Editor’s note: All Scripture references are from the Gospel of Matthew unless other wise noted.
It stood first in the oldest biblical codices probably because of its churchly concerns. It is the only gospel having the the word “church” in it and it appears twice from the lips of Jesus. A Church built on a rock against which the “gates of Hades will not overcome” (16:18 NIV) and a Church that has the power to expel heretics from its midst (18:17).
Its masterpiece is the sermon on the mount (Ch.5-7) which in itself contains the guidelines to live a Christian life. The eight beatitudes, the Lord’s prayer, and the golden rule are found there.
The author gave new meaning to his sources by arranging his material into a pattern of five sections of narrative each followed by a long discourse or sermon. Each section ends with these words or something similar: “when Jesus had finished these sayings” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). This arrangement has as its prologue, the infancy narrative (Ch.1-2).
The climax is recorded in the passion, death, resurrection and great commission.(26:1 – 28:20). Some scholars have proposed that Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses. There are some similarities.
When Matthew was written Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed. At that point the Pharisees took over the leadership of struggling Judaism which obviously was without identity. They expelled the Christians from their synagogues, closed the canon of their Scripture, and eliminated the Greek portions.
The twelfth benediction was introduced into their liturgy which read: “let the Christians perish in a moment and let them be blotted out of the book of the living” (C. 85 AD). This separation is reflected in Matthew’s repeated reference to “their synagogues” (4:23; 9:35; 10:17; 12:9; 13:54).
It is at this point that the Church begins to function independently. It is in need of a manual of discipline for the leaders and the laity at large. The law is not abandoned.
Jesus says that: “I have not come to abolish the law…but to fulfill it” (5:17). Jesus calls for a deeper commitment on a more meaningful level. The law says you shall not murder. I say you shall not be angry with your sister or brother!
He didn’t abolish the pious practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, but warned against flaunting them before others as the scribes and Pharisees do! The evangelist, in presenting his ethical code, stands firmly against those who say all that is necessary is to accept the Lord as your Savior and you are then saved.
In fact he writes; “Whoever breaks the least of these commands and teaches others to do so, shall be called least in the kingdom of God” (5:19).
Could this be a response to those who over stressed Paul’s theology of grace? The final warning at the end of the sermon on the mount is clear. “Not everyone who says Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father” (7:21).
Matthew has the only gospel account of the final judgment and it deals with corporal acts of mercy. “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” (26:35-46).
Following the sermon on the mount we have the mission discourse (10:1-42) which reflects the fact that the original ministry of Jesus was to the Jews (10:6). It is composed of material mainly from Mark and “Q”. The third section is Jesus’ sermon made up of seven parables of the kingdom (13:1-52).
The author has Jesus teaching outside of the house to Jews who do not understand him. Then the evangelist has Jesus teaching inside the house to the disciples who understand him (13:36-52).
The narrative material of the fourth section (14:54 – 17:27) is unique for its exclusive (M) Petrine material.
- Peter comes to Jesus on the water (14:28-31).
- Peter is called the “rock” and given the power of the keys (16:13-20).
- He is consulted about paying the temple tax and instructed to pay it “for me and for you” (17:24-27).
Peter was martyred thirty years before this gospel was written. Why the interest in him? The community is seeking its identity and leadership. In that Judaeo-Christian culture Peter is seen as the chief rabbi with the power to “bind and loose.”
He alone is given the “keys of the kingdom” (16:19).
He alone is called the “rock” on which the Church is built (16:18).
He alone is singled out as recognizing Jesus as the Messiah and individually blessed (16:17).
In the tax story he is given a coin to provide for him alone and Jesus.
He alone walked on water as Jesus did until he lost faith and began to sink (14:29-30).
There is a “Petrine trajectory” as the NT is written showing an increasing prominence to his role as pastor, martyr, and confessor of the faith despite his very human failings.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus says: “I have prayed for you that your faith will never fail. You in turn must strengthen your brothers” (Lk.22:32). From Pentecost on he is the community leader and spokesperson.
In the appendix added to John’s gospel Peter is portrayed as shepherd and martyr (21:15-19). The Church fathers saw the Petrine office perpetuated in the bishop of Rome.
The Reformers denied this doctrine for the simple reason that they would then be admitting that they were leaving the Church that Christ founded. One historian has aptly said that they threw out the baby with the bath water.
The fifth discourse deals with eschatology, the passion and the great commission.