – this was a temptation unlike anything Satan had put in front of him. It wasn’t philosophical, it wasn’t about power, wealth or prestige – it was about his human fear for his safety and the safety of his family, friends and followers. Dare he begin this new chapter of his life?


In that critical moment, did you notice what Jesus did? Matthew tells us that he withdrew to a safe place, outside the reach of Herod, to a place where he could reassess the consequences of his living in obedience to this call on his life. I’m glad the text hasn’t been interpreted into English to say he retreated – that sounds like he found reverse and began to back away from the call on his life. No, the word used is withdrew. This paragraph, referred to as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, begins not by an assault on the world but by withdrawing – waiting for confirmation –listening again for clarification.


Can you identify with this one line that characterizes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry? Just as we begin something new something happens which distract s us; we discover something that posses new threats…. I’ve heard people tell of their experience of those people who love and cared for them the most challenged their sense of call to ministry. I know people who needed desperately to make changes in their lives but at the moment when change was possible they found themselves pulled back into destructive relationships or behaviors by people who needed them to stay broken and dependent.


By example Jesus shows us what to do when challenged:– take the moment, separate yourself from the threat and consider again what change is required.   I find it simply wonderful how Jesus’ proclamation demonstrates what kind of choice he made. He took his own advice – repent simply means to turn around and move in the direction in which God is calling you. When events freeze us in our tracks the appropriate thing to do is to do as Jesus did. In faith, own the moment as an opportunity to consider what has made us afraid, recall our experience of grace, hear afresh our call and then turn around, change directions, and choose the kingdom as our new destination.

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