Sunday, August 12, 2007

Matthew: Gospel of the Kingdom

Some of you asked for notes on my Bible study of Matthew. I don't really have any notes, but I did dig out a paper I did in the seminary. I'm sure someone can find flaws; I don't have the graded paper I got back, so I don't recall what the instructor said! But I think it's at least good enough to provide some discussion points.

Be aware, a Word document doesn't always "translate" well to blogger; in particular, the Greek words may not have transliterated properly. Alas, I can't go through and re-edit it all here, so it's "caveat emptor."

In what follows, I propose to illustrate how central the theme of “kingdom” is to Matthew’s Gospel.

The Navarre Bible names Matthew the “Gospel of the Kingdom.” Donald Senior casts this as a “theology of history”: Jesus is the “inaugurator of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ (4:14-17)”—and because “Jesus was the Messiah and the authoritative Son of God, he becomes the fulcrum of history and the one who would lead the community to the end of the age.” “[T]his Gospel…stresses especially the theme of the kingdom of Heaven, mak[ing] it a dramatic account in seven acts of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The Gospel can be outlined as follows:
1. The preparation of the king (1-4);
2. The charter of the kingdom: the Sermon on the Mount (5-7);
3. Missionary character of the kingdom, credentialed by ‘signs’ (8-10);
4. Obstacles to the transcendent kingdom (11:1-13:52);
5. The embryonic kingdom: the disciples led by Peter, (13:53-18:35);
6. The crisis of confrontation, which will usher in the kingdom (19-25);
7. The kingdom comes in the Passion and Resurrection (26-28).

James Montgomery Boice observes, “in Matthew’s case, the emphasis is on Jesus being the Messiah or King of Israel. Jesus is introduced this way at the beginning of the book: “Jesus Christ [Messiah] the son of David (1:1), and the theme is evident throughout.”

This emphasis on kingship explains the inclusion of the genealogy, which emphasizes the royal lineage, particularly after the Babylonian exile (1:12ff); the repetition in the genealogy of the number 14, symbolic of the name, “David.”

Next we have visitors from the east come seeking a newborn king (2:2)—naturally enough, they come to the capital, Jerusalem. This causes a stir—the sitting king and the whole capital are “greatly troubled” (2:3); and King Herod acts immediately against the threat (2:16-18). This story about the magi and Herod sets up another feature of Matthew’s kingdom theme: Jesus’s kingdom is very different from any earthly kingdom—and yet earthly powers rightly recognize they face a showdown with it. Herod seeks to destroy the king in his infancy; and even after Herod’s death, when the Holy Family returns from Egypt, the sense of danger remains as they avoid the territory of Archelaus, Herod’s son (2:22). John, the herald of the kingdom, sees a fiery, wrathful conflict with existing powers (3:7-12)—and again, Jerusalem is stirred up (3:5).

The kingdom of the evil one quickly takes interest (4:1-11). Jesus prepares his apostles for persecution at his first sending of them (10), warning that he brings “not peace but the sword”—i.e., division between his kingdom and the kingdoms of the world (10:34-35). From Chapter 10 on, the sense of tension builds, until the Passion narrative—which finds us back in Jerusalem, the city of David.

We also see the kingdom emphasis in Matthew’s choice of words.

“Kingdom”—i.e., referring to God’s kingdom, occurs 52 times. Jesus is called “kurios” over 40 times—far more than Mark or John, though not as many as Luke. Distinctive to Matthew is the term proskuneo—meaning “profound homage.” He uses it 13 times, compared with two times for Mark, three times for Luke, and seven times for John. Fittingly, it appears most often in Revelation.

One place we see all this come together is in chapter 8. Immediately after Jesus reveals the law of the new kingdom (i.e., the Sermon on the Mount), he begins receiving petitions for assistance from subjects. “And then a leper approached, did him homage [proskuneo] and said, ‘Lord [kurios], if you will, you can make me clean” (8:2). Then the centurion approaches, likewise calling him kyrios, calling himself “a man under authority”—in Greek, exousia. This response Jesus hails as the ideal response to his kingdom (8:10-12).

One interesting feature of Matthew’s use of proskyneo: except where Satan requests this homage (4:9) and Jesus uses it in a parable about divine judgment (18:26), it is never used in reference to anyone but Jesus.

Matthew also makes much of the authority of Jesus.

The Lord’s unique authority dazzles the people (7:29). The scribes murmur when Jesus claims the authority to forgive sins (9:6), which Jesus proceeds to prove he has. Then Jesus grants the twelve authority over unclean spirits—emphasizing Jesus’s authority more so, in that he can impart it to others (10:1). He does this again with Peter in Chapter 16 and the Apostles in 18 (though exousia is not used in these two places). The Gospel ends with Jesus having total authority, and on that basis initiating the spread of the kingdom (28:18-20).

One natural question is exactly what is meant by the kingdom being “at hand” (3:2, 4:17, 10:7) or “upon you” (12:28)? What exactly brings the kingdom?

The event toward which Matthew’s entire narrative leads is the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus. These events bring the kingdom into reality.

Not only is this the climax of the Gospel, they are most immediately “at hand.” This explains the sequence of events in Jerusalem, beginning with entry into Jerusalem (21:1-11) and galloping to the death and resurrection. The king’s entry recalls Zephaniah’s prophecy (Zeph. 9:9) about how Israel’s king will come, “just” and “meek,” two key attributes of Jesus revealed about his kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount (5:5, 6, 20, 6:33). Thus, in the trial before Pilate, the question is asked at last: “are you the king of the Jews?” (27:11). Jesus’s enigmatic answer confirms the identification, “but in a manner not comprehended” by worldly minds. Pilate makes this title Jesus’s epitaph (27:37).

If the passion, death and resurrection of Christ begin the kingdom, how odd it is that this forms the “end” of Matthew’s Gospel! What that suggests is that Matthew’s Gospel really has no end. The whole work is, instead, a “birth narrative”—that is, of the Kingdom.

Works Cited

Boice, James Montgomery. The Gospel of Matthew, 2 vols. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2001.
Gavigan, James, McCarthy, Brian and McGovern, Thomas, eds.The Navarre Bible: The Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, Reader’s Edition. Dublin: Four Courts Press/Princeton, N.J: Scepter Publishers, 2000.
Hopkins, Martin. God’s Kingdom in the New Testament . Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1964.
Senior, Donald. Matthew , Abingdon New Testament Commentaries, ed. Victor Paul Furnish. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.
Wansbrough, Henry, ed. The New Jerusalem Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1985.

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