The wise men seem out of place in the Gospel of Matthew. If this volume is — as most Bible students say — written for the Jewish people to read, why did Matthew include this story of gentile astrologers at the nativity? Why did he not relate to us the story of the nice Jewish shepherds who also visited the new-born messiah? On the surface, it seems totally out of line that these gentiles would play such an important role in the story of the Jewish Messiah. It is almost unthinkable that these magi — soothsayers, magicians, and astrologers — should be considered in this Jewish gospel since the Jewish faith considered such demon-inspired men as abominations to God. (Deuteronomy 18:10-14)
But here they are, bigger than life, following a mysterious star which led them to the Messiah. Many scholars through history have pondered the essence of that star of Bethlehem. Some have suggested that it was a nova, an exploding star. Most have rejected that idea since a nova would have been seen and noted by all the ancient people. Herod, however, had to ask the men when the star had appeared — indicating that it was not something that had been notable in the skies of Israel. Other scholars have suggested that this star was a comet; however, this idea has been soundly rejected since comets throughout history, in almost all cultures, have been considered bad omens. A comet would have been considered an announcement of the death of a king, not the birth of a new one. After searching all of the resources of astronomy, many scholars have settled upon the idea that the star the wise men saw was something that only a skilled student of the heavens would notice — a conjunction of the planets. Just before the birth of Jesus, there was a rare triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the area of Pisces which astrologers considered to signify Israel. This same conjunction had occurred three years prior to the birth of Moses who delivered Israel from Egypt. Could it be that its reoccurrence foretold the birth of another great deliverer in Israel? It is interesting to note here that Herod’s response after his investigation with the wise men was to kill all the children who were two years old and younger — an amazing correlation with the reaction of Pharaoh when the star appeared in Egypt.
The more we see of the wise men, the greater the enigma becomes. Why are these gentiles who practice an abominable religion and star gazing introduced in this Jewish gospel? Perhaps the very fact that they are called “wise men” holds a key. In the book of Daniel, we find several confrontations between the Hebrews and the astrologers of Babylon. From the beginning, Daniel and his friends prove to be ten times wiser than the wise men of Babylon. On several occasions, Daniel is pitted against these astrologers and always comes out ahead. In each confrontation, he shows his colors and wins “hands down.” The wisdom of Solomon set him far ahead of the thinkers of all his surrounding nations. His book of Proverbs exalts the precious qualities of wisdom. Perhaps the appearance of the wise men (soothsayers, magicians) was to bring the Jewish people back to their foundational concept that they, not the gentile nations, were to be the wise ones on Planet Earth.
Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon Him for? And what nation is there so great that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)
All other nations who did not recognize Jehovah were fools. “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good.” (Psalms 14:1)
It was only in beginning to acknowledge and reverence the one true God that anyone could obtain wisdom. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)
With this thought in mind, the story of these out-of-place magi suddenly takes on new meaning. Perhaps these strangers are not so out-of-place after all. In fact, their visit actually sets the stage and determines the tone of the whole book. This gospel becomes a commentary on who is a wise man and who is a foolish man.
A Jew Looks at Jesus
I am writing the next few pages from the inside of a Jewish reader’s mind as he struggles through the book of Matthew — a book which attracts and repels him at the same time. Certain obvious license has been taken to make the text more reader-friendly for a modern American audience. For example, our national holidays have been substituted for the Jewish counterparts. However, every attempt has been made to keep the ideas and reactions within context. Let’s join our host as he questions, “Who are the wise men and who are the fools?”
“King Herod, there are men here to see you. They say they have come from a distant land to see the child that is born king of the Jews.” These words shook Herod to his very soul and he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, to fight or run. Through his mind flashed the whole drama of his rise to the Judean throne. “King of the Jews — why, I am the king of the Jews. Ha, I’m the first real king the Jews have had since the Roman takeover. Those others before me — why, they were little more than dukes. The Romans held a tight reign on everything they did. But I, with my political pull and a few pay-offs, won for myself the title ‘king of Judea.’ Yeah, it took a little while to gain the kingdom that went with that title; but, I soon won the political power away from the Sadducees and aristocrats who seem to have all the angles figured out. A little blood here, some money there, and the right choice for a wife — how could I lose? Even after I gained the throne, there were a few little family matters I had to straighten out to keep my own family from robbing my throne. Now here are these strangers from some mystic country in the East claiming that the stars are prophesying against my throne. Men I can execute, but stars are beyond my reach!”
Reluctantly, he gives the word for these strangers to enter and the interrogation begins:
“From where have you come?”
“From a distant land in the East.”
“And exactly what is your interest in Judea?”
“Your Highness, we are astrologers.
We are responsible in our kingdom for watching the stars and learning their secrets. You see, we believe that they hold the plans for the nations. We recognize the stars, especially the wandering stars, as gods. How they move in the sky reveals their intentions for the nations. We have built great towers so that we can approach the sky, and we have dug deep pits so that we can see the stars even when the sun is shining. Several months ago, while we were watching from our great ziggurat tower, we saw the stars crossing and re-crossing in the heavens. Our charts, legends, and logs of star movements did not record that such an event had happened since many centuries ago. We knew that some great event was about to occur but we had only one clue to the interpretation of that event. The position in the sky and the place of the constellations indicated that the stars spoke of the Jews. Hungry for an explanation we searched among the scrolls of your prophets which have been preserved in our country since the time that the Jewish people were enslaved there and your prophet Daniel served in high positions among our wise men. There, in the words of a gentile prophet whose words are recorded in your Hebrew scripture, we found our answer! The book of Numbers records Balaam’s prophecy, ‘I see him but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.’ Immediately, we took leave of our positions and came to see the one who shall soon hold the scepter of Israel. The star we have seen and the new king we also desire to see!”
“And what are your intentions once you see this new king?”
“We have come to show him honor. We have gifts from our land — gifts befitting a king. We want to worship him and to confirm the message we have received from the stars.”
“Well, I know nothing about this new king — but I, too, have a surprise for him and would like to see him. Let me call in the scribes and chief priests to find out more about these prophecies.”
From that first scene, the story begins to unfold. It’s a most intriguing story — a combination of adventure, love, tragedy, mystery, surprise, and victory — a story of divine intervention in human affairs. It begins in the halls of a royal palace with an intrusion by mysterious astrologers and soothsayers from a land of demon worshipers and weaves its way to a political execution at the city dump where there is again an unexpected intrusion. The surprise ending exceeds even the talents of O’Henry. It’s the story of the true king of the Jews as recorded by Matthew, one of the first to proclaim himself a subject of this king. Matthew tries to explain why he has and why others should become subjects of this Jesus, king of the Jews.
Son of David, Son of Abraham
He titles his book with a rather long but intriguing caption, “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” As usual, the title is a clue to Matthew’s intentions for his work. Matthew is proclaiming that Jesus is the son of David and the son of Abraham. He does not see Jesus as a son of David and of Abraham, but the son of David and of Abraham. To Matthew, Jesus is the unique son who stands as the covenant recipient of both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. That means that Jesus is the messiah and a true Jew. These are key points in the controversy concerning Jesus, who is probably the most controversial person to have ever arisen in Jewish circles. The high priest called His doctrine heresy, and the government executed Him as a political criminal; yet His controversy continues to rage. His followers claim that He rose from the dead and is still alive.
Even now there are more followers than ever and the synagogues throughout the Jewish world still question this heretic from Galilee. There is one good turn of events — more and more Gentiles are joining the movement of this self-styled prophet. Is it possible that someday the Jews will be completely rid of this Jesus religion? Will only uncircumcised Gentiles be its followers? In the meantime, many Jews are reading Matthew’s book to help understand this other religion. That title either repels them or intrigues them. Matthew pulls no punches. There is no mistake that he insists that Jesus really is the messiah and a true Jew — the heir to God’s covenants through Abraham and David.
“Son of David” is the most popular title used among Jews to speak of the Messiah. It was David who gathered the twelve loose tribes into one strong nation. It was David who established Jerusalem as the political and spiritual capital of the nation. It was David who defeated the enemies of Israel and collected their wealth for Israel’s treasury. It was David who called all the tribes together to become one nation under his leadership and the rule of God. Immediately after David, the nation began to break up. Solomon strained the loyalties of his subjects and plowed the ground for anarchy. Following him, Rehoboam and Jeroboam finished the job. Israel was no longer one nation but two. Suddenly, the glory of Israel was only a memory — and a hope. In the heart of every true Israelite there burned — and still burns — a spark of hope that a new David will arise and again reunite the nation. The prophets promise that a new king will arise out of David and that his throne will never end. The rabbis use the term “son of David” to speak of their long-awaited Messiah. Of the many titles for the Messiah, none other gained the place in the hearts of the people as did “Son of David.” On the lips of the common people, in the pages of the Talmud, in the hope of the hearts of Israel’s leaders — “son of David” is a word of encouragement that sparks a fire of joy and faith. No Jew can read Matthew’s connection of Jesus with the Son of David without being stirred to hope — or to anger! It is an unthinkably bold claim to call a crucified political criminal the Messiah of Israel!
Matthew ties Jesus with the Jews by using the standard Jewish title, “son of Abraham.” Unlike Luke who traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam, Matthew stops at Abraham in uprooting Jesus’ family tree. Is Luke trying to let all men experience a relationship to Jesus while Matthew is aiming at letting the Jews feel that kinship? Perhaps many of the Jews would rather push Jesus off on the Gentiles — but Matthew is saying, “No, he’s a Jew — and a kosher Jew at that! Even more, he is the unique recipient of Abraham’s blessing.”
Matthew begins his book with the page of “begat”s. It’s enough to make any sensible person put down the book and not worry with such boring style. On the other hand, those readers who have been made curious by the book’s opening sentence are compelled to find out why this Jesus can be called the son of David and the son of Abraham. Since the “begat”s prove Him to be at least a physical descendant of David and of Abraham, they are not such boring reading after all. However, the genealogies really come alive with verse seventeen. Here Matthew points out that all of Jewish history seems to be bracketed off in sections of fourteen generations. Every fourteen generations, Israel reaches a turning point in her history: Abraham, David, the Babylonian exile, and now Jesus! Jesus seems to be equated with Abraham, David, and the Exile! The number fourteen is in itself a bit of a mathematical puzzle — it’s the sum of the numerical values of the Hebrew letters in David’s name. Using only the consonants, as traditional Hebrew does, the D is the fourth letter in the alphabet and the V is the sixth. Thus DVD represents 4+6+4 which sums to 14. Is Matthew saying that Jesus is not only a physical descendant but also a spiritual descendant of David? Is Jesus the long-awaited son of David?
Wise Men and Fools
Well, back to the plot. In Herod’s palace, the audience with the magi is in session. He has called in the scribes and the chief priests to inquire about the prophecies concerning the king of the Jews. With a unanimous decision, the scholars proclaim that the messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. The prophet Micah had predicted it that way. As the magi inquire concerning directions to Bethlehem, the scribes and priests dismiss themselves from the king’s court. Here, Matthew begins to give the readers a taste of the book’s theme. He has introduced two groups of radically different people. One is the scribes and priests of Israel. They spend their lives studying the scrolls of the law and prophets hoping to find the wisdom of God. They can recite word-for-word whole books of the Hebrew scripture. In addition, they know verbatim the expositions and arguments of the great rabbis. Their arm bands and head bands are inscribed with portions of the Torah, their law. Hours each day are spent in study and memorization of Torah. Prayers and religious ritual are constantly their way of life. The coming messiah is the hope of their existence — the climax for which the whole drama of life awaits. On the other hand is the group of magi. Being gentiles, they are outside the covenant and promises of God. Uncircumcised and eating defiled meat, they worship the stars and practice all forms of magic condemned by the Hebrew scripture. Strangely, it is these unworthy pagans to whom the Messiah is revealed. Even when the holy men of Israel are let in on the news, they are not happy or even curious over the possibility that their messiah has come. Alone, the magi set out for Bethlehem, while the scribes and priests wind through the crooked streets of Jerusalem. In their own little homes, their lives continue as if nothing has happened, while only a few miles away lies the fulfillment of all their hopes. How great a paradox it is that the Jewish rabbis traditionally refer to one another as “wise ones,” but throughout the world, it is the magi who are known as the “wise men.”
This paradox sets the stage for the whole book of Matthew. Invariably, it is the least expected person who recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah. Has Matthew sought out examples of all those against whom the Jews had some sort of ban? Prostitutes, sinners, publicans, lepers, lame, blind, and gentiles were all scorned by the religious Jews. After all, there are scriptural injunctions against their serving in the religious rituals and even against their entering into the temple. Undoubtedly, sicknesses must be punishment for sins and proof that the sick person is defiled in some way. Sinners and secular persons have condemned themselves by choosing not to follow the religious rituals. Even though many Gentiles are converting to Judaism, Gentiles are not really considered as worthy of the love of God. Why, there’s even a special court for them in the temple and even God Himself has forbidden that they come any closer to the Holy Place. For sure, the Chosen is a very select group! Yet Matthew seems to have proof that it is precisely these ostracized persons who will enter the kingdom of God. How can the kingdom be open to them if even the temple is closed to them?
Jesus’ public life is a ministry of preaching and healing which gathers unto Him a following of the sick, the demon-tortured, the lunatic, and the paralytic. (Matthew 4:24-25) The first person recorded by Matthew to have recognized Jesus as “Lord” and to call Him by the divine title is a leper. (Matthew 8:2) A centurion (an uncircumcised gentile, a foreign intruder, an enemy of Israel) expresses a faith which exceeds the faith of anyone in Israel. (Matthew 8:10) Even demons recognize Jesus as the son of God. (Matthew 8:29) As the blind call Him “son of David,” He heals them. (Matthew 9:27-29) Jesus casts out devils, and the street people marvel and proclaim that these miracles have never been seen before in Israel. Looking on, the Pharisees say that Jesus is casting out these demons by the prince of devils. (Matthew 9:32-34) Again, Jesus casts out demons of blindness and dumbness as the street people look on in amazement. They proclaim that Jesus is the “son of David”; and, again, the Pharisees accuse Jesus of doing the miracles through the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. (Matthew 12:22-24) What a scene to behold! People are rejoicing not only at the miracle but also, at the fact they have finally found their long-awaited Messiah! It is Christmas, New Years, and Fourth of July all rolled into one! But when the Pharisees arrive with their long faces and deathly accusation, a hearse is the only thing missing to complete the funeral scene.
Then, there is the little gentile lady from up near Tyre and Sidon. Her heart is broken because a devil had possessed her daughter, but she has one glimmer of hope — Jesus can heal her daughter. But will He? In Him, she recognized the Messiah of Israel and also believes that He is truly the Messiah of the whole world. Refusing to take “no” for an answer, she worships Jesus even when He tries to turn her aside. Then acknowledging her faith, He delivers the young girl. (Matthew 15:21-28)
Let the Party Begin
As Jesus travels around Israel, the scenes shift but the plot is the same. The setting is the only difference as Jesus continues to heal the sick and handicapped. The common folk always respond with praise to God, proving that they see Jesus as a man from God, not from Beelzebub. The fireworks of the Fourth of July seems to follow Jesus around! (Matthew 20:29-34) As He and His entourage enter Jerusalem, the greatest celebration yet breaks out. The street people throw their coats before the donkey on which Jesus rides. They wave palms and sing praises to God and Jesus — calling Him “son of David.” As usual, the Pharisees appear with their funeral procession of accusations against Jesus. This time Jesus answers them with a word from the scripture, “Out of the mouth of babes and suckling thou hast perfected praise.” Was He trying to say that even the scriptures had prophesied that the ones least expected would recognize the Messiah? (Matthew 21:8-16)
Finally, it comes time for the Pharisees to have their own Fourth of July celebration — a real funeral. They plot and scheme until their plans are complete. The scheming involves every member of the Jewish religious system who can be trusted not to betray the plan. The Sanhedrin, the Sadducees, the scribes, the elders of Israel, the chief priests, and even the high priest take part with the Pharisees in planning the execution of this prophet called “son of David.” Taking money out of the temple treasury, they pay false witnesses and buy a member of Jesus’ own following as a betrayer.
With the plans complete, each part begins to fall together like clockwork. Everything is a rush job and much of it has to be done at night. Everything must be finished quickly — before the Passover and before the street people realize what is happening and have a chance to spoil the plot. It all comes off just as planned. Even though the false witnesses tell conflicting stories, the jury somehow produces a guilty verdict. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, almost spoiled their plans because he felt that Jesus was really innocent. That, too, seemed to be calculated into the plans. Since it was Passover, the Romans were prepared for riots and uprisings. At holidays, and especially on Passover, Jewish patriotism runs high. Passover is a festival of deliverance which reaches a climax at the point in the Pascal meal when the worshipers literally expect the Messiah to appear. Having learned from experience, the Romans doubled their forces in Jerusalem on Passover week. They had also learned that with the Jews, it was more expedient to prevent a religious uprising rather than to squelch it once it began. The plotters knew that they had Pilate “over a barrel.” If he tried to save the life of one man, he would risk a full-scale revolution! Pilate tried one last-ditch effort by appealing to the people to release Jesus, but the religious leaders quickly swayed the crowd until they suddenly became a blood-thirsty mob calling for Jesus’ death. It was working! Everything was fitting together according to the plans of the Jewish leaders! Rejoicing, they slapped one another’s backs and called each other “wise.”
Now was their time to get back at this religious fanatic who had caused them so much trouble. He had allowed all the cripples, insane, uneducated, poor, and less-than-kosher Jews to call Him their king. Now they were going to prove what kind of king He really was. They stripped Him, robed Him in scarlet, and gave Him a reed as a scepter and thorns for a crown. Beating Him, spitting upon Him, and mocking Him, they called him “king of the Jews.” They taunted Him to prophesy to them who it was that was hitting Him. They derided Him to deliver Himself by His kingly power. Crucifying Him they marked His cross with the accusation, “King of the Jews.” Standing at the foot of His cross, they scoffed at the king of Israel nailed to a tree and the son of God dying as a criminal. Even the two criminals being crucified with Him took part in the hideous mockery. In spite of suffering agony beyond description, they mustered their strength and gasped for a breath to mock and jeer at this powerless king.
Just as the Pharisees had always turned the believers’ celebrations into funerals, suddenly, their funeral-celebration lost all its festive spirit. This time, God Himself crashed the party. The sun turned to darkness, the earth quaked, graves opened, rocks crashed, and the crucified king was dead. One of the Roman soldiers who had been in charge of the execution — a rough, uncircumcised enemy of Israel — suddenly realized what was happening and cried out, “Truly this is the Son of God.” Again the great paradox: the first to recognize that the crucified Jesus was the Son of God was a man from outside Israel — a man who was in no way a partaker in the covenant or promise of God. This pagan was the only one to recognize the promise when it was fulfilled and to recognize the covenant when the covenant blood was shed. In Bethlehem and at Golgotha, only Gentiles recognized the king of the Jews!
Jesus–Messiah for the Gentiles?
Surely, this new Christian religion will soon be a thing of the past in Israel. Certainly, it is the gentiles who are meant to be Christians. After all, they are always the wise ones and the Jewish leaders always wind up playing the part of the fool in Matthew’s book. Notice especially the really hard blow near the end of Matthew where Judas returned his pay-off money to the priests. That one really makes them look like fools because they saw nothing wrong with taking blood money out of the treasury but find it sinful to put the same blood money back into the same treasury.
Certainly, Matthew must hate the Jews for having killed his Jesus. But there is one more chapter to go, and it’s all about the resurrection. That is the biggest part of the controversy over this Jesus and His religion. Maybe there is a final clue to the whole controversy in that chapter. There it is — this risen Christ told His disciples to go preach to the nations — that means gentiles! Good, the Jews are off the hook, Christianity really is a Gentile religion! The book is closed — but not for long. Somewhere in the story, Matthew has woven in enough facts to make even a Jewish reader curious as to whether Jesus really is the son of David and the son of Abraham. Since everyone wants to be wise and not a fool, the book must be re-read.
Maybe Matthew really doesn’t hate the Pharisees and other religious Jews. Maybe he’s just trying to get across a point. Perhaps this Jesus of his had something to say about the way the rabbis and leaders are interpreting their religion. After all, the book is packed full of quotations from the Hebrew scriptures and allusions to rabbinical interpretations of the scriptures. Maybe there really is something to the way Matthew interprets these passages. Maybe the Pharisees are wrong. No matter how serious they were, they may just be missing the point of the scriptures.
From the first, Matthew seems to imply that he has a totally different interpretation of what it means to be a Jew. He quotes John the Baptist in saying that the true sons of Abraham are not those who have Abraham for an ancestor, but rather those who show forth fruits worthy of repentance. John even went so far as to say that God could raise up sons of Abraham from the stones. (Matthew 3:7-10) That’s a pretty radical statement but it does seem to ring of the prophet Micah who said that God wasn’t pleased with sacrifices and religious ritual but looked for a man who would “do justly, love mercy and walk humble before God.” (Micah 6:6-8) In fact, Jesus even quoted that verse to the Pharisees in one of their discussions. (Matthew 12:7) It even sounds like the words of the rabbi who told a gentile that he could recite the whole Torah while standing on one foot. The gentile vowed to become a proselyte if the rabbi could fulfill his promise. The rabbi then stood on one foot and said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself and God will all thy might, strength, soul, and spirit.” Maybe Matthew and Jesus are trying to say that if the Jews would return to this simple understanding of the Torah they could be wise and not fools. They could be true sons of Abraham in a spiritual sense.
After all, every time Jesus and the Pharisees clashed, the conflict seemed to be centered around some point where the Pharisees had let their ritual purity become more important than justice, mercy, and humility before God. Jesus didn’t mind pointing out the Pharisees’ shortcomings. He called them hypocrites every time He saw them breaking their own Torah. Maybe He was being cruel, but really it seems more likely that He was trying to correct rather than to punish them. He calls them hypocrites when they give alms because their intentions are on being seen giving rather than in helping the poor. (Matthew 6:2) He calls them hypocrites when they pray because they make a spectacle for onlookers rather than really communing with God. (Matthew 6:5) They are hypocrites in fasting (Matthew 7:5), in keeping Jewish rituals at the expense of honoring father and mother (Matthew 22:18), in predicting the weather but not being able to interpret the scripture (Matthew 16:3), and in asking questions about man’s responsibility because really they are trying to trick Jesus rather than find a serious answer (Matthew 22:18). He pronounces woes and sorrows on these hypocritical scribes and Pharisees because they know the observances commanded by God and even repeat them but do not live by them. (Matthew 23:2-38) He proclaims that the final end of the hypocrites will be weeping and gnashing of teeth in torment. (Matthew 24:51) But in all of His accusations against the Jewish leaders, there seems to be a tone of love rather than hate. Jesus seems not to hate the men, but to hate only the cruel and hypocritical way they destroy the Torah. The true heart of Jesus is revealed when He laments that He wants to call them under His wings but they refuse. It is not Jesus that rejects the Jews; it is the Jews that reject Him!
Jesus seems to say that His followers should start where the scribes and Pharisees leave off. Jesus wants His followers to observe the teachings of the Pharisees, but He warns them against the attitude and actions of these Jews. (Matthew 23:3) He commands His followers to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees in fulfilling the intent of the Torah rather than merely its letters. (Matthew 5:20) Jesus claims that He Himself is the fulfillment of the law and prophets. He claims not to be destroying the faith and promise of the Jewish scripture — rather He claims to be fulfilling them in a deeper spiritual sense than the Jews have been able to understand. (Matthew 5:17) He commands His followers to live by all the Ten Commandments and to go one step further in the sacrificing of their own possessions to help the poor. (Matthew 16:22) He challenges them to live not by the letter of the law but to also understand that the intent of the law begins with the attitude of the heart. He tells us that God is as concerned about hatred as He is about murder. (Matthew 5:21-22) With adultery, divorce, swearing, revenge, and attitudes toward enemies, Jesus commands that His followers not stop at the letter of the Torah or rabbinical interpretation of the scripture but rather live by that principle. (Matthew 5:27-44) Then they can know that they are much more than sons of Abraham — they will be sons of the Father in heaven! They will be much more than kosher — they will be perfect! (Matthew 5:45-48) That’s what all the Jewish ritual religion is all about — but where did they miss it? Jesus says, “You do err, not knowing the scripture, nor the power of God.” (Matthew 22:29) The scripture and the power of God — maybe that’s why Matthew spends so much time quoting the Hebrew prophets and describing Jesus’ miracles!
The Scripture and the Power of God
In his short, little book, Matthew quotes Hebrew scriptures almost fifty times and has several other allusions to the Jewish scriptures and the Talmud. What seems to be the key to Matthew’s understanding of the Jewish religion? Well, first of all, it seems that Matthew sees Jesus as the explicit fulfillment of the Hebrew prophecies. From almost insignificant points like what towns Jesus visited (Matthew 4:13-16 fulfilling Isaiah 9:1-2) to His ministry in the role of Messiah (Matthew 12:14-21 fulfilling Isaiah 42:1-4), every action seems to have been prophesied. Some of the prophecies He could have deliberately set out to fulfill; but many, like the dice game for His garment at His crucifixion (Matthew 27:35 fulfilling Psalms 22:18), were completely beyond His control. Matthew believes that God is the one who made Jesus’ life to perfectly coincide with the ancient prophecies. Maybe so, or maybe it is only a string of coincidences — could Jesus have been just the victim of a lot of circumstances? He was born of a virgin (Matthew 1:23 fulfilling Isaiah 7:14), He had a star which announced His coming (Matthew 2:2 fulfilling Numbers 24:17), He was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:4-6 fulfilling Micah 5:2), He spent part of His childhood in Egypt (Matthew 2:14-15 fulfilling Hosea 11:1), His birth triggered the massacre of many children in the area of Ramah (Matthew 2:16-18 fulfilling Jeremiah 31:15), He grew up in Nazareth (Matthew 2:23 fulfilling Isaiah 11:1 — this is a rabbinic play on the word “Branch” [pronounced Nezer] which connects the messianic promise with the city of Nazareth), His ministry was announced by John the Baptist who proclaimed the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Matthew 8:17 fulfilling Isaiah 53:4), He preached in the Galilee area (Matthew 4:13-16 fulfilling Isaiah 53:4), He healed the sick (Matthew 8:17 fulfilling Isaiah 53:4), the validity of His ministry was proven in the healing of the blind, the cripples, the lepers, and the deaf, and in the preaching of the gospel to the poor (Matthew 11:4-5 fulfilling Isaiah 42:1-4), the sign of His authority was His three-day stay in the grave (Matthew 12:38-40 fulfilling Jonah 1:7), He spoke in parables so that those who would understand could, and those who would not understand could not (Matthew 13:13-15 fulfilling Isaiah 6:9), His ministry was preceded by that of John the Baptist (Matthew 17:10-13 fulfilling Malachi 4:5), He entered Jerusalem riding a donkey (Matthew 21:1-5 fulfilling Zechariah 9:9), when He was killed, His disciples were scattered (Matthew 26:31 fulfilling Zechariah 13:7), He was crucified (Matthew 26:31 fulfilling Psalms 22 and Isaiah 52:13 and 53:12), He was captured as if He were a criminal (Matthew 26:55-56 fulfilling Lamentations 4:20), His blood money was used to buy a potter’s field (Matthew 27:3-10 fulfilling Zechariah 11:12), and His executioners gambled for His clothes (Matthew 27:35 fulfilling Psalms 22:18).
That centurion at the cross must be right in his proclaiming, “Truly, this was the son of God.” It is impossible for one man to have so perfectly fulfilled the prophecies of so many prophets unless he really is sent by God. Matthew is not bashful to say that Jesus is fulfilling the role of the servant of God. Those servant passages in Isaiah are undisputed as references to the messiah. He doesn’t hesitate to equate Jesus with the king of Israel in Zechariah 9:9 or the tortured witness of Psalm 22. Matthew made a terribly bold claim for Jesus, but he seems to have evidence to back it up. Then, again, Jesus Himself is not too bashful in claiming His authority. He claims to be fulfilling all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 5:17) He claims that He is manifesting God’s presence in a way that the prophets and righteous men of the past would have desired to have seen. (Matthew 13:17) He claims to be equal to David. (Matthew 12:1-4) He claims to be Lord of the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:8) He claims to be greater than Solomon. (Matthew 12:42) He refused to silence the crowd when they proclaimed Him to be the messiah by quoting the messianic acclamations from Psalms 118:25. (Matthew 21:8-16) He claims that His works proved His authority in such a powerful way that even the wicked cities of Tyre, Sidon, and even Sodom would have repented. (Matthew 11:20-24) To top it all, He tells the chief priest that He will come in the clouds on the right hand of power — sort of a Jewish code word for messiahship. (Matthew 26:63)
Kingdom of Jesus–Kingdom of God
If Jesus really is the Messiah, why didn’t He deliver Israel from Rome? Why didn’t He set up His kingdom? Why did God allow the Messiah to be killed? And when He came back to life — if that’s what really happened — why didn’t He set up His kingdom then? Well, maybe He is a different kind of Messiah. After all, it’s beginning to be clear that “wise ones” of Israel have some pretty foolish ideas about the whole meaning of their religion. If they missed the point of man’s responsibilities toward God and one another — maybe, just maybe, they misunderstood the meaning of their coming Messiah. Maybe the Messiah is promised as some sort of spiritual deliverer rather than a political savior. If this is the case, then the story about His forty-day fast and temptation begins to take on a whole new meaning.
Right at the first of the book, Jesus has just stepped out into the public eye. John the Baptist baptized Him and God Himself spoke from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) That sounds a lot like Psalms 2:7 — an enthronement Psalm which is often associated with the Messiah. Then Jesus goes out into the wilderness and fasts for forty days. Enter stage right, Satan who begins to tempt Jesus. First, he tries to get Jesus to make bread for Himself out of the rocks. Jesus refuses saying that He must depend on God, not on physical things. He quotes Deuteronomy 8:3 to make His point. Next, Satan tries to get Jesus to prove His dependence on God by jumping from the pinnacle of the temple. Jesus refused that temptation by pointing out the difference between trusting God and tempting Him. Deuteronomy 6:16 is His verse this time. Finally, Satan tries to tempt Jesus by offering Him all the earthly kingdoms. That offer really goes against the messianic promise in the enthronement Psalm — it says there that God will give the Messiah the kingdoms, not that He will have to win or earn them. (Psalms 2:8) More than that, it means that Jesus would be turning His trust from God to Satan and his bargain. Jesus again turns to the book of Deuteronomy (verse 6:13) for a response. Exit Satan stage left. It seems that the whole point of the visit from Satan is to try to get Jesus to manifest His messiahship in some physical way, but Jesus consistently refuses because He knows that His kingdom is a spiritual one based upon dependence on God. With the temptation over, Jesus goes out to the villages and begins to preach repentance in preparation for the coming kingdom (Matthew 4:17). That word “repent” really seems to push the kingdom into a spiritual realm rather than into an anti-Roman political machine!
It’s also interesting how He always found an answer in Deuteronomy — perhaps there’s a connection with the fact that Deuteronomy also contains the verse which He called the greatest commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second, is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets.” (Matthew 22:37:40) He seems to say that the zenith of Jewish religion is not a free Israeli state, but rather a nation of spiritually free people who trust God and prove it in worship of God and love toward neighbors. He gives a little rule for testing to see if this zenith has been reached, “Therefore all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do ye even so them: For this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) The great Jewish rabbi, Hillel, had given a very similar rule but he called it the fulfillment of the Torah, the Law. Jesus, on the other hand, recognizes the obligation for man to live a perfectly holy life but states that it is God’s promise that He will make man able to live that perfectly holy life. What a difference between Jesus and the rabbis! Maybe there really is something supernatural about Him! Maybe He is the son of David, the son of Abraham!
There really is a difference in the way He talks about God. It is apparent in the way the people responded to His teaching. “The people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as scribes.” (Matthew 7:28-29) But what is this authority? It is apparent that He didn’t have to have someone else to confirm His teaching. All the rabbis would make a statement and wait for another rabbi to confirm it with the word “amen,” but Jesus seems to have some self-contained authority with which He confirms His own statements.
This Jesus, who can “amen” His own statements, seems not to be presenting facts and concepts about God and His kingdom. Rather, He seems to actually be manifesting God and the kingdom through His own ministry and person. That’s where He gets His authority! He is not the messenger of the kingdom, He is the very presence of the kingdom! He even claimed that if He casts out devils by the Spirit of God that the kingdom of God has come. (Matthew 12:28) It was through contact with and trust in Jesus that people are changed so that they can be part of the spiritual kingdom which He manifested. All of Jesus’ statements about the kingdom seem to culminate in the reality of lives changed through submission to God’s rule of love. “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4) “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14) “It is impossible for a rich man, who would trust himself rather than God, to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:23-26) “Amen I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believeth him not: But the publicans and the harlots believed him: And ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward that ye might believe him.” (Matthew 21:31-32) “But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: For ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.” (Matthew 23:13) “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17) “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) “Many shall come from the east and west and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-12)
That makes a lot of sense. Jesus has come to manifest a spiritual kingdom that has to do with getting one’s heart right with God. His talk about repenting and having the attitude of a little innocent child is easy for the harlots, publicans, sinners, gentiles, and lepers to understand. They know they are wrong and need to repent. But the Pharisees and scribes have fooled themselves by doing so many religious things that they actually must feel that they are right. That’s why the kingdom has to pass from their hands to the hands of the sick and sinful. The self-proclaimed wisdom and righteousness of the Jews keeps them out of the kingdom and the self-recognized sinfulness of the publicans wins them the kingdom. Here we have the paradox of wise men and fools again!
A Second Call?
But surely the kingdom isn’t closed to the Jews now, or else Matthew wouldn’t have gone to the trouble to write such a Jewish-sounding story about Jesus. Maybe his gospel is a second call to the Jews who missed the first call. Maybe it’s like the story Matthew records of the transfiguration. (Matthew 17:11-12) On that mountaintop, the disciples saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah — symbols of the law and the prophets. At first the disciples could not understand the great vision because they had their eyes on all three. They wanted to build three tabernacles and stay on the mountain. But they looked again and saw only Jesus. It is as though God was trying to show them that Jesus is such a perfect fulfillment of the law and prophets that man needs to look only at Jesus for salvation. In fact, God spoke and commanded that they hear Jesus because He is the Son of God. Then with Jesus’ touch, they are delivered from their fears and enabled to trust and follow Him. In writing this book, Matthew seems to be hoping that the same voice of God and touch of Jesus will help his readers see Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and prophets.
Certainly it is that same sort of experience that came to Peter at Caesarea Philippi when he recognized that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. (Matthew 16:13-16) Here, Jesus acknowledged that Peter had received this knowledge by revelation from God and spoke of that revelation and the heart change it produced as the rock upon which Jesus would build a church that hell itself could not withstand. (Matthew 16:17-18) What a proof of the presence of the kingdom of God!
Understanding of the word “rock” as standing for the revelation of Jesus as God’s son gives meaning to Jesus’ parable about the two men who build houses. (Matthew 7:24-27) One was wise and one was foolish. The foolish built his house on sand and it fell. But the wise man established his life on the rock (revelation of Jesus as God’s son) and it stood through “hell and high water.” Oh, how wonderful to think that there is a solid footing upon which to build one’s life. If only this Jesus were still alive. Oh, yes! He is still alive. In fact, Matthew makes it sound as if He is more alive after His death and resurrection than before! And He’s here today with men so that we can choose to trust and follow Him! After His resurrection, Jesus came and spoke unto them, saying, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: And, lo. I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Furthermore, He taught that He was to receive His position in the kingdom in a regenerated state — not during his thirty-three-year sojourn on Planet Earth. “And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:28)
“Jesus saith unto him, Thou has said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64)
The Davidic Promise Fulfilled
This re-entry into human affairs will be the ultimate fulfillment of the promise to David that his seed would be given a permanent throne in Jerusalem.
As our Jewish host has found, the hero in the Gospel of Matthew is always the one who could have been voted “least likely to succeed.” This is what the New Testament as a whole teaches when it says that God has chosen the foolish things to confound the wise. (I Corinthians 1:27) The wisdom of God is revealed every time an unbeliever turns to seek Christ. The foolishness of man is manifested every time we reject His revelation. Paul confirms that not only Jews, but gentiles alike, are guilty of this gross foolishness. “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” (Romans 1:21-22)
Be wise today. Embrace Jesus as the Lord of your life. Turn from the foolishness of letting anything else stand in the place of God in your life. Once you have embraced wisdom, share this new life with others. “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that winneth souls is wise.” (Proverbs 11:30) “And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3)