The Introduction to Matthew
The Gospel of Matthew was the most often quoted book of the New Testament by early Christian writers. It was also likely to have been the most read Gospel among the four. Today, it remains widely read and quoted.
The early Christian writers never wavered in their acceptance of the Gospel of Matthew within the New Testament canon as the inspired writing of the apostle. Many early Christian writers attest to Matthew as the author in the writings of Ignatius (bishop of Antioch), Papias (the second-century bishop of Hierapolis), Irenaeus (the bishop of Lyons), Origen (third century), and Eusebius (fourth century). In addition to these writers, The Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas also support the authorship of the first Gospel to Matthew. Most early manuscripts have the following heading: “Gospel according to Matthew”. Papias (ca 65 – 150 AD) writes: “Matthew has written these words…”
Matthew, the Man
Matthew is called “Levi, the tax-gatherer” in the Gospel of Luke and in the Gospel of Mark he is referred to as “Levi, the son of Alphaeus”. His name means “gift of the Lord” Some believe this was a name conferred upon him by Jesus. Jesus called him to be one of the twelve apostles (Mt 10:2-3) while he was sitting at his table collecting taxes. This would most likely have been near Capernaum. He immediately left all to follow Christ (Luke 5:27-28). This would have been a great sacrifice. As a publican, or tax-gatherer, he would have made good money. However, it was at the expense of working for the Romans and being seen by fellow Jews as a collaborator with the enemy: Rome. This made Matthew lower in Jewish society than that of a Gentile. However, Jesus accepted him, and Matthew hosted a dinner for all his friends and colleagues to meet him (9:9; Luke 5:29).
Being an apostle of the Lord would have given Matthew an opportunity to witness many of the things from the Ministry of Christ firsthand. He would not have to rely on secondhand accounts like Mark or Luke. As a publican, he would have the skills to keep records concerning Jesus and become a journalist of the group as he traveled with Jesus. After the resurrection there is no other mention of him in the New Testament. “Tradition holds that he preached the gospel for eight years throughout Judea and then traveled to Persia, Parthia, and Ethiopia, where he died as a martyr in about AD 62” (Osborne xiv).
Date of Writing
Although it is popular today for some to claim that Mark’s Gospel was written first, Clement of Alexandria wrote “the gospels containing the genealogies (Matthew and Luke) were written first” (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, VI, 14). Irenaeus, a bishop of Lyons (cs. 130-200 AD): “Matthew also issued a written gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome” (Against Heresies 3.1.1). This suggests a date of 61 AD. Eusebius suggests a date of about AD 41. The weight of the evidence seems to consider sometime between AD 50 and AD 55. It most definitely had to be written before 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. After all, there is not one mention of such a cataclysmic event in the Gospel. More importantly Jesus Himself prophesied of the coming event in chapter 24.
Purpose and Audience
The evidence that Matthew had mainly a Jewish audience in mind is based on the overwhelming Old Testament themes and content in the Gospel. Jerusalem is called “holy city” (4:5; 27:53) and “the city of the great king” (5:35). Note the Gospel’s emphasis on religious defilement, Jewish customs, ceremonial cleansing (15:2), keeping the Sabbath Day, the Temple, David, the Messiah, fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and Moses. The fact that Matthew does not explain Jewish culture like the other Gospel writer shows the Jews to be the target of his Gospel (cf. Mark 7:3, John 19:40).
Other aspects of Matthew’s Gospel that would have appealed to Jewish readers would be:
■ The Kingdom
It had been some four hundred years since Malachi closed out the Old Testament with his final prophecies. Now both John and then Jesus come and break the centuries of silence by prophesying that the “Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The Jews were wont to know: “If Jesus is the King of the Jews, then where is God’s promised kingdom?”
The kingdom theme makes up a major part of the Gospel of Matthew (4:17,23-25; 5:17-20; 9:35; 11:1-19; 12:22-37; 13:10-52; 16:24-27; 18:1-6; 19:13-20:16; 21:28-22:1). “The kingdom of Heaven” (lit. “kingdom of the heavens”) is mentioned thirty-two times in Matthew. He is the only author to use this phrase. In addition, “the kingdom of God” is mentioned four times. Jesus uses several parables to explain the heavenly nature of the kingdom: the weeds and the tares (13:24-30, 36-43); the mustard seed (13:31-32); the leaven (13:33); the treasure in the field (3:44); the pearl of great price (13:45-46); the fishing net (13:47-50); the unforgiving servant (18:23-35); and the workers in the vineyard (20:1-16).
■ The Son of Man
The title “the Son of Man” is found thirty times. This is more than any other gospel. The Jews knew that the “Son of Man” was promised an “everlasting kingdom” in Daniel 7:14.
■ Fulfillment of Prophecy
Matthew quotes from or alludes to or mentions almost every book in the Old Testament. He is demonstrating to his readers that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. There are sixty-two direct quotes from the Old Testament with the addition of seventy-six allusions. This is more than any other Gospel. He identifies the fulfillment of prophecies on over a dozen specific occasions (1:22-23; 2:5-6; 2:15; 2:17-18; 2:23; 4:14-16; 8:17; 11:10; 12:17-21; 13:35; 21:4-5; 21:42; 26:31; 27:9-10).
■ Son of David
Eight times the Lord Jesus is called the “Son of David” (1:1; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:31; 20:31; 21:9; 21:15). Matthew begins his Gospel proving through genealogy that Jesus is heir to the throne of David. This would appeal to the Jews due to the Covenant God made with David in 2 Samuel 7.
■ Kingship of Jesus
If there is a theme for the Gospel of Matthew is would most likely be: “Jesus, King of the Jews” (1:1-2,12; 8:1-10; 42; 11:20-12:13; 14:13-36; 15:21-28; 32-39; 17:1-13; 21:12-17; 23-27; 27:37; 28:16-20). God was to raise up a Messiah-King to sit upon the throne of David.
■ The Messiah
Jesus as the Messiah is found in many sections of Matthew’s Gospel (2:14-15, 21-23; 3:1-4:11; 4:13-16; 12:15-21; 13:13-15; 16:1-4, 13-20; 20:29-21:11; 22:41-46; 24:1-35; 26:1-27). The Jews longed for the coming of the Messiah.
The structure of a book considers the order in which events are organized into a beginning, middle, and ending. The organization of Matthew’s Gospel is greatly influenced by the genre, style, and intended message being conveyed. The Gospel of Matthew is a narrative which includes five discourses or sermons of Jesus. These are alternating with sections of narrative action. The sections of discourse by Jesus are the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29), the Commissioning of the Apostles (10:1-42), Parables about the Kingdom (13:1-52), Relationships in the Kingdom (18:1-35), and the Olivet Discourse (24:1-25:46) . Some have suggested that Matthew’s five-fold discourse may stress the five books of the Law of Moses.
Each discourse ends with the phrase “When Jesus had finished saying these things” or similar words (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1).
The Gospel of Matthew has an important position in regard to its placement at the beginning of the New Testament. “The Gospel According to Matthew is eminently fitted to occupy its distinguished position at the head of the New Testament Canon. No other book so bridges the gap between the Testaments” (Bruce, F.F., “End of the First Gospel,” 203). Matthew serves as a gateway into the New Testament from the Old Testament or a bridge linking the two Testaments.
Why Four Gospels?
There are four New Testament books which tell of the life and teachings of Christ. Why is it necessary to have four? Why not just have Matthew?
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are different yet complement each other. The four gospels are not histories or biographies of the life of Christ. They are portraits of his life. Matthew sees him as the King of the Jews and the Messiah of promise. Mark shows him to be the suffering servant. While Luke depicted the humanity of Jesus as the Son of Man. Finally, John’s Gospel manifest for us the divine side of the Son of God. Matthew wrote to the Jews.
These Gospels are all unique. Though three of them are very similar in style and content. They are called the “Synoptic Gospels” because at first read they look alike. The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark and Luke. However, John’s gospel is vastly different in content. All four Gospels tell the story of the life of Jesus from four differing perspectives. These Gospels are needed to help give us the “whole counsel of God” in regard to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.
But when looking closer at even the Synoptic Gospels, there are some unique features to each one. Matthew uses several untranslated Aramaic terms. And yet Matthew does interpret words like “Immanuel” (1:23), “golgotha” (27:33); “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (27:46). This indicates that the primary language of these readers was likely Greek. There are twenty-four miracles unique to Matthew. There are several parables only found in Matthew. Matthew’s gospel is the only gospel in which the assembly (church) of the New Testament is mentioned (16:18).
– Daniel R. Vess