Today we begin a series of sermons on the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew is the only one of the four Gospels through which I have never preached. It is, perhaps, understandable that a preacher would come to it last, even if it is the first Gospel and the first book of the New Testament. It is a large Gospel, the largest of the four, and poses a daunting challenge merely by its size. I suspect preaching through the first Gospel will carry us through the next several years of morning sermons. Further, Matthew presents some difficult material to the preacher, and more of the sort of material that is unlikely to be as well received by folk today as the material in, say, the Gospel of Mark or Luke.
Matthew is not as popular a Gospel as the others. It doesn’t feature the profound truths about Jesus in the same simple and lovely language that draws us to the Gospel of John. It isn’t the same action-packed narrative that we find in Mark. It doesn’t feature the human interest and the deeply sympathetic account that Luke gives us in his Gospel. “It begins with a forbidding list of unknown names, and it deals at length with matters of law and tradition, of the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures, and of Jesus’ confrontations with the Jewish leaders of his day.” [France, 15] There is a great deal more in Matthew concerning the life Christ’s disciples are commanded to live, the searching demands of his law, the high standards to which we are taught to aspire. There is more about the last judgment in this Gospel. One modern commentator even characterizes it as “a grim book.” I think we will find that characterization unfair and untrue, but you get my point. Matthew does not have the charm of the other Gospels.
Nevertheless the early Christians universally put the Gospel of Matthew first in the collections of the books that belonged to the New Testament. This order may have been due to the fact that the early church believed that Matthew was the first of the four Gospels to be written. Many scholars today dispute that conclusion, but the early church was unquestionably of that opinion. But, it may also be because the early church was so conscious of the fact that its faith had its roots in Judaism and in the ancient scriptures we now call the Old Testament. It is Matthew’s Gospel that more fully than any other explains and expounds the connection between the Christian faith and the ancient faith of Israel and provides us with a Christian perspective on the Old Testament. [France, 16]
In fact, Matthew is, in a way the other Gospels are not, a Jewish Christian Gospel. It was written by a Jew, of course, as three of the four Gospels were, but unlike the others it seems to have been written for a largely Jewish Christian readership. Unlike the other Gospel writers, for example, Matthew does not always translate the Hebrew or Aramaic terms and names that he employs. For example, in 1:21 he expects that his readers would understand the significance of the name “Jesus.” He doesn’t explain that significance because his readers will know what it is.
Furthermore, unlike Mark, Luke, and John, Matthew does not characteristically explain his references to Jewish customs. For example, in regard to the practice of the ceremonial washing of hands before eating, Matthew provides no explanation but Mark does. Mark’s Gentile readers wouldn’t understand the custom so he explains it to them. Matthew’s readers would know what he was talking about without having to be told. Where Mark and Luke use the phrase “kingdom of God,” Matthew characteristically uses the more Jewish phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” Jews, you may remember, often avoided the direct use of the name of God and substituted other terms for it. Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience, would naturally employ terminology with which they were familiar and comfortable.
Matthew much more than the other Gospel writers deals with subjects that would have been of intense interest and concern to Jews and Jewish Christians, such as the Lord’s attitude toward the OT law, the bearing of the OT Scriptures on the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ, his controversies with the Jewish religious leadership, and so on. All of that being said, it is still true of course, that it is Matthew’s Gospel that ends with the Great Commission, the Lord sending out the eleven to make disciples of the entire world. Matthew’s message is not different than that of the Gospels written for the Gentile world, but it has a different character and tone. As the church has known from the beginning, that is why we have been given four Gospels and not merely one. The great history on which our salvation rests is so rich and so vitally important that we need to have it given to us from various perspectives, be allowed to see it through different eyes, see its implications as they are spun out for different groups of people in different ways. The same message, the same history, but each Gospel has a distinctive contribution to make to our understanding of Jesus Christ and his salvation.
We know very little about Matthew, also called Levi in the Gospels. He is not the only one of the twelve disciples, you remember, to be known by more than one name. He was a tax farmer. The term is apt because tax collectors in those days made their money by collecting as much as they could from the taxing district to which they had been assigned. The people saw the tax collectors as extorters and that is why “tax collector” was a term linked with “thieves” and “sinners” in the common speech of the people. That one of the twelve should have been a tax collector is a great testimony to God’s grace in Christ and how it was that Jesus came into the world to save sinners! Like other “farmers” tax collectors sought to get the very most out of the ground that was theirs to sow. There were some 111 kinds of taxes and Matthew’s livelihood was earned by interviewing tax-payers and discussing their affairs (usually in Aramaic) and then writing up his reports in Greek. So, being a tax collector, he would have been fluent in Greek as well as in Aramaic, he would have been a literate man, a record keeper, even, perhaps skilled at shorthand. He is the only one among the twelve whom we know to have been a professional “pen-pusher.” [J. Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke, 112] There are scholars who have wondered if we don’t owe to Matthew the detailed record of the Lord’s teaching which he took down by shorthand as the Lord delivered it. One great scholar suggested that Jesus found himself in a position similar to that of Isaiah who had to find a means of preserving his teaching when it became clear that it was going to be rejected by the people as a whole. So he deliberately took steps to find a scribe. When he was impressed by the faith of Levi the tax-collector, he saw in him a man capable of making a record of his teaching. The Gospel of Matthew is the result. We cannot know that for sure but it is not unlikely.
That the Gospel of Matthew was the product of an able writer everyone agrees. Not only are many of its noble and soaring passages forever fixed in the mind of the human race – a testament to its literary power – but the organization of the whole Gospel shows literary skill. What is most obvious is that there is a conscious intention to organize the material in alternate sections of narrative and discourse. There are in the Gospel five great discourses. We have Christ’s sermon on the mount, his exposition of the law of the kingdom of God, in chapters 5-7. There is his teaching on the preaching of the kingdom or its mission in the world in chapter 10. In chapter 13 we have his parables about the growth of the kingdom of God. In chapter 18 we have his discourse on the fellowship of the kingdom of God, the relationships among his followers. In chapters 24-25 we have his teaching on the future of the kingdom of God and its consummation in history.
There is no doubt that these five discourses are Matthew’s intentional arrangement of his material for each of them is followed immediately by a statement that serves as a structural marker. In 7:28, for example, we read, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching…” In 11:1 we read, “After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples he went on from there…” In 13:53 we read, “When Jesus had finished these parables he moved on from there.” In 19:1 we read, “When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee…” And in 26:1 we read, “When Jesus had finished saying all these things he said to his disciples…” Matthew, in other words, has divided his material and given us, as it were, Roman numerals to help us see his outline.
Before the first of these five discourses and in between the others, and after the last, we have the narrative of Christ’s life and ministry. Some have even argued that we ought to think of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, as a kind of new Pentateuch, composed of five books. The Pentateuch, which opens the Old Testament, has five books and Matthew, which opens the NT, has five books. Well, I don’t know about that, but it is something to ponder.
What seems to be the case also is that in the five discourses Matthew has collected various teachings of the Lord on a common theme. It is not necessarily the case that Jesus gave all of that teaching in a single sitting. Matthew may be summarizing teaching given at many times and places. After all, it is unlikely that Jesus said anything just once! In the same way, Matthew seems to have given us in the narrative sections, with certain exceptions of course, especially the narrative of Christ’s birth at the beginning and his death and resurrection at the end, I say, Matthew has given us in the narrative sections summaries of the Lord’s ministry. For example, following the sermon on the mount, in 8:1-9:34 we are given a string of miracle accounts and in chapters 11-12 we are given a string of different responses to the Lord’s miracles and to his teaching. In other words, Matthew’s organization of his material, while certainly broadly chronological and in some cases precisely chronological, is in other places thematic, organized by subject not by historical order.
Enough about the structure of the Gospel in general. We could go on but we’ll come to each of these interesting matters in due course as we take up the Gospel paragraph by paragraph.
But what is very important to see is that, to a very special degree, Matthew is itself a chapter in a much larger book. As one writer has put it, “Matthew did not trumpet all his intentions.” [Dale Allison, cited in Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, 38] Everywhere there are citations of the Old Testament or allusions to its history and teaching. Much of what Matthew means to say depends upon our knowing and understanding what has gone before and led up to the incarnation of the Son of God. He assumes the context that was so well known to his readers. He has left many things unsaid or simply alludes to certain things rather than mentioning them explicitly. We have found this to be true in much Old Testament teaching. The reader is expected to know the context and gather up the hints and indications along the way. Teaching in the Bible is sometimes subtle, but more powerful, not less for it being so.
The opening genealogy, which we have read, is a case in point. It is true in the detail but also in its main points that the author’s purpose is not trumpeted. For example, Matthew includes the names of four women in his genealogy – Luke, in his genealogy of the Lord gives us only fathers, no mothers – but Matthew doesn’t tell us why he names these mothers. Matthew’s genealogy is obviously a selection, it is paradigmatic not exhaustive -–fourteen names in each group – but he doesn’t explain that. His Jewish Christian readers were far better equipped than we are today to understand his purpose and appreciate the powerful but subtle points that are being made by these devices.
Let’s look at the genealogy itself. We do not arrive at the beginning of the Lord’s public ministry until 4:17. There we read, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” Up to that point, Matthew is introducing the person whose ministry and teaching he is doing to describe in his Gospel. Who is this person and what is he and where does he come from? Chapters 1-2 explain his origins and chapters 3-4 give an account of his preparation for the ministry he was to undertake.
In all of this material, Matthew makes it very clear that Jesus is the one in whom the hopes of the Old Testament find their fulfillment. [France, 68] Six times in these early chapters we find the formula: “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” or something like that. You see the first of these in 1:22. The last comes in 4:14. In all of this, Matthew is demonstrating that Christ is the fulfillment of the ancient covenant and is no one less than the long-awaited Messiah. As one commentator puts it: “There is no literary suspense; in these opening chapters Matthew has laid his theological cards on the table, and he expects his readers to come to the account of Jesus’ ministry with this orientation already decided.” [France, 69]
So, when we come to this first, this opening paragraph of the Gospel, while we are inclined to think of it as an account of the beginning of Jesus’ life, which of course it is, it is perhaps more true to Matthew’s intention to think of it as “scriptural proof of the Messiahship of Jesus Christ.” That is what Matthew is after. He is not simply narrating events or telling a story, he is making a case, proving a point!
Now, with that in mind, we can look at the genealogy itself. It may seem to us to be a somewhat tedious way to begin a great book, hardly an introduction that really catches our attention. However, in the Jewish world genealogies were much more important and interesting. But Matthew is not simply following convention here. The way he constructs his genealogy indicates what he is after with it and intending to say by it.
First, as Matthew explicitly tells us at the end, in v. 17, his genealogy is composed of three groups of 14 (even though in the last group there are only 13 generations. There are explanations for this but they are too complicated to mention here.). Now, to begin with, the three letters of the name of David – remember Hebrew used letters for numbers – add up to 14. This may be part of Matthew’s plan and an aid to memorization. But, in any case, we have three groups of 14; 14 is twice 7; seven is the numerical symbol of completeness and doubled it suggests completeness to the nth degree. History, in other words, has run its course; the time of preparation is concluded; the time for fulfillment has come. The coming of Jesus Christ is the event toward which all previous history pointed.
Second, the genealogy places Jesus’ name in the line of the history of God’s people and the history of salvation. All the great names of the covenant are here and from them one can reproduce the history of Israel from beginning to end. One famous name succeeds another: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and the kings of Judah, and Jesus the Christ is at the end of that line. The great forward movement of the history of salvation, of the history of God’s covenant with his people, now culminates in Jesus. The promise that God made to Abraham, that he made to David, now comes to fruition in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. For a Jew who had the longing for the Messiah in his bones, this is potent stuff!
“…no man can compute through what long, long centuries the Saviorhood of Christ roves back. The promises of the ancient covenant, its ceremonies and institutions, its happenings of joy and sorrow, its seers and priests and holy men were so many fingerposts on the road to him. The Old Testament serves a multitude of uses, and is dear to our hearts for a multitude of reasons, but this is its noblest work, that it enables us to understand more adequately and to love more warmly our New Testament Redeemer, Jesus Christ.” [Alexander Smellie in A. Gammie, Preachers I have Heard, 97]
Third, Matthew takes pains to emphasize that Christ’s lineage passes through and down from the royal line of Judah and David. Notice the way Jesus is introduced as the “son of David” in the first verse, that only Judah of all the sons of Jacob is named in 1:2-3 for as we learn in Gen. 49, Judah will be the progenitor of the king; and notice that David alone is referred to as the “king” in 1:6 though other kings are mentioned in the genealogy. Matthew is here indicating that the baby whose birth he is about to narrate is and will be, as he says in 2:2, “the king of the Jews.” In fact, you may be aware that the Lord’s genealogy is quite different in Luke than here in Matthew. The simplest and most likely explanation for the difference is that while Luke gives us the actual physical lineage of Joseph, Matthew is giving the line of succession to the throne, the “official” lineage or genealogy.
Fourth, four women are named in the genealogy which is contrary to custom in Jewish genealogies. But their presence is a powerful reminder that God’s gracious providence often works in unconventional ways. Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law with whom Judah, before his conversion, had an incestuous relationship. Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute; Ruth a Moabite; Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, was the woman with whom David committed adultery. Unlikely women all to be ancestors of the King of Kings! All of this prepares us to accept the strange event, what has been called the “holy irregularity” of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.
With the genealogy, Matthew is introducing us to the person of Jesus Christ and placing him in the position of the one who will fulfill all the ancient promise of God’s covenant with his people.
Very early on Matthew is going to tell us straightaway how Jesus will fulfill that promise. He has come, Matthew tells us in 1:21, in reporting what the angel said to Joseph, he has come “to save his people from their sins.” The expectation of the Messiah had become profoundly misplaced by the time Jesus was born. The people of God were looking for liberation, but not for the liberation they most desperately needed. They were looking for deliverance from the yoke of Roman occupation. They were looking for political independence and for worldly prosperity. They had largely forgotten that their first and by far their greatest bondage was to sin to the guilt of their own sin. They were not looking for a Redeemer who would die for the sins of the world.
That is why, in Matthew, as in all the Gospels, Jesus does not very often refer to himself as the Messiah. It was a term freighted with misunderstanding. He most often preferred to refer to himself as “the Son of Man” because that was not a common term for the messiah and Jesus could then give it his own meaning, the true meaning.
The march of the ages was leading not to the political deliverance of a generation of the Jews, but to the salvation of the world by redemption through the suffering and death of the Son of God. That is the great story of Matthew as it is of all the Gospels and, indeed, of the entire Bible.
Do not mistake me now. Do not think that I am suggesting that the circumstances of your life are not sacred and important. But hear Matthew for yourselves as he begins his great book, his great account of Jesus Christ.
In the final analysis, it does not matter what is happening in your life; it does not matter what great things or terrible things have transpired. It does not matter if you found out just yesterday that you are terminally ill, or that your spouse has betrayed you; or, contrarily, that you have just landed the job you have always wanted or that the fellow or girl you always loved from afar has given evidence of real interest in you. It matters not whether you are near the beginning of your life or near its end. The circumstances of your life – whatever they may be – all pale in significance, all are significant only in reference to this one person, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came into the world to fulfill God’s promise to save his people from their sins and to bring them at last to live with him in the world of everlasting joy. What matters, what really matters, what matters for time and eternity is that you know who Jesus Christ is, what he has done, and that you trust in him, follow him, and obey him.
There is a kind of inclusio in the Gospel of Matthew, a statement made at the beginning and the end that defines the whole. In 1:23 Jesus is identified before his birth as Immanuel, which means “God with us.” The very last verse of the Gospel of Matthew contains the promise of the Lord Jesus: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
There is the message in a nutshell, the message of the genealogy that begins the Gospel and the message of all that follows it to the end. We can be with God and God with us, if we know and trust and love Jesus Christ, God’s Son.
No matter your trials, if God is with you, who can be against you? No matter your pleasures, if you haven’t God, you haven’t anything and you have no future, no life stretching away into the endless years lived in the joyful company of God and Christ and all the saints. That is what Matthew is telling us as he begins his Gospel. Everything rests – all the hopes and dreams of every human life, every possibility of peace with God and the favor of God your maker – it all rests absolutely and alone on this one person and this one life and upon our acknowledging him and giving our lives to him.
I urge all of you to be sure you have done so and will continue to urge you as we make our way into this great, great book, and book that the tax collector Matthew wrote, but which, wonderfully the Holy Spirit also wrote through him.