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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The Gospel of Matthew and the horizon of the early church

Mike Mercer—Chaplain Mike—wrote a nice piece a couple of years back on the Internet Monk site putting forward the view that Matthew’s Gospel is “a Torah, a catechism, an instruction manual for the church”. He wonders whether this perspective brings into question my contention that Jesus was a prophet of Israel speaking to Israel about Israel. It might. It depends what Matthew understood by “church” and, in particular, how he perceived its horizons.

It seems to me that if we are to pursue the narrative-historical approach consistently, we need to recognize that the Gospel was written as a catechism for a church in eschatological transition—and as the title of Mike’s post suggests, probably for a Jewish church in eschatological transition. If there is a catechistic shape to it, it is for the purpose of grounding perhaps disoriented Jewish believers in Jesus’ reinterpretation of the story of Israel. This would be no less true if the Gospel was written a decade after the destruction of the temple.

Mike highlights a number of characteristic emphases in Matthew that should be formative for Christian identity. They are broadly correct, but I think—to answer Mike’s question—that the eschatological focus needs to be sharpened, the outlook tightened.

1. Jesus is the new Moses who leads his people “out of Egypt” into the life of the renewed people of God in the age to come following the catastrophe of AD 70.

2. Jesus is the Son of God, the faithful servant, the anointed king, who will save his people from their sins and rule over them in the age to come.

3. From the perspective of the Gospels the coming of the kingdom of God is when God intervenes to judge and deliver his people. Perhaps implicit in this is the thought that Israel’s newly instated king will then rule over the nations, but this is still a thoroughly Jewish expectation.

4. The confession of the Roman centurion that “this was the Son of God” (Matt. 27:54) means, on the one hand, that he recognizes the significance of Jesus’ death for the salvation and restoration of Israel, and on the other, probably, that this eschatological transition will culminate in the defeat of Caesar. The Gentiles are “saved” by the salvation of Israel.

5. The “church” that Jesus founds is a community of eschatological transition. It is a group of people—even if it potentially includes Gentiles (Matt. 8:11-12?)—that will have to travel the narrow and dangerous path that will lead to life after divine judgment. It is a community built on the story of the suffering Son of Man because it needs the specific assurance that when it is persecuted, not even death will overcome it. Those who faithfully take up their cross and follow Jesus will be vindicated within the next few decades, when they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom (16:13-28).

From Carravaggio's Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, 1600

6. On the strength of the authority that he has received as the suffering Son of Man, the resurrected Jesus sends his disciples out into the nations. He promises that he will be with them not until the end of the world—or the new creation—but until the “end of the age” of second temple Judaism. This is the not-so-great-commission. Given the post-resurrection perspective here, this could perhaps be stretched to include the eschatologically related defeat of pagan empire and the confession of Christ as Lord by the nations. But Matthew would still have in mind the presence of the one who suffered and was vindicated with his disciples, who would likewise suffer and be vindicated in the lengthy historical process by which wrath came first against the Jew and then against the Greek (cf. Rom. 2:6-10).

The Bible as a whole embraces the idea that all things will finally be made new and gives us quite sufficient direction with regard to how we should operate as God’s people, through the vicissitudes of history, until that day. The story that Matthew tells about Jesus constitutes a critical part of that big picture, but there is no reason to suppose that he tells the whole story.

I’ve just been reading Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction . His hermeneutic is less rigorous than I would like, but I am impressed that he has the confidence as an evangelical to state regarding Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13:

The most natural point of reference is that the entire speech signifies the destruction of Jerusalem, which is a vindication of Jesus as the prophet who opposed the temple. That is confirmed by the allusion in Mark 13:28 back to Jesus’ teaching about the fig tree in 11:12-23, which intimated the destruction of the temple.

He concludes that the discourse “does not directly involve events beyond AD 70”. It seems to me a matter of considerable hermeneutical importance that we allow the text to set its own boundaries in this way. Matthew wrote his Gospel for the formation of a Jewish-Christian community of eschatological transition—the meek who would inherit the land, the followers who would take up their own crosses, the envoys who would proclaim to the nations, at great personal risk, that Israel’s God had made Jesus judge and ruler of the nations. We can learn from that, but we do not have to pretend that it was written directly for us.

Image of Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction

On Amazon (US):

Michael F. Bird
Zondervan (2013), Hardcover, 912 pages, $54.99

Comments

Andrew,

you said, “ and on the other, probably, that this eschatological transition will culminate in the defeat of Caesar”

On the other other, wouldnt he have understood “son of god” to mean an actual “god”? Diety?

D

That’s certainly possible, though I suspect it’s more a case of the Gentile centurion endorsing the Jewish understanding of Jesus as the messiah, the anointed servant of God, Israel’s king—endorsing, in effect, the earlier confession of the disciples:

And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matt. 14:33)

Matthew is writing for Jews, after all. In the context of Mark’s Gospel (written for the Roman church) the saying might have had rather different political overtones (Mk. 15:39).