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Bible Commentaries

Barclay's Daily Study Bible


- Matthew

by William Barclay



The Synoptic Gospels

Matthew, Mark and Luke are usually known as the Synoptic Gospels. Synoptic comes from two Greek words which mean to see together and literally means able to be seen together. The reason for that name is this. These three gospels each give an account of the same events in Jesus' life. There are in each of them additions and omissions; but broadly speaking their material is the same and their arrangement is the same. It is therefore possible to set them down in parallel columns, and so to compare the one with the other.

When that is done, it is quite clear that there is the closest possible relationship between them. If we, for instance, compare the story of the feeding of the five thousand ( Matthew 14:12-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17) we find exactly the same story told in almost exactly the same words.

Another instance is the story of the healing of the man who was sick with the palsy ( Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26). These three accounts are so similar that even a little parenthesis--"he then said to the paralytic"--occurs in all three as a parenthesis in exactly the same place. The correspondence between the three gospels is so close that we are bound to come to the conclusion either that all three are drawing their material from a common source, or that two of them must be based on the third.

The Earliest Gospel

When we examine the matter more closely we see that there is every reason for believing that Mark must have been the first of the gospels to be written, and that the other two, Matthew and Luke, are using Mark as a basis.

Mark can be divided into 105 sections. Of these sections 93 occur in Matthew and 81 in Luke. Of Mark's 105 sections there are only 4 which do not occur either in Matthew or in Luke.

Mark has 661 verses: Matthew has 1,068 verses: Luke has 1,149 verses. Matthew reproduces no fewer than 606 of Mark's verses; and Luke reproduces 320. Of the 55 verses of Mark which Matthew does not reproduce Luke reproduces 31; so there are only 24 verses in the whole of Mark which are not reproduced somewhere in Matthew or Luke.

It is not only the substance of the verses which is reproduced; the very words are reproduced. Matthew uses 51 per cent of Mark's words; and Luke uses 53 per cent.

Both Matthew and Luke as a general rule follow Mark's order of events. Occasionally either Matthew or Luke differs from Mark; but they never both differ against him; always at least one of them follows Mark's order.

Improvements On Mark

Since Matthew and Luke are both much longer than Mark, it might just possibly be suggested that Mark is a summary of Matthew and Luke; but there is one other set of facts which show that Mark is earlier. It is the custom of Matthew and Luke to improve and to polish Mark, if we may put it so. Let us take some instances.

Sometimes Mark seems to limit the power of Jesus; at least an ill-disposed critic might try to prove that he was doing so. Here are three accounts of the same incident:

Mark 1:34: And he healed many who were sick with various

diseases, and cast out many demons;

Matthew 8:16: And he cast out the spirits with a word, and

healed all who were sick;

Luke 4:40: And he laid his hands on every one of them, and

healed them.

Let us take other three similar examples:

Mark 3:10: For he had healed many;

Matthew 12:15: And he healed them all;

Luke 6:19: and healed them all.

Matthew and Luke both change Mark's many into all so that there may be no suggestion of any limitation of the power of Jesus Christ.

There is a very similar change in the account of the events of Jesus' visit to Nazareth. Let us compare the account of Mark and of Matthew.

Mark 6:5-6: And he could do no mighty work there... and

he marvelled because of their unbelief;

Matthew 13:58: And he did not do many mighty works there,

because of their unbelief.

Matthew shrinks from saying that Jesus could not do any mighty works; and changes the form of the expression accordingly.

Sometimes Matthew and Luke leave out little touches in Mark in case they could be taken to belittle Jesus. Matthew and Luke omit three statements in Mark.

Mark 3:5: "He looked around at them with anger, grieved

at their hardness of heart."

Mark 3:21: And when his friends heard it, they went out to

seize him: for they said, He is beside himself;

Mark 10:14: He was indignant.

Matthew and Luke hesitate to attribute human emotions of anger and grief to Jesus, and shudder to think that anyone should even have suggested that Jesus was mad.

Sometimes Matthew and Luke slightly alter things in Mark to get rid of statements which might seem to show the apostles in a bad light. We take but one instance, from the occasion on which James and John sought to ensure themselves of the highest places in the coming Kingdom. Let us compare the introduction to that story in Mark and in Matthew.

Mark 10:35: James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came

forward to him, and said to him...

Matthew 20:20: Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came

up to him, with her sons, and kneeling before him,

she asked him for something.

Matthew hesitates to ascribe motives of ambition directly to the two apostles, and so he ascribes them to their mother.

All this makes it clear that Mark is the earliest of the gospels. Mark gives a simple, vivid, direct narrative; but Matthew and Luke have already begun to be affected by doctrinal and theological considerations which make them much more careful of what they say.

The Teaching Of Jesus

We have seen that Matthew has 1,068 verses; and that Luke has 1,149 verses; and that between them they reproduce 582 of Mark's verses. That means that in Matthew and Luke there is much more material than Mark supplies. When we examine that material we find that more than 200 verses of it are almost identical. For instance such passages as Luke 6:41-42 and Matthew 7:1,; Luke 10:21-22 and Matthew 11:25-27; Luke 3:7-9 and Matthew 3:7-10 are almost exactly the same.

But here we notice a difference. The material which Matthew and Luke drew from Mark was almost entirely material dealing with the events of Jesus' life; but these 200 additional verses common to Matthew and Luke tell us, not what Jesus did, but what Jesus said. Clearly in these verses Matthew and Luke are drawing from a common source-book of the sayings of Jesus.

That book does not now exist; but to it scholars have given the letter Q which stands for Quelle, which is the German word for "source." In its day it must have been an extraordinarily important book, for it was the first handbook of the teaching of Jesus.

Matthew's Place In The Gospel Tradition

It is here that we come to Matthew the apostle. Scholars are agreed that the first gospel as it stands does not come directly from the hand of Matthew. One who had himself been an eye-witness of the life of Christ would not have needed to use Mark as a source-book for the life of Jesus in the way Matthew does. But one of the earliest Church historians, a man called Papias, gives us this intensely important piece of information:

"Matthew collected the sayings of Jesus in the Hebrew tongue."

So, then, we can believe that it was none other than Matthew who wrote that book which was the source from which all men must draw, if they wished to know what Jesus taught. And it was because so much of that source-book is incorporated in the first gospel that Matthew's name was attached to it. We must be for ever grateful to Matthew, when we remember that it is to him that we owe the Sermon on the Mount and nearly all we know about the teaching of Jesus. Broadly speaking, to Mark we owe our knowledge of the events of Jesus' life; to Matthew we owe our knowledge of the substance of Jesus' teaching.

Matthew The Taxgatherer

About Matthew himself we know very little. We read of his call in Matthew 9:9. We know that he was a taxgatherer and that he must therefore have been a bitterly hated man, for the Jews hated the members of their own race who had entered the civil service of their conquerors. Matthew would be regarded as nothing better than a quisling.

But there was one gift which Matthew would possess. Most of the disciples were fishermen. They would have little skill and little practice in putting words together on paper; but Matthew would be an expert in that. When Jesus called Matthew, as he sat at the receipt of custom, Matthew rose up and followed him and left everything behind him except one thing--his pen. And Matthew nobly used his literary skill to become the first man ever to compile an account of the teaching of Jesus.

The Gospel Of The Jews

Let us now look at the chief characteristics of Matthew's gospel so that we may watch for them as we read it.

First and foremost, Matthew is the gospel which was written for the Jews. It was written by a Jew in order to convince Jews.

One of the great objects of Matthew is to demonstrate that all the prophecies of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus, and that, therefore, he must be the Messiah. It has one phrase which runs through it like an ever-recurring theme--"This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet." That phrase occurs in the gospel as often as 16 times. Jesus' birth and Jesus' name are the fulfillment of prophecy ( Matthew 1:21-23); so are the flight to Egypt ( Matthew 2:14-15); the slaughter of the children ( Matthew 2:16-18); Joseph's settlement in Nazareth and Jesus' upbringing there ( Matthew 2:23); Jesus' use of parables ( Matthew 13:34-35); the triumphal entry ( Matthew 21:3-5); the betrayal for thirty pieces of silver ( Matthew 27:9); the casting of lots for Jesus' garments as he hung on the Cross ( Matthew 27:35). It is Matthew's primary and deliberate purpose to show how the Old Testament prophecies received their fulfillment in Jesus; how every detail of Jesus' life was foreshadowed in the prophets; and thus to compel the Jews to admit that Jesus was the Messiah.

The main interest of Matthew is in the Jews. Their conversion is especially near and dear to the heart of its writer. When the Syro-Phoenician woman seeks his help, Jesus' first answer is: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" ( Matthew 15:24). When Jesus sends out the Twelve on the task of evangelization, his instruction is: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" ( Matthew 10:5-6). Yet it is not to be thought that this gospel by any means excludes the Gentiles. Many are to come from the east and the west to sit down in the kingdom of God ( Matthew 8:11). The gospel is to be preached to the whole world ( Matthew 24:14). And it is Matthew which gives us the marching orders of the Church: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" ( Matthew 28:19). It is clear that Matthew's first interest is in the Jews, but that it foresees the day when an nations will be gathered in.

The Jewishness of Matthew is also seen in its attitude to the Law. Jesus did not come to destroy, but to fulfil the Law. The least part of the Law will not pass away. Men must not be taught to break the Law. The righteousness of the Christian must exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees ( Matthew 5:17-20). Matthew was written by one who knew and loved the Law, and who saw that even the Law has its place in the Christian economy.

Once again there is an apparent paradox in the attitude of Matthew to the Scribes and Pharisees. They are given a very special authority: "The Scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you" ( Matthew 23:2). But at the same time there is no gospel which so sternly and consistently condemns them.

Right at the beginning there is John the Baptist's savage denunciation of them as a brood of vipers ( Matthew 3:7-12). They complain that Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners ( Matthew 9:11). They ascribe the power of Jesus, not to God, but to the prince of devils ( Matthew 12:24). They plot to destroy him ( Matthew 12:14). The disciples are warned against the leaven, the evil teaching, of the Scribes and Pharisees ( Matthew 16:12). They are like evil plants doomed to be rooted up ( Matthew 15:13). They are quite unable to read the signs of the times ( Matthew 16:3). They are the murderers of the prophets ( Matthew 21:41). There is no chapter of condemnation in the whole New Testament like Matthew 23:1-39, which is condemnation not of what the Scribes and the Pharisees teach, but of what they are. He condemns them for falling so far short of their own teaching, and far below the ideal of what they ought to be.

There are certain other special interests in Matthew. Matthew is especially interested in the Church. It is in fact the only one of the Synoptic Gospels which uses the word Church at all. Only Matthew introduces the passage about the Church after Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi ( Matthew 16:13-23; compare Mark 8:27-33; Luke 9:18-22). Only Matthew says that disputes are to be settled by the Church ( Matthew 18:17). By the time Matthew came to be written the Church had become a great organization and institution; and indeed the dominant factor in the life of the Christian.

Matthew has a specially strong apocalyptic interest. That is to say, Matthew has a specially strong interest in all that Jesus said about his own Second Coming, about the end of the world, and about the judgment. Matthew 24:1-51 gives us a fuller account of Jesus' apocalyptic discourse than any of the other gospels. Matthew alone has the parables of the talents ( Matthew 25:14-30); the wise and the foolish virgins ( Matthew 25:1-13); and the sheep and the goats ( Matthew 25:31-46). Matthew has a special interest in the last things and in judgment.

But we have not yet come to the greatest of all the characteristics of Matthew. It is supremely the teaching gospel.

We have already seen that the apostle Matthew was responsible for the first collection and the first handbook of the teaching of Jesus. Matthew was the great systematizer. It was his habit to gather together in one place all that he knew about the teaching of Jesus on any given subject. The result is that in Matthew we find five great blocks in which the teaching of Jesus is collected and systematized. All these sections have to do with the Kingdom of God. They are as follows:

(a) The Sermon on the Mount, or The Law of the Kingdom ( Matthew 5:1-48; Matthew 6:1-34; Matthew 7:1-29).

(b) The Duties of the Leaders of the Kingdom ( Matthew 10:1-42)

(c) The Parables of the Kingdom ( Matthew 13:1-58).

(d) Greatness and Forgiveness in the Kingdom ( Matthew 18:1-35).

(e) The Coming of the King ( Matthew 24:1-51; Matthew 25:1-46).

Matthew does more than collect and systematize. It must be remembered that Matthew was writing in an age when printing had not been invented, when books were few and far between because they had to be hand-written. In an age like that, comparatively few people could possess a book; and, therefore, if they wished to know and to use the teaching and the story of Jesus, they had to carry them in their memories.

Matthew therefore always arranges things in a way that is easy for the reader to memorize. He arranges things in threes and sevens. There are three messages to Joseph; three denials of Peter; three questions of Pilate; seven parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 13:1-58; seven woes to the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:1-39.

The genealogy of Jesus with which the gospel begins is a good example of this. The genealogy is to prove that Jesus is the Son of David. In Hebrew there are no figures; when figures are necessary the letters of the alphabet stand for the figures. In Hebrew there are no written vowels. The Hebrew letters for David are D-W-D; if these letters be taken as figures and not as letters, they add up to 14; and the genealogy consists of three groups of names, and in each group there are 14 names. Matthew does everything possible to arrange the teaching of Jesus in such a way that people will be able to assimilate and to remember it.

Every teacher owes a debt of gratitude to Matthew, for Matthew wrote what is above all the teacher's gospel.

Matthew has one final characteristic. Matthew's dominating idea is that of Jesus as King. He writes to demonstrate the royalty of Jesus.

Right at the beginning the genealogy is to prove that Jesus is the Son of David ( Matthew 1:1-17). The title, Son of David, is used oftener in Matthew than in any other gospel ( Matthew 15:22; Matthew 21:9; Matthew 21:15). The wise men come looking for him who is King of the Jews ( Matthew 2:2). The triumphal entry is a deliberately dramatized claim to be King ( Matthew 21:1-11). Before Pilate, Jesus deliberately accepts the name of King ( Matthew 27:11). Even on the Cross the title of King is affixed, even if it be in mockery, over his head ( Matthew 27:37). In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew shows us Jesus quoting the Law and five times abrogating it with a regal: "But I say to you..." ( Matthew 5:21; Matthew 5:27; Matthew 5:34; Matthew 5:38; Matthew 5:43). The final claim of Jesus is: "All authority has been given to me" ( Matthew 28:18).

Matthew's picture of Jesus is of the man born to be King. Jesus walks through his pages as if in the purple and gold of royalty.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)