David K. Lowery
Before considering particular aspects of the theological message of the gospel of Matthew, it will be helpful to think about the nature of the four gospels. Providing a brief definition of a gospel, however, is not so simple as it might seem since the Gospels function in a number of different ways. In one sense, the Gospels serve as biographies of Jesus. Matthew, for example, includes an account of events connected with the birth of Jesus, aspects of His life in public ministry, and His death. Like most biographies, it provides insight into its subject not simply by chronicling the words and deeds that were a part of that life but also by interpreting their significance for the reader.
Unlike most modern biographies, however, the Gospels are relatively brief. Matthew, for example, devoted several extended sections of his gospel to Jesus' teaching, but each can be read in a few minutes' time. That the gospel writer was presenting a summary of Jesus' teaching seems clear. Comparison of similar passages in the Gospels suggests too that each writer exercised freedom (in comparison to the constraints usually associated with modern historiography) in presenting and arranging this material. This freedom allowed each author, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to highlight different aspects of Jesus' words and deeds. The result is that their accounts provide cumulatively a richer understanding of the significance of His life and ministry.
Although Jesus is the focal point of the Gospels, an account of His life and teachings is not their sole concern. The Gospels also help readers understand some of the factors that led to the formation of the church, since the disciples whom Jesus drew around Him and whom He instructed became its founding members. Considering what Jesus said and did with His first disciples serves to answer in part a crucial question: "How did we get to where we are today?" The Gospels therefore are also pastoral homilies, sermons in writing that seek to gain from every reader an affirmative and practical response.
While Jesus' life and ministry are the focus of Matthew's gospel, he makes it clear that what Jesus said and did, as well as the events that conspired to bring Him to the cross, are a part of the plan and purpose of God. A primary means of making this point is in the frequent linkage of events in the life of Jesus to passages from the Old Testament. To one degree or another all the gospel writers portray Jesus' life and ministry as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and expectation. But Matthew is particularly distinctive in this regard. His gospel is characterized by a series of Old Testament quotations introduced by a phrase using the verb "fulfill" in the passive voice (plērothēnai). The first occurrence illustrates the nature of these introductions: "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet" (Matt. 1:22). This is followed by a quotation of Isaiah 7:14. The event or circumstance is said to have happened in accord with God's plan and purpose.
Several of these citations are linked with the circumstances of Jesus' birth and the family's subsequent flight to Egypt and return to settle in Nazareth. From a human point of view these events seem oddly at variance with the auspicious beginning normally associated with a king, especially one who is divine. Even in His early days the "beloved Son" and His family had to flee persecution in Israel. They returned only to take up residence in the "backwoods" of Galilee, far removed from the center of political and religious influence in Jerusalem where a Davidic king would be expected to reside. But by means of these Old Testament citations Matthew showed that in these apparently spontaneous exigencies the purposeful hand of God may be seen fulfilling His plan in the life of Jesus.
That the purpose of God is achieved despite adverse circumstances and deplorable individual behavior is illustrated also by Matthew in the presentation of Jesus' genealogy. In the first verse of his Gospel, Matthew said Jesus is a descendant of both David and Abraham. The significance of those designations for Matthew's portrait of Jesus will be explored subsequently. For now suffice it to say that His Abrahamic and Davidic lineage involved not a few distressing twists and turns which nevertheless did not deter the outworking of the divine plan.
The mention of the four women in Jesus' genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17) is an illustration of this. Why Matthew chose to mention these women, contrary to the usual practice of citing men only, cannot be determined with certainty. But it is noteworthy that Tamar (v. 3), Rahab (v. 5), Ruth (v. 5), and Bathsheba (v. 6, named only as "Uriah's wife") were Gentiles, and, in the case of Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba, each was linked with acts of immorality. They serve to remind readers both that God has shown mercy to "unworthy" Gentiles in the past and also that the plan of God is not frustrated by human failure. The lineage of the Messiah is checkered with some dubious characters, the sort a selective genealogist might be inclined to leave unmentioned. Though they are not meant to be models of behavior (as will be seen, Matthew set forth the highest ethical standards), they are a reminder that the grace of God is often extended to the unlikeliest people who in turn serve to advance His purposes in the world.
This theme, that the plan of God advances by means of the unlikeliest people and in the face of inscrutable circumstances, appears repeatedly in Matthew's gospel. A classic text in this regard is Jesus' prayer of thanksgiving and praise to God: "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure" (11:25-26; cf. Luke 10:21). This statement is connected with the theme of the preceding section, the mission of the disciples (beginning at Matt. 9:35). It is both a reminder that the response accorded their preaching is inseparably related to the work of God in opening hearts and minds to the message they proclaimed and also a reminder that this grace is most often extended to those who are little esteemed by society at large.
The disciples themselves are a case in point. A motley band of diverse characters, they seem unlikely candidates for the role of representing Jesus and advancing His ministry. Yet these are the ones to whom God has given revelation concerning who Jesus is. This is brought out clearly in Matthew's account of Peter's confession. In reply to the question, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" Peter answered: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (16:13, 16). But Jesus' response makes it clear that Peter had not arrived at this fact by his own cleverness or intellectual ability, however considerable they may have been (v. 17). Peter was one of the "little children" mentioned by Jesus in 11:25, to whom God had revealed this truth. Notice Matthew's distinctive record of Jesus' words to Peter on this occasion: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven" (16:17). It is God who reveals (the same verb, apokaluptō, is used in both 11:25 and 16:17) this truth to people in accord with His "good pleasure" (11:26).
The same view of the sovereign work of God revealing truth to some but not to others is also expressed by Jesus in answer to the disciples' question about His use of parables (13:10: "Why do you speak to the people in parables?"). He answered, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them" (v. 11). The use of the passive verb ("has been given") in this statement is sometimes called a "divine passive." In this way Jewish writers or speakers could refer to an action of God without explicitly mentioning His name, a manner of speech considered reverential. But it was understood who carried out the action of the verb. The point once again is that the act of revelation whereby people understand and believe the message proclaimed by Jesus is something God does.
Whereas these statements may be discomfiting to those who think of themselves as masters of their own destiny, it is unlikely that Matthew recorded them solely for that purpose. Rather, these affirmations about God's sovereignty, particularly connected to a positive response to the message from and about Jesus, serve to quiet concerns the disciples may have had about their own suitability and effectiveness for the task entrusted to them. The reception accorded the message they proclaim is ultimately God's doing, not theirs. They had a ministry to discharge and were to do so in a manner pleasing to God, but the results were not their responsibility. This is a liberating concept, not only to those beset with self-doubt (moments of which the average individual called on to carry on Jesus' work would understandably have) but also to those besotted with self-confidence (Peter had his moments, as do others), who seek through winsomeness or manipulative skill to magnify the effect of the gospel among their hearers. To a beleaguered minority, which the church in the first century generally was, assurance about God's sovereignty was an encouraging word. Thinking of this sort could, of course, lead to passivity or produce an escapist mentality, but Matthew's presentation goes a long way toward precluding that eventuality.
For one thing, Matthew did not hesitate to record the fact that both John the Baptist and Jesus fulfilled the will of God and in doing so followed a path that led to martrydom. The hand of God in this is seen at the very outset of Jesus' entrance into a life of public ministry. Immediately after Jesus' baptism, with the words of God, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (3:17) still ringing in the reader's ears, Matthew recorded the temptation of Jesus, introducing it with these words: "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil" (4:1). Each of the synoptic writers recorded this in his own way, but Matthew's readers cannot miss the fact that the hand of God was in this experience of temptation for Jesus. He is led (a passive verb) by the Spirit (the agent of God) in order to be tempted (another passive verb, this time an infinitive of purpose) by the devil (the agent of the temptation). In view of the citations from Deuteronomy subsequently referred to by Jesus in the passage (4:4, 7, 10), the reader should think of the experience of Israel in the wilderness as the Old Testament counterpart to this trial of Jesus (cf. Deut. 8:2). But the reader may be excused if the story of Job also comes to mind. Although what happened to Job is shown clearly to be known by God, at least in that account Satan came to God, as it were, to seek permission for what ensued. In the case of Jesus, He was led into this temptation by the Spirit! The final petition of the Lord's (model) Prayer takes on special significance when seen in light of Jesus' experience in the wilderness: "And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one" (Matt. 6:13). James correctly affirmed that God Himself does not tempt anyone (James 1:13), but Matthew leaves no doubt that He sometimes permits temptation to befall His children.
Matthew likewise made clear that trials may lead to martyrdom, as it did for John and Jesus. In Jesus' missionary charge to the disciples, Matthew included this word of warning from Jesus: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father" (10:28-29). If someone were to devise a "frightful sayings" category for biblical statements, this would be a candidate. Yet it too provides a word of assurance regarding the outworking of God's plan for His people in the world. The experience of opposition, persecution, even martyrdom, is not an indication that God has cut His people loose, or turned His back on them. They are experiences that happen, as they did to John and Jesus, to the choicest of God's servants. The sparrow does not fall apart from the will of God. But the sparrow does fall. Such is Matthew's vision of the will of God.
This is certainly not all Matthew wrote about the way God is carrying out His plan for this world through His servants in the church. But it is a reminder that the God whom Matthew portrayed often accomplishes His purposes in unexpected and, from a human point of view, sometimes perilous ways. In so doing, however, He is not a God removed from His people and indifferent to their plight. He is intimately concerned with their well-being, aware of their need, and solicitous for their care.
Several passages in the Sermon on the Mount make this point. As an introductory statement to the Lord's Prayer, the disciples were assured of God's knowledgeable concern for them: "Your Father knows what you need before you ask him" (6:8). This assurance is repeated a few verses later when the disciples were told that they need not worry about adequate food and clothing since, "Your heavenly Father knows that you need them" (v. 32) and "all these things will be given to you" (v. 33). In the same manner God is described as a giver of "good gifts" to those who ask Him (7:11). These "good gifts" include not only the necessities of physical life but also the spiritual blessings associated with the gospel (cf. the use of the same word, agatha, "good" in Rom. 10:15 [Isa. 52:7] and Heb. 10:1).
God's care for all members of the community of disciples is brought out also in the parable of the lost sheep (Matt. 18:12-14), recorded in a chapter containing various instructions about the maintenance of right relationships with those who are followers of Christ. This parable is introduced by a verse that emphasizes the importance to God of those who for various reasons might be little esteemed by others in the community. It is actually a warning: "See that you do not look down on these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven" (18:10). While this verse has sometimes been understood to say that all Christians have a guardian angel assigned to their care, that is probably an overinterpretation of the statement. What is affirmed is that angels from the highest order (those nearest to God) carry out ministry to those poorly esteemed (kataphroneō means "to look down" or "treat with contempt" ) by human society. This is a reminder both that God's values differ from humanity's and also that one's estimate of the importance of others may differ from God's estimate and may therefore be in need of revision.
The parable of the lost sheep (18:12-14) is an illustration of this. Jesus focused on a member of the community who had gone astray (the descriptive word, planaō, means "lead astray" or "cause to wander," hence "deceive" or "mislead"). The response of some may be to say, "Good riddance" or "We're glad he's gone." But however prone some may be to treat this wandering one with contempt, Jesus' words here are a sharp reminder that to God, the weak and wavering person is important. This one should be solicitously sought and, if possible, saved from the error of his way. God is "not willing that any of these little ones should be lost" (18:14). This affirmation of God's concern for the lost is not limited to those who count themselves disciples. Matthew also recorded Jesus' words about God's care for the world generally as a basis for exhorting disciples to demonstrate love to all people, even adversaries: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (5:44-45).
The point is clear enough. God bestows natural blessings comprehensively and unconditionally. In the same way, disciples are to love others, do what is best for them, and pray that the enemy may become an ally. There seems to be a certain dissonance in the comparison, however, because of the variance between the natural and the spiritual. Sun and rain can be seen and felt. Prayer is certainly less tangible. Giving bread to an enemy seems a more apt comparison, but the somewhat enigmatic illustration is common to Jesus' teaching style. It provoked thought and gave no place for complacency. And as is often the case, the Old Testament provided a point of connection that serves to illuminate and reveal the comparison's symmetry.
In the Old Testament God's ordering of sun and rain is not portrayed simply in terms of a natural blessing. Rather, the elements of nature also bear witness to God: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. . . . Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world" (Ps. 19:1, 4). The account of Paul's protest against the adulation directed at Barnabas and him likewise testifies to the witness of nature: "He has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons" (Acts 14:17). The natural elements are a declaration of God to all humanity about Himself. In their response of love to all people disciples similarly are to bear witness to God and manifest His kindness through their deeds. The comparison comes together then in the goal of the missionary enterprise, bringing people to a place where they too can glorify God and pray with meaning the opening petition of the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name" (6:9). But that is to anticipate another aspect of Matthew's theology. Before that is considered, however, attention must be given to the leading figure of Matthew's gospel.
The focus of the gospel of Matthew is the person of Jesus Christ. Some appreciation for who He is and what He does may be gained by considering the various titles given to Him. But titles alone do not exhaust Matthew's message about Jesus. The accounts of what Jesus said, did, and continues to do also give insight into who He is and show why He is the proper object of faith.
The first verse of the gospel contains four descriptive names or titles of Jesus: "Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham." The name given to Him at his birth, "Jesus," is the Greek form of the Hebrew name "Joshua," which means "the Lord saves." It was the name an angel of the Lord told Joseph to give to the son to be born to Mary, his betrothed (1:21). It was therefore chosen by God Himself, in whose behalf the angel spoke. The name described what Jesus was destined to do: "He will save his people from their sins" (1:21).
Accustomed to thinking of people having several given names, the last of which designates their family name, some may be similarly inclined to think of "Christ" as some sort of last or family name of Jesus. But it is actually a title or designation given to Him. Like the name "Jesus," it is also the Greek form of a Hebrew word—"Messiah"—and means "Anointed One," a person specially designated by God to carry out His will.
What God's will is for the Messiah is revealed in the testimony of the gospel to Jesus' life and ministry. The way in which the Messiah "will save his people from their sins" is quite different from what was most likely expected. Although it is difficult to determine with certainty what the general expectation for a messiah was like among first-century Jews, it is probably fair to say that the idea of a suffering and humiliated one did not figure very largely in the public imagination.
Matthew showed that those most closely associated with Jesus—His disciples—found His comments about His impending suffering and death objectionable (16:21-23) and grievous (17:22-23). Little wonder then that He generally sought to maintain a relatively low profile in the course of His ministry and attempted to limit the spread of reports about His miraculous deeds which might understandably feed nationalistic hopes for a political liberator. But political liberation was not His immediate goal, notwithstanding His acknowledged kingly lineage.
The third designation applied to Jesus in the first verse of the gospel focuses on His kingly lineage as a descendant of David with a rightful claim to Israel's throne. The ensuing genealogy makes this point emphatically by dividing Jesus' family tree into three generational blocks of fourteen names each, a number which corresponds to the cumulative sum of the Hebrew letters in the name "David": daleth = 4; waw = 6; daleth =4.
This underscoring of Jesus' Davidic connections relates to the gospel's assertion that Jesus is indeed the King of Israel, though the display of His kingship differs markedly from the norm. He is a king characterized by humility, as Matthew quoting from Zechariah 9:9 declares: "Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey' "(Matt. 21:5). But He is nonetheless a king, a fact He acknowledged under interrogation by Pilate: " 'Are you the king of the Jews?' 'Yes, it is as you say,' Jesus replied" (27:11). It is a truth with which He was mocked by the Roman soldiers: "Hail, King of the Jews!" (v. 29). And it is included in the announcement placarded above Him on the cross: "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews" (v. 37).
But if the kingship of His first coming is marked by humiliation, it will not be so at His return. Here Matthew portrays Jesus as the exalted King, seated on His throne in heavenly glory (25:31). He epitomizes the reversal that will characterize the people of God generally (19:28). No longer the One who is judged, He will dispense judgment and will vindicate the righteous (25:34, 40).
The fourth designation, "son of Abraham," is a further reminder that Jesus was a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, the father of the Israelite nation. It may be too that readers are to think of the promise God made to Abraham, that "in you all the families of the earth will be blessed" (Gen. 12:3 NASB), and to see in the life and ministry of Jesus, Abraham's son, the fulfillment of that promise.
This is one of the more common titles for Jesus in Matthew's gospel and, some would say, the most important. In the Old Testament, Israel as a whole (Hos. 11:1) and different groups or individuals within Israel, such as individual kings (2 Sam. 7:14) or priests (Mal. 1:6), were sometimes called sons of God. In the New Testament, Christians are also called sons of God (e.g., Rom. 8:14).
The significance of the idea of sonship applied to these various groups is that those who are called sons are expected to represent God their Father faithfully and to carry out His will. The same idea is central to the use of the title with regard to Jesus. Unlike anyone else, He faithfully carried out the will of God the Father, a fact poignantly affirmed in His prayer in Gethsemane: "My Father . . . may your will be done" (Matt. 26:42).
"Son of God" is thus first a functional description. It does, of course, have relevance for understanding Jesus' status and relationship to God, but the fact that others have been and will be called "sons of God" is a reminder that it is less an ontological statement or confirmation of His deity, and more an ethical or functional affirmation that Jesus did in fact carry out the will of His Father.
There is, of course, no question about His deity. His conception was "from the Holy Spirit" (1:20). He is called "Immanuel," which means "God with us" (1:23). He has been given "all authority in heaven and on earth" (28:18). But the designation "Son of God" gives particular attention to His manner of life. In this area too He showed Himself unique.
If any title rivals "Son of God" for place of greatest importance as a descriptive designation for Jesus, it is the title "Son of Man." Jesus used this designation of Himself more often than the other titles. Some would say it has no more significance than that of an ambiguous circumlocution, a roundabout way by which Jesus could say things about Himself without using the personal pronoun "I." The validity of this contention is illustrated by the fact that the gospel writers sometimes interchange "I" and "Son of Man" in their reporting of His statements.
Two passages in Matthew 16 illustrate this. In the question Jesus put to Peter concerning His identity, Matthew wrote, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" (16:13), while Mark has, "Who do you say I am?" (Mark 8:29), and Luke has, "Who do the crowds say I am?" (Luke 9:18). A few verses later Matthew recorded Jesus' first prediction of His impending death with the words, "He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things" (Matt. 16:21), while Mark and Luke wrote, "the Son of Man must suffer many things" (Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22).
That the gospel writers exercised comparative freedom in interchanging the designation "Son of Man" with a personal pronoun does not mean the title had no theological significance for them. It means only that they had no doubt that readers would know that the designation applied to Jesus alone. The theological background to the term is likely found in Daniel 7:13-14, based on Jesus' statement at His trial before the Sanhedrin: "You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Matt. 26:64).
This passage neatly illustrates the dual significance of the designation as it is used in Matthew (and in the other Synoptic Gospels). Jesus was in the midst of the humiliation that would culminate in the cross; yet He referred to His future exaltation. Most of the other uses of this designation in the Gospel fall into one or the other of these categories, either the present humiliation of the Son of Man or His future exaltation in which He will manifest the prerogatives of deity. The reader of the gospel of Matthew can thus see in the use of this designation of Jesus that both aspects, the humiliation and the exaltation, are experiences of Jesus. These two experiences are temporally differentiated, however, so that humiliation characterized for the most part the course of His earthly life. But after the resurrection Jesus entered into His exalted role. All authority in heaven and on earth is given to Him (28:18), though the earthly manifestation of that exalted glory will be fully displayed only at His second coming."At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory" (24:30). The assurance of this ultimate vindication despite the reality of His present humiliation may explain Jesus' preference for this enigmatic expression as His self-designation of choice, a title which in some measure captures the enigma of the Incarnation: God became man to be ultimately hailed as Lord of all.
—A Biblical Theology of the New Testament