Matthew's Distinctive Themes

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Scholars of an earlier generation often delighted in summarizing the major doctrines or ideas of a given biblical book. Underlying such an exercise was the assumption that the primary aim of biblical authors was to communicate certain truths to their readers. That is a dubious assumption, however, especially in the case of the Gospels. Like the other evangelists, Matthew is concerned first with telling a story, and this story cannot be reduced to a list of moral or spiritual concepts. Nevertheless, the narrative Matthew constructs does develop a number of distinctive or characteristic themes. The paragraphs that follow highlight some of these themes, introducing each with a related phrase from the Gospel.

(1) The kingdom of heaven has come near (4:17). The all-encompassing, overarching theme of the First Gospel is the advent of God’s reign or rule. While each of the Gospels has kingdom sayings, no one introduces the topic more frequently or develops it more fully than Matthew. The good news that Jesus brings is the good news of the kingdom (cf. 4:23; 9:35; 24:14). The blessing promised to the righteous in the Beatitudes is life in the kingdom (cf. 5:3, 10). The great majority of Jesus’ parables are stories about the kingdom (cf. 13:24; 18:23; 20:1; 22:1; 25:1). As depicted by Matthew, God’s reign is both future and present. Not until Jesus’ coming at the end will God’s reign be fully established on a cosmic scale. Already, however, that reign is taking hold of history, contending with the forces of evil and creating a new order in the midst of the old (cf. TBC and TLC on 4:17-25).

(2) They shall name him Emmanuel (1:23). Matthew views Jesus as nothing less than God-with-us. The same God who acted powerfully in Israel’s story in days of old is now at work again in the person of Jesus. That is why Jesus can announce that the kingdom has come near in his mission. That is why Jesus is able to save people from sin and offer them forgiveness. That is why Jesus can redefine the Torah given to Israel at Sinai. That is why Jesus is able to calm a turbulent sea or to walk on the water. That is why Jesus can feed Israel in the wilderness and why human powers cannot confine him to his grave. And that is why his disciples worship him as God’s Son and their Lord.

(3) I have come not to abolish but to fulfill (5:17). The mission Jesus undertakes in Matthew’s story evokes conflict and opposition. Jesus sets his word over and against some Jewish traditions and biblical injunctions. He delivers stinging indictments of Israel’s leaders. But Jesus and his program by no means annul the heritage of Israel. Instead, Jesus comes to fulfill Israel’s story. He relives or reenacts key moments of that saga in the events of his life and mission. He teaches and acts in ways foretold in prophetic oracles. He points his hearers to the will of God that underlies the Torah. And he forms a community committed to carry out Israel’s calling in faithful covenant with Israel’s God (cf. TBC and TLC on 5:17-48).

(4) Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (5:6). According to Matthew, righteousness is central to the agenda of both John the Baptist and Jesus (cf. 3:15; 5:6; 5:20; 6:33; 21:32). In the First Gospel righteousness signifies right relationship with God. As such, righteousness is both a gift and a goal. It is a gift in the sense that God’s advent in Jesus opens up the possibility of a right relationship. Jesus enables us to see and hear in such a way that living within God’s will and purpose is now within reach. In claiming this gift, however, we do not yet fully possess it. A right relationship with God is a goal one must continually seek; it is an ongoing quest. Those who keep moving toward that end will find it in the end.

(5) Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me (11:29). The calling and forming of disciples is at the heart of the program Jesus pursues in Matthew’s narrative. The first account of Jesus’ public activity tells of an invitation to specific persons to follow him (4:18-22), and subsequent accounts relate other call episodes (8:18-22; 9:9). Those who become disciples receive Jesus’ instruction (cf. 5:1-2; 18:1ff.) and come to understand his message in a way that eludes the crowds (cf. 11:25-27; 13:10-17, 36ff.). In spite of the fact that the faith of the disciples sometimes falters (cf. 14:31; 17:20), the reader knows that disciples enjoy a special relationship with Jesus. It comes as good news, then, at the end of the Gospel, when the reader discovers that the circle of discipleship is not limited to the twelve. Jesus invites all to become his disciples. And through his sayings as assembled in the Gospel, later followers can continue to learn from the divine Wisdom present in Jesus.

(6) I will build my church (16:18). For Matthew, the goal of Jesus’ mission as God-with-us is not simply to touch many individuals. Rather, Jesus seeks to create a righteous community, a community that serves as a light to the world (5:14-16). This was Israel’s calling among the nations (cf. Isa. 42:6-7), and Jesus’ mission begins as an appeal to all Israel. As the story proceeds, however, and Israel at large rejects Jesus’ summons, Jesus announces that he will reconstitute the people of God on a new foundation. He will build his community, the messianic community of God’s kingdom, on those he has called as his disciples (16:18-19). This community, Matthew tells us, knows itself to be the family of God (cf. 23:8-10; 12:49-50), enjoys God’s protection when evil powers assail it (16:18), and can order its life with divine authority because Jesus is present in its midst (18:18-20; 16:19).

(7) Go therefore and make disciples (28:19). The story Matthew tells is a story of mission, a story in which coming and sending shape the plot. Jesus is aware that he himself comes to Israel as one sent by God (cf. 9:13; 10:34, 40; 11:19; 15:24; 20:28). He sends out coworkers to extend and complete his mission (cf. 10:5ff., 16ff.; 23:34; 28:18-20). In its earliest stages, this missionary venture is restricted to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:5-6; 15:24). The disciples receive an expanded assignment at the conclusion of the story. As emissaries of the resurrected Jesus, Jesus dispatches them on a mission to all the peoples of the world (28:19-20; cf. 5:13-16; 24:14). The community that Jesus forms does not live for itself alone. To be the church is to be in mission, inviting the world to receive the good news of God’s reign.


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  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship, 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1959.
  • Donaldson, Terence L. Jesus on the Mountain: A Study in Matthean Theology. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1985.
  • Edwards, Richard A. Matthew’s Story of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.
  • _____. “Uncertain Faith: Matthew’s Portrait of the Disciples.” Discipleship in the New Testament. Edited by F. F. Segovia. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.
  • Ellis, Peter F. Matthew: His Mind and His Message. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1974.
  • Przybylski, Benno. Righteousness in Matthew and His World of Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
  • Reumann, John. “Righteousness” in the New Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982.
  • Snodgrass, Klyne. “Matthew and the Law.” Society of Biblical Literature 1988 Seminar Papers. Atlanta: Scholars, 1988.

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Richard B. Gardner