Meeting the Gospel of Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew was the church’s favourite book. It was the most quoted, most copied, most read, and the most preached Christian book of the early centuries. The immense popularity of Matthew can easily be accounted for.

First, Matthew was a great instruction manual on the person of Jesus and the nature of discipleship. Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses and the long-awaited David deliverer who ushered in the kingdom of heaven. The five major discourses in Matthew’s Gospel function as something of a manifesto for the church, stating its beliefs, mission, ethics, hopes, identity, and defining the way of righteousness that should characterize kingdom people. It is above all a teaching book about how to be a follower of Jesus. According to Edouard Massaux: ‘Until the end of the second century, the first gospel remained the gospel par excellence. People looked to Mt. for teaching which conditioned Christian behavior so that the Gospel of Mt. became the norm for Christian life.’[1]

Second, Matthew enabled the church to hold onto its Jewish heritage even while looking ahead to a Gentile future. Matthew was written at a precarious time, probably 80–100 AD, when the Jewish Christians who survived the catastrophe of 70 AD in Judea found themselves now marginalized or even expelled by Jewish communities in Palestine. And yet they were concurrently hearing about or even witnessing an influx of Gentile converts into churches among the cities of the Roman empire. You have to remember that for much of early Christianity, and certainly reflected in Matthew, the abrasive relationship between Christian faith and the social world of Judaism was the presenting issue. The questions faced were difficult and even paradoxical. How does a Christ-believer lay claim to Israelite ancestry when the Messiah and his followers have been rejected by most Jews? Or else, what kind of people are we when our God is Israel’s God, the Messiah and his apostles were Jewish, but most of our members are now Gentiles? This is where Matthew comes into his element. Matthew sees the identity of the Christian community as authorized by the Jewish Scriptures, which find their fulfilment in Jesus the Messiah, and in this fulfilment the Gentiles worship the God of Israel through Israel’s Messiah. In other words, in Matthew’s Gospel, christology, story, and social-identity are all interwoven together in order to demonstrate that the church, comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles, has a rightful claim to be God’s people. Matthew provides a theological map for locating Christian identity at the intersection of Jewish heritage and faith in Jesus. As a result, Jewish Christians do not have to jettison their Jewishness and Gentiles do not have to judaize to belong to Jesus’s church. Martin Hengel regards Matthew as trying to bind the Jewish past and Gentile future together: ‘By virtue of the Jewish-scribal origin of its author and its composition in geographical proximity to Jewish Palestine the First Gospel was really something like a connecting link between – earlier – Jewish Christianity and the church which had become Gentile Christian.’[2] So we are dealing with a Christian writing which attempts to build a bridge between the old and the new by bringing forth treasures old and new (Mt 13.52), preserving together both the old wineskins and the new wine (Mt 9.17), narrating the story of prophecy and fulfilment (Mt 1.22; 2.15, 17, 23; 4.14; 8.17; 12.17; 13.14; 21.4-5; 26.56; 27.9), harmoniously marrying together law and gospel (Mt 5.17-20), seeing Israel as renewed into the church of Jesus Christ (Mt 2.6; 10.5-6; 15.24; 16.18-19; 18.19-20; 19.28; 28.19-20). The Gospel of Matthew is the Jewish story of Jesus for a Gentilizing church.

Reading Matthew is like being on a working holiday in a messianic kibbutz. It means leaving your comfortable urban world, rising early to work in Matthew’s exegetical fields of narratives and parables, sowing righteousness to harvest wisdom, building a house on the rocks of instruction, all the while trying to see the landscape through Jewish eyes. And then, in the evening, relaxing with your friends over a supper of bread and wine while sitting in the presence of the one who is ‘God with us’ and our ‘only teacher’ (Mt 1.23; 23.10).

[1] Massaux 1990-93, 3.187.

[2] Hengel 2000, 75.

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