Before Beginning …
As pointed out in the introduction (NT pp. 1248–52 ), Matthew's Gospel has long held a special place in the life and teaching of the church. The special character of this Gospel alerts us to some things to keep in mind as we set out to study it more closely.
Like each of the Gospels, Matthew's work is a story or a narrative. It begins with the roots of Jesus' family tree, describes the circumstances of his birth, and then turns to the events of his ministry, culminating in his death, resurrection, and final appearances to his disciples.
Even though Matthew's way of telling a story is influenced by his time and culture, his narrative has many of the same characteristics as storytelling today. There is an unfolding plot that carries the story from the beginning of Jesus' life, with its mixture of success and opposition, through to the death and triumph of its conclusion. There are characters (Jesus, the disciples, the opponents, etc.): some of them are quite developed (for example, Jesus and Peter), some seem one‐dimensional (for example, the Pharisee opponents), others have only minor roles (the mother of James and John). All of these elements play a part as one reads or studies the Gospel of Matthew.
In describing Matthew's Gospel as a story we are not implying that it has no historical basis. There is no doubt that Matthew uses materials rooted in history (most of which he draws from the Gospel of Mark, one of his principal sources). But the evangelist, or Gospel writer, casts these traditions about Jesus into the form of a running story. A story or narrative helps catch up the reader into the dynamism and feeling of the events being recounted. This feature of the Gospel can engage us when we come to study or read it in more depth.
A Fund of Teaching
While Matthew's Gospel remains a dynamic story, it is also enriched—more than any of the other Gospels—with the sayings of Jesus. This feature has led commentators over the centuries to consider Matthew a kind of “catechism” or teacher's manual. In addition to the basic story of Jesus' life and ministry, which Matthew drew mainly from the Gospel of Mark, he also had a fund of the important sayings of Jesus (many of which he shares in common with the Gospel of Luke). The evangelist has organized many of these sayings into discourses or speeches of Jesus (see introduction pp. 1249–51 ). These are not transcripts of actual talks given by Jesus because there is little logical progression found in the discourses as a whole. Rather, the evangelist has clustered the sayings of Jesus around basic motifs. Explanations of many of the sayings are found in the notes to the biblical text; later in the study guide we will discuss some of the major themes of the discourses. These discourses bring the reader of Matthew's Gospel into vital contact with the power of Jesus' teaching.
The Jewish Heritage of Jesus and the Early Church
While all of the New Testament writings illustrate the essential dependence of Jesus and the early church on Judaism, none does it more forcefully than Matthew's Gospel. In fact, one of the primary purposes of this Gospel may have been the attempt to link the story of Jesus with the history of Israel. Any reader of Matthew who wants to go deeply into this Gospel must be alert to its Jewish background.
This feature of Matthew springs to our attention from the opening lines of the Gospel, which begin with a genealogy or family tree, tying Jesus into the history of Israel. The frequent use of Old Testament quotations, the concern with the Jewish law and customs of purity and prayer, the sharp critique of the Jewish leaders for their rejection of Jesus and for their failure to lead a life of holiness—all of these show that Matthew was absorbed with Jesus' Jewish heritage.
But it is also apparent that Matthew is concerned with how this Jewish Jesus is Messiah for the whole world. As we will indicate below, the universal mission of the church is also a prime motif of this Gospel. In fact, Matthew seems to be telling the story of Jesus so that it can help both the Jewish Christians and the Gentile converts of his community. After reading the Gospel they would be able to understand that Jesus fulfills the hopes and dreams God planted in the people of Israel, and now extends the offer of God's salvation to all the world.
Strange as it may seem, Matthew's Jewish roots may also explain another difficult feature of his Gospel: his strong critique of the Jewish leaders. The Jesus of Matthew's Gospel blisters his opponents for their hypocrisy and lack of faith. They are held up to the reader of the Gospel as negative examples of what an authentic disciple should avoid becoming. The sharp edge to Matthew's critique may stem from the tragic division and hostility that grew between Judaism and Jewish Christianity in the early decades of the church. For Matthew, the fact that most of Israel did not accept Jesus or the Gospel—while many Gentiles did accept it—was a baffling and unexpected turn in salvation history, and his telling of the story of Jesus reflects this. Unfortunately, Matthew's characterization of the Jewish leaders also provided an opportunity for later anti‐Semitism to develop (itself a violation of the Gospel's teaching).