Among the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, God has seen fit to include four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Three of these gospels are known as the synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.They are called that because they take a general view of the ministry of our Lord. The authors either witnessed personally or had access to oral tradition or written material that dealt with this history. They wrote concerning this with a certain purpose in mind. John, the other gospel writer, is not concerned about such an overview, but rather writes concerning certain aspects of the spiritual nature of Jesus’ ministry. The Lord Jesus instructed us about witnesses: “in the mouth of two or three witnesses that every truth may be established” (Matt. 18:16). The Holy Spirit gave us four witnesses concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ. The truth is thereby firmly established.
Since we are concerned with the gospel of Matthew at this time, we have occasion to raise what has become known as the synoptic problem. Briefly and simply stated this problem focuses upon the differences between the synoptic accounts. All three authors deal with the same events, same teachings, same historical settings, yet each one writes differently in certain instances. A careful comparison (such as a harmony of the gospels) indicates these differences. Take the sermon on the mount as an example. Mark makes no mention of the sermon at all. Between the other two synoptic accounts, Luke mentions that it took place on a level place (Luke 6:17), and Matthew says Christ went into a mountain (Matt. 5:1). Matthew’s account includes much more detail than that of Luke (Matt. 5-7 as compared to Luke 6:17-49). There is a difference in the selection of words that Jesus used, e.g., the beatitude recorded in Matt. 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” whereas in Luke 6:20we read, “Blessed are ye poor for yours is the kingdom of God.” Some commentators suggest that Matthew and Luke refer to two different instances, yet the consensus among conservative Bible students is that there was only one sermon preached and that Matthew and Luke refer to the same one. The question is brought up, how these gospel accounts can be considered reliable when such differences are evident.
In the pursuit of answering this question, many books have been written and scholars have researched many fascinating details to come with plausible explanations. Without getting into the realm of the technical, we summarize a few of the considerations that have been set forth. First, our faith in the Holy Spirit’s authorship allows for such individual recording of the gospel accounts. We reject a mechanistic view of inspiration (the Holy Spirit simply dictated the words to the authors) and hold to the idea of organic inspiration (the Holy Spirit used each author with his own personality, writing style, vocabulary, etc.). The point is that the Spirit so overruled the writing that the differences that are contained in them were intended by the Spirit. They did not creep in as human errors or the like. Secondly, the same thing would apply to the possible use of secondary materials. By this we mean that the authors consulted other writings in connection with their own writing. Some see evidence that Matthew and Luke relied upon Mark’s gospel when writing their own accounts. In addition, mention is made that Matthew used another source called the “logia.” Generally, the “logia” refers to writings that Matthew was to have made when he was a disciple of Christ and that he wrote these in Aramaic. Some say these writings are the same as what we now have in the gospel of Matthew, that they were simply translated from Aramaic into Greek. Since this is much disputed, the only valid point is that, whether the authors used secondary material or not, the Holy Spirit overruled such use so that the end product was clearly the Word of God and free from human error. The same thing would be true of “oral tradition” or witnesses which contributed to the content of the gospel accounts, Luke 24:46-49. Thirdly, we can understand that different authors might write differently about the same event. Each one saw what the Holy Spirit wanted him to see from his own perspective. For example, the reference to the sermon on the mount preached on a level place or in a mountain can easily be reconciled: Christ went up into the mountain and sat down upon a level place within the mountain. Similarly, the use of words may vary without error. Matthew refers to “poor in spirit” while Luke speaks of “poor.” The intent is the same though the words differ. Finally, each author wrote the gospel with his own Spirit-filled purpose in mind. To attain this purpose, each wrote concerning the events that best fitted that purpose, and wrote in such a way that would communicate it so that the reader could understand. Instead of thinking in terms of inner contradiction, the believing Bible student will marvel at the wisdom wherewith the Holy Spirit led each of the authors to write his own account. When placed side by side these convey an accurate and complete message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The gospel of Matthew makes no direct mention of the author. The only internal evidence is that in the list of the disciples in Matthew 10:3 he is called, Matthew the tax collector, perhaps a reference to his unworthiness, while Mark, Luke, and John only refer to him by name. The author wrote as a Jew for Jews. The gospel presumes knowledge of Jewish customs and way of life. Mention is made of such things as “bringing thy gift to the altar” (Matt. 5:23), “phylacteries” (Matt. 23:5), or “whited sepulchres” (Matt. 23:27).
There is no dispute concerning Matthew’s being the author. He is the publican (Matt. 9:9-13). He is also referred to as Levi, the son of Alphaeus (Mark 2:14). We read nothing of him after Acts 1:13 where he is listed as one of the disciples in the upper room, waiting for the Holy Spirit. The early New Testament church and the early church fathers accepted Matthew as the author of this gospel. This certainly is a tribute to the power of the Holy Spirit and of grace that took a “publican,” most notorious for their way of sin, and made him a vessel fit for writing the Holy Word of God.
In trying to determine a date for the writing, a few things enter in. The 24th chapter, which records Christ’s teaching concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world, must have been written prior to A.D. 70 since there is no reference to the event having taken place. Besides this, the gospel breathes with a spirit of concern for the spiritual welfare of the Jews (the great theme of Christ as Messiah) while at the same time expressing joy in the complete gathering of the church including the gentiles (Matt. 28:19, 20). It was properly suited to the needs of a church such as Antioch, which needed the proof of Messiahship for the Jews, but also the great gospel ministry for the gentiles. Taking this into consideration, the date can well be placed between A.D. 60-70.
This means that the first gospel which we find in our Bible was not the first New Testament book written. The following books more than likely were written before Matthew: James, Galatians, I and II Thessalonians, I and II Corinthians, Romans, Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, Philippians, I and II Peter, and Mark. The question might arise why Matthew is placed first in our New Testament Bibles. The church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit was led to select which books were to be included in the inspired canon of Scripture. Similarly, we may believe the Spirit led them to arrange the books as they did. The general orderly progression of the message of the gospel can be learned by reading Matthew through Revelation. The ministry of Jesus is recorded, the spread of the gospel through the ministry of the apostles, the letters of instruction to the early church, and finally the return of Christ and the kingdom of heaven. Within this structure, Matthew takes its place at the beginning. First, it begins with the generations of Jesus Christ, much like the Genesis of the Old Testament. Second, his concern is for the Jews to believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy, a beautiful transition from the Old Testament. Finally, the message concerns Jesus as the Messiah who was long promised to the people of God. The New Testament begins on such an exalted note.
As we approach the first book of the New Testament, we ask ourselves, What must we look for as we read it? What purpose does God have in writing it? In answering this, we consider the following.
First, Matthew is not a biography of Jesus. God does not tell us what we may call “human interest” features. We do not learn a “life of Jesus.” This is not the purpose; and if we should anticipate this we will be disappointed.
Secondly, we do not mean by this that the gospel of Matthew does not have historical detail. There is much history in this account. The record of Jesus’ birth, His beginning ministry, the work He did as the Messiah, is a record of real history.
Thirdly, this record of history is given us not to satisfy our historical curiosity. We are not to read this gospel as “history buffs.” Rather, as John speaks for the other authors, “But these are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing yes might have life through his name,” John 2:31. As we read the gospel of Matthew, we must keep this ever before our minds. This is written that we may believe in Jesus.
Finally, Matthew writes this gospel to set forth Jesus as the Messiah. The one in Whom we believe is none other than the promised Messiah! The Old Testament saints believed that He would come; the prophets spoke of His coming; the blood of bulls and goats cried for their fulfillment in Him; and now the Holy Spirit moved Matthew to write the first gospel to tell the Jews and the entire church that this Jesus did indeed come and is King as God has promised.
We will examine the message in outline form in our next article.