First impressions are important. They don’t tell the whole story, but it’s hard to move too far away from your initial perception of a new person. It follows that how a character is introduced to you in a book is also incredibly important. You can learn a lot about what the author is trying to tell you about a character from the first few pages they appear in.
By the same logic, we can learn a lot about what the author’s of the four gospels in the New Testament want us to think about Jesus based on how they introduce him. In the Christian Bible, whatever version you read, there are four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each gospel was, it seems, written by a man who lived in the century or so during and after Jesus’ short life and who either new Jesus personally or was very close to people who did.
The gospels are four profound, inspiring texts about the single most important human to ever walk this planet, but they’re not all trying to tell us the same things about Jesus. Their messages are complimentary, to be sure, but they’re not the same. I believe that we can learn a lot about the character of Jesus based on how each gospel writer introduces him. I plan on writing a post for each gospel in time, but today, I’ll start with Matthew.
The Davidic King
Matthew starts with a genealogy: Abraham to David, David to the Babylonian Exile, and the Exile to Jesus. Matthew’s genealogy is different from that in Luke in that it starts with Abraham, as opposed to Adam, and contains a few other discrepancies. The end result is that Matthew’s genealogy contains three sets of 14 generations, thus incorporating two important numbers in Jewish tradition: 3 and 7 (14 being a multiple of 7). Matthew doesn’t leave us to work this maths out, either. He tells us in 1:17 that this is the case.
Why? Matthew is telling his readers that Jesus is the Jewish messiah, deeply rooted in Israel’s history (including the time of the Patriarchs, the kings and the Exile) and, of perhaps greater importance, that he is a descendent of King David, as the messiah was prophesied to be.
Thus, before anything else happens, Matthew lets us know that this is a story about Israel’s messiah.
The rightful king of the Jews
Matthew continues his subtle argument for Jesus the messiah throughout the well-known Nativity story, but I want to turn to the first of two important contrasts in the first three chapters of his gospel. Matthew doesn’t just define Jesus as who he is, but also as who he is not. In this instance, Jesus is not Herod.
Herod the Great ruled the Roman province of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. He was not a particularly nice man, but the important thing to note here is that he was a puppet king, appointed by the Romans and therefore a symbol of Roman rule.
Through the story of the wise men from the East, Matthew shows his readers that Jesus was the rightful king of the Jews, not a Roman puppet. The wise men come to Herod (2:2) and ask where the king of the Jews has been born (making it clear that this king is not Herod). They then travel to worship Jesus and bring gifts – honours that they did not bestow on Herod.
Matthew’s Jesus is the Davidic messiah and the rightful king of the Jews, a symbol of traditional Jewish authority in the midst of foreign rule.
A righteous religious leader
The second key contrast is Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees. This is seen in the introduction of John the Baptist in chapter 3. Consider this paraphrased juxtaposition of the key events of that passage;
- John refuses to baptise the Pharisees and Sadducees – religious leaders in the lives of the 1st century Jewus – asking who told them to repent and saying that their repentance actually needs to bear fruit for it to mean anything. He says that they cannot even call themselves Abraham’s children.
- John refuses to baptise Jesus, saying that he is not worthy and Jesus should be baptising him. At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on him and God affirms him as his son.
There are two key points we can infer from this:
- Jesus’ righteousness bears fruit and is evident to all.
- Jesus is divinely and undeniably a part of God’s covenant with Israel.
The long and short of it seems to be that Jesus, as presented by Matthew, is a religious authority in a way that the hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees cannot be.
He is, therefore, not only a political leader for the Jews, but a spiritual leader. As if to reinforce this point, Matthew then tells the story of Jesus’ temptation. In each temptation that he resists, Jesus shows that he a) relies completely on God; b) is humble and will not presume on God’s will; and c) worships only God. Basically, he ticks every box.
Jesus’ core message
In the early chapters of Matthew, we also get the author’s single-sentence summary of the entire message that Jesus preached. In 3:17, Matthew says:
‘Jesus began to preach, saying: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”‘
Jesus’ core message reinforces what Matthew has been saying so far:
- Repent – as Matthew has shown, Jesus has the spiritual authority to call people to repentance because his own life bears the fruit. Jesus’ call to repentance is only meaningful because it translates into actions (3:23-24).
- The kingdom of heaven – we modern day Christians have spiritualised the kingdom of heaven beyond all recognition. It is an important spiritual reality, but let’s not forget the face-value meaning that must have been recognised at the time: a nation under God’s rule. Not a scattered people under the rule of the Romans, but one people under God.
That little word, ‘for’, links repentance and the kingdom. The presence of a nation ruled by God means that we have to live in a way that pleases God, in a way that bears fruit.
A Jewish king, then and now
We’re fools to take Jesus out of the story of the Old Testament and out of the story of the Jewish people. It is clear that, for Matthew, Jesus was a key part of God’s existing covenant with his people and that to understand Jesus’ importance, we have to understand what he meant in the context of that.
I think this gives us to the acknowledgement that Jesus is a king in a political sense – our highest allegiance. The Old Testament talks of a land for God’s people ruled over by God and, while I believe that Jesus replaced the geographical nation with a people united in ‘spirit and in truth’ I think that, in some sense, God’s people is still a nation under God’s rule. This transcends our current geo-political boundaries, our social beliefs and anything we can use to pit ourselves against other Christians. The nation of Jesus Christ requires 100% commitment from our hearts, souls, minds and strength. How different would the world look if Christians lived like that?
To finish, then, Matthew’s Jesus is the messiah that the Jews have been waiting for. He is a spiritual and a political authority who demands allegiance from his followers in both a civic and a spiritual sense. But he doesn’t demand it through violence or strength, he demands it through living a life that is the pinnacle of what God’s creation can aspire to. His words carried weight because he practised what he preached and if we want our lives to look as attractive as his, that’s a good place to start.