There is a multitude of books about the Bible that are available to read and there are more coming daily. We read for many different reasons, but one thing is constant. When we read, we interpret. We may interpret well or not so well, but we do interpret. Even as you have read these few lines, you have been interpreting. Not understanding this simple idea leads to many useless arguments about the sacred text.
Scripture is a library of sixty-six different books, by many different authors, written over many centuries, all inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is the story of God or what I call God’s EPIC Adventure. Our task is to read and understand the story these books present so that we can learn to live into them in the life of our community of faith and our personal life and share their message with others. To do that with some consistency, we need to understand the biblical books appropriately. To help accomplish that goal in these sessions on Matthew, we will follow a three-tiered approach in interpretation:
- We will help you discover what the text meant to its first hearers or readers.
- We will help you discover what the text means now.
- We will help you discover how to take that meaning and share it with others.
When you open your New (Second) Testament, the first book you see is the Gospel of Matthew. You would think that reading this Gospel or any of the other three would be simple and straightforward. What could be easier than reading the story of Jesus? Correct! Yes:
- If we understood that we are reading a kind of literature that never existed before and
- If we understand that when we are reading Matthew that we are not in the first book in the Second Testament to be written nor the first gospel that was written.
Most likely Matthew was the last of the Synoptic Gospels written and number 20 out of 27 of the books in the Second Testament coming chronologically between 2 Peter and Hebrews.[ref]Winn Griffin. God’s EPIC Adventure. Harmon Press. 2013. 261.[/ref]
A second concept which we need to understand while reading the stories of Jesus is the kingdom of God, which is at the core of understanding all the Gospels as well as the other writings in the Second Testament.
Three background concepts will provide you with the foundation for understanding the Gospel of Matthew as well as the other Gospels. These three concepts are the Gospels, the kingdom of God, and interpreting the Gospels.
The Gospels: An Overview
The Synoptic Gospels
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels. The term synoptic means to see together. These three gospels are very similar to each other in their order, subject material, and language. While using the same materials, it is believed that Mark was the first of the three Synoptics to be written. There is material in Matthew and Luke that is common to Mark and directly used by Matthew and Luke. Three reasons make this statement clear:
- First, while the order of the material presented often varies, Luke agrees with Mark at places where Matthew and Mark are different. Matthew, on the other hand, agrees with Mark when Mark and Luke differ.
- Second, Matthew and Luke never depart from the outline of Mark as he presents his story of Jesus.
- Third, from the 661 verses in Mark, 606 appear in Matthew and 380 appear in Luke verbatim. Only thirty-one verses that appear in Mark do not appear in Matthew or Luke.
If the three previous bullet points are confusing, i.e., thinking that all the Gospels share the same stories, think about it this way. All storytellers that tell the same story tell it differently, some emphasizing one set of thoughts while another author may tell the same story differently. Any fear you may feel by this idea may come from a theological backdrop called fundamentalism. Think about that last statement in terms of your theological development.
Matthew and Luke have a significant amount of material that is common to each of their Gospels that is not found in Mark. Where did this material come from? New Testament specialists believe that the common material in Matthew and Luke was part of a document called “Q” (from the German word Quelle, which means source). This document has not been discovered in a manuscript form. However, it is a favorable way of understanding the common source of the synoptic information.
In Matthew and Luke, there is a third collection of material that is not found in Mark. The collection of material in Matthew does not appear in Luke and the collection of material in Luke does not appear in Matthew. It is unique to each author. Matthew and Luke controlled the selection of this material to provide the information needed for the audience to which they were writing.
Jesus is the central figure of the Synoptic Gospels. Their purpose is to demonstrate the redemptive history of God in light of the kingdom of God (see below). When you read them, they appear to be lopsided biographies. Most of their story tells about the last week in the life of Jesus, which is often referred to as the passion week.
- Matthew’s main purpose is to show Jesus as the New Moses for the New Israel and provide a training manual for the church at Antioch.
- Mark, which was used as an evangelistic tract, demonstrated for his audience that Jesus is a powerful man who is at war with Satan and had come to defeat him.
- Luke depicts the humanity of Jesus as a person who can appeal to all nations, places, and times.
John’s Gospel is a very different book from the Synoptics. His story is told with a completely different outline. There are only a few stories found in John that are in the Synoptics. His material is remarkably different. There are extensive discourses of Jesus found in John that are not in the Synoptics. The ministry of Jesus is seen through different eyes. As an example, in John, Jesus is not warring against Satan. Certain events do not match the chronological structure of the Synoptics, like the cleansing of the Temple which appears in the beginning chapters of John and the closing chapters of the Synoptics. John 20.31 states the purpose for writing his Gospel. His great desire was to have maturing Jesus followers struggle with the meaning of Jesus in their daily lives, while they continued to grow and serve Jesus.
The Kingdom of God
The concept of the kingdom of God is central to the Gospels. Their pages are full of the teaching of Jesus about this concept. You only have to read a few sentences in Mark before you see, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1.14-15 NIV). Mark opens his Gospel with this summary of the ministry of Jesus. This gospel which was proclaimed by Jesus and his disciples was the gospel of the kingdom. (Matt.10.1ff.). The message of the kingdom was always on the lips of Jesus as he taught, by the hands of Jesus as he healed.
The roots of the concept of the kingdom are found in the Old Testament. The prophets proclaimed a day when there would be peace, social problems would be solved, and evil that was in the sphere of the physical would pass (Isa. 2.4; 11.16).
In the New Testament, the kingdom was proclaimed through the words and works of Jesus. (Matt. 5.20; 7.21). He taught his disciples to pray for the kingdom to come (Matt. 6.10). The parables were pregnant with kingdom theology (Matt. 13.1ff.). The second coming promised that the kingdom would be consummated (Matt. 25.31).
Over the centuries the kingdom has been understood in various ways.
Here is a summary of a few of those ways:
- The first concept suggests that the kingdom was fully realized in the ministry of Jesus (Matt. 12.28; Rom. 14.17; Col. 1.13). A kingdom is an earthly place where the benefits of God such as joy, righteousness, and peace are given to those who give their lives to be ruled by God.
- A second concept is that the kingdom is a future blessing which is received by God’s children at the second coming (Matt. 8.11; 25.34; 1 Cor. 15.50; 2 Pet. 1.11) and into which they enter. The kingdom would end human history and bring a new heavenly order into existence. The kingdom is fully future and supernatural.
- A third view reduces the kingdom to a subjective realm. It is an inner blessing which is expressed by the new birth.
- A fourth theory suggests that the kingdom is equal to the church/ecclesia. This view originated with St. Augustine and is still very popular in the church today. As the church grows, so does the Kingdom. When one becomes a believer, the Kingdom expands is often the resulting thought of this view.
There are two basic ways the word kingdom can be defined. It can be a realm over which there is a king who exercises authority. Or, it can be the reign or rule of a king over his subjects. The primary definition of the Hebrew word (malkuth: mal-coot) and the Greek word (basileia: ba-see-lay-a) is the latter. The kingdom of God is the reign or rule of God over his people.
The Kingdom of God in the First Testament
Dr. James Kallas suggests in his book Jesus and the Power of Satan that Jesus never explained the kingdom because the people to whom he was speaking knew what it meant or thought they knew what it meant (Kallas, 1968, 119). The First Testament presents the kingdom in the context of Jewish messianic expectations and eschatology. They believed that God would deliver them, which was their hope for the future.
Israel reached its apex during the rule of King David and Solomon. From that point forward Israel began to decline. At the death of Solomon, the kingdom divided into two kingdoms with their kings and governments. This division set in place a longing among the Jews for God to restore their past blessings to them. There were two ways in which the kingdom began to be understood. The first is called the Davidic Concept and the second, the Danielic Concept.
The Davidic Concept of the Kingdom. Israel’s hope was that God would send a king like David. The focus of this concept was that Israel was looking for a militaristic and geographic fulfillment. Israel wanted a nationalistic kingdom to return.
The Apocalyptic Concept of the Kingdom. In the Second Temple Period (ca. 400 BC-AD 135),[ref]N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 147.[/ref] hope did not diminish; it only assumed a new language with a modified meaning. The prophets hoped for a nationalistic kingdom, while the hope of the Apocalyptic writers was for a heavenly kingdom, which would end this present evil age.[ref]James Kallas, Jesus and the Power of Satan (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1968), 119-21. See also: Ladd, Theology, 119-121. Ladd also covers some of the same concepts about a Davidic and Apocalyptic Concept.[/ref]
The Kingdom of God in the Second Testament
When you open the pages of the Second Testament, you may be struck by the apparent war in which Jesus is immediately engaged. John the Baptist proclaimed that a person was coming in which the age of the Spirit would arrive. The words of Jesus in Mark denote that the kingdom had arrived with Jesus. The words and works of Jesus form a unity in which the kingdom of God is spoken about and demonstrated. In Jesus, we have the presence of the future. Jesus has brought the rule of God from the future into the present (see chart below of Ladd and Kallas).[ref]Griffin. God’s EPIC Adventure. 52.[/ref] This expression was often used by the late Dr. George Ladd to express the kingdom reality. He often said that the church is between the times; she lives between the inauguration and the consummation of the Kingdom.
This “now-but-not-yet” concept is seen throughout the Second Testament. Matthew illustrates it at 12.28 when he writes, Since I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, the kingdom of God has come upon you. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15.24, Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and every power. John writes in 1 John 3.2, Beloved, we are God’s children now, it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him.
In his book The Real Satan, Dr. James Kallas says, “A war is going on! Cosmic war! Jesus is the divine invader sent by God to shatter the strengths of Satan. In that light, the whole ministry of Jesus unrolls. Jesus has one purpose—to defeat Satan. He takes seriously the strength of the enemy.”[ref]James Kallas. The Real Satan. Augsburg Fortress Publishers. 1975. 60[/ref] Jesus won the war, but there are still battles left to be fought. He gave his disciples the mission of continuing to bring the rule of God into the world through their lives and proclamation (Luke 10.8-9). In their preaching and miracles, Jesus saw Satan’s defeat (Luke 10.18). The last words of Jesus to his disciples when he ascended (Acts 1.1-8) demonstrate that he would empower his disciples to continue during the cleanup phase of the war.
An illustration from Oscar Cullmann’s book Christ and Time will help us understand this concept of cleanup. He shares a story from World War II’s D-day and V-day. D-day was June 6, 1944, a day that the result of the war was decided. However, the war did not officially conclude until May 7-8, 1945 on V-day.[ref]Oscar Cullmann. Christ and Time. Westminster John Knox Press. 1964. 84.[/ref] Between these two dates, almost a year, there were still battles being fought and allied lives being lost. More lives were lost during this period than in any other period during the war. Even though the battles went on, the war had been decided. So it was with Jesus. The earth was his. In his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, God had overthrown Satan once and for all. God planted his flag in the form of a cross and Jesus said, “It is finished.” The war is over, but the aftermath continues and will until the return of Jesus.
Interpreting the Synoptic Gospels
When you begin reading and interpreting the Synoptic Gospels, there are several things that you must keep in mind.
- First, they are not autobiographical. They were not written by Jesus. The writers of the Synoptic Gospels wrote about Jesus, telling his story as a lopsided biography of his life. They are narratives, which include large sections of sayings or teachings.
- Second, as a first-century Jew, Jesus’ primary language was Aramaic, but the Second Testament accounts of his teachings are presented to us in Greek and translated into English. When you read a specific saying or teaching from Jesus in the Gospels, you may often discover that the same saying may appear in several different places in the Gospels. Even when these sayings occur in the same sequence within the Gospels, the exact wording is not the same. To a beginning reader, this can become disheartening. It doesn’t need to be. We must realize that God chose to give us the Gospels in this manner.
As you have discovered, there are four Gospels—three of these Gospels are alike, while the fourth is completely different. The reasonable question is: Why four Gospels? There is a reasonable answer: Different Christian communities had different needs. These needs caused the authors to shape their Gospels the way they did.
The Gospels were interested in retelling the story of Jesus to meet the needs of the second generation communities, which did not speak Aramaic and who were not Jewish, rural, or agricultural in their lifestyle. The Gospels were written from Rome, Ephesus, or Antioch. In these settings, the Gospel was encountering an urban, pagan environment. The Gospels themselves function as an interpretive model for today’s reader. By their very nature, they demonstrate for us the need to retell the story in our twenty-first-century context.
To interpret the Gospels, we should be aware of two areas:
- The historical setting of Jesus: We discover this best by books, which describe the history of Israel during the life of Jesus.
- The historical setting of the author: You can usually find this material in Bible dictionaries or commentaries.
The Importance of Context
The words and works of Jesus were handed down orally for approximately thirty years. The contents of the Gospels were passed on in individual stories and sayings (often called pericopes). Many sayings were passed along with their context intact, while others were placed in the narrative in such a way that it was conducive to the author’s intent. There were individual sayings of Jesus, which simply had no original context (Acts 20.35). For example, Matthew shaped his material to fit the need of his audience. His five instructional sections along with five narrative sections, as we shall see later, form the heart of his book.
There are two ways that we must train ourselves to think when reading and interpreting the Gospels.
- Think about parallels: To think in this fashion means that when you are studying a paragraph or story in any Gospel, you should be aware of the parallels in the other Gospels. The reasons for this are twofold: First, the parallels will give you an appreciation for the distinctiveness of the Gospel in which you are reading the paragraph or story. Second, the parallel will also help you be aware of the different contexts in which the same material was given to different audiences.
- Think about the context: When you read or study a narrative or teaching in the Gospels, you should try to be aware of the historical context of Jesus as well as the historical context of the folks to whom the book was written.
The teachings, amid imperatives of Jesus, should be brought into the twenty-first century in the same way that we bring the writings of Paul, Peter, James, Jude, etc., into the present. The question of cultural relativity needs to be raised in the same way as it does with the letters.
There have been many suggestions concerning ways to get around the ethical imperatives of Jesus. Remember that many of his imperatives are set in the context of expounding the First Testament Law (Illustration: Sermon On The Mount).
Here are three important things to remember:
- Imperatives: These are not laws. They are goals, which Jesus set before his disciples. They are the quality of life that God expects from a believer because of what God has done for him or her.
- Narratives: Narratives tend to function in various ways in the Gospels. They usually serve as illustrations for what is being taught. If they were indeed such, i.e., illustrations of the teaching sections, then they should be used in the same way as a proper hermeneutic.
- Eschatology: One must have a clear understanding of the kingdom of God to properly understand the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels.
There are several considerations. which you should keep in mind:
- The basic framework of the entire Second Testament is eschatological. This is to say, they thought they lived on the very brink of a time when God would come into history and bring an end to this age and usher in a new age. It was a mindset bent on looking for the end.
- Most Jews in the Second Testament era were eschatological in their thinking.
- The beginning of the end came with Jesus in the manger. The consummation of the end will come when he appears again, still future to us.
- The Second Testament people learned to live in the tension of the now-but-not-yet. They understood the concept of being between the times. We must also learn to live and bring our hermeneutics to bear in this tension of being between the times.
Community Discussion Questions
➡ |CDQ Info|
- How could you use each of the Synoptic Gospels to help others understand the message of Jesus?
- Which of the four ways, that the kingdom has been understood, did you believe as you were reading the Gospel stories?
- How does the concept of the rule of God give you a foundation for future reading?
- How does the war that Dr. Kallas refers to play out in your day-to-day life?
- Read the story of the storm at sea in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 8.23-37; Mark 4.36-41; Luke 4.38-41). How do you understand each story according to the author’s purpose in writing to his specific audience?
- How will you read the Gospels differently, knowing that Jesus brought the rule of God to the earth and that the church now lives between the times?