It seems as though the commentaries often are examining the differences between the four Gospels. Often they are taken up with the discussion of whether Mark was the primary source of Matthew and Luke, or whether there was some source “Q” that was the source of all three. It is noted that almost the entirety of the Gospel of Mark shows up in the Gospel of Matthew, with the exception of only the healing of the demoniac (Mk 1:22-28), preaching in the synagogues of Galilee (Mk 1:35-39), the parable of the seed growing secretly (Mk 4:26-29), healing of the deaf man (Mk 7:32-37), healing of a blind man (Mk 8:22-26), the exorcist (Mk 9:38-40), and the widow and her alms (Mk 12:41-44). There is much more distinction between Matthew and Luke, but when we consider the amount that is “out of order” between Matthew and Mark, the same level of inconsistency is found.
Here is my biggest struggle with this:
The Gospel writers were not interested in telling us a story of events in chronological order, nor about telling us everything that Jesus did. The Gospels are not for our understanding of Jesus’ life in a biographical manner. Instead, the Gospels are written to give us a bigger picture. There is something being communicated in the words, both in the order of events, and in the reason for choosing these stories, but not those stories, these parables, but not those parables, and so on. What should be our focus is why the Gospel author is telling us this at that time, and why is it that they leave this or that story out that we know also happens…
There is also importance in the placement of this book. The Hebrew Bible ends with the book of Chronicles, instead of having the prophets at the end. You had the Torah, the prophets, and then the writings. Part of the prophets were the books of Joshua through Kings, and the writings began with the Psalms. The Old Testament in the first century would have ended with the book of Chronicles, which was not divided into “two”. So, the last book of the Old Testament began with a genealogy – the only book of the Old Testament to do so. Likewise, Matthew begins with a genealogy – the only book of the New Testament to do so. Here we find the continuation of the Tanakh. Where the Old Testament seems to end on a rather melancholy tone, admitting that the hope of Messiah has not yet come, here Matthew is expressing that this is not the end of the story.
For our current order of books, we can see the connection of the last chapter of Malachi prophesying of the “Elijah” who is to come, and the Gospel of Matthew recording that John the Baptist did indeed come, and he was indeed the Elijah. Even the description of John the Baptist is a reference back to Elijah (compare Matthew 3:4 and 2 Kings 1:8). Yet, in my own estimation, it would make more sense to put Mark first if this is the reasoning behind the placement of order…
The word “kingdom” shows up in Matthew more than any other book of the Bible (55 times). The closest book after this is tied between Daniel and Luke with 44 times. Out of those 55 times, 32 times we read the phrase “kingdom of heaven”, and 5 times we read “kingdom of God”. It is no stretch of the mind to determine what exactly Matthew is trying to communicate; his whole book is emanating with the Gospel of the Kingdom. Matthew’s Gospel is a Gospel of the Kingdom, and nothing else. No other word juices from the pages like this. No other phrase is as critical.
So, we can ask why the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is used instead of “kingdom of God”…
Unlike the various dispensationalists who claim so, it is my belief that the kingdom of heaven is the same thing as the kingdom of God. You have the exact same statements recurring in Luke, but using the kingdom of God instead of the kingdom of heaven in those statements. The difference is between audience. It is said that Matthew was written to the Jews, which very well could be. In the Jewish world, just like you have today, there was solemnity in regard to writing “God”. Even now we read of “G-d” in many Jewish sources. The change over to “heaven” is simply to be courteous. It is not as though the kingdom of heaven is some other realm, or some other thing than the kingdom of God.
And what exactly is the kingdom of God? What exactly is it that Matthew is attempting to convey? We find the answer within the first verses of his book. He gives us a genealogy of Jesus, which ties Him back to Abraham and David. The Kingdom is not ethereal, or something that has now been made in the sky, but is a very physical and tangible reality. The Kingdom of God is something that is expected within a certain land, and unto a certain people, for Jesus Himself declares, “It is not right to give the children’s bread unto dogs” (Matt 15:26). This statement needs to be weighed in the words Jesus spoke earlier, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs…” (Matt 7:6).
In the context of Matthew 15, we read that this is a Canaanite woman asking for a miracle. Jesus’ response is to declare, as John would put it, “Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). Therefore, to believe and emphasize that Matthew is an advocate of some sort of replacement theology, or that the land of Israel is not important, or that the Jews are not important, is to both miss the whole breadth of Matthew’s Gospels, as well as to slander the apostle. The Kingdom is intricately woven together with the land and the specific people that God has chosen in the Old Testament. Any other kind of interpretation of Matthew is a farce.
We have the pinnacle of all of the synoptic Gospels revolving around the Olivet Discourse, as it is called. Matthew 24-25, interestingly, is the fulcrum around which the whole Gospel pivots. We have here the magnanimous statement of Jesus’ glorious return, the establishment of God’s Kingdom upon the earth, they who shall be selected as God’s people to rule with Christ in resurrected splendor, and the rest are cast away into everlasting shame. The statements of “outer darkness” where there shall be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” are not reflections of what the world can expect, but of what they who are to know better – the believers/Israel – can expect. Over and over again, the statements of Jesus are not pointed toward the “unsaved”, or the pagans. They are pointed directly at the religious leaders, and the ones who are considered the righteous and holy people of God.
We find the significance of Jesus’ life and teaching in the Gospel of Matthew revolving in around the notion of Jesus returning and establishing the Kingdom, and the Wedding of God with that Kingdom. We find over and over again that the teachings and parables are not to instruct us how to have a happy time and enjoy life, but how to survive the apocalypse that is soon to come upon the whole earth, and what is required in order to be the people of God in our own generation. The whole crux of Jesus’ condemnation upon the Pharisees is not that “this generation” shall be judged, but the Greek word “genean” (generation) more frequently means a certain people with a disposition. For example, you read of the “wicked and adulterous generation” that craves a sign. In fact, more times in Matthew than not, the word “genea” does not mean a period of time, a generation being 20-40 years. Instead, it is a generic word to lump sum together a whole group of people that all have a certain disposition or tendancy, from the foundation of the world unto the end of the age. Why shall the Pharisees be judged for the righteous blood of Abel when they did not kill Abel? It is because they are the same “generation”, or people with that same wickedness, as Cain.
Indeed, while we have assumed the cross and resurrection to be the zenith of all four Gospels, Matthew doesn’t leave this as the last and final word. What is it that is given as the last statement of Matthew?
“And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’ Amen.”
We simply need to ask what this text means. Throughout the Gospel, the teachings of Jesus revolve around the Kingdom of God. We even find in Matthew 24:14 that the Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world. Here, the great commission is not to simply go to the nations and tell them about Jesus so that certain people within those nations might make it heaven. There is a witness unto the nations themselves, for attached to that verse in Matthew 24:14 is what Jesus says in Matthew 25:31, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
Notice there is nothing stated here about Jesus separating His disciples. What Jesus is talking about is the separation of nations, just as Joel prophesied: “I will also gather all nations, and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; and there I will enter into judgment with them there on account of My people, My heritage Israel, whom they have scattered among the nations; they have also divided up My land.”
That last statement of Matthew 28:20 comes from Deuteronomy 5:32 and 12:32. God being with them stems from texts like Exodus 3:2, Joshua 1:5, Psalm 46:7, and Isaiah 41:10. There is rich significance given to Yahweh telling us that He shall go with us, and that He shall be the one to guide us. The final statement, “unto the end of the age”, is strictly used in Matthew’s Gospel as the climax of the age. It is strictly in conjunction to the judgment of Israel, the apocalyptic finale, and the coming of Jesus.
With this general synopsis, I think we’re ready to begin our trek into one of the most difficult books of the Bible. It is so often misunderstood, even while at the same time being such a book of simplicity. Jesus’ words are not difficult. In fact, they were the saving grace when my wife was fed up with Christianity. She went back to the words of Jesus, and found in them the necessary joy and reality that her soul had longed for, but was starving because everyone quotes Paul – and does so incorrectly at that! With this overview, let us begin to chew upon the very words of our Savior, and the life that He lived. May grace be upon you all, as it was upon those first saints who listened to the apostle’s teaching, and who obeyed that selfsame teaching. Amen.