Background to Matthew
About fifty years after Jesus ascended into heaven, one of His followers, a man named Matthew, picked up his pen and began to write about Him. Matthew had a great appreciation for Jesus—perhaps because of his occupation at the time Jesus called him. As a tax collector, Matthew would have been hated by the people of Israel, not only because he worked for the despised Romans, but because the Jews would have perceived him to be dishonest. Each tax collector was assigned to raise a certain amount of money from his particular region, and any amount he could raise above that figure was his to keep. So here is Matthew—looked down upon by some, hated by most, a pariah. And here comes Jesus saying to him, "Follow Me."
Matthew immediately left his desk and began to follow Jesus. Amazed that Jesus would reach out to a man like him, Matthew opened his heart to Jesus. We then read in the next verses how he opened his home. Immediately, he had all of his tax-collecting buddies and all of the prostitutes (the only people who would hang out with the tax collectors) over to his house to introduce them to Jesus. Seeing Jesus eating in the home of Matthew with prostitutes and tax collectors, the Pharisees were scandalized. But, of course, Jesus would begin to teach those self-righteous Pharisees that the Son of Man came to seek and save those who were lost.
It always interests me how sinners were very comfortable around Jesus as He taught them about the kingdom, about the love of the Father, and about Old Testament Scriptures. Sinners loved to be around Jesus. It was the religious people—the Pharisees and the scribes—who had such a tough time with Him that they eventually ordered Him to be crucified.
I am sometimes concerned because I find that we get too comfortable around religious people. But sinners? When they see us coming, they often run from us as fast as they can in fear that we're going to come down hard on them, preach at them, or turn our backs and walk away from them. Pray about spending a little more time with people who don't know the Lord. Share with them the things you're learning as though they are already believers. Do you know what you'll discover? Amazed that you're not judging them, they'll be attracted to Jesus just as they were in the days of Matthew. Let the Pharisees sniff and the scribes scoff, but you be like Matthew, a man who opened his heart and then his home. After opening his home, Matthew also opened his hand. A keeper of records by vocation, it's only fitting that he would grab the pen to which he was so accustomed, and use it to keep a new, important record of the teachings and deeds of Jesus, his Hero, and his Leader.
Truly, the Lord uses whatever is in one's hands presently to do His work in ministry. As God called Moses in the wilderness, He said, "Moses what's in your hand? A rod. That's what I'll use as an instrument of authority in your ministry."
"What's in your hand, David? A slingshot. Let's go get Goliath!"
"Peter, what's in your hand? A net. I will make you a fisher of men."
I think too often we wish we had other gifts, skills, or trades, and we think, "If I could only play guitar, there would be no stopping me!" But take it from one who's bought more than one guitar. It doesn't work that way, folks! Use what's in your hand right now, and the Lord will use you.
The Gospel Matthew recorded is essential. You see, if you went from Malachi to Mark, you would go from the Old Testament promises to the New Testament promises, but you would have some very great questions. "Wait a minute," you'd say. "What do I do with all of these promises in the prophets concerning the people of Israel, the apple of the Father's eye, the chosen people—the Jews? How do the promises of the kingdom—given throughout the Old Testament by God's prophets—work out?"
Matthew is a bridge-builder, spanning the gap between the Old Testament promises and the New Testament promises. How? By quoting the Old Testament constantly, much more than the other Gospel writers.
What's Matthew doing? He's constantly drawing upon the Old Testament prophets and relating them to their fulfillment in a Person—Messiah—Jesus Christ. Matthew's Gospel was written primarily, though not exclusively, for the Jews.
Mark, on the other hand, written primarily to the Romans, is a very fast-moving book, only sixteen chapters long. The Roman attention span was somewhat limited, much like that of Americans. So there aren't a lot of long discourses in Mark's Gospel, not a whole lot of heavy teachings, but rather stories that catered to their "video mentality."
As Luke was written to the Greeks, and John was written to the whole world, we see each one of the Gospels has a different audience in mind. Matthew's audience was Jewish; thus, he addresses Jewish questions.
As you read through Matthew's Gospel, you will notice it does not unfold chronologically, but rather topically. There are five main sections in Matthew, each one consisting of a discourse, or body of teaching, a demonstration of how Jesus worked it out practically, and a debate with people questioning, wondering, and talking.
We'll see a discourse, a demonstration, and a debate in each of the following five sections:
If you followed the development of the Stealth Bomber, you know this aircraft, which looks like a bat, is really beautiful and quite impressive. With a price tag of five hundred million dollars, it had better be impressive! On its maiden test flight, the Stealth circled successfully for several hours, and preliminary tests indicated it would be able to slip through even the most sophisticated radar. There was an interesting footnote regarding these tests: Where the plane flew, dogs barked. The Stealth emitted a noise the frequency of which could be detected by any garden variety German shepherd. We spend half a billion bucks on these technological wonders, and all you have to do to detect them is get yourself a dog. When you hear him bark, you'll know the Stealth's flying by!
I appreciate our country, and I'm thankful to be an American, but I don't have a lot of confidence in any human government. Not only is the political process vulnerable to corruption, but even our most advanced technology is outdated as soon as it goes into mass production.
I am relieved that the answer is not the Stealth Bomber, but Jesus Christ, our Hope. He is the solid Rock upon which we stand. What we really need in this world is not more sophisticated military technology, but for Jesus to come back personally. When He returns, Scripture says He will rule with a rod of iron. This means He's going to rule rightly and effectively with authority.
Matthew's mission is to present Jesus as such a King. The question is, if Jesus had a right to the throne of Israel, did anyone acknowledge this? It's one thing for Him to say, "I am the King, and here is My heritage." But it is something else altogether to have someone else ratify and recognize such a right. Matthew chapter 2 answers this very concern. In chapter 1, we saw the heritage of the King. Now chapter 2 shows us homage to the King paid by those who did, in fact, recognize His royalty.
|2:1||Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem.|
Jesus was born in the days when Herod was king of Judaea. Standing only four feet four inches tall, Herod was a short man who wanted to prove he was a big guy. He became a master builder, erecting palaces, fortresses, and entire cities. He built Masada, Herod's royal citadel; aqueducts; and remodeled the temple in Jerusalem. He made monuments of great grandeur to his name and to his legacy. However, he was also a cruel and vicious individual who murdered his wife and three sons in the same evening, prompting Caesar Augustus to say, "It is safer to be Herod's pig than his son."
Well into his seventies, and realizing no one would mourn his death, Herod ordered the arrest of one hundred of the leading men of Jerusalem. He put them in prison and demanded that the moment he died, those hundred men were to be killed instantly. In his reasoning, he stated, "If the city won't mourn for me, let it mourn for those who die with me." The men were arrested, and Herod eventually died, but his final order was never carried out.
Herod was actually an Edomite, and not a Jew at all. The Edomites were the descendants of Esau. Jacob and Esau, who began warring in their mother's womb, continued their battle throughout history. This war began between the sons of Jacob—Israel versus the sons of Esau—the Edomites. And here we find them still at war in Matthew chapter 2 as a son of Esau, Herod, is trying to slaughter a Son of Jacob, Jesus.
How did Herod become king? He was a conniver who gained political influence through his dealings with Mark Antony of Cleopatra fame. A powerful person in Rome at that time, Mark Antony appointed Herod king of Judaea. This enabled Herod to become the potentate of Judaea, although in actuality, he was a puppet of Rome. It was during this period when Herod was king that the wise men, or magi, came from the East.
|2:2a||Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east...|
Regardless of how many Christmas movies you've seen, or how many Nativity scenes you might have, there is no reason to believe there were only three wise men. There may have been three hundred. There's no way to know for sure. We do know, however, they came from the East. We know these magi were astrologers, studying the stars to determine the future. They were also interpreters of dreams. They were likely to have been residing in the area of Babylon when they saw a star and followed it, believing it to be the sign of the coming King of the Jews. What made them think this to be true? I suggest it was due to another man who resided in Babylon five hundred years prior to this who was also an interpreter of dreams.
His name? Daniel.
In the seventh chapter of the book that bears his name, Daniel wrote that "One would come, called the Ancient of Days, to rule and reign upon the earth; and that He would have everlasting dominion." In fact, Daniel gave the very date this One would ride into Jerusalem. So these wise men, these magi, were most likely very familiar with Daniel's writings, prophecies, and teachings. And no doubt they were watching for the Ancient of Days to appear.
Isn't it great the way the Lord appears to people wherever they're at? The magi studied the stars, and the Lord said, "Okay, I'll speak to them in the stars and reveal to them the true Star, the Star of Jacob, as Balaam declared Him to be in Numbers 24:17." Because the magi were into astrology, God used the stars to draw them to the Son.
|2:2b||...and are come to worship him.|
Notice the magi weren't coming to get something from Jesus. After all, He was only a baby, a toddler there in Bethlehem. Nor were they coming because of what He had done for them; for at that point, He had done nothing. They came to worship Him solely because of who He was.
Do you ever come to church saying, "Lord, I'm going to worship You because I've got this business deal coming down next week, and I need Your help," or, "I'm feeling depressed, and I know if I worship, I'll get high emotionally and spiritually"?
There are, indeed, blessings to be found in worship, but they shouldn't be our motivation to worship. Why should we worship the Lord? Because He is the King of kings, the Creator of all things, the reason for life, the destiny of life. He is the smitten Rock, the Alpha and the Omega, the Lily of the Valley, the Fairest of Ten Thousand, the Bright and Morning Star. An understanding of who Jesus is should be motivation enough for us to worship Him. For truly, "Thou art worthy O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power" (Revelation 4:11).
|2:3||When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.|
Herod was upset because he realized there might be a true King, a Son of David, a Jew around whom the nation of Israel could rally. Herod realized he could be dethroned, Edomite that he was. But why was all Jerusalem troubled? Because Jerusalem was aware of the political ramifications of what these magi were saying. The birth of a new king introduced the possibility that the people in Israel, and perhaps those in the entire eastern world, would have someone to support and to whom they would willingly submit. Intimidated by this, Caesar would send down his legions into Jerusalem. The city would be trampled, and blood would be shed. Recognizing the makings of a revolution, those closest to Herod foresaw terrifying consequences.
|2:4-6||And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, and thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.|
These scribes were aware of Micah 5:2, which said that Jesus Christ would be born in an insignificant little city five miles outside of Jerusalem. Yet, it amazes me that they didn't even bother to make the short journey to Bethlehem to see what was happening. The wise men spent months, perhaps years, traveling across the desert—spending much money and expending great energy to seek the Lord. The scribes who knew the Word wouldn't even get on their feet to see what was happening a mere five miles away. Isn't there a warning for you and me in this? Sometimes we think knowing the Scriptures is good enough. But it's doing, not merely knowing the Word, that counts. You and I can easily become like these scribes, saying, "Well, we know what is happening. We know what we should be doing, and that's good enough." No, the blessing is in doing, not just in knowing.
The scribes told Herod he would find the Christ in Bethlehem. Bethlehem today is a major disappointment for tourists because they go expecting to see something special, but when they get there, all they see is a typical Middle Eastern city.
They go into the church of the Nativity, assuming it will be awesome. But as they walk in, they see the church itself divided into three sections (Catholic, Eastern, and Russian Orthodox) because these three groups have been fighting for centuries over who should control the site. And there are objects hanging from the ceiling that look like Christmas tree ornaments in a garage sale. With church groups fighting and dusty relics hanging, no wonder Bethlehem appears to be disappointing.
But you know what? It's perfect!
You see, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, He was born in a stable, or a cave, which was used as a stable. It wasn't the picturesque setting we often have in our minds. No doubt, it was dirty. There were cow pies on the ground and flies buzzing overhead. It had to be so. Jesus came to a real world as a real Man to help real people. And Bethlehem mirrors reality today.
Bethlehem—a very appropriate place for the Bread of Life to be born, for 'Bethlehem' means 'House of Bread.' Bethlehem was an unimpressive little city then and is an unimpressive little city still. But because Jesus was born there, more songs have been sung about, more poetry written about, more photographs taken of, more trips made to this insignificant little city than any other. Bethlehem is one of the best-known places in the world today for only one reason: Jesus was there.
And so too with you and me. Jesus comes into little people like us—people who are somewhat dusty and not at all that impressive—and He makes us great, not because of who we are, but because of whose we are. We are His.
|2:7-8||Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.|
"You wise guys, go ahead and find Him, and when you have located Him, come and tell me that I may go and worship Him as well." Herod said this, not because he sincerely desired to worship the Christ, but because he was determined to exalt his own position, to establish his own authority, to eliminate the Babe of Bethlehem.
|2:9-11a||When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house...|
Notice the magi came into the house, not the stable because Jesus was probably about a year and a half old by the time they made it all the way to Jerusalem. So when you set up your Nativity scene next Christmas, put your wise men four blocks away because it took them a long time to arrive!
|2:11b||...they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.|
Worship is always costly. It might cost you your so-called dignity. It might cost you financially as you learn to tithe and to give. It might cost you your friends or your family. The magi came worshiping with costly gifts. Gold indicates they acknowledged Jesus as King, since gold is a metal associated with kingly rule. By bringing frankincense, the spice used by priests, the wise men not only acknowledged Jesus as a mighty King, but as a Priest. Myrrh being the spice used in burials, the wise men acknowledged Jesus would be a martyred Prophet. The three-fold office of Jesus, the Messiah, is seen in the gifts of the wise men: gold for a Mighty King, frankincense for a Ministering Priest, myrrh for a Martyred Prophet.
|2:12||And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.|
The wise men were students not only of stars but of dreams, so it was fitting that they were warned in a dream about Herod's true intentions. At Jesus' birth, Gentile magi acknowledged Him as King. At Jesus' death, Pilate, a Gentile, commanded a placard reading "King of the Jews" be posted on His Cross. Although the Jews said, "We will not have this man rule over us," and rejected His kingship, there were those who did indeed acknowledge Jesus as King.
|2:13-14||And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt.|
Evidently, Mary and Joseph used the gifts of the wise men to finance their trip to Egypt, where Jesus would be protected from Herod's wrath.
|2:15||And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.|
Egypt being a type of the world, Jesus journeyed into Egypt that He might free us from Egypt.
|2:16-18||Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, in Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.|
After Jesus was born and then taken safely into Egypt, Herod ordered the extermination of all male children two years old and younger. Swords flashed, mothers screamed, blood flowed in the streets, and we see the other side of the Christmas story.
|2:19||But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt.|
I wish the Lord would call me to the ministry of sleeping. Four times in two chapters, the Lord spoke to Joseph in his sleep!
|2:20-23||Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life. And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.|
Nazareth was not the most picturesque or prominent spot. In fact, the word Nazareth literally means "bean town" or "sprout town." We would call it "hick town" today, which is why Nathanael, upon hearing of a Messiah from Nazareth, asked, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? Is it possible that Messiah would actually come from a place like that?"
Isaiah writes that Messiah would come forth as "a rod out of the stem of Jesse" (11:1). In other words, Messiah would come as a "sprout" out of the stem of Jesse—from "sprout town," a Sprout. Wherever you're living, or wherever you're from, remember that Jesus can relate to your situation. He chose to be a Nazarene, to be from Sprout Town, to be one of us.