Matthew’s Story About Jesus
Of Jesus’ disciples, several have ended up over the years with a well-known caricature. Thomas, through a single statement, became known as “doubting Thomas.” He did not want to believe the testimony of others who claimed to have seen Jesus alive after his burial (John 20:24, 25). Most everyone knows about Judas Iscariot. Andrew is often seen as the one bringing people to meet Jesus. First, he introduced his own brother, Simon Peter, to Jesus and then others. (John 1:40-42; 12:20-22).
What about Matthew? Despite his occupation as a tax collector for the Romans up by the Sea of Galilee, his history of Jesus was selected to be at the front of the New Testament. But his earlier occupation as a tax collector was not an easy hurdle to get over. In the gospel that carries his name, we read,
9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9 – 13).
In polite company, so to speak, during the Roman occupation, the tax collecting business was nothing to be proud of. (Matthew 10:3; 18:17). Jewish society and the religious community looked down on being a tax collector. Even so, Jesus called Matthew to be his follower and he quietly and quickly responded. And as we noted, his story of Jesus’ work on earth was selected to be the opening pages of the New Testament—the New Covenant—for people of faith.
Regardless, it would seem that somewhat like Luke the doctor, Matthew’s occupation was an asset to the task he was given to collect a history of Jesus’ life and ministry. As a tax collector, he had to be literate, he had to be well organized, he had to evaluate and present reasons for tax rates, etc., and he had to be able to communicate effectively with his “customers.” All of these would serve him well when he developed material for his gospel. And well organized it is!
Matthew Presents the King and His Kingdom
Early on in Matthew’s gospel, we discover that he was a student of the Old Testament. He was familiar with the prophecies about the coming Messiah. He quotes frequently from the prophets to back up his conclusion that Jesus was the promised Messiah. We see this in the opening verses of his gospel.
Right away, Matthew lets his readers know that he is serious about who Jesus is and what he is all about. Apparently writing primarily for a Jewish audience, he used “code words,” if you will, for a restoration of the Jewish monarchy. Yes, he begins the genealogy of the Jesus with the father of the nation, Abraham. But he doesn’t wait until a later time to introduce the idea of kingship. He projects that in the first dozen words of his story about Jesus: Matthew 1; 1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers. .
In our time, we can’t appreciate the words, “son of David,” as they rang out in the first century. Matthew was not just pointing out the children of Abraham, the Jewish nation. He was highlighting, even before nationality, the most successful king in the history of the nation. In effect, this gave David a more prominent position than Abraham. As we will discover later in Matthew’s gospel, there were times when the disciples, and even Jesus himself, tried to quiet any who were shouting out, “Jesus, son of David.” There was fear of arousing the suspicion of the occupying Roman cohorts. It was asking for trouble. Yet, Matthew leads off with his strongest position.
Another significant feature we find in this gospel is the frequent quotations from the Old Testament. Matthew, a Levite by birth and tradition, quickly shows his intention to point out Jesus’ birth in relation to the Old Testament Scriptures. In the second chapter alone, he quotes from three Old Testament prophets. Check Matthew 2:6 (Micah 5:2, 4); Matthew 2:15 (Hosea 11:1); Matthew 2:18 (Jeremiah 31:15).
By reading through the genealogy in Matthew 1, most faithful Jews of the first century would get a quick but compact review of the history of the Jewish race. Yes, there were major events such as the exodus from Egypt that are skirted by the list of names. For most, it represented a history that was easily verified by many Old Testament books. What was also important at that time, of course, was the immediate, grinding domination of their nation by a foreign army. That reality alone carried major implications for Jewish people regardless of when Matthew’s gospel was completed. So a powerful new king would be welcomed.
Matthew’s birth narrative of Jesus is much shorter than Luke’s and leaves out any mention of the pastoral elements included by Luke. There are no sheep, shepherds or animals that might be found in a barn. Those would not seem fitting for a person bound to take up the reigns of government as king. It could also be that Matthew, writing later than Luke, did not find it necessary to repeat Luke’s story. Nonetheless, Matthew’s account does go into detail about the foreign dignitaries, Magi from the east, who come through Jerusalem looking for the one born king of the Jews.
Even the chief priests in Jerusalem, pressed by King Herod for an answer, were able to provide Old Testament proof that there was to be a ruler coming from Bethlehem (Micah 5). Matthew also includes the families’ sojourn into Egypt to escape the fury of King Herod. That fulfilled another prophet’s word some 700 years earlier (Hosea 11:1). Warned in a dream, the Magi outwitted Herod and did not return through Jerusalem to update him about the new king.
We have no definite information as to how long the family of Jesus stayed in Egypt. Their stay, however, was interrupted by another dream reported in Matthew 2:
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” 21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
Obeying the instructions in the dream, Joseph, Mary and Jesus end up in the region of Galilee at Nazareth. From that time until Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer, we enter the “silent” years concerning Jesus. His baptism is the turning point and the stage is set in Matthew’s story for the king to reveal himself and the character of his reign.
The King’s Manifesto
As one reads through Matthew’s gospel, it becomes apparent that Jesus’ closest followers had great difficulty in realizing the purpose of his coming into the world. They were slow to accept the idea that the king would end up in a grave prematurely, in a garden outside Jerusalem. That was not what they were expecting. They were anticipating one who would lead an aggressive assault against the Roman invaders of their land.
In Matthew 4, we read about Jesus being baptized by his cousin John, his temptation in the desert by Satan, and then the beginning of his healing and preaching ministry. Next, we turn the page to Matthew chapter 5, where the writer presents a detailed description of how Jesus’ kingdom would be recognized. It was NOT what many were hoping for.
1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Without any doubt, what Jesus described as “the kingdom of heaven” had nothing to do with external force. It was not the “reign” of a king that comes about through military conquest. What he presented was a “reign of the king” brought about through internal, spiritual restructuring. So instead of a spear or sword, the power of this kingdom was achieved through hearts and lives turned over to the King of kings. Moreover, Jesus’ method has not changed.
That’s why today in many houses of worship, a prayer like this is publically recited:
“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us today our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ – Matthew 6
And most congregations add, “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever, Amen.” Again, these are not words from the lexicon of a liberating army. These express the heart-felt desires of people committed to a King whose throne is out of eternity, powered by an indestructible life–that of the King of Glory.
Throughout Matthew’s gospel, we read the invitation from the King to join this kind of kingdom. As we indicted, even to the disciples it was a hard sell. They were so focused on getting rid of the Roman occupation, they failed often to see the goal was not military victory but embracing the reign of God in their living.
It is also important to note that in Matthew’s gospel, the first and last sermons share a common warning: An affirmative choice must be made to accept the King’s reign. In Matthew 3, we read John’s testimony: 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Many chapters follow with an openhearted invitation to any and all from this one who is head of the Kingdom. Then right before we encounter the scenes of Gethsemane and Pilate’s hall, Golgotha and the garden of resurrection, Jesus offers his last teaching of invitation with a solemn warning: Redemption is open to all but not everyone will accept the invitation. And there are consequences (Matthew 25).
The voice we hear is that of the King. He has introduced his prescription for living and he will die to make it possible. Matthew has presented the King and his kingdom for us to consider and accept. That is the magnificent background from the gospel of Matthew. We now move to the fourth gospel, John, whom some consider had nothing to say about Jesus’ advent to earth. But what does John say?
Next: John’s Report