Good morning! Today and for the next three months, we’ll be in the New(er) Testament, first reading four gospel stories of Jesus, then reading the stories of the early church before a final over-the-top picture of the end times in the book of Revelation. We’re jumping a few centuries since yesterday’s reading in Malachi. A great deal happens in the “intertestamental” period, and Karen Hansen posted a very helpful link yesterday to help us all figure out how things have changed since the temple’s reconstruction. Here are just a few highlights of what happened in Palestine: Greeks under Alexander the Great defeat the Persians and take over, Romans defeat the Greeks and take over, then Roman emperors install Jewish kings like Herod the Great as surrogate rulers. We’ll hear more about the implications of Roman rule as we go forward, but several immediate implications are that the Hebrew people disagree about whether to resist or accept Roman rule (and their hand-picked overlords), they have to pay exorbitant taxes to Rome via the local powers, and they live with Roman military forces occupying their country, acting at will. All this will influence what happens in the gospel stories of Jesus’ life, including Matthew, which we begin today.
Matthew’s gospel appropriately comes on the heels of the prophets we’ve been reading for the past several months, because there’s such an emphasis in this text on Jesus’ fulfilment of earlier prophecies. These first three “synoptic” gospels [meaning “viewed together”) all tell such similar stories about Jesus that they sometimes borrow verbatim from each other. Yet each has its own unique emphases. Other signatures of Matthew’s gospel are its deep awareness of Hebrew customs, such as when Jesus speaks of the “kingdom of heaven” rather than the “kingdom of God”, because mentioning God directly risked taking God’s name in vain. Matthew also uses “heavenly” imagery such as stars, angels and dreams to further the plot. Overall, what matters for Matthew is that Jesus was a faithful Jew in every way, and who is the Messiah (the “anointed one”, a very Jewish term used previously for kings like David). Though nobody expected the Messiah to die as Jesus did, Matthew writes to persuade Jewish skeptics that Jesus is the heroic and righteous king they’ve been waiting centuries to see.
I’ll try to summarize the most important things of note in Matthew 1-4, but it’s hard because there’s so much that’s significant here! Consider the opening genealogy. I’ll never forget the lecture in my New Testament class that introduced me to the four women mentioned among all the men. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (the “wife of Uriah”) are all what my professor called “shady ladies”. We’ve read about them in the Hebrew Scriptures. Each has some connection to sexual misadventure, such that they wouldn’t be front-page fare for Ladies’ Home Journal. Yet their inclusion here makes Matthew’s implicit point that God works through all sorts of people to bring forth the Messiah. It foreshadows Jesus’ own concern for those who are left behind and overlooked.
The story of Jesus’ birth includes no mention of a census or of being in Bethlehem, familiar elements to Christians from Luke’s account. Instead, Matthew emphasizes Joseph and his righteousness. We also read that “all this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet…”, which is just the first of many fulfilment passages here and throughout this gospel. The wise men from the east are not necessarily three in number, though that’s the guess because there are three gifts. Prophecy again leads them to Bethlehem, which is the first we hear of the family found there. Note also that contrary to most manger scenes, the visit by the magi comes up to two years after Jesus’ birth since Herod chooses those several years old to kill. Wise ones from far off symbolize the whole world being affected by this birth. Finally among the infancy narratives, the flight to Egypt and Herod’s slaughter of innocents are both told to emphasize again the fulfilment of prophecy.
Chapters 3 and 4 relate the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as an adult. John the Baptist is another prophetic figure critiquing hypocritical Jewish leaders at this same time, and his relationship with Jesus seems to need explaining, because John baptizes Jesus, yet Jesus develops a far greater following over time. Each gospel resolves this issue differently. Matthew suggests that John wants to submit to Jesus, but Jesus chooses to have John baptize him anyway. Following close on the heels of this encounter are the temptation and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Satan here continues to be the skeptic and tempter, testing the faithfulness of one of God’s people (just like Job). Each time, Jesus answers with scripture (revealing Matthew’s priorities again). Jesus recruiting the first disciples makes sure they come in pairs and not alone. Jesus is immediately popular, and the instant fame makes one thing clear—this is gonna be ‘uge. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Matthew 5-7. Thanks for reading!