Lesson 6 of 6
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Bible in the World – Matthew

Peter and the Keys to the Kingdom 

In contrast to the ambiguous picture of him presented by Mark, the Gospel of Matthew singles out Peter’s importance among the twelve disciples. Several episodes stand out, including Peter walking on the water (14:22-33), but the Matthean story with the greatest influence on later church history occurs in Matthew 16. In Mark (Mark 8:27-30), Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah is met with the “stern order” to not tell anyone about Jesus. In contrast, in Matthew, Jesus blesses Peter’s declaration, addressing him with his full Aramaic name, Simon Bar Jonah (Simon, son of Jonah). Jesus goes on to make a pun on the Greek name, Peter, declaring that he will build his assembly on this “rock” which in Greek is petra. Finally, to top it all off, Jesus promises to Peter the “keys of the kingdom.” In late antiquity, the church in Rome gained prominence on account of the tradition that Peter had founded the church, served as its bishop and then been martyred there. Later bishops of Rome saw themselves as the successors of Peter; on account of Peter’s preeminent position among the disciples, these successors of Peter took for themselves the title “Pope” (meaning “father”) to indicate their position of authority over the other bishops. The popes trace the roots of their authority to Matthew 16, arguing that in this passage, Jesus gives the “keys to the kingdom” to Peter alone, who then delegates his authority to the other disciples. In the Orthodox traditions, the office of the keys is understood to be distributed equally among all of the apostles, and many Protestant denominations, following Martin Luther, argue that this office belongs to all Christians through the priesthood of all believers.

The Lord’s Prayer in Worship and Music

Of all the prayers in the Bible, the Lord’s Prayer as transmitted in Matthew 6 has a strong claim to having the widest influence in the prayer life of the Christian church. The Lord’s Prayer was included in the earliest Christian catechism, the Didache, from the late first/early second century and has remained an integral part of worship in both eastern and western liturgical traditions for nearly 20 centuries. The versions used in modern Protestant worship are based on the text of Matthew 6:9-13, though the petition “forgive us our sins” from Luke 11:4, is often substituted for Matthew’s “forgive us our debts.” The King James Bible, which exercised strong influence on worship in English through the Book of Common Prayer, was based on manuscripts that included a doxology at the end of the prayer: “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” The discovery of earlier manuscripts that lack this doxology has led scholars to speculate that it was added by scribes who were writing the prayer down from memory and who were used to reciting the doxology in worship. The Lord’s Prayer has often been set to music. One of the most popular settings was written in 1935 by the composer Albert Hay Malotte, a film composer for Disney studios.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew by Pier Paolo Pasolini

In 1964, the Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini shocked his critics by releasing a film based on the Gospel of Matthew. Pasolini, an openly gay atheist and Marxist, had recently been convicted and fined for contempt for state religion on account of his portrayal of the Passion in his film La Ricotta. Pasolini felt that his social critique and respect for the Christian heritage of Italy had been ignored, and in response, he wrote and produced a film that strictly adhered to the text of the Gospel of Matthew. Filmed in a realistic style with non-professional actors, Pasolini intended the film to both retell the life of Christ and to comment on the two thousand years of Christian history in southern Italy. The film is not meant to reproduce the setting of first century Judea. Instead, Pasolini references artistic depictions from many eras as inspiration for the costumes and appearances of the characters in the film. In addition, the score of the film draws on religious music from across time and across the world, including a setting of the mass in Congolese and blues music from the American South. The Gospel According to St. Matthew is considered a classic of neorealist filmmaking.

The Three Wisemen

Matthew does not specify the number of “wise men from the East” who came to visit Jesus in Bethlehem (2:1). Some Christian traditions, for instance the Syriac church, assume that there were twelve visitors, as twelve is a number associated with completeness in the biblical text (e.g., the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve disciples). In western Christianity, however, the three gifts brought to Jesus (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) led to the growth of traditions featuring three wisemen. In addition to not stating the number of visitors, Matthew also does not indicate that they are kings. He refers to them as magoi, a Greek word which can mean magicians or astrologers (the only other use of the word in the New Testament is in the story of Simon Magus in Acts 13). The tradition that the men were kings probably arose through association with Isaiah 60:1-6 which also describes kings bringing gold and frankincense as offerings. Later traditions have even gone so far as to give wise men names and kingdoms: Balthasar, king of Arabia, Caspar, king of India, and Melchior, king of Persia. In many American Christian depictions of the Nativity, the three wisemen have been added to the stable scene from Luke 2, but in other Christian traditions, they are celebrated on January 6 during the Feast of the Epiphany. In Spanish-speaking parts of the world, there is a tradition of children receiving gifts on Epiphany Eve from the Three Kings (Los Tres Reyes). The song We Three Kings tells a fanciful version of the wisemen’s journey to visit the infant Jesus. 

St. Joseph the Carpenter

Though Joseph is mentioned in both Matthew and Luke, it is only Matthew’s Gospel which narrates his pivotal role in safeguarding the infant Jesus and his mother, Mary. Matthew also provides information regarding Joseph’s occupation, when the people of Nazareth refer to Jesus as the “son of the carpenter” (13:55). Though the Greek occupation in question, tekton, could refer to numerous types of artisans, traditions dating back to Justin Martyr in the second century, refer to Joseph as a maker of yokes and plows, i.e., someone who makes tools out of wood. This understanding of Joseph’s occupation became a popular theme in Christian art. These depictions of Joseph and Jesus at work as a carpenter are one of the primary sources of knowledge about pre-modern woodworking tools. In the Middle Ages, the stories about Joseph in Matthew led to the development of devotion to Joseph as a saint. Roman Catholics celebrate his feast day on March 19 and he is regarded as a protector of the church and the patron saint of dying a holy death. In Sicily, fava beans are traditionally served in honor of Joseph (San Giuseppe in Italian) as part of a stew called Maacu di San Giuseppe.

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

In the English-speaking world, Jesus’ warning to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (7:15) has become a proverbial idiom. To call someone a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” has moved out of the religious realm of “false prophets” to a simple condemnation of people who are dangerous despite their harmless appearance. The origin of this phrase is sometimes incorrectly attributed to Aesop’s Fables. While Aesop contains numerous references to shepherds and wolves, none of the fables mention a wolf disguising itself as a sheep.

The St. Matthew Passion

The Gospel of Matthew inspired the composer Johann Sebastian Bach to write one of his two sacred oratorios on the passion (the other is the St. John Passion). The St. Matthew Passion is a musical setting of Matthew 26 & 27. Different characters, including a narrator, were assigned to soloists, and these soloists were accompanied by two choirs (about 20 singers) and two orchestras. In intricate fashion, Bach wove the story of the passion together, using the musical phrasing to emphasize and preach different parts of the text. In addition to the text of the Gospel of Matthew, the Passion featured Lutheran chorales interspersed throughout, especially the work of the hymn writer Paul Gerhardt. Some of the chorales featured in the St. Matthew Passion are Ah Holy Jesus, In Thee, Lord, have I Put my Trust, and Sink not yet, my Soul, to Slumber. Pride of place, however, is given to Gerhardt’s O Sacred Head, Now Wounded, which appears half a dozen times throughout the Passion.

The Call of St. Francis

It was a passage from the Gospel of Matthew that inspired St. Francis of Assisi to found the religious order that now bears his name. Prior to founding the Franciscans, Francis had begun his religious life by going on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he begged outside of St. Peter’s Basilica. Shortly thereafter, he began to have a series of mystical visions. The first, which took place in the chapel of San Damiano, led Francis to renounce his father, give up his inheritance and live his life as a penitent. The particular penance that he chose was restoring ruined chapels. The call from the Gospel of Matthew came in 1208 when Francis was hearing Mass in the chapel of St. Mary of the Angels. The reading for the day was Jesus’ instructions to the twelve disciples when they went out to preach to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:1-15). During this reading, Francis was confirmed in his vow of poverty by Jesus’ command to “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts,” and convinced that he was called not just to penance, but to preaching. Thereafter he went around the countryside of Umbria in peasant clothing and soon began to attract followers. Francis composed a rule for their way of life, the Regula Primitiva, which later became the Rule of St. Francis. Though the original text of the rule has been lost, the later Rule of St. Francis indicates that the call to poverty in Matthew 19:21 and the call to self-denial in Matthew 16:24 were foundational to Francis’s thinking. 

The Great Commission and the China Inland Mission

At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus commands his disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19). Throughout the history of the Christian church, this command has inspired missionaries to venture to people outside of their native lands and to preach the Gospel to them. In the English-speaking world, this command has become known as “the Great Commission.” It is unclear who first coined this name, but it became popular in the 19th century, through the work of the missionary James Hudson Taylor. Taylor was a missionary to China in the latter half of the 19th century. He became known for his unusual (for the time) mission practices, including wearing Chinese clothing, learning multiple dialects of Chinese, and generally affirming Chinese culture. Because his methods did not appeal to upper class British sensibilities, Taylor founded his own mission organization which he called the China Inland Mission. The “Inland” in the name refers to Taylor’s goal of working in the interior of China, away from the colonial authorities in the port cities. Like the Rule of St. Francis, the organizing principles of the China Inland Mission were based on the commands that Jesus issued in Matthew. Taylor and Francis, however, differed in their interpretation of Matthew 19:21. Whereas Francis saw it as a call to poverty, Taylor interpreted it to mean that missionaries must depend on God to provide for their earthly welfare, rather than established church bodies. The China Inland Mission was notable in a number of ways: it was a non-denominational mission society, it accepted working class people as missionaries and it also allowed single women to take part in the preaching of the Gospel. 

The Timing of the Rapture    

Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, the concept of the “rapture” became more and more prominent in some branches of American Fundamentalist Christianity. Based on 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, the rapture is the belief that believers in Jesus Christ will be separated from non-believers to be with Christ. The name “rapture” comes from the Greek word “to be caught up” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Rapture theology experienced a resurgence in the late 20th century with Hal Lindsey’s book The Late Great Planet Earth and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series. One of the points of contention within theology of the rapture is whether the rapture and the second coming of Christ are identical. Matthew 24:37-42 plays a key role in these arguments. Commentators disagree on whether the description of the man taken from the field and the woman taken from grinding flour (Matthew 24:40-41) refer to the rapture or to the arrival of Christ at the end of the millennium (here understood as a thousand year reign of peace on earth). Depending on their stance, these commentators have sorted themselves into a variety of positions, including, but not limited to: premillennialism (the rapture will happen before peace on earth and the coming of Christ), postmillennialism (the rapture and the second coming will happen at the same time after the thousand years of peace on earth) and amillennialism (the rapture is a metaphorical way of describing the circumstances of the second coming and there is no thousand years of peace on earth). 


In English the word “talent” has come to refer to the special skills or abilities that individuals possess. We think of someone as “talented” when they have a natural ability toward something rather than skills developed through practice. The word “talent,” however, originally had nothing to do with skills. It’s derived from a Greek word, talanton, which designated a large unit of money. Though the talent differed in value depending on the time and place where it was minted, it was always comparatively high. In the Gospels, the talent was worth approximately 6,000 denarii and a denarii was more than a laborer earned in the course of a day. In other words, to accumulate one talent, a day laborer would have to work everyday without a break for over 16 years. The talent as a unit of money occurs in several places in Matthew and one in particular, the so-called Parable of the Talents (25:14-30), is responsible for the modern meaning of the word. In the parable itself, the word refers to money that the head of the household entrusts to his slaves. Preaching on the parable, however, has usually not stressed monetary investment. Rather, preachers often emphasize the metaphorical idea of God entrusting Christians with abilities to help their neighbor. This metaphor of talent has led directly to the modern English idea of a talent as a natural ability.

Letter from Birmingham Jail

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, written in 1963, is a literary tour de force. In arguing for the necessity of the protests in Birmingham, Dr. King appeals to examples from classical antiquity such as Socrates and giants of the western theological traditions from Augustine to Aquinas. The heart of his letter, however, is the example of Jesus, especially as reflected in the Gospel of Matthew and the Sermon on the Mount. He reminds his critics that he speaks “as a minister of the gospel who loves the church, who was nurtured in its bosom, who has been sustained by its Spiritual blessings, and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.” Faced with the accusation that he represents religious extremism, Dr. King returns to the example of Jesus and his preaching in the Sermon on the Mount. With rhetorical force, he asks “Was not Jesus an extremist for love?” and answers his own question by quoting Matthew 5:44 “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” 

The Cost of Discipleship

Though the book is known in the English-speaking world as The Cost of Discipleship, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer published it in 1937, he gave it a one word title: Nachfolge. Nachfolge is a German word that means “emulation” or “imitation.” Thus, the German title helps answer the question posed by the English title: What is the cost of discipleship? For Bonhoeffer, the cost of becoming a disciple is imitating Christ, following after him according to the Gospel, and he based this answer on the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew. The Cost of Discipleship is, in many ways, an exposition of Sermon on the Mount, helping readers to understand the often radical demands that Jesus makes upon his disciples. In contrast to many other interpreters, Bonhoeffer realizes that the Sermon on the Mount is not a general ethic for living in the world. The Sermon is delivered only to the disciples (5:1) and calls them to a life that exceeds the “cheap grace” that the world offers. In other words, the ethic of Jesus is not a universal “golden rule,” but a call to costly discipleship. Discipleship is costly for Bonhoeffer because it means taking up the “yoke of Christ” (11:29) and following after him on the way of self-denial and the cross. 

The Gift of the Magi

The short story, “The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry at first seems a sentimental Christmas tale about the foibles of love. At the end, however, the narrator breaks the fourth wall of the tale and reveals himself to be a biblical critic. The story ends with a commentary on the biblical text from which it draws its title (2:1-12). O. Henry pokes fun at the Magi, calling them the inventors of the “art of giving Christmas presents” and ensuring his readers that their gifts came with “the privilege of exchange” (or to put it in modern terms: gift receipts). With these comments, Henry reads the biblical text against itself, noting that the gifts of the magi (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) were not of much use to Jesus on the long road to Calvary. Instead, he points out the call that Jesus makes for self-giving love, love which his two characters demonstrate through the sacrifices that they make to buy Christmas presents for each other. Henry’s comment that Della and Jim “unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house,” may also be an allusion to the distinctly Matthean parables of the pearl and the field (13:44-46). In both of these parables, the main character sells all that he has in order to buy something of much greater value, just as Della and Jim do. Through his allusions and commentary, Henry lifts his story out of the sentimental and makes it into a parable of sacrificial love.

The Master and Margarita

The YMCA Press in Paris was a small publishing house run by Russian emigres. In 1973 it would become famous for publishing Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitzen, the work that showed the world the brutality of Soviet Marxism. Before that, however, it mainly published Russian religious dissidents, some of which would also come to be considered classics of world literature. Chief among these books was The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Bulgakov’s novel weaves together a modern storyline that reflects his experience as an oppressed Soviet writer, with an ancient storyline that attacks the atheist propaganda of the Soviet Union, especially its portrayals of Jesus. In the ancient storyline, Bulgakov parodies Soviet “scholarship” on Jesus by retelling the passion in the Gospel of Matthew through the eyes of Pontius Pilate. Though the novel shows sympathy for Pilate, it criticizes his lack of understanding of Jesus and his cowardice in sentencing him to death. The lack of understanding and cowardice in Pilate is reflected in the modern storyline’s characterization of Soviet intellectuals. Through reflection on the Gospel of Matthew, Bulgakov wrote a masterpiece of dissident literature that shows the resilience of Christian faith in the face of Marxism and its supposed claims of scientific understanding of history.

Leo Tolstoy

The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was yet another figure inspired by the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. Known for his epic novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy experienced a spiritual awakening in the early 1880s that drove him to take the Sermon on the Mount as the center of his life and launched him on the road to Christian pacifism and voluntary poverty. Like St. Francis before him, Tolstoy understood the command of Jesus in Matthew 10:9 to mean that Christians should renounce wealth. Though born a nobleman and inheritor of a large Russian estate, he sought to give up his own inheritance and also to renounce the copyrights on his successful novels. He turned his literary talents to spreading his Christian beliefs, writing works such as What I Believe and The Kingdom of God is Within You, both of which lay out his philosophy of nonviolent resistance. This philosophy would profoundly influence the life and work of not only Mahatma Gandhi, but also Martin Luther King Jr.