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Matthew, The Gospel According to

Matthew's gospel proclaims the message that in Jesus, Son of God, God has drawn near with his eschatological rule to dwell to the end of time with his people, the church (1.23; 16.16; 28.20). The purpose of this message is to summon the reader or hearer to perceive that God is uniquely present in Jesus and to become Jesus' disciple. As Jesus' disciple, one becomes God's child, lives in the sphere of his end‐time kingdom, and engages in mission so that all people may find him in Jesus and also become Jesus' disciples.


Matthew is a gospel story in three parts. The main divisions derive from the formula that appears in 4.17 and 16.21: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim [to show his disciples] …” Embedded in this story are also five great speeches of Jesus. The following outline marks off the three parts of the story and indicates the distribution of the speeches:

As is apparent, the story that is told is of the life and ministry of Jesus. It begins with his miraculous conception and birth and closes with his death and resurrection.

The temporal setting in which this story of Jesus takes place is the history of salvation. This begins with Abraham, the father of Israel, and extends to the consummation of the age and the return of Jesus for judgment (1.17; 25.31–46). It divides itself into two distinct epochs. The first epoch is the time of Israel, which is the time of prophecy (e.g., 2.5–6). The second epoch is the time of Jesus (earthly‐exalted), which is the time of fulfillment (e.g., 1.22–23). For its part, the time of Jesus (earthly‐exalted) encompasses the ministries to Israel of John (3.1–2), of Jesus (4.17), and of the pre‐Easter disciples (10.7), as well as the ministry to the nations of the post‐Easter disciples (24.14; 28.19–20). Central to this time, however, is the ministry of Jesus himself, for the ministry of John prepares for it and the ministries of the pre‐Easter and post‐Easter disciples are an extension of it.

In combination, the twin features of structure and view of salvation history advance a weighty theological claim on behalf of Jesus. As was noted, the structure of Matthew's story focuses on the life and ministry of Jesus. The view this story projects of the history of salvation describes Jesus both as the one in whom the time of Israel attains its fulfillment (1.17) and the one who is at the center of the gospel of the kingdom that is to be proclaimed to the nations (24.14; 26.12–13). Accordingly, the theological claim these two features advance is that for the salvation of all people, Jews and gentiles, the life and ministry of Jesus is of decisive significance.

Author, Date, Place.

It is commonly held that Matthew was written about 85 or 90 CE by an unknown Christian who was at home in a church located in Antioch of Syria. A date toward the end of the first century seems probable because the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in 70 CE, appears to be an event that was rapidly receding into the past (22.7). Although the apostle Matthew may have been active in founding the church in which the gospel story attributed to him arose (9.9; 10.3), it is unlikely that he was the story's author. On the contrary, the author exhibits a theological outlook, command of Greek, and rabbinic training that suggest he was a Jewish Christian of the second rather than the first generation (cf. 13.52). Also, Antioch of Syria commends itself as the place where he may have been at home, because the social conditions reflected in his story correspond with those that seem to have prevailed there: the city was Greek‐speaking, urban, and prosperous, and it had a large population of both Jews and gentiles.


Scholarly opinion holds that the church for which Matthew was written was made up of Christians of both Jewish and gentile origin. Socioculturally, this church was almost certainly living in an atmosphere of religious and social tension. Its mandate was to make disciples of all nations, and this was apparently provoking hostile reactions from both Jews and gentiles. Seemingly, Christians were being hauled into court by gentile authorities, judicially harassed, hated “by all,” and even put to death (10.18, 22; 13.21; 24.9). Similar persecutions were likewise taking place at the hands of the Jews: Christians were being made to submit to such ill‐treatment as verbal abuse (5.11), arraignment for disturbing the peace (10.17), perjured testimony in court (5.11), flogging in the local synagogues (10.17; 23.34), pursuit from city to city (10.23; 23.34), and even death (10.28; 23.34–35).

As a body, the church of Matthew appears to have achieved organizational autonomy and to have been materially well off. Religiously, these Christians were no longer living under the jurisdiction of contemporary Pharisaic Judaism (15.13; 16.18). Quite the opposite, they already had in place the means for making their own decisions concerning matters of church doctrine and church discipline (16.19; 18.15–20). Identifiable groups within the church were prophets, or itinerant missionaries, and teachers (10.17–18, 41; 23.34). Socioeconomically, the way in which both monetary matters and ethical and religious questions associated with the topic of riches are treated in Matthew indicates that the church in which it arose was relatively prosperous.

But Matthew's church was also rife with dissension. Under the pressure of persecution, some Christians apostatized (13.21; 24.10), while others betrayed fellow Christians to enemies (24.10); still others fell victim to the “cares of the world and the lure of wealth” (13.22). Hatred broke out among Christians (24.10), false prophets arose who led others astray (7.15; 24.11), and disobedience to the law of God was so rampant that the “love of many was growing cold” (24.12). It was to meet the religious and moral needs of this multiracial, prosperous, yet divided and persecuted church that the author of Matthew told afresh the gospel story.


Some scholars hold that Matthew was the first gospel story written, that Luke was the second, and that Mark is a synopsis of both Matthew and Luke. Most scholars, however, espouse the two‐source hypothesis in resolving the synoptic problem. According to this view, Mark was the first of the gospel stories, and both Matthew and Luke are based on Mark, a sayings source called “Q,” and traditions peculiar to each (“M” and “L,” respectively). Although the latter hypothesis is to be preferred, one ought not to be misled by source analysis into thinking that, in its final form, Matthew presents itself simply as a sum of layers of tradition. Instead, it constitutes a coherent story possessing a recognizable beginning, middle, and end.

Story of Jesus.

In the first part of the gospel story (1.1–4.16), Jesus is presented to the reader. Initially, the narrator describes him as the Messiah, son of David, and son of Abraham (1.1). Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, Israel's long‐awaited King (1.17; 2.2, 4; 11.2–3). He is the son of David because Joseph adopts him into the line of David (1.16, 18–25), and he fulfills the eschatological expectations associated with David (9.27–31; 12.22–23; 15.21–28; 20.29–21.17). He is the son of Abraham, as well, because in him the entire history of Israel attains to its culmination, and the gentiles, too, find blessing (1.17; 8.11).

Upon Jesus' birth, the Magi arrive in Jerusalem and ask where they might find the King of the Jews (2.1–2). To Herod, and later to Pilate as well, this title denotes that Jesus is a pretender to the throne or an insurrectionist. Thus, Herod plots to have Jesus found and killed (2.13), and Pilate hands him over to be crucified (27.26, 37). In Matthean perspective, Jesus is in truth the King of the Jews, but not because he aspires to the throne of Israel or foments rebellion against Rome, but because he saves his people by submitting to suffering and death (27.27–31, 37, 42).

John the Baptist is Elijah returned, the forerunner of Jesus (3.1–12; 11.10, 14). He prepares Israel for the coming of Jesus by calling for repentance in view of the nearness of God's end‐time kingdom and the final judgment (3.2, 10–12).

The baptismal scene constitutes the climax of the first part of Matthew's story (3.13–17). After John has baptized Jesus, God empowers Jesus with his Spirit and declares him to be his unique Son whom he had chosen for messianic ministry (3.16–17). This declaration by God reveals that the Matthean Jesus is preeminently the Son of God. The significance of this title is that it points to the unique filial relationship that Jesus has to God: conceived and empowered by God's Spirit (1.18, 20; 3.16), Jesus is “God with us” (1.23; see Immanuel), the one through whom God reveals himself to humankind (11.25–27) and who is God's supreme agent of salvation (1.21; 21.37; 26.28; 27.54).

Guided by the Spirit, Jesus submits to testing by the devil (4.1–11). Three times the devil endeavors to get Jesus to break faith with God. Jesus, however, rebuts the tempter and shows himself to be the Son who knows and does his Father's will (see Temptation of Christ). Returning to Galilee, Jesus is poised to begin his public activity (4.12–16).

The second part of Matthew's story (4.17–16.20) tells of Jesus' ministry to Israel (4.17–11.1) and of Israel's repudiation of him (11.2–16.20). Through his ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing (4.23; 9.35; 11.1), Jesus summons Israel to repentance (4.17; 11.20–21). Israel, however, repudiates Jesus (chaps. 11–12), yet wonders and speculates about his identity (11.3; 12.23; 13.55; 14.2; 16.14). In sharp contrast to Israel's false view that Jesus is a prophet of whatever identity (16.14), the disciples correctly confess him to be the Messiah, the Son of God (14.33; 16.16).

The third part of Matthew's story (16.21–28.20) describes Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and his suffering, death, and resurrection. The passion predictions sound this theme (16.21; 17.22–23; 20.17–19; cf. 26.2), and the motif of the journey binds together disparate materials (16.21–21.11). In Jerusalem, Jesus makes the Temple the site of his activity, where he teaches, debates, and speaks in parables (21.12–23.39). Addressing the parable of the wicked husbandmen to the Jewish leaders, Jesus raises the claim that he is the Son of God whom the leaders will kill (21.37–39). In wanting to arrest Jesus for telling the parable (21.45–46), the leaders show that they reject Jesus' claim.

At his trial, it is the claim that Jesus made in his parable, to be the Son of God, that the high priest uses to secure Jesus' condemnation (26.63–66). When Jesus replies to the high priest's question in the affirmative (26.64), he is sentenced to death for blaspheming God. The irony is that God has indeed affirmed Jesus to be his Son (3.17; 17.5).

Upon Jesus' death, the Roman soldiers also affirm Jesus to be the Son of God (27.54). What the reader knows and the soldiers do not is that the death of Jesus Son of God constitutes the climax of his earthly ministry and the act whereby he atones for the sins of humankind (1.21; 26.28). Atop the mountain in Galilee, Jesus appears to the disciples as the resurrected Son of God who remains the crucified Son of God (28.5, 16–20). Seeing Jesus as such, the disciples at last perceive not only who he is (16.16) but also what he has accomplished (26.28). In consequence of this, they receive the commission to go and make of all nations Jesus' disciples (28.18–20). Matthew's story ends, therefore, with both the disciples and the reader sharing the same perception of Jesus and receiving his commission.

Story of the Opponents.

Entwined with the story line of Jesus in Matthew is the story of his opponents. These are the Jewish leaders, who form a united front against him and comprise such groups as the Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests, elders, and scribes. Not until Jesus' arrest do the Jewish crowds turn on him (26.55).

The story of the Jewish leaders develops in close correlation with that of Jesus. In the first part of Matthew (1.1–4.16), the leaders are presented to the reader and cast in an unfavorable light. Thus, they make their debut as the supporters of King Herod who place their knowledge of scripture in his service (2.1–6). Like Herod and all Jerusalem, they are frightened at hearing the news that the Messiah, the King of the Jews, has been born. Subsequently, as John the Baptist readies Israel for the coming of Jesus (3.1–12), the Jewish leaders too go out to him. Instead of receiving them, however, John denounces them as a “brood of vipers” (3.7) and in so doing characterizes them as “evil” (cf. 12.34). How such evil is to be construed comes to light in the temptation and other pericopes. In the temptation (4.1–11), the devil, the fountainhead of all evil, three times puts Jesus to the test in order to get him to break faith with God (4.1–11). Later in Matthew's story, the Jewish leaders likewise repeatedly put Jesus to the test in order to best him in debate (16.1; 19.3; 22.18, 35). Accordingly, the Jewish leaders are evil in Matthean perspective because they have affinity with Satan.

In the second part of Matthew's story (4.17–11.1; 11.2–16.20), conflict erupts between Jesus and the Jewish leaders (chap. 9), but it does not immediately become mortal (chap. 12). At the point it does become mortal, three features characterize it: it is sparked by a question having to do with the Mosaic Law itself (12.1–8, 9–14); it is acutely confrontational in nature, in the sense that Jesus is himself directly attacked for an act he himself is about to perform (12.9–14); and it engenders such rancor in the Jewish leaders that they go off and conspire about how to destroy Jesus (12.15). Once the conflict takes this turn toward irreconcilable hostility, death looms as Jesus' certain fate.

As Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem in the third part of Matthew's story (16.21–28.20), only once does he clash with the Jewish leaders, and the purpose this serves is the instruction of the disciples (19.3–12). Not until after Jesus has reached Jerusalem, therefore, does his last great confrontation with the Jewish leaders prior to his passion take place (21.12–22.46). As Jesus teaches in the Temple, the various groups of Jewish leaders approach him, one after the other, in order to challenge him or, at the last, to be challenged by him (21.15, 23; 22.15–16, 23, 34–35, 41). The note on which all of these controversies end is that Jesus reduces all of the leaders to silence (22.46). The result is that they withdraw from the Temple to plot the immediate arrest and death of Jesus (26.3–5).

From their own standpoint, the Jewish leaders believe that by bringing Jesus to the cross, they are doing the will of God and purging Israel of a fraud (26.65–66; 27.63). Nevertheless, God shows, by raising Jesus from the dead and exalting him to all authority in heaven and on earth, that he puts Jesus in the right in his conflict with the Jewish leaders (28.6, 18). The upshot is that the death of Jesus becomes in Matthew not the occasion of Jesus' destruction but the means whereby God accomplishes the salvation of all humankind, Jew and gentile alike (26.28).

Story of the Disciples.

The third story line in Matthew is that of the disciples. Because Jesus gathers no followers until he begins his public ministry to Israel, it is not until the second part of Matthew's story that the disciples make their appearance (4.17–16.20).

The focus in the first half of the second part of Matthew (4.17–11.1) is on the call and the task of the disciples. As Jesus bids Peter and Andrew and James and John to come after him (4.18–22), he directs attention to the nature and the purpose of discipleship. The purpose of discipleship is as absolute as engaging in worldwide missionary activity (4.19). Its nature reveals itself in the fact that when Jesus summons the four fishermen, they forsake nets, boat, and father (profession, goods, and family) to give him their total allegiance. Through their being “with him” (12.30), he grants them to live in the sphere of God's end‐time rule and makes of them a family (12.48–50), or brotherhood (23.8; 28.10), of the “sons of God” (5.9, 45) and of his disciples (10.24–25).

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Matthean Jesus describes the piety the disciples are to practice. As those who live in the sphere of God's end‐time rule, their piety is to be that of the greater righteousness (5.20). To do the greater righteousness, they must be “perfect,” that is to say, they must be single‐hearted in their devotion to God (5.48). What such single‐hearted devotion entails is loving God with heart, soul, and mind, and one's neighbor as oneself (5.44–48; 7.12, 21; cf. 22.34–40).

Further interaction between Jesus and the disciples or a would‐be follower provides additional insight into the significance of the call to discipleship. In turning away the scribe who would arrogate to himself the authority to become a disciple (8.19–20), Jesus shows that one cannot, apart from his enabling call, either enter upon or sustain the life of discipleship. In commanding the disciple who would go bury his father to follow him instead into the boat (8.21–22, 23), Jesus discloses that the life of discipleship brooks no suspension. In chiding the disciples for displaying cowardice in the face of a storm while at the same time calming the winds and sea, Jesus reveals that although he does not condone their succumbing to the weakness of “little faith,” he nonetheless stands ever‐ready to assist them as they carry out whatever mission he entrusts to them (8.23–27). And in calling the tax collector Matthew to be his disciple (9.9), Jesus teaches all the disciples that he has come to gather not only the good and upright but also the despised.

As Jesus called his first disciples, the task he set before them was that of mission (4.19). With the circle of the twelve now closed (10.2–4), Jesus summons them for instruction in the first mission they are to undertake, to Israel (10.5–42). This mission is an extension of Jesus' own mission: like him, they too are to go “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10.6; 15.24); and like him, they too are to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom and to heal the sick and exorcise demons (10.1, 7–8).

In the latter half of the second part of Matthew's story (11.2–16.20), the disciples stand out as the recipients of divine revelation. In contrast to Israel, which repudiates Jesus and shows itself to be uncomprehending, the disciples receive from God the gift of understanding (11.25–26; 13.11, 51). This encompasses insight into the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven (13.11; see Kingdom of God) and knowledge of Jesus' identity: far from being a prophet as the Jewish public imagines, Jesus is, the disciples affirm, the Messiah, the Son of God (14.33; 16.13–16).

In the third part of Matthew (16.21–28.20), the story of the disciples describes how Jesus finally overcomes their unwillingness to accept the truth that the essence of discipleship is servanthood. Although the disciples know that Jesus is the Son of God, they do not know that the fate of the Son of God is suffering and death. In the first word Jesus speaks to the disciples in the third part, he predicts his passion (16.21). Peter takes offense at this (16.22), but Jesus rebukes Peter and solemnly warns all the disciples that only those can belong to him who are prepared to take up their cross and follow him (16.23–24). The proper response to suffering sonship is suffering discipleship or servanthood (20.25–28). Because the disciples resist this notion, they are unable to persevere with Jesus in his passion and fall away: Judas betrays him (26.49); all desert him (26.56); and Peter denies him (26.69–75).

But though the disciples fall away, the risen Jesus again gathers all of them except Judas (27.3–10) through the word he sends to them that they should meet him in Galilee (28.7, 10, 16). In gathering his scattered disciples, Jesus reconciles them to himself. Moreover, as the disciples, standing on the mountain, see the risen Jesus bearing on his person the marks of crucifixion, they are at last able to comprehend that Jesus' sonship has indeed been suffering sonship. In comprehending this, they likewise comprehend that suffering sonship is a call to suffering discipleship or servanthood. So enlightened, they recast their lives in accord with Jesus' earlier words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (16.24).

Jack Dean Kingsbury

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