The Gospel of Matthew - Looking Backward

In the world of ancient Rome, mythological gods and goddesses ruled and controlled almost every aspect of life. One of these gods, Janus, was said to rule over beginnings, endings, and transitions (among other things). Janus is usually pictured as a being with two faces, one looking forward and the other looking backward. The month of January is traditionally thought to be named after Janus. That makes sense considering the new year is as much about looking back and reflecting on the past as it is looking forward to the future.
Now, what hath Roman mythology to do with the Gospel of Matthew? Much, it turns out. The image of Janus is actually a perfect image when considering Matthew and its place in Scripture.

Matthew’s Gospel is unique in that it seems to be continually looking backward at the same time it is looking forward.

It is fitting that Matthew should serve as the point of transition from the Old Testament to the New. Matthew is a book that tells a contemporary story (at least, contemporary to Matthew and his first-century readers) – it is the story of the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But there is a great deal happening behind the scenes that is reflected in the way Matthew chooses to tell this story. There is a greater story into which Matthew is purposefully and carefully inserting the story of Jesus.

Matthew is pointing his readers back to the story of Israel and declaring that this story (specifically, the story of Israel) has always really been leading toward Jesus; and at the same time he’s looking forward, declaring that what is happening through Jesus is not the end of Israel’s story, but a new beginning. Jesus, Matthew declares, is the fulcrum upon which all of history turns. After His incarnation, no reading of the Old Testament can ignore Him; and after His resurrection, not a moment of history has been outside of His influence.

This is just one framework through which we can read Matthew’s Gospel, but it is one that seems to pervade the story from beginning to end, and it is something worth exploring in a couple of blog posts.

Commentators generally agree that Matthew is the most “Jewish” of the four Gospels – that is, it is written primarily to a Jewish audience. As Matthew was writing his gospel it seems that he was assuming a certain knowledge of Judaism in his readers. And Matthew’s devotion to teaching about Jesus’ place within the greater story of Jewish Scriptures is evident, really, from the first verse.

Matthew opens His Gospel with a description that is translated literally from the Greek as: “The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). This one verse, and the seventeen verses of genealogy that follow, points both all the way back to creation (borrowing language from the first verse of Genesis), and ensures that Jesus’ connection to Jewish history is made clear. In fact, Matthew is clearly focused on ensuring Jesus’ lineage specifically through Abraham (the “father” of the Jews) and on David (through whose lineage the Messiah was prophesied to come). This is the framework upon which the genealogy of chapter 1 (which is genuinely far more interesting than it may seem at first) is built.

Matthew also focuses, beginning in chapter 1, on showing how Jesus is actually a consummation of the entire Old Testament. More than a dozen times Matthew uses the language of “fulfillment” in regard to the Old Testament Scriptures. However, this should not be mistaken as a fulfillment of just specific passages (especially those passages that seem to be making “predictions” about the coming Messiah). Rather, the diversity of passages Matthew employs demonstrates the wide variety of ways the Old Testament points to Jesus, from passages that make specific, prophetic claims, to the use of specific characters (Moses, David, Jonah, etc.) and events (the exodus from Egypt, passing through the Red Sea, wandering in the desert, etc.) that have actually always been meant to point to Him (this is what we are referring to when we say that something is a “type” of Christ).

In fact, it is easy for readers to miss the fact that Matthew actually arranges his account of Jesus’ early life and ministry in a way that shows Jesus essentially reliving the history of Israel – God brings Him out of Egypt (2:15), He passes through the water (His baptism in 3:13-17) and into the wilderness for forty days (4:1-2), followed by reinterpreting the Law of Moses from a Mountain (chapters 5-8). Matthew’s deliberate use of Israel’s history in the life of Christ allows his Jewish readers to simultaneously reflect on their own history (and the history of their failures as a people) as well as on how Jesus has come to redeem that history; to succeed where Israel has failed.

In the next blog post we’ll examine how Matthew looks forward through his telling of Jesus’ story.