Explore the Gospels: Matthew


Tim Finlay and Jim Herst

Who was Matthew?

Early church tradition attributes this Gospel to Matthew, the tax collector chosen by Jesus to be an apostle (10:3). He was also known as Levi (compare 9:9-13 with Luke 5:27-31). None of the four Gospels actually names its author. It was the message, not who was writing that was considered important.

What this book means for us today

Matthew’s Gospel is a call to take Jesus seriously and to follow him. It is not enough to mouth the name of Jesus; we must be his disciples, just as the people of his day had to. Just knowing about him is not enough. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my father in heaven” (7:21).

“Discipleship involves following Jesus. This notion of following Jesus suggests that the disciples are to be ‘with’ Jesus (e.g. 9:15; 12:20; 26:38-40) as those who accompany him (e.g. 9:19), align themselves with him over against his opponents (e.g. 9:10-17; 12:1-8) and therefore experience persecution (e.g. 5:10-12; 10:24-25), learn from him (e.g. 5:1 10:24; 13:26), model their lives after his example (e.g. 20:25-28), and come after him by assuming for themselves the journey of self-denial and cross-bearing (10:38-39; 16:24-28; compare 16:24-28)” (“The Major Characters of Matthew’s Story: Their Function and Significance,” David Bauer, Interpretation, October 1992, p. 362).

Jesus calls upon us to forsake everything and follow him. But he also promises that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29).

Matthew wrote a marvelous proclamation of hope in the Messiah. As you read, listen to his clear message: Jesus is the Christ, the King of kings, and Lord of lords. Jesus Christ has gained the victory over evil and death. Your death. Re-dedicate yourself to him. Make him the Lord of your life, even as Matthew the tax collector did nearly two thousand years ago.

Road map of Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew has been divided into 28 chapters, and the chapters are divided into verses.

These chapters and verses are a later addition. They have the advantage of making it easy to locate specific verses, passages and quotations. But they have the disadvantage of interrupting the continuity and theme of the book. Most of the time we “access it” like a telephone directory rather than read it like a story.

Matthew wrote his gospel as a carefully organized continuous narrative. It has three major sections, each of which has sub-sections. You may find it helpful to follow this outline to help you navigate as you read through the story for yourself.

1. The preparation for Jesus’ ministry (1:1- 4:11)

a. The genealogy of Jesus (1:1-17).

b. The announcement to Joseph of the birth of Jesus (1:18- 25).

c. The visit of the Magi to worship Jesus (2:1-12).

d. The flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt (2:11-23).

e. The ministry of John the Baptist (3:1-12);

f. The baptism of Jesus (3:13-17).

g. The testing of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness (4:1-11).

2. The ministry of Jesus (4:12-25:46)

This section is organized into five blocks of narrative interspersed with five long discourses:

  • In the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29), Jesus discusses the law, worship and good deeds.
  • In the commission to the disciples (9:35-10:42), Jesus expands the scope of his ministry.
  • The third discourse (13:1-52) contains seven parables on the kingdom of heaven.
  • The fourth discourse provides instructions concerning the community of faith (18:1-35).
  • In the final discourse, Jesus pronounces seven woes on the Pharisees, laments over Jerusalem and preaches about the end times (23:1-25:46).

The five blocks of narrative (4:12-25; 8:1-9:34; 11:1-12:50; 13:53-17:27; and 19:1-22:46) discuss Jesus’ miracles, his superiority over John the Baptist, his disputes with the religious leaders, and further teachings on the kingdom of heaven.

3. The crucifixion and resurrection (26:17-30)

a. First, Jesus predicts his betrayal (26:1-5), is anointed at Bethany (26:6-16) and eats the Last Supper with his disciples (26:17-30).

b. Then Jesus is betrayed by Judas Iscariot (26:6-16) is mocked before the high priest (26: 57-68) and is denied three times by Simon Peter (26:69-75).

c. Finally, Jesus is tried by Pilate and scourged (27:1-31), is subjected to an agonizing death on the cross (27:32-57) and is buried in a new tomb, which is then sealed and guarded (27:57-66).

d. But the story does not end there. The tomb is found empty because Jesus has risen (28:1-15), and the risen Christ commissions the disciples to preach the good news in all the world (28:16-20)!

Matthew and the Second Coming

Matthew emphasizes the future aspect of Jesus’ work more than the other Gospel writers do. Matthew alone uses the word parousia, which has become the technical term for Jesus’ second coming (Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39). Moreover,

“Only Matthew has a series of parables which turn on judgment and which can be interpreted in terms of the second coming. Only he has the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and the shut door (25:1-13); the parable of the sheep and the goats and the final judgment (25:31-46); the parable of the talents and the casting out of the unsatisfactory servant (25:14-30)” (William Barclay, Introduction to the First Three Gospels, pp. 170-171).

The Gospels and the Gospel

After a three-year study (1991-94), George Barna arrived at a sobering conclusion: “Spiritually speaking, many Christians try to run before they have learned to walk. Lacking the fundamentals, they eventually get snarled up in their faith, hindered by the absence of a strong foundation on which to build their faith.”

Barna, founder and president of The Barna Research Group of Glendale, California, believes that most Christians do not live with a holistic biblical worldview. “Their decisions,” he says, “are made ‘off-the-cuff,’ based on whatever seems right at the moment — without prayer, without a biblical checkpoint, without a true concern for how Jesus might have dealt with the same situation” (The Barna Report, vol. 2., 1994).

Many Christians do not know God’s word well enough. Is it any wonder that the faith of so many is weak? “Faith comes by hearing and what is heard comes through the word of Christ,” wrote Paul in his letter to the Romans (10:17). So why not read the words of Christ, beginning with the Gospel of Matthew?

You probably know many individual scriptures and parables from this Gospel. But have you ever read it right through, as a story? When you do, it will give you a different impression.

We suggest you use a modern version, such as the New International Version, or the New King James. We’ve given you some notes and background information. We also prepared an outline, which may help as a road map. But now we would like to get out of your way and let you begin to read Matthew’s words for yourself. Matthew’s Gospel has 28 chapters. If you read one a day, you can read through the book in four weeks.

The major purpose of the Gospel writers was to record Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God and to proclaim the good news of salvation that God offers us through Jesus.

It is common for Christians today to speak about “the four Gospels” — referring to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And that’s fine as far as popular usage goes. But we should always remember that these four books do not reflect four different gospels, or four different messages. One of the great foundational doctrines of the New Testament is that there is only one gospel, “the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 1:1).

The early church never spoke of “the Gospel of Matthew,” “the Gospel of Mark” or “of Luke” or “of John.” They distinguished these four accounts of the “one story” by using the Greek preposition kata, meaning “according to.” The church used the terms “the Gospel according to Matthew” or “the Gospel according to Mark.” For them, it was always the one and the same gospel, brought into being by four different authors. King’s College professor Graham Stanton puts it well when he describes the writings of the evangelists as “One Gospel: Four Gospellers” (Gospel Truth? New Light on Jesus and the Gospels, p. 96).

In fact, the word gospel was not originally used in a literary sense of a Gospel writing; it always designated the Christian message of salvation through Jesus Christ. It was not until the year A.D. 150 that the word was first used in the sense of a Gospel writing.

The English word gospel comes from the Middle English word godspel, literally “good spell,” with the idea of being a “good tale.” The Greek word behind the concept is euangelion, meaning “good news.” This good news is that we can have eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is nowhere better described than in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth: “Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you … that Christ died for our sins in accordance with all the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:1, 3-5).

This gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Romans 1:16). It was preached and received “not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). It is “a message by which you and your entire household will be saved” (Acts 11:14).

by Jim Herst and Tim Finlay

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