In the college Sunday school class, I’ve started into a series on the book of Matthew. We took two weeks setting up the time period and Jewish culture and then jumped into the book. The material covered was essentially the two posts on Post-Exilic Judaism (part 1 here and part 2 here). I wanted to set the cultural and historical setting that paved the way for Jesus Christ to come into the world. As mentioned in those lessons, these were designed to give a general idea of what was going on and not designed to be an intricate historical dissertation. For example, even though we looked at 5 distinct groups (Sadducees, Herodians, Essenes, Zealots and Pharisees), it doesn’t mean that every Herodian believed/thought the same way. However, the general idea of a Herodian is what we were shooting for. Many of these characters will have their part in Matthew’ gospel.
Before launching into the book, I wanted to draw attention to the fact that Matthew is an Eastern thinker/writer, not a Western thinker or writer. (Western being loosely defined as anything of European or American background). We have a very distinct way of thinking and teaching in the Western world and it is different than the approach of the Eastern teacher. This doesn’t make one right and one wrong, nor does it mean Westerners must become Easterners to understand the Bible. However, what this does demonstrate is that as a Westerner, I have a chance to perhaps miss some of the writing nuances of an Easterner, if I’m not aware of them. In practicality, what does this look like?
Western Christianity is largely concerned with dogmas, creeds, doctrines, being doctrinally analytical, chapter and verse, etc. We approach the scriptures as they are the “code” of Christian living and when we need to substantiate why we do things, we simply cite the section of the code that backs up our assertion. However, where doctrine, etc. is certainly important to an Easterner, their way of conveying doctrine is not via exhaustive lists and bullet points where it is spelled out precisely from start to finish. The Easterner is looking to convey truth through stories, parables, riddles, pictures, numbers, literary artistry and allegories. In other words, the Easterner desires for your to come to truth, but they are going to lead you to truth by leading you on a journey of discovery. Instead of spoon feeding you truth from start to finish, the Easterner paints a picture with broad strokes, at times, and desires for you to immerse yourself in the picture to find the details. Jesus teaches by way of parables and He does so to reveal truth to those who want to go on the journey of discovery but to conceal truth from those who couldn’t care any less. We will talk more about His parables when we get latter in the book of Matthew, however, I want to point out that the idea of a parable is not an “earthly story” with a “heavenly meaning”. These parables are designed to teach the reality of Christ’s kingdom but in a way that gets you to not only consider the surface understanding, but to desire to dive deeper – not to find some hidden meaning (like a Bible code), but to find other areas in the text that could be driving Jesus’ discussion.
It is in this that an Easterner sees truth as dynamic. This doesn’t mean they see truth as subjective/relative. Western Christianity, for the most part, sees truth as objective, but also static. To the Jews of Jesus’ day, truth was objective to be sure, but it was dynamic – not that truth changed forms or grew or morphed into other forms of truth, but that because of one’s journey into truth, one would grow in truth itself. Truth didn’t change from being truth, but it would grow as the person grew in it. This shouldn’t come as a surprise or a shock to us as we are told many times in the Bible to grow in Christ and in the knowledge of Him. This doesn’t mean Christ changes, but as we become more and more aware of Him, we grow in Him. Christ is dynamic, being Truth Himself, in this regard. He isn’t a truth for you and a different truth for me – He is Truth, but the extent we understand and experience that truth is directly proportional to the extent we are growing in Him. The Eastern teacher is therefore inviting you on a journey of truth discovery and growth. It is through this that we find the experience of faith. Faith is not simply a mental declaration of something being true (the oft Western approach to faith), but faith is the experience of faithfulness that grows out of the mental declaration. In other words, as you determine within yourself something is true – what does that produce in/through you? In James 2, it says that faith WROUGHT in Abraham. In Hebrews 11, we see that by/through FAITH, so-and-so DID SOMETHING. This doesn’t mean faith = works, but it does shed light on what faith is supposed to be producing in us.
Keep these things in mind as you read through Matthew (or any book of the Bible for that matter). Approach the scriptures from their mindset as well as your Western mindset and see a masterful picture unfold before you.
MATTHEW’S STRUCTURE & THEMES
Simply put, Matthew has been broken up into 28 chapters but has interesting divisions within the book. Chapters 1-3 connect us back with the Old Testament, demonstrating that Jesus is indeed the long-promised Christ. Chapters 4-7 focus on Jesus teaching what His kingdom is all about. Chapters 8-10 demonstrates what understanding His kingdom is to do – result in bringing His kingdom to others. Chapters 11-13 shows how His kingdom was being responded to. Chapters 14-20 are teaching His kingdom even more, but through a very central focus on the Messiahship of Jesus. Chapters 21-25 gives us the collision of kingdoms – Christ’s versus Rome’s as well as Christ’s versus the religious world. Chapters 26-28 give us the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and launch us into the New Testament. There are 5 main sections, book-ended by 2 sections. This is important because one of Matthew’s themes is to present Jesus as a new Moses. In Deuteronomy 18:15 and following, we find Moses making a statement that one day, God would send a Prophet like unto Moses. This Prophet, however, wouldn’t simply bring physical deliverance from oppression (as Moses did with Israel’s exodus from Egypt), but this Prophet would bring deliverance from the oppression of Sin and Death. Jesus is the new Moses in that regard. Matthew has 5 sections – a number that to a Jewish reader would hearken back to the 5 books of Moses. Matthew’s 5 sections are book-ended by 2 sections – 2, a number that a Jewish reader would think back to the 2 tablets of stone Moses brought down from the mountain. Yet, these 5 sections and 2 book-ends all point to 1, Jesus Christ. As I mentioned above, the usage of numbers is no coincidence to a Jewish author – whether in overtly stating a number, or creating literary artwork where the numbers are recognized (as in how Matthew has grouped his gospel). This should get you thinking about other areas of Jesus’ ministry where these numbers show up. How about 5 loaves and 2 fishes. How about 5 talents and 2 talents (and 1 talent)? Anytime you are given a detail or a list of details in the Bible, simply stop and ask, “Why would I need to know that?” The authors are not simply picking numbers and details at random in order to fill space or embellish the story. These are deliberate literary devices, and as such, not only do we find value in understanding why numbers are being used, but we can also see the events that an author highlights in order to tell his story. Jesus, as the new Moses, has quite a bit in common with the old Moses. Both, as babies, were born during a time when infanticide was happening (one, under Pharaoh, and the other under Herod the Great). Both were in Egypt but left Egypt. Both passed through a body of water (one, the Red Sea, and the other, the Jordan River). Both found themselves in the wilderness after passing through the water (Israel, tempted with food, protection and empire, and Jesus likewise). Again, this isn’t coincidence or accident that Matthew records it this way. How many more can you find?
Matthew is also concerned with presenting Jesus as King of the Jews. Matthew doesn’t overtly claim this as a theme, but it is clear as you read through his gospel, you find Matthew focuses on the King and Kingdom quite a bit. In all 4 gospels, the words “king” and “kingdom” show up 182x, with Matthew housing 76 of those 182 (42%). Matthew is also the only gospel where you find the phrase, “kingdom of heaven”. There is debate over what this kingdom is and even if it is different from the phrase “kingdom of God” as found in Mark and Luke and with Paul’s writings. However, it wasn’t uncommon for Jews to hold the Name of God very sacred, so much so that they wouldn’t speak it or write it but would appeal to something higher than themselves as a placeholder for the name. Heaven is just one of those stand-ins. Matthew’s usage of Kingdom of Heaven is simply a Jewish way of ascribing something belonging to God while at the same time being very careful to not handle the Name of God flippantly. Not only this, but we find in Matthew 19:23-24 that Jesus used Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God interchangeably. Jesus is King and the King is bringing His Kingdom to bear – that’s Matthew’s focus.
Lastly, this is more of a poetic theme, but Matthew also is concerned with the mamzer. This is a Hebrew word that describes those who were illegitimate within Israel. Deuteronomy 23:2 A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD. Although Matthew is not describing literal mamzers, he is however drawing our attention to many that Jesus comes to as being an outsider or an outcast of Israel. We see this in the miracles and healings He does as well as what is true about His kingdom – blessed are they that mourn, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew, as a tax collector for Rome, would have been viewed with great disdain and distrust from his fellow Jewish kinsmen. The Jews would have seen Matthew as essentially turning his back on Israel and selling out to the Roman Empire – the perpetual boot that was holding them down in oppression. Yet, in Matthew 9, we see how Jesus comes and calls Matthew to follow Him. As an outsider/outcast/poetic mamzer, Matthew seems to draw on his own experience and sees his calling and the nature thereof play out in how Jesus interacts with others. This will be very key not only when we get into the teaching kingdom and bringing kingdom sections of the book, but we will see this on display from the very first chapter. Matthew is going to connect us with the Old Testament to demonstrate that Jesus is the Christ by giving us a genealogy that weaves its way through familial association to Abraham, yet, in this genealogy, not only will we see numbers being masterfully used yet again, but we will find some folks in this genealogy that shouldn’t belong. Matthew is going to show how even the mamzer has a place in Jesus’ family.
Our story continues…