Introduction to the Book of Matthew

Learn key facts and major themes from the first book in the New Testament.

Introduction-Gospel-Matthew
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It's true that every book in the Bible is equally important, since every book of the Bible comes from God. Still, there are some Bible books that have a special significance because of their location in the Scriptures. Genesis and Revelation are key examples, since they serve as the bookends of God's Word -- they reveal both the beginning and the end of His story.

The Gospel of Matthew is another structurally significant book in the Bible because it helps readers transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament.

In fact, Matthew is especially key because it helps us understand how the entire Old Testament leads up to the promise and the Person of Jesus Christ.

Key Facts

Author: Like many books of the Bible, Matthew is officially anonymous. Meaning, the author never reveals his or her name directly in the text. This was a common practice in the ancient world, which often valued community more than individual achievements.

However, we also know from history that the earliest members of the church understood Matthew to be the author of the Gospel that was eventually given his name. The early church fathers recognized Matthew as the author, church history has recognized Matthew as the author, and there are many internal clues that point to Matthew's role in writing his Gospel.

So, who was Matthew? We can learn a bit of his story from his own Gospel:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.
Matthew 9:9-10

Matthew was a tax collector before he met Jesus. This is interesting because tax collectors were often despised within the Jewish community. They worked to collect taxes on behalf of the Romans -- often escorted in their duties by Roman soldiers. Many tax collectors were dishonest in the amount of taxes they collected from the people, choosing to keep the extra for themselves.

We don't know if this was true of Matthew, of course, but we can say that his role as a tax collector would not have made him loved or respected by the people he encountered while serving with Jesus.

Date: The question of when Matthew's Gospel was written is an important one. Many modern scholars believe that Matthew had to write his Gospel after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. That's because Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple in Matthew 24:1-3. Many scholars are uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus supernaturally predicted the future fall of the temple, or that Matthew wrote down that prediction without first seeing it come true.

However, if we don't disqualify Jesus from being able to predict the future, there are a number of evidences both inside the text and outside that point to Matthew writing his Gospel between A.D. 55-65. This date makes a better connection between Matthew and the other Gospels (especially Mark), and better explains the key people and places included in the text.

What we do know is that Matthew's Gospel was either the second or third record of Jesus' life and ministry. The Gospel of Mark was the first to be written, with both Matthew and Luke using Mark's Gospel as a primary source.

The Gospel of John was written much later, near the end of the first century.

[Note: click here to see when each book of the Bible was written.]

Background: Like the other Gospels, the main purpose of Matthew's book was to record the life and teachings of Jesus. It's interesting to note that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were all written about a generation after Jesus' death and resurrection. This is important because Matthew was a primary source for Jesus' life and ministry; he was present for the events he described. Therefore, his record carries a high degree of historical reliability.

The world in which Matthew wrote his Gospel was complicated both politically and religiously. Christianity grew quickly after the death and resurrection of Jesus, but the church was only just beginning to spread beyond Jerusalem when Matthew wrote his Gospel.

In addition, the early Christians had been persecuted by the Jewish religious leaders since the time of Jesus -- sometimes to the point of violence and imprisonment (see Acts 7:54-60). However, during the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, Christians were also beginning to experience persecution from the Roman Empire.

In short, Matthew recorded the story of Jesus' life during a time when few people had actually been alive to witness Jesus' miracles or hear His teachings. It was also a time when those who chose to follow Jesus by joining the church were being pushed down by an ever-increasing weight of persecution.

Major Themes

Matthew had two primary themes, or purposes, in mind when he wrote his Gospel: biography and theology.

The Gospel of Matthew was very much intended to be a biography of Jesus Christ. Matthew takes pains to tell Jesus' story to a world that needed to hear it -- including Jesus' birth, His family history, His public ministry and teachings, the tragedy of His arrest and execution, and the miracle of His resurrection.

Matthew also strove to be accurate and historically faithful in writing his Gospel. He set the background for Jesus' story in the real world of His day, including the names of prominent historical figures and the many places Jesus visited throughout His ministry. Matthew was writing history, not a legend or tall tale.

However, Matthew wasn't writing just history; he also had a theological goal for his Gospel. Namely, Matthew wanted to show the Jewish people of his day that Jesus was the promised Messiah -- the long-awaited King of God's chosen people, the Jews.

In fact, Matthew made that goal plain from the very first verse of his Gospel:

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Matthew 1:1

By the time Jesus was born, the Jewish people had been waiting thousands of years for the Messiah God had promised would restore the fortunes of His people and lead them as their true King. They knew from the Old Testament that the Messiah would be a descendant of Abraham (see Genesis 12:3) and a member of King David's family line (see 2 Samuel 7:12-16).

Matthew made it a point to establish Jesus' credentials right off the bat, which is why the genealogy in chapter 1 traces Jesus' ancestry from Joseph to David to Abraham.

Matthew also made it a point on several occasions to highlight other ways in which Jesus fulfilled different prophecies about the Messiah from the Old Testament. In telling the story of Jesus' life, he would often insert an editorial note to explain how a specific event was connected to the ancient prophecies. For example:

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,

    because they are no more.”
Matthew 2:13-18 (emphasis added)

Key Verses

The Gospel of Matthew is one of the longest books in the New Testament, and it contains several important passages of Scripture -- both spoken by Jesus and about Jesus. Rather than list many of those verses here, I'll conclude by revealing the structure of Matthew's Gospel, which is important.

The Gospel of Matthew can be divided into five major "discourses," or sermons. Taken together, these discourses represent the main body of Jesus' teaching during His public ministry:

  1. The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). Often described as the world's most famous sermon, these chapters include some of Jesus' most famous teachings, including the Beatitudes.
     
  2. Instructions to the twelve (chapter 10). Here, Jesus' offered crucial advice to His main disciples before sending them out on their own public ministries.
     
  3. Parables of the kingdom (chapter 13). Parables are brief stories that illustrate one major truth or principle. Matthew 13 includes the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Weeds, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Parable of the Hidden Treasure, and more.
     
  4. More parables of the kingdom (chapter 18). This chapter includes the Parable of the Wandering Sheep and the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.
     
  5. The Olivet Discourse (chapters 24-25). These chapters are similar to the Sermon on the Mount, in that they represent a unified sermon or teaching experience from Jesus. This sermon was delivered immediately before Jesus' arrest and crucifixion.
     

In addition to the key verses described above, the Book of Matthew contains two of the best-known passages in all the Bible: the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.