I. Introduction to Jesus’ Ministry (1:1–4:16)
II. Development of Jesus’ Ministry (4:17–16:20)
III. Climax of Jesus’ Ministry (16:21–28:20)
Purpose and Theology. Matthew most likely wrote his Gospel for several reasons. (1) He wanted to convince non-Christian Jews of the truth of Christianity. (2) He sought to explain to Christians how their religion is the fulfillment of God’s promises and patterns of activity in the Old Testament. (3) He wanted to give young believers basic instructions in Christian living. (4) He wanted to encourage his church in the midst of persecution from hostile authorities in both Jewish and Roman circles. (5) He desired to deepen Christian faith by supplying more details about Jesus’ words and works.
Preparation for Ministry (3:1–4:16) Matthew jumped abruptly to Jesus’ adulthood, passing over in silence the intervening years of His life. The events of this section set the stage for and culminate in Jesus’ baptism and temptation, both of which would prepare Him for His approximately three-year ministry (about a.d. 27–30). Jesus’ cousin John preceded Him in the public eye, fulfilling the prophecies that one like Elijah would come to prepare the way for the Christ (see 11:7–19, esp. v. 14). He became known as “the Baptist” because he called Jews to repent of their sins and demonstrate the rededication of their lives to God by immersion in water, a rite otherwise largely reserved for Gentile proselytes to Judaism. John vividly taught the lesson that one’s faith is a matter of personal commitment and not a reliance on ancestral pedigree.
Sermon On The Mount (5:1-7:29) – Perhaps no portion of Scripture is as well known as Jesus’ Great Sermon. It begins with the well-loved Beatitudes, which classically exemplify God’s inversion of the world’s values. In His kingdom or reign, those who are considered fortunate include the poor, sorrowing, humble, righteous, merciful, pure, peacemakers, and persecuted. These are precisely those categories of people too many of us tend to despise and ostracize.
These countercultural values could suggest that Jesus intended His followers to withdraw from the world and form separate communities. Matthew 5:13–16 immediately belies any such notion. Disciples must be salt and light, arresting decay and providing illumination for a lost and dying world.
Such radical ideas understandably would have raised the question of the relationship between Jesus’ teaching and the Old Testament. Jesus addressed this topic next. He had not come to abolish the law, yet neither had He come to preserve but rather to “fulfill” it—to bring to completion everything to which it originally pointed. Some believe that Jesus demonstrated just the opposite with His contrasts in verses 21–48. These verses make plain, however, that Jesus was setting up dramatic contrasts between His teaching and the typical interpretations of the law. In some cases He drastically deepened the requirements. He demanded a greater righteousness, as with His discussion of murder, adultery, and divorce. But in other cases He actually set aside certain provisions of the Old Testament in favor of entirely new, internalized regulations, such as with oaths, retaliation, and probably love for enemy.
Throughout these illustrations Jesus used numerous hyperboles. They were not meant to be applied literally, but we nevertheless can understand why portions of this material have been taken as a manifesto for nonviolence in the church and in the world.
Matthew 5:48 closes off this section of the sermon by demonstrating that Jesus was setting forth an ideal. His disciples will never attain to these standards this side of His return, but they are not thereby excused from continuing to strive after those goals.
Matthew 6:1–18 turns to the theme of true versus hypocritical piety. In three closely parallel examples, Jesus treated the practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In each case the motive for correct religious behavior must be to please God rather than fellow humans. In the middle of the second of these topics, on prayer, Jesus gave the classic disciples’ prayer, which has come to be known as the Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer. In it He models all the elements of proper prayer in an appropriate sequence. He presented elements such as praise and adoration, leaving room for God’s sovereign will to override ours; appeal for kingdom priorities to be manifest on the earth; personal petition and pleas for forgiveness contingent on our practice of forgiving others; and prayer for strength to avoid the tempter and his snares.
Matthew 6:19–34 is united by the themes of wealth and worry. Here Jesus contrasted transient, earthly riches with permanent, heavenly riches. If our priorities correctly reside with the latter, God through His people will take care of the former. The implementation of 6:33 presupposes Christian communities who look after the needy in their own midst as well as throughout the world. Matthew 6:22–24 catches us up short with its bold suggestion that money may be the single biggest competitor with God for ultimate allegiance in our lives, particularly for those who are not in the poorest classes of society. Affluent individuals who call themselves Christians need to read verse 24 again and again and ask themselves who they really are serving.
Matthew 7:1–12 rounds out the body of the sermon by discussing how to treat others. First, Jesus called His followers not to be judgmental in their relationships with others. But His illustrations also underline that once we have properly dealt with our own sins, we have the right and responsibility to evaluate others’ behavior and to help them deal with their shortcomings. Second, He reminds us of God’s generosity and desire to give us good gifts, though, after the Beatitudes we dare not define “good” in worldly terms like health and wealth. The well-known Golden Rule brings the body of Jesus’ message to a climax and epitomizes the ethic underlying it all—treat others as you would want to be treated.
Matthew 7:14–27 forms the concluding warning. There are only two possible responses to Jesus’ preaching—obedience or rejection. The narrow versus the wide roads, the good versus the bad fruit, and the wise versus the foolish builders illustrate this warning in three parallel ways. Professions of faith without appropriate changes of lifestyle prove empty. But mere works by themselves do not save; a relationship with Jesus is needed. On Judgment Day many will cry, “Lord, Lord” and appeal to their deeds. Christ will reply, “I never knew you.”
Jesus’ Healing Ministry (8:1–9:34) – Chapters 8–9 present nine miracle stories, all but one dealing with Jesus’ physically healing the sick. As with His preaching, He astonished people with His authority, this time in working miracles. Matthew interrupted his narrative in two places to present Jesus’ teaching on discipleship (8:18–22 and 9:9–17), thus creating three collections of three miracle stories each. The first underlines how Jesus healed the ritually outcast. He deliberately touched the leper, risking defilement, to cure bodily uncleanness. Then He rewarded the Gentile centurion’s unparalleled faith by curing his servant, transcending Jewish boundaries of ethnic uncleanness. Third, He healed Peter’s mother-in-law despite conventional taboos based on gender uncleanness. Matthew characteristically inserted an Old Testament fulfillment quotation to demonstrate how Jesus was accomplishing the mission of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant by all of this.
The first break in the healings occurs with Jesus’ replies to two would-be disciples, both of whom exhibited inadequate responses to His exacting demands. The one man was overeager; the other, undereager. Neither had adequately counted the cost of following Christ. The second group of miracles proves even more dramatic than the first. Jesus stilled a storm, exorcised a Gentile demoniac, and healed a paralytic. In so doing He displayed His power and authority over disaster, demons, and disease. The stilling of the storm is the lone miracle in these two chapters that is not a healing. But Matthew’s reference to Jesus’ “rebuke” employs language characteristic of exorcisms, so perhaps Matthew saw this miracle as a kind of healing of nature.
After this dramatic series of wonders, Jesus could return again to the question of discipleship. This time He received a more adequate response—from Matthew himself. This in turn triggered Jesus’ key pronouncements on the new, radical priorities of His ministry. A correct appreciation for who Christ is, disclosed in the miracles, should lead people to serve Him in discipleship.
The final series of miracle stories includes one passage with two actual healings in it. En route to Jairus’s home, Jesus stopped the flow of blood from a chronically hemorrhaging woman. The delay resulted in His not merely curing Jairus’s daughter but actually raising her from the dead. Next He gave sight to two blind men. Finally, He restored speech to a mute person.
Throughout these three accounts, the crowds that observed Jesus’ miracles began to take sides. In 9:26 Jesus received widespread positive publicity. In 9:31 this continued, but Jesus hinted at possible danger as well. In 9:33–34 the antagonism became explicit. Even as His popularity grew, the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of working His wonders by the devil’s power. This charge reflects consistent Jewish hostility over the next several centuries. Interestingly, rabbinic Judaism never tried to deny that Jesus worked miracles but merely challenged the source of His authority.
Opposition Predicted (9:35–10:42) – Jesus’ second major “sermon” in Matthew proceeds at once. One might entitle it “The Sermon on Mission: To the Jew First and Also to the Greek.” The sermon begins after introductory remarks explaining the need for workers to help Christ proclaim the good news of the kingdom and after a list of the twelve Jesus formally called to this task. It divides sharply into two quite different sections. In 10:5–16 Jesus laid down the stipulations that would apply to the immediate mission He was sending His followers out two-by-two to carry out. They were to travel light and unencumbered, depend on others’ hospitality for their daily provisions, and not stay long with any who remain unresponsive to their message. They were to limit their mission to Jewish territories and communities. As God’s chosen people, the Jews had the right and the privilege of hearing and responding to this latest and fullest revelation from God before the rest of the world did.
From 10:17–42 Jesus broadened His scope far beyond His earthly life and the immediate mission on which the disciples were embarking. He envisaged the prospect of future hostility from both Jews and Gentiles, both frustrated family members and officials in high places with legal authority to persecute and potentially condemn Christ’s followers. He explained the proper reaction to such hostility: Fear God, who can condemn people eternally, more than humans who can merely take away one’s physical life.
As at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus closed His address by reminding His followers that they have only two options—either to give God ultimate allegiance or not. To do so they must acknowledge that they are Jesus’ followers, put God above family, and welcome those who are Christ’s emissaries. Any other choice will lead to Jesus’ disowning them, which results in the loss of eternal life.
Opposition Experienced (11:1–12:50) – The hostilities Jesus predicted the disciples would later experience now began to chase His footsteps as well. In chapter 11 the opposition is implicit; in chapter 12 it becomes explicit. John the Baptist had been arrested and understandably began to question whether he had correctly identified the Messiah-Liberator after all. After sending his disciples to interrogate Christ, he was told to consider Jesus’ mighty deeds and then to make up his own mind.
But if John was doubting Jesus, some in the audience may have been starting to doubt John. So Jesus discussed the Baptist with the crowds. John too came in some unexpected ways but was nevertheless to be viewed as the forerunner, fulfilling Old Testament prophecy about preparation for the Messiah’s advent. In fact, John was the greatest man to live under the old covenant. But he would not live long enough to see Christ’s death and resurrection establish the new covenant, so in that sense even the most insignificant Christian was greater than he. The crowds were not to reject the legitimacy of either Jesus or John. Time would vindicate God’s wisdom in sending each in unexpected fashion. Turning to still a third audience, Jesus began to upbraid, because of their unbelief, the Jewish cities in which He performed most of His miracles. A proper response should imitate His disciples, who generally represented the powerless and insignificant of the world but who accepted the spiritual rest available in Christ.
In chapter 11 no one opposes Jesus directly. In chapter 12 opposition turns explicit and ugly. First, the Jewish authorities called Jesus on the carpet for breaking their Sabbath laws. Although it cannot be proven that Jesus went beyond the infringement of the “oral law” to violating the Old Testament itself, part of the argument Jesus made on His behalf appeals to Old Testament precedent in which the very provisions of the Mosaic law were violated. Matthew reasoned that in Jesus something greater than both David and the temple (the king and priestly cult) is present. Surely very serious infractions indeed would be needed to have elicited the Pharisees’ extreme response. Jesus withdrew from hostilities and in so doing again fulfilled Scripture.
But the antagonism quickly resumed and grew to a fever pitch. Another exorcism led to the identical charge as in 9:34. This time Jesus responded at some length. The Jews dared not accuse Him of being empowered by the devil. They too cast out demons, so their argument could easily turn back on themselves. In fact, it is absurd to imagine Satan warring against himself in this way. More so than any other kind of miracle, the exorcisms should make plain that God’s saving rule had arrived.
Verse 28 offers one of the most crucial texts in all of the Gospels, demonstrating that the kingdom had come with Jesus. Having defended Himself, Jesus then unleashed an attack on His accusers. They had better “come clean” and “show their true colors,” which would disclose the evil intentions of their hearts. In this context appears the troublesome warning against the one unforgivable sin of which Scripture speaks—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Probably we are to understand this sin as the prolonged, hostile, and unrepentant rejection of Jesus as one empowered by the Holy Spirit, which eventually dulls a person’s spiritual sensibilities beyond a point of no return (see Rom. 1:18–32). But we dare never play God and pretend we know who such people are; we would invariably err. And all persons fearful of having committed such sin by that very concern demonstrate that they have not.
If the exorcisms prove inconclusive to the Pharisees, what more indisputable sign could Jesus have offered them? “None,” Jesus responded, save for His resurrection, which, if the other signs had not proved convincing would not likely seem any more decisive (Luke 16:19–31). As at the end of chapter 11, Jesus concluded with the positive alternative. It is not adequate simply to be exorcised. One must replace the emptiness created by the demons’ absence with loyalty to Christ. Those who follow Him and do God’s will thus form His true family, even while some literally related to Him must take a back seat.
Kingdom Parables (13:1–52) – With chapter 13 we reach the midpoint of Matthew’s narrative and a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. The polarization of response to Jesus made it necessary for Him to concentrate on those who remained open to His message. In His third major discourse, He taught by means of parables. Parables are short, metaphorical narratives designed to teach truths about spiritual realities in ways that reveal insights to those open to Jesus’ claims about Himself but that further alienate those who are not so receptive. Even the structure of this sermon reflects the growing polarization. First Jesus addressed the increasingly skeptical crowds, then He turned to His more loyal disciples. The latter do not always catch on any better at first, but they remain faithful and so eventually achieve more profound understanding.
In the more public half of His message, Jesus narrated and interpreted the parable of the sower, told the story of the wheat and the weeds, and recounted the shorter similes of the mustard seed and heaven. The “sower” depicts four kinds of seeds, standing for four ways in which people respond to God’s word. The only adequate, saving response is that which perseveres until it bears a bountiful crop of fruit, notwithstanding the obstacles that may first intervene. The “wheat and weeds” warns against premature, human attempts to usurp God’s role as Judge and Avenger. Despite the attacks of the enemy in the present age, often in the form of professing Christians superficially indistinguishable from the real kind, disciples are not to usurp God’s role. The “mustard seed and leaven” promise great endings for God’s kingdom despite inauspicious beginnings.
When Jesus went indoors to finish His discourse with His disciples, He interpreted the “wheat and weeds” for them. Then He told them a series of short parables. Included are parables of the hidden treasure and pearl of great price, the dragnet, and the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven. The first two depict the inestimable value of the kingdom and the need to sacrifice whatever it takes to enter it. The dragnet resembles the wheat and weeds but with emphasis on final judgment and the only two destinies humanity faces. Verses 51–52 compare the well-schooled Christian to a homeowner who finds valuable treasures in his storehouse, both old and new. This probably is an allusion to continuities as well as discontinuities between old and new covenants.
From Jew to Gentile (13:53–16:20) – Jesus turned in the midst of His teaching from those who refused to respond adequately to His message to those who proved more receptive. In the same way He then turned from those who rejected His miracle-working ministry, in His hometown and homeland, to those outside Israel who would receive Him more gladly. Matthew 13:53–14:12 opens this section by paralleling Jesus’ rejection in His hometown of Nazareth with John’s rejection and execution by his own governor, Herod. Both reflect an inadequate understanding of who Jesus is. The Nazarenes thought Him merely a prophet. Herod thought Jesus was John resurrected.
The main panel of this section extends from 14:13–16:12. Here Jesus revealed Himself as the Bread of life for Jews and Gentiles alike. First He manifested Himself to Israel. He miraculously fed the five thousand from a few loaves and fishes, reminiscent of manna in the wilderness in the days of Moses and the exodus. Jesus was a new and greater Moses, bringing full, spiritual redemption for His people Israel if they would accept it. Then He walked on the water, showing Himself as equal to Yahweh, Lord of wind and waves. The innocuous greeting “It is I” exactly echoes God’s words to Moses from the burning bush (Exod. 3:14). It more literally reads, “I am”—the very meaning of the name of God. Appropriately Jesus’ disciples reached a provisional high point in their understanding of Jesus’ identity as they acclaimed Him “Son of God.” A flurry of healings on the shores of Galilee rounds out this section.
Despite all these attestations of Jesus’ divine origin, the Jewish leaders remained hostile. Matthew 15:1–16:12 thus portrays Jesus’ turning from the Jews to the Gentiles, among whom He received a better welcome. In 15:1–20 Jesus had not left Israel geographically, but He certainly had departed ideologically. Here He challenged all of the Jewish “kosher laws.” As with the Sabbath, one cannot prove that He went beyond breaking the oral laws to infringing on the written law of Moses, but verse 11 certainly sets the stage for this conclusion. Food, as something that goes into people from the outside, could no longer ritually defile them. In 15:21–28 Jesus left Galilee for Syrophoenicia (the regions of Tyre and Sidon) and met a woman Matthew deliberately referred to as Caananite—an archiving label designed to conjure up horrors of Israel’s enemies of old. This woman admitted her secondary place in salvation history (Jesus was sent to the Jews first). But she nevertheless exemplifies “great faith,” reminiscent of the Gentile centurion (whose faith Jesus said surpassed that of all He had found in Israel, 8:10). So Jesus granted her request for her daughter’s healing. Even more dramatically, He reenacted the miracle of the loaves and fishes, this time for four thousand Gentile men and their families. Whereas many Jews had scoffed, these Gentiles “glorified the God of Israel,” particularly as Jesus again performed a host of healing.
Returning to Galilee, His opponents reared their ugly heads at once. Again Jesus met a request for a sign with rebuff. God does not work miracles on demand to satisfy skeptics. Jesus took His disciples and returned immediately to the eastern shores of the lake. En route He warned them against the insidious teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. This combination of rival Jewish factions highlights their hostility against Jesus. They willingly set aside their differences in the face of a common enemy.
The concluding portion of 13:53–16:20 contrasts with the introductory section. There inadequate understandings of Jesus led to His rejection. Here, still in Gentile territory, His disciples, and Peter in particular, correctly identified Him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Matthew 16:13–20 thus forms the famous “confession” on the road to Caesarea Philippi. In response, and only in Matthew’s version of the episode, Jesus praised Peter’s insight as heaven sent and called him the rock on which He would build His church, promising Peter the keys to the kingdom. Nothing of the Roman notions of the papacy or apostolic succession appears here. But Jesus did predict the preeminent role Peter would play as the leader of the infant church in integrating new ethnic groups into the Christian community (see Acts 1–12).
The main body of Matthew’s Gospel and the culmination of Jesus’ public ministry end with a strange warning against spreading the word about Jesus’ true identity. The next verse, with which the final main division of the Gospel begins, will dramatically clarify why.
Correcting Misunderstandings (16:21–17:27) – Immediately on the heels of his triumphant confession of Jesus as Son of God, Peter betrayed a serious flaw in his understanding of that sonship. He was not prepared to hear about the road to the cross, to learn of the suffering Jesus must endure. But a Messiah without an atoning death fits in with the goals of Satan, not the plans of God. In fact, disciples too must be prepared to carry their own crosses, experiencing persecution and even death for their Master when need arises. These verses set the stage for the rest of the Gospel, which narrates the unfolding drama of how Christ was in fact crucified but also resurrected. Glory lies ahead, but the cross must precede the crown.
Jesus, nevertheless, gives His three closest disciples a preview of that glory. He provides a glimpse of His majesty no longer incognito, through the miraculous self-disclosure on a high mountain we have come to call the mount of transfiguration. Matthew 16:28 probably predicts this event. Matthew 17:1–9 describes it in more detail. With Jesus appeared Moses and Elijah, key Old Testament prophets and miracle workers, leading the disciples naturally to ask once more about the prophecies of Elijah’s return. In striking contrast with the triumph of the transfiguration appears the failure of the other nine disciples to work a “simple” miracle for which they had long ago been commissioned (recall 10:8). Jesus rebuked their paltry faith and reassured them that even confidence of the size of the proverbially tiny mustard seed would have been sufficient.
Matthew 17:22–27 rounds off this section as it began—with Christ again predicting His suffering, death, and resurrection. A question about whether or not Jesus paid the temple tax leads Him to teach a remarkable lesson about the freedom of God’s people from the Old Testament laws coupled with the necessity of avoiding unnecessary offense in transgressing them (a balance Paul would repeat in a quite different context in 1 Cor. 8:10).
Humility and Forgiveness (18:1–35) – In his fourth major sermon in Matthew, Jesus began to outline regulations for life in Christian community under the sign of the cross. This discourse divides naturally into two sections. The first focuses on humility; the second, on forgiveness (vv. 15–35). In verses 1–9 Jesus called His disciples to a humble demeanor. Positively, this means adopting a childlike dependence on God. Negatively, it means ruthlessly excising from one’s life anything that could cause another believer to sin. In verses 10–14 Jesus explained why He can command these things of His followers. God has already demonstrated the ultimate humility in leaving His nearly complete flock of ninety-nine sheep to seek to recover one stray.
Closely linked with humility is forgiveness. When believers offend fellow believers, they should seek reconciliation at almost any cost. Verses 15–20 describe the appropriate process but recognize that at times one party will still refuse to be reconciled. When all other measures fail, the unrepentant sinner must be “excommunicated” from the fellowship. But even then the goal is rehabilitative and not punitive. Treating people like pagans or tax-collectors suggests first of all that they are not considered as members of the community. But it also indicates that, even as Jesus dealt with the literal pagans and tax collectors of His day, they are continually to be wooed to repent so that they might return. Decisions made by the church in keeping with the procedures of verses 15–18 will be ratified in heaven. On the other hand, when believers do repent, forgiveness should be unlimited. For in light of the immense sin God has forgiven each of us, a professing Christian’s refusal to forgive a fellow believer who requests it (and demonstrates a change of heart and action) proves so callous that one can only conclude that such a person never truly experienced Christ’s forgiveness in the first place.
True Discipleship (19:1–22:46) – In 19:1 Jesus left Galilee for the final time to begin His fateful journey to Jerusalem, where He met His death. En route He worked but one more miracle, focusing rather on teaching those around Him. He increasingly stressed the nature of discipleship, but as He entered the city, He underlined the theme of impending judgment for Israel.
In 19:1–20:34 Jesus was literally “on the road,” journeying to Judea. Matthew 19:1–20:16 describes three encounters with people who accosted Him with various kinds of questions or demands. First, the Pharisees tried to trap Him by asking Him His views on divorce. In His reply Jesus went beyond both competing schools of Pharisaic thought—the Hillelites, who granted divorce “for any good cause,” and the Shammaites, who limited it to adultery. Instead, He stressed the permanence of marriage as God’s original design. He did agree with Shammai in permitting divorce and remarriage when adultery has already ruptured a union. But unlike Shammai, He did not require it. And very much out of keeping with conventional Jewish sympathies, He pointed out God’s call to some to lead a single, celibate lifestyle.
Second, He dealt with His disciples’ impatience at certain individuals who asked Him to bless their children. As in 18:1–5, He used this opportunity to teach about childlike dependence on God. Third, He responded to the rich young man’s question about how to receive eternal life. His call to this man demanded that he sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow Him in discipleship. He called other people to deal with their money differently (see Luke 19:1–27); but whenever something becomes an obstacle to doing God’s will, it must be jettisoned. This third encounter led Peter, on behalf of the Twelve, to ask what reward they would receive inasmuch as they had left families and possessions behind in their itinerant ministries. Jesus’ answer points to their eternal reward but also hints at manifold compensation in this life, presupposing that fellow disciples share their possessions and functions as a large, extended family (see Mark 10:30).
In 20:17–34 Jesus centered further attention on His “passion,” eliciting contrasting responses from His audiences. Verses 17–19 form the third and final passion prediction. Verses 20–28 illustrate an inappropriate response. James and John, two of the apostles, through a request by their mother, sought status in Jesus’ kingdom and were rebuked. Verses 29–34 illustrate an appropriate response. Two blind men recognized Jesus as Son of David, the legitimate Jewish Messiah, and merely begged for mercy. Christ was gracious and healed them of their malady, leading them to follow Him in discipleship.
Chapters 21–22 find Jesus arriving in Jerusalem itself. There He taught about the imminent destruction of the Jewish temple, capital, and nation if its people as a whole and leaders in particular did not repent. Matthew 21:1–22 introduces this topic by a series of object lessons or enacted parables. Jesus began with what has been improperly termed “the triumphal entry.” Six days before the Passover, on what we now call Palm Sunday, He rode a donkey into the city. He was acclaimed by the crowds as Messiah and ushered into town in a fashion reminiscent of conquering warriors and kings of Old Testament and intertestamental times. But the crowds did not recognize what kind of Messiah Christ is. They had no place in their plans for Him to be presented on such a humble animal nor to be arrested and suffer. Hence, the howling mob merely five days later clamored for His crucifixion. As Jesus entered the temple precincts, He did the entirely unexpected. He overturned the benches of the moneychangers, drove out the sacrificial animals, and accused the Jewish leaders of having corrupted a place of prayer by turning it into an extortionary marketplace.
This judgment of the temple by “purification” is followed immediately with judgment by threatened destruction. The strange miracle of cursing the fig tree is best interpreted by Jesus’ parable that uses identical imagery (Luke 13:6–9). Fig trees often stood for Israel in the Old Testament. Jesus was showing what would happen to the nation if it did not repent.
Matthew 21:23–22:46 presents a series of controversies with the Jewish leaders. Various individuals and groups approached Jesus, each with a question in keeping with their own commitments. But they were not seeking enlightenment. Rather, again they were trying to trap Jesus so as to be able to arrest and condemn Him. The temple authorities understandably asked about Jesus’ authority. How dare He come in and so disrupt their proceedings? Recognizing the trap, He posed a counterquestion. How do they account for John the Baptist’s ministry? They could not reply without either conceding Jesus’ divine authority, since His message parallels John’s, or falling out of favor with the crowds who applauded the Baptist. So they refused to answer, and Jesus did likewise. But He recounted a series of three parables that clearly imply His (and John’s) God-given authority, even as they successively depict God’s indictment, sentence, and execution of Israel.
The parable of the two sons makes the point that performance takes priority over promise. The parable of the wicked tenants predicts that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from [the Jewish leaders] and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” The parable of the wedding banquet prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem in response to the Jews’ rejection of Jesus but also threatens judgment on any would-be Christians who refuse to come to Christ on His terms.
The series of controversies resumed as the Pharisees and Herodians questioned Jesus about paying taxes to the Roman emperor. The former did not support doing so; the latter did. No matter His reply, Jesus would alienate one of the two groups—except that He found a way out! Both God and human governments deserve allegiance, each in its rightful sphere of influence.
The Sadducees took the stage next and ridiculed the resurrection by means of a worst-case scenario. This Jewish sect refused to believe in any doctrine that could not be established from the five books of Moses. So Jesus replied by proving the resurrection from Exodus 3:6 after correcting their mistaken assumption that humans would retain sexuality in heaven.
A lawyer approached Christ to ask about the greatest commandment in the law. Jesus gave not one but two answers, combining Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. The lawyer had no dispute with Jesus’ reply. The questions ceased as the crowds remained amazed at Jesus’ responses. Jesus concluded this round of teaching in the temple by turning the tables on His questioners and baffling them with a question about Psalm 110:1: How can David’s son (the Messiah) be merely human if David (king of all Israel) also calls Him his Lord?
Judgment (23:1–25:46) – Jesus’ final discourse takes place in two parts. First, while still in the temple He unleashed a series of warnings against the scribes and Pharisees, in view of God’s judgment on Israel. Then with His disciples on the Mount of Olives He predicted the destruction of the temple but also the final judgment of all peoples. The temple invective divides into three sections. In 23:1–12 Jesus warned against imitating various kinds of undesirable behavior the Jewish leaders too frequently exemplified. In 23:13–36 proceed seven woes decrying their hypocrisy. Matthew 23:37–39 changes the tone as Jesus more compassionately lamented Israel’s downfall and hinted at a future restoration.
Chapters 24–25 comprise Jesus’ predictions of what will unfold after His death to usher in the end times. Its structure and interpretation are notoriously complex; the following is but one of several viable options. Matthew 24:1–35 describes the signs and times of the temple’s destruction and of Christ’s return. The disciples asked about both events, probably thinking of them as occurring simultaneously.
Jesus made clear in His reply that they are distinct. First, He reviewed a series of signs that do not herald the end but consistently characterize life in the Christian era. Second, He described the horror of the actual destruction of the temple. Third, He alluded to the subsequent “great tribulation,” which for Matthew, at least, seems to embrace the entire period between Christ’s two comings (compare “then” in v. 21 and “immediately” in v. 29). Fourth, He described Christ’s actual return, an unmistakable, universally visible event. Fifth, and finally, He drew a series of conclusions or implications from this scenario of events.
Of these, two remain crucial in the face of many false prophets, ancient and modern. First, no one, not even Jesus, knows or can predict when He will come back. Second, all of the preliminary signs leading up to but not including Christ’s actual return were fulfilled in the generation immediately following Christ’s death. This is why Christians ever since have been able to believe Christ could come back in their day. No modern event (such as the restoration of the nation of Israel) can carry any special significance in pointing to the end of the last days; all the things necessary for Christ to come back were completed by a.d. 70. We now must merely remain faithful and expectant.
Verse 36 may also be seen as the first of many implications that form the second half of the Olivet discourse. Here Jesus strung together a series of parables and metaphors to underline one central theme—believers must always be prepared for Christ’s return whenever it may occur. Matthew 24:37–44 describes how it will catch many by surprise. Matthew 24:45–51 warns disciples not to assume Christ will stay away longer than He actually does. Matthew 25:1–13 warns them against assuming that He will return more quickly than He actually does. Matthew 25:14–30 teaches proper behavior however long that interval turns out to be—faithful stewardship of every resource with which we have been entrusted.
Whenever Christ does come back, He will judge all humanity, separating people into one of only two categories—sheep and goats, disciples who will be rewarded with eternal life and unbelievers who will be eternally separated from God. The criterion for determining who goes where is how a person has responded to “the least of these brothers of [Jesus].” A popular, modern interpretation is that Jesus was teaching judgment on the basis of response to the poor and needy of the world, whoever they are. But the more common view throughout the history of the church, which is supported by Matthew’s uniform usage of the words “brothers” and “least” or “little ones” elsewhere, is that Jesus’ brothers refer to fellow Christians. Those who welcome itinerant Christian missionaries by providing for their physical needs (as in 10:11–14, 40–42) demonstrate that they have also accepted the Christian message.
Crucifixion (26:1–27:66) – From here on events move quickly to the climax of the Gospel—Jesus’ death and resurrection. Chapter 26 outlines the events that set the stage for Jesus’ condemnation and execution. Chronologically, the items narrated in 26:1–16 precede “Maundy” Thursday night, the night of His arrest. These include a final reminder that Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen to Him. When He submitted, He would do so voluntarily and thoughtfully. The Jewish leaders plotted against Him. Mary of Bethany (see John 12:1–8) anointed Jesus with precious perfume, symbolizing, possibly inadvertently, His coming death and burial. Judas prepared to betray Him.
Matthew 26:17–46 details the final hours Jesus and His disciples shared. They were celebrating the Passover meal, the Jewish festival that commemorated the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt at the expense of the Egyptian firstborn. Lambs were slaughtered, special meals celebrated, and an elaborate liturgy rehearsed. Extended families ate together on this joyous occasion. Jesus and the eleven (minus Judas) constituted such a “family,” and Jesus Himself would soon become the sacrificial Lamb to spiritually liberate all people from their sins. During this “Last Supper” Jesus ate with His followers, He turned the Passover meal into the first celebration of what Christians have come to call the Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion or the Eucharist). As He broke the loaf of bread and drank the cups of wine that formed part of this festive meal, He invested them with new and deeper significance. They symbolized His soon-to-be-broken body and shed blood for the forgiveness of the sins of all humanity, inaugurating God’s new covenant, which fulfills the prophecies of Jeremiah 31:31–34. Christians must repeat this ceremony to commemorate Christ’s atoning death but also to anticipate His glorious return.
After celebrating this meal in an “upper room” somewhere in Jerusalem, the little troupe adjourned for the Mount of Olives to the east of town across the Kidron Valley. On its western slopes lay the garden of Gethsemane—a wooded olive grove. Here Jesus took His three closest companions aside and asked them to stay awake and pray with Him. Three times they failed Him, even as He had predicted Peter would shortly deny Him three times.
Christ, who alone remained awake, nevertheless teaches profound lessons for us through His praying. As fully human, He no more wanted to endure His coming torture than any of us would. He asked of God if there were any way possible that He might be spared this ordeal. But He left room for God’s sovereign will to override His natural human inclinations. It became increasingly clear as He prayed that God required Him to die for the sake of the world, and so He submitted compliantly. Here if ever is proof that all human prayers must include the condition “if it be God’s will” (recall 6:10) and that God does not always grant the desires of those who pray even when those prayers are uttered with complete faith and every good motive.
Suddenly Judas arrived with a combination of Jewish and Roman guards. Matthew 26:47–75 narrates the proceedings taken against Jesus by the Jewish authorities. He was arrested, but Jesus made plain that He would countenance no fighting on His behalf. He was bound and led away to the home of the high priest, Caiaphas, where a hastily called nighttime gathering of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish “supreme court,” had been convened.
The proceedings that followed broke many later Jewish laws. Perhaps not all of these were yet in effect; perhaps desperate men were willing to set aside legal provisions so as not to let Jesus escape from their hands. Despite the various illegalities, there was a pretense of due process, which itself almost stymied the authorities.
Finally they found some testimony that led the high priest to confront Jesus directly with the question of His self-understanding. Did He claim to be the Christ, the Messiah? He answered with a qualified affirmative, which might be paraphrased, “That’s your way of putting it.” But since the council was anticipating a merely human liberator, He went on to clarify. He is a heavenly Son of man who will sit at the very right hand of God and return on the clouds of heaven. Son of man for Jesus is a heavenly, Christological title based on Daniel 7:13–14. Such claims made Jesus seem too clearly to have been usurping prerogatives reserved for God alone. Caiaphas tore his clothes in grief and cried, “Blasphemy!” Little did he know it was he and not Jesus who was scandalously rejecting God’s true revelation.
The council condemned Jesus to be sentenced to death; blasphemy was a capital offense. The Romans had taken the right to execute criminals away from the Jews, however, so they had to appeal to the imperial authorities in town (John 18:31). Before they did, Matthew returned outside to where he had left Peter and narrated the pathetic account of Peter’s denial, just as Jesus had prophesied. Peter provided a sad contrast with Jesus, who remained stalwart under life-threatening pressure.
Chapter 27 moves quickly to Jesus’ sentence and execution, the events that occurred on the day we now call Good Friday. Verses 1–31 unfold His sentencing. In verses 1–2 the Jews, more legally now that morning had broken, confirmed their verdict. They then sent Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate did not care if Jesus had blasphemed God according to Jewish law, but he would take careful notice if the Jews charged Him with treason against Rome (as, for example, if Jesus claimed to be king, v. 11).
Again Matthew interrupted the chronology to sandwich another event that offers a bitter contrast—Judas’ remorse and suicide. Not only did Judas and Jesus dramatically differ, but also Judas and Peter provided instructive contrasts. Both betrayed their master, even if in differing ways. Both were deeply grieved afterwards. But Peter apparently demonstrated true repentance, which would permit him to be reinstated (John 21:15–18), whereas Judas sought absolutely the wrong remedy by taking his own life.
Verses 11–26 proceed with the Roman sentencing of our Lord. Pilate seems to have been convinced that Jesus had committed no crime against the empire but found himself in a delicate position. If the Jews rioted, he could have been in trouble with the emperor for not preserving the peace. What did it matter to him if the price of peace was the life of one Jewish religious fanatic? Despite his own instincts and warnings from his wife, he acceded to the request of the Jewish leaders and the mob they had whipped up into an irrational frenzy.
Verse 25 climaxes this section with a ringing acceptance of the responsibility for Jesus’ death on the part of the Jewish crowds present. “His blood be on us and on our children,” however, cannot be taken to refer to all Jews of all times. Matthew doubtless envisaged “our children” as the next generation, which was indeed judged by the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. But Jesus’ blood would also be on the heads of Jewish people for good if they turned to Christ for the salvation His shed blood makes available. Meanwhile Pilate handed Jesus over to his soldiers, who mocked Him and then prepared to lead Him to His execution site.
Matthew offered few details about the nature of crucifixion in general or Jesus’ experience on the cross in particular. He was more interested in the reactions of other people and of nature itself. The crowds and Jewish leaders mocked and misunderstood. Two who would have alleviated Jesus’ suffering were rebuffed. Jesus would endure the agony to the fullest and to the end. An excruciating death that often lasted several days until slow asphyxiation was completed ended abruptly. Jesus sensed alienation from God in a way we can scarcely explain or imagine, yet He seemingly still chose the moment to stop fighting for life.
Even more remarkable was nature’s testimony. Darkness accompanied Jesus’ final three hours on the cross (from 12:00 to 3:00 p.m.). After His death the temple curtain was ripped open, signifying the new, intimate access with which Jew and Gentile alike may approach God. An earthquake disrupted the cemeteries, and after Jesus’ own resurrection other Old Testament saints were raised, apparently demonstrating that Christ’s resurrection is indeed the first fruits of the destiny of all believers (see 1 Cor. 15:20).
The Gentile commanding officer keeping watch at the cross climaxed Matthew’s account of the crucifixion by confessing what most of the Jews had failed to accept—Jesus’ divine sonship. The burial scene emphasized the reality of Jesus’ death, while the guard at the tomb accounted for the standard Jewish explanation of the Christian resurrection claim.
Resurrection! (28:1–20) – Matthew’s Gospel fittingly concludes with the most dramatic and glorious miracle in all of Scripture—the resurrection of Jesus Christ. With this event stands or falls Christianity’s claim to be the one true way to God (1 Cor. 15:12–19).
Verses 1–10 describe how the women who had watched where Jesus was buried (27:55–56, 61) went to the tomb after the Sabbath (Saturday) had passed to give His corpse a more proper anointing. To their astonishment they found an angel instead, beside an open door revealing an empty burial cave. The angel commanded them to go tell Jesus’ disciples that He was risen. On the way they met Jesus Himself, who repeated the command. Verses 11–15 comprise the sequel to 27:62–66 and disclose how flimsy alternatives to belief in the resurrection inevitably proved to be.
Verses 16–20 summarize all the major themes of the Gospel—Christ’s divine sovereignty and authority, the nature of discipleship, the universal scope of Christian faith, the importance of doing the will of God, and the promise of Christ’s presence with His followers in everything they may experience. Verse 19 has understandably come to be known as the Great Commission. Believers’ task in life in essence is to duplicate themselves in others, leading men and women in every part of the world to faith, baptism, and obedience to all of Christ’s commands. But the final word of the book properly returns our focus to Christ rather than keeping it on ourselves. Even when we are faithless, He remains faithful.
Theological Significance. Matthew’s Gospel shows the essential unity between the Old Testament and the New. The prophesied Messiah of the Old Testament has come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew presents Jesus Christ as the One who fulfills the Old Testament promises and predictions (1:18–2:23; 5:17–18). While Jesus is presented as the promised King, He is portrayed as a Servant King, whose kingdom is established on His redemptive work.
The kingdom is presented as both present and future. The rule of God over the earth is inaugurated in the person and ministry of Jesus. Its present manifestation is expressed through the moral transformation of its citizens. Followers of Christ reflect an ethical vision of the kingdom as presented in the Sermon on the Mount (5:17–29). They are people who seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (6:33). The kingdom awaits its consummation at the return of Christ (24:1–51). In the present time kingdom citizens are to live out their calling as obedient disciples. Disciples express their allegiance to Jesus by obeying His Word (28:19–20).