Salvation in Matthew (with an Assist from Paul)

The Gospel of Matthew is a book about salvation. The author sets up the topic very clearly in the first chapter, in the section that provides the two names of Jesus. The angel says to Joseph (Matt 1:21) that Mary “will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The name Jesus (which we’ve already heard several times, in 1:1, 1:16, 1:18) is not just spoken but interpreted: it means YHWH saves, and that is the meaning of the life of this man named Jesus.

Immediately Matthew interjects (1:23) that this fulfills the promise in Isaiah, “they shall call his name Immanuel (which means God with us).” Stack these two naming oracles on top of each other and you get Matthew’s purpose: To tell the story of Jesus in a way that shows how the God of Israel will fulfill prophecy by saving us from our sins and being with us in person.

But does Matthew connect all the dots and show the reader how Jesus saves? Certainly Matthew is an intricately-structured book, and you’d have to be pretty obtuse to miss the big, fat, main structural point: Matthew begins by announcing that Jesus will save his people from their sins, and he ends by telling how Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. The expectation of salvation is established, and the cross and resurrection satisfy the expectation. Nor does Matthew present Jesus as the passive recipient of the fate that befalls him, but rather as the active instigator, always in charge and carrying out a plan. Jesus predicts his death and resurrection four times, with mounting clarity and intensity (16:21; 17:12; 17:22-3; 20:18-19), so when it happens the reader has been prepared to understand it as part of Jesus’ plan.

As a reader, I’m both satisfied and unsatisfied with Matthew’s presentation of salvation, in different senses. On the one hand, I get it: If the question is how we are saved, the answer is provided in the story of Jesus. And I know that the Holy Spirit speaks in a variety of voices in the canon of Scripture, and he gave us Matthew’s narrative soteriology (doctrine of salvation) so we could learn to track along with the story and see it develop.

But on the other hand, I always wish Matthew had concluded his gospel with a few direct, interpretive statements to be the other bookend for his clear opening statements. To be honest, I kind of wish he’d specify the nature of salvation as clearly as Paul does in the epistles.

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