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Introduction to the Gospel According to Matthew

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General Info

The main purpose of the Gospels is to proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as the long-awaited Messiah and Son of God, and each author has his own unique method for demonstrating this great truth.  Since Matthew writes his Gospel primarily to the Jews, he illustrates this truth by presenting Jesus as the King of the Jews, who fulfills the promises concerning the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) by providing over sixty references to the OT.  Thus, it is very fitting that the Gospel of Matthew is placed as the first book of the NT, since it logically ties the two testaments together.

While Mark’s Gospel is more concerned with Jesus’ actions, Matthew puts more of an emphasis on His teachings.  The Gospel also reveals that non-Jewish people are to be included in God’s Kingdom, and challenges us to walk worthy of this unfolding revelation.

See our Introduction to the Gospels for additional information on its relationship with the other synoptic books.

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Brief Survey

The Gospel of Matthew records certain events relating to the life of Jesus, from before His birth until after His resurrection from the dead.  The teachings of Jesus are primarily arranged around five major discourses such as the Sermon on the Mount (ch 5-7), instructions for missions (ch 10), Messianic Kingdom parables (ch 13), His covenant community (the Church, ch 13), and the Olivet Discourse (the End Times – ch 24-25).

Matthew introduces Jesus by tracing His human ancestry back through King David to Abraham (ch 1).  We then see his birth (ch 2) and the preparation of His ministry by John the Baptist (ch 3).  Matthew then records Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (ch 4-11), beginning with his baptism and temptation in the wilderness.  During this time, He calls and begins teaching His apostles, and authenticates His ministry by performing several miracles.

In chapters 11-21, we witness the continuation and expansion of Jesus’ mission, including an escalation of conflicts with the Jewish religious leaders.  This leads to final series of woes pronounced by Jesus against these leaders for leading the people astray (ch 23), followed by prediction of judgment on Jerusalem (ch 24-25) which would foreshadow the end times and His return.  Jesus is then arrested, tried and crucified (ch 26-27), but He is resurrected and gives the great commission (make disciples of all nations) to his disciples (ch 28).  As followers of Christ, it is our duty and privilege to continue this task.

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Key Verses

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us." (1:20-23)

Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" (4:4)

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (5:17-18)

"This, then, is how you should pray: " 'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us today our daily bread.  Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (6:9-13)

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (6:19-21)

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (7:7,13-14)

"Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.  But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. (10:32-33)

When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"  Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. (11:2-5)

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (11:28-30)

He called a little child and had him stand among them.  And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (18:2-4)

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (24:35)

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body."  Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom." (26:26-29)

Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (28:18-19)

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Author, Date and Recipients

In most Bibles, all four Gospels are introduced by the title, “The Gospel According to …” which assigns them to a specific author; however, these titles are not part of the original manuscripts.  Thus, although the first Gospel contains no direct internal evidence concerning its author, early church references unanimously attributed its writing to Matthew, one of the twelve apostles.  At a very early date this gospel was given the title Kata Matthaion (According to Matthew).  According to the church historian Eusebius, Matthew wrote the first Gospel, then moved from Palestine to evangelize India in the 60s AD (Church History 3.24.6).  Matthew was also confirmed as the author by Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis in the early 100s AD, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (~ 175 AD) and several other early church fathers.

Matthew, whose name means “gift of the Lord,” was called Levi in the other Gospels.  Since he was a tax collector, he probably knew shorthand, so he could have recorded a word for word account of a person’s speech such as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (ch 5-7).  Coupled with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it is quite likely that we have the actual transcript of this and other sermons of the Christ.

The suggested date for the writing of Matthew’s Gospel varies from the early 50s to the late 60s AD.  Many favor the early date on the basis that its Jewish characteristics indicate it was probably written when the church still consisted primarily of Jewish converts before the Gospel was widely preached to the Gentiles.  Those who hold that Matthew and Luke drew from Mark’s Gospel date it later.  See the  "Author and Date" and "Synoptics" chapters of Introduction to the  Gospels for additional information.

The aforementioned Jewish nature may suggest that it was written in Judea, but many scholars think that it may have originated in Syrian Antioch.  The Antioch church included both Jewish and Gentile Christians, and the Gospel had a great influence on Ignatius, on of its early bishops.  In any case, the Gospel appears to have been widely and rapidly circulated among the churches of the day.  The initial recipients were probably Jews living in Palestine since, unlike the other gospel writers, Matthew does not bother to explain Jewish customs for the benefit of non-Jewish readers.

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Historical Background

See the Historical Background for the Gospels.

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Except for the genealogy, which goes back approximately 2000 years to the time of Abraham, Matthew’s gospel spans the time period from the birth of Jesus (~6-4 BC) though His post resurrection appearances (30 or 33 AD).

~ 6-4 BC Birth of Jesus
~ 26 AD Beginning of John the Baptist's ministry
~ 28 AD Jesus baptized by John the Baptist and begins His ministry
30 or 33 (1) Last Supper (Passover), Passion Week, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection
~ 35 Paul’s Conversion
~ 49-50 The Council at Jerusalem
~ 55-65 Gospel of Matthew Written
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Matthew’s chief purpose is to demonstrate to his Jewish readers that Jesus of Nazareth is their long-awaited Messiah.  He does this primarily by appealing to their Jewish Messianic beliefs and explaining how Jesus’ life and ministry fulfilled the OT Scriptures.  Providing more OT quotations than any other Gospel writer, Matthew meticulously selects the passages that demonstrate the completeness of the divine revelation pertaining to the coming Messiah and how Jesus fulfilled each one, beginning with an emphasis on His lineage from the Jewish King David.

At the same time, Matthew’s Gospel clearly reveals that salvation through Jesus the Messiah is also available to all Gentile nations (28:19), so that we can all be secure in the knowledge of our citizenship in God's kingdom.  Jesus’ disciples would build a community (the church) consisting of both Jews and Gentiles which would eventually evangelize all nations.  For the most part however, the Jews refused to follow their Messiah, and in the end, Jesus laments over their refusal to accept Him (23:37-39).

The main theme of the Gospel of Matthew is the same as its chief purpose, the presentation of Jesus as the Messiah (Hebrew), or the Christ (Greek), or the Anointed One (English).  Matthew also portrays Jesus as Immanuel (God incarnated with us), the Son of God (born of the Virgin Mary), the King of Israel, and the Head (or Lord) of the Church.  A closely related theme is Matthew’s strong emphasis on the Kingdom of Heaven (referred to as the “Kingdom of God” in the other Gospels).  This term is used to encompass God’s present rule on earth through the saving work of Jesus in accordance with the OT promises, our fellowship with God through the church, and the ultimate consummation of the eternal Kingdom following the final judgment.

Another major theme stressed by Matthew is discipleship, calling for all to be baptized, obey and follow Jesus in order to have fellowship with Him.  Matthew presents five of Jesus’ major discourses (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18-20, and 24-25), forming the most comprehensive anthology of our Lord’s teachings available in the Scriptures. 
Other themes which we’ve touched upon include the fulfillment of OT promises, and the church as the new community of faith transcending Jewish and Gentile cultural barriers.  Matthew is the only Gospel to mention the church by name.  Finally, we’ve also mentioned the particular and universal aspects of salvation.  Jesus continues the Father’s work of salvation for the people of Israel (10:5-6), but extends this saving grace to all nations (28:19).

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The Gospel of Matthew should be interpreted in the context of the other Gospels, then within the primary themes of the New Testament as a whole which, in turn, must be understood as emerging from the OT background of God’s dealing with mankind, and many of His promises being fulfilled.  When reading Matthew (or any other book of the Bible), we should seek first the intent of the author by careful investigation of the context, and the historical and cultural background of his writing, keeping in mind that there is both a human author and divine Author of Scripture.  Like the other Gospels, Matthew should also be interpreted according to the rules of genre governing gospels and narratives.

When reading Matthew, we must be aware of the tension that existed between early Christianity and Judaism.  See Interpretation Hints for the Gospels for more information.

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The first four chapters of Matthew form the introduction. We then have alternating teachings of Jesus and narratives of His ministries in chapters 5-25. Finally, chapters 26-28 present an account of Jesus’ arrest, trial, death and resurrection for the salvation of all believers.

1:1 – 2:23 Jesus’ Genealogy, Birth, and Sojourn to Egypt
3:1 – 3:17 Ministry of John the Baptist
4:1 – 4:25 Temptation of Jesus; Beginning of His Galilean Ministry
5:1 – 7:29 Sermon on the Mount
8:1 – 9:38 Demonstration of Jesus’ Authority by Miracles
10:1 – 10:42 Commissioning the 12 Apostles
11:1 – 12:50 Ministry and Opposition in Galilee
13:1 – 13:53 Parables of the Kingdom
13:54 – 15:39 Ministry and Teaching in Galilee
16:1 – 16:20 Peter’s Confession of the Messiah
16:21 – 17:27 The Coming Suffering of the Messiah Revealed
18:1 – 18:35 Life in the Kingdom
19-1 – 20-34 Jesus’ Ministry in Judea
21:1 – 23:39 Beginning of passion Week; The Triumphal Entry; Cleaning the Temple; Controversy with the Jewish Leaders
24:1 – 25:46 The Olivet Discourse (Signs of the End Times)
26:1 – 27:66 The Passover and Lord’s Supper; The Arrest, Trial and Death of Jesus
28:1 – 28:15 The Resurrection of Jesus
28:16 – 28:20 The Great Commission

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