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A tax collector for Romans writes to Jews

The Gospel of Mathew presents us an opportunity to encounter Jesus through his words and experience the gift of redemption through his life and action.

A tax collector for Romans writes to Jews

By Fr. Nigel Barrett 

The Gospel of Matthew is one of four gospels in the Bible and the first book in chronologically in the New Testament. Each Gospel has distinctive characteristic. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of Mathew’s Gospel is its concern to demonstrate the way in which Jesus Christ fulfils both the prophecies and expectations of the Jewish People. It seems that Matthew was especially concerned to show his readers how Jesus was exactly the person that the Old Testament was pointing to. 

Matthew was one of the 12 apostles who were with Jesus Christ throughout His public ministry on earth. The consensus among conservative scholars is that this book in the Bible was written between 50 and 70 A.D. Matthew was a Jewish tax collector who left his profession to follow the Lord. Matthew gives a personal witness account of many miracles that Jesus performed prior to being crucified on a Roman cross. The purpose of this book is to prove to readers that Jesus is the true Messiah that was prophesied in the Old Testament of the Bible. It is an artistically written book with an attempt to present the historical events that occurred during the life of Jesus on earth. With 28 chapters, it is the longest Gospel of the four.

So, what makes Matthew such an interesting narrative to read, here are 7 simple points.

1. Matthew was primarily written for a Jewish audience: It’s widely accepted that Matthew was written for a Jewish audience. While the book does not have a direct reference to a Jewish audience there is a mountain of context clues to tell us that Matthew really wanted his audience to see Christ in relationship to Jewish tradition—which would have had little relevance to a Gentile audience. Here why or how we come to that conclusion:

From the beginning, Matthew paints a picture of Jesus as an undeniably Jewish man, descending directly from Abraham—patriarch of the Jews (Matthew 1:1-16). The book is also packed with allusions and references to the Old Testament—which a Gentile audience wouldn’t notice or care about. Matthew frequently calls out the connections between Jesus’ actions and Jewish prophecy.

While the other gospels frequently use the phrase, “the Kingdom of God,” Matthew uses “the Kingdom of Heaven”—a distinction that would’ve mattered greatly to Jews, who deeply revered the name of God. The Gospel of Matthew is also the only book to point out that Jesus came “not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it” and that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). This quote from Jesus roots his teachings in the tradition of Jewish Law—which was very important to Jews and much less relevant to Gentiles.

2. Five women are included in Matthew’s genealogy: In the culture in which Matthew was written, genealogies usually only included men. The Gospel of Matthew, however, lists five women, each of whom made Jesus’ genealogy more complicated.

All the women highlighted were women of dodgy character or something about them was just not right. Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, had incestuous relation with her father-in-law in order to have a child and thus she had the twins Perez and Zerah. Rahab was a prostitute who helped the Israelites capture Jericho. Ruth—from the Book of Ruth—was a widowed Moabitess, and Moabites were forbidden from entering the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:3). The wife of Uriah is Bathsheba, with whom David famously committed adultery. Mary, of course, became pregnant before she was married.

To a Jewish audience, including these women created questions, which is aptly answered by the gospel that tells a story of God’s redemption which is all inclusive.

3. The symbol for the Gospel of Matthew is a winged man: In the second century, St. Irenaeus famously associated symbols from Ezekiel 1:1-21 and Revelation 4:6-8 with each of the four gospels. He suggested that the winged man represented Matthew: “This, then, is the Gospel of His humanity; for which reason it is, too, that the character of a humble and meek man is kept up through the whole Gospel” (Against Heresies).

4. The book contains more than 130 Old Testament quotes and allusions: The public ministry of Jesus Matthew’ Gospel highlights how Jesus’ ministry was prophesied about in the Old Testament. However, there is no “messiah checklist” in the Torah, so the Jews pieced together their own picture of what the messiah would be like and how he would save Israel. These allusions helped Matthew’s Jewish audience see that Jesus was the one they were really waiting for.

5. Matthew repeatedly uses two phrases no other gospel uses: Both unique phrases repeated throughout Matthew have clear implications for the book’s Jewish audience. Matthew changes the phrase “the Kingdom of God” (used in the other gospels) to “the Kingdom of heaven,” respecting the Jews’ reverence for the name of the Lord. The phrase is used 32 times in the whole Bible, and it appears in Matthew all 32 times.

Matthew also frequently says, “That which was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled,” reinforcing the connection between Jesus’ life and ministry and the Old Testament.

6. Matthew introduces Jesus as “Messiah”: To a modern reader, Matthew’s frequent interjections and references to the Old Testament slow down the action. One might feel like, “Okay, I get it, his life fulfilled prophecies,” but Matthew is deliberately connecting Jesus to Messianic prophecies in order to leave no doubt that he is the Messiah—the one who was promised, the long-awaited king of the Jews from the line of David.

7. Matthew is the only gospel that mentions the magi at Jesus’ birth: Commonly known as the “Three Wise Men” or the “Three Kings,” the magi came to worship “the king of the Jews”—the Messiah. Matthew doesn’t specify how many there are, but they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh and the three gifts led to the common belief that there were three magi. In fact, the tax collector for Romans do not want to leave his readers in any doubt about the credentials of Jesus as the messiah and king of the Jews.

The Gospel of Mathew presents us an opportunity to encounter Jesus through his words and experience the gift of redemption through his life and action. 

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