We are now continuing with our plan to work through the Bible, a book at a time. We have considered the first five books of the Scriptures, the Pentateuch, and have now come to the first four books of the New Testament, the Gospels. Let us begin, as seems normal, with Matthew.
“And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying…” (Matt. 5:1–2).
Background to the Gospels
As you know perfectly well, there are four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew and John were the only two gospel writers who were themselves apostles. Mark got his information (according to early church tradition) from Peter, while Luke tells us that he functioned as a researching historian, getting his information from different eyewitnesses and sources.
The early fathers said that Matthew was the first gospel, while modern scholarship generally thinks that Mark was. A good deal of scholarly consternation has been expended on what is known as the synoptic problem. The first three gospels share many similarities, which is why they are grouped together as the “synoptics.” The word refers to them sharing a “common view” of the life of Christ, with John’s account being very different. But the synoptics are also different from one another in very striking ways. The modern notion is that short means early (and Mark is short), and that Matthew and Luke quarried some material from Mark, and some other material from a source called Q (material that Matthew and Luke share, but which Mark does not). Some folks have even written commentaries on Q, a document that cannot actually be said to exist. Scholarship can be a marvelous thing.
Overview of the Text
The theme of Matthew is the royalty of Jesus Christ; He is a teacher/king. He is repeatedly described as sitting while he teaches (Matt. 5:1; 13:2; 15:29; 21:7; 24:3; 25:31), a prerogative of royalty. The kingdom of God is the kingdom of Jesus (Matt. 13:41). The Lord is given royal titles, like Messiah (Matt. 16:13-20) and Son of David (Matt. 1:1-18; 9:27). The son of man is one who will sit on a throne in order to judge the nations (Matt. 19:28; 25:31). The Lord comes into His reign as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and His regal status is attested by the worship of the magi at the very beginning of the book.
The authority of this royal figure is well-established in the course of the book, and so it is nothing short of astonishing to see how the book culminates in His crucifixion. That is not what we would have expected, given the build-up. But more on this shortly.
The structure of Matthew is straightforward, consisting of an alternating pattern of narrative and discourse, making up five paired sections in all. Each section has narrative followed by a discourse, and each one ends with the phrase “when Jesus had finished these sayings.” The first section is the early years (1-4) and the Sermon on the Mount (5-7). The second is traveling miracles (8-9) and instruction to the disciples on how to behave during itinerant ministry (10). The third section tells us how Jesus collided with the Jews (11-12) and concludes with His parables about the kingdom (13). The fourth gives us a collection of events (14-17) and instruction on life together in community (18). The last section following this pattern is the journey to Jerusalem (19-23) followed by an apocalyptic description of Jerusalem’s end and the end of the world (24-25). The conclusion of the gospel is a separate description of the Lord’s passion and resurrection (26-28).
Christ as Israel
Matthew presents the Lord as the true king of the true Israel, coming into His own as the true Israel. Matthew quotes the last part of Hosea 11:1—out of Egypt I called my son (Matt. 2:15). But that entire verse says this: “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, And called my son out of Egypt.” (Hos. 11:1). Christ escaped from Egypt just as Israel had, but the Pharaoh He escaped from was Herod, and He escaped to the old Egypt from a place that had become the new Egypt. And after that, He was baptized in the Jordan (Matt. 3:13), just as Israel was baptized in the cloud and sea (1 Cor. 10:1-2). After His baptism He spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted—just as Israel had spent forty years being tempted. When His days in the wilderness were completed, He invaded Canaan in order to cast out the new Canaanites—demons.
That generation is described as occupied country. A man who has demons cast out of him is described this way: “Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation” (Matt. 12:45). The men in the tombs were possessed by devils (Matt. 8:28), and Mark tells us they were named Legion—a name applied to occupation forces of the Romans. And Mary Magdalene, a type of both the old Israel and the new, had seven devils cast out of her (Mark 16:9).
The Lord’s famous sermon at the beginning of the book is marked by contrasts—wide gates and narrow ones, true prophets and false prophets, and foolish builders and wise ones. Everything always comes down to a point. Believe or don’t. Repent or don’t. Go left or go right. There are no third options.
The Lord comes to earth at the beginning of the book and leaves for Heaven at the end of it. The nativity happened at night, and the whole place was lit up. The crucifixion happens at midday and the sky is darkened. Jesus was worshipped by nobles from a foreign land as an infant in swaddling clothes and mocked by nobles from His own nation as a crucified man stripped naked.
The King as Suffering Servant
Jesus teaches with complete authority, and is in full command of all the circumstances He encounters. He—literally—walked on water. So then, how are we to account for the way the book ends? If that kind of crash happened to anyone else, we would say it was because he got above himself. But that is not possible here, and so something else is going on. This is the deepest wisdom possible.
We are astonished by the end of Matthew to find that Christ was crucified, but when we come to understand that His blood was the blood of the new covenant, we have already learned that it is royal blood. It was also innocent blood. More than all that, it was conquering blood—not conquered blood.
The Lord came down from a royal throne in Heaven in order to live and die here, but He also comes down from various mountains within the gospel itself in order to be stripped naked, flogged, and nailed to a cross. That is true royalty. That is how a king lives and dies—for His people. And because it was true wisdom, the same king lives for His people, down to the present day.