The Gospel of Matthew Bible Study: Introduction (with Ben Witherington)

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Key Observation: The Gospel of Matthew’s distinctive portrait of Jesus focuses on Jesus as God’s Wisdom come in person (Immanuel) and as a wise teacher.

The Gospel of Matthew was the most popular of the four Gospels in the first few centuries of Christianity. It was written for Jewish Christians who were familiar with the Old Testament and especially with Jewish Wisdom Literature (for example, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach). The First Evangelist seeks to present Jesus as both a wise man and as God’s wisdom incarnate, God come in person to his people, Immanuel (which means “God with us”). Thus, we have six blocks of teaching in this Gospel, beginning with Matthew 5–7, which depict Jesus as one even greater than Moses or Solomon, whose teaching is the definitive revelation of God’s will for his people. Not surprisingly, it was this Gospel that was used repeatedly in the early church for discipling new Christians, teaching them what they should believe, how they should behave, and how to practice their faith in terms of prayer, fasting and feasting, almsgiving, worship, and much more.

This Gospel was written in the form of an ancient biography, which did not have the same form as modern biographies. For one thing, sheer limitations of length meant that it had to be much more selective in the material it included. The ancients believed that a person was born with a certain personality and that while it was revealed over time, it was not developed over time. Thus, there was no need to focus on someone’s youth or growth into adulthood. In short, it was an adult-oriented culture.

Just as the origins of a person were believed to reveal much about who a person was, so also it was believed that how a person died most revealed their character. In the case of Jesus, this was problematic since he died in the most shameful way imaginable in antiquity—on a Roman cross. It is for this reason that the Gospel writers spend about one-third of their total account on the last week of Jesus’ life. This shocking end to the life of a person who had been admired by many for his teaching and miracles had to be explained in detail, and for Jewish Christians, it had to be explained in terms of scripture, showing that it was part of God’s plan all along.

Scholars are divided over whether Matthew was a source for this Gospel (perhaps its unique material, perhaps also its collection of six blocks of teaching material) or the final author/editor. In either case, the Gospel reflects a person like Matthew the tax collector, who indeed would have been literate and presumably able to organize source material quite readily.

The structure of the Gospel, which, broadly speaking, follows a chronological outline (birth, baptism, temptation and ministry, climactic final week of life, resurrection, and appearances to disciples), also alternates between the actions of Jesus and the teachings of Jesus. In other words, the Evangelist himself has organized the material in this way within the larger framework of the ministry of Jesus. This was not unusual in an ancient biography. Following a strict chronology of events and activities was not required. The main thing was to be selective and include that material that best revealed the character of the person about whom the biography was written.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What features of Matthew’s Gospel made it popular from the early church until today?
  2. Why do all the Gospel writers, and Matthew in particular, spend so little time on Jesus’ birth and early life and focus so heavily on his final days?

Did you enjoy this entry? Discover our OneBook: Daily-Weekly Bible studies, of which this entry is a part. In this Bible study on the Gospel of Matthew with Dr. Ben Witherington III, we discover Jesus as Matthew presents him—the incarnate wisdom of God that brings the kingdom of heaven to earth. Following the text through the stories, parables, and noting the special miracles, God’s people are presented with the mission and ministry of Jesus the Messiah who fulfills the Jewish Law. At times he raises the standard, other times he authoritatively reinterprets its meaning, and finally, he fulfills its requirements through his life, death, and resurrection. All of this is to widen and deepen the reach of God’s heavenly kingdom, which we discover extends to all people at the end of the Gospel. Get the Bible Study, plus the DVD or streaming portion, in our store here.

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Dr. Witherington joined the Asbury Seminary faculty in 1995. A prolific author, Dr. Witherington has written more than 40 books and six commentaries. He is a John Wesley Fellow for Life, a research fellow at Cambridge University and a member of numerous professional organizations, including the Society of Biblical Literature, Society for the Study of the New Testament and the Institute for Biblical Research. In his leisure time, Dr. Witherington appreciates both music and sports. It is hard to say which sound he prefers: the sophisticated sonance of jazz sensation Pat Metheny or the incessant tomahawk chant of the Atlanta Braves faithful. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, he is a dedicated Tar Heels basketball and football fan. He and his wife, Ann, have two children.

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