Starting the New Testament, with St. Matthew on the Messiah
Having finished my brief commentaries on the books of the Old Testament and wrapped them up into a cozy (and free) ebook, I find that I am ready to begin a similar series of reflections on the books of the New Testament, beginning with the Gospel according to Matthew. But while I can foresee helping people to grasp the significance of some of the epistles, especially those of St. Paul, and perhaps the Book of Revelation, I have to wonder what I can possibly offer on texts so well-known as the four gospels, or the Book of Acts.
Perhaps the best thing I can do is to highlight the special purpose of each gospel account, since each one differs from the others. Obviously they all convey the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of our salvation. But each has its own intended audience and its own particular manner of presentation, which is why the four accounts together offer us a more complete understanding of the gospel than any one account by itself. Sometimes, because we hear the words of the gospel primarily through the brief readings proclaimed at Mass, we miss these critical evangelical purposes. And the thing that is evident about St. Matthew’s Gospel, right out of the starting gate, is that St. Matthew means to prove to a Jewish audience that Jesus Christ is unmistakably their long-awaited Messiah.
This is a fitting approach for the book that is traditionally placed first in the Bible following those of the Old Testament. Matthew expresses this Messianic purpose in every detail he presents, all the way from beginning to the end. This is so much the case that the Gospel of St. Matthew reads like a biographical argument. By this I mean that, while it is not strictly speaking a logical argument establishing sequential points, it is a narrative of facts and events in the life of Christ which from the first point luminously toward a single truth: This is the Messiah.
The Messiah’s Initial Credentials
Chapter one expounds the genealogical descent of Christ and explains the circumstances and manner of His birth, both of which fulfill key elements of the Messianic prophecies given under the Old Covenant. In chapter two, we have the account of the magi, with the same purpose of highlighting this child’s Messianic kingship, so much so that Herod grasps the danger to his rule and seeks to destroy Him. These points are supported with references to the Old Testament scriptures.
Then in the third chapter, Matthew shifts to an account of John the Baptist’s role in preparing for the Messiah, including his reluctant baptism of Jesus, upon which the heavens open and God identifies Him as His beloved Son. Closing this rapid-fire sequence is Christ’s retreat to the desert, the temptations, His consolation by angels, and His emergence to announce that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17)—whereupon Our Lord immediately chooses his first disciples and begins preaching, teaching, and healing among great crowds of people.
The form of all this is essentially the form of a slam dunk in basketball. The narrative is charged with energy, incredibly swift, and unanswerable.
Teaching with Authority
Through the next six chapters, the narrative argument continues apace through a chronicle of Our Lord’s teaching mission and the miracles which confirm His authority. From the first moment, in chapter 5, we have the sublimity of the Beatitudes, which Our Lord delivers in a striking form: “You have heard it said” that a particular minimal moral standard is appropriate, “but I say” there is something more. Then we have Our Lord’s teachings on the interior life, including instruction in prayer, in chapter 6, followed by the effort to inculcate spiritual ways of thinking along with absolute trust in and obedience to God. No hypocrisy, no idle repetition in prayer; treasure in heaven, true light, service to one master.
This continues in chapter 7: No judging others, entering by the narrow gate, knowing by the fruits, no self-deception. Ask, seek, knock; build on the rock by both hearing and doing the will of God. “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one with authority, and not as their scribes” (7:28).
Next, to back it all up, Matthew recounts one miracle after another in chapter 8. Consider the sheer range of these accounts: Healing a leper; healing the centurion’s servant from a distance; healing many at Peter’s house; calming the sea; driving out demons (into swine, so “they begged him to leave their neighborhood”) (8:34). And in chapter 9, while continuing to heal, Our Lord begins to reveal His identity more explicitly. He forgives sins in spite of the charge of blasphemy. He calls Matthew and other sinners—teaching his critics what it means when God says “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”, for “I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners” (9:12-13).
The implications of Our Lord’s teaching escalate as He explains that His disciples will not fast while they have the Bridegroom with them, and that the new wine of the New Covenant must be put into new wineskins (meaning that many previous forms of religiosity will pass away). But He also begins to reveal His total mission, for “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (9:37). Thus, in chapter 10, the twelve apostles are identified and they begin to be sent on specific missions. Jesus warns of coming persecutions, because “a disciple is not above his teacher” (10:24), and Our Lord tells them whom to fear—not the one who can kill the body, but the one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (10:28).
Preparation for Redemption
Over the next ten chapters, while continuing to recount stupendous miracles which culminate in charges that Jesus has power from the devil, Matthew recounts the incidents which reveal Christ’s identity and purpose more clearly. John the Baptist’s disciples are sent to inquire whether Christ is “he who is to come” (the Messiah) or whether they must seek someone else, and Our Lord simply says:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me. [11:4-6]
Repeatedly now, Christ’s extravagant claims are so obvious that He is called upon to answer charges. He again points to His works, and says to “either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit” (12:33). He also begins to condemn His hypocritical critics: “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil?” (12:34). Ultimately, He warns that the only (further) sign a faithless generation will receive is the sign of Jonah, and so He begins to speak of His death and Resurrection (12:40).
Matthew also begins to recount the parables, which teach so much about the Kingdom of God (chapters 13 and 14). But as Our Lord continues to be rejected and John the Baptist is executed, the evangelist introduces the great miracles which foreshadow the Eucharist, the feeding of the multitudes. Christ continues to teach the Jews the uselessness of human traditions, instructing all who will listen on what really cleanses and defiles the human person. He continues to reject the demand for further signs, except again for the sign of Jonah (16:4). He presses the disciples to make up their minds about Who He is, which prompts Peter to declare “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:17), followed by Christ’s assertion that He will establish His Church upon Peter the Rock.
Then, because the ultimate mission was not yet clear enough, Matthew tells how Christ begins to foretell his death and Resurrection. He also speaks more and more of the Cross. He permits Peter, James and John to witness the Transfiguration, with Moses and Elijah—which indicates that Our Lord is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (17:1-13). The rapid pace of the narrative continues as Christ teaches about temptation and sin, about the lost sheep, and about how sins are to be either forgiven or retained through the apostles’ exercise of His Divine power (18:15-18; cf. 16:19).
Finally, just before entering Jerusalem for the Passover, Matthew recounts how Our Lord foretold His death and Resurrection, explicitly, for the third time. We are come, finally, to the fulfillment of Job’s anguished cry: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he will stand upon the earth” (Job 18:23-29).
The Final Days
Once Our Lord enters Jerusalem, Matthew recounts in chapters 21 and 22 how He sharpens his message and the perception of Who He claims to be: He cleanses the Temple, explains the praise He receives, curses the fig tree as a lesson in faith and fruitfulness, traps the priests and elders concerning the identity of John the Baptist and Himself, and proclaims the magnificent parables of the two sons and the wicked tenants (who will have the vineyard/kingdom of God taken away from them). He also applies to Himself the text that the “stone rejected by the builders will become the cornerstone” (21:42).
In chapter 22, Matthew gives us the parable of the marriage feast, for it is time—in the Messianic argument—to look ahead to eternal life. By citing verse 44 of Psalm 110, Our Lord even forces His learned critics to assess seriously the question of who is the Christ, if David calls Him Lord. Then, in chapter 23, Christ condemns the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy and evil, uttering a great lament over Jerusalem.
In chapter 24, the narrative becomes more apocalyptic, concerning the destruction of the Temple, the evils and persecutions which must come before Christ’s second coming, and the need for watchfulness and fidelity. This is crowned in chapter 25 by the parables of the wise and foolish maidens awaiting the bridegroom, the parable of the talents (another commentary on how we will be judged), and the famous passage describing the final judgment, based on works of mercy, for what is done to others is done to Christ.
Now, at last, the narrative argument reaches its peak in the conspiracy to kill Jesus: His betrayal and arrest, His crucifixion and death. All of my readers will have these scenes clearly in mind. But notice that it is the high priest of Israel who demands of Our Lord, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God”, to which Christ answers: “You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:63-64)—a crystal clear reference to the well-known Messianic verses of Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13.
Notice again how Matthew fulfills his purpose through this rapid-fire biographical argument, culminating in Our Lord’s own absolute claim to be the Messiah awaited by Israel. This, again, is the whole point of Matthew’s gospel. It remains only for him to describe Our Lord’s death and Resurrection, so that the sacred author can draw, again biographically, the obvious conclusion:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” [28:16-20]
For reasons of convenience I have switched between a direct narrative of Christ’s deeds and an emphasis on Matthew’s account of the Savior, but remember that this entire essay follows Matthew’s narrative completely and absolutely, with nothing added. In other words, Matthew’s gospel is like an arrow shot from a bow, to which is attached a single message. It is fast-paced and dramatic, and thoroughly rooted in Christ’s actions. But make no mistake: It is intended as one complete and unanswerable argument.
Perhaps that argument can be expressed best through words of Christ which Matthew quotes, words spoken right after Our Lord told those who rejected Him that they would receive no sign except the sign of Jonah:
The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. [Mt 12:40-42]
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