As part of our “Rooted” initiative, we will be focusing on what it means to be a disciple during worship September through December 2017. This focus will center on the five main sermons of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew – Matthew 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23-24. On Thursday mornings starting September 7 at 10 AM, Rev. Mark Mofield will be leading a Bible study that will focus on the rest of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew is a book that we believe was written as a sort of instruction manual for new disciples. Our study of Matthew will focus on how Matthew helps us live out a life of following Christ. If you can’t make it on Thursday mornings, the material that we will be discussing can be found here.
Introduction to Matthew
The gospel of Matthew has traditionally been attributed to the disciple of the same name. However, it is unlikely the disciple actually wrote the gospel in the form which we have it as the likely dating of its authorship falls somewhere between 90 and 110 AD. Scholars believe that the gospel tells the story of Jesus the Messiah by compiling material from three different sources: the gospel of Mark, a source called “Q” which is material not found in Mark’s gospel but which is found in both Matthew and Luke, and material that is found only in Matthew. The gospel was probably written primarily as a teaching tool for new believers to help them learn what it meant for them to be a disciple of Christ. The gospel may also have been trying to address for Jewish Christians why they worshiped in a different community from the synagogue.
Jesus is given three different titles here: Messiah, son of David, and son of Abraham. These three titles encompass the three main sections of the Hebrew Scripture, what Christians call the Old Testament.
- Messiah – the one whom prophets foretold would usher in the day of the Lord, a time that would mark the end of Israel’s suffering and the restoration of peace between God and mankind.
- Son of David – another title used to refer to the Messiah, this title also spoke specifically of one who would take up the royal throne of the line of kings descended from King David. King Herod, who we will meet in the next chapter, was not a descendant of David.
- Son of Abraham – in Genesis 12, God tells Abraham that he will bless all the nations of the world through Abraham’s descendants.
What stands out to you about this genealogy?
Notice that there are several women mentioned in the genealogy, an unusual step in and of itself. However, what is especially noteworthy is that the women that are mentioned here are women who were either non-Israelites (Rahab, Ruth) and/or women who might not have been viewed as “virtuous” (Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba). However, each of these women are women who were caught up in God’s saving work and who were critical to the working out of God’s plans in Israel’s history.
Also notice that the genealogy is divided into sections by historical moments: the call of Abraham, the ascendance of David to the throne, the Babylonian exile. These were considered pivotal moments in Israel’s history. The structure of the genealogy leads us to understand that when we reach the birth of Jesus, we have reached another historic moment.
Why do you think Matthew tells us this story?
Joseph is one of the most interesting characters in the gospels if for no other reason than he is the only character in the traditional nativity scene (other than the animals!) that never speaks. We are told what he does and what he is thinking, but never do we hear from him directly. We are told that he is a “righteous” man, which would have meant that he sought to follow the law of the Torah completely. In Deuteronomy 22:23-27, this law states that a man whose wife is unfaithful to him can be put to death. By the time of our story, the rabbis had softened the understanding of this law, but still such a woman was subject to public humiliation. Joseph’s decision to send her away quietly shows that his righteousness is not tied to a “letter of the law” understanding. His acceptance of the word of the angel is indicated not only in his taking Mary as his wife but in his naming of the child she bears. By naming the child, he is taking the child as his own son, thus grafting him into the line of David as established in the previous genealogy. The name “Jesus” was actually a relatively common name in the day, a variant of the name Joshua, which meant “God will save”.
In this chapter, we see two interesting figures introduced whose presence seems minor to those familiar with the story: King Herod and the wise men. However, their roles in the story of Jesus are extremely significant as we consider the overall story of the gospel.
King Herod – Herod became king of Judea in 37 B.C. during the upheaval and civil war that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar. The Romans ultimately named Herod as king in Judah because they respected him as a strong leader and a good fundraiser. However, Herod had no tie whatsoever to the Davidic line of kings and many resented him as an improper usurper of the throne. Herod’s reign as king is noted for many notable achievements, which included a massive building program (that included rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem), and he even lowered taxes on the people on two different occasions. However, Herod showed little respect for the Jewish faith, sponsoring games honoring Caesar as a god and claiming to be a Messiah figure himself. When some of the Pharisees disagreed with this last claim, he ordered them to be killed. Herod was also highly paranoid, evidenced by the fact that he had 3 of his 10 sons and 1 one of his 10 wives killed for real or perceived plans to assassinate him. When he was on his death bed, Herod ordered the leading citizens of the town of Jericho to be slaughtered to insure that people would be weeping at his funeral. Thus, the picture of Herod here in chapter 2 – willing to go to extremely violent ends to protect his power – fits very well with the historical memory of Herod. Interestingly, the passage that the priests cite to Herod identifying Bethlehem as the place of the Messiah’s birth – Micah 5:2 – is also a passage that speaks of the Messiah as one who will bring peace and security to his people. Thus, in Herod, we see a contrast between the kingdoms of the world, represented by Herod, and the kingdom of God that Jesus the Messiah has come to fulfill.
Wise men – the wise men were probably astrologers from Persia. They were obviously people of means, since a journey from Persia to Judah would have been an expensive venture and the gifts that they bring are gifts of great value. At that time, astrologers would study the skies looking for significant events in the heavens, believing that they were indicative of significant events taking place on earth. Though we traditionally think of three wise men, we are actually not told the number of wise men, just the number of different gifts that are brought. The presence of the wise men worshiping Jesus is an introduction to the idea that Jesus is not just the Messiah for the Jews, he is truly the Savior of the world. In fact, perhaps this is why we are told that not just Herod but all of Jerusalem was afraid at the news that they had come to find the “king of the Jews”. Outsiders had recognized the coming of the Messiah rather than the Messiah’s own people.
N.T. Wright, in his Matthew for Everyone, writes of this chapter, “No point in arriving in comfort, when the world is in misery; no point having an easy life, when the world suffers violence and injustice! If he is to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, he must be with us where the pain is. That’s what this chapter is about.”
This chapter introduces us to John the Baptist. Matthew tells us the details of how John the Baptist dressed, his clothing emulating the clothing of the prophet Elijah as described in 2 Kings 1. Of importance in this connection is the belief, based on the writings of Malachi, that the prophet Elijah (who did not die but was carried up into heaven on a chariot of fire) would return prior to the coming of the Messiah. We are also told that John ate locust and wild honey. While it sounds odd to modern American ears, insects were a common dietary item, especially among the poor. Even in other cultures today, insects are still eaten regularly. For John to eat honey would be similar to one of us eating a lollipop today.
Matthew says that the coming of John fulfills the message of the prophet Isaiah found in Isaiah 40:1-11. When you read this passage from Isaiah, the coming of the Messiah sounds like good news, whereas John’s message sounds much more like fire and brimstone. However, it is important to note that, while John has harsh things to say to the Pharisees and scribes, he is not condemning them to an unchangeable fate. He is calling on them to change so that they are prepared to truly welcome and celebrate the Messiah when he comes.
The chapter ends with Jesus reappearing in the story as he comes to John to be baptized. John asks the question that many have asked since, “Why does Jesus need to be baptized?” Perhaps part of the answer is that Jesus is identifying through baptism with those who are facing judgment and need to repent. He is not the “big angry God” coming down to breath fire, he is the Messiah who wants to walk with his broken children and help lead them to salvation. At the same time, we also see the meaning of baptism expanded in this act. Baptism is not just an act of repentance but is an act in which our true identity and purpose is revealed. Baptism marks the disciple as one who is a follower of Christ and who lives to give God glory.
There are several questions that this story brings up that are worthy of reflecting on.
Why is Jesus brought into the path of temptation instead of taken away from it?
Why does Satan attack Jesus in the ways that he does?
Is there any significance to the timing of Satan’s temptation (following the baptism of Jesus)?
What do we learn from how Jesus responds to Satan?
God has just said, “This is my beloved Son …”. Now Satan tries to get Jesus to abandon God. “If God is your father, why are you hungry? Wouldn’t he want you to show off your power and glory for all to clearly see? If this world is what you want, I will let you have it if you will just bow down to me.”
Satan offers Jesus the easy paths. Jesus chooses the much harder paths, and in doing so reveals his faithfulness to God. This will be an idea critical to the entirety of the gospel.
Matthew again cites the words of the prophet Isaiah being fulfilled by Jesus, this time pointing to Isaiah 9:1-7. We also hear Jesus picking up the message that we first heard from John, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Several commentators rightly point out that we should not read into this phrase an understanding of a place. Instead, Matthew is using a phrase synonymous with the Kingdom of God, which refers to the entrance of God into creation and the renewal that He brings. To “repent” means more than confessing sins. It means to change one’s orientation or to move in a different direction. Jesus was calling the people to move towards and with God instead of away from Him.
We also see in this passage Jesus calling the first disciples. It is an interesting scene in the sense that teachers and rabbis of the day did not go out seeking students. Instead, students came to them. Here, all of the action and speaking is done by Jesus. He seeks them out, he asks them to follow. We are not told the reasoning why Simon, Andrew, James and John suddenly leave careers and families to follow Jesus. All we are told is that when Christ invited them to follow, they followed. As we see their response, it drives home the question for each of us to answer, “Why do I follow Christ?”
Matthew 5-7 – The Sermon on the Mount – Please see videos of worship from the month of September on our YouTube channel.
Lepers (which cold be sufferers of any number of skin-related diseases) spent their lives cut off from the rest of society. The law required them to remain isolated and to yell out “Unclean! Unclean!” if anyone came close to them. Thus, the drama of this moment is heightened when Matthew tells us that Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched him”. The miracle is not just a miracle of healing but a moment of true compassion and a willingness to draw close to the depths of human suffering. This story is also an interesting example of what Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:17-20. Jesus tells the now-cleansed leper to go and do what the law requires to be restored to the community. While his contact with the leper may have caused some to question Jesus’ ritual purity, we see him showing a concern for the leper’s purity. However, that concern is not based on a strict adherence to the law for the law’s sake. Instead, Jesus is concerned with healing the man’s illness and restoring him to the community properly.
When Jesus returns to his home in Capernaum (4:13), we see him move almost to the exact opposite extreme of society. Rather than an outcast of Israel, Jesus is approached by a Roman centurion. However, in so many ways, the two men are very much alike. Both recognize an authority that Jesus possesses and are willing to submit to his authority completely. This is extremely interesting in the case of the centurion, for in this encounter we see Jesus coming directly into contact with the occupying power of his home land. Yet Jesus seems to be the one recognized as truly empowered.
We should pay attention to this story from the perspective of the centurion. He cares about the well-being of a servant in his house, indicating that he sees his servant as a person rather than a commodity. The centurion is willing to approach one who society would regard as his subject and ask for help. He recognizes that Jesus possesses an authority that his own social and political status does not convey. It is for these reasons, and not just the centurion’s belief that Jesus could heal, that the centurion is praised for his faith.
We also should note that both the leper and the centurion refer to Jesus as “Lord”. In a few verses, this will become significant.
Matthew cites Isaiah 53:4, part of the Suffering Servant’s Song found in Isaiah 53.
Earlier, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father.” Perhaps in this passage and the next, we see examples of what Jesus is talking about.
The scribe who approaches Jesus in great zeal calls Jesus “Teacher”. This stands out in light of the fact that everyone to this point in the chapter has called him “Lord”. Matthew commonly will put other titles in the mouths of Jesus’ opponents or those who are struggling to accept Jesus’ call to follow. We are not told the scribe’s response to Jesus’ words to him, but we are left to assume that he does not follow. In Jesus’ response, we see that discipleship will require one who follows to not just accept power and authority but also a willingness to sacrifice, echoing themes from the Sermon on the Mount.
Another disciple says that he needs to bury his father first and then he will follow. We are unsure as to whether or not the father has recently died or if the disciple is referring to his father being an advanced age and that he must stay with his father until he dies. In any case, the responsibility of burying a family member was seen as extremely important and urgent, thus making Jesus’ reply all the more shocking. Nothing can be more urgent, Jesus says, than following him.
These two stories reveal the full extent of Jesus’ power and authority. In this chapter, we have been led to understand that Jesus has authority over every aspect of the physical world as well as every aspect of the spiritual world.
In the story of the disciple who says he must bury his father and the story of the disciples on the boat in the story, we see those who are calling Jesus “Lord” struggling to understand what that really means. This is especially interesting when contrasted with the centurion. The centurion, a Gentile, is praised as having faith greater than anyone in Israel. The disciples are called men of “little faith.” Earlier this week, a group of us were trying to help my son with a word search. There was one word that was stumping him completely. Within a few seconds, someone else in the group found the word. I commented that sometimes a different set of eyes can see what we are so easily overlooking. A person in the group said, “It is like our relationship with Jesus. Sometimes we are so deep into being a Christian that we can’t find Christ. Sometimes we have to pull back and let ourselves see the whole picture and discover him right in front of us.”
The chapter ends in the country of the Gadarenes. The gospel of Mark tells this same story, only it is set in the land of the Gerasenes and there is only one demoniac instead of the two that Matthew describes. There is not an easy way to try to bring the two accounts together. And truly what is significant is not the number of demoniacs but the revelation that Christ is able to conquer the forces of sin and evil that exist within creation. This story is also significant in that this is the first rejection of Jesus that we encounter in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus will instruct his disciples on how to deal with such rejection in Matthew 10.
How is authority established today? Titles? Armies? Weapons? Displays of Strength? Popularity?
In this chapter, as well as the previous chapter, Jesus’ authority is established far differently from how the Romans or the Pharisees displayed their authority. Rather than calling together armies of soldiers with the best weapons or legions of the best students who gave their teachers the highest respect, Jesus called together 12 disciples made up of fishermen and tax collectors. His power was not displayed by oppressing a peoples but by setting people free from isolation, illness and the powers of sin and evil themselves. No wonder some struggle with his means and methods. This is authority that is being revealed in ways so different from what they are used to. This is not how power works! Which is exactly the point. Jesus has come to reveal the kingdom of God, and the power of God does not work as the power of man does. Jesus is introducing something new into our world. Can we perceive it? How do we respond to it?
John is sitting in a prison that King Herod placed him in. As he sits and waits for his sentence, word reaches him of all that Jesus is doing. Funny thing, though. It doesn’t sound much like what John talked about in Matthew 3:1-12. Maybe that helps us understand John’s question: “Are you the one we are waiting for?” John seems to be experiencing some doubt, just as we sometimes do when Christ doesn’t work in our lives the way we expect. Jesus responds by citing images from the prophet Isaiah (29:18-19, 35:5-6, 61:1) to assure John, “Take heart, look what I am doing. I am the one.”
Both John and Jesus are rather cryptic in their comments here quite intentionally. Remember, John is sitting in Herod’s prison. Herod believed he was the King of the Jews. If John comes right out and asks Jesus if he is the Messiah, the long-awaited king, and Jesus simply says, “Yes”, both of them would be guaranteed a death sentence on the spot. Just look what happened when the wise men showed up in Herod’s ancestor’s throne room asking about where they could find the King of the Jews.
There were people who rejected John because of his extreme ascetism. Some of those same people, as well as others, rejected Jesus because they saw him at dinner parties with sinners and tax collectors and thus labeled him a “glutton and a drunkard”, the same term used to describe a rebellious son who should be stoned to death in Deuteronomy 21:20. Even in his home town, where so many of his miracles to this point had been performed, where people knew him the best, so many were not willing to hear his call to change their lives. Jesus’ methods were not better or worse than John’s it seemed. Knowing Jesus your whole life gave you no extra benefit in understanding his message. Where the difference is found is being willing to listen and to respond to the words and deeds of the Son of God who reveals the heart of the Father. The difference is being willing to admit that you are not the highest and best authority for your life, God is. Those who can be humble enough to receive the gift of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ will find the rest they so desperately want in a relationship with the loving and graceful Christ.