In this post we are going to look at the gospel of Matthew. Our hope is to gain an understanding of why Matthew wrote his gospel narrative and how Jesus is portrayed inside of Matthew’s gospel. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke share common elements and are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels because they share the same stories. The word synoptic means “seeing together.” While they are similar, Matthew, Mark, and Luke also have distinct characteristics that set them apart from one another. We are going to look at how Matthew portrays Jesus and what makes Matthew’s gospel distinct. We hope to answer (1), who was Matthew’s intended audience? (2), why did Matthew begin with Jesus’ ancestry? (3), why did Matthew include many antagonistic interactions between Jesus and the Jewish authorities? and (4), why does Jesus command the disciples to only evangelize the Jews (Mt 10:5-6) and then command the disciples to evangelize all nations (Mt 28:18-20)? Let’s begin!
It seems appropriate to begin with an understanding of Matthew’s purpose for writing his gospel narrative then any perceived portrayals and characterizations of Jesus, contained inside of Matthew’s literary work, will become clear.
Unlike the gospels of Luke & John, and the Pauline epistles, Matthew’s gospel gives us no indication as to his purpose. This does not mean that Matthew’s purpose is entirely unknown. Some purpose can be gleaned based upon the way in which certain information about Jesus is presented. A word of caution is needed to not arbitrarily assume that what Matthew speaks about in his gospel, that which occurred in Jesus’ day, was “immediately transferrable” to Matthew’s day. This is important when constructing a perceived purpose of Matthew’s gospel.
From a broad perspective, the purpose of Matthew’s gospel was to declare Jesus as Messiah (Mt 21:1-11); to declare that Jesus is the son of David, the son of Abraham, and the Son of God (Mt 1:1). Furthermore, Matthew begins his gospel narrative with the ancestry, birth, and early childhood of Jesus. Why is this important?
This serves to further the argument that Matthew’s gospel is the “most Jewish” of the gospels. If Matthew’s gospel is the most Jewish of the gospels, it seems reasonable to conclude that his intended audience was Jewish Christians. If his intended audience was Jewish Christians, then his purpose was to buttress their understanding of the historicity of the Messiah. D.A. Carson sees a potential purpose of Matthew’s gospel as an evangelism tool to “zealous Jewish Christians” who needed a tool to embolden their apologetic. But according to Carson the numerous reconstructions of Matthew’s purpose, that scholars have offered, fall short in many ways. We may never know Matthew’s true intention in writing his gospel narrative. Nevertheless, we will turn to the way in which Jesus is presented in the gospel with the aim of better understanding its purpose.
Matthew organized his gospel around five discourse or teaching sections. These sections are chapters: 5-7; 10; 13; 18; and 23-25. Blomberg views these five sections as “clear and unified” because each section concludes with “when Jesus had finished saying these things …” (Mt 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; and 26:1). Additionally, Blomberg sees each “discourse-narrative” as highlighting a specific motif. For instance, in the first section, the Sermon on the Mount has a motif of Jesus’ authority as Teacher (Mt 7:29).
Is has been suggested by theologians that Matthew aimed to present Jesus as a type of Moses. Like Moses, Jesus was delivered from a harsh ruler during his infancy. Jesus was called out of Egypt, a picture of the exodus. Jesus was in the wilderness forty days and preached from mountaintops (Mt 5-7), this resembles the Israelites in the wilderness of Sin and at Mt Sinai (Ex 16:1;19:1). Lastly, Jesus was the giver of new law and Moses was the giver of old law. This view has gained wide acceptance among scholars.
Moses’ writings are commonly known as the Pentateuch meaning five books. Matthew organized his gospel around five discourse teachings. If Matthew was writing to Jewish Christians, then perhaps Matthew structured his gospel to be a new Pentateuch that replaced the old? This theory was posited by B.W. Bacon in The Five Books of Matthew against the Jews. It is an interesting theory and clever observation but seems to fall short when considering Jesus’ words in 5:17. Mathew is not indicating that Jesus is usurping the law. Matthew wants to show that Jesus’ teachings are ushering in a “higher-order righteousness” that does not have a burden to bare, and conversely brings rest to his followers. In this example, Matthew seeks to present Jesus ushering in an “empowerment” to obedience that was not previously available.
An important theme contained inside of Matthew’s gospel is the appeal to particularism and universalism. These two perspectives seem to be competing ends of the same spectrum. Particularism, as explained more fully in Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament by J. Julius Scott Jr., was the Jewish ideology that Israel was a holy people, unique by paternal lineage in Abraham. It led to the rise of exclusivism. Universalism was the primary ideology of Hellenistic culture and tended to syncretism. Why is this important to Matthew?
Matthew presents Jesus as limiting the evangelistic efforts of his disciples solely to the Jewish people (10:5-6). But then records Jesus commanding the disciples to evangelize all nations in 28:18-20. What is the purpose to the disparity? Some have suggested that Matthew’s bifurcation was a result of trying to appease two distinct communities: one that adhered to Judaism and one that was inclusive. This view seems unlikely and Carson provides an alternative. Matthew is here presenting Jesus in terms of his expectations during his earthly ministry and his expectations after his resurrection. Thus Matthew is showing the development of a “nascent community” during the earthly life of Jesus and the commission under which the church had developed after his resurrection. Matthew seeks to present an important message about the kingdom of heaven: the church is a community of Jews and Gentiles who proclaim that Jesus is Lord. This inclusive perspective emphasizes a third picture of Jesus that is presented in Matthew’s gospel.
Matthew portrays Jesus in conflict with the Jewish authorities. For a gospel that was written to Jewish Christians, this is surprising. Chapter 23 presents the strongest set of rebukes aimed at the Jewish authorities. Despite this, Blomberg sees 23:29 as an indication that Jesus is not condemning all Jews, and Carson suggests that the leaders are the ones baring culpability as they did not perceive that Jesus was the Messiah.
The early church viewed Matthew as being written for a Hebrew audience. This harmonizes well with our earlier conclusion that Matthew was writing to Jewish Christians. Matthew presented Jesus as the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham, the Son of God. Based on this, it seems plausible that his presentation of Jesus was aimed at converting adherents of post-resurrection Judaism. Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of the Law and the one the scriptures have always pointed to. Thus Matthew takes great care in providing the antagonistic interactions of Jesus and the Jewish authorities. Jesus is presented as beginning his missional work with his own people and then moved outward. Thus Matthew presents Jesus as limiting the missional work of his disciples to the Jewish people in chapter 10 and then includes all nations in chapter 28.