The Gospel of Matthew bridges the gap between the testaments, swinging back to gather up prophecies and going forward into the future, the first to mention the church by name. Matthew presents Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah and King. And though originally written to Jewish people, we today can see Jesus Christ in a fresh new light.
The Gospel of Matthew, although it is only twenty–eight chapters long, is a very important book. In fact, Genesis and Matthew are the two key books of the Bible.
As we come today to the Gospel of Matthew, I’d like to bridge the gap between the Old Testament and the New Testament because, in order to appreciate and to have a right understanding of the New Testament, it is almost essential to know something about this period of approximately four hundred years. This is the time span between the days of Nehemiah and Malachi and the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. You see, after Malachi had spoken, heaven went silent. Station G O D went off the air, and there was no broadcasting for four hundred years. Then one day the angel of the Lord broke in upon the time of prayer when there was a priest by the name of Zacharias standing at the altar in Jerusalem. The angel gave the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist who was the forerunner of the Lord Jesus. We shall see later how important John the Baptist is in the Gospel of Matthew.
We find that a great deal took place in this interval of four hundred years even though it is a silent period as far as Scripture is concerned. This period was a thrilling and exciting time in the history of these people, and in many ways it was also a tragic time. The internal condition of Judah experienced a radical transformation. A new culture, different institutions, and unfamiliar organizations arose in this period, and many of these new things appear in the New Testament.
World history had made tremendous strides in the interval between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament closed with the Medo–Persian Empire being the dominant power. Also, Egypt was still a power to be reckoned with in world politics. During the interval between the testaments, both faded from the scene as outstanding nations. World power shifted from the East to the West, from the Orient to the Occident, from Asia to Europe, and from Medo–Persia to Greece. When the New Testament opens, a new power, Rome, is the world ruler. A consideration of some important dates will give a bird’s–eye view of this great transition period. (Because historians differ in their dating, consider these dates as approximate.)
480 b.c. Xerxes, the Persian, was victorious against the Greeks at Thermopylae but was defeated at the battle of Salamis. Actually, it was a storm that defeated him. This was the last bid of the East for world dominion.
333 b.c. Out of the West there came that “goat” which Daniel records in the eighth chapter of Daniel. This was Alexander the Great, the goat with the great horn. He led the united Greek forces to victory over the Persians at Issus.
332 b.c. Alexander the Great visited Jerusalem. He was shown the prophecy of Daniel which spoke of him; therefore he spared Jerusalem. Jerusalem was one of the few cities that he ever spared.
323 b.c. Alexander died way over in Persia. Apparently he had intended to move the seat of his empire there. Then the world empire of both East and West was divided among his four generals.
320 b.c. Judea was annexed to Egypt by Ptolemy Soter.
312 b.c. Seleucus founded the kingdom of the Seleucidae, which is Syria. He attempted to take Judea, and so Judea became the battleground between Syria and Egypt. This little country became a buffer state.
203 b.c. Antiochus the Great took Jerusalem, and Judea passed under the influence of Syria.
170 b.c. Antiochus Epiphanes took Jerusalem and defiled the temple. He had been mentioned in Daniel as the “little horn” (Dan. 8:9). He has been called the “Nero of Jewish history.”
166 b.c. Mattathias, the priest of Judea, raised a revolt against Syria. This is the beginning of the Maccabean period. Probably the nation of Israel has never suffered more than during this era, and they were never more heroic than during this interval. Judas Maccabaeus, whose name means “the hammer,” was the leader who organized the revolt.
63 b.c. Pompey, the Roman, took Jerusalem, and the people of Israel passed under the rulership of a new world power. They were under Roman government at the time of the birth of Jesus and throughout the period of the New Testament.
40 b.c. The Roman senate appointed Herod to be king of Judea. There never has been a family or a man more wicked than this. One can talk about the terrible Mafia, but this family would exceed them all.
37 b.c. Herod took Jerusalem and slew Antigonus, the last of the Maccabean king–priests.
31 b.c. Caesar Augustus became emperor of Rome.
19 b.c. The construction of the Herodian temple was begun. The building had been going on quite awhile when our Lord was born and was still continuing during the time of the New Testament.
4 b.c. Our Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Radical changes took place in the internal life of the nation of Judea because of their experiences during the intertestamental period. After the Babylonian captivity, they turned from idolatry to a frantic striving for legal holiness. The Law became an idol to them. The classic Hebrew gave way to the Aramaic in their everyday speech, although the Hebrew was retained for their synagogues. The synagogue seems to have come into existence after the captivity. It became the center of their life in Judea and everywhere else they went in the world. Also, there arose among these people a group of parties which are mentioned in the New Testament and are never even heard of in the Old Testament:
1. PHARISEES—The Pharisees were the dominant party. They arose to defend the Jewish way of life against all foreign influences. They were strict legalists who believed in the Old Testament. They were nationalists in politics and wanted to restore the kingdom to the line of David. So they were a religo–political party. Today we would call them fundamental theologically and to the far right politically.
2. SADDUCEES—The Sadducees were made up of the wealthy and socially–minded who wanted to get rid of tradition. By the way, does that remind you of the present hour? Isn’t it interesting that the rich families of this country are liberal? The crumbs still fall from the rich man’s table. They are willing to give the crumbs, but they don’t give their wealth, that is sure. The Sadducees were liberal in their theology, and they rejected the supernatural. Thus they were opposed to the Pharisees. The Sadducees were closely akin to the Greek Epicureans whose philosophy was “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” We may have a mistaken idea of the Sadducees. Actually, they were attempting to attain the “good life.” They thought that they could overcome their bodily appetites by satisfying them, that by giving them unbridled reign, they would no longer need attention. In our day, a great many folk have this same philosophy. It did not work in the past; neither will it work today.
3. SCRIBES—The scribes were a group of professional expounders of the Law, stemming back from the days of Ezra. They became the hair–splitters. They were more concerned with the letter of the Law than with the spirit of the Law. When old Herod called in the scribes and asked where Jesus was to be born, they knew it was to be in Bethlehem. You would think that they would have hitchhiked a ride on the back of the camels to go down to Bethlehem to see Him, but they weren’t interested. They were absorbed in the letter of the Law.
My friend, there is a danger of just wanting the information and the knowledge from the Bible but failing to translate it into shoe leather, not letting it become part of our lives. Through study we can learn the basic facts of Scripture, and all the theological truth contained in it, without allowing the Word of God to take possession of our hearts. The scribes fell into such a category. In our own day, I must confess that some of the most hard–hearted people I meet are fundamentalists. They are willing to rip a person apart in order to maintain some little point. It is important to know the Word of God—that is a laudable attainment—but also we are to translate it into life and pass it on to others.
4. HERODIANS—The Herodians were a party in the days of Jesus, and they were strictly political opportunists. They sought to maintain the Herods on the throne, because they wanted their party in power.
The intertestamental period was a time of great literary activity in spite of the fact there was no revelation from God. The Old Testament was translated into Greek in Alexandria, Egypt, during the period from 285 to 247 b.c. It was translated by six members from each of the twelve tribes; hence, the name given to this translation was Septuagint, meaning “seventy.” This translation was used by Paul, and our Lord apparently quoted from it.
The Apocrypha of the Old Testament was written in this era. These are fourteen books which bear no marks of inspiration. There are two books classified as the Pseudepigrapha, Psalter of Solomon and the Book of Enoch. They bear the names of two characters of the Old Testament, but there is no evidence that these two men were the writers.
Although this was a period marked by the silence of God, it is evident that God was preparing the world for the coming of Christ. The Jewish people, the Greek civilization, the Roman Empire, and the seething multitudes of the Orient were all being prepared for the coming of a Savior, insomuch that they produced the scene which Paul labeled, in Galatians 4:4, “the fulness of time.” The four Gospels are directed to the four major groups in the world of that day.
The Gospel of Matthew was written to the nation Israel. It was first written in Hebrew, and it was directed primarily to the religious man of that time.
The Gospel of Mark was directed to the Roman. The Roman was a man of action who believed that government, law, and order could control the world. A great many people feel that is the way it should be done today. It is true that there must be law and order, but the Romans soon learned that they couldn’t rule the world with that alone. The world needed to hear about One who believed in law and order but who also offered the forgiveness of sins and the grace and the mercy of God. This is the Lord whom the Gospel of Mark presents to the Romans.
The Gospel of Luke was written to the Greek, to the thinking man.
The Gospel of John was written directly for believers but indirectly for the Orient where there were the mysterious millions, all crying out in that day for a deliverance.
There is still a crying out today from a world that needs a Deliverer. The religious man needs Christ and not religion. The man of power needs a Savior who has the power to save him. The thinking man needs One who can meet all his mental and spiritual needs. And certainly the wretched man needs to know about a Savior who not only can save him but build him up so that he can live for God.
The Gospel of Matthew was written by a publican whom the Lord Jesus had put His hand upon in a very definite way (see Matt. 9:9). He was a follower, a disciple, of the Lord Jesus. Papias says, Eusebius confirms, and other of the apostolic fathers agree, that this Gospel was written originally by Matthew in Hebrew for the nation Israel, a religious people.
I don’t have time to give the background of all this, but God has prepared this whole nation for the coming of Christ into the world. And He did come of this nation, as the Lord Jesus Himself said, “… salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). It was a great German historian who said that God prepared the Savior to come out of Israel—“salvation is of the Jews”—and He prepared the heathen for salvation, because they were lost and needed it.
This remarkable book is a key book of the Bible because it swings back into the Old Testament and gathers up more Old Testament prophecies than any other book. One might expect it to do this since it was first written to the Jews. But then, it moves farther into the New Testament than any of the other Gospels. For instance, no other Gospel writer mentions the church by name; but Matthew does. He is the one who relates the Word of our Lord, “… upon this rock I will build my church …” (Matt. 16:18). Even Renan, the French skeptic, said of this Gospel that it “is the most important book in Christendom, the most important that has ever been written.” That is a remarkable statement coming from him! Matthew, a converted publican, was the choice of the Spirit of God to write this Gospel primarily to the people of Israel.
The Gospel of Matthew presents the program of God. The “Kingdom of Heaven” is an expression which is peculiar to this Gospel. It occurs thirty–two times. The word kingdom occurs fifty times. A proper understanding of the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” is essential to any interpretation of this Gospel and of the Bible. May I make this statement right now, and I do make it categorically and dogmatically: The Kingdom and the church are not the same. They are not synonymous terms. Although the church is in the Kingdom, there is all the difference in the world.
For instance, Los Angeles is in California, but Los Angeles is not California. If you disagree, ask the people from San Francisco. California is not the United States, but it is in the United States. The Chamber of Commerce may think it is the United States, but it’s not. It’s only one–fiftieth of it.
Likewise, the church is in the Kingdom, but the Kingdom of Heaven, simply stated, is the reign of the heavens over the earth. The church is in this Kingdom. Now I know that theologians have really clouded the atmosphere, and they certainly have made this a very complicated thing. Poor preachers like I am must come up with a simple explanation, and this is it: the Kingdom of Heaven is the reign of the heavens over the earth. The Jews to whom this Gospel was directed understood the term to be the sum total of all the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the coming of a King from heaven to set up a kingdom on this earth with heaven’s standard. This term was not new to them (see Dan. 2:44; 7:14, 27).
The Kingdom of Heaven is the theme of this Gospel. The One who is going to establish that Kingdom on the earth is the Lord Jesus. The Kingdom is all important. The Gospel of Matthew contains three major discourses concerning the Kingdom.
- The Sermon on the Mount. That is the law of the Kingdom. I think it is only a partial list of what will be enforced in that day.
- The Mystery Parables. These parables in Matthew 13 are about the Kingdom. Our Lord tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a sower, like a mustard seed, and so on.
- The Olivet Discourse. This looks forward to the establishment of the Kingdom here upon this earth.
It will be seen that the term “Kingdom of Heaven” is a progressive term in the Gospel of Matthew. This is very important for us to see. There is a movement in the Gospel of Matthew, and if we miss it, we’ve missed the Gospel. It is like missing a turn–off on the freeway. You miss it, brother, and you’re in trouble. So if we miss the movement in this marvelous Gospel, we miss something very important.
This Gospel is very much like the Book of Genesis. They are two key books of the Bible, and you really should be familiar enough with these two books so that you can think your way through them. I will be giving you chapter headings so you can learn to think your way through the book. I would tell my students in former days, “When you can’t sleep at night, don’t count sheep. Instead, think your way through Genesis. Then think your way through the Gospel of Matthew. Take it up chapter by chapter. Chapter One: what is it about? Chapter Two: what is it about? If you say to me that you don’t like counting sheep or chapters, then talk to the Shepherd, but the finest way to talk to the Shepherd is to go through these two books. That will help you to get acquainted with Him and come to know Him.” By the way, it’s more important to have Him talk to us than for us to talk to Him. I don’t know that I’ve got too much to tell Him, but He has a lot to tell me. I suggest that you learn the chapters of Matthew so that you don’t miss the movement in them.
Now I want to give you one way of dividing the Gospel of Matthew. I’ll follow a little different division, but this will help you to think it through. It is important to know Matthew in order to understand the Bible!
- Person of the King: Chapters 1–2
- Preparation of the King: Chapters 2–4:16
- Propaganda of the King: Chapters 4:17–9:35
- Program of the King: Chapters 9:36–16:20
- Passion of the King: Chapters 16:21–27:66
- Power of the King: Chapter 28
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 34: Matthew (Chs. 1-13). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)