January 16, 2021

The Torah of Jesus (Matthew)

First Things First
Restoring the Gospel to Primacy in the Church
Part Three: The Torah of Jesus — Matthew

• • •

Jesus-shaped Christianity will grow out of the soil of a Story-shaped Gospel. The more we immerse ourselves in the Story and get to know the Gospels, the greater the impact the Gospel of King Jesus will have in and through us.

That is the burden of this series, which encourages Christians and churches to make the Gospels (and Acts) the primary documents for forming our Christian identity, theology, and calling.

For the next few weeks, we will give brief introductions to each Gospel to prime the pump for your individual and congregational study and contemplation. At the end of each, I will recommend a few good commentaries to take you further.

“Matthew probably functions as a discipling manual, a ‘handbook’ of Jesus’ basic life and teaching, relevant to a Jewish Christian community engaged in Gentile mission and deadlocked in scriptural polemic with their local synagogue communities.”

• Craig Keener

The Gospels are more than historical accounts of the life of Jesus. They are carefully crafted theological works designed to give each author’s inspired perspective on the Good News of Jesus. Each Gospel writer selected certain events and teachings from Jesus’ ministry and developed his own unique portrait for a specific audience.

When we study the Gospels, one goal is to understand the unique emphasis of each Gospel writer. Each evangelist tells the Story somewhat differently. The first three Gospels are called “synoptic” because they follow the same basic outline of events, but there are significant differences even in the approaches of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Seeing the unique emphasis of each author involves observing the way each one:

  • Organizes his work (structure)
  • Includes and excludes certain things in his work (selection)
  • Emphasizes certain things in his work (significance)

Today, a brief overview of the Gospel of Matthew in these terms.

Papias, a bishop in the early church, wrote that Matthew gathered the stories and sayings of Jesus and put them together in a “Hebrew” style that was orderly in its approach. When one examines the structure of Matthew, two characteristics stand out:

1. The alternation of stories and teachings
Jesus’ teachings are gathered together into five “discourses” or “sermons,” with the stories of Jesus’ ministry placed in groups in between them.

  • Stories (1-4)
  • ch. 5-7: The Sermon on the Mount
  • Stories (8-9)
  • ch. 10: The Mission Discourse
  • Stories (11-12)
  • ch. 13: The Parables of the Kingdom
  • Stories (14-17)
  • ch. 18: The New Community
  • Stories (19-22)
  • ch. 23-25: The Coming Crisis
  • Stories (26-28)

2. The clustering of material into groups of threes and sevens
There are many examples of this, including the threefold arrangement of Jesus’ genealogy (ch. 1), and the three parables that conclude the Olivet Discourse (ch. 25). Sevenfold groups include seven healings in ch. 8-9, seven parables (ch. 13), and seven woes (ch. 23).

Why would Matthew arrange his material so carefully? The conclusion of the book may give a key: “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'” (28:18-20, NIV).

The Gospel of Matthew is a Torah, a catechism, an instruction manual for the church. Matthew presents the Good News of Jesus in such a way that it can be taught easily in making disciples and teaching them Jesus’ way. The highly organized structure of the book lends itself to learning, memorization, and meditation.

Through inclusion and exclusion of various elements (which can only be fully appreciated through comparison studies with the other Gospels), and other ways of emphasizing themes such as repetition, Matthew highlights the following (among others):

1. Jesus, the new Moses: In Matthew’s early chapters, Jesus is portrayed as a baby with an unusual birth who is persecuted by an evil king who slaughters children in an attempt to kill him, who is forced to flee, and who returns “out of Egypt.” One might also mention how Jesus at the outset of his ministry ascends the mount to bring a new word from God to his people.

2. Jesus, Son of David and Son of God: “Son of David” is often used in contexts where Jesus ministers to the needy — he is the Promised King who has mercy on the poor and brings them healing (1:1, 9:27, 12:23, 15:22, 20:30-31, 21:9/15, 22:42-45, see Isaiah 35:5-6). “Son of God” appears at significant times in Jesus’ ministry where his special relationship with the Father is stressed (3:17, 4:3, 11:27, 14:33, 17:5, 24:36, 26:63, 27:40-43) and where humans perceive his identity (16:16, 27:54).

3. The kingdom of heaven: The kingdom is God’s reign over all people through Jesus Christ, the One who fulfills Israel’s story and presents himself as the Messiah, fulfilling God’s promises and inaugurating the Messianic Age (1:1, 2:1-12, 4:17/23, 5:19-20, 8:11-12, 11:12, 12:28, ch. 13, 16:19, 21:5, 23:13, ch. 25, 26:29, 28:18). The fulfillment of prophecy is introduced by a formula unique to Matthew (1:22, 2:15-23, 4:14, 8:17, 12:17, 13:14/35, 21:4, 26:54/56, 27:9). More than any of the other Gospels, Matthew makes the point that Jesus brought that for which Israel was waiting and hoping through the Hebrew Scriptures.

4. Jewish rejection and Gentile inclusion: Matthew is considered one of the most Jewish-oriented of the Gospels, emphasizing the Law and Jewish traditions and making the point that Jesus specifically limited his ministry to Jews during his lifetime. On the other hand, Matthew makes much of the positive responses of Gentiles to Jesus. He specifies God’s coming judgment because of the Jewish leaders’ unbelief (ch. 23) and proclaims the emergence of a renewed people of God that will welcome an influx of Gentiles (8:11-12, 22:43, 28:18-20).

5. The renewed community: The word “church” is found in the Gospels only in Matthew (16:18, 18:17), and Matthew includes an entire discourse about the lives and relationships of those who will live in the renewed community of the forgiven and forgiving (ch. 18). This community is to be extended throughout the world to include “all nations” (28:18-20).

6. The end of the age: All four Gospels are eschatological — they focus on the new thing God is doing and will do in the world, fulfilling his promises, and bringing about the new creation. Matthew has a profound focus on this, through the parables that foretell the consummation of the kingdom (ch. 13), the death of Jesus that portends the raising of the saints (27:51-53), the coming destruction of Jerusalem, the vindication of the Son of Man in fulfillment of the apocalyptic vision of Daniel (ch. 24, 28:18), and the carrying of the Good News to the ends of the earth (24:14, 28:18-20). All serve to point to Jesus as the One through whom God is inaugurating and will bring to consummation the Messianic Age of promise.

• • •

At a climactic point in Matthew’s Gospel (27:33-54), Jesus dies on the cross after crying out with a loud voice. Matthew says that the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom and an earthquake shook the ground so that tombs were opened and the saints were raised. At that point, a Gentile centurion utters the words that bring our attention to the main point of the Gospel: “Truly this was the Son of God!”

Jesus the Messiah, Son of David and Son of God, the new Moses has come to inaugurate a new covenant to renew God’s people and spread the kingdom throughout the whole world until the consummation of all things.

And at the heart of the Story is a cross and empty tomb.


A few good commentaries on Matthew:


  1. Excellent post, Chaplain Mike! I like the definition of church being “renewed community of the forgiven and forgiving.”

  2. Mark Allan Powell suggests that one of Matthew’s main concerns is make known God’s presence in the world – “God with us”. Powell’s Introduction to The Gospels (Fortress Press) treats each of the gospels as you have here, and would be a nice addition to the texts you have listed. Thank you for this post.

  3. Clay Knick says

    Nicely done, Mike. I like France’s commentary in the NICNT & Dale Bruner’s two volumes he did with Eerdmans.

    • I’ve heard good things about the Bruner commentary. What do you like about it?

    • +1 for Dale Bruner. I took a class with him years ago and was incredibly impressed with him as a scholar and as a man. “He had me at hello” when he started the first class by standing and reciting the entire Gospel of John from memory.

  4. Excellent breakdown of Matthew! And I might have to check into some of those commentaries….. someday. Alas- so many books, so little time.

  5. I appreciate what you’re working on in this series. We often read of the Gospel/Good News of the Kingdom, but it’s dropped out of common use. Christ’s kingdom is constantly taught through the Gospels and Acts; it’s seldom taught or preached now.

  6. Why do we use the word “stories” as in “gospel stories?” The word “stories” seems to denote fiction in the
    common usage. And many outside the faith love to dismiss the gospels as fiction. Is there a better term that we might use?

    • Highwayman says

      I once heard a Christian police officer preach who referred to them as ‘reports’, on the grounds that, “If I write down something that’s happened at work, I write a report, I don’t write a story!”

      On the other hand, it’s common to refer to ‘news stories’ in the media – although I grant you, some of those may well be fictional – so I’m not sure it’s such a loaded term.

      Why not, simply, ‘accounts’?

    • That’s a modern distinction and I don’t think it would have entered the minds of the original readers.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      Same with the word “myth” or “mythology,” terms used to describe the narratives which shape a culture. The term “accounts” does not denote the essential purpose of these narratives the way that “story” or “myth” do. These stories were written for a specific purpose, to build the case for Jesus as the Christ and to empower his followers to create the Church; hence, the terms “myth” or “story” are more appropriate than “report” or “account.”

      If someone assumes that “myth” or “story” inherently means “false” or “fiction,” please understand that is an interpretation that exists outside of the study of humanities, history, or comparative religion.

  7. Highwayman says

    Leaving aside the semantics, I found this an interesting and helpful post, which I shall bookmark and come back to. Thanks, Mike.

  8. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2012/05/14/new-generation-new-evangelicalism/
    Chaplain Mike:
    here is a great article in this election time.
    Read it and delete this if you wish. A good perspective.

  9. “…a cross and an empty tomb.
    Jesus himself sought escape, ‘if possible’, from the cross. We reject the cross. We don’t understand the cross. We hate the cross but it is inescapable. It marks us as children of the ressurected Christ. We must take up our cross to follow Him. To qoute The Talking Heads, “this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around.” True growth is not for the weak-kneed. Faith is a fight but there is a rest for the children of God.

  10. Dear Chaplain Mike as I prepare to head off to Bible College myself I thankyou for this article on Matthew there is so much depth in the Gospels I think we often just scratch the surface.

  11. I think Matthew’s emphasis on the kingdom of heaven is especially noteworthy. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke all emphasize Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, Mark and Luke refer to the kingdom of God while Matthew prefers the kingdom of heaven (used 32 times, only in Mt.). Most suggest Matthew has a Jewish hesitancy to use the name of God, so he substitutes the word heaven. But Matthew uses the name of God over 50 times in his Gospel, and uses the phrase kingdom of God four times. Since Matthew’s story (stories) is full of conflict with the leaders of the kingdom of Israel, it seems he wants to highlight the contrast between Jesus’ new kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of earth, beginning with the kingdom of Israel. Jesus is the Messiah, God’s anointed king, but the kingdom he announces from the beginning is the kingdom of heaven; he is not the king of Israel, whose rulers consistently reject him; he is the heavenly anointed (by the Spirit descending from heaven at his baptism) king of a new kingdom of disciples (whom Jesus will baptize with the heavenly Spirit in the future); they will follow him as (exclusive) Lord.

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