Understanding the Gospel of Matthew and Why it Matters - Part 1
An Introduction to Matthew
Have you ever been promised something wonderful, and then been made to wait for it? Have you felt the eager anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve, or the desperate longing of a wife awaiting a letter from a husband at war? Many Christians look forward to the return of Jesus in this way, occasionally glancing up at the sky and wondering if maybe - just maybe - today might be the day.
If you can relate to that feeling, then you can begin to understand what the Jewish people were experiencing in the first century AD. They had been promised a Messiah who would come and be their King. It had been four hundred years since they had last received a word from God. There were no longer any prophets proclaiming "Thus saith the Lord?" In a sense, this was Israel's Dark Ages.
Some felt that the wait was too long, giving up on the promise and assuming that God had forgotten His people. But the faithful trusted in God's promise, and waited expectantly for the coming Messiah. Though many generations came and went during this period of waiting, parents and grandparents ensured that the children were well educated in the stories of the early saints and the promises that God had made to their forefathers. As time passed and Israel was made captive to Roman rule, the expected Messiah began to be described more and more like a military hero who would lead the Israelites to political freedom. These Jews failed to realize that their greatest bondage was to their sin, not the Romans. The emperor had burdened them with heavy taxes, but their sin had condemned them to spiritual death. The Messiah they wanted was a warrior, but the Messiah they needed was a Savior.
Suddenly, after four hundred years of silence, God began again His special work in Israel. First an angel appeared to the elderly Zechariah , then John the Baptist emerged as the forerunner of the Christ , and then Jesus Himself, "like a root out of dry ground," appeared in a little stable outside an inn in Bethlehem. Matthew's gospel is the faithful recounting of the story of this man. It is a clarion call to the Jewish people of past and present declaring "The wait is over! Your Messiah has come!" We could speculate about many reasons why God waited until the first century to send His Son to earth. I am convinced that God was delaying until the proper time when the followers of Jesus would best be able to take His message far beyond the borders of Israel to the Gentiles. Here are just a few reasons why the first century was ideal:
* The Hellenistic Greek language had become a common language throughout most of the Roman Empire, providing different cultures the ability to communicate with one another. This allowed the message of Christ to be shared more easily and effectively with non-Jews than would have been possible in prior centuries.
* With the rise of the Roman Empire came the beginning of urbanization. Cities began to appear in many different regions of the empire, allowing the first missionaries to impact a greater number of people in a shorter amount of time.
* The Roman road system was revolutionary for its time, making travel much quicker and safer than it had ever been before.
* The Roman conquests had caused many pagan nations to lose faith in their gods. This was compounded by the rise of the Greek philosophers, which influenced many to think critically about life and to reject mythological deities. This created a "spiritual vacuum" ready to be filled by the message of Christ.
While the first century was ideal for Christ's message to reach the Gentiles, it was also ideal for the Jews. By the time of Jesus' birth, a movement known as Pharisaical Judaism had risen to prominence in Israel. Theses religious conservatives imposed incredibly strict laws on the Jewish people, proclaiming that God's favor could only be gained by those who conformed to the strenuous rules put forth by the Pharisees. The standards for righteousness were impossible to reach, causing many to despair of any hope of pleasing God. Thus, the stage was set for a Messiah who could offer His own righteousness as a substitute for theirs.
Of the four gospels, the authorship of Matthew is by far the most disputed. Those who deny his authorship argue rightly that the gospel nowhere speaks of Matthew as its author, and only refers to Matthew in the third person. They claim that the original author was forgotten and that Matthew's name was attached to the title in order for the work to receive credibility.
This argument is unlikely, however, because the early church fathers unanimously attributed the work to Matthew. It is doubtful that these men would have forgotten the original author of the most often quoted gospel of the first centuries. Indeed, as one commentator notes, the author would have most likely been the last thing that the early fathers would have forgotten. Early tradition credits Matthew as the author, and until more convincing evidence to the contrary appears, I think it is wisest to accept its testimony. Even if Matthew was not the author, however, this gospel has been accepted as a part of the inspired canon of God and is completely true and trustworthy.
Matthew, who was also called Levi by some, was part of the most hated group of men in the first century: he was a tax collector. With the authority of the Roman government behind them, these men were responsible for collecting the income and land taxes that burdened their fellow Jews. Every penny they were able to collect above the required amount, they were free to keep for themselves. Thus, tax collectors tended to be cruel and greedy. Furthermore, they were viewed as traitors by their own people, since they had chosen to work for the Roman government that held power over Israel.
Matthew was probably not a very religious man; tax collectors tended to be shunned from the local synagogues and even from the Temple. His friends were probably other tax collectors and disreputable sinners. He records the story of his calling in one verse:
"As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, 'Follow me.' And he rose and followed him." (9:9)
It is difficult to appertain what caused Matthew to immediately leave his life's work and follow Christ. He almost certainly had already heard of Jesus and His miracles, and may have even heard him preach before. Whatever the reason, Matthew became one of Jesus' most devoted followers.
Matthew's life was one of unfettered dedication to Christ. This man of greed was converted to a man of sacrificial love. Foxe's Book of Martyrs records Matthew's death this way:
"[Matthew], whose occupation was that of a toll-gatherer, was born at Nazareth. He wrote his gospel in Hebrew, which was afterwards translated into Greek by James the Less. The scene of his labors was Parthia, and Ethiopia, in which latter country he suffered martyrdom, being slain with a halberd in the city of Nadabah, A.D. 60."
It is no wonder, then, that Matthew's gospel contains some of Jesus' most pointed statements about the cost of discipleship. Matthew knew first hand what it was to labor and suffer for the cause of Christ.
It is by divine design that Matthew is the first of the gospels and the first book of the New Testament. It best connects the teaching and promises and prophecies of the Old Testament with their fulfillment in the New. Matthew references the Old Testament as many as sixty times and quotes it close to forty times, often using phrases like "all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet?" Unlike Mark, Matthew's gospel is less concerned with chronology and more thematic in nature. He groups many of Jesus' miracles together into sections, and provides several blocks of teaching, including the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) and the Olivet Discourse (chapters 24-25).
The central message of Matthew's gospel is that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised King, the long awaited Messiah. In a sense Matthew's gospel is an apologetic work, seeking to defend the claims of Jesus by providing a Scriptural foundation. It should be noted that Matthew was a Jew writing primarily to his contemporary Jews. This is not to say that this gospel has no benefit for 21st century Christians; indeed, for those longing to be disciples of Jesus, it is a goldmine of instruction. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that though God's providence saw fit that this gospel be written for us, it was not written to us. To properly understand Matthew, we must remember the audience to whom it was directly addressed.
3 Revolutionary Truths
Matthew's gospel presents three truths that would have been absolutely revolutionary to the original readers: First, Matthew declares that the kingdom of God is not a physical kingdom, but a spiritual one. Jesus' kingdom is not a nation, but the "kingdom of heaven", a phrase that appears thirty-two times in Matthew's gospel. Instead of a military hero come to save the Jews from the Romans, the Messiah is a lower-class carpenter from Nazareth who lives thirty-three years and is brutally murdered. His reign is not over the nation of Israel, but over all who trust in Him for the forgiveness of their sins.
Second, Matthew reveals that this Jesus is more than just the Messiah; He is the very Son of God! Jesus is the image of God Himself in human flesh. This was not something expected by the Jewish people, and was met with a great deal of opposition. Nevertheless, Matthew unashamedly presents this doctrine, including in his gospel passages like Peter's Confession to Jesus: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Third, Matthew's gospel becomes even more controversial in teaching that the Jews do not automatically inherit the kingdom of heaven on the basis of their ethnicity, but rather by repentance and faith in Christ. In fact, one of Matthew's most shocking truths is that some Gentiles will be ushered into the kingdom while many Jews will be cast out. This was a very hard pill for the Jewish people to swallow, having been taught since childhood that they alone were God's chosen people, and that He was their God.
The gospel of Matthew includes some of the most endearing, difficult, and glorious verses in the Bible. It has long been viewed as the first place for disciples to start in learning how to follow their Lord. Do you long to know more perfectly the character of Jesus? Do you long to know more completely the values He loved and the sins He despised? Are you willing to face the challenge of dying to your own wants and pursuing Christ as King? Then brace yourself. Prepare your heart. Ask the Spirit to make you ready.
Justin Nale is pastor of Mount Hermon Missionary Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, NC http://www.mhmbc.org
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