How to read Matthew


  • Content: the story of Jesus, including large blocks of teaching, from the announcement of his birth to the commissioning of the disciples to make disciples of the Gentiles.

  • Author: anonymous< Papias (A.D. 125) attributes "the first Gospel" to the apostle Matthew; scholarship is divided

  • Date: unknown (since he used Mark, very likely written in the 70's or 80's)

  • Recipients: unknown; but almost certainly Jewish Christians with a commitment to the Gentile mission, most commonly thought to have lived in and around Antioch of Syria

  • Emphases: Jesus is the Son of God, the (messianic) King of the Jews; Jesus is God present with us in miraculous power; Jesus in the church's Lord; the teaching of Jesus has continuing importance for God's people; the gospel of the kingdom is for all people-Jew and Gentile alike


It is fitting that Matthew comes first in the New Testament, for two reasons: first, from the opening sentence it has deliberate and direct ties to the Old Testament; second, because of its orderly arrangement of Jesus' teaching, it was the most often used Gospel in the early church (cited by the early church fathers more than twice as often as the other Gospels).

The genius of Matthew's Gospel lies in its structure, which presents a marvelous tapestry of narrative interwoven with carefully crafted blocks of teaching. So well is this done that the most prominent feature of Matthew's story-the five blocks of teaching-is sometimes not even noticed because one is more aware of the flow of the narrative (which follows Mark very closely). The five blocks of teaching (5:1-7 :29 ; 10 :11 - 42; 13 : 1 - 52; 18: 1 -3 5 ; [23 :1] 24:1 -25 :46) are presented on a topical basis. Each is marked off by a similar concluding formula ("When Jesus had finished [saying these things]"), which Matthew uses to transition back to the narrative.

The story itself begins with a twofold introduction about Jesus' origins (chs. 1-2) and about his preparations for public ministry (3:1- 4:1 1). After that, each combined block of "narrative with discourse" forms a progressive aspect to the story, all having to do with Jesus, the messianic King, inaugurating the time of God's kingly rule-4:12-7:29, proclamation of and life in the kingdom; 8:1-10:42, the power and mission of the kingdom; 11:1-13:52, questioning and opposition to the kingdom and its mixed reception in the world; 13:53-18:35, growing opposition, confession by the disciples, and special instructions to the community of the King; 19:1-25:46, mixed responses to the Prophet who now presents himself as the King, and the judgment of those who reject him. The story concludes (chs. 26-28) with the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, and the commissioning of the disciples to take the story to the nations.


You cannot easily miss Matthew's way of tying the story of Jesus to that of Israel, since it is so direct and upfront. Jesus belongs to the genealogy of Israel's royal line, and he fulfills all kinds of prophetic messianic expectations. Note how often (eleven times in all) Matthew editorializes, "This was to fulfill what was said [spoken] through the prophet(s)." Moreover, Jesus' ministry and teaching presuppose the authoritative nature of the Old Testament law (5:17-48), and during his

earthly ministry, Jesus focuses on the "lost sheep of Israel" (10:6).

But at the death of Jesus, the temple curtain is torn in two (27:51), indicating that its time is over and that the time of Jesus and his followers has begun. You will see as you go along how Matthew presents Jesus as being in unrelieved opposition to the Pharisees and the teachers

of the law (e.g., 5:20; 12:38; 21:15; 22:15; 23:2-36), so much so that he speaks of"their [your] synagogue(s)" as over against his disciples (e.g., 10:17; l3:54; 23:34). And an alternative story explaining away Jesus' resurrection still circulated among some Jews at the time Matthew is writing (28:1 1-15).

At the same time, look for the ways that Matthew also exhibits clear concern for the mission to the Gentiles. For example, four women - primarily, if not all, Gentiles-are included in the genealogy (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah's wife [Bathsheba]). The story proper begins in Galilee (Matt 4:12-16), which Matthew sees as fulfilling Isaiah 9:1- 2-that the people living in darkness, in Galilee of the Gentiles, have seen a great light-and it ends (Matt 28:16-20) with a commissioning of the apostles to make disciples of all the nations (: Gentiles).

This interweaving of themes suggests that the Gospel was written at a time when church and synagogue were now separated and were in conflict over who is in the true succession of the Old Testament promises. Matthew's way of answering this issue is by telling the story of Jesus, who "fulfills" every kind of Jewish messianic hope and expectation: After his birth as "king of the Jews" (2:2), he is honored (worshiped) by Eastern royal figures; at his birth, baptism, and transfiguration he is signaled as God's Son;his virgin birth fulfills Isaiah 7:14 that "God is with us" (cf . 12:6,41,42:28:20); he dies as "THE KING OF THE JEWS," 27:37; and is acknowledged as "Son of God" by the Roman centurion (27:54).At the same time Matthew also recognizes Jesus as Isaiah's suffering servant (20:28) and extends this recognition to include his whole ministry including his healings (8: 17) and the opposition (12:17 -21).

Equally important for Matthew, Jesus is presented as the true interpreter of the law (5 : 17-48; 7:24-27), especially over against the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. The latter have turned the law into a heavy yoke (11:28) and bind heavy burdens on people's backs (23:4); Jesus, who as Son knows and reveals the Father (11:25-27), offers an easy yoke and light burden (11:28-30). His "law" is mercy and grace (9:13; 12:7;20:30, 34; 23:23). Those who experience such mercy are thus expected to be merciful in return (18:21-35; cf. 5:7). Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and Prophets but to fulfill them (5:17;7:12), to bring the new righteousness of God's kingdom that goes infinitely beyond the teachings of the Pharisees (5:20). At the same time, Matthew shows concern about some within the believing community who prophesy but do not live obediently (7:15-23). In his Gospel, therefore, the twelve disciples play the role of learners who are to model life in the kingdom. You will want to look for these features as you read.

Thus, for Matthew, Jesus is the center of everything, and those who follow him not only proclaim the coming of the kingdom-the coming of God's mercy to sinners-but they are also expected to live like him (1:15-23). And when they have success in their own proclamation of

the kingdom, especially among Gentiles, they are to make disciples of them by teaching them to observe the way of Jesus (28:19-20), both in their individual lives (chs. 5-7) and in their church communities (ch. 18). Matthew almost certainly intends his Gospel to serve as the manual

for such instruction!


l: l-2:23

Prologue: Jesus' Divine and Human Origins

Here you find the well-known features of Matthew's narrative of Jesus' origins (the annunciation to Joseph; the visit of the Magi; the slaughter of the innocents; the flight to Egypt).As you read, note how many of Matthew's concerns and themes surface here. His genealogy explicitly places Jesus in the royal lineage (son of David) and anticipates the Gentile mission (son of Abraham). His birth from a virgin both fulfills prophecy and emphasizes his divine origins (by the Holy Spirit, as "God with us"). Note especially how the narrative of chapter 2 places worship of Jesus by Gentile royal court figures in the context of an attempted execution by Jewish royalty.

3:l - 4: I I

Introduction to Jesus: His Baptism and the Testing

Jesus is introduced to Israel by way of a new prophet, John the Baptist; John consents to baptize him (how could the Messiah accept a baptism for repentance?). Jesus is immediately led by the Spirit into the desert to be tested as to who he is (Son of God) and why he is here (his royal/suffering servant mission). Note how in his baptism and forty-day testing Jesus steps into the role of Israel (: through the Red Sea followed by forty years in the desert) and foils Satan with passages from Deuteronomy 6 and 8, precisely at points where Israel failed the test; thus the (now humble) Divine Warrior wins the first round against the enemy.


The Proclamation of the Kingdom

The narrative portion of part I is very brief: Starting in Galilee of the Gentiles, Jesus gathers disciples, proclaims the good news of the kingdom, and heals the sick (note the summary nature of 4:23-25; the first actual "miracle stories" appear in the next section).

The discourse in this case is by far the best known. Set in the context of a mountain (as Moses on Sinai), the new Torah (teaching from the law) is the carefully structured Sermon on the Mount' much of which

you will recognize even if you have never read Matthew before. The collection emphasizes first the "gospel" setting of the discourse (5:3-16, nine beatitudes, plus affirmations of God's people being salt and light).

The rest instructs the disciples on the new righteousness (the way of living in the kingdom), setting it in the context of "fulfilling" the Law and Prophets(5:17)and going beyond that of the Pharisees and the teachers

of the law (traditionally "scribes") in every way-- especially ethical life over against the scribes (5:21-48) and the three religious duties of the Pharisees, namely, almsgiving, prayer and fasting (6:1-18).

These are followed by admonitions to single-hearted trust in God which renders life in the kingdom as without anxiety (6:19-34), to just treatment of others (7:1-12), and to obedience (7:13-27). Note the conclusion in 7:28-29,"When Jesus had finished saying these things'"

8: l - 10:4 2

The Power and Mission of the Kingdom

The narrative portion of part 2 is dominated by eight miracle stories (that contain nine actual miracles). Notice how these stories emphasize the power of the kingdom, beginning with mercy for an outcast (8:1-4)

and a Gentile (8:5-13), and they include triumph over the raging sea and over demons. And so the humble Divine Warrior wins round two against Satan. Included also are three short narratives that in turn illustrate

the cost of discipleship (8:18-22) and the beginning of opposition (9:9-17); note especially the citation from Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy' not sacrifice" (Matt 9:13), in the context of opposition. A nearly identical summary (9:35-38) to what you read in 4:23-25 sets the stage for the second discourse.

The discourse in this section is set in the context of Jesus' sending out of the Twelve(10:1-14)-the workers sent out "into his harvest field" (9:37-38). But as the collection of sayings proceeds (beginning with 10:17), you will see that they speak primarily to the church's later mission in the world, especially anticipating the rough reception those who carry on the mission of Jesus are going to experience in days to come. Note how the summarizing statement begins the next section (11:1a)

I I : I - I3:52

Questioning of and Opposition to Jesus and the Kingdom

In the narrative part of this section, be looking for the rough reception that Jesus himself experienced as he is both questioned and opposed by "this generation" (11:1-19; 12:1-14:). Note how these two narratives

bracket Jesus' judgment on unrepentant Israel (11:20-24) and his invitation to the humble, the "little children" who are oppressed by the burden of Pharisaism (11:25-30). And note how Matthew includes a second time the citation of Hosea 6:6," I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (Matt 12:7), again in the context of opposition.

The opposition is seen as "fulfillment" regarding Jesus as Isaiah's suffering servant (12:15-21; citing lsa 42:1-4, the first of the servant songs). This is followed by two more narratives of opposition (Matt 12:22-45. God's stronger man has come and bound the strong man and is plundering his house [the Divine Warrior theme again], and one affirming the humble poor who follow Jesus and do God's will [12:46-50]).

You will recognize the discourse to be made up of seven parables (13:l-52). Note their generally common thread-instructing the disciples on the mixed reception of the kingdom in the world, which will be made evident at the end, while two of them (13:44-46) emphasize the surpassing worth of the kingdom. Again, watch how the opening sentence of the next section serves to summarize this discourse.

l3:53- 18:35

Opposition to and Confession of Jesus

As you read the narrative portion of part 4 (13:53-17:27),watch for the ways it further illustrates preceding themes (varied responses to Jesus from ch. 13) while at the same time gains momentum toward the final week in Jerusalem.

It begins with the rejection of God's prophets (Jesus in his hometown, 13:53-58; John the Baptist by Herod, 14:1-12), followed by two mighty deeds (14:13-36). Matthew then sets controversy with the pharisees (15:1-20) in contrast with the faith of a Gentile woman (15:21-28).

Note how a second feeding miracle (15:29-39) leads to Jesus, being tested by the Pharisees and Saduccees (16:l-4), which in turn leads Jesus to warn his disciples against their teaching (vv.5-12), all of which leads to the climactic moment in verses 13-20,when the disciples confess Jesus as the Messiah. This leads in turn to their being let in on what is to come-Jesus' death in Jerusalem (vv.21-23)-which in turn leads to special instruction on discipleship (w. 24-28), while three of them see his resurrection glory in advance (17:l-13).

Another triumph over demons provides for teaching on faith (17:14- 21), followed by a second prediction of Jesus' death (w. 22-23) and his announcement that his followers are exempt from temple regulations (vv.24-27).

Note how the discourse in this section (ch. 18) picks up the discipleship theme from the preceding narrative, being singularly concerned with relationships within the believing community. After establishing the nature of discipleship (God's "little ones," the humble poor), Matthew includes instructions-not causing the little ones to stumble (vv. 6-9), seeking the wandering ones (vv. 10-14), dealing with sin against one another (w. 15-20), and forgiveness (w. 21-35). Again note how the first sentence in the next section concludes this discourse.

I9: I -25:46

Jerusalem Receives and Rejects Her King

Be watching here as the narrative portion of this final section (19:1- 22:46) puts Jesus first in "the region of Judea" (19:1) and then in Jerusalem itself (21:l), which Jesus enters for the events of the final

week. You will observe that the narratives in the first half (chs. 19-20) continue the themes of opposition and discipleship. After opposing the Pharisees' easy view of divorce (19:1-12), the childlike nature of discipleship is reinforced over against the rich, who find it difficult to enter the kingdom (vv. 13-15, 16-26).

This leads to further instruction on discipleship-the "last" will be "first" in the kingdom (19:27-30); they are the undeserving who receive mercy, to the consternation of those who consider themselves worthy (20: 1- l6). Yet the disciples are still not fully on board as a third passion prediction (w. 17- 19) is followed by a desire for positions of authority in the kingdom (vv.20-24). Jesus responds by assuming the role of the suffering servant (w.25-28), which they are to model.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus heals two blind men (20:29-34; the eyes of the blind are opened, while those who see will be shown to be blind). Then Jesus presents himself to Israel as its long-awaited King (21:1-11, fulfilling Zech 9:9 and Ps 118:25-26) and marks off the temple as his own (Matt 2l:12-17; cf. Mal 3:l-4).You will see that most of the rest of this narrative (MaIt 21:23-22:46) is a series of "conflict stories" interspersed with parables, which together illustrate the clash over Jesus' authority that will lead to his execution. Note especially the role that Psalms I 18 and 110 play in these events.

The discourse that follows is prophetic, first announcing judgment on the teachers of the law and the Pharisees (23:1-39), after which Jesus leaves the temple ("your house is left to you desolate," 23:38) and pronounces judgment against Jerusalem (24:l-28) in light of the end itself (vv.29-35), calling for watchfulness and service on the part of his followers (24:36-25:46).


The King ls Tried, Crucified, and Raised

Here you come to the climax of the Gospel-the final rejection of Jesus in Jerusalem (26:l-27:66), including the trial, denial, crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus. Note Matthew's interest in two events at Jesus' death that mark the end of the old and the beginning of the new: (1) The temple curtain was torn in two, and (2) some holy people from the former era were raised to life (27:51-53).

But the conclusion offers hope for the future: "He is not here; he has risen, just as he said" (28: 1-10). After noting an alternative report that was circulating among the Jews who opposed Matthew's church (w. 11-15), he concludes with the commissioning of the disciples and the affirmation that all authority belongs to the risen Lord, who is still present with us to the end of the age as we continue to carry out their commission from him (w. 16-20).

What a wonderful way to begin the New Testament part of God's story-of his saving a people for his Name through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and sending them into the world to be the bearers of his Good News and to make disciples from all the nations, thus fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant!