One of the most surprising things first-time readers of the New Testament discover is that the story of Jesus is told not once, but four times: The “Gospels” according to Matthew… Mark… Luke… and John. So why are there four Gospels in the New Testament? Why not just tell the whole story once? Throughout the centuries there have been numerous attempts to “harmonize” the Gospels into a single story.
One of the earliest of these was done by the early church father Tatian in the second century B.C.E. His work was called the Diatessaron, meaning “through the four,” and it sought to weave the four accounts into a single narrative. Tatian’s work gained great popularity and was used for centuries as the main lectionary on the Gospels in some Christian communities.
So should we have just one Gospel? For those who believe the Bible is God’s Word, the answer should be a resounding “No!” After all, it was the Holy Spirit who gave us four Gospels, each divinely-inspired by God himself. If we cut and paste them into the single gospel, we take four Spirit-inspired masterpieces and turn them into one un-inspired human work. Ironically, it is often the more conservative Christian churches, schools, and colleges that teach the Gospels as a harmonized “life of Christ,” rather than listening to each Gospel on its own terms. Their goals are noble: to tell the whole story of Jesus—but the result is flawed. This is because each Gospel represents a unique portrait of Jesus. Each Gospel writer has a particular story to tell and certain theological themes to emphasize. Merging them together into a single story risks missing each Gospel’s unique perspective. Worse, we risk missing the Holy Spirit’s message to us through the text. In this series of four short articles, we will look at the distinctive themes and theology of each of the four Gospels.
The Gospel of the Messiah
Though probably not the first gospel to be written (Mark likely has that distinction), the Gospel according to Matthew comes first in our New Testament. This is appropriate since Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels and also the one most closely linked to the Old Testament and to the prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah. Matthew’s central theme is promise and fulfillment: God’s promises in the Hebrew Scriptures to bring salvation to his people Israel and to the whole world are being fulfilled with the coming of Jesus the Messiah. The Church’s response to this joyful news should be to go into all the world and make disciples (followers) of Jesus the Messiah (Matt 28:18–20).
Every page of Matthew’s Gospel is steeped in this theme of promise and fulfillment. The Gospel begins with the announcement that, “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” followed by a detailed genealogy of 41 generations! While Western cultures tend to have little interest in genealogies, viewing them as tedious curiosities, Matthew and his readers would have considered this announcement to be the most exciting news of all time. The genealogy introduces Jesus as the “son of Abraham” and the “son of David,” meaning he is in the lineage of two of the most significant figures in biblical history.
God called Abraham to leave his homeland in Ur of Mesopotamia and to go to a place he would show him. God made a covenant with Abraham, promising to create from him a great nation (Israel), to give him the Promised Land (Canaan) and through his descendants to bless all nations of the earth (Gen 12:1–3). It is through the salvation available through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that all nations would be blessed.
Jesus is also introduced as the “son of David” (Matt 1:1). Twelve hundred years after Abraham, when Israel was established in the Land, God made a covenant with King David, promising him that his dynasty would be established forever and that one of his descendants would reign on his throne forever (2 Sam 7:11-16). This prophecy for the “Messiah"—the anointed king and Savior—was picked up and expanded by the later prophets (Isa 9:1–7, 11:1–16). The portrait they presented was not just a return to the glory days of Israel’s monarchy under David and Solomon. It was a promise for the restoration and renewal of all of creation, when “the wolf will live with the lamb… They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:6, 11:9). When Matthew presents a genealogy tracing Jesus’ lineage through David and Abraham, he is affirming that Jesus is the Messiah and Savior of the world, the focal point, and destination of human history.
You can read our blog Jesus & Genealogies to learn even more on this topic.
The Fulfillment Formulas
In addition to providing a genealogy confirming Jesus’ legitimate credentials as the Messiah, Matthew develops his promise-fulfillment theme through a series of “fulfillment formulas,” quotations from the Old Testament demonstrating Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy. The formula, which Matthew uses ten times, reads something like, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet… .” For example, Jesus’ birth to a virgin fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 (Matt 1:22-23), his family’s escape to Egypt fulfills Hosea 11:1 (Matt 2:15), his ministry in Galilee fulfills Isaiah 9:2 (Matt 4:14–16), and so on.
In addition to these ten fulfillment formulas, Matthew cites or alludes to Scripture a dozen or more times without a formula, but in a way that indicates Jesus’ fulfillment of it. For example, when King Herod asks the chief priests and teachers of the law where the Messiah was to be born, they quote Micah 5:2 and 5:4 to confirm his Bethlehem birth. Similarly, Matthew identifies John the Baptist as “the one about whom it is written,” and then cites Malachi 3:1, “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
Some have claimed that Matthew’s quotations of the Old Testament are often taken out of context, misrepresenting the original meaning of the text. For example, in its original context, Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” was not a prophecy about the Messiah escaping to Egypt and then returning to Israel. In fact, it wasn’t a prophecy at all, but rather a statement by God concerning his deliverance of Israel in the exodus from Egypt. The full sentence in Hosea 11:1 reads, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Israel, created as a nation by God, is described metaphorically as his “son.” So how can Matthew apply the passage to Jesus? Does he distort the meaning of the text to fit his agenda? Is he ignoring the most fundamental principles of biblical interpretation: context, context, context?
Typology: Jesus As the New Israel
In fact, a closer reading of Matthew’s Gospel provides a better solution. Christians in the West tend to look to prophecy for its apologetic value. Knowing something ahead of time is proof of the message’s divine origin. Yet for Matthew, the fulfillment of Scripture is less about apologetics and more about God’s sovereign purposes. The establishment of patterns of “fulfillment” confirms that all of human history is heading toward its goal and culmination in Christ.
Seen from this perspective, Hosea 11:1 is part of a larger Israel-Jesus typology that Matthew develops throughout his Gospel. Just as God brought his “son” Israel out of Egypt, so Jesus, the true Son of God, comes out of Egypt (Hos 11:1; Matt 2:15). Just as Israel was tested for 40 years in the wilderness, so Jesus is tested by Satan for 40 days in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11). While Israel repeatedly failed to obey God, Jesus remains faithful and obedient. Confirmation of this typology is that the three Old Testament passages that Jesus cites in response to the three temptations are all taken from Israel’s exodus account. (1) Israel failed to trust God when tested with hunger. Jesus depends completely on God, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” (2) Israel put God to the test at Meribah. Jesus refuses to test God by throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple, citing Deuteronomy 6:16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (3) Finally, Israel turned to idolatry, breaking the command to worship God alone (Deut 9:12; Judg 3:5-7). Jesus refuses to worship Satan in exchange for the kingdoms of the world, citing Deuteronomy 6:13: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
A Jesus-Israel typology is also evident in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as the “Servant of the Lord.” The term “Servant” appears repeatedly in Isaiah 40-55. Sometimes the Servant is identified with the nation Israel (Isa 41:8, 44:1, 44:21, 45:4 Isaiah 41:8, Isaiah 44:1, Isaiah 44:21, Isaiah 45:4) and sometimes as an individual who brings salvation to the nation (Isa 42:1, 49:5–7, 50:10, 52:13, 53:11). As God’s Servant, Israel was meant to be a light of revelation to the nations, revealing God’s glory (Isa 42:6, 49:6). But Israel turned inward and failed to fulfill their calling. Jesus, by contrast, remains faithful to his mission and shows himself to be the true Servant of the Lord. Matthew’s summary of Jesus’ ministry in 12:15-21 cites Isaiah 42:1-4, “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him… In his name the nations will put their hope.” In the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus fulfills the role of eschatological Israel.
We see then, that Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 is not a misapplication of an Old Testament text, but rather part of a profound typological presentation of Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel. As the Servant-Messiah and Son of God, Jesus represents the nation of Israel and succeeds where they failed. He will now fulfill Israel’s Old Testament mandate, to reveal God’s glory and take the message of salvation to the ends of the earth.
More typology may be seen in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as a new Moses. As Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive Israel’s first covenant, written on tablets of stone, so Jesus delivers his Sermon on the “Mount” to inaugurate the new covenant, which will be written on human hearts (see Jer 31:31–34). As Moses’ face was glowing when he came down from his encounter with God on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:29–33), so Jesus’ face shines with the sun’s brightness at his transfiguration (Matt 17:2). The structure of Matthew’s Gospel may also point in this direction. Just as Moses wrote five books of the Torah (Genesis–Deuteronomy), so Matthew presents five major discourses by Jesus: Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5-7), Commissioning the Twelve (ch. 10), Parables of the Kingdom (ch. 13), Church Life and Discipline (ch. 18), and Olivet Discourse (ch. 23-25). Jesus is a new Moses, inaugurating the new covenant and bringing the law given at Mount Sinai to its fulfillment.
These examples reveal that Matthew uses many titles for Jesus in his Gospel, including Messiah, King, Lord, Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, Immanuel, etc. All of these have their roots in the Old Testament and point in one way or another to the theme of fulfillment and the coming of the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew’s Identity, Audience, and Purpose in Writing
So who was Matthew and why did he write this Gospel? Strictly speaking, all four Gospels are anonymous, meaning that the authors do not name themselves. Church tradition, however, tells us that the author of the first gospel was Matthew, a tax collector Jesus called to be his disciple (Matt 9:9-13, 12:3). Mark and Luke call him “Levi” (Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27–32), perhaps indicating that he was a Levite (from the tribe of Levi). Little else is known about Matthew.
For whom did Matthew write? While Mark tends to explain Jewish customs for his readers (Mark 7:2–4, 15:42), suggesting a predominantly Gentile audience, Matthew often presents them without explanation (ceremonial washings, Matthew 15:2; the temple tax, Matthew 17:24-27; phylacteries and tassels, Matthew 23:5; whitewashed tombs, Matthew 23:27). This suggests that Matthew’s audience is predominantly Jewish. Matthew also commonly uses the designation “kingdom of heaven” instead of “kingdom of God.” “Heaven” is a common Jewish circumlocution for “God,” used out of reverence for the divine Name. While these points would suggest a Jewish audience, Matthew also has some of the strongest indictments against the Jewish religious leaders. For example, what in Mark is a brief warning against the scribes (Mark 14:38-40) becomes in Matthew an extended tirade against the teachers of the law and the Pharisees (Matt 23:1–38). Jesus castigates them as hypocrites, blind guides, fools, greedy, self-indulgent, murderers, even sons of snakes. Strong language indeed!
So is Matthew pro-Jewish or anti-Jewish? His strong Jewish perspective and equally strong polemic against the Jewish leaders suggest that Matthew’s primary audience is a Jewish-Christian community in conflict and debate with the larger (unbelieving) Jewish community. Both sides, the church and the synagogue, are claiming to be the true people of God. Both claim Israel’s Scriptures as their legacy. For Matthew’s Jewish opponents, this fledgling movement represents heresy, followers of a false messiah. But for Matthew’s community, the prophecies have been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus the Messiah. The church represents the true people of God, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, who have embraced Jesus as the Messiah and accepted his message of the kingdom of God. In this context, Matthew’s promise-fulfillment theme serves as confirmation of the truth of the Gospel message and the authority of the Gospel messengers.