Have you ever discovered a word that you had never heard before, and then suddenly you seem to hear it all the time? I’ve had that experience numerous times and each time I recognize that it can’t possibly be the case that the word was just invented. It must have been around all along, but I hadn’t noticed it.
You may have had that experience with the Bible. There are themes there that we can pass by unknowingly for years. Then when our attention is called to it, we seem to see it all over the Bible.
There are several such themes in the book of Matthew that would be beneficial for us to recognize now before we begin our study of the book toward the end of this month. If we go into the study aware of these themes, we will recognize them more readily and be able to see how Matthew is weaving the narrative together to accomplish the purpose of his Gospel.
Any list of the “most important” themes is going to be somewhat subjective, so I cannot claim that my list is in any way inspired. I will just note that in my opinion these are the most obvious and most important.
1. The Identity of Christ – Matthew will take great care in establishing who Jesus is. The first several chapters serve to demonstrate Christ’s credentials before we ever hear Him speak. However, this demonstration does not stop after these initial chapters, but precedes through the rest of the book.
The author accomplishes this in at least two ways. First, he establishes who Jesus is through the titles assigned to Him. In the very first verse of the book, He is called Jesus Christ, which is the Greek word for “messiah.” A Jewish audience would have recognized right away that a major claim was being made about this Jesus – He is the Messiah of the Old Testament, the fulfillment of the promised restoration and salvation of God’s people. Later in the first chapter, He is called Immanuel, the “with us God.” In 2:2, the wise men identify Him as the king of the Jews. Eight times, He is identified as the Son of God. This designation is verified by God Himself both at Jesus’ baptism (3:17, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”) and the Transfiguration (17:5, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him”). He is called the Son of Man 30 times.
Second, Matthew establishes who Jesus is through what He does. Jesus fulfills all righteousness (3:15), defeats the devil (4:1-11), fulfills the Law (5:17), teaches with authority (7:29), cleanses lepers (8:1-4), heals the sick (8:14-17), calms the sea (8:18-22), casts out demons (8:28-34), forgives sin (9:1-8), grants authority (10:1), heals on the Sabbath (12:1-14), feeds the crowds (14:13-21), walks on water (14:22-33), challenges legalism (15:1-9), builds the Church (16:13-20), foretells His own death (16:21-23), cleanses the temple (21:12-17), condemns the hypocrites (23:1-36), predicts the eschaton (24-25), institutes a new covenant (26:26-29), suffers silently (27:11-14), dies on the cross (27:50), rises from the dead (28:1-10), and commission the spread of the gospel to all nations (28:18-20).
All of these titles and actions proclaim the same message. This is the Son of God.
2. Fulfillment of the Old Testament – Matthew vigorously quotes the Old Testament, presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of the hopes and promises of the Old Testament. He does this in at least three ways. First, He is the fulfillment of Old Testament messianic prophecy. Twenty times, Matthew cites specific OT references as being fulfilled in the life of Jesus. Ten of these are unique to Matthew’s Gospel. Five are in the first two chapters alone. These fulfillments took place all the way from His conception (1:22-23) to His Passion (27:9).
Second, Jesus fulfills the Law. The most explicit reference to this is found in the Sermon on the Mount in 5:17-19: “ Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
In the section that follows, Jesus corrects various misinterpretations of the Law and calls His disciples to obey the spirit of the Law. He also condemns the Pharisees for elevating the traditions of the elders to the same level as Scripture (15:1-9).
Third, He serves as the anti-type of Israel, succeeding where Israel failed. For example, from the end of ch2 through ch4, Jesus follows the same path as the Jews, coming out of Egypt, going through a body of water, and entering the wilderness for testing. In the temptation narrative in particular, Jesus is tempted in the same ways Israel was, yet He obeys where they did not.
This theme demonstrates that Christ is the fulfillment of God’s grand plan, the culmination of salvation history. He has brought salvation to God’s people.
We will look at the other major themes next time. If you are reading through Matthew yourself, look for these two themes as you go.