Claim to fame: Son of God. Born of a virgin.
Also known as: Emmanuel, Son of Man, the Messiah, King of the Jews
Likes: Long walks in the desert, fishing, road trips, debate club
Dislikes: Hypocrites. Oh, and Satan.
Favorite movies: The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Matrix, Superman, Superman Returns
Jesus is the star of Matthew's Gospel. Actually, he's the star of the whole New Testament. But just who exactly is this guy? Or better yet, who does Matthew think he is?
Son of God
Right off the bat, Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is uber special. How does he do this? By bringing out the big storytelling guns. Let's review:
- Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit? Check (1:18).
- Dad receives dream visitation from angel of the Lord? Check (1:20).
- Born of a virgin? Check (1:25).
- Wise men from the East travel to worship him and bring gifts? Check (2:1-2).
- Totally fulfills multiple prophecies? Check (1:22-23). Check (2:15). Check (2:17). And check (2:23).
See, it's pretty important to Matthew to let us know that Jesus's connection to God goes way back. That's different from Paul, who sees the cross and resurrection as the big moment in Jesus's relationship with God. And it's different from Mark, too, who portrays God as giving Jesus the thumbs up during his baptism.
But, for Matthew, even as an embryo, Jesus was destined for greatness. That eight pound, six ounce newborn infant sure is going places.
He's Not God Yet
But even though God has singled out Jesus from his conception, Matthew probably doesn't see Jesus as completely co-equal with God. He doesn't have a (big theological word alert!) high Christology (source, 849) like, say, the Gospel of John does. That just means that Matthew sees Jesus as more of a super special human being, who was intimately connected with God and given special power and authority to teach and heal. He probably doesn't view Jesus as God incarnate.
In fact, Matthew definitely prefers to use the term "Son of Man," which means something like "human being" (source, 880), to describe Jesus. It's Jesus's enemies that generally taunt him with the "Son of God" title (27:40), though Jesus does answer to that one occasionally, too.
Jesus—He's Just Like Us
Okay, so it's clear Jesus is special to God, but he's also still a regular guy. Well, maybe not regular, but as regular as God's anointed one can get. Jesus faces real human situations:
- He gets tempted (4:1-11).
- He is amazed (8:10).
- He's a heavy sleeper (8:24).
- He eats…and drinks (11:19).
- He's compassionate (14:15, 15:32).
- He has a temper (21:12-13).
- He's nervous about being executed (26:38).
But aside from being human, what else does Jesus have going on? What makes him tick?
He's a Moral Leader
First, Jesus loves to moralize. And boy, does he have a lot of rules.
It's true that most of Jesus's commands are pretty aspirational. In fact, he may be thinking a little too highly of humanity ("Pray for those who persecute you"? Come on). But this is kind of his deal. Matthew believes that Jesus's entrance into the world has ushered in a new age and that this is how we should all be behaving while we wait for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Maybe we can't be perfect, but we can keep trying.
So who gives Jesus the right to lay out all these new rules? Well, it's God, of course. According to Matthew, Jesus has God's divine backing, so he can totally say things like: "The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" (9:6). Of course, this strikes the Pharisees and other naysayers as blasphemy. After all, only God has the power to forgive sins, right? Wrong, as usual, guys.
But Jesus doesn't hog all the authority glory for himself. He also takes time to share with the disciples. He gives them "authority over unclean spirits […] and to cure every disease and every sickness" (10:1). Pretty generous of him. Sharing is caring, after all.
He's a Real Mensch
So Jesus is the Messiah, right? That's his big identity in the whole story. But the word "messiah" has a different meaning for Matthew and the people reading his gospel than it does for us today. For them, Jesus would have been a Jewish messiah, sent by God specifically for the Jewish people. Jesus is just the logical next step in God's plan for the world and his chosen people.
That's why Matthew's Jesus is so, well, Jewish. He's the great-great-great-great…grandson of the original Jewish patriarchs. His every move fulfills one Hebrew Bible prophecy after another. Jesus loves the Torah like whoa and quotes scripture left and right. Even his entrance into the world has shout-outs to the story of Moses (a baby forced to flee his home; an evil ruler kills every first born). This guy is no goy.
What does a nice Jewish boy like Jesus do when he's confronted with God's will? He listens to the Big Guy. Jesus is nothing else if not obedient to God. Sure, he gets tested. Satan throws a few curve balls his way, but Jesus brushes him off and gets back to the work of God.
His biggest struggle is around his death. Jesus knows that God wants him to die, but when the time comes, he's not too keen on the idea. When Jesus goes to Gethsemane with some of his disciples he is "deeply grieved" (26:28). Then he "thr[ows] himself on the ground and pray[s], 'My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me'" (26:39). He actually asks to live not just once, but three times (26:44). Guess he wanted to make sure God was on the line.
But Jesus is ever the dutiful servant and he emphasizes that he'll go to his death if God really, really wants that. As a crowd approaches armed with clubs and swords, Jesus knows what God's answer is. And yes, he does go through with God's plan, but he still isn't totally thrilled to submit. His dying words are "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (27:46). Not exactly a ringing endorsement of God's policies.