How to Read Matthew Theologically
When someone asks me about my role in mentoring PhD students, I sometimes half-jokingly say that it is my job to teach PhD students to read. Obviously, PhD students are literate. Some were even prodigies who were reading fluently before they entered elementary school. Nevertheless, I love to introduce students to Mortimer Adler’s text titled How to Read a Book that details strategies for reading a book that lead to far better comprehension and retention of the book’s content. Students desperately need these enhanced reading skills to succeed in a PhD program.
Though it is important to learn to read books in general, it is vastly more important that we learn to read the Bible well. And reading the Bible well requires reading it theologically. For the last ten years I have concentrated my studies on learning to read theologically the Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Matthew. By reading “theologically” I do not mean reading Matthew through the lens of a particular creed or confession (though I am strongly confessional). Nor do I mean asking how each narrative or paragraph might relate to the various categories of systematic theology like ecclesiology, pneumatology, demonology, etc. (though I highly value systematic theology and often employ this reading strategy). I mean rather reading Matthew like the apostle himself intended it to be read. Matthew has packed his Gospel with all the cues and prompts necessary to read his Gospel properly.
The title of the Gospel contains several of the most important cues. This title shows that the Gospel should be read Christo-centrically. The book is primarily about Jesus. Although modern English translations typically identify the title of the Gospel as something like “The Gospel according to Matthew,” the original title of the Gospel is Matthew 1:1. Notice only one name appears in that title. That name does not belong to the author of the Gospel (Matthew). That name does not belong to the reader of the Gospel (in my case, “Chuck”). That name is Jesus. This Gospel is about him from beginning to end. Though Matthew will contain instructions that make me a better father, a more productive citizen, a more effective employee, the first question that we ask of an account in Matthew should not be “how can this help me be or do thus and such?” The first and most important question must always be, “What does this text tell me about Jesus?”
Son of Abraham
Matthew’s title also introduces the reader to three of the primary theological themes of the Gospel. We’ll examine them in reverse order. Jesus is the “son of Abraham.” This identifies Jesus as the special descendent of Abraham who was the focus of a great promise to the patriarch. In Gen 12:3 God promised Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Gen 22:18 and 26:4 explain that this promise will be fulfilled through Abraham’s offspring. Peter (Acts 3:25) and Paul (Gal 3:8) identify Jesus as the descendant who fulfills this promise. Matthew does so as well. Since Jesus is the promised descendant of Abraham who will bless all the families of the earth, we should not be surprised that Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus includes four Gentile women, that Gentile magi worship the infant Messiah, that Jesus focuses his ministry on Galilee of the Gentiles, and that Jesus commends the faith of a Roman centurion and a Canaanite woman. Jesus’s identity as the descendant of Abraham who will bless all the families of the earth anticipates the conclusion of the Gospel in which Jesus’s followers are commanded to make disciples of all nations.
Son of David
Jesus is also the “son of David.” This title shows that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with David in 2 Sam 7:16. God would raise up a descendant of David and establish his throne forever. Jesus is this promised king who rules over God’s people forever and ever. Matthew’s title emphasizes Jesus’s kingship by explicitly identifying Jesus as the “Christ,” that is, the Messiah. This theme of Jesus’s kingship climaxes in the Gospel with the statement “All authority have been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18).
Jesus is also the incarnation of the Creator who came into the world to perform the miracle of new creation. Although the ESV translates the first phrase of Matthew 1:1 as “the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ,” the original Greek text uses a phrase that literally means “book of origin” or even “book of genesis.” This is the same expression used by ancient Greek speakers as a title of the first book of the Bible. This is also the same phrase used twice in the Greek Old Testament to describe creation accounts, the creation of the heavens and the earth (Gen 2:4) and the creation of humanity (Gen 5:1). Matthew is describing his Gospel as a “creation account” and the phrase “of Jesus Christ” shows that Jesus is the one who performs this creation. Jesus himself shows the significance of this expression later in Matthew 19:28 when he describes the Messianic age as a new Genesis, a new creation (ESV: “new world”; NIV: “renewal of all things”).
Jesus is the one who will make all things new (Rev 21:5), who will restore creation to the original perfection it enjoyed before sin entered the world with all its devastating effects. Jesus’s power to perform the miracle of new creation attests to his identity as Immanuel (Matt 1:23), God with us. The title to the Gospel thus depicts Jesus as the incarnation of Deity who will make all things new, the King who will rule over God’s people forever, and the Savior who will bring the blessings of salvation to all the nations. This title shows that the Gospel is richly theological. The Old Testament serves as a commentary on the life of Jesus and the life of Jesus is in turn an illuminating commentary on the Old Testament. Click To Tweet
Another feature of Matthew’s Gospel shows that the account of Jesus’s life and teaching is to be understood against the backdrop of the Old Testament. Matthew repeatedly tells the reader something about Jesus and then explains that this fulfilled an important Old Testament promise . This demonstrates that Matthew is not to be read in isolation from the rest of Scripture, but as a part of a larger revelation of Jesus. The Old Testament serves as a commentary on the life of Jesus and the life of Jesus is in turn an illuminating commentary on the Old Testament.
Though I was raised in churches that had a strong commitment to the Bible, I must honestly confess that I did not learn to really read the Bible until I attended seminary. Before seminary, I read the Bible devotionally. To me that meant associating myself with one of the characters in the story. My false assumption, which now seems shockingly arrogant, was that the story was largely about me. I am now convinced that the Bible is to be read theologically as a book primarily about God, not me. I have discovered that a theological reading of Scripture is not less but more “devotional” than my old approach. As I discover God’s glory and majesty revealed on page after page of the Bible, I am compelled to worship Him and devote myself to Him like never before.