An introduction to Matthew's gospel account.
We’re here! Finally! We made it!
After 3 years of study in the Old Testament, this morning we embark on a new journey, through the first book of the New Testament.
We anticipate this to be quite a long series! We’re going to take it slowly and marinate in the stories and the message of this book, and my prayer is that through this study, we’ll all be able to encounter the person of Jesus in new ways and that our relationships with him will be deepened and enriched by our time in Matthew. And hopefully, we’ll be able to gain a new appreciation for the gospel message, having looked thoroughly at the Old Testament message first.
Last week, we did a review of the entire Old Testament. We didn’t quite do it in under 45 minutes, but we did get through the whole story, just to review some of the major milestones of the story from a wide-angle perspective.
The Old Testament is filled with hundreds of stories and characters. Some of the stories are just a few sentences long, and some characters are only mentioned once while, others have entire books dedicated to them. But when you take step back, and look at all of them all together, you see that it’s a mosaic. Many different images, each with their own unique style and content, but arranged in such a way that together, they produce one cohesive image. One cohesive story and message.
In fact, you can say that about the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments together, we have 66 different books written in 3 different languages by 40+ authors, over the course of about 1,500 years. And it all tells one cohesive story with 1 consistent message.
So, the Old Testament by itself is an incomplete picture. The story arc is cut off in the middle, it leaves us with a cliffhanger ending. And the New Testament provides the ultimate resolution to the plot of this big mosaic. It’s the Avengers: End Game to the Old Testament’s Infinity War!
The ending of Infinity War was such an incredible cliffhanger, I think it will be long remembered in infamy in cinematic history books. And we had to wait what, a year or two for End Game to come out and provide the second half of the story? That’s not so bad when you think about the 400 year gap between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament.
If we had to summarize what the big-picture, macro-view plot of the Old Testament is, the plot which still needs to be resolved at the end of Malachi, it’s not an easy thing to summarize in paragraph, but here is one way it can be summarized:
Yahweh God created the universe and everything in it, including humans. Humans were made to reflect God, rule with God, and recreate like God. We have failed at that from the beginning, and now suffer fractured relationships with each other, separation from Yahweh, and ultimately death. Left to our own devices instead of following God, humans have selfish, evil, and destructive tendencies. But God, in his great compassion, has promised that there will be a human (seed of the woman) that will come and undo the effects of sin, restoring relationships, reconciling us to God, and bringing LIFE.
The Old Testament contains this promise, this hope for a solution, but never actually provides the solution. The promise isn’t fulfilled. So really, the Old Testament is mostly bad news. There is hope, but it’s unfilled hope, and it shows humans failing and failing, over and over again. It’s a lot of bad news for humanity. It also shows God’s grace, mercy, and compassion over and over again, so that is good news I suppose, but overall, there’s definitely a sense of bad news in the Old Testament.
So, when we turn the page and see “The Gospel according to Matthew,” even in the title, we’re seeing a significant claim being made.
The word “gospel” simply means “Good News.” So, the claim in the title of this book is that it contains good news, according to Matthew.
Now, today the word “gospel” is used mostly in a religious context. When you hear someone say “gospel” you probably assume they’re referring to the New Testament gospel of Jesus Christ. Sometimes people will use the word “gospel” in a different context, but even then it’s like they’re using religion as an analogy to describe something else.
But Christians did not invent the word “gospel” The Greek word is evangelion. You can find it in the Greek Old Testament, and it was used in a Greek and Roman military context to describe the good news of victory. Of the successful conquest of an empire.
I’m going to come back to that in a minute, but first we should talk a little bit about empires. Because this “good news” is being proclaimed within the context of an empire, but it’s a very different empire from the ones we last saw 400 years ago. So, let’s talk a little bit about the historical context of what’s happened since then.
Remember, after being exiled to Babylon, the Jews, at least those from the southern kingdom of Judah, were allowed to return to Jerusalem, repopulating it and reestablishing themselves as a people group. However, they were still being ruled from afar by the king of Persia.
The Persian empire was massive, and seemingly unstoppable. They expanded from East to West, even conquering Egypt in 525 BC.
But eventually, as they continued West, they hit a wall. They hit the Greeks. The Greeks defeated the Persians at the battle of Marathon in 490 BC. 10 years later, the Persians tried invading again, and the Greeks defeated them again.
Fast-forward to 334 BC and Greece has been conquered by Macedon, and from Macedon comes the most accomplished military leader of all time: Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great unifies and leads the Macedonian empire in conquest to the East, conquering Persia, conquering Egypt, and by 330 BC Alexander controls ALL of the former Persian Empire, including the regions of Israel and Judah.
When Alexander dies, his generals split his empire between them, and the Greek language, culture, and religion and language continues to permeate the world, from Athens to India, for hundreds of years.
In the meantime, back in the west, Rome has been founded for hundreds of years, since 750 BC. In 391 BC they defeat the Etruscans, and in 264-241, they fight against Carthage in Tunisia, on the North African coast. Rome wins this war, and take over Sicily, which of course is to this day a part of Italy, but it’s right across from Carthage, and wasn’t controlled by Rome until they defeated the Carthaginians in 241.
Carthage continues to fight against Rome, keeping them occupied but ultimately failing to overthrow them, and eventually the Romans destroy Carthage in 146 BC.
With Carthage out of the picture, Rome is able to expand, and in 51 BC Julius Caesar conquers Gaul, to the west, the region we now know as France.
In 30 BC Egypt, to the East, becomes a province of the Roman Empire, under Caesar Augustus. Augustus, also known as Octavian, is the adopted son of Julius Caesar, and becomes the first “emperor” of the Roman empire. Julius was a general, and a dictator of sorts, and he set the stage for Augustus, but Augustus was the first one to call himself an emperor, elevating himself that that status.
Over the next hundred years or so, the Roman empire would peak, and flourish for another several hundred years, until eventually splitting and crumbling.
But it was leading up to the peak of the Roman empire, into the reign of Augustus, that Jesus was born, and the New Testament was written.
Now, in the landscape of these vast empires, Israel is a tiny speck on the map, and so Israel and that surrounding region just kind of gets rolled up into whatever massive empire is dominating at the time. So, over the course of about 800 years, the people of Israel have gone through conflicts with, and ultimately controlled by, Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and now Rome.
Alright, so that kind of fills in the gap of what happened during that 400 year gap. A lot happened, politically speaking! But nothing that advanced the biblical story, and with no new word from Yahweh’s prophets.
I know that’s a very simplified historical overview of empires leading up to Rome; I’m sure if any of you are history buffs, you’re thinking of all the details and empires I left out. I know it’s a lot more complex, and I find it fascinating to read about. Others of you might think I’m just trying to bore you to death with all this history and all these dates.
Maybe you’re a visual person like me, and instead of seeing the numbers you’d rather see an infographic. Well, I actually found a really cool infographic, I just couldn’t figure out a good way to display it on the screen. So I actually printed it out, and I’ll try to hold it up so you can see it, and I’ll put a link to it in the notes online.
This was made in 1931, during the great depression, so there’s some more recent history like WWII missing, and some of the concepts and terms used are outdated, but overall and especially for our purposes today, it’s really an incredible, creative visualization of the rise and fall of empires over the course of 4,000 years!
I’ll leave it up here in case any of you wants to look at it closely afterwards.
I also have a couple of maps to show the Macedonian/Greek empire compared to the Roman empire.
So, whether it’s the numbers or the visualization, why does any of this matter? What’s the point of this world history lesson? Well, I wanted to help bridge that gap between testaments, but beyond that, as we approach the book of Matthew, and the whole New Testament, it’s important to consider the cultural context in which it was written. And major element of that context was the Roman Occupation.
We’re done with the dates and timelines for now, we’re just going to be zooming in now on the generation in which Matthew was written, the 50-100 years surrounding 0 AD, the generation in which the birth of Christ changed history forever! It becomes a 0 on our timeline.
You may wonder why Jesus came at that specific moment in history. And it’s ok to wonder, and we can probably come up with different types of reasons why God would choose this moment in history. There are some fascinating clues, the more you look at world history. But, ultimately he hasn’t told us exactly why, and that’s ok, the important thing is we recognize it WAS God’s perfect timing. Paul recognized this when he wrote this to the Romans:
Romans 5:6 NLT
6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.
And this to the Galatians:
Galatians 4:4–5 NLT
4 But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. 5 God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children.
God sent the seed of the woman, the messiah, to redeem humanity, and he knew the perfect time to do it.
We also need to acknowledge that it was over 2,000 years ago! A lot has happened since then, and the cultural context into which Jesus was born was a little bit different than the one any of us were born into.
The biggest thing I want us to think about today is the Roman occupation of Israel. The Jews haven’t been exiled, they’ve repopulated their land and they’re allowed to stay. They’re not kicked out. BUT, they’re dealing with the inverse of an exile. They’re dealing with Roman occupation. See, they haven’t been kicked out, but they’re forced to let the Romans in.
Think for a minute about what life would have been like for the Jews at that time.
First of all, realize that being a part of the Roman empire did have its advantages. It meant that the massive, powerful forces of the Roman military were used to protect you and your land from any potential threats from other kingdoms or empires.
And you are still allowed to practice your religion, the ancient religion of your ancestors, which really is at the core of your Jewish identity. You get to keep that, so as long as you are faithful to the torah, and read the writings of the prophets, and you follow all the rituals and customs of the Jewish religion, including worshipping your God, Yahweh, at the holy temple in Jerusalem, then you can still identify as a Jew and feel like you’re a good Jew, regardless of the controlling empire at the time.
If you were really privileged, you could even become an official citizen of the Roman empire, and enjoy all the benefits of Roman citizenship, while still practicing Judaism unhindered.
That doesn’t sound too bad does it?
But any benefits they may have had as being part of the Roman Empire also came at a cost. That impressive military force which protects you from invaders is also used to make sure you don’t try to rebel against the Empire, and force you into paying massive amounts of taxes to the empire, and enforce other Roman laws. Rebelling would cost you not just imprisonment but most likely death, and Romans were skilled at orchestrating cruel, torturous executions, publicly hanging people on crosses to die slowly and painfully, sending a message to everyone who saw it: “don’t mess with Rome.”
And these soldiers, the enforcers of the Roman empire, they were ubiquitous; always there; at the markets and in the streets, their ships coming and going, bringing more Romans and more soldiers, all foreigners from the other side of the world, with a completely different religion, different customs, different diet, different languages and dialects (though Greek was more or less a universal language). They didn’t speak Hebrew, they didn’t come from the line of Abraham, they didn’t eat kosher, and yet if you have a house, you will likely be forced at one point or another to take in one or more of these gentile soldiers, and give them free room and board for however long they needed to stay in town.
Can you imagine how challenging that would be!? And I can imagine some families handled it better than others, but inevitably the clashing of different cultures leads to one of a few outcomes. You can ignore each other to some extent for a little while, but ultimately, when you’re forced to live with someone and interact with them, there are three basic outcomes:
In this case, resisting Romans head-on wasn’t a safe option. A lot of Jews probably tried to just avoid interacting with them as much as possible. Others may have seen the empire as attractive, and let themselves become influenced by Roman culture, abandoning their own. And on the flip-side, we do know that some Romans were actually influenced so much by spending time with the Jews that they became Jewish themselves. They adopted the Jewish religion and worshipped Yahweh their God. I think that’s pretty cool!
But my point in saying all this is just to get us thinking about this clash of cultures and the inescapable presence of Rome in your life if you were a 1st century Jew. It isn’t all bad, but it isn’t all good either. In fact, the taxes that Rome imposes are so burdensome that it’s very difficult to make enough money just to get by. Imagine that you’re a land-owner, with land that was passed down to you for generations going back to Joshua, when your ancestors first entered the land. Imagine being so financially strained that you have to sell your land and lease it, just to keep up with the demand of Roman taxation. It would be heartbreaking, and you’d probably become angry, bitter, and resentful towards Rome and Romans.
For many Jews, this was the prevailing attitude. Bitter resentment towards an oppressive, cruel empire.
Of course, the Romans themselves didn’t see themselves that way at all! They saw themselves as God’s gift to the world!
Check this out: remember that word “gospel” or “evangelion?”
An inscription found in Priene, in modern-day Turkey, referring to Caesar Augustus says:
the birthday of [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euangelion) concerning him.” (Priene 150.40-41)
Check out the very first verse of Mark
Mark 1:1 LEB
1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
See, just as the Old Testament was written in dialogue with its surrounding cultural and religious context, so the New Testament writers were acting within and responding to a very specific cultural context and doing so both naturally and intentionally. The Romans were familiar with the concept of gospel…of “good news” and they were to themselves the good news! Particularly Caesar. Check this out:
Here’s another inscription is found on a government building, and it gives us some insight into how they understood the “gospel” concerning Caesar Augustus:
The most divine Caesar . . . we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things . . . for when everything was falling (into disorder) and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave the whole world a new aura; Caesar . . . the common good Fortune of all . . . The beginning of life and vitality . . . All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year . . . Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole existence . . . has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us (the emperor) Augustus . . .who being sent to us and our descendents as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and (whereas,) having become (god) manifest /PHANEIS/, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times.
WOW! If you look at the language of this Roman “gospel” and compare it to any one of the New Testament gospel writers, the similarities just jump right off the page!
And it becomes apparent that those who were proclaiming the “good news” of Jesus were not proclaiming it in a vacuum, or out of the blue, there is a context and a reason for the way in which they word things. Part of it is the context of Christ’s Jewish ancestry, and the significance of his role in Hebrew scripture, and part of it is the presence of the Roman Empire, and the Roman gospel.
The New Testament gospel writers are offering an alternative gospel. Not an isolated, random announcement of good news! It’s a follow-up to Hebrew scripture, as well as an alternative to the gospel of the day, and the claims that were being made about Caesar.
We’re still just talking about the title of this book. The title is “The Gospel according to Matthew.” We’ve talked about what gospel means, but we should look at who Matthew is.
Matthew himself shows up as a character in the story, and comparing the other gospel writers’ accounts, we know that he is Jewish, and that he also goes by the name of “Levi.” It wasn’t uncommon for Jews to have 2 or 3 names, which makes it kind of confusing for us, but it was normal for them.
That’s not the most interesting thing about Matthew though. The most interesting thing, in my opinion, is that he was a tax collector.
Just think about that for a minute! Put yourself back in the shoes, or sandals I should say, put yourself in the sandals of a Jewish fig merchant. You have a successful business, you are in good standing with the Jewish community, you’re torah observant, and you feel a great since of pride in your Jewish ancestry, and you get along very well, naturally, with others who feel the same. But, even though you do well with the fig business, you’re struggling to make ends meet, because your profits are being siphoned out from under you, and you feel like you’re being crushed under the weight of Roman-imposed, Roman-enforced taxation.
You live with a deep resentment and bitterness towards Rome. You put up with their soldiers. Some of them you know to avoid any contact with whenever possible, others might actually be tolerable. Maybe you’re even open-minded enough to see the soldiers as a product of their environment, a symptom of the Roman problem, the source of which is actually Caesar himself, and focus your resentment on him rather than on his mindless pawns. They are, after all, gentiles. Hopeless and doomed from birth, unlike God’s chosen and holy people of Israel.
But then there’s Matthew. One of your own. A descendant of Abraham. A fellow heir to the sacred calling of Israel. But he’s turned his back on his people, not just ignoring them but actually becoming complicit in the taxation of the people on behalf of Rome, and profiting handsomely at the expense of faithful Jews such as yourself.
Oh, man! Roman soldiers are one thing, but one of your own turning against you, I think that would call for a whole new level of hatred and disgust.
And that’s exactly how Jewish tax collectors were treated by their Jewish peers. They were despised and viewed as traitors. And that’s Matthew!
The first 4 disciples that Jesus called to follow him were two sets of brothers, and they were all fishermen. That’s a perfectly good and honest trade, just like your own fig business.
And then there’s Matthew.
Now, we’re not given very many details about any of the disciples’ personal lives, or their interactions with each other on a day-to-day basis. But it is interesting to think about how their personalities may have differed and clashed. It’s mostly speculation, but given contextual clues and historical data, we can make some reasonable, plausible guesses as to what life would have been like.
And that’s exactly what the TV show “The Chosen” has done, and they’ve done a fantastic job with it. I highly recommend it. You can watch it for free by downloading the Chosen app. And one of my favorite things about it is what they’ve done with the character of Matthew. Again, it’s speculative, but plausible, and at the very least gets you thinking about the disciples as relatable people, with a variety of different backgrounds and different personalities.
To give you just a little idea of what I mean about the casting and character development, here’s a photo of Simon Peter and his brother Andrew in their boat:
They're kind of rough around the edges, they’re tough, they’re strong, and they have coarse, tattered clothing. And then there’s Matthew:
You can’t really get the full effect of his personality in a still image, but he’s very soft, and wears soft, fancy clothing. He enjoys a luxurious lifestyle, but he’s despised by the other Jews.
Again, the details are speculative, but it’s some fantastic guesswork that really brings the story to life in a beautiful way. I can’t recommend it enough.
What we do know for sure about Matthew is that he was a tax collector, which leads to some other conclusions. Besides being an outlier, not really fitting into the Jewish OR Roman communities, he also would have had to be educated enough to be good with numbers, and particular and detail oriented. It just takes a certain kind of person, to work with numbers and accounting, doesn’t it? I think you’re either one of those people or you’re not, and I’m not! But I’m very thankful for those of you who are!
We also know that Matthew was one of Jesus’s 12 disciples, and that he spent several years with Jesus during his earthly ministry. And we know that he compiled and published his gospel account approximately 30 years after these events took place.
Matthew recorded his own call to follow Jesus as one of the twelve disciples. (Matt. 9:9–13). With his attention to detail, Matthew was probably the group journalist, keeping records of Jesus’ teaching and actions. Some time in the A.D. 50s or 60s, two or three decades after Jesus had finished his work on earth, Matthew’s record-keeping skills merged with his love for the Old Testament to produce his Gospel account—a solid argument for the identity of Jesus as the promised Messiah, written for Jewish readers throughout the Mediterranean world.
That’s at least an initial introduction to who Matthew is. I’m sure we’ll bring out other things as we go through his book, but those are a couple things to keep in mind going into it.
Alright, we still haven’t even gotten past the title of this book! I told you we would be taking it slowly! And I think this setup, approaching scripture as a cross-cultural experience, and doing the work of framing it in its original context as much as possible, ultimately leads to a much more fruitful experience when reading and studying scripture.
So, now that we’ve done at least some of that, I’ll go ahead and actually read from chapter 1.
Matthew 1 ESV
1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, 4 and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of David the king. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. 12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ. 17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. 18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
Alright, so Matthew gives us a genealogy, then goes into a very brief version of what we call the “Christmas story.” He doesn’t give as many details as Luke, but the details he does provide are extremely significant.
We’re not going to unpack everything in this chapter today, don’t worry! I just wanted to read through the whole thing once and then point a couple things out, and, Lord willing, next week Mike will come back and unpack a little bit more, and we’ll go from there...
The first thing I want to point out is how Matthew introduces the book.
Earlier, I read Mark 1:1. Mark introduces his book as “the gospel of Jesus Christ” which is significant in the Roman context.
But Matthew introduces his book as “the genesis of Jesus Christ.” He uses the Greek word geneseos which is where we get our word “Genesis.” Why is this significant?
Well, first of all, he’s providing the origin story for this person called Jesus. Origin stories don’t get written about just anyone, because, generally, nobody cares about some random dude’s origin story. Origin stories are written about heroes and villains, in comic books, and when it’s non-fiction, we generally call them biographies. Biographies get written about people who have a certain level of reputation, some influence or impact on the world!
When Matthew begins with a genesis, an origin story, he’s already making either
In other words, the very existence of a recorded origin story is in itself a call for our attention, and a claim of significance.
But that specific word Genesis is made all the more significant by the fact that this book was written primarily for a Jewish audience. A Jewish audience who would be very familiar with the backstory of Hebrew Scripture, the story of the Old Testament that we went through last week, the story that begins in genesis, the origin story for all of humanity and the origin story of the people of Israel. So the beginning of Matthew instantly links back to the beginning of scripture, and sets the stage to introduce a new human, and a new Jewish man, who will bring a resolution to the unfinished story of Israel and of humanity.
How cool is that?
And how cool is it that Matthew, a Jew himself, who had turned his back on his people, is now writing to those people to tell them his first-hand witness account of the man who completely transformed his life.
Ultimately, that is the true, amazing, power of the good news. The true good news of Jesus.
Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be diving into exactly who he is, what his message is, and why it’s good news. But for now I want to invite you to join us in this study with a prayerful and open heart. To allow Matthew’s biography of Jesus to become an actual encounter with Jesus, no matter how familiar you are or are not with his story, I believe there’s always more to learn about him and about ourselves through reading the gospels. And my prayer is that, like Matthew himself, that we would all, as a family, be transformed and renewed by our encounter with Jesus, whether he’s new in your life, or you’re becoming reacquainted with him, or you’re deepening a long-standing relationship with him.