Return to Gospels

A Reader’s Introduction to the Gospel according to Matthew
Gary E. Schnittjer
Copyright 2012

            One of the innovations in Bible publications beginning in 1900 is what is called a Red Letter Edition of the Bible.[1] A Red Letter Edition is an edition of the Bible with black type except the words of Christ which are in red. These Red Letter Edition Bibles were very popular, and they are still on the market today.
            At the same time, over the years they have often been criticized for a couple of reasons. One reason is that they seem to imply that the rest of the Scriptures, those printed in black are not as important. Yet, critics contend, all of the word of God is significant and none should be minimized. Another criticism is that it is not always possible to tell where the words of Christ begin and end. Some cases are a matter of judgment. Sometimes there are even notes. For example, in the Red Letter Edition NIV of John 3:21 there’s a footnote saying it is unclear to the Bible publishers whether this should be printed in red or not.
            I am not sure if this is an important controversy, but just like everything else, this is one where you can do a search on Google and see a whole bunch of conversations on blogs and the like about the relative problems or helpfulness of Red Letter Bibles. My point today is not really to get at English Bible publishing. I do not think this is a terribly important point one way or the other.
            But I would like to suggest is that Matthew is a Red Letter Gospel. In the last paragraph of the Gospel according to Matthew Jesus commands “teaching them to obey everything I commanded you.” This purpose of the followers of Messiah, in large part, is to go and make more followers of the Messiah. But that is not the end, it is just the beginning. These new followers are to be taught everything that Jesus has commanded.
            Here is where Matthew’s Gospel is different from Mark’s. Mark’s Gospel has few teachings of Christ. Yet, in the First Gospel Matthew spends a whole lot of time developing and collecting and focusing on the teachings of Christ. One of the things that you will note as you read through the Gospel according to Matthew, especially if you actually have a red letter version of the Bible, is the large blocks of teaching. There are five significant, lengthy compilations of Jesus’ teaching in this book.

Sermon on the Mount (5-7)

Missionary Discourse (10)

Parables of the Kingdom (13)

Community Discourse (18)

Mount of Olives Discourse (24-25)
            Matthew’s work as a gospel writer included putting together these five large collections of Jesus’ teachings. Matthew is intentional about these five large discourses. At the end of each one he put the same phrase, when Jesus had finished these words, thus marking these large bodies of Jesus’ teaching, distinct from the narrative.
 “The result was that when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were amazed at His teachings for He was teaching them as one having authority and not as their own scribes” (7:28-29).

 “And it came about when Jesus had finished giving instructions to His disciples that He departed from there to teach and preach in their cities” (11:1).

“And it came about when Jesus had finished these parables He departed from there” (13:53).
“And it came about that when Jesus had finished these words He departed from Galilee and came into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” (19:1).

“And it came about that when Jesus had finished all these words” (26:1).
       What do the discourses accomplish? If I am to reduce it to one statement I would say the discourses explain the responsibilities for the followers of Messiah. Taken one at a time, each in overly broad terms: the Sermon on the Mount establishes the true spirit of God’s will, the torah, for righteous living; the Missionary Discourse explains the spirit of the gospel mission; the Parables of the Kingdom reveal and conceal the mysteries of God’s rule; the Community Discourse accents the spirit of forgiveness and humility which should define the new people of God; and the Mount of Olives Discourse emphasizes the kind of diligence and service that needs to preoccupy those who wait for their king to return. Each of these discourses has much interaction with the Hebrew Bible and is integrated with the identity of the Messiah, the two authorities of these teachings.
            When Jesus said “teaching them to obey what I have commanded you” at the end of his earthly ministry, it puts his teachings in red letters. Matthew presents Jesus’ commission and provides substantial collections of teachings for Jesus’ followers to use as a resource for instructing the up and coming generation.

A key to understanding the gospel is the Lord’s command at the end: “teaching them what I commanded.” Thus, getting at the ideology of the book starts with the five major collections of the teachings of messiah.
Sermon on the Mount (5-7). The leading issue is to embrace and live in accord with the spirit of the torah. The torah (scriptures), it seems, were embraced too rigidly and in an exhibitionist manner by some and bypassed by too much freedom by others. The beatitudes and antitheses foreground humility, seeking righteousness, peacemaking, and commitment to love and serve even in the face of animosity. The other instructions accent obedience before the Lord not human recognition, even while living differently as a vehicle for promoting the gospel. The Lord’s prayer accents forgiveness as fundamental to kingdom living. All of these matters, and more, are subsumed under the reality that the Lord, Messiah Jesus himself, is teacher and judge, to be obeyed and feared. The sermon, from nearly any perspective, seems to call upon followers of Messiah to recognize their shortcomings, in every way. In the end “poverty of spirit” and looking toward the one who “fulfills the Torah and the Prophets” is the narrow way. (See discussion of "fulfill.")
Missionary Discourse (10). The mission is exactly the mission of Messiah himself, meaning preaching the good news of the kingdom and serving those with challenges of every kind. The mission was, perhaps, encumbered by, on the one side, those who were too cautious, worrying about provisions and being too planned out, and on the other, those who were not preaching and serving according to the full measure of Messiah’s expectations. The recipe for the mission: travel light trusting God and hospitable people, preach the gospel, serve the needy, and keep moving. The perspective of the discourse, as it stands, invites readers to see a continuity between the disciples original mission to Israel and the broader international mission of the followers of Messiah after his resurrection. This discourse extends the emphasis on persecution and other challenges from the Sermon on the Mount, they are an inevitable part of those who align themselves with Messiah and his calling.
Parables of the Kingdom (13). Many followers of Messiah, it seems, were perplexed that many people did not accept, and some even rejected, the Messiah and his teachings. The Parables of the Kingdom point toward the reality that many people will be hardened against the kingdom of heaven. The discourse does not explain why the kingdom is often rejected, but emphasizes both the hiddenness of the kingdom and its great value. Nothing should stand in the way of kingdom living. This discourse extends the theme of the intermixture of Messiah’s followers with apparent followers who are, in fact, pretenders.
Community Discourse (18). The leading elements include personal humility and forgiveness when wronged by someone in the family (brotherhood/sisterhood). These teachings are insured by an application of guidelines designed to protect the weaker party, drawn from Deuteronomy (two or three witnesses). Moreover, these are characteristic of life in the kingdom of heaven and failure to live accordingly is be cast out and face the Father’s judgment. It is important that humility and faith, as defining the family of the kingdom are extensions of these teachings from the Sermon on the Mount.
Mount of Olives Discourse (24-25). The destruction of the temple and the coming of Messiah were misunderstood, and, as such, may have created hindrances among the followers of Messiah. The discourse calls Messiah’s followers to be ready. This version, over and against the shorter version in Mark 13, fills out the idea of being ready with a series of parables, unique to Matthew’s Gospel. these parables accent wisdom and promote compassion for the needy. This discourse also extends a significant aspect of the teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, in a manner different than the other discourses. While the Sermon definitively promoted the Messiah as an authoritative teacher, and the one in whose name his followers should live and face persecution, the Mount of Olives Discourse makes the coming (parousia) of Messiah, whatever it means, the event toward which and for which his followers look for, await, and serve in light of.
If there is a common denominator to the five discourses, it seems to be the Sermon on the Mount. Each of the other discourses extends and applies teachings from the Sermon, even while they have some interrelations between each other.
How do the teaching and the story function together in Matthew’s Gospel? The fulfillment formulae seem to demonstrate in a figural manner that Jesus did, in fact, fulfill the Torah and the Prophets (much like the methods used in the Hebrew Bible). Yet, his message and his work remained a puzzle to many, like John and the religious teachers. Jesus, in his humble and yet strong ways is hidden in plain view. His mission, and that of his followers, remained urgent—to preach the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, God’s rule over Messiah’s followers. And, even while his message seems impossible to embody, the authority and central place of Jesus himself and his teachings both attract followers from surprising places and incite enmity from the law oriented establishment.
            All of this is not to say that all is well among Messiah’s followers. Matthew presents several of Jesus’ teachings on making it right with those who have been wronged, and forgiving those who have wronged. The kind of humility the kingdom demands is all about repentance and forgiveness among the family of the Father in heaven. The sure hope of the kingdom’s family, even in the face of the fall of the temple, and maybe because of it, is the hope and work of Messiah’s followers as they wait for his return. When he will return is not so much the issue as how his followers are to serve him until he does fulfill his word.
Summary. The people of God needed to hear, really hear the teachings of Messiah, and reread the Hebrew Bible with him. The mission of kingdom of heaven, according to the authority of Jesus, is about devotion to God, his people, his work, and to the desperate and needy, and, to proclaim Jesus and his teachings to every people. He is Lord, and we are his servants.

All seem to think Matthew’s Gospel is structured.[2] Yet, there is no consensus concerning the nature of the structure (see survey of interpretation on the structure of Matthew).[3]
Narrative-thematic approach oriented toward key questions by characters within the story.[4]  
Also see the detailed presentation of the narrative structure.
(I) The genealogy and birth of Jesus the messiah, son of David, son of Abraham (1:1-25)
(A) Genealogy (1:1-17)
(B)The virgin conception and birth (1:18-25)
they will call his name Immanuel . . . God with us . . . and he called his name Jesus (1:23-25; cf. 28:20)
(II) The coming of the anointed one The sages ask: where is he who has been born king of the Jews? (2:1-11:1)
(A) Jesus––the prophet like Moses (2:1-4:16)
(B) Jesus––proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing (4:17-11:1)
(1) Beginning––Peter, Andrew, James John called (4:17-22)
(2) The schema summarized––preaching and healing (4:23-25)
(3) The Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29) See discussion of "fulfill."  Also see experimental translation of the beatitudes.
(4) The healing (8:1-9:38)
(5) Missionary Discourse (10:1-11:1)
(III) The doubting of the anointed one John asks: are you the expected one, or will we look for someone else? (11:2-16:12)
(A) The schema summarized (11:4-6)
(B) The challenging of the expected One––seeking not the kingdom (11:7-12:45)
(C) The challenging of the expected One––the family perspective and the Parables of the Kingdom (12:46-13:58)
(D) The challenging of the expected One––(14:1-16:12)
(IV) The acceptance and rejection of the anointed one Jesus asks: who do people say that the son of man is? And who do you say that I am? (16:13-24:2)
(A) Peter’s confession (16:13-20)
(B) The foretelling of the death and resurrection of Jesus and recognizing the Son-ship of Jesus (16:21-17:27)
(C) Community Discourse (18:1-19:1)
(D) Approaching the Jerusalem humiliation (19:1-20:28)
(E) The ascension of the Son of David to Jerusalem (20:29-21:17)
(F) The conflict in the temple (21:18-23:39)
(V) The death and resurrection of the anointed one and the anticipation of his return The disciples ask: when will these things be and what will be the sign of your coming and the completion of the age? (24:3-28:20)
(A) The then-schema––Mount of Olives Discourse (24:3-26:1)
(B) The now-schema summarized––Jesus said the Passover was coming and the Son of Man would be crucified (26:1-2)
(C) Preparations (26:3-30)
(D) The death and resurrection of Jesus (26:31-28:15)
(E) The commissioning of Jesus followers (28:16-20)
I am with you all the days, even to the end of the age (28:20; cf. 1:23-25)

            The broad structure is understood as coming from questions which the characters of the narrative ask. Perhaps the questions can serve as broad thematic introductions which reveal the direction that the narrative will take.
            The sages’ question in 2:2 directs the reader to consider that Jesus is a young monarch. This in part fills out the messianic ideals. As its played out, in chapters 2-4, Matthew is more broadly using Moses and Israel imaging to show that this particular monarch is a prophet-like-Moses and fulfilled all the Israel (God’s son) was unable to fulfill. In spite of his teaching and healing ministry, many began to have doubts relative to their expectations and this Anointed One.
            John articulates this growing doubt by asking if indeed Jesus was the Expected One (11:2-3). This question opens a section of Matthew in which Jesus would face growing doubts and direct challenges on several fronts. Within this section two distinct trends begin to emerge––some accept Jesus as Messiah and others reject him. In between these two trends many seem to respond to him as a prophet.
            This dual pattern of accepting and rejecting is then crystallized in two separate questions posed by Jesus in 16:13 and 15. The people thought he was a prophet of some sort and the disciples affirmed his messianic Son-ship. The dual trends of acceptance and rejection are then developed extensively in an increasingly hostile relationship that Jesus maintains with various groups of religious leaders. Both his predictions and their plotting in contrast to significant statements of faith by some and noncommittal by the multitudes, show the reader that a serious clash is coming. This section ends with Jesus pronouncing a scathing judgment against the religious leaders and expressing his sorrow over Jerusalem (chap. 23). It becomes clear to his followers as well, that he is not going to establish his kingdom at this time in the way that they had expected.
            The clash between Jesus and the religious leaders prompts a question from the disciples regarding the time of the kingdom (24:3). At this point, Jesus reveals that he will return later to establish the kingdom following which he reiterates his looming death and mentions it in conjunction with the Passover (26:2). The narrative climaxes with his death, resurrection, and the reunion and commissioning in Galilee. A number of parallels can be draw between the opening and closing of the narrative.
            There are several benefits to the current proposal. First, it takes its cues for the thematic direction of the story directly from characters within the story itself. This approach acknowledges that the narrator’s literary strategy includes using the characters to direct the account. Second, this proposal is at the same time specific enough to demonstrate the plot and general enough to allow for the exceptions and ambiguities that are part of life and good literature. The magic is recognizing that Jesus is not monolithically accepted or rejected by all in the same way. There are a variety of ways to respond to Jesus as Messiah. This approach begins to appreciate the rhetorical strategy for developing very different simultaneous responses to Jesus within the narrative world of the gospel. The dual question and answer of 16:13-16 and the two answers––then and now––of 24:4-25:46 and 26:2 suggest a literary structure that is flexible enough to accommodate the competing developments of the story. Third, the shift in the kind of question recognizes the climactically progressing plot––from where? (2:2), to you? (11:3), to who? who? (16:13, 15), to when? (24:3).
            Where? (2:2)––In chapters 2-10 the story traces the geographical movement of Jesus in a manner that pictured the redemption of Israel (chaps. 2-5).[5] Especially notable are the several fulfillment passages that refer to a place (2:5-6, 15, 17-18, 23; 3:3; 4:14-16). Matthew 4:23-25 set out a preaching and healing strategy according to certain places and the narrative of chapters 5-10 detailed the events of the summary introduction (4:23-25). More significant than the spatial story was the relative proximity of the kingdom in chapters 2-10. In this section of Matthew, the kingdom is at hand (3:2; 4:17; 10:7). When Jesus sent out the disciples they were to go to Israel (10:5-6) because the kingdom was at hand (10:7).
            You? (11:3)––Jesus is doubted and challenged by John––the prophet (11:10 with Mal. 3:1), the Elijah (Mt. 11:14 with Mal. 4:5; cf. Mt. 17:11-12). This is indicative of a much broader doubting and challenging of Jesus as Messiah. The kingdom is no longer said to be at hand. More than that, the Jews were negatively contrasted to sinners and foreigners (11:21-24; 12:41-42). The hidden things are revealed to babes (11:25-30) and his heavenly family (12:46-50 with 13:16), but they are concealed from the Pharisees and company (12:24, 38-45; 16:1-4) and his earthly family (13:53-58). Even his followers lacked the insight of foreigners and the physically challenged (15:21, 31; 16:8-11).
            Who? Who? (16:13, 15) --Who? is roughly the same question as You? (11:3) However, the two questions of two groups––they and you emphatic (you plural)––reveal that since 11:3 the divide had deepened over Jesus as Messiah. Beginning in chapter 16, there are at least two discernible groups of people in relation to how one thought of Jesus. The narrative develops the various responses to Jesus in an extremely ironic manner from chapters 16 to 23. First, Jesus the Messiah begins to repeatedly talk about his death (16:21; 17:9, 12, 22-23; 20:17-19; cf. 12:40). This theme is so regular that it can easily be seen as a preoccupation. Next, his followers had a growing concern for their own personal gain (19:27; 20:20-21). Also, the theologically educated tested and challenged him (19:3; 21:15, 23-27; 22:15-17, 23, 35). Meanwhile, the children (19:13-15; 21:15) and the physically challenged (20:29) embraced Jesus as the son of David. Jerusalem also appeared to recognize Jesus as Messiah (21:9), but when questioned they were still indifferent (21:11 with 16:13). The conflict between Jesus and his opponents progressively builds through this section. While his opponents often test him, Jesus regularly and increasingly attacks the religious elite (21:12-13, 33-46; 22:41-46; 23:1-36).
            When? (24:3) --After Jesus had publicly condemned the religious establishment, his disciples redirect the story with a question concerning timing. The focus of the narrative had gone beyond where and who. It seems that they had preached that the proximity of the kingdom was related to him (where) (10:7, etc.), they had accepted who he was (16:16), now they were curious about when he would come and accomplish the things of the end (24:3). Jesus gave two different temporal answers. He would come in power then (24:29-31) and he be delivered up in death on Passover (26:2). Hence, the kingdom was no longer at hand as it was in 3:2; 4:17; and 10:7. In this section, his time is at hand (26:18 note the repeated reference to Passover) and the kingdom will come in relation to his coming (24:14; 25:1, 34; 26:29). These answers––then and now––become linked in the person of Jesus as Messiah for those that stand between the cross and the clouds. For they are his followers and he is with them in the interim between his death and his return (28:20 with 1:23; cf. end 23:4 with 28:20).
Religious Leaders. The religious leaders are the most notable antagonists of Matthew. At times particular groups have been specifically named (e.g., 22:15-16, 23). The narrative in general, however, seems to use a mix and match approach in which the religious leaders appear in various combinations: the Pharisees(9:11, 14, 34; 12:2, 14, 24; 15:12; 19:3; 22:15, 34, 41; 23:26); the Sadducees (22:23, 34); Pharisees and Sadducees (3:7; 16:1, 6, 11, 12); the scribes (7:29; 8:19; 9:3; 17:10); the scribes and Pharisees (5:20; 12:38; 15:1; 23:2, 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29); the chief priests (26:14, 59; 27:6; 28:11); the elders (15:2); the chief priests and elders (21:23; 26:3, 47; 27:1, 3, 12, 20; 28:11-12); the chief priests and Pharisees (21:45; 27:62); the chief priests and scribes (2:4; 20:18; 21:15); the scribes and elders (with Caiaphas the high priest) (26:57); the elders and chief priests and scribes (16:21; 27:41).[6]
Disciples. The disciples seem to function as a proto-type of the believer. They can best be defined as followers of Jesus as twice repeated in their first appearance in Matthew (4:18-22). The reader most identifies with the disciples and is inherently challenged to embrace Jesus as Messiah, submit to his teachings, and deliver the good news to all people. In addition to the disciples who are generally regarded as a group, other followers also follow Jesus including many socially and religiously marginalized.[7] The religious leaders and the follower are often counterparts––both often fail, yet the attitude seems to be different (compare 20:20-28 with 23:1-36 and see note on 23:1-39).
Jesus as the expected Messiah seems to be the conscious theme of the narrator. Jesus is everything that the Hebrew Bible anticipated (5:17-18)––he is the Son of David (1:1, 6; 2:2; 20:31; 21:9, 15; 22:41-45), son of Abraham and prophet-like-Moses (1:1; 2:15; 4:1-11; 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43; 26:2; 27:45), the Sage and the Wisdom (11:25-30; 12:42; 13:13-17), Son of God (3:17; 8:29; 14:33; 16:16; 17:5, 24-27; 26:63-64; 27:51, 54), Son of Man (16:27-28; 19:28; 24:27, 29-31, 37-39; 25:31; 26:64), the Expected One (1:18-25; 11:2-5; 13:14-15; 16:16; 20:21; 23:39; 28:18-20).
            Perhaps the most pervasive theme in Matthew is the humiliation of the proud and the exaltation of the humble.
            This turn-about seems to be everywhere. In chapter 1, the lineage of the Messiah includes some rather unlikely figures which are emphasized in the genealogy by the unusual use of women. In chapter 5, Jesus proclaims central aspects of the kingdom morality in his beatitudes. The point is not that being poor is virtuous. However, graced are those that are spiritually impoverished. Jesus interaction with the various characters of the story demonstrate the humility-pride inversion. Jesus’ keeps company, for example, with the sinners rather than the saints (9:9-17). He soon developed a reputation for eating too much, drinking to much, and spending time with the wrong kind of people (11:19). This theme is made explicit in the Community Discourse. Jesus’ memorably stated that child-likeness is an ideal for greatness (18:3-5). Jesus defended the wife (19:1-10), blessed the children (19:13-15), healed the inconvenient physically challenged (19:29-33), and affirmed the theology of the excited children over the indignant religious leaders (20:14-17). He challenged the rich (29:16-26), rebuked the personal ambitions of his followers (20:20-28), debated the theologically educated (21:23-22:46), and publicly damned the nationally prominent religious establishment (23:1-36). As Jesus said, The first will be last, and the last will be first (20:16; cf. 19:30). Climactically, Jesus, the King (27:37) and Son of God (27:54) was executed with two criminals.
            Jesus is presented as the friend of the socially disdained––sinners, tax-collectors, physically and mentally challenged, women, and children. He challenges and defies the social and religious elite. He challenges his followers to show compassion on the least of the helpless (25:35-40, 42-45). This seems like exactly the kind of good news story of the Messiah that a tax-collector would tell.
            The kingdom is a major element in the hope and development of Matthew. The story opens with the good news of the kingdom (3:2; 4:17) and closes with the future hope of the kingdom when the King returns (24:3, 29-31). The kingdom can broadly describe the graces of God associated with salvation (19:16 with 19:23-24; 25:34 with 25:46). However, the characters of the story were often thinking in terms of the Davidic kingdom promised in the scriptures (1:1; 2:2, 4-6; 11:2-3; 20:21, 31; 21:15; 23:39; 24:3; 26:29, 53-54).
            The Hebrew Bible––the Bible of Jesus and the New Testament authors––is prominent and reoccurring in Matthew. The Hebrew Bible is regularly quoted by the narrator and characters of Matthew, even the devil quotes from the Psalms (4:5-6). Jesus claims a unique relationship to the Hebrew Bible (5:17-18). One of the distinct feature of Matthew’s gospel is the reoccurring fulfillment formulae (1:22-23; 2:15, 17-18, 23; 4:14-16; 8:17; 12:17-21; 13:35; 21:4-5; 27:9-10; see also 2:5-6; 3:3; 13:14-15; 26:56).
            The death of Messiah as an interpretation of the Hebrew Bible is unconventional, even radical, yet it is basic to Matthew. Jesus often applied this biblical interpretation to his own self-understanding as well as frequently expecting to be killed (12:40; 16:21; 17:9, 12, 22-23; 20:17-19; 26:2; 27:63; see also 20:22; 21:37-39 with 21:42; 23:37-39; 26:31, 39, 56).

[2] In relation to the many interpreters who put significant weight on their structural proposal Donald A. Hagner is an anomaly. After a discussion of various interpretive schemas, Hagner offered that in his commentary no overall structural outline is offered (Word Biblical Commentary, liii).
[3] For a detailed survey of approaches to the structure of Matthew see Bauer, Structure, 21-55.
[4] I have to agree, to an extent, with R. T. France when he says that Matthew’s Gospel does not present definitive structural markers for reading his story. Thus, structural proposals represent the interpreter’s views, and mere provide a place for discussion (see France, 2007, 2. France uses a geography oriented approach). I am attracted to not bothering with a rationale for structure (see Nolland 2005 for an outline of the contents as guide). Still, the broad thematic structure I present here reflects some of the narrative shifts and is useful for unfolding the storyline.
[5] For a discussion of settings in Matthew see Carter, Matthew, 176-88.
[6] See Carter, Matthew, 230-31, 241, n. 3.
[7] See ibid., 242-56.

For further reading, and full details of sources cited in notes see New Testament bibliography.  Also see bibliography on the use of scripture in scripture.

Copyright 2012

Return to Gospels