Matthew wrote the Gospel to the Jews, his natives. The difference between him and Paul was that Paul was the “perfect” Jew before his conversion, whereas Matthew was “the traitor” Jew. Both were called directly by Jesus. After they accepted their call and converted, they both loved Jesus. Both also witnessed about Jesus in writing. While Paul wrote pastoral letters, Matthew penned a Gospel. Paul wrote primarily to the converted Gentiles, Matthew wrote primarily to the Jews. However, both were bringing arguments regarding the salvation of Jews and Gentiles. It would be very interesting to compare their basic theological theses, however, it is beyond the scope of this commentary.
Let’s focus our discussion on Matthew. What were the main points of Matthew’s story about Jesus?
- Jesus is the Messiah. In his writing he very carefully documented and illustrated the fulfillment of Old Testament messianic prophecies.
- Jesus changed the game. God’s Kingdom is available to anybody. ANYBODY.
While he worked with the theology of the Jews and used their language (for example see Matt 15:24), he laid the ground for a new, perhaps revolutionary, theological assumption. Matthew brought the tension and contrast between the old wine and the new wine very perceptibly. He did not do this through philosophical arguments (as Paul tended to), but through stories. The way he told the stories and the details he noted provided the added value of subtle but profound meaning, not just for Matthew’s contemporaries, but also for us today.
As much as Jews considered themselves to be God’s kingdom, as much as they tried to deserve to be God’s center of attention, as much as they usurped the title of God’s exclusive people, their game was over. In fact, Jesus did not change the game so much as he just confirmed God’s original plan to make salvation available to all nations. While His first strategic plan of implementing salvation on this earth through his chosen “agents” and/or “ambassadors” had proven to be less and less efficient, he sent his son Jesus to prepare for His harvest.
And he did. Between the stories retold by Matthew we find Jesus teaching. Step-by-step, Jesus beautifully paints a picture of God’s Kingdom. (The word kingdom is mentioned forty-eight times in Matthew alone.) God’s kingdom is open to anybody, across all possible dividing lines humans have ever had. God’s kingdom is a lot bigger than Israel and Jerusalem.
As you know, Jews considered Jerusalem to be God’s kingdom. The center of God’s kingdom was particularly in the temple. Israel was the expanded territory of God’s kingdom. (No wonder Jews have had the tendency to return. After the Second World War, three million Jews immigrated to Israel). Their identity stemmed from this assumption. They believed God had an exclusive covenant relationship with them; He loved them because they lived in the promised land, separated from all other people (pagans), because other people did not belong to God’s Kingdom and God did not love them so much.
One of the main points of the “traitor’s” version of the Gospel story was that this rule numero uno of Jews came to an end. (Dear reader, understand this commentary does not want to dispute the clear Biblical teaching of God’s people, but it zooms in on Matthew’s radical intention to balance a rather extreme view of the Jews.)
Let’s see how Matthew went about presenting this “new” truth.
- He introduced the Gospel with a genealogy to make sure that Jesus qualified as Messiah because he was a descendant of David. But right there he added “extras.” Among all the names of the fathers he lists four names of “moms” and as you may know, those ladies were not Jewish nor had they creditable reputations.
- Matthew introduces two names of the Messiah in the first chapter: Jesus = salvation for all, and Immanuel = God with us.
- Who drew the attention of king Herod to the birth of the Messiah? Wise men from the East. Shortly after Jesus was born, there came adherents of eastern religion to bow down before him. They found their library scrolls foretold his birth, and they were willing to undertake a very long and uncomfortable journey to see the Messiah (Matt 2).
- Jesus started his ministry on the border of Israel, among pagans in Capernaum (Matt 4:13-17). Jews did not like it and criticized him because of that (Matt 9:11).
- Matthew goes into detail when telling the story of the Roman Centurion, whom Jews despised in more than one way. For them, he was a symbol of the godless despotism of Romans. He approached Jesus in Capernaum because his servant was paralyzed and severely suffering. When the centurion responded to Jesus’ offer to come to his home and heal his servant, Jesus said in amazement: “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:5-13).
- Matthew provides a hint that the disciples themselves were not comfortable with Jesus’ approach. When Jesus was surrounded by crowds of people on the Jewish side of Galilee, and ministered to them by healing and teaching, the disciples came to him the first evening, worried that people were hungry. Jesus miraculously fed five thousands families (Matt 14:13-20). But, when a couple of weeks later Jesus ministered to the “other” people on the pagan side of Galilee, the disciples didn’t seem to care. The third day, Jesus could not hold it anymore and said: “I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. And I do not want to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way” (Matt 15:29-39). Jesus was willing to spend time with and take care of “other” people the same way as he cared for the Jews.
- One more example. Again, Jesus was visiting a pagan territory when a Canaanite women came and whimpered for healing of her daughter. The disciples advised Jesus to get rid of her and at that moment he seemed to be willing to play by their rules. He said to the woman: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” “You know, I came to heal only Jews, sorry.” But she insisted and Jesus had to stiffen up: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” But she replied, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” Her answer allowed Jesus, who apparently expected her answer, to come out with a statement: “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour (Matt 15:21-28)
- Matthew ends his narrative of Jesus by saying explicitly what he alluded to in his introduction of Jesus’ genealogy: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you (Matt 28:19). Notice, Jesus does not say “bring people to synagogues”, he does not say “make them followers of Jewish religion.”
How does it apply to us today? Imagine for a moment that Matthew was writing his Gospel today. What would he say to us? How would you describe the role of our church in light of Matthew’s message? What is Jesus asking you to do in view of this message?
Petr Cincala is Assitant Professor of World Mission and Director of the Insitute of Church Ministry at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.
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