Finding Our Way…
I will be updating this page and creating a visual commentary to supplement our preaching and teaching. Stay tuned.
We will be using this commentary on Matthew by O. Wesley Allen Jr.
Introduction to Matthew
Hey, Where’d the Persians go?
Before we plunge into Matthew we must take a moment to get our bearings. A lot has happened from the closing of the Hebrew Scripture and the beginning of Matthew. Four hundred years have passed. The Persians were conquered by Alexander the Great (the Billy goat from Daniel’s vision). Alexander died and four of his general’s split up the Empire. The Jews fought with these Greeks for many years, sometimes suffering greatly, sometimes gaining a brief season of peace and self-rule. Eventually, the Roman Empire spread east and took over everything. What had once been Persian-turned Greek, was now Roman. By the time Jesus was born, the Romans had been in Israel for around 100 years and there was no sign of the Empire going away. Once again the people found themselves without a real king on the throne (Herod was nothing more than a puppet of the Romans and everyone knew it) and no Spirit-filled prophet with a message from God. That is, until one night when the world began to change…
Meet Matthew: The Tax-Collector-turned-Disciple
It is a welcomed breath of fresh air to step across that blank page in the middle of your Bible and read some good news for a change, compared to the Old Testament prophets with their doom and gloom, bizarre imagery, and difficult poetic form. Good News is exactly what the Gospel of Matthew presents. The word translated gospel is euangelion. eu = good (as in eulogy, euphemism) angelion = message (you may recognize “angel” in the word. Angel means “messenger”) So, when you put eu+angelion, you have a good message. Matthew is the first of four books in the New Testament that tells the good news (message) about Jesus.
It is important to know who wrote the book you are reading when studying the Bible, because each author brings a particular perspective to the story. Matthew, the author of the Gospel of Matthew, was a disciple of Jesus, but before his call to follow Jesus, he was a tax collector. He was a Jewish man who worked for the Roman Empire to collect taxes from other Jews. The Roman government had imposed a heavy tax on the Jews that kept them living in fear and poverty. The fact that Matthew worked for the oppressive Romans made him a traitor in the eyes of his fellow Jews. He was considered an enemy of true Judaism. He was also considered unclean and unworthy of coming to the Temple. Not only was he ceremonially unclean, he was also politically polluted and viewed as a self-centered turncoat.
There are no direct analogies in our culture that will help us understand the role of the tax collector in the Bible Times. We might be tempted to think of the IRS agent. Most people enjoy complaining about taxes, right? The IRS agent might be a convenient target of our disdain, but, the truth is that we need taxation as a society in order to have public services. We elect the government, and the IRS agent actually works for us, so, the IRS agent isn’t quite the same thing as the Roman tax collector. The mafia debt collector may be the closest type of character in our culture that evokes the same level of fear and disdain from the average citizen that the Roman tax collector did in those days. The mafia forces businesses to pay money in order to get protection from other criminals. If the business fails to pay, the mafia sends in debt collectors to use fear tactics and violence to force the business owner to pay. This is essentially what the tax collectors did to their Jewish brothers and sisters for the Roman Empire. In other words, Matthew did bad things for scary people and his fellow Jewish people didn’t like him.
What a shock it must have been when this Jewish rabbi from Nazareth approached him in his tax booth and invited him to come and follow. Wow! Matthew was accepted by Jesus. Not only was he accepted, but Jesus was willing to come to a party thrown by Matthew for his other “unclean” tax collector friends. How strange and wonderful it must have been to know that Jesus was willing to tarnish His reputation among the religious elite in order to get to know Matthew’s friends.
It is interesting to see the Pharisees through Matthew’s eyes when reading his book. He must have taken great joy when he saw Jesus pick the grain on the Sabbath, and heal on the Sabbath, and hang out with sinners, while the Pharisees were stewing with rage at His rebelliousness. It is easy to see why Jesus was Matthew’s hero.
Within a few pages of reading Matthew’s gospel, one observation stands out loud and clear. Matthew knew his Old Testament. Having just emerged from the Old Testament prophets, it is impossible to overlook the fact that one of Matthew’s major objectives for writing this story about Jesus’ life was to prove that Jesus came to fulfill the prophecies made in the Old Testament about the coming Messiah. For Matthew, Jesus is the Messiah, the King of Israel, that comes from the line of David, that will preach good news of hope and healing to the sick and outcast, will set captives free, and will usher Israel into a new age of hope through an eternal Kingdom that will give light to the whole world.
The Basic Structure of the Book
The Gospel of Matthew can be divided into two parts. The first half consists of chapters 1-16. The second half is chapters 17-28. It is important to note that the first part of Jesus’ ministry takes place entirely in the region of Galilee, north of Judea and Samaria and primarily around the region of the Sea of Galilee. During this phase of Jesus’ ministry He made His base of operation in a city named Capernaum. All the events in this first half of the Gospel serve two purposes: 1) to prove that Jesus is the Messiah, and 2) to establish the fact that, even though Jesus offered the Kingdom to the people of Israel, they rejected His offer.
The climax of the section is when Simon, renamed Peter, boldly proclaims that Jesus is the Christ (the Greek way to say “Messiah”) the Son of the Living God. Having established the disciples’ belief in His role as Messiah, and confirming that Israel had rejected their opportunity to receive Him as such, Jesus leaves Galilee and heads for Jerusalem. That is the subject of the second half.
Here are a few highlights from Jesus’ Galilean ministry (Matthew 1-16):
- He preached with authority. During the sermon on the mount in chs. 5-7, it is as if Jesus was Moses all over again who went up to the mountain and brought back the law of God. This time the law was not to be written on tablets of stone, but was to be inscribed on the hearts of people, affecting an inward transformation.
- He healed the sick and hung out with “sinners.” The Pharisees and teachers of the law had forgotten the heart of the covenant with Abraham and the core of the Old Testament prophets accusation against the Israel of old. God did not want ceremonially clean people who did not have a heart of compassion and mercy for the down-and-out. Jesus modeled for us how we should treat people. We should not seek to hob-nob with the rich and beautiful in order to elevate our social status. We should look out for the needs of those who can’t help themselves and be the healing balm of God in their lives.
- He spoke in parables. Parables are simple to understand, if you have ears to hear and eyes to see. While the parables were simple to understand and relate to, their truth pierced deep into the soul and left no wiggle room for mediocrity or lukewarm commitment.
- Jesus called for absolute surrender. The bottom line of Jesus’ message could be distilled to this. Judgement is coming. The bad will be sifted out from the good and thrown into the fire. There is no in between, you are either good fruit or bad fruit. Which is it? In light of eternity there is no time to mess around with temporary stuff, get with the program! Follow me and I will take you to the Kingdom. Get distracted and turn from me and you will not make it through the fire.
The Descent into Greatness (Matthew 17-28)
The second half of Matthew could be titled Jesus’ Descent into Greatness. Normally when we talk about greatness we speak in terms of upward mobility. People spend much of their lives scrambling to get to the top and become great. Not Jesus. Jesus came to teach us the secret to the Kingdom of Heaven and the true meaning of the word “greatness.” To be great in God’s eyes is to become last in the world’s standards. The fact is that the world is flying upside down. We have our priorities inverted. Typically a person is considered great when they have worked really hard, at great personal cost to self, health, and family, in order to accomplish a goal. Whether that goal is monetary or skill-based, the point remains that a person is “great” when they have done things that others have not. We really don’t care about the integrity of their character or the relational stability of their family and friends. They are great and worthy of praise when they have achieved success.
Jesus brought a whole new paradigm to the scene. He proposed that a person’s greatness is not measured by the external level of success; rather, a person is judged by the moral character of their heart as demonstrated through humble acts of service. Chapters 18-28 of Matthew tell of how Jesus demonstrated that for us. In chapter 18 he revealed Himself to James and John as the glorious Son of God on the mountain in Galilee. This was Jesus’ true identity. Yet, that did not matter. Beginning in chapter 19, Jesus starts heading toward Jerusalem to show the world what the Kingdom of Heaven was really all about. While traveling through Judea, He reminds His disciples of the value system that rules the Kingdom. The first are last and the last are first. Little children, and those like little children, will be the rulers in the Kingdom. Not the smart, powerful, wealthy people who dominate others in order to maintain control. A true leader in the Kingdom of Heaven is the slave of all.
When Jesus finally comes to the city of Jerusalem, He enters it riding on a donkey. Not only did this fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah, it also painted a scene depicting the irony of the Kingdom of God. Quite literally Jesus was entering Jerusalem as the invading, conquering King. When most kings enter a city to destroy it, they do so on a great steed. Not King Jesus. He came in humbly, riding on a donkey. Jesus would not conquer Jerusalem with a sword, He would conquer it with truth and with love.
Just before Jesus was arrested, He gave some final instructions to His disciples regarding His return. Bottom line…Jesus said He doesn’t know when He is coming back. There are only two things we do know about Jesus’ return. 1. He is coming back 2. When he returns, He will judge all men according to how they lived their lives and how they treated the sick and the poor.
Finally, at the end of the book Jesus unlocks the gate to the Kingdom. The key to the Kingdom was His own death. He, being the perfect lamb of God, was the only thing that could be sacrificed that would pay the final penalty for sin. When He died, truly the first became last. Having paid the penalty and opened the door, Jesus rose from the dead, overthrowing the power of death on the world and making available the power needed to live in the Kingdom of Heaven: The Holy Spirit.
Today we are faced with the same challenge Jesus gave to His disciples. As we are going, we are charged to “make disciples.”
Watch the Bible Project Videos on Matthew
Other online resources for studying Matthew
- Enter the Bible – Luther Seminary’s Online Commentary
- biblia.com – online bible with study guides
- The Narrative Lectionary – excellent commentaries on the weekly texts
- Daily Reading Schedule from Narrative Lectionary
Devotional supplements for Reading Matthew
These devotionals come from the Bible in a Year.
- Matthew 1:1-2:18 The Birth of a King
- Matthew 3:1-4:11 The Coronation of a King
- Matthew 5-7 The Message of the Kingdom
- Matthew 10:5-42 The Kingdom Proclaimed
- Matthew 13:1-52 What is the Kingdom?
- Matthew 18:15-20 Working Things Out
- Matthew 20:20-28 Who’s the Greatest?
- Matthew 21:28-32 Do It, Don’t Say It
- Matthew 24:36-25:46 Watch and Work
- Matthew 28:16-20 Making Disciples