Lesson 5 of 6
In Progress

Theological Themes in Matthew


An angel appears to Joseph in a dream to instruct him to take Mary as his wife and to name the promised child Jesus, savior and Emmanuel. Four times in Matthew’s birth story (1:20, 24; 2:13, 19) angels are the agency of God’s presence and instruction, and they appear in that role a total of 20 times at key points in Matthew’s narrative. They are present with the Son of Man in the coming of the kingdom and the end of the age (24:31, 36; 25:31) and are the agents of the announcement of the resurrection (28:2, 5).


At the conclusion of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, the crowds are astounded because he taught with such “authority.” Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is a teacher and he teaches with authority. That authority extends also to his healing (9:6, 8). In his preaching he claims that “all things have been handed over” to him by the Father (11:27). And in his Great Commission, which concludes the Gospel, Jesus the risen Messiah claims “all authority” and with that authority commissions his disciples to baptize and teach all nations in his name and with the promise of his abiding presence (28:18-20).


In Matthew’s Gospel baptism is important in its link with the related central theme of righteousness. Matthew removes the thematic link of baptism to Jesus’ death, which is a key motif in Mark’s Gospel (compare Mark 10:38-39 with Matthew 20:22-23). Its link instead with righteousness and repentance is established in the preaching of John the Baptist (3:6, 11). It is explicit at Jesus’ baptism when, only in Matthew, Jesus overcomes John’s reluctance, asserting that he must be baptized “to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). If, for Matthew, righteousness is a key description of disciples of the kingdom (5:20; 6:33), then it is significant that at the end of the Gospel Jesus’ last words to his disciples are to go and “baptize” in his name.

Bearing fruit

In Matthew’s narrative one of the key adaptations of Mark’s narrative of John the Baptist is in John’s call for his hearers to “bear fruit” that is worthy of repentance. Bearing fruit is a key mark of repentance worthy of the kingdom. The image of the good tree that bears good fruit is a key image in the Sermon on the Mount: “You will know them by their fruits” (7:16-20). So it is not surprising when Matthew’s key addition to Mark’s version of the parable of the wicked tenants (Mark 12:1-12; Matthew 21:33-46) is Jesus’ explicit linking of the discipleship of the kingdom with bearing fruit: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43).


The unexpected nature of who is blessed by God is a key mark of Matthew’s proclamation. Its repetition as the key sign of God’s people in the “beatitudes” that open the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-12) is perhaps one of the most familiar themes of Matthew. For Matthew, blessing is a key signifier of the promises of God, and Matthew uniquely asserts that blessing at key points in the narrative. The blessing of those who respond in faith is contrasted with those who take offense at Jesus’ preaching (11:6; 13:16). The blessing of God occasions the climactic and pivotal confession by Peter that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16).

Creation (Genesis)

Although often disguised in translations by the word “genealogy,” the title of Matthew’s Gospel actually describes it as a “book” (biblos) about the “genesis” of Jesus the Messiah. Not once but twice in his unique birth narrative (chapters 1 and 2) Matthew makes explicit thematic connections to the opening book of the scriptures and to the account of God’s creation. Matthew begins his Gospel with a distinctive narrative in which the birth of Jesus the Messiah is seen as the new creative activity of God, a perspective which then shapes the hearing of the remainder of the narrative.


Like angels, dreams in Matthew are seen as transparent to the presence and leading of God in the story of Jesus. Five times in Matthew’s birth narrative (1:20; 2:12, 13, 19, 22) the obedient response to the leading of God in dreams occasions the preservation of God’s actions of salvation in the response of Joseph and of the wise men. Ironically, in the only other instance where a dream is mentioned, the warning of Pilate’s wife about the innocence of this righteous man (27:17) is not able to thwart God’s purposes in the passion and death of Jesus the Messiah.


Faith, along with righteousness, is a key mark of discipleship in the kingdom. In 17:20 Jesus criticizes the “little faith” of the disciples and promises that if they have faith even as small as a mustard seed “nothing will be impossible” for them. Twice, in stories symbolic of his disciple community, the stilling of the storm (8:23-27) and Peter’s walking on water (14:22-33), Matthew modifies stories to make them explicitly focus on the issue of faith. In both instances and elsewhere he uniquely speaks not of the disciples’ lack of faith, but of their “little faith” (6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20). In the story of the Canaanite woman’s faith, Matthew has completely reworked the story to focus on the faith of the woman in contrast to the disciples. Only here–in fact, only here in the whole New Testament–Jesus remarks upon the “great faith” of this foreigner in response to which her daughter is immediately healed (15:28).

First and last

“Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Matthew has taken over this theme, variously stated in Mark’s original (9:35; 10:31) and emphasized it by making it more formally a doublet (something occurring twice) (19:30; 20:16). It has then been focused more prominently as a key to the generous extravagance of God’s righteousness in the kingdom by using it to frame the unique parable of the laborers in the vineyard. In this parable the “last” hired are paid “first” and made “equal” to those who have worked the whole day (20:1-16).


For Matthew, forgiveness is a key mark of the new community of Jesus’ disciples modeled and authorized in the death of Jesus the Messiah. Only in Matthew, Jesus promises at his last meal with his disciples that his blood is being poured out for all people “for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28). Understanding that God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (9:13; 12:7) is a key to God’s mission of salvation in Jesus’ ministry. One sees this in his teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus instructs his disciples to pray for and to model forgiveness (6:12). Forgiveness defines the new community of Jesus’ disciples. When Peter makes his bold confession, it is the promise of the power to forgive that marks God’s blessing (16:19). The fourth of Jesus’ major discourses in the Gospel (18:1-35) is focused around the discipline of forgiveness. To underscore Jesus’ assertions about the unlimited exercise of forgiveness (18:22) Matthew appends his unique parable of the unforgiving servant with its call for an exercise of forgiving love that imitates that of the master (18:23-35).

“God with us” (Emmanuel)

The promise of God’s abiding presence with God’s people frames the whole Gospel and so is in many ways its central message. The promise of the angel at Jesus’ birth is that in Jesus, Messiah and Savior, God is Emmanuel, a promise that the author is careful to emphasize by asserting it as a fulfillment of scripture and by translating it for the hearers of the Gospel (1:23). At the end of the Gospel, Jesus claims all authority, and sends his disciples out in mission with the promise that he will be “with them” until the end of the age (28:18-20). The abiding presence of Jesus is suggested in his call to the weary to come to him and find rest (11:28-30). In his treatment of the stories of the stilling of the storm and Jesus’ walking on the water (8:23-27; 14:22-33) we see a kind of parable of the disciple community with its promise of Jesus’ saving presence even amid the storms of life.


In the final words of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, the parable of the judgment (25:31-46), the Son of Man sits on his throne judging the nations in terms of their deeds of mercy. The theme of judgment and of the rewards of discipleship in relation to the call of the kingdom to bear fruit worthy of repentance is a repeated theme in Matthew. It is there in the preaching of John (3:7-12); it is repeated in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (7:15-19); and it is repeated numerous times in Jesus’ teaching (for example, 10:15; 11:24; 13:30, 39-43). With such images Matthew repeatedly calls his community to responsible obedience as it awaits the return of the Son of Man.


Matthew’s use of the theme of mercy is unique to the Synoptic Gospels. When at the call of Matthew the tax collector Jesus is criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he responds with a comment that each of the Gospels sees as emblematic of Jesus’ ministry to those who are lost: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick….I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (9:12-13). Only Matthew inserts a further comment of Jesus, apparently based on the prophet Hosea (6:6): “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” This same saying is repeated again in response to those who criticize Jesus’ acts of mercy (12:7). Together they illustrate Matthew’s understanding of Jesus’ ministry and mission as consistent with God’s steadfast love and mercy revealed in the scriptural tradition.


The title of Matthew’s Gospel identifies Jesus as the Messiah (Christos), a title that is meant to link him 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 the controlling title of Jesus throughout his Galilean ministry. It occurs next 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, the Son of the living God (16:16). Jesus receives that confession as a sign of the revelation of God, and from then on in the story, Jesus’ role as 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 call to discipleship and mission of discipleship is present throughout Matthew. At the conclusion of the two major sections of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry (5:1-9:34), Jesus remarks about the plentiful harvest before them, and instructs the disciples to pray for laborers for the harvest (9:37-38). Immediately following comes Jesus’ second major discourse in Matthew 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). That mission is made explicit in Jesus’ Great Commission at the end of the Gospel (28:18-20). It is also 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).


Righteousness and obedience belong together in Matthew’s picture of faithful discipleship in the kingdom. In the opening story of Matthew’s Gospel, we see a “righteous” Joseph (1:19) who without question obediently follows the instructions of God through the angel and thus becomes the genealogy’s requisite father of the Messiah, the Son of David. Jesus is obedient at his baptism so as to fulfill all righteousness (3:15). For Matthew, obedient discipleship prepares the way of salvation–a theme repeated numerous times in the Gospel. It is seen in the disciples’ obedient mission (chapter 10). It is assumed in the open-ended command of Jesus with which the Gospel concludes (28:18-20).


“Offense” for Matthew is the flip side of faith. It is the key issue of discipleship that is in turn the mark of the gift of God’s blessing. The Greek word is skandalon (often unfortunately disguised in translation as “stumbling block” or “temptation to sin”). When John asks Jesus whether he is the one to come or whether he should still wait for another, Jesus invites John to consider what he has heard and seen, and then concludes with the telling comment: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (11:6). Some of those who hear Jesus’ parable teaching of the kingdom are “offended” and reject him (13:41, 57). Six times in chapter 18, “offense” is the crime of those who occasion the loss of “little ones” from God’s kingdom (18:6, 7, 8, 9). Even Peter is at risk as an “offense” to Jesus’ mission of suffering and death (16:23). In the end all of the disciples are “offended” and forsake Jesus (26:31, 33).


The story of Peter’s denial of Jesus during his passion is cemented in the Gospel tradition (Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:15-27). In a number of stories and motifs unique to Matthew’s Gospel, Peter has a special place, perhaps as a representative model of discipleship. Jesus responds to Peter’s confession of him as Messiah by marking it as a sign of the special blessing and revelation of God and as the rock upon which the church will be founded (16:17-20). In Jesus’ discourse on the new community of the church, Peter needs to be instructed on the unlimited extravagance of God’s mercy in forgiving (18:21-22). In the story of Jesus walking on the water, Matthew adds that Peter, when invited as a disciple to come to Jesus, at first walks on the water. When he begins to sink, he cries out to his Lord and Savior, but he is chastised for his “little faith” (14:28-31).


Repentance is the sign of true preparation for the kingdom of God. It is the summary description of the preaching of John the Baptist (3:2). It is repeated in the inaugural preaching of Jesus (4:17). As a sign of the kingdom it is associated with the bearing of fruit that befits such repentance; for repentance, as regularly in the New Testament, is not so much a matter of sorrow for sin as it is a sign of the newly empowered response of faith and obedience to the summons of the kingdom. For Matthew, such response is a mark of the blessing of God for disciples who have been given eyes to see and ears to hear (13:16-17), gifts that remain hidden from those who fail to respond with repentance (11:20-21; 12:41).

Salt and light

Light (and salt) is a key metaphor of salvation and the kingdom for Matthew. His description of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is unique in its use of images of light dawning in the darkness, drawn from scriptural prophecy (4:13-16). There is a literal connection in this motif to the light of the star that “at its rising” (2:2) summons and guides the wise men to worship the infant Jesus. To have light within one is to have one’s whole life opened to the leading of God (6:22-23). Being salt and light is part of the promise and blessing that belongs to the people of God and also part of the response of obedience whose works give glory and praise to God (5:13-16).


In Matthew’s birth narrative, the wise men are summoned and guided by a star to worship the infant Jesus in Bethlehem (2:1-12). Like dreams the fourfold motif of the star is a mark of the presence and purposive hand of God in the story of Jesus. In the conviction that even the stars of the heavens are signs to God’s work of salvation, the story of Jesus is linked to creation themes present in Matthew’s story. The reference to the “rising of the star” is literally connected to the “dawning of light” on those in darkness that describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Thus Matthew links the story of Jesus’ birth with his ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing.


Jesus is first and foremost a “teacher” in Matthew’s Gospel and those who “follow” him are called “students” (“disciples”). Matthew has carefully adapted and rearranged Mark and his material in service of that theme. In the first summary of his ministry, a summary matched structurally by its repetition at the conclusion of the first section of Jesus’ Galilean ministry (5:1-9:34), teaching takes precedence among the activities of Jesus (4:23). Though the references to Jesus as teacher number about the same as in Mark, Matthew has rearranged the outline and content so as to present Jesus in that role more clearly. After the opening summary (4:23-25), Matthew presents the Sermon on the Mount with its three chapters of teaching material (5:1-7:29). The Sermon concludes with the summary remark that Jesus “taught” with authority (7:29). The title of the whole Gospel as a “book” (biblos) contributes to this impression, as does the fivefold organization around major discourses of Jesus on subjects of discipleship (5:1-7:29; 10:1-42; 13:1-58; 18:1-35; 24:1-25:46). Thus it is significant that, although the disciples have been commissioned to preach and heal in Jesus’ name (10:1, 7-8), in the Great Commission at the Gospel’s conclusion, for the first time, the disciples are authorized to “teach” in Jesus’ name (28:18-20).


Especially in his special material, wisdom themes shape Matthew’s understanding of the ministry of Jesus and the good news of the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount concludes with the contrasting images of “wise” and “foolish,” equating the wise with those who “hear” and “do” the will of God (7:24-27). Just as the tradition knows that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” so the Great Commandment merges the twofold obligation to “love the Lord…with all your heart… .and your neighbor as yourself” (22:37-39). Armed with such “wisdom,” the disciples go out with the instruction to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (10:16). But they go with the awareness that true wisdom is a gift of God, “hidden…from the wise” but revealed to those who, like infants, receive the kingdom in humility (11:25; 18:3-4). As Peter is reminded in Jesus’ rebuke, ultimate wisdom is to see in the hiddenness of the suffering and death of the Messiah the very workings of God’s salvation (16:24-25).

The Outer Darkness and the Furnace of Fire

At the completion of many of the parables of judgment in Matthew, Jesus proclaims that the wicked will be “thrown into the outer darkness/furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This language is unique to the Gospel of Matthew (Luke has one instance of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” but it is not connected to the outer darkness or furnace of fire, Luke 13:28). This language is connected with Matthew’s vision of the end times and judgment, and some modern readers are uncomfortable with the fate that Matthew assigns to those outside the community. While it is true that outsiders are involved, recent scholarship on Matthew’s judgment language has focused on the way in which this language is actually directed toward those inside the community. This language is best understood in the context of Matthew’s call for greater righteousness and service to neighbors on the part of followers of Jesus. Matthew uses this vivid emotional language to remind insiders that their insider status comes with great responsibility, and that an undesirable fate awaits them if they shirk the call to righteousness and service.