Six months after launching this blog, we started reading the Gospel of Matthew with fresh eyes — as “the surprising plot twist that resolves the old kingdom struggle in a new way.” Here’s the opening post again, in case you’ve joined recently or struggled to keep up.
We’ve spent six months [Apr – Oct 2016] reading the first book of the Bible, showing the kingdom of God is the theme that binds the story together. We’ve seen why Jesus thought God-as-king was the central plot line. So I’ve been bursting to bring that understanding of the kingdom over from the OT into the New. Today we’re starting with Matthew’s account of the Gospel.
Like his main character, Matthew believed the gospel was the good news of the kingdom. Earth should have been under heaven’s rule all along, so Matthew wants to describe how Jesus restores heaven’s rule over the earth. His Gospel story leads us to where heaven’s king is ruling earth once again: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18).
Matthew insists that Jesus is the king who fulfils Israel’s story and purpose. But Matthew’s use of the Old Testament is problematic. To readers who don’t understand the kingdom story, Matthew often seems to be proof-texting—grabbing a verse from the prophets that wasn’t a prediction of the Messiah and painting it onto Jesus. For example, Matthew 2:15 quotes half a verse where Hosea was talking about Israel’s exodus, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” The next verse in Hosea (11:2) complains about God’s son (Israel) being disobedient idolaters—clearly not applicable to Jesus. It’s a puzzle for modern readers that Matthew can claim Jesus as the fulfilment of these prophecies.
To resolve that puzzle, we must learn to think the way Matthew did. We’ll need a better understanding of what prophecy and fulfilment mean. (Hint: prophecy isn’t prediction.) But most of all, we need a kingdom perspective: an understanding of what the kingdom of God is, and in what sense Jesus fulfilled the hopes and promises of God’s reign.
So, we’ll need to take it slowly as we traverse Matthew’s account of the Gospel, pausing to reflect on how the Jewish people of Jesus’ time understood the incomplete story of the God’s kingdom prior to Jesus. That framework makes sense of Matthew’s claim that Jesus is the fulfilment of the kingdom story. The problem is not that Matthew pulls verses out of context; the problem is that the “context” for Matthew means the story of the kingdom, and that context is much larger than most modern readers perceive.
It’s the kingdom story in the Law and the Prophets we need to comprehend. The Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy) is the foundation of that story. Abraham was the founder of God’s representative nation (Genesis). They became a kingdom of God when he delivered them from oppressive human rule, gave them his laws at Sinai, and came to live among them in the house they provided (Exodus). When this kingdom fell apart in 587 BC, the prophets kept insisting that God would restore his kingdom, but it hadn’t happened. Jesus does not say, “Well, the story set out in the Torah and prophets didn’t work, so let’s do something completely different.” No: Jesus insists we understand him as the fulfilment of Israel’s story: “Don’t imagine I’ve come to overturn the Torah and Prophets; I’ve come not to overturn their story but to complete it” (Matthew 5:17 paraphrased).
It’s all about Jesus being recognized as the anointed ruler who finally resolves the incomplete narrative of Israel as God’s representative kingdom. And since the Israel project was about revealing God’s sovereignty over the nations too, Matthew wants to say that Jesus is God’s king over the nations as well.
This is how Matthew sees the kingdom story being fulfilled:
Matthew 28:18-20 (my paraphrase)
Jesus approached them and said, “All authority—to reign in heaven and on earth—has been entrusted to me. So here’s what I want you (my apostles) to do. Train the nations (not just the Jews) to live under my authority. Submerge them into the authority of my Father (the heavenly king) and his Son (who reigns on earth) and the Holy Spirit (who cleanses the realm so we live among you). Instruct the nations to obey the commands that I gave you. My authorizing sovereign presence is always with you, as long it takes.”
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 10-11, 14:
I have argued elsewhere that the central theme of Matthew’s gospel is “fulfillment.” …The UBS Greek New Testament lists 54 direct citations of the OT in Matthew and a further 262 “allusions and verbal parallels,” and that is a conservative figure based only on the most widely recognized allusions. …
So it seems that far from being a pre-existing set of proof-texts, the OT passages cited in the formula-quotations have been brought freshly to Matthew’s mind by the traditions he has received, and that he has then worded those traditional stories in such a way as to help the hearer/reader to see the connection.
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 67–68:
Matthew devotes far more space to Jesus as authoritative teacher, Messiah (rightful King of Israel), the fulfillment of ancient Israel’s history and prophecies, and so forth … One of the most prominent characteristics of Matthew’s Jesus is how he fulfills Scripture, sometimes literally and sometimes as the embodiment of Israel’s history. Matthew is clear that Jesus is the goal of the law and prophets, hence anyone faithful to the heritage and Bible of Israel must recognize and follow him.