The Gospel of the Messianic King of the Jews
When I was growing up, the most anticipated day of the year was . . . Christmas! I loved everything about Christmas: decorating the tree, hanging up lights, roasted turkey and cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie! And of course, there was the anticipation of the toys underneath the tree on Christmas morning. The Sears mail order catalog would show up sometime around Thanksgiving and my brothers and I would scramble to get it first, eagerly paging through the toy section to pick out our favorites. Every day for the next month was spent eagerly longing for Christmas to come.
The gospel of Matthew is all about the eager anticipation for Christmas . . . the first Christmas! For centuries the Jews had struggled under the rule of foreign powers—the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and now the Romans. Israel longed for the day when God would send his Messiah who would free them from this oppression and make them great and prosperous in the Land again. Matthew begins with the announcement that this day has arrived! “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham” (matthew 1:1).
Though probably not the first gospel to be written (Mark likely has that distinction), Matthew has traditionally been placed first in the New Testament. This is appropriate since Matthew has the deepest roots in the Old Testament and Judaism. It is as though Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets, is reaching across the centuries and passing the prophetic baton to Matthew, who announces that the time has finally come.
Matthew’s central theme is promise and fulfillment. God’s promises to bring a Savior to Israel and to the world have come to fulfillment through Jesus the Messiah. This fulfillment theme is developed in a variety of ways in Matthew’s gospel. Let’s look at three of these: the genealogy, fulfillment formulas, and typology.
The Genealogy (1:1–17). In the West, people tend to view genealogies as rather tedious and boring. The Reader’s Digest condensation of the Bible even deleted most of them! But for Matthew, this genealogy is unbelievably exciting, the key to who Jesus is and what he came to accomplish. Matthew introduces the genealogy by identifying Jesus as “the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham.” All of these terms are enormously significant. Messiah comes from a Hebrew term meaning “Anointed One” and is translated into Greek as Christos or “Christ.” Anointing with oil was a way of dedicating a leader (especially the king) to a special task assigned by God. Within Judaism the term “Messiah” came to be used of the end-time King chosen by God to accomplish his salvation.
The title Son of David reminds the reader that almost 1,000 years before Matthew, God had promised King David that God would one day raise up one of David’s descendants, who would reign on his throne forever with justice and righteousness (2 samuel 7:11–16). This “messianic hope” was picked up again and again by the prophets when Israel was downtrodden and oppressed (isaiah 9:6–7; 11:1–5; jeremiah 23:5–6; 33:15–16; ezekiel 37:24–25).
“Son of Abraham” similarly recalls the covenant God made with Abraham another thousand years before David’s time (genesis 12; 15; 17). God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation (Israel) and that all nations would be blessed through his descendant. As the Messiah, Jesus will bring salvation blessings not only to Israel, but to the whole world.
Together these titles and the genealogy as a whole are intended to show us that Jesus is the climax of human history, the Savior of the world.
Fulfillment Formulas. In addition to providing a genealogy legitimizing Jesus’s claim to be the Messiah, Matthew repeatedly points out that what is happening is the fulfillment of Scripture—Jesus is bringing the history and story of Israel to fullness of meaning. Ten times he uses a formula something like, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet.”
|Jesus’s virgin birth
|Escape to and return from Egypt
|Infants of Bethlehem murdered
|Jesus’s childhood in Nazareth
|Jesus’s ministry established in Galilee
|Jesus heals disease
|Jesus fulfills the Servant role of . . .
|Jesus speaks in parables
|Psalm 78:2, 2 Chron. 29:30
|Jesus enters Jerusalem as humble king
|Jesus betrayed for 30 pieces of silver
In addition to these, a dozen or more times Matthew speaks of an Old Testament passage as fulfilled in Christ, although without an explicit fulfillment formula. While many of these passages are uniquely fulfilled by Jesus, others are “typological” fulfillments. By this we mean they are describing something that happened in the past but that foreshadows or points forward to its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. The persons or events described are anticipations of the coming Messiah (see the example of Hosea 11:1 below).
Typology. Matthew uses typology to show that all of Israel’s history is coming to its climax in Christ. Moses, for example, is a type of Christ. Just as Moses went up a mountain (Mount Sinai) to receive God’s covenant on tablets of stone, so Jesus delivers his famous Sermon on the Mount (matthew 5–7) to inaugurate the new covenant and illustrate the true meaning of the law. Just as Moses wrote the five books of the Pentateuch (genesis—deuteronomy), so Jesus gives five major discourses in Matthew (chs. 5–7; 10; 13; 18; 24–25). Similarly, just as Moses’s face shone when he came down from the mountain (exodus 34:29–33), so Jesus’s face shines like the sun at the transfiguration (matthew 17:2). In these and other ways Jesus is presented as a new and greater Moses, bringing in the new and greater covenant promised by God (see jeremiah 31:31–34).
Matthew also develops a “new Israel” typology. Just as God brought his “son” Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus (hosea 11:1), so he now brings Jesus up out of Egypt after King Herod tries to kill him (matthew 2:15). Just as Israel was tested forty years in the wilderness and repeatedly failed to trust God, so Jesus is tested for forty days in the wilderness but succeeds by trusting God (matthew 4:1–10). Israel is a (negative) “type” of Christ. Though the nation was unfaithful and failed to be God’s light to the Gentiles (isaiah 49:6), Jesus remained faithful and so fulfilled Israel’s true role.
The Messianic King of the Jews . . . and Lord of All Nations. With his strong Jewish focus and emphasis on prophetic fulfillment, Matthew is likely writing to a predominantly Jewish-Christian community. In the face of opposition from unbelieving Jews, Matthew seeks to prove that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, who fulfills the promises made to Israel.
Yet Matthew also makes clear that these promises are not for Israel alone. During his public ministry, Jesus tells his Twelve disciples to go only to the “lost sheep of Israel” (matthew 10:5–6; “twelve” symbolizes Israel). This is because Israel was God’s chosen people. They had the first opportunity to respond so that they could then be a light to the other nations (see romans 1:16). Yet once salvation has been accomplished through Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, Jesus gives his disciples the “Great Commission” to make disciples of all nations (matthew 28:18–20). The salvation prepared for Israel is now to go to all nations everywhere.