Lesson 4 of 6
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Introductory Issues in Matthew

The birth of Jesus

One of the key features of Matthew is its unique narrative of the birth of Jesus. It reveals Matthew’s use of intricate structure to support the narrative’s appeal and persuasive power and makes use of motifs that will continue to shape the remainder of the narrative of Jesus. The narrative divides neatly into sections, none of which can be harmonized with the quite different story in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1-2)-a genealogy, the birth and naming, Herod and the wise men, and the flight and return from Egypt. The opening title identifies the Gospel as a “book” (biblos) about Jesus, who is the Messiah and both “Son of Abraham” and “Son of David,” thus anchoring the narrative of Jesus in the tradition and the hopes of the people of Israel. An intricately structured genealogy (Matthew 1:2-17) traces the origin of Jesus through three movements of continuity and discontinuity, culminating in the surprising link to Mary through Joseph. Joseph and his “righteous” character are the focus of the birth and name of Jesus (1:18-25). Instructed by an angel, Joseph obediently adopts “Jesus,” whose role as Emmanuel, “God is with us,” and Savior who “will save his people from their sins” is in line with the prophecy of scripture. Angels, dreams, and stars are transparent to the guiding purposes of God, as wise men arrive from the nations to be the first to worship this new king, while King Herod and Jerusalem are the first to greet his arrival with suspicion and even murderous fears (2:1-12). Warned by a dream and in accord with scriptural prophecy at every step, Joseph along with Mary and the child escape Herod’s massacre of the innocent children and, after Herod’s death, return to live in Nazareth.

Christology in Matthew

To speak of Matthew’s “christology” is to raise the question of the character of Jesus in the narrative and its relation to theological judgments about the purpose and meaning of his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. In these judgments the various “titles” of Jesus have seemed important, but not all have agreed in their evaluation. Many have been persuaded by the argument (Kingsbury) that the affirmation of Jesus as “Son of God,” in spite of its infrequency (4:3, 6; 8:29; 14:33; 16:16; 26:63; 27:40, 43), is central for Matthew and that other titles for Jesus, such as “Son of David,” “Christ” (or “Messiah”), “Servant,” or “Lord” are subordinate to and interpret it. The title “Son of Man,” though very infrequent seems to be a special case, since it is reserved almost exclusively as a self-designation by Jesus. Not all are convinced, especially, in light of the fact that, except for Peter’s confession, the majority of the uses of the title “Son of God” are on the lips of the devil or of Jesus’ mockers. On the other hand, the title “the Messiah” (Christos) occurs very frequently in Matthew. It opens Matthew’s Gospel and identifies Jesus with the hopes associated with his ancestor King David. Five times that title is repeated in Matthew’s birth narrative (1:1, 16, 17, 18; 2:4) and so remains for the narrative reader the controlling identity of Jesus throughout his Galilean ministry. It occurs again when, after the narrative of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry, John the Baptist has questions about whether Jesus is actually the expected Messiah (11:2). Jesus’ response links the role of Messiah with what John can “hear and see” in the ministry of Jesus. Peter, as representative of the disciples makes the central confession of the Gospel in his assertion that Jesus is the Messiah (16:16). There, it could be argued, “Son of the living God” supplements and interprets the identity of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus receives that confession as a sign of the revelation of God, and from then on in the story Jesus’ role as the Messiah is directed toward his suffering, death, and resurrection. Finally, in the last reference to him as such, Jesus the Messiah is pronounced worthy of death and so fulfills the destiny of God’s new king (26:63, 68).

The church?

Matthew wrote his Gospel in order to make a case for Jesus as the Messiah and to call others to obedient service and mission in his name. Matthew is the only one of the four Gospels to use the Greek word ekklesia to designate the community of Jesus’ followers. The word ekklesia literally means an “assembly” or a “gathering,” and it was a common Greek word to designate a community of like-minded people. It was also used by the Greek translators of the Septuagint to designate the “assembly” of the people of Israel in the Temple. Matthew is probably taking advantage of this double reference. The common English translation “church” is an anachronism, projecting later realities about the Christian movement back into Matthew’s world.  The first reference to the assembly occurs in conjunction with Peter’s climactic confession of Jesus as Messiah (16:16-19). Jesus commends Peter’s confession as a mark of God’s revelatory blessing. He further announces that on this confession he will build his assembly and commissions this community with the power of the keys with its authority to exercise God’s forgiving love. The second occurrence of the word (18:15-18) comes significantly in one of Matthew’s major discourses of Jesus, all of which focus on Jesus’ teaching of the new community of his disciples. Here Jesus again instructs the community in its need to exercise forgiveness in order that none of God’s “little ones” be lost. In 11:28-30 Jesus calls upon all his hearers to come to him in order to find rest for their souls. In 12:46-50 he identifies those who respond as part of a new kindred family of those who are obedient to the will of the Father in heaven. Throughout the Gospel, in addition to these two specific references, Matthew imagines Jesus’ kindred as a community of obedient followers, who at the end of the Gospel are commissioned to continue to exercise Jesus’ ministry of making disciples among all the nations.

Matthew’s relationship to Judaism

Matthew has traditionally been characterized as the “Jewish Gospel,” in part because of the readily recognized Jewish motifs: the attention to scriptural prophecy, Jesus’ embodiment of Jewish hopes in the Messiah as Son of David, and concerns about the law and righteousness. At the same time, readers have also noted much material that seems to be stridently “anti-Jewish” in character: Jesus’ repeated chastising of the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, their general antagonism toward Jesus’ ministry, and their role in the passion and death of Jesus. Thus,  most would see Matthew as writing to people who are negotiating their relationship to Judaism and trying to make sense of how the new revelation of Jesus changes their religious lives. Matthew follows in the footsteps of Paul, who also wrestled with the tension between his Jewish roots and his conviction that Jesus was the Messiah. In addition, both authors struggle with how a commitment to mission in the broader world can be reconciled with God’s commitment to the people of Israel. Though Paul and Matthew wrestle with the same set of questions, most would agree that Matthew answers them in a different way.

The disciples in Matthew

As representatives of the new community of Jesus’ followers, the portrayal of the disciples is a key feature of Matthew’s Gospel (the Greek root for “disciple” is specifically used 75 times in the Gospel). At the beginning of his ministry Jesus calls disciples who “follow” him immediately. Just as Joseph, though not described as a “disciple,” is noted for his obedience to the command of the angel, so Matthew portrays the disciples as ones who obediently follow Jesus. In contrast to Mark’s narrative, Matthew’s disciples “understand” the teaching of Jesus (compare, for example, Matthew’s adaptation of Mark 8:21 in Matthew 16:8). Where Mark points to the disciples’ lack of faith, Matthew adapts his narrative to speak to his disciples, to “you of little faith” (four times and only in Matthew is this term used: 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8). Among these disciples, Peter stands as a special representative, especially emphasized in Matthew by the addition of new material (14:28-31; 16:16-19; 18:21-22; see “Peter” under Theological Themes).

Significantly, all five of Jesus’ major discourses in Matthew are addressed to and define true discipleship. Jesus’ key teaching on the righteousness of the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount (5:1) imagines disciples who respond obediently to the will of God in hearing and doing (7:21-27; 12:50). Jesus calls and sends out his disciples in mission with promises of rewards for faithfulness (10:1-42). As recipients of Jesus’ special teaching in parables (13:1-53), disciples are blessed, and once “discipled” for the kingdom are ready to bring out of their treasury things new and old (“discipled” is the literal Greek behind the English “trained,” 13:52; of the Gospels only Matthew uses this word as a verb). At the end of the Gospel, Jesus commissions these disciples to go in his name and make disciples of all nations (28:18-20). As they wait for the return of the Son of Man, these disciples are encouraged to responsible exercise of the forgiving mercy of God (18:1-35) and obedient love of the neighbor (22:39; 24:1-25:46).

The discourses of Jesus

Already in the second century CE, Matthew’s literary structure caused the impression that his Gospel was comprised of five “books,” perhaps, in imitation of the Pentateuch, wishing to present Jesus as a new teacher like Moses in his reinterpretation of the Jewish law (Bacon). Indeed, five times Matthew presents major discourses of Jesus, all of them addressed to Jesus’ disciples and clearly delineated by a formulaic conclusion: “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things” (7:28; 19:1; 26:1; see also 11:1; 13:53). Though the speeches contain some traditional materials, the formula, their content, and their thematic integration within Matthew’s narrative identify the discourses as part of Matthew’s particular perspective. Each formula functions as a transition, pointing back to the words of Jesus and linking his words to an unfolding vision of discipleship. The Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29), the most familiar of the discourses and Jesus’ first explicit teaching in the Gospel, presents Jesus’ authoritative teaching about the righteousness of the kingdom seen in obedient “hearing” and “doing” that fulfills the law. In the Missionary Discourse (10:1-42) Jesus formally calls his disciples and commissions them to imitate his call to repentance in light of the kingdom, preaching and healing with his authority. In the Parables of the Kingdom (13:1-52) he points to the hidden treasure of the kingdom, disguised by the presence of evil in the present age, but  granted to disciple eyes to see. The New Community Discourse (18:1-35) describes God’s will that not one of the little ones should be lost to the kingdom and calls for the rigorous exercise of forgiveness on its behalf. Finally, in the concluding Judgment Discourse (24:1-25:46) Jesus calls the disciple community to confident watchfulness and obedient care for the neighbor while waiting for the return of the Son of Man.


Many readers have called attention to Matthew’s love of presenting things in doubles. On numerous occasions such repetition in the narrative calls special attention to or emphasizes key themes or motifs. Sometimes the repetition consists of a phrase or saying that presents a special Matthean theme. For example, twice Jesus says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (9:13; 12:7). In so doing Matthew adds a comment based on Hosea 6:6 that effectively links Jesus’ remarks about coming to call not the righteous but sinners with the scriptural motif of the steadfast love and mercy of God. Twice he uses the phrase “The first will be last, and the last will be first” (19:30; 20:16), but with the clauses reversed perhaps for effect. This time the phrase literally frames a distinctively Matthean component of Jesus’ teaching, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (19:30; 20:16), again with special emphasis on righteousness in connection with the surprising generosity of God. Two summary passages about Jesus’ teaching, preaching, and healing ministry (4:23-25; 9:35-38) frame and bind together as a comprehensive whole the narrative section comprised of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29) and his miracles (8:1-9:34). On a number of occasions Matthew seems to want to heighten the impact of a narrative by “doubling” certain constituent motifs. For example, whereas in Mark’s narrative Jesus heals only one (Mark 10:46-52), Matthew in his adaptation of the story reports that Jesus heals “two blind men” (20:29-34). Many readers have called attention to the almost humorous detail of Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. Whether composed as a literal fulfillment of scriptural prophecy (21:5) or as a  “doubling” of Mark’s model (Mark 11:7), it is clear that in Matthew Jesus rides on two beasts (21:6-7).

End time and judgment

Theologians often use the word “eschatology” to refer to concerns about what is going to happen in the future in light of the ongoing and emerging story of God’s people. “Apocalyptic” eschatology tends to see the world as radically divided between good and evil, and salvation in terms of a dramatic and decisive entry of God to rescue and restore the fortunes of the righteous. Whether because of world events or because of his own particular situation, Matthew’s special concern with the end time seems to belong to a vision that is more “apocalyptic” than that of the other Synoptic Gospels. Matthew sees his community as living in a world that is divided into spheres belonging to God or the devil (for example, 4:1-11). In the report of Jesus’ teaching in parables in chapter 13, Matthew removes Mark’s parables about the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29). He substitutes the parable about the weeds growing alongside the wheat, along with its interpretation (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), which explicitly identifies the wheat and the weeds which must be allowed to grow together until “the end of the age” (13:39), respectively, as the righteous “children of the kingdom” and as the “children of the evil one.” Though Matthew in chapter 24 simply takes over much of Mark’s view of the coming of the Son of Man (Mark 13) he explicitly adds to the disciples’ question concerning “the end of the age” (Matthew 24:3) and then adds three parables (chapter 25), all of which treat the issue of waiting in the meantime before the coming of the Son of Man. Finally, in his unique Great Commission, Jesus promises to be with his disciple community “until the end of the age.”

As Matthew’s reworking of Jesus’ Parables of the Kingdom in chapter 13 shows, Matthew’s view of the end time in terms of a disciple community that is to be obediently about the business of responsible discipleship as it awaits the coming of the Son of Man is clearly related to his understanding of the kingdom of God. In a telling example he has rewritten Jesus’ saying about discipleship in Mark 9:1. Whereas in Mark Jesus speaks about some “who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power,” Matthew’s community imagines itself waiting for the Son of Man whose kingdom is in the process of coming.

The kingdom of heaven

The understanding of the “kingdom of heaven” is central to Matthew’s story (the phrase occurs nearly 40 times in Matthew, including five times as “kingdom of God,” which Matthew usually avoids; the word “kingdom” never occurs without the modifier). In its pointing to the announcement of God’s overarching reign now being revealed in the coming of Jesus as the Messiah it could even be said to be the central message of the Gospel. This focus has been achieved in great part precisely by Matthew’s restructuring of Mark’s story. John the Baptist comes preaching, calling for repentance, because “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). Jesus’ preaching imitates that call (4:17; 10:7; see also 4:23; 9:35). In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus interprets discipleship and God’s blessings in terms of kingdom talk (5:3, 10, 19, 20). In the Lord’s Prayer the disciple community is invited to pray for the kingdom (6:10). Striving for the kingdom and for righteousness are synonymous (6:33). The disciples in turn are sent in mission with the same message of the kingdom (10:7). In his parable chapter (chapter 13) Matthew offers his distinctive picture of the kingdom, including his unique images of the treasure hidden in a field and the precious pearl. Finally, Matthew adds a number of other unique parables, alike in their presentation of images of the nature of the kingdom, for example, the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:23-35), the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (20:1-16), or the parables of waiting before the end time in chapter 25. The central content of the kingdom is God’s generous and steadfast love seen in the forgiveness of sins. This has already been stated in the announcement of the angel to Joseph: his name is Jesus because “he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). It is repeated in Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper, when this forgiveness is extended to “many,” that is, to all nations (26:26-28). The three parables mentioned above combine for a useful summary of Matthew’s picture of the kingdom. The kingdom is comprised of a community of obedient followers who wait for the return of their master, and in the meantime are engaged in exercising forgiving love on behalf of the neighbor, because that is the will of the Father who has chosen to be generous to all alike, and whose will is that not one of God’s little ones be lost. But perhaps its most beautiful expression is in Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (11:28).

The law and righteousness

Though the word “law” occurs only eight times in Matthew, it is clear that concern for the “law” is a central theme in the Gospel, especially when it is seen as joined to the companion theme of “righteousness.” In fact, it is attention to this unity that offers some helpful illumination of the sometimes confusing comments of Jesus on the place of the law. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus announces that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them (5:17). These remarks about the enduring validity of the law are immediately interpreted by the call for a righteousness that exceeds that of the tradition as represented by the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). As such they cannot then be seen as mere reassertion of the law, as the series of antithesis which immediately follows makes clear (5:21-48). Such righteousness has already been glimpsed in the story of Joseph, who risks disobedience to the strict requirements of the tradition (or law) in order to be obedient to the command and purpose of God’s salvation (1:18-25). It will be seen again in Jesus’ assertion that he has not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance, a repentance that for Matthew is to be interpreted uniquely by reference to the mercy and steadfast love of God (9:13). Finally, attention to the law is about God and God’s ways of righteousness: “You must “be perfect” (teleios; the word means purposive and complete) “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). If in Matthew we hear that God has handed over all authority to the Son (11:25-27; 28:18-20), then from now on the law and righteousness will have to be interpreted in terms of the risen Messiah. When asked about the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus responds that it is twofold, to love God completely, and to love the neighbor as oneself (22:34-40). The demands of the law center in the love of God and neighbor, and for Matthew the obedient discipleship of the kingdom to which Jesus calls is thus only the fulfillment of God’s “law” from the beginning. It is their attention to the “letter” of the law and not to this spirit of steadfast love and mercy at the center of the law that Jesus roundly chastises in his woes upon the hypocritical leaders of the people (chapter 23).

Mission Beyond Judea

The call to discipleship and the mission of discipleship is present throughout Matthew. Early in Matthew’s story that mission seems to be directed intentionally beyond the people of Israel. In his unique story of the birth of Jesus, wise men “from the east” become the first ones to hear of and worship this newborn king (2:1-12). When the family returns from Egypt, again through divine leading and in fulfillment of prophecy, they return not to Bethlehem and environs steeped in Jewish tradition, but take up residence in Nazareth of Galilee (2:19-23). When Jesus begins his ministry, Matthew’s familiar language of “withdrawal” (4:12) marks his move to Galilee and the regions of Capernaum as purposeful. Once again, scriptural warrant underscores the location of his ministry as Galilee “of the nations” and “the people” who are its object as Galileans (4:15-17). At the conclusion of the two major sections of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry (5:1-9:34), Jesus remarks to his disciples about the plentiful harvest before them and instructs them to pray for laborers for the harvest (9:37-38). Immediately following is Jesus’ second major discourse on the mission of the twelve, concluding with sayings that link the rewards of discipleship to faithfulness in mission, to taking up the cross, and to finding one’s life by losing it (10:1-42). Yet, in light of the earlier focus on mission beyond the people of Israel, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that Jesus now instructs his disciples to “go nowhere among the nations…but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:5-6). That this remark is not an accident is underscored in Matthew’s addition of essentially the same remark in his reworking of the story of the Canaanite woman (15:24). Still the overall importance of the broader mission for Matthew is clear. That all nations are the object of the mission of Jesus the Messiah is assumed in the picture of a disciple mission that cares unselfishly for the needs of the neighbor in the parable of the coming of the Son of Man (25:31-46). Jesus promises that his blood is to be poured out for the forgiveness of all people (26:28). Finally, the mission to all nations is made explicit in Jesus’ Great Commission at the end of the Gospel (28:18-20).

Outline of Matthew

Outlines are ways of calling attention to key structures and meaning that readers find in the text. Different readers of Matthew have proposed a number of alternatives for outlining what Matthew is about. One source and effect of that task is to note the changes which Matthew makes over against his model Mark. For example, although Matthew takes over Mark’s carefully structured threefold passion predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34), they no longer have the same integration into his literary structure.

Many have noted the prominence of the five discourses of Jesus in Matthew (chapters 5-7; 10; 13; 18; 24-25). In 1930, Benjamin Bacon proposed an outline based on these speeches and the thematically related narrative material that accompanies them, arguing that they intended to present a kind of analogy to the “Five Books of Moses.” Less than satisfactory in this proposal was making Matthew’s birth and passion narratives into “preamble” and “epilogue.” Jack Kingsbury in 1975 proposed a simpler christological outline focused by the repeated formula “from that time (on) Jesus began…” (4:17; 16:21), dividing Matthew into three parts: (1) the presentation of Jesus (1:1-4:16); (2) the ministry of Jesus to Israel and Israel’s repudiation of Jesus (4:17-16:20); and (3) Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his suffering, death, and resurrection (16:21-28:20).

Each outline has value in focusing particular emphases or structures, but neither seems completely adequate to the complexities of Matthew’s structure and literary technique. Certainly, the narrative plot–Jesus’ birth, ministry in Galilee, the ministry in Judea and Jerusalem, and his passion, death, and resurrection–provides a basic outline. Within that outline Matthew uses various literary devices to rhetorical effect. The framing of the whole narrative with the theme of Emmanuel, “God with us” (1:23; 18:20), is certainly both structurally and thematically important, as is the framing of Jesus’ teaching (5:1-7:29) and miracles (8:1-9:34) with the parallel summary accounts of his teaching, preaching, and healing (4:23; 9:35). The confession of Peter (16:16) and the Great Commission (28:18-20) are certainly pivotal and climactic episodes in the Gospel. The complexity is heightened by Matthew’s use of chiastic patterns, doubling, repetition, etc. The outline suggested here seeks to pay attention to a number of these compelling features, but it is clear that Matthew’s literary art is so complex that it is difficult to propose one outline that will completely satisfy.

The parables of Jesus

There is no question that, for Matthew, Jesus’ teaching in parables is a central key to the understanding of his ministry and mission. They focus on his important role as a teacher, and their content is focused on the central topic of Jesus’ preaching, the message of the kingdom of God (4:17). One of the five major discourses of Jesus (13:1-53) is devoted to Jesus’ teaching in parables. In that collection Matthew has carefully adapted Mark to give Jesus’ teaching his own vision of the kingdom of heaven and discipleship. Consistent with themes of judgment elsewhere in the Gospel, he replaces Mark’s parables of the hiddenness and secrecy of the kingdom with the parable of the weeds and the wheat and its interpretation, which envision the kingdom as a mixture of righteous and evil children until the end time judgment. He has focused more clearly on the conviction that Jesus’ use of the parables fulfills scripture in dividing those who hear and understand from those who fail to hear and respond (13:10-15). Yet his key alteration has to do with discipleship and the nature of the kingdom. Like treasure hidden in a field or a precious pearl, finding the kingdom is a surprising gift that belongs to God and over which the disciples have no control (13:34-35; 44-50). To have ears to hear and eyes to see is to experience the blessing of God (13:16-17; see also 5:1-12; 7:24-27). At the conclusion of the discourse, Matthew underscores the special importance of the parables for discipleship, calling attention to their role in understanding and discipling for the kingdom (13:51-53).

In addition to this parable discourse, Matthew elsewhere adds a number of other unique parables of Jesus that illustrate his special understanding of the kingdom. The parable of the unforgiving servant (18:23-35) underscores the community’s call to the unlimited exercise of God’s forgiveness. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard, framed by the saying on “first and last,” focuses on the world-transforming power of God’s generous mercy and love (19:30-20:16). For a community that waits for the coming of the Son of Man, Matthew adds three parables that illustrate responsible and obedient discipleship of the kingdom–the parable of the ten bridesmaids, the parable of the talents, and the parable of the last judgment (25:1-46).

Salvation in Matthew

Although the explicit title “Savior” occurs nowhere in Matthew’s Gospel, one of the central roles of Matthew’s Messiah is that of savior. The angel announces to Joseph that the child’s name will be Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins,” thereby explicitly delineating Jesus’ saving role and focusing the effects of his saving work in the forgiveness of sins (1:21). Consistent with this understanding, the disciples as representative followers of Jesus, buffeted by the storms at sea, twice address Jesus with the appropriate language of faith: “Lord, save us” (8:25; 14:30). The story of the healing of the paralytic (9:2-8) or the healing of the woman with the hemorrhage (9:20-22) are typical in their explicit linking of Jesus’ healing with themes of salvation and the forgiveness of sins: “Your faith has saved you” (the Greek of 9:22). The promise to disciples who endure faithfully to the end is that they “will be saved” (10:22; 24:13). Ironically, the role of Jesus as savior becomes both the ultimate mockery and confession at the cross: “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (27:42).

Matthew has centered this clear understanding of Jesus’ role as savior within a much broader perspective of God’s overall work of salvation. Although Matthew understands God to be doing something new in the birth of the Messiah, that birth also confirms the promise of God’s continuing presence (“God is with us,” 1:23). The promise is linked by the initial genealogy to the story of God’s people from Abraham to David and through exile and return (1:1-17). At the end of the Gospel, Matthew’s community receives the risen Lord’s promise of that same abiding presence until the end of the age. Salvation for Matthew is thus an unfolding story. Salvation has a “history” in the particular events of God’s people. Matthew’s community has become part of that story, which has now become centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

Sermon on the Mount

There is no question that the Sermon on the Mount plays an important role in Matthew’s understanding of the good news about Jesus. It is the first of the five major discourses of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, which combine to summarize Matthew’s distinctive vision of Jesus’ teaching and the response of discipleship. Matthew has clearly adapted Mark’s outline to give Jesus’ role as teacher special prominence and to make the Sermon on the Mount the fundamental illustration of that teaching. The earlier reference to Joseph as righteous (1:19) and Jesus’ word about his baptism as fulfilling all righteousness (3:15) have anticipated the Sermon’s central theme of kingdom righteousness (5:6, 10, 17-20; 6:33). In its initial attention to the “blessing” of God (5:1-12) and its concluding call to be “hearers” and “doers” (7:24-27), its themes set the agenda for the remainder of the Gospel, themes that are gathered finally in the Great Commission with its charge to a disciple community to teach the words of the Lord to all nations (28:18-20).

Much has been written about the proper understanding and use of the Sermon on the Mount, most of it centering appropriately on Jesus’ key remark about the fulfillment of the law and call for a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:17, 20). The series of Jesus’ antitheses press the ethical demands of the law and tradition to the extreme, culminating in the summary comment on the need for perfection (5:21-47, 48). In this context the Sermon’s call to seek the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness (6:33) might seem difficult to reconcile with the picture of the kingdom presented in the parable of the treasure (13:44), the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (20:1-16), or Jesus’ invitation to all who carry burdens to “come…and find rest” (11:28-30). Some have seen the Sermon as presenting impossible demands calculated to drive hearers to repentance. Others have seen it as an interim ethic valid only for those who await the fullness of the kingdom at the end of time or valid only for a special elite corps of disciples. Still others have seen its commands as part of a vision of the new possibilities of the kingdom inaugurated in the ministry and mission of Jesus the Messiah. It is perhaps best to link it with the whole range of Matthew’s picture of righteousness, captured certainly in the twofold expression of the great commandment to love God and the neighbor (22:37-39), and illustrated by the discipleship righteousness that is a sign of the mystery of the kingdom. In that mystery disciples are blessed to understand what it means that God desires mercy and not sacrifice (9:12-13; 12:7) and that in God’s generous mercy the first will be last and the last will be first (19:30; 20:16).

Sources of Matthew

The question of Matthew’s sources is related to consideration of the relationship of the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. From the early part of the second century, Christians have assumed some relationship, based in the evident similarity in plot and content of these three, while also regularly noting their divergence from the Gospel of John on both counts. The long-standing tradition, summarized by St. Augustine already in the early fifth century, assumed that the canonical order of Matthew as first was indeed their chronological order. Along with the widespread use of the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, and other content in worship and Christian piety, this probably contributed to the Gospel’s popularity in the church.

For a variety of reasons , this traditional view began to be challenged in the 19th century. Although debate continues, the working hypothesis of modern biblical scholarship is that Mark, not Matthew, was the first to be written and that both Matthew and Luke made use of Mark along with a collection of sayings of Jesus as their primary sources. The common assumption is that the sayings source was a written document, now lost, to which scholars have given the hypothetical name “Q” (from the German word Quelle for “source”).

According to the so-called “two source” theory, Matthew made use of two main sources for his work, incorporating almost all of Mark and Q. However, close comparisons reveal that Matthew did not just copy slavishly, but reworked those sources giving them the stamp of his own literary and theological perspective. In addition Matthew has made use of extensive material that is special to his Gospel, deriving either from other sources or from his own editorial composition, to which the term “M” (for Matthew) is commonly assigned. These materials would include such things as the birth narrative (chapters 1-2), the antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount (5:21-43), the parables of the weeds, the treasure, the pearl and the net (chapter 13), the parables of the unforgiving servant and the laborers in the vineyard (18:23-35; 20:1-16), the parable of the last judgment (25:31-46), and the Great Commission (28:16-20).

Use of scripture

Matthew shows an intense interest in the continuing story of God’s promises to the people of Israel. Those promises are part of the scriptures, and Matthew makes extensive use of the scriptures to establish and shape his story of Jesus the Messiah. More than 60 times that use is explicit in direct citation of a biblical source. Often it is more indirect in the reference to events, such as in the genealogy (1:2-17) or Jesus’ testing in the wilderness (4:1-11), or in the use of Old Testament motifs, such as Jesus as lawgiver on the mountain (5:1-2), the sheep and shepherd (9:36), or the vineyard of God (20:1-16; 21:33-44). The overwhelming impression is the great extent to which the Jewish Scriptures have shaped Matthew’s understanding of the story of Jesus and its meaning.

One of the distinctive ways in which Matthew’s perspective is evident is in the notable prevalence of “fulfillment” formulae in his gospel narrative (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35, 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9). The announcement of the birth of Jesus and his naming as Emmanuel are established as a “fulfillment” of God’s purpose and design of salvation on the basis of scriptural promise. Of five explicit quotations of scripture in the birth narrative, four of them use this same “fulfillment formula” to introduce the text. This formulaic fulfillment theme extends through the whole Gospel, with the resulting impression that Matthew regards the whole story of Jesus from beginning to end as shaped and guided by the hand of God through the promise of the scriptures. At times the concern to bend events to the prophecy ventures on the humorous, as when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on two animals, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah (21:1-7). At times prophecy seems to be bent to the events (2:5-6) or even to be invented (2:23). What is clear in Matthew’s use of scripture and in his fulfillment citations is that Matthew wishes to view the total reality of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s plan and promises as revealed in the scriptures of Israel.

Matthew, Paul, and Torah

If, as scholars posit, Matthew used Mark as a source for his Gospel, the question emerges: Why did Matthew feel the need to write another Gospel? Unlike Luke (Luke 1:1-4), Matthew does not reveal his reasons for writing. In the first place, it can be said that Matthew had access to traditions about Jesus that he felt the need to share. These include well-known passages such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount, as well as many parables unique to Matthew. In addition to the simple addition of material, the emphases of Matthew’s Gospel help to give clues as to the reasons for his writing. In many cases, these Matthean emphases seem to exist to respond to the preaching of the apostle Paul.

Paul and Matthew wrestle with many of the same themes, but one in particular stands out: the relationship of non-Jews to the Jewish Torah. Throughout his letters, but most especially in the letter to the Galatians, Paul marginalizes the claims of the law on non-Jews. He makes the case that Abraham came to faith without the law (Galatians 3:17) and that the law was ordained by angels through a mediator (Galatians 3:19). In the letter to the Romans, Paul makes the claim that Jesus comes as the telos of the law, which could be read to mean Jesus is the end of the law (Romans 10:4). In contrast, throughout his Gospel, Matthew emphasizes the importance of the Torah to the followers of Jesus. Nowhere is this clearer than in Matthew 5:17, where he maintains that Jesus comes to fulfill the law, not abolish it. The differing stances that the two authors take illustrates the way in which the early followers of Jesus wrestled with their relationship to their Jewish roots and to Jewish religious practices such as Torah keeping.

Matthew and Peter

As Paul’s autobiographical retelling makes clear, he and Peter did not always see eye to eye (Galatians 2:11-3:14). The Gospel of Mark takes up Paul’s skepticism toward Peter and the disciples. In another instance of Matthew’s somewhat adversarial relationship with Paul, Matthew seeks to rehabilitate Peter as a pillar of the Christian church. He does so by softening many of the criticisms that Jesus directs at the disciples, and by portraying the disciples as more understanding of Jesus’ teaching than Mark. In addition, Matthew places Peter in a prominent position as the foundation of the community centered around Jesus (Matthew 16:18). The final act of rehabilitation takes place at the resurrection. Mark singles out Peter at the empty tomb, reminding his readers that Peter denied Jesus and that he failed to believe that Jesus would rise again (Mark 16:7). Matthew on the other hand places the message to the disciples in kinder terms. Jesus calls them his “brothers” and the ominous “I told you so” delivered by the angels is lacking (Matthew 28:10).