The Good News According to Matthew
THE term “gospel” literally means “good news.” The announcement that “the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near” was indeed good news for the Jews. They were chafing under the distasteful yoke of Rome as well as under the harsh yoke their religious leaders had fastened upon them, not to say anything about the still heavier yoke that they, in common with all mankind, had to bear because of father Adam’s transgression.—Matt. 4:17.
That the kingdom of the heavens was at hand meant that the King, the Messiah, was at hand. Ever since man’s fall into sin Jehovah God had been giving men of good will toward him hope of a deliverer. First stating it in the garden of Eden, God reiterated it to Abraham, also to David. David called the promised deliverer God’s Anointed One or Messiah, and so did Daniel, in whose prophecy the very year the Messiah would appear was indicated. No wonder that in the time of John the Baptist the people were in expectation of the Messiah.—Gen. 3:15; 22:17, 18; 2 Sam. 7:12, 13; Ps. 2:2; Dan. 9:24-27; Luke 3:15.
At long last the Messiah had come, the promised Deliverer! What good news this was! To help spread the good news about his kingdom the Messiah chose twelve men to be his intimate associates and sent-forth ones or apostles. Among these there were a number of fishermen and a tax collector, whose name was Matthew, meaning “gift of Jehovah.”—Matt. 9:9.
Matthew fully appreciated this honor. He celebrated receiving his call with a feast to which he invited all his friends so that they might meet Jesus Christ, his Master. This lowly tax collector—yet by no means lowly as regards faith in God and love of righteousness, nor in education and thinking ability—came to be the first to put the good news about the Messiah into written form. That is the consensus of all the early church historians. As Origen puts it: “The first Gospel was written by Matthew and arranged for believing Jews in the Hebrew language.” As to the exact year, there is some difference of opinion. The best evidence points to not later than A.D. 50 and perhaps as early as A.D. 41.—Matt. 9:10-13; Luke 5:29.
This privilege was no small responsibility, but with the help of God’s holy spirit Matthew proved equal to the challenge it represented. Yes, true to Jesus’ promise, the holy spirit brought back to Matthew’s mind all the things that God wanted recorded by Matthew of what Jesus had said.—John 14:26.
In passing, let it be noted that if it were not for Matthew’s own statement we would not have known that he had been a tax collector, which was a profession despised by the Jews. Mark and Luke term him Levi, his other name, when telling about his tax-collecting profession. Matthew’s candor obligated him to mention it; the love and loyalty of the others permitted them to gloss over it, no harm to the truth being done by not mentioning this unfavorable fact regarding Matthew. This honesty and love strengthens our faith in what such men wrote—a further proof, it may be averred, of the reliability of the Scriptures.—Mark 2:14-17; Luke 5:27-32.
Matthew wrote his Gospel first in Hebrew, so it was definitely not written first in the universal language of the day, koine Greek. The fact that its Greek version reads so smoothly is no valid argument against its being a Greek translation, but would merely lend weight to the opinion that it was Matthew himself who, after writing for his own people, the Jews, realized at once the need to put his message into Greek and so proceeded with the task. That Matthew wrote his Gospel first in Hebrew is apparent from the fact that careful examination of all his quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures shows that he quoted directly from the Hebrew and not from the Septuagint version. Had he written his Gospel first in Greek he most likely would have quoted from the Greek Septuagint. In both the original Hebrew and in Matthew’s Greek version of his Gospel it is reasonable to conclude that the name “Jehovah” appeared frequently, as he would be no more affected by the superstition against its use than was his Master Jesus Christ.
Matthew having been a tax collector, reference to money and figures would be quite natural to him, at least more so than to a physician or to fishermen. So we find him making more references to money values than do the others and being more explicit with his numbers. Thus he breaks up his genealogy of Jesus, in chapter one, into three sets of fourteen generations. He lists seven petitions in the Lord’s prayer, seven illustrations in chapter 13, as well as seven woes in chapter 23.
He is not content with mentioning but one if more than one are involved, as are Mark and Luke. In the temptation in the wilderness he speaks of “stones” and “loaves,” while Luke speaks of a “stone” and a “loaf.” Matthew mentions two demoniacs and two blind men being healed where both Mark and Luke mention only one. Likewise, Matthew tells of the two robbers impaled with Jesus both mocking him, one later changing his mind, as is apparent from Luke’s account.—Matt. 4:3; 8:28; 20:30; 27:38.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke have well been termed complementary. Thus Matthew tells of the magi coming from afar to see the king of the Jews, whereas Luke tells of shepherds coming to see the Savior of all mankind. Matthew records the angelic appearances to Joseph; Luke tells of the angel appearing to Elizabeth and to Mary—quite likely in all instances the angel Gabriel. Much has been written about the two differing genealogies, but in view of the characteristics of each of these Gospels it is reasonable to conclude that Matthew gives the legal genealogy, Abraham, David, Solomon and Joseph, whereas Luke gives the actual or natural genealogy, from Adam down through Abraham, David, Nathan and Mary’s father Heli. The fact that these differing genealogies caused no discussion or question in the first century would seem to indicate that they presented no difficulties to those familiar with the facts.
More than 40 percent of Matthew’s Gospel is unique with him. Because so much of the rest is also found in Mark’s Gospel some hold that Mark’s came first and that Matthew copied from Mark’s account. But not so. There are altogether too many fine distinctions that stamp Matthew as independent of Mark. Besides, did not Jesus promise that the holy spirit would bring these things to the minds of his apostles? So we should expect them to be similar; which they are far more in regard to the direct quotations than in their narrative portions. An interesting explanation has been offered in this regard, namely, that Matthew’s Gospel being written early, Peter had access to it and used it in his preaching. Mark, who was a close companion of Peter, in taking notes for his Gospel on Peter’s preaching would therefore be taking down much that was Matthew’s, yet with the many fine points added by Peter.
MATTHEW’S VIEW OF THE GOOD NEWS
Matthew’s Gospel has well been described as the bridge between the Hebrew and the Christian Greek Scriptures. No doubt he himself meant it to be, as can be seen from his opening words, his at once giving the genealogy of Jesus, and his emphasis on the Messiah. Its being a bridge is also apparent from the many quotations and references Matthew makes to the Hebrew Scriptures, upward of a hundred, more than any other of the Gospel writers. In keeping therewith he quotes Jesus’ saying that he did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.—Matt. 5:17.
Matthew’s theme is the Kingdom and so we find him mentioning the Kingdom more than any of the others—55 times. In view of the plight of his people, the good news of God’s kingdom was the very best of good news; Matthew fully appreciated its appeal, and he particularly had his people in mind when writing his Gospel. True, their initial interest may have been in gaining political freedom, but as they became disciples and dedicated followers of Jesus they came to enjoy a freedom far more precious, a spiritual freedom.
After telling of Jesus’ genealogy, birth, flight into Egypt and return, and the visit of the magi, Matthew reports on the ministry of John, Jesus’ baptism and wilderness temptation. Then comes Jesus’ thrilling announcement: “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” Jesus called his first disciples and “then he went around throughout the whole of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the good news of the kingdom and curing every sort of disease and every sort of infirmity among the people.”—Matt. 4:17, 23.
Matthew next provides us with the Sermon on the Mount, and how comprehensively he recorded it! What sweet comfort in its opening nine “Beatitudes” (more correctly termed “Felicities,” since the Greek word Matthew there uses means “happy,” not “blest”)! Yes, happy are those conscious of their spiritual need, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the mild-tempered, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peaceable as well as those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, since the kingdom of the heavens belongs to them, since they will inherit the earth, will see God, and so forth. Throughout this sermon the Kingdom is kept to the fore: Do this or do that and you will or will not enter the Kingdom. Pray, “Let your kingdom come,” and, “Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness.” Included also are Jesus’ best-known words, the so-called Golden Rule: “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them; this, in fact, is what the Law and the Prophets mean.”—Matt. 6:10, 33; 7:12.
After this report Matthew gives us two chapters of Jesus’ activities, miracles and Kingdom preaching, and then in chapter 10 Jesus’ commission to the twelve as he sends them forth by twos to preach the Kingdom. And what a comprehensive record it is, with such gems as, “You received free, give free,” “Prove yourselves cautious as serpents and yet innocent as doves.”
More on Jesus’ miracles, preaching and denunciation of the wicked follows, after which Matthew again highlights the Kingdom theme by presenting seven illustrations relating to the Kingdom: the sower, the harvest, the mustard grain, the leaven, the treasure in the field, the pearl of high value and the dragnet; all in chapter 13.
In the next four chapters, among other things, Matthew touches on the beheading of John the Baptist, the feeding of 5,000 men and 4,000 men besides women and children, Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ,” and the transfiguration vision by means of which three of Jesus’ disciples saw “the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” Then follows Jesus’ loving admonition in chapter 18. In it we have his counsel on how brothers should straighten out their difficulties, his promise that he would be wherever two or three of his followers met together and his command to forgive seventy-seven times, illustrating it all by means of another Kingdom parable.
Thus far Matthew had arranged his material according to his theme and effectiveness, but for his last ten chapters Mt 19-28 he follows the chronological arrangement. As we read them we sense how the tension between Jesus and his adversaries increases. In chapter 19 we learn of their trying to trip Jesus up on the matter of divorce, and in chapter 20 Jesus again warns his disciples of what lies ahead for him, as his end was getting close.
The last eight chapters Mt 21-28 of his Gospel Matthew devotes almost entirely to just eight days of Jesus’ earthly sojourn. First comes the triumphal ride into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple. How the hatred of his foes must have increased because of these incidents! When they ask him by what authority he did these things, Jesus turns tables on them by asking by what authority John baptized, thereby exposing their insincerity. Next he tells them that the tax collectors and harlots will enter into God’s kingdom ahead of them, and, by his illustration of the cultivators who put the heir to death, dares them, as it were, to proceed with their murderous conspiracy; and they realized, Matthew tells us, that Jesus was speaking of them.
In chapter 22 we see a heightening of the tension. In another parable Jesus tells of a certain king’s wedding feast and of his executing certain murderers. Then we read of Jesus’ besting his opponents in the questions on paying taxes, the resurrection and the greatest commandment, and of his then silencing them: “Nor did anyone dare from that day on to question him any further”—after his asking them how David’s son could be his Lord. Then in chapter 23 we have the dramatic finale of Jesus’ public ministry: his woes directed at those who refused to enter the kingdom of the heavens themselves and would not permit those on their way in to go in, his grief at his people’s rejection of him and his pronouncing their house abandoned to them.
Next we note a slight breathing spell, as it were, in which Matthew tells of Jesus’ giving his great prophecy on the time of his second presence privately to several of his disciples on the Mount of Olives just outside of Jerusalem. This prophecy has found striking fulfillment in the events occurring since 1914: wars, earthquakes, food shortages, and, among other things, the preaching of the good news of God’s kingdom world-wide. Then Matthew gives us three more Kingdom parables, of the ten virgins, the talents and the sheep and the goats.
Now follow quickly Matthew’s description of Jesus’ institution of the “Lord’s supper,” his trial and death—events familiar to all our readers. Then comes the stirring climax with Jesus’ resurrection, in chapter 28—the best of news; for without Jesus’ resurrection all would have been in vain. And since a conclusion is that which is the most likely to be remembered, Matthew wisely closes his Gospel with Jesus’ world-wide commission to his disciples and his assurance of remaining with them: “All authority has been given me in heaven and on the earth. Go therefore and make disciples of people 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 the things I have commanded you. And, look! I am with you all the days until the conclusion of the system of things.”
Matthew’s Gospel is indeed good news. His effective selection and arrangement of the events of Jesus’ earthly ministry show the effect of the holy spirit on a keen and appreciative mind. A bird’s-eye view of it certainly increases our appreciation of it. May we be better Christians by reason of that increased appreciation!