THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW
The stream that flowed from the Garden of Eden, we are told, was parted into four heads; and so the water of life comes to us through four Gospel channels. It is the first of these, the Gospel according to Matthew, the Gospel of sacrifice, to which I call your attention to-day.
The writer of this Gospel is Matthew. Matthew was not his original name. His name was Levi, instead. In Mark and Luke no other name is given to him but this. It seems to have been a case of change of name at a particular epoch in his life; just as Saul, when he was converted to Christ, changed his name to Paul: and just as Simon, when he made his great confession, became Peter; and so a change of heart, a change of purpose, a change of life was indicated that made him a new man. It would seem as if Levi's following Christ was the time when his name too was changed, and Levi became Matthew. Levi would signify " servant of the Lord "; Matthew would signify " the Lord's free man."
Levi was a publican; and by publican, in those days, was meant not innkeeper, but rather receiver of public taxes, a tax-gatherer. He was a tax-gatherer under Herod Antipas. Something of contempt attached itself to this calling of a tax-gatherer, at least under the circumstances under which Matthew attempted it. As tax-gatherer he had probably acquired a large knowledge of human nature. He had acquired accurate business habits, and, more than that, I suppose we may say that he had acquired practice in writing; so it is possible that Matthew was the earliest of those who composed a Gospel; and it is quite possible that the logical and philosophical grouping of his Gospel may evince the grasp and skill which he had acquired.
Matthew was a humble man. He calls himself Matthew the Publican; as if always to remember the low degree from which he had sprung; as if to call attention to the fact that it was a strange and wonderful thing that the Lord had ever set his love upon him. He not only calls himself so, but he avoids all mention of any particular qualification in him for his work. Matthew was probably a man of means. Luke tells us that, after he was called to be a disciple, he made a great feast to Jesus; but Matthew himself makes no mention of it
Matthew is distinguished by what we call self-effacement. He ignores himself continually. He makes as little mention of himself as John does, even less than John does; for, although John does not mention his own name, John does speak of a certain disciple whom Jesus loved that can be no other than John. After the first calling of Matthew, and the relating of that incident by which he became a disciple of Jesus, there is absolutely no mention of Matthew, except his mere name in the list of the apostles; and thus we get the impression that he is a man of great humility, that he merges himself in Christ, and thinks there is nothing worthy to be mentioned of himself.
We know little about Matthew during our Saviour's
life, and we know almost next to nothing of his work after the Saviour's death. Tradition says he went to Ethiopia, preached the gospel there, and suffered martyrdom, being slain while engaged in prayer. Even this tradition is denied by some, especially by Clement of Alexandria; so we may say that we know almost nothing about Matthew, except that he was a publican, a humble man, the author of this Gospel.
Yet this humble disciple of Christ, this apostle who never cared to have his own name mentioned, has become the first of the Evangelists; just as that Mary, from whom Christ cast out seven demons, was the first to announce the gospel of the resurrection to the apostles. It is a blessed thought to me that the names of these apostles, who so merged themselves in Christ and his kingdom as to be lost sight of entirely, the names of these twelve apostles, every one, are to be written on the foundation-stones of the New Jerusalem; so that, although they got no honor upon the earth, they will get the honor that comes from God only.
Now in regard to the language in which this Gospel is written. There is a dispute in regard to this matter, as to whether the original writing of it was in Hebrew or in Greek. Here we come to a problem of very great interest. I cannot go into it at length. I can only indicate to you the nature of it. It is the unanimous testimony of the early church that Matthew wrote originally in Hebrew, "wrote a Gospel in the Hebrew language which every one interpreted," i. e., I suppose, every one translated into Greek, "as he was able to "; and it is of additional interest that, at the time Matthew wrote, there was already existing a Greek translation, for the word "interpreted" is a Greek word, and intimates that people heretofore interpreted the Gospel as they were able; but, now that the Greek translation existed, there was no need any longer of this individual interpretation.
Those who hold this view are themselves divided into two different parties. One of them holds that the original Gospel, written by Matthew in Hebrew, was very brief, much briefer than our present Gospel; and that, subsequently, with the aid of the oral tradition which then existed, Matthew himself wrote a Greek translation, enlarging it as he wrote, so that our present Greek Gospel is a translation of the briefer original Gospel written by Matthew himself. Those who hold this view think that the earlier Hebrew Gospel was corrupted, and that it became the Apocryphal book which is entitled the Gospel of the Hebrews.
There is a difficulty connected with this hypothesis that the Gospel was originally written in Hebrew, which makes it doubtful whether we ought to accept it, even although we have in its favor the almost unanimous tradition of the early church. The difficulty is just this: Whenever Matthew, in his Greek Gospel, quotes from the Old Testament, in giving us the words of Christ, he quotes not from the Hebrew, but from the Greek; and it would seem very strange, if he were writing a Hebrew Gospel, that he should not quote from the original Hebrew instead. Again, when Matthew gives us the words of Christ, he gives us almost always the same words which we find in the other synoptic Gospels, gives us the words of Christ very much as they are given us by Mark and by Luke. This would seem very strange, if the Gospel which we have now was translated from an original Hebrew Gospel.
We cannot understand this argument fully, unless we remember that, in those days, the art of translation had not reached the perfection which it reaches now. In our day, when a man who has any scholarship at all attempts a translation from Greek into English, he does not translate word for word; he does not simply transfer the words of the Greek into the words of the English, but he puts the thought of the original into English thought, and into English idioms. But in those days the art of translation was by no means perfected, and whatever translation there was, was really transference instead of translation; and if our present Greek version were the translation of an original Hebrew, we should expect to find the Hebrew idioms continually recurrent; we should find a great difference in the words of Christ as they appear in our Gospel according to Matthew, and the words of Christ as they appear in the Gospels according to Mark and Luke. There is, however, no such difference, so that the internal evidence, in spite of this external evidence from the early church Fathers, seems to point to an original Greek Gospel rather than an original Hebrew Gospel. The explanation of Westcott is that Matthew himself translated the Hebrew Gospel into Greek; that, when he came to those portions that were common to him and to Mark and Luke, he took the Greek oral tradition that was current, side by side with the Hebrew tradition, and substituted that for what he had originally written in the Hebrew.
This is a possible solution of the difficulty, and I am still inclined to believe there was an original Hebrew Gospel, perhaps briefer than our present Gospel according to Matthew, which was subsequently translated by Matthew himself, and, in the translation, was enlarged. The Fathers seem with one accord to have accepted this view, and this unanimous assent of the early church cannot rest upon the testimony of that single man Papias, for Papias, we know, was not overcritical. They must have had other and better evidence.
The truth is that, in Palestine, at the time of Christ, there were two languages spoken. Palestine was a bilingual country. The Aramaic, or corrupted Hebrew, was the language of the common people, because that was the language of the original Scriptures. On the other hand, Greek was the literary language, and every one learned something of Greek. Every man of affairs, every business man had to know something of Greek. There is a similar state of things in Wales in our own day. The language of the people in Wales, of course, is Welsh; and as a Welshman, a Welsh carpenter, once said: " I learned English in school, and I am perfectly familiar with English, but I never talk a word of English except when I am speaking with English people. In my family and in my business in the village, and, in fact, almost universally, I speak nothing but Welsh. I read English, but I speak Welsh."
I suppose that in Palestine, at the time of Christ, the people spoke Aramaic and they read Greek; and, when it came to putting the gospel into permanent and written form, it was naturally the Greek, the literary language, into which the Gospels were put, rather than into the Hebrew or Aramaic, which was the language commonly spoken. I suppose it is perfectly certain that our Lord used the Greek language in his replies to Pilate, the Roman governor; but I suppose it is equally true that, in prayer, in his utterances from the cross, he used the Aramaic, the language of the common people.
It is a very curious thing in regard to Germans that come to our country, that they may use nothing but English in their business, speak English every day, but, as Christians, they never pray except in German, their mother tongue; and, when they come to die, their last words are spoken in German, and not in English.
So it was in Palestine. The Jewish language, the language of the heart, the sacred language, was Aramaic or Hebrew; but the literary language, the language of the books, was Greek. So you find that James, one of the earliest Epistles written, was written in Greek, although James was a Hebrew. And so you find that the Epistle to the Hebrews, written to Jewish Christians most of all, is written in Greek, and betrays no signs of an original Hebrew. I think it is not only perfectly natural, but it is probably a conclusion warranted by the circumstances, that our Greek Gospel is now what it was when it left the hands of Matthew, the apostle.
Another question arises with regard to the date at which this Gospel was written. I have concluded that the most probable date is between the years 55 and 60. or, if we must be more definite, about A. D. 58, twelve years before the destruction of Jerusalem.
We have the testimony of Irenaeus, one of the church Fathers, that the Gospel according to Matthew was written while the apostles Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, i. e., just before their martyrdom; and there is a great deal in the Gospel itself which indicates that it must have been written before the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. There is no hint, for example, that Jerusalem had been destroyed, as there almost certainly would have been if the holy city had been overthrown; and while our Saviour's words in regard to the flight of Christians, on account of the approaching calamity, are still retained in the Gospel, there is no sort of indication that their flight had already taken place. When our Saviour's discourse is given, in which the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world merge into one another, there is no dividing line drawn, as there very naturally would be if a part of that prophecy had already been fulfilled. And when it is said, "This generation shall not pass until all these things be fulfilled," it would certainly seem that, if that prophecy had been fulfilled already, there would have been some mark or indication that the Lord's words had been verified.
Yet there are those who, simply because these prophecies are so clear and unmistakable, are inclined to doubt whether this Gospel was written before the events had taken place. Of course these difficulties all arise from a wrong view of inspiration. They fancy that there was no such thing as prediction, that man cannot be inspired by God to prophesy the future. If that be true, then the Gospel must have been written after the destruction of Jerusalem rather than before;
but to us who believe that God knows from the beginning, and that God prophesied and predicted what was to happen, such an argument has no weight; in fact, these words of objection are fraught with other difficulties just as serious, for Christ himself declared these things. Christ himself declared that the temple was to be destroyed, and that, in three days, it would be raised again.
There was a foretelling of the destruction of Jerusalem long before the apostolic testimony. The predictions of the apostles were only an echo of the prophecy of Daniel that had been spoken four or five hundred years before, viz., " The people of the Prince shall come and destroy the city and the sanctuary "; so we cannot get rid of the element of prediction that is there. Putting the Gospel after the destruction of Jerusalem cannot help the matter at all.
In fact, we find that it must have been before that event. There is a limit as to the point of time later than which the Gospel cannot have been written. It must have come before the destruction of Jerusalem; and yet there is a limit on the other side. It cannot be so very much before the destruction of Jerusalem. You remember that, in Matthew's Gospel, there is the story about the bribing of the soldiers who had watched at the tomb of Jesus. They were bribed to say that the disciples had come and stolen away the body of Jesus; and Matthew adds: "And this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day." He could not have put in these words unless a considerable interval of time had elapsed since the resurrection of Christ. The time during which the Gospel could have been composed must therefore be narrowed down to a space somewhere between the years 50 and 60, or even between 55 and 60, when there was yet time to warn Christ's disciples of the impending destruction of the sacred city. Let us tentatively call the date A. D. 58.
Now, something with regard to the object of the Gospel. Why was it that Matthew wrote? What has been said with regard to the language, and with regard to the date, may help us in determining the question why Matthew wrote his Gospel. What was the main object he had in view? You can see that, if the Gospel was written at the time I suppose, there was already the shadow of approaching destruction and desolation gathering about the "holy city." Those who had been accustomed to go into the temple to worship were now about to be cast out from the temple; many among those Jewish Christians were tempted to question whether they would not be subject to a vast and irreparable loss. In view of this approaching calamity it was desirable that the Christian heart should be strengthened. In view of the scattering of the Jewish people it was desirable that the Gospel should be put into permanent and written form, as it never had been before; and, therefore, Matthew began to write.
There were two things which he might do to strengthen Christian hearts, and to prepare them for the times of suffering and' trouble before them; and the first of them was to show them that this Saviour, in whom they had believed, was an Almighty Saviour, that he was the King of Israel, that he was the promised Messiah; and it is to this point that Matthew first directs his attention.
He gives us historical proof that Jesus of Nazareth is the King of Israel; he therefore begins with the genealogies, and proves from public records that Jesus is the lineal descendant of David and Abraham, the son of David and the son of Abraham, and that he is heir to all the promises that were made to the fathers. He is of the line of the kings; for the genealogy given us in Matthew, I think, is the royal genealogy; it is the line of Jewish kings; and Matthew aims to show that Jesus is heir to the throne of David and to the hereditary blessing of Abraham. This proof that Jesus, the carpenter, was the appointed and foretold King of Israel, would tend to strengthen the heart of every Jewish Christian, and make him stand by Christ, no matter what trial and trouble might come.
But there was another thing that Matthew had in mind, and this brings into view the essential purpose of his Gospel. You know that, in the Old Testament, there were prophecies of two sorts with regard to Christ. There had been the prophecy that Jesus should be the King of Israel, and there should arise one who should be the heir of David's throne, who should have power and glory and sovereignty. One class of predictions was of this sort. Then, there had been another sort of prophecy, which the Jews had never been able to combine with the first, viz., that there was to be a suffering Messiah. The natural hopes and feelings of the people had clustered about the first class of prophecies; but the second class of prophecies they had almost entirely ignored. So we find, in the Jewish people, a wide-spread expectation of a deliverer, a king who is to come in power and great glory; but as for believing that that king was also to be the Messiah who was to suffer and die, that thought they never permitted to enter into their minds.
Now, it is Matthew's purpose to show that the two sorts of predictions related to one single person; that this promised King of Israel was the same individual as he who was to suffer for the sins of men. In other words, the promised son of David and son of Abraham was also the suffering Messiah; the High Priest of God's people was to reconcile Israel by sacrificing himself. The Gospel according to Matthew shows that this King of Israel has suffered and died for man; has accomplished his work of atonement; and, in spite of his low origin, and in spite of his humiliation and death, the Christian must look to him as the appointed Saviour of the world.
If you look into the Gospel according to Matthew, and read it through with this in mind, you will get an entirely new view of its meaning. It is the Gospel of rejection, and the Gospel according to Luke is the Gospel of acceptance. People wonder, in Luke, at the gracious words that proceed out of the Saviour's mouth. That side, that aspect of the Saviour, comes into view; but in Matthew there is one long undertone of mourning, one long undertone of sorrow. All through the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is represented as rejected of men.
Mary is rejected and cast out at the beginning. Herod pursues the young child. Joseph has to flee into Egypt, from the wrath of the king. When he comes back he cannot go to the native place of Jesus, but has to withdraw to Nazareth. Jesus is driven from place to place, until at last he goes to his crucifixion. You find that there is a representation of the crucifixion, of the sorrowful sacrifice, as there is not in any of the other Evangelists.
The Sanhedrin, the appointed authorities of the Jews, rejected Christ. He is cast out by his own people in Galilee; and, at last, when Pilate crucified him, he says, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." In other words, the king is a rejected king. The promised King is also the suffering Messiah; and the deepest note of sorrow and sacrifice is struck when God himself forsakes his Son upon the cross, and Jesus Christ, in his agony, cries, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
The Gospel according to Matthew, then, is the Gospel of rejection; it is the Gospel of sorrow; it is the Gospel of sacrifice; it is the proof that the expected King and Messiah of Israel is the appointed ransom for sinners; it is intended to show to those who might be staggering over this fact that this is the very fulfilment of prophecy, the very proof that Jesus' work is a fulfilment of God's eternal plan of redemption. The Gospel according to Matthew, then, is the Gospel of sacrifice; but you must remember that sacrifice involved death, and that death is followed by resurrection. We find the founding of the new covenant, and the spread of the gospel through all the world, predicted in the closing verses of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew's sacrifice is "Sacrifice, out of which joy and triumph have come "; and it is only in Matthew that you have the command, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." The central thought of the Gospel is indicated in those words in which Christ instituted the Lord's Supper: " This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins "; in other words, a new covenant is now established, in place of the old covenant, by the blood of Jesus; so that Matthew furnishes the proper transition from the Old Testament to the New, and shows how the old covenant is merged in the new covenant, the new covenant of grace and mercy to mankind, through the blood of Christ.
One or two words with regard to the structure of this Gospel. We can understand this very much better, now that we have the leading thought. The childhood of Jesus is related; and then the Gospel is divided into two great parts: First, our Saviour's ministerial work in Galilee; and, secondly, his preparation for the crucifixion. Two great parts, I repeat—the one having to do with his official life in Galilee, and the second with regard to his preparation for the crucifixion.
The first of these parts answers to what I have called the second year of the Saviour's ministry; and the second part answers to what I have called the third year of the Saviour's ministry—the ministry of Jesus in Judea not being described at all by Matthew. We have, then, the official life of the Saviour in Galilee described first of all, and, as a preface, Jesus' baptism. Secondly, we have the preparation for the crucifixion described, and the preface to that is the account of the transfiguration.
There are many evidences of structure in Matthew's Gospel; it has a plan; read it with a view to this and I think you will be greatly struck by its order and system.
The first part of the Gospel, the account of Christ's official life in Galilee, is prefaced by the narrative of his baptism; but it is also prefaced by the announcement, " from this time, Jesus began to preach that the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
The second great division, the preparation for his crucifixion, is prefaced in a similar way by words that remind us of the first: "From this time, Jesus began to show unto his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer many things from the chief priests "; and this preface predicts his sacrifice, and, after his death, his rising on the third day. So we have a preface to the first part, and a preface to the second part.
After the preface to the first part, we have a sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, the giving out of the law of the new covenant; and just so, when we come to the second part, after this announcement that I have spoken of, we have another sermon to the disciples, on humility. As the first sermon was the laying out of the law of his kingdom for all men, so the second part of the Gospel has its sermon and discourse to the disciples themselves, on humility.
Then, in the first part, as the sermon is followed by a series of miracles, and a growth of power, showing that Jesus has the authority to speak; so, in the second part, we have, after the sermon on humility, another series of miracles. In the first part we have that series of miracles followed by parables, a dozen or more of them; and, in the second part, we have its miracles followed by prophecies.
It is impossible to go into this more minutely, because I should burden your minds. I can only hint at these evidences of structure in the Gospel. A great trouble with us, in our reading of the Gospels, is that we read them without looking beneath the surface. We do not analyze and divide the Gospel into its different parts, as we should. We would enjoy our reading very much more if we made an analysis of the whole; and here, in the Gospel according to Matthew, we would find marvelous evidences of structure.
Matthew differs from Mark most palpably in this, that while Mark relates things in chronological order, Matthew finds the thought of much more importance than the mere chronological order, and groups things in a philosophical way. Matthew, for example, gives us a number of the parables together, although, from other Evangelists, we have reason to believe that they were not all spoken at the same time. Matthew gives us a number of Jesus' miracles together; although, from other Evangelists, we have reason to believe that not all of these miracles were performed at the same time.
Matthew describes the life of Christ in an orderly and systematic way, following, not chronological, but logical order. In that respect he is more like our modern historian than was the ancient annalist. The latter confines himself to the chronological order, making his history a succession of dates, giving what happened, for instance, on the twenty-second day of March, then what happened on the twenty-third, and so on. The modern historian does nothing of that sort. Green, in his " Short History of the English People," takes up a movement and carries that movement on for a hundred years; then going back for a hundred years to begin with another movement and to describe that. The modern historian groups things. Matthew groups, while Mark follows simply the order of time. There are some peculiarities of Matthew's Gospel. There are many things which we get from Matthew, and from no other of the Evangelists. For example, Matthew alone tells us about the coming of the wise men from the East; Matthew alone tells us of the slaughter of the innocents; Matthew alone tells us of the incidents of the flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth; Matthew alone tells us of the coming of the Pharisees and Sadducees to the baptizing by John; Matthew alone tells us of Christ's betrayal by Judas for thirty pieces of silver; Matthew alone tells us of Judas' remorse and death; Matthew alone tells us of the dream of Pilate's wife; Matthew alone tells us of the watch at the sepulcher; Matthew alone tells us of the bribing of the soldiers at the sepulcher; Matthew alone tells us of the opening of the graves and the resurrection of the saints; Matthew alone gives us the Sermon on the Mount in its fulness; Matthew alone gives us the discourse on humility; Matthew alone gives us an account of the last judgment. It is only Matthew that tells us of that promise of Christ: " Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." It is only Matthew that tells that every idle word shall be brought into judgment. It is only Matthew that speaks of the blessing of Christ upon Peter for his great confession, " Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." It is only Matthew that gives us the parable of the Tares, the parable of the Hid Treasure, the Goodly Pearl, the Draw Net, the Unmerciful Servant, the Laborers in the Vineyard, the Two Sons, the Marriage of the King's Son, the Ten Virgins, the Ten Talents, and the Sheep and the Goats.
How much there is that we should lose, if we lost the Gospel according to Matthew! Each of the other Gospels has its peculiarities, as we shall see; but Matthew is a precious Gospel in what it alone gives. So Matthew has attained his object by proving to us that this carpenter of Nazareth, this man of low origin, this man who was despised and rejected of men, is, notwithstanding, the Son of God, the King of Israel.
That is the first of Matthew's great teachings; and the second of his great teachings is this: that this Son of God and King of Israel was the sacrifice for human sins, and that by that sacrifice he became the great High Priest by whom Israel is brought back to God. The prophecies of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the death of Christ for the sins of the world: Matthew is the Gospel of sacrifice. Last of all, we find this atonement set forth as the turning-point in human history. This sacrifice of Christ unites the old covenant with the new, constitutes the central thought of all time, and is the one great event of the ages.
When a man leaves his native land and launches out upon the sea, he passes one point after another, until, at last, he comes to the final headland; the great lighthouse there sheds its light over the sea, but disappears at last in the distance; he gets no light any more until
he reaches another land. So I have thought that, when we leave this world and launch out on the sea of eternity, there are many lights; but the last light, the only light that will remain when every other has vanished, will be the light of that crucified Son of God, who suffered for the sins of men. That is the one event of history. And the death of Jesus Christ for the sins of men, the sacrifice of the Son of God for you and for me, is the central subject of the Gospel according to Matthew.