Matthew is the first Gospel in the New Testament, but it was not the first Gospel written. New Testament scholars understand that Mark’s Gospel is older, and Matthew’s Gospel uses some of Mark’s material for writing his account of Jesus’ life; Luke’s Gospel uses Mark as well. There is also likely an even older tradition that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all were familiar with, not to mention various oral traditions. This theory best explains why there is so much overlap between these three Gospels while at the same time there are so many significant differences. Because these three Gospels overlap in wording and content as often as they do, they are called the “synoptic Gospels” (Greek, syn, together with; optic, seeing). John’s Gospel presents Jesus in a different way, and there is likely very little, if any, literary connection between John and the other three Gospels.
Matthew’s Gospel is anonymous, though tradition assigns authorship to Matthew, one of the twelve disciples. What is more certain is that Matthew was written with a Jewish audience in mind. No other Gospel cites the Old Testament as often as Matthew, which suggests that Matthew is particularly concerned to show the connection between Jesus and Israel’s story. This is what Matthew refers to as Jesus “fulfilling” the Old Testament Scriptures. In making this connection, Matthew tends to interpret the Old Testament in very creative ways. His approach is known in ancient Jewish literature as “midrash.” Typically, comparing Matthew’s use of an Old Testament passage to what that passage means in the Old Testament will demonstrate Matthew’s “midrashic” approach.
Matthew’s Gospel is grouped into five sections. Each begins with a narrative portion that tells part of the Jesus story and is then followed by a speech from Jesus. For example, chapters 1-4 tell the story of Jesus’ early life and baptism, which is immediately followed by chapters 5-7, which contain the Sermon on the Mount. The five-fold division of Matthew is reminiscent of the five books of the Pentateuch, which further suggests the author’s intention to connect Jesus with Israel’s traditions for his largely Jewish audience.
Matthew is the only Gospel that refers to the visit of the Magi and the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s edict to kill all the firstborn male children. This episode recalls how Moses fled from Pharaoh (Exodus 2), and suggests another connection between Jesus and the Old Testament. Matthew is also the only Gospel to include the Sermon on the Mount (Luke’s account is known as the “sermon on the plain”). Jesus is presented here as a Moses figure, giving God’s people new instructions from a mountaintop.
Matthew also stresses the kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven). These terms refer not to a kingdom made up of armies, kings, and land, although that is what many were expecting, including Jesus’ disciples. Similarly, the kingdom of God is not a kingdom in heaven, completely removed from life. This kingdom is here and now, inaugurated by Jesus in his ministry on earth, and marked by complete devotion to God and love and humility shown to others.
Matthew concludes with the risen Jesus sending out his disciples to all nations to make disciples (28:16-20). This command to go out, vulnerable and yet armed with God’s power, and to bring people to a knowledge of the true God, stands in contrast to much of the Old Testament, where armed Israelite soldiers would enter into conflict with the nations. Amongst Jesus’ disciples, battles would now be waged on the spiritual level, rather than on the physical.
– Peter Enns