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Bible Dictionaries

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

Matthew, Theology of

In writing his work, the author of the first Gospel sought to make the life, teachings, and work of Jesus relevant to his own Christian community. Because his portrayal of Jesus is so complete, we are able to speak of the "theology of Matthew, " meaning "the teachings of Jesus as presented in the first Gospel." But, in light of his purpose, that of setting out the ministry of Jesus, we are not able to speak with a great deal of certainty about the "theology" of Matthew in the finest sense of the "theology." We would like to know a lot more about what Matthew (the author) believed, but we have no access to such ideas apart from the contours Matthew leaves as he presents the ministry of Jesus.

General Overview . According to Wright, Matthew is a revision of the story of Israel as understood in contemporary Judaism. The story of Israel is well known: God, the Creator of heaven and earth, chose Abraham, formed a covenant with him, and promised to remain faithful to his covenantal relationship with both Abraham and his descendants for all time (Genesis 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:1-6 ,; etc. ). To clarify this covenantal relationship, the Creator-God gave to Moses and his generation the Law, with its specific details for obedience, sacrifice, and regulations for social life (Exodus 20-40 ). Israel, the descendants of Abraham, however, did not always live in covenantal faithfulness; thus, God developed a system of punishment or reward, depending on Israel's faithfulness (cf. Leviticus 26 ). Over centuries of this pattern of sin and obedience, it became known in Israel that a greater Day was coming, a Day that would begin with a potent judgment on sin and that would climax in a glorious reign of Israel's God in Jerusalem. Attached to this expectation of God's intervention was the hope of a personal Messiah who would lead Israel (e.g., Isaiah 9:1-6; 11:1-9; Jeremiah 23:1-4; Ezekiel 34; Micah 5:1-3; Zechariah 9:9-10 ). The hope of restoration for Israel, of vindication of Israel, and of salvation for Israel were all intertwined in second temple Judaism and out of this hope grew Matthew's conviction that the story of Israel acquired its conclusive chapter in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph. Such is the implication of Matthew's genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17 ).

In short, Matthew presents the story of Israel from a radically new angle: from the beginning (cf. the citations of the Old Testament in Matthew 1:18-2:23 ) it was God's purpose to bring the Messiah to Israel for the deliverance of Israel (1:21). This Messiah is Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph (1:18-25). The story is now different: those who follow Jesus are the true descendants of Abraham and they alone will enjoy the covenantal faithfulness of Israel's God. This covenant with Abraham, however, has been renewed in the new covenantal arrangement established by Jesus (26:26-30).

Thus, the theology of Matthew is salvation-historical and christological in orientation. Who is this Jesus, according to Matthew? Jesus is the one who, as Messiah (1:1), fulfills the messianic expectations of the Old Testament, and who, as Son of God, brings the salvation of God (cf. 3:17; 11:27; 17:5; 27:54). As the Son of God, Jesus teaches the will of God (5:17-20) and inaugurates the kingdom by obeying God's will (cf. 3:15; 4:17; 8:16-17; 20:28). In Matthew's Gospel the kingdom of heaven (a Jewish expression for kingdom of God) is understood as the rule of God, through Jesus, in power and righteousness, in love and forgiveness.

Matthew's Theology . There are at least four questions that Matthew's theology answers. Who are we? Where are we in history and location? What is the problem we face? What is the solution of God to our problem?

Who Are We? Matthew's Gospel presents the answer to this complex question in the simplest of terms: we, the readers of Matthew and the followers of Jesus (4:18-22; 28:16-20), are the church (16:18; 18:17), the true and New Israel. We are the true successors of Abraham's physical descendants (3:7-10) who are now bringing forth the fruits God wants from his people (21:33-44).

The presupposition of this answer is that Israel has persisted too long in sin but God, in his grace, has brought the Messiah to his people to reveal his grace and truth. This Messiah, through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection, has inaugurated the kingdom of heaven. All those who respond to Jesus in faith and covenantal faithfulness enjoy that kingdom (4:17; 8:14-17; 16:21; 20:28; 26:29).

Where Are We? Matthew presents the new people of God as a people inhabiting a world that is the preliminary life to a fuller, more glorious life that will come when the Son of Man appears in his glory (16:28; 25:1-46). Thus, the church is the people of God, participating in Israel's long story, and is living just beyond the fork in the road that separated physical Israel from eschatological Israel (the church). Put differently, the exile of Israel ends its awful time in the birth of the Messiah (cf. 1:11-12,1:16-17). Thus, the church is in the world, living in the era of the Messiah who inaugurates the restoration of Israel, but still awaiting (with the rest of Israel's history) the final age that comes when the Son of Man appears to bring God's promises to Israel to their consummation.

What Is Our Problem? The problem of Israel, and therefore of the new people of God, is the disobedience of Israel, which is related to the rule of Rome as God's punishment for disobedience, and, for the church especially, the presence of "weeds" among the wheat (i.e., the dawn of the kingdom of God but the remaining presence of unbelievers and sin 13:24-30,36-43). Matthew's Gospel, it must be inferred, also addresses the moral lethargy that seems to be facing the church—hence, Matthew's extreme emphasis on righteous living and the final judgment (5-7; 23; 25:31-46). Thus, the Gospel addresses the problem of an Israel still led by the Pharisees even though it is clear that God's Messiah, Jesus, has appointed the apostles as the new shepherds for the new Israel (9:35-11:1; 23).

What Is the Solution? The words of Jesus, quoted early in Matthew's Gospel, spell out the solution: "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near" (4:17, NRSV). All of Israel must now turn to Jesus, the Messiah, at this crucial juncture in history, and in so doing must turn from sin to follow Jesus, the way the disciples of Jesus did (4:18-22). The implications of repentance and following Jesus are explicated in the Sermon on the Mount (chaps. 5-7), a sermon that is designed by Matthew to present to the church the covenantal demand of God for the new people of God. Furthermore, the church is to live patiently in a suffering world and wait for God's judgment on the unfaithful leaders of Israel and those who follow them (23:1-24:36). At that time, the apostles of Jesus will reign (19:28). Once again, however, this solution presupposes the life and ministry of Jesus: through Jesus God's salvation, the kingdom of God, has come to the people of God (1:21).

Symbols of Matthew . Every religious movement has its own symbols, whether liturgical or ideological. Matthew's symbols include the Messiah, the Torah (as understood by Jesus), the church as the new people of God, baptism, and the Lord's Supper.

Symbols function to mark off one's community and, through use and remembrance, to reinforce one's perception of the world and the story one writes to understand that world. Those out of whom the church grew were Jews, and Jews had a rich heritage of symbols. Those symbols were the temple, the land of Israel, the physical heritage from Abraham, and the Torah, God's covenantal arrangement with Israel. Any reading of Matthew highlights the tension the followers of Jesus encountered with these symbols. The temple, according to Jesus, was defiled and needed to be cleansed (21:12-17). Physical heritage from Abraham no longer mattered because what mattered was following Jesus (3:7-10; 8:5-13; 15:21-28; 21:33-44; 28:16-20). While the Torah may well have had continuing guiding force in the church of Matthew, it is abundantly clear that the Torah of Moses was now fulfilled in Jesus' teaching and life (5:17-20,21-48). Thus, apart from the symbol of the land, Matthew's theology is at odds with the standard symbols of Judaism. Such tension over symbols leads to, and probably already reflects, the formation of a new people, the church.

In the place of temple, Israel, and Torah, the church seems to have developed new symbols. Replacing Torah as the central symbol of the church was Jesus, the fulfillment of God's revelation to Israel. Furthermore, Jesus also taught a new ethic; this ethic, what Paul called the "law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2 ), formed a replacement of the Torah symbol in Judaism. The foundation of Israel's faith was the covenant God made with Abraham to multiply the descendants of Abraham, forming a massive nation for God (Genesis 12:1-3 ). The faithfulness of Israel's God to the nation of Israel was the bedrock of Israel's confidence in God. What Matthew's Gospel presents is the formation of the church, the New Israel, which is the replacement of Israel in the age of the kingdom of heaven (21:33-44). This new people, then, forms a new symbol: the followers of Jesus, while they may have seen themselves as true Jews, saw themselves as the church, the new Israel of God. Just as important is the consciousness that this new Israel of God is transnational in its essence; the new people of God is not just comprised of those who are physical descendants of Abraham but of all who follow Jesus (2:1-12; 8:5-13; 15:21-28; 27:54; 28:16-20). It was this conviction, the denationalization of the people of God, which created a great deal of social disturbance in the mission of Paul in the diaspora; we can only assume that Matthew's bold convictions led to as much, if not more, disturbance.

As for the land symbol, we have almost no evidence in Matthew, apart from the possibility that the third beatitude may have been understood as promising the inheritance of the "land" (the Greek word is ge and could be understood as "land") for those who are meek followers of Jesus (5:5). If this is the case (and it is far from clear), it would suggest that Matthew believed that the land would be inherited by the meek followers of Jesus, not by Israel per se. On the other hand, the depictions of the future in Matthew are not tied into promises of the land. Thus, the grand visions of Matthew 24:37-25:46 are more otherworldly and less this-worldly. If these formed the essence of the hope for the community of Matthew, then we are bound to conclude that land simply did not figure in Matthew's theology of the future. This would again form a distinct tension with the land symbol of Judaism.

Symbols that did seem to function sociologically and theologically in Matthew are baptism and the Lord's Supper. Jesus was baptized (3:13-17) and so were his followers; he commands his apostles to baptize those who commit themselves to Jesus (28:16-20). In fact, this baptism is in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, demonstrating the theological convictions inherent to such a commitment. And this baptism was the prelude to a life of obedience to all the commandments of Jesus (28:20), surely an allusion in part to the Sermon on the Mount.

The Lord's Supper, as we have become accustomed to naming it, was the last Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples. As such, it was a reenactment of the story of Israel's deliverance from the bondage of Egypt; the reformation of this meal into Jesus' last supper as a meal of remembrance, not of Egypt but of his death, demonstrates that Jesus saw his role in Israel's history as the antitype of the deliverance of Israel from slavery. In the same way, the death of Jesus is a ransom price paid for the salvation of the new people of God (cf. 20:28). Jesus, then, by swallowing up the Passover meal into a remembrance-of-him meal, forms the covenantal basis of the new covenant (26:28) that brings the forgiveness of sins.

Praxis . If orthopraxy was more central to Israel's perception of its faith than orthodoxy, then (with little adjustment) the same can apparently be said of Matthew. Matthew's Gospel is synonymous with the demand of God for righteousness. To become a Christian, or more particular a part of Matthew's church, meant to follow Jesus and following Jesus involved a whole-hearted commitment to a life of righteousness and love.

Righteousness . This term was used in Judaism for a life of obedience to the will of God, expressed most clearly and finally in the Law of Moses. Matthew's Gospel uses the same term as the crucial term for those who are pleasing to God but it now has an added dimension that shifts the meaning dramatically. Whereas righteousness in Judaism described those who lived according to the Law faithfully (Matthew 1:19 , of Joseph ), now it describes those who live faithfully according to the teachings of Jesus, who brought the fulfillment of the Law (5:17). Thus, Jesus expects his followers to live in a way that is superior ("exceeds") to the way of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). Thus, those who are righteous are blessed by Jesus (5:6,10); however, the "piety" (in Greek the word is "righteous Acts") of those who follow Jesus is not to be done in such a way that it attracts attention to the doer of such deeds (6:1). The whole of life is to be directed by a pursuit of righteousness (6:33). In fact, the entirety of the Sermon on the Mount can be understood as the exposition of Jesus of the "way of righteousness."

Love . If Jesus demanded that his followers obey him, and those who were obedient to his will would be called "righteous, " it is also the case that he called his followers to a life of love: for God and for others. As Jesus showed his compassion for others by healing them and helping them (9:32-34), so the followers of Jesus were to do the same (10:5-8). As Jesus was willing to reach out to help people of all nations (15:21-28), so the disciples were charged to make their love transnational (5:44-45; 28:16-20). Thus, the foundation of the tension the church had with Israel over the symbolic value of the nation of Israel may have been rooted in Jesus' teaching to love and minister to all nations. This universal love will be a fundamental factor in the final judgment of God (25:31-46). Thus, according to Jesus, love of God and others is the greatest commandment (22:37-40).

Mission . While righteousness and love may have been the key ingredients to a life that is pleasing to God, another feature of praxis in Matthew's Gospel is mission. As Jesus was "sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (10:5-6; 15:24), so Jesus sends the disciples out to carry on and extend this very mission of saving the people of God (1:21; 10:5-8). Thus, the disciples' efforts are rooted in prayer (9:37-38); they go as a result of the choice of Jesus (10:2-4); they are to extend Jesus' mission (vv. 5-8); they are to expect opposition (vv. 17-25); and they are to remain faithful and fearless in their proclamation (vv. 26-39). One could speculate that this short discourse quickly became a manual for Christian missionary work. In fact, the structure of the Gospel itself is the constant interchange Jesus has with others as he continually evangelizes Israel with the message and ministry of the kingdom of heaven. The climax of the Gospel itself is the sending out of the apostles to bring the message of Jesus to "all nations" (28:16-20). Typifying the movement from a national Israel to a transnational church, we can compare the coming of the Gentile magi to Jerusalem (2:1-12) to the departure of the apostles from Jerusalem to Galilee of the Gentiles to carry out the mission of Jesus to "all nations" (28:16-20).

Summary . What we find in Matthew's Gospel is a retelling of the story of Israel in such a way that the story itself is both new and old. Clearly, the author of Matthew saw the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel in Jesus and in the new people of God he formed, the church. In retelling the story, Matthew picks up the central themes of Israel's message and recasts them in light of an overall christological orientation. God is one, but now is flanked by the Son and the Spirit. Israel is the people of God, elected by God and chosen to be his faithful heritage; however, this people of God is now fulfilled in the church, the body of those who trust and obey Jesus, the Messiah. Put differently, it might be said that the church is the true remnant. And this new people of God is united by a new covenant, in fulfillment of Jeremiah 31 , the remembrance meal that recalls for the church the saving death of Jesus. The eschatological hopes of Israel, looked forward to throughout the history of Israel, are now presented by Matthew as having been partially fulfilled in Jesus and the church. What remains from that hope is the glorious climax, when the Son of Man will return with his holy angels to reward each person according to that person's life (16:28).

Scot McKnight

Bibliography . J. D. G. Dunn, The Partings of the Ways; R. T. France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher; J. D. Kingsbury, Matthew: Structure, Christology, Kingdom; S. McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, pp. 411-16,526-41; B. Przybylski, Righteousness in Matthew and His World of Thought; N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God .

Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Matthew, Theology of'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

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