Although the Gospel of Matthew was not the first gospel written, it is generally regarded as the most important and was placed first in the collection of writings that constitute the New Testament. In addition to materials found in the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Matthew contains a large number of Jesus' sayings and discourses and also a group of stories not found in any of the other Gospels. Matthew contains an extensive account of Jesus' teachings and as such is considered the most authentic and fundamental doctrine of the Christian religion. Readers of the gospel are impressed with certain general characteristics that distinguish it from other writings in the New Testament, one of which is the systematic way in which the contents of the gospel have been arranged. For example, the document as a whole falls into five distinct divisions, with an introductory section preceding the first division and a concluding section following the last. Each of the five divisions is composed of a portion of the narrative concerning Jesus' activities, together with a group of his teachings. The words "When Jesus had finished saying these things" end each division. This five-fold division of the Gospel of Matthew corresponds in a general way to the divisions found in various parts of the Old Testament.
The sayings and discourses of Jesus are apparently taken in large part from an older document known as "The Sayings of Jesus," or the Q source, and are combined with the narrative found in Mark in the following manner: The author of Matthew uses the same sequence of events that are recorded in Mark, but at appropriate intervals he interrupts the narrative and inserts a group of sayings. One example of this kind is usually referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. The materials included in this sermon also can be found in the Gospel of Luke, but they are scattered throughout Luke instead of being grouped together. When Matthew reaches that place in the Marcan narrative where Jesus teaches the people, he inserts this group of sayings. The organization of these sayings into a single sermon thus appears to be the result of Matthew's arrangement.
Another rather striking characteristic of the Gospel of Matthew is its high regard for the teachings of the Old Testament. There are approximately fifteen instances in which Matthew interprets some event in the life of Jesus as a fulfillment of a prophecy in the Old Testament. Evidently the author of Matthew did not think of Christianity as something that involved a definite break with the Jewish religion. Instead, he considered Christianity as a continuation and fulfillment of that which had been set forth in the literature of the Old Testament. Not for a moment did he think that Jesus changed or set aside the requirements of the Mosaic Law. Rather, Matthew supplements and interprets the requirements in a manner that accords with their original purpose. In his zeal to show a close relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament, Matthew appears at times to make references to incidents in the life of Jesus for no other reason than to document them as fulfilling Old Testament prophecy.
A third characteristic of the Gospel of Matthew is its interest in ecclesiastical affairs. As the only gospel that makes a direct mention of the church, much of the instruction recorded in Matthew is especially appropriate for particular situations that arose in the Christian churches of the first century.
Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus that traces his ancestry as far back as Abraham. The ancestry is traced on the side of Joseph, although the author later definitively states that Joseph was not Jesus' father. Following the genealogy is an account of the wise men's visit to Jesus' birth site, Herod's attempt to destroy the newborn child, and the flight into Egypt for the child's protection. After the death of Herod, the family returned and settled in the Galilee town of Nazareth, which, according to Matthew, fulfilled another Old Testament prophecy.
Following these introductory stories, Matthew continues his gospel by narrating the events in Jesus' public career in the same sequence as they are found in Mark. As mentioned before, this sequence is interrupted at appropriate intervals for the insertion of discourses that Jesus delivered on various occasions. This scheme enables Matthew to combine Jesus' teachings and events in one continuous narrative. While the author of the Gospel of Mark seems to have been impressed most of all with the wonderful deeds that Jesus performed, Matthew places the major emphasis on the marvelous things that Jesus taught. Some of the teachings were spoken directly to the inner group of disciples, but at different times and places Jesus addressed the multitudes, among whom were many who gladly heard him. Often Jesus spoke in parables, for in this way he could communicate his ideas concerning the kingdom of heaven in language that the people could understand because the parables were drawn from people's own experiences.
One of the important issues in the early history of the church was the attitude that Christians should have concerning the laws that are recorded in the Old Testament. Paul insisted that salvation is obtained by faith and not by obedience to laws. This insistence led some Christians to believe that whether or not these laws should be obeyed was a matter to be decided by an individual's own conscience. Many Jewish Christians did not agree with this individualistic attitude. The author of the Gospel of Matthew appears to have been one of them. According to his version of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated, "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." And he also said, "Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven." Some scholars maintain that this last passage directly refers to Paul and his followers. Of this we cannot be sure, but evidently Matthew was far more sympathetic toward the religion of Judaism than was true of other writers. In the story of the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus imploring help for her daughter, who is possessed by a demon, Jesus says to the woman, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." When the woman responds, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table," Jesus commends her for her faith and heals her daughter.
This narrative of the woman and her daughter represents only one aspect of the Gospel of Matthew. Many other passages indicate that the gospel was intended for all people and not merely for Jews. In the parable of the householder who plants a vineyard, rents it to tenants, and leaves his servants in charge of the rent collection while he travels to another country, we have a clear indication that the scope of the gospel is inclusive of Gentiles. In this parable, the servants are beaten, stoned, and even put to death by the tenants. Then the householder sends his son to collect the rent, but when the tenants see the son, they cast him out of the vineyard and kill him, clearly a reference to the fact that Jesus was put to death because of his Jewish enemies. The parable concludes with the words, "Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit."
While Matthew insists that the laws of God are eternal and that Christians and Jews are obligated to observe them, he recognizes that formal obedience in itself is not enough. This recognition is discussed in various parts of the Sermon on the Mount, as indicated by use of the expression "You have heard that it was said. . . . But I tell you. . . ." The point of the contrast in each instance is that not only the overt act but the motive that lies behind the act is of primary importance. This point is emphasized again in many of the discussions that Jesus held with the Scribes and Pharisees. Replying to their insistence about following certain regulations concerning eating and drinking, Jesus made it clear that the inner motives of the heart and mind are of far greater importance than following customs regarding table etiquette.
The early church seems to have entertained two different views concerning the coming of the kingdom of God. One view held that it was strictly a future event, to be established at the end of the age but not until after the earthly kingdoms had been destroyed; the other view held that the kingdom was already present insofar as right principles and motives were established in human hearts. In the Gospel of Matthew, certain passages support each view. Perhaps the author felt that these two opposing beliefs could be harmonized by regarding the kingdom within as a kind of preparation for a more complete establishment in the world without at some future time. In the chapter in which the sayings of Jesus concerning the coming destruction of the city of Jerusalem are identified as predictions concerning the second coming of Christ and the end of the world, we find a group of statements that discuss the signs that will portend when Jesus' return to this earth is near at hand. These signs include wars and rumors of wars, and famines and earthquakes in various places. The sun will be darkened, as will the moon, and the stars will fall from the sky. The gospel will be preached in all the world, and then the end will come. Jesus will descend to earth on the clouds of heaven in power and great glory. Then the kingdom of God will be established, of which there will be no end.
Matthew's gospel closes with accounts of Jesus' resurrection and his appearance to the disciples. Early in the morning of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and another Mary came to the tomb where Jesus' body was placed. They were met by an angel, who told them that Jesus was risen and asked them to look where Jesus' body had been. The women were commissioned to go and tell Jesus' disciples that Jesus would meet the disciples in Galilee. Because Judas, who had betrayed Jesus, was dead, there were only eleven disciples left. The disciples met with Jesus in Galilee as they had been directed to do, and there Jesus instructed them, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations. . . . And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
According to a very old tradition, the author of the Gospel of Matthew was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. This view was expressed by Papias toward the middle of the second century, but what basis he had for this view we do not know. That Jesus did have a disciple who had been a tax-collector is evident from the accounts given in the different Gospels. In Mark, the name of this tax-gatherer is Levi, but in the Gospel of Matthew, he is called Matthew. However, most New Testament scholars agree that the Gospel of Matthew was not written by one of Jesus' disciples, although it is quite possible that Matthew the Apostle may have had something to do with one or more of the sources that were used. One of the main reasons for rejecting the traditional view concerning the author is that several passages in the gospel itself indicate quite clearly that the gospel was not written until after the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The date of its composition is generally regarded as somewhere between the years 80 and 85 A.D.
The Gospel of Matthew, like the others in the New Testament, evidently is based on sources that were in existence for some time. The two sources on which most of the material is based are Mark and the Logia. The latter is sometimes called "The Sayings of Jesus" and is often referred to as the Q source. In addition to these materials, another source, sometimes called M, seems to be necessary to account for the unique portions of the gospel. The introductory section, for example, contains several stories that are not found in any of the other Gospels. These stories include an account of the birth of Jesus, the visit of the wise men from the East, the meeting of these men with King Herod, Herod's decree calling for the death of male infants, the flight into Egypt, and the settlement in Galilee. Whether these stories were based on oral or written sources is unknown, but they are not found in either Mark or the Logia.
All that ancient Israel had looked for with hope and high expectation is now to be fulfilled in the Christian church. Ancient Israel was given the Law through Moses, and now the new Israel has received another and even higher law in the teachings of Jesus. The basis for membership in the new Israel is neither race nor color nor nationality nor anything other than the character of individuals who believe in Jesus and put their trust in him. Believers will come from both Jews and Gentiles and from all parts of the world.
In his selection and use of source materials for the writing of his gospel, Matthew represents different points of view. Some critics have argued that he was pro-Jewish in his outlook, but others have insisted that he was pro-Gentile. Some scholars regard him as a thorough-going legalist, while others find a strong element of mysticism in his writings. He was, according to some accounts, a disciple of Jewish apocalypticism, but others see him as one who believes that the kingdom of God will be established gradually in the lives of people. These different interpretations do not constitute evidence that Matthew was confused in his thinking or that he contradicted himself on these various topics; rather, they indicate that he tried to be fair with each of the different points of view, recognizing that there was truth to be gained from each of them. The result is the composition of a gospel that presents a balance between opposing conceptions and does so without destroying the element of harmony that brings them all together.