The New Testament book of Matthew opens a new period in the life of God’s people. Now Rome is the new world power and rules God’s people in the Promised Land. Before Roman’s rule, God’s people had witnessed the rise and fall of many foreign rulers in the land, including the construction of a new Temple, often called the “Second Temple Judaism.” The time between the Old Testament and the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel is often called the intertestamental period (approximately 433 BC to 5 BC). This intertestamental period covers approximately 400 years from the time of Nehemiah and Malachi to the birth of Jesus Christ. Some scholars call the intertestamental period the “silent” years. For four hundred years, nothing new was added to the Holy Bible, and the prophets fell silent. However, these years were anything but silent and without God’s omnipresence.
During this time, Middle Eastern empires rose and fell, and the tiny nation of Israel suffered under the domination of greater powers like Persian, Greece, and Rome. In approximately 586 BC, the dominant world power was the Babylonians. The true and living God raised up the Babylonians to punish His people for their continual unfaithfulness, wickedness, and disobedience towards the LORD God. The majority of the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world during this period. This scattering is often called the Diaspora or “Dispersion.” Eventually, God raised up the Persians, and the Persians defeated the Babylonians. The Persians became the dominant power at the end of the Old Testament history. In approximately 330 BC, the Greeks under Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) conquered the ancient world and supplanted the Persians. Following Alexander’s death from about 320 to 198 BC, the Egyptian Ptolemaic Empire controlled the Jewish people and their land. In approximately 198 BC, the Seleucid (Syrian) Empire to the north of Palestine gained control over the Jewish land from the Ptolemaic Empire.
Then, God raised up Mattathias, an aged priest, along with his five sons – Judas, Jonathan, Simon, John, and Eleazar. Mattathias and his sons led a revolt against the Seleucids. This triggered the Maccabean revolt that resulted in the independence of God’s people. From 164 BC to 63 BC, the Maccabean controlled the Jewish people. Sadly, some of these Maccabean rulers became progressively dictatorial, corrupt, immoral, and even pagan. Internal strife led Jewish leadership to ask the Roman General Pompey to come and restore order. Pompey did so, but he also brought the Roman rule in the Jewish territory that began in 63 BC. The Romans ruled in the Jewish territory until the fourth century. Many Jews, like Simeon and the Prophetess Anna, yearned to be free from Roman rule, and they were patiently “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
The Judaism of Jesus’ day was the result of changes that occurred during the intertestamental period. During the Babylonian exile, many of the Jewish people were cut-off from the Temple and dispersed around the world. The Jewish people developed synagogues during the intertestamental period to maintain their close fellowship with God and study the Torah. Also, during this period arose numerous Jewish parties, denominations, or sects. The best known are the Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, and Essenes. When Jesus began to proclaim the Gospel, Sadducees, Essenes, and Pharisees were also laying claim to Israel’s heritage.
God, not earthly rulers, had the ultimate authority and control over all world governments. Although the ancient world may not have realized, the earth's most powerful kingdoms have always been under God's sovereign control and rise and fall based upon their obedience to God’s will and humbleness. History is not just “one thing after another” because the genuine and living God gives the world a sense of direction.
Around 5 B.C., God did something momentous – a Baby Boy was born. By introducing the Baby who grew into the man Jesus, the Gospel of Matthew opens a completely new section of the Bible – the New Testament. Matthew’s Gospel connects Jesus’ arrival with the Old Testament storyline. Jesus was a Jew – the Son of Abraham and the Son of David. Matthew sets out to prove an audacious claim: this Jesus of Nazareth is the King and Messiah (Christ is a Greek translation of the word Messiah or “Anointed One”) promised back in the Old Testament. From the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew states that Jesus is God’s Anointed One, the One promised in the ancient days to be God’s Savior for His people.
B. Matthew’s Authorship and Date
The original author of the first Gospel remains anonymous. Nowhere does the first Gospel name its author in the original manuscript. In fact, none of the four Gospels includes the names of their authors in the original transcripts. However, historical documents from the early church history fathers provide significant insight into the Gospels authorship. Although the first Gospel is anonymous, the early church fathers were unanimous in holding that Matthew was the first Gospel’s author.
According to the sources available, the early church fathers were in unanimous agreement that the Apostle Matthew was the first to write a Gospel and that Matthew originally did so in Hebrew (or Aramaic) for those Jews who believed in Jesus. There is a distinctively Jewish quality to this book, for one of Matthew’s chief themes is to show that the Old Testament promises of God are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Later, Matthew wrote a Greek edition of his Gospel, which became widely known and gained extensive circulation. The earliest and most important of these traditions comes from the second century in the writings of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor (A.D. 135), and Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul (A.D. 175). The first Gospel was not quoted as Matthew's Gospel until Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, did so around A.D. 180. Irenaeus is explicit that Matthew produced a Gospel in written form among the Jews in their language at the time when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel and founding the church in Rome. Tertullian affirms that among the Gospel writers two, John and Matthew, were apostles; the others were apostolic men. Origen’s commentaries on Matthew contained a brief account of the origins of all four Gospels, and he believes Matthew published to those who had become Christians from Judaism, and it was composed of Hebrew letters.
Matthew is not one of the better known of Jesus’ first followers. In fact, all that is known about Matthew from the New Testament is that he was Jewish, and he collected taxes for the Roman government in Capernaum, that he was also called Levi. Matthew left his lucrative work as a tax collector to follow Jesus and become one of His faithful Twelve Apostles. In Mark and Luke’s Gospel accounts, Matthew is also called by his other name, Levi, the son of Alphaeus. The reason for the name variations has elicited much scholarly debate. Some scholars have argued that “Matthew” is his name and “Levi” his tribe – “Matthew the Levite.” After the account of the banquet, Matthew gave for his fellow tax collectors so they too could meet Jesus, he is not mentioned again except in the list of the Twelve. The first Gospel also contains clear evidence that the author was literate, reasonably educated, and possessed a strong command of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages, something that would be a prerequisite for most tax collectors.
However, modern scholarship denies Matthew authorship, in particular on the view that the author of Matthew borrowed much of his materials from Mark’s Gospel. Some modern scholars believe that Matthew depended on Mark for a substantial part of his Gospel. Thus, some modern Biblical scholars have abandoned Matthew as the first Gospel. Instead, many modern scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel was the first Gospel written, and Matthew relied upon Mark’s Gospel to complete his writings of Jesus’ account. However, Mark was not an apostle during Jesus’ public ministry; therefore, some scholars believe that Matthew would not have borrowed or relied upon Mark’s material for his Gospel. Nonetheless, evidence from the early church suggests that Mark himself relied extensively on the testimony of Peter, one of the faithful Twelve Apostles of Jesus. One of the most marked features of Matthew’s Gospel as compared to Mark’s Gospel is Matthew’s tendency to condense the stories of Mark’s Gospel (e.g., see Matthew 8:28-34 and Mark 5:1-17; Matthew 9:20-22 and Mark 5:25-34).
The precise date of the writing of Matthew’ Gospel is unknown. Some scholars argue for a date later than the destruction of the Jerusalem in AD 70 since Jesus alludes to this momentous event in Matthew 24:1-28. However, such later dating is warranted only if one denies Jesus’ ability to predict the future. Some Biblical scholars had argued by Matthew Gospel’s Jewish characteristics that Matthew's Gospel was written in the early church period, possibly the early part of A.D. 50, when the church was mostly Jewish, and the Gospel of Jesus was preached to Jews only. However, those who have concluded that both Matthew and Luke drew extensively from Mark’s Gospel date Matthew’s Gospel later after the Gospel of Mark had been in circulation for a period. Accordingly, some scholars feel that Matthew wrote his Gospel in the late A.D. 50s or the 60s. However, others who assume that Mark was written between 65 and 70, place Matthew’ Gospel in the A.D. 70s or even later. However, there is insufficient evidence to be dogmatic about either view. The Jewish nature of Matthew's Gospel may suggest that Matthew wrote his Gospel in the Holy Land of Palestine, though many think it may have originated in Syrian Antioch. In the early years of the church, Antioch was a leading center of Christianity where the people commonly spoke Aramaic and Greek languages within the church. The Palestine origin of Matthew’s Gospel would fit the Jewish character of the much of the contents, particularly its concern with the teaching of the Pharisees, its inclusion of Aramaic words and Jewish customs without explanation. The Gospel of Matthew also has an “anti-Jewish” content with remarkable hostility to the Jewish establishment, particularly in the onslaught of the “scribes and Pharisees” in Matthew 23 and the coming destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in Matthew 24.
Matthew’s initial audience appears to be Jewish Christians to persuade them to recognize Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. Many elements point to Jewish readership. Matthew's Gospel was concerned with the fulfillment of the Old Testament. A cursory reading of Matthew’s Gospel reveals more quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament than any other New Testament writings. Many different strands of Old Testament texts drive home Matthew’s basic theme: Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah. Matthew wrote his Gospel to demonstrate Jesus’ identity as Messiah, His inheritance of the Davidic kingship over Israel, and His fulfillment of God’s promises made to Abraham to be a blessing to all the nations at Genesis 12:1-3.
Matthew’s Gospel forms the connecting link between the Old and New Testaments. Matthew is filled with Messianic language with many references to Jesus as the “Son of David” and numerous Old Testament references (53 quotes and 76 other references). The history and religion of God’s people have reached their fulfillment in Jesus. Furthermore, Matthew’s Gospel lacks any explanation of Jewish customs (especially in contrast to Mark’s Gospel. Also, Matthew’s Gospel uses Jewish terminology such as the “kingdom of heaven” where “heaven” reveals the Jewish reverential reluctance to use the Name of God. Finally, Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ role as the “Son of David” as God’s eternal King of Israel. Son of David is a title for Jesus frequently found in Matthew’s Gospel.
At the same time, Matthew clearly reveals to his Gentile (non-Jewish) readers that salvation through Jesus the Messiah is available to all nations and all people. Only Matthew records the Magi from the East (non-Jews) coming first to worship the infant Jesus, the new “King of the Jews” as well as Jesus’ statement that the “field is the world.” Also, Matthew records the infant Jesus’ escape to Egypt. Moreover, Jesus’ public ministry mainly spreads outside the Jewish territory to Syria, and the Decapolis and the chosen location of His ministry are “Galilee of the Gentiles.”
Furthermore, Matthew’s Gospel is characterized by the inclusion of Gentiles to prove God has sent Jesus to save all people – Jews and Gentiles – who call upon His Name. Unlike Luke’s genealogy of Jesus’ ancestors, Matthew includes into Jesus’ genealogy four surprising Gentile women – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (the wife of Uriah the Hittite). Tamar was a Gentile woman who tricked and seduced her father-in-law, Judah and then bore him illegitimate twins. Rahab was a Gentile from Canaan, who once worked as a prostitute. Ruth grew up a pagan Gentile from Moab. Finally, Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, committed adultery with King David. Finally, the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel record Jesus’ Great Commission to take the Good News into all nations – Jews and Gentiles and only Matthew’s Gospel includes the word “church” appear in the Gospels. Matthew’s Gospel establishes the unity of all God’s people through His church regardless of racial, class, and religious barriers. These passages show that, although Matthew's Gospel is Jewish, it has a universal outlook to include equally all nations – Jews and Gentiles.
D. Purpose and Theme
Each of the four Gospels, though broadly compatible with the others, emphasizes different aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus. Matthew’s main purpose is to confirm to his Jewish Christian readers that Jesus of Nazareth is their long-anticipated Messiah (Christ or the “Anointed One”), and King predicted in the Old Testament. The Jewish people had been waiting for a Leader the prophets promised centuries earlier, and they believed that the Messiah would rescue them from Roman oppression and establish a new Kingdom. However, many Jews overlooked Old Testament prophecies that also spoke of this Leader as a Suffering Servant, who would be rejected and killed. It is no wonder, then, that few recognized Jesus as the Messiah.
Also, Matthew wanted to prove that Jesus brought the Kingdom of Heaven (God) to earth and is the prophesied fulfillment of God’s promise of real peace and deliverance for both Jew and Gentile alike. Although all the Gospel writers quote the Old Testament, Matthew’s Gospel includes many proof texts from the Old Testament to drive home his basic theme: Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah and Davidic royal lineage as the Son of David. Matthew even finds the history of God’s people in the Old Testament summarized in some aspects Jesus’ life (e.g., see Hosea 11:1). As one reads his Gospel, Matthew’s clear message is that Jesus is the designated as the Son of Abraham, the Son of David, and the Messiah (Christ). In Abraham, Jesus blesses “all the families of the earth” and as the Son of David, Jesus is the long-awaited, eternal King of kings and Lord of lords forever from David’s royal line. Early in Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew wants his readers to know that Jesus is real King and Ruler of the world. Matthew does not write his Gospel to give a chronological account of Jesus’ life but to present the clear evidence that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, King, and Savior. Matthew invites everyone – Jews and Gentiles alike – to celebrate and honor Jesus’ victory over evil and death, and Jesus the respected Lord and King of our lives.
Matthew structures his Gospel with an artistic touch. The whole Gospel is woven around five lengthy discourses of teaching from Jesus: (1) Matthew chapters 5 – 7 with the Sermon on the Mount; (2) Matthew 10 with Jesus equipping His leaders; (3) Matthew chapter 13 with the parables of the Kingdom; (4) Matthew 18 discussing Kingdom life; and (5) Matthew chapters 24 and 25 with the Olivet discourse concerning future events. That this structure is deliberate is clear from the refrain that concludes each discourse: “When Jesus had finished saying these things,” or similar words. Matthew’s narrative sections appropriately lead up to Jesus’ discourses. The Gospel has a fitting prologue with chapters 1 and 2 and a challenging epilogue at Matthew 28:16-20.
Matthew Gospel’s five-fold division may suggest that Matthew has modeled his book on the structure of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). Also, Matthew may be presenting his Gospel as a new Torah and Jesus as a new and greater Moses. Jesus’ long teaching discourses become a new law for the Church, a confession of Jesus as the Son of God in divine, and an extension of Kingdom promises from the Jews to the Gentile nations in fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham.
F. Overview of Matthew’s Gospel
All people of the world, especially the Jews, had been eagerly awaiting the Messiah’s arrival. The Gospel of Matthew starts with a genealogy to establish Jesus’ roots to prove that Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited Messiah. Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage to the father of the Jewish race, Abraham – who first received the promise of the Messiah – then to the great Jewish king David.
After recording Jesus’ bloodline, Matthew’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ earthly story in the small town of Bethlehem in the Roman province of Judea. A threat to kill the infant King led Joseph and His mother Mary to take Jesus and escape to Egypt. When Jesus and His family returned, God led them to settle in Nazareth in Galilee. At about age 30, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist and was tempted by Satan in the Judean desert. After His temptation, Jesus set up His base of operations in Capernaum and from Capernaum ministered throughout Israel, telling parables, teaching about the Kingdom, and healing the sick. As He set out to Jerusalem, Jesus told His disciples about His coming suffering, arrest, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem. Jesus spent some time in Jericho and then stayed in Bethany at night as He went back and forth into Jerusalem during His final week on earth. In Jerusalem, Jesus was crucified, but He rose from complete death and conquered all evil.
Matthew narrates the story of Jesus’ life relying heavily on the Old Testament, quoting the Old Testament more frequently than any other New Testament writer. Thus, Matthew’s Gospel stands as the Gospel that pulls things together, the link between the old and the new.
G. Four Gospels and Book of Acts
The New Testament opens with the Gospel of Matthew followed by three other Gospels, Mark, Luke, and John and then the Book of Acts. The four Gospels and Acts were designed to be read as a full narrative as each author seeks to tell about Jesus and the early church. The main obstacle in the Gospels continues into the Book of Acts as some Jewish people; particularly the Jewish establishment rejected Jesus as the promised Messiah and Savior. Each of the four Gospels is not biographies of Jesus, but they all present a varying theological portrait of Jesus. Even though the Gospels each offer to vary theological portraits about the life of Jesus, each Gospel, and the Acts share the view that Jesus is the promised Messiah, King of Israel, Son of God, and Savior of the world.
Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels because they follow a common synopsis or outline of Jesus’ public ministry on earth. The Synoptic Gospels share the same pattern and order of Jesus’ ministry exclusively in Galilee and the north up to the time of the one and only recorded visit of Jesus to Jerusalem – to die on the Cross!
Mark’s Gospel starts with John Baptist, while Matthew and Luke start with Jesus’ unique narrative birth. The Gospel of Mark is the shortest and probably the oldest of the Gospels. Early church tradition says the Mark’s Gospel was written in Rome by John Mark and contains the memories of Apostle Peter. Mark is more a Gospel of Jesus’ action than of teaching. Things happen immediately in Mark’s Gospel, one of Mark's favorite expressions. Miracles abound. Mark has 20 miracle accounts. Mark reveals Jesus as One, who teaches with authority. Jesus’ authority underscores that He is the Messiah Christ and the Son of God. Nearly one-half of Mark’s Gospel focuses on Jesus’ last week on earth with Jesus’ arrest, suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection. For Mark, the events of Jesus’ final week are central to the story. Mark highlights Jesus as the Suffering Servant that has come and give His life as a ransom for many.
The Gospel of Matthew begins by placing Jesus within the whole story of salvation. Like the other Gospels, Matthew provides a collection of words and deeds of Jesus. However, Matthew presents Jesus as the Son of Abraham and Son of David in fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises to God’s people than any other Gospel. The very first words of Matthew’s Gospel in its original Greek text, Biblos geneseo (literally, "book of genesis") is reminiscent of the beginning of God’s salvation with the Book of Genesis. Matthew’s Gospel builds on the pattern and substance of the Old Testament. The teaching material in Matthew is organized around five great sections, the best known of which is the Sermon on the Mount. Many have said that Matthew portrays Jesus as a second Moses, giving a new Torah to God’s people. Even more, readers will see in Matthew’s Gospel the grand unity of the whole Bible. The portrait of Jesus Matthew records provide readers abundant proof that Jesus is indeed the long-awaited Messiah, the promised Son of David, and Seed of Abraham from the Old Testament, in whom all the promises of God find fulfillment, Yes and Amen.
Luke’s Gospel is the longest Gospel and has a special interest for the oppressed and the outcasts of society, especially women and the poor. His Gospel begins with the birth of John the Baptist and then Jesus. The Gospel of Luke has the only story of Jesus between birth and His public ministry, the episode in the Jerusalem Temple at the age of twelve. Some of the best-loved parables – the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus – are found only in Luke’s Gospel. Even more, Luke gives a mix miracles and parables. Luke gives more parables than any other Gospel. Whereas Matthew presents teaching in discourse blocks, Luke scatters his teaching throughout his Gospel, usually in smaller units.
The Gospel of John is entirely different from the other three Gospels and does not follow the same outline of the Synoptic Gospels. John’s Gospel tells the story about Jesus beginning with eternity, starting with the pre-incarnate Word becoming flesh, and has a three-year public ministry instead of one year like the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospel of John has no parables of Jesus but contains a series of extended reflections on Jesus as divine Son of God and Messiah. The fourth Gospel contains a series of Jesus’ miracles as signs pointing to Jesus, and the “I AM” sayings, which express what Jesus means in a series of striking metaphors.
Acts chronicle the expansion of Jesus' newly formed community (the church) from Jerusalem into Rome and presents the realization of God's promise to reconcile all people groups to Himself and one another through Jesus.
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