Teaching Matthew: Background and Themes

July 29, 2021
Bible

Note: This blog is the fourth in a series of posts on teaching the Gospel of Matthew. You can find the first blog on teaching Matthew HERE.

As I taught through the Gospel of Matthew in 2021 at my church, I spent one lesson walking my class through the introductory material related to Matthew: authorship, date, provenance, purpose, and themes. I handled authorship, date, and provenance a bit more quickly, because anyone can find this information in just about any good study Bible. But my class had questions about how we got our Bible, how the Gospels were written, and how scholars make these determinations, so it was an important part of our conversation.

I spent the bulk of my time, however, dealing with purpose and themes. This, more than anything else, helped my students see and understand the decisions that Matthew makes as he writes, and I think it helped them discern what Matthew is up to. I hope I ingrained in my students that, if they ever get stuck on a passage in Matthew and can’t quite figure out what’s going on there, they can ask themselves which of these three themes is Matthew hitting on right now. It is a bit of an oversimplification for sure, but I have found it to be helpful in my Bible reading. I think they did as well.

Here is a brief summary of the introductory material to Matthew:

Authorship, Date, and Provenance: Scholars love to debate the authorship, date, and provenance of the biblical books. In the last two centuries there has been a growing body of secular, skeptical scholars who favor just about any view of authorship, date, and provenance that is not traditional. It might appear to the casual observer that many times these scholars reject the traditional views on these primarily because they are traditional. That said, very little about interpreting the Gospel of Matthew rests on theories regarding its authorship, date, and provenance.

To my mind the best evidence points us to the conclusion that Matthew the disciple wrote the Gospel of Matthew and that he likely wrote it prior to the destruction of the temple in AD 70 (though there are plenty of faithful scholars who hold to a later date for Matthew). All of the earliest evidence for the authorship of Matthew, most of it prior to the middle of the second century, affirms Matthew’s status as author. And during that time, there is not a hint of doubt about that. While it is true that Matthew is not named anywhere within the text of Matthew as its author, all of the early external evidence (titles of manuscripts, references by early Christians, etc.) as well as evidence from within the text of Matthew itself (the author was clearly Jewish, clearly an eyewitness, etc.) make a great case for the traditional view of authorship and date. If the authorship and date presented here is correct, then Matthew was probably written somewhere in or near Palestine, and there is some specific evidence that would indicate somewhere in Syria, perhaps Antioch.

Purpose and Themes:

Unlike Luke and John, who have explicit written purpose statements, we have to play detective a bit to determine Matthew’s overarching purpose. If you grew up with any connection to church at all, you have probably heard something like: “Matthew wrote his Gospel for Jewish people.” This is probably not far from the truth. There appear to be three common themes that Matthew comes back to over and over in his selection, adaptation, and arrangement of the material about Jesus in his Gospel. And those three themes, when taken together as a whole, point us most likely to a Jewish audience. Here are the three things that Matthew appears to most want us to understand about Jesus and the Gospel:

1.  Jesus is the Messiah of the Old Testament but that doesn’t mean what you think it means. Jesus and Matthew both want to be sure we understand that Jesus is the Messiah, the one promised from the beginning to the end of the Old Testament. And as the Messiah, Jesus ushers in the Kingdom of God. What is very surprising to many Jewish people in Matthew’s Gospel, however, is the fact that the Kingdom of God is not inaugurated by the defeat and overthrow of Israel’s enemies. Nor is the Kingdom of God inaugurated by the restoration of Israel to its former political and economic glory. The Kingdom of God, according to Matthew (and Jesus!), is inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (see Matthew 16:13-23). This appears to be a very different expectation about Messiah and the Kingdom from what the religious experts and even the disciples have in Matthew’s Gospel.

2.  The Old Testament is ultimately about Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel one of the things that is most surprising to Jesus’ hearers (and perhaps to Matthew’s readers as well), is that the Old Testament, in all of its various parts, was ultimately about Jesus. Jesus claims this truth for himself throughout Matthew’s Gospel (e.g. Matthew 21:16), and Matthew claims this truth for Jesus over and over again (e.g. Matthew 8:17). Near the beginning of the Gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes the claim that he came to fulfill all of the Law (Matthew 5:17-20). Matthew then sets out to showcase time after time where Jesus proved this to be true, even in the most unlikely of places (even the “clean and unclean” law codes were about Jesus!—Matthew 9:18-26).

3.  God has always intended to save all the nations not just Israel. As we move through Matthew’s outline, from the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, Matthew continually demonstrates that Jesus is not just the Jewish Messiah, he is also the manifestation of God’s love for the nations. Matthew includes gentiles in Messiah’s lineage (Matthew 1:1-17), instructs us on Messiah and the nations from the Old Testament (e.g. Matthew 12:15-21), and show us Jesus performing sign miracles among the gentiles (e.g. Matthew 8:5-13 and Matthew 15:21-28). Jesus discusses the eschatological future of the nations (Matthew 25:31-46), and, of course, Jesus commands his disciples to take the good news of the gospel to all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20). My goal here was to teach my class the material, teach them to be better readers of the Bible, and to teach them how to teach this material to others. But I didn’t forget to call them to obedience as well. If Jesus really is the kind of Messiah he says he is, then that changes everything about our lives. If the Old Testament is ultimately about Jesus, then that changes the way we read it (and how often we read it!), and if God has always intended to save all the nations, then that gives us our mission. We can never spend too much time calling God’s people to be on God’s mission.

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