The Greek word for "gospel" is evangellion, which roughly means "good news." And that's what all four of the gospels claim to share: the good news that God has sent Jesus into the world.
A gospel is different from a standard biography because it isn't just a record of a someone's life. Nope, a gospel has a clear purpose: it wants to make you believe. If you walk away after reading one of the gospels and your life hasn't been changed, then the gospels will hang their papery heads in sadness because they've failed to do their jobs.
The early Christians invented the idea of a gospel; up until then, nothing like it had ever been written. And their invention worked. Big time. In the last 2,000 years, the gospels have helped convince billions of people all over the world that Jesus is someone worth putting your faith in. (Source.)
This one's pretty easy to wrap our minds around. The title lets us know that the story we're about to read is a gospel (see "Genre") and that it was written by someone named Matthew. Ta-da!
Christian tradition has always regarded this Matthew as one of the twelve disciples (check him out in 9:9). Of course, this theory doesn't really make much sense. Why would one of the original disciples, an eyewitness to the life of Jesus, have copied nearly 90% of his stories from Mark and other sources (source)? You'd think he'd have tales of his own to tell. And that they'd be pretty good ones.
What's clear at least is that the author was a Jewish Christian. He quotes from the Hebrew Bible all over the place, knows his Torah inside and out, and has really specific thoughts about different Jewish groups. But we'll probably never know exactly who he was, how he became Christian, or what his relationship to Jesus was (source).
Looks like the "Matthew" of our title is a bit of a mystery.
He came. He saw. He died and rose again. Now Jesus is planning on heading home to his Father in heaven, where we're guessing he'll get a pretty sweet welcome party. But before he bounces, Jesus has one more thing to do: pass the ministry torch onto his disciples.
All throughout the Gospel, Jesus says that he came mainly for the Jewish people. It's like he tells the Canaanite woman, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (15:24). Right. But that doesn't go so well in the end.
Now Jesus is looking to branch out. In the last lines of the Gospel, he gives one final command the remaining eleven in the posse: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (28:19). That's all nations. Including the Gentiles. That's Matthew setting the stage for the future growth of the church right there.
The way Jesus presents himself here is also pretty interesting. He comes right out and says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (28:18). That's a lot of responsibility. It's quite different from the Jesus who dodges the messiah questions from high priests (26:64) and completely refuses to answer Pilate (27:14). Looks like the Resurrection really agrees with the guy.
Matthew's Gospel is the only one that features this "Great Commission" at the end. It's also the only one that instructs the disciples to baptize people "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (28:19). Fun fact: these are the words that are still used in most Christian baptisms today.
Way to make history, Matt.
Matthew's Gospel is set mainly in the Roman province of Judea sometime between the years 28 and 33 CE (source xxviii). Who cares? Well, Jesus and his disciples lived and worked right smack in the middle of what are disputed Israeli and Palestinian territories today. Sadly, not much has changed since the 1st century: the people back then were pretty frustrated with their living situation, too.
The people of Judea were mostly Jewish and had been conquered and occupied by the mighty Roman Empire. This was no big deal to Rome—they had more important things to worry about than some insignificant Jewish province—but it was a huge issue for the people of Judea.
Many of them resented Roman rule. After all, the Romans had complete control over the land, laws, and government, and forced everyone to pay tons in taxes. The Jews were hoping (and praying) that God would send a messiah or "anointed one" to reclaim Jewish rule of Judea and to kick out the Roman occupiers.
For Christians, that messiah was Jesus. For other Jews…well, they were still waiting.
In 66 CE, about thirty years after the death of Jesus, everything came to a boiling point in Judea. A war broke out between the Jewish people and the mighty Roman Empire. But even though they were up against the most powerful army in the world, the rebel fighters were able to make a little headway. But, not for long.
In 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the temple. Remember the temple? Yeah, it's the center of Jewish religious, social, and political life. The Jews had fought long and hard to protect it from Roman influence, but in the end, they watched it burn to the ground while the Romans killed and plundered all throughout Jerusalem (source).
Matthew's Gospel is written in the aftermath of all this, probably sometime around 85 CE (source, 285). Not only is Christianity trying to take root throughout the Roman Empire, Judaism is also trying to figure out where it goes after this tragic defeat.
Enter the Pharisees. These guys had much more moderate views than other Jewish groups. If the Sadducees represented the far right wing and the Zealots (whom Matthew doesn't mention) represent the far left wing, then the Pharisees were right in the middle. They were also the dominant group that emerged after the war with Rome (source, 285).
The Pharisees wanted to help the Jewish people move into a new stage of life together, but to do this, they had to solidify what it meant to be a Jew. Promoting unity in the Jewish community helped the Jewish people thrive and survive in this difficult time. Unfortunately, this newfound emphasis on cohesive beliefs didn't work out too well for the up-and-coming Christians.
Though the followers of Jesus would have still considered themselves Jewish, the Pharisees did not. They rejected the idea that Jesus was the messiah they had been waiting for, so they had little tolerance for Christian ideas and theology. Christians were banned from the synagogues. They were called heretics and blasphemers. And, in the eyes of the orthodox Jews of the day, they were.
This is probably why Matthew hates the Pharisees so much. He thinks they're hypocrites who've turned their back on God. But, from their point of view, they're just continuing to faithfully guide the religion that was handed down to them through the generations (source, 845).
Okay, that's all the historical stuff, but what about the actual places where Jesus lived and preached and died?
Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That's mainly because the Hebrew Bible says that the messiah will be born there (Micah 5:2). A nice Jewish writer like Matthew couldn't have his messiah born in Nazareth, even though that's where the Messiah's parents lived and where he would spend most of his life. No way. Mary and Joseph book to Bethlehem the first chance they get, and Jesus gets another notch in his belt.
Other travels in the beginning of the Gospel tend to fulfill biblical prophecies as well. Jesus heads to Egypt to escape Herod and there just happens to be a corresponding Bible verse to explain that. Then he returns to Nazareth and—guess what?—there's a prophecy for that, too. Go figure.
But Jesus spends most of his life in Nazareth, which is in the province of Galilee in Northern Israel. It's also where he begins his ministry. For the most part, his neighbors in Galilee don't seem so thrilled to have the Messiah living next door.
In his hometown, he's questioned pretty aggressively. Aren't you Mary and Joseph's kid? Didn't you used to eat paste in kindergarten? Jesus even has a hard time performing miracles there because the people are so skeptical. Jesus finally sighs and tells us, "Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house" (13:57). In other words, he's not exactly being hailed as a hometown hero while in Galilee.
When Jesus finally ventures down south to the capital city in Jerusalem, things don't go very well. The folks in Galilee occasionally get annoyed with him, but the religious authorities in Judea are completely enraged by his presence. While he's in town Jesus
So maybe that has something to do them not liking him.
Within a few days of Jesus arriving in town, the people in power are plotting to have him killed. They succeed and Jesus is put to death in Jerusalem. But wait a second—it's also where he rises again. Take that, Pharisees.
Jesus didn't invent the parable, but he sure perfected it. It was probably his favorite way to teach, and it kind of became his calling card for the rest of time.
A parable is basically a short and simple story that illustrates a deep and important message. Big things come in small packages, right? But these small packages can be kind of tough to unwrap.
Take this one, for example
"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." (13:31-32)
Here we have a story about a seed that grows into a bush. The biggest bush on the block, in fact. So the moral of the story is that the kingdom of heaven starts tiny but gets really big, right?
Yes, kind of. But we're still missing some details. See, New Testament parables bring in lots of imagery that we modern folks aren't familiar with, but that Jesus's audience would have known all about.
First, what is a mustard seed? Well, like Jesus says, it's pretty tiny. Like only about 2 mm. When that seed is planted in the ground, it sprouts into a weedy little mustard bush. It also grows super fast and can be really hard to get rid of. If you've ever had a hot dog, you know that mustard has a sort of bitter taste to it. So that's a mustard seed, in a nutshell. Or in a mustard seed shell.
Then what is the kingdom of heaven, really? It starts off small, as the tiniest seed possible (think the early Christian church). But it grows quickly and aggressively. Once it takes root, it's pretty tough to get rid of it, too. It's even annoying and bitter tasting to some (see: the Pharisees). And, though you might think it's impossible, this little bush will grow into a huge tree and spread its branches all over the world. Even the birds will want to perch there. That's what the kingdom of heaven is like. Bam.
We can see that parables not only reveal something (the kingdom of heaven is growing), but they conceal things from non-believers, too. After all, the people who heard this must have thought Jesus was crazy. A little mustard bush isn't going to grow into a huge tree! But believers know that God can make the impossible happen. All it takes it faith the size of a mustard seed, right (source, 271-72)?
This is basically what Jesus tells his disciples when they ask, Why all the parables? (13:10). Isn't it better to have everything laid out in the open? But Jesus knows the naysayers won't get it no matter what he says. They've got eyes, but they don't really see. They've got ears, but they're not listening (13:13). If you believe, the parables are a revelation. If you don't care, then you're the one missing out on the goods.
We went over the parable of the mustard seed, but let's take a peek at a couple other of Jesus's most popular parables to get a better taste for them.
It goes something like this: "How can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered" (12:29). Sounds easy enough, right? Let's dig in.
Right before Jesus lays this parable on us, the Pharisees are going at him pretty hard. They see Jesus casting out demons and they tell the crowds that "It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons" (12:24). In other words, Jesus is clearly in league with the devil.
But Jesus uses this parable to bat down that idea. Really, Pharisees? Why would Satan send Jesus to destroy his own kingdom? It doesn't make any sense. You wouldn't invite someone into your house to bust out all your windows, would you? (Hey, we just made a parable!)
The story also makes a pretty important claim. If Satan is the strong man, and Jesus is the one who's breaking into the house, that means that Jesus has already defeated Satan. After all, if Satan hadn't been tied up by Jesus, then he couldn't be raiding his house and casting out all kinds of demons, could he? Another point in the Jesus column.
The parable also reflects other common Jewish wisdom, like this passage from Isaiah:
Can the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of a tyrant be rescued? But thus says the Lord: Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued; for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children. (Isaiah 49:24-25)
So like Matthew says, "For God, all things are possible" (19:26). Jesus can defeat Satan, the strong man, because he's got divine backing. And also because he's just that good (source, 654).
This one tells the story of a landowner who goes to get workers for his vineyard. At the start of the workday, he finds a good-looking group and offers to pay them a denarius for a day's work. A few hours later, he hires some more workers. Around noon, he brings on some additional crew. Then again at 3:00PM and 5:00PM. We're guessing it was a pretty busy vineyard.
At the end of the day, the landowner calls everyone in to be paid. The ones who were hired last are paid first and—surprise, surprise—they get a denarius. The workers who were hired first are really psyched. If those bums who only worked an hour get full pay, then they're going to be swimming in coins.
But when they receive their wages, it turns out they only get one stinkin' denarius. Not fair! the last paid protest. But, the landowner doesn't understand why they're complaining. After all, they got the wage they were promised. Why should they be mad that he's decided to be generous with everyone else? (20:1-16)
Okay, let's break this one down. The workers who were hired first get a full day's pay. The workers who are hired last get the same amount. On its face we've got to agree with the workers who were hired first. Equal pay for equal work, right? Break out the picket signs!
This parable is all about assumptions. The workers who are hired first have a lot of expectations about what they're going to get. First, they're cool with the single denarius. Then when they see the "less deserving" getting the same as them, they want more. After all, they've been toiling in this vineyard all day—they earned it! Those other lazy folks definitely didn't.
But according to Jesus, God doesn't work like that. God doesn't care who's deserving and who isn't. He doesn't care who worked the hardest or who was with him the longest. Sure, God keeps his promises and pays the denarius, but, if you accept his offer to work on his vineyard, his goodness and generosity will overflow. Even if you're one of those people who doesn't seem like they should be in line for blessings.
In the end, this parable is sort of a warning: don't get cocky. God knows you're doing good work, but don't assume that hard work alone will win you a spot at the top. God is gracious to everyone, no matter what they've done. So by all means, hope that you're saved. Just don't assume anything (source, 870). You know what they say about what happens when you assume, right?
Can't get enough of parables? You're in luck Matthew's got twenty-four gems in his gospel. Collect (and analyze) them all!
Jesus must have had a good morning the day he climbed up on that mountain and began to preach the Sermon on the Mount. Two thousand years later, it's probably his most famous (and by many, most beloved) teaching sesh. Sure, the stuff about the mustard seed was pretty good, but we'll still take the Sermon on the Mount any day.
The Sermon on the Mount gets its name because (a) it's a sermon and (b) it takes place on a mountain. Simple enough, right? Luke actually has a similar section called "The Sermon on the Plain" (Luke 6:17-49), but it's obviously not as awesome. Come on—everyone knows mountains are a way better place to preach about God. Just ask Moses on Mount Sinai.
But the whole speech isn't just one long religious lecture. It's actually a bunch of mini teachings and ideas all rolled into one session. Sometimes Jesus is a bad English student and doesn't even use transitions, so you'll just have to imagine him saying, "Oh, and another thing…" between his points.
The teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are a little like Jesus's Greatest Hits. Here's the full track list (see how many you can sing along to):
Be prepared when you crack open this section of Matthew, because the Sermon on the Mount is pretty radical. Yes, we said radical. It's shocking, drastic, and extreme. Didn't think Jesus had it in him, did you?
Let's take a look at some of the things he says:
Think about these statements. They seem pretty extreme, don't they? Calling someone a name gets you sent to hell. Remarriage is adultery. Oh, and you should actually cut out your own eye.
What the heck is going on here?
Jesus's teachings here are aspirational to say the least. There aren't many of us who could really live up to everything in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus even sums up a whole section with the advice: "Be perfect."
Yeah, fat chance.
But does that mean we shouldn't try? No way. Matthew believes that the birth of Jesus has brought about a new world. The kingdom of heaven is coming and people best recognize. Part of that means behaving in a whole new way. That doesn't mean we should throw the old way (i.e., Torah law) out the window, though. Jesus just wants us to take it to the next level.
In each of his statements on what Jewish law says, Jesus both (a) affirms the law and then (b) requires believers to go above and beyond. For example: it's wrong to murder, right? Then, isn't it also wrong to get angry with someone? If anger can lead to murder, then shouldn't we try to shut that bad stuff down while we have the chance? Makes perfect sense…to God.
The Sermon on the Mount also overturns our expectations about the world. Take the Beatitudes for instance. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" (5:5). This is classic Matthew. And classic Jesus for that matter.
Here you have the meek. The lowly. The downtrodden. But one day, the whole earth is going to be theirs. That doesn't make any sense in what we know of the world. Generally the meeker get meeker and the stronger get stronger, right?
But the kingdom of heaven reverses our typical way of doing things. God is going to fix our problems and right all the wrongs. In fact, the people we think are going to come out ahead (the rich, the powerful, the mighty) are in for a pretty big shock come Judgment Day. The lowly, the poor, the sorrowful—well, let's just say God totally has their backs.
References to the Sermon on the Mount are everywhere:
The cross has become one of the most enduring and well-recognized Christian symbols throughout the world. You'd almost never guess that it started out as a way to kill people.
Imagine seeing a little girl with a pretty electric chair charm around her neck or watching your great aunt hang a decorative noose on her front door. That should give you an idea of how much the symbol of the cross has changed over the years. What was once an exceptionally cruel method of capital punishment has become a sign of hope and inspiration for billions.
The early Christians didn't focus much on the cross right after Jesus died—probably because they actually knew what death on a cross would have looked like. It wasn't a pretty sight.
Crucifixion was a particularity terrible and humiliating punishment used throughout the Roman Empire. A victim would be stripped naked, have nails pounded through their arms or feet (or both), be placed upright on the cross, and be left to die. Since the nails alone wouldn't kill you, the death was slow. Victims often died from starvation, suffocation, or shock, and depending on the method that was used, death could take hours or days. Not exactly something you want to imagine your Savior going through.
Unlike, say, John's Gospel, Matthew's Gospel is pretty big on the humiliation that goes down on the cross. Though Matthew accepts that the cross is a necessary part of Jesus's journey to God, he doesn't sugarcoat anything:
Finally, Jesus has had enough and he cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (27:46) and dies.
Nothing uplifting about that.
(Spoiler alert: Things start to look up a few days later.)
It's okay to admit: we all love getting presents. And these magi characters guys give some pretty good ones—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Trust us, these are more than just stocking-stuffers.
Why these gifts? Why not a nice gift card to Sandals 'R' Us? The answer: because gold, frankincense, and myrrh are gifts fit for a king.
Overall, it's a pretty sweet haul.
There's a lot of debate as to what the gifts mean. One theory, proposed by 2nd-century Christian writer, Origen, is that gold is for a king, frankincense honors a god, and myrrh represents death. All three are aspects of Jesus's story, so those could definitely fit.
Don't forget the irony of the wise men's gifts. Here we have three foreign, non-Jewish guys, who have traveled from afar on the hunch that something good is about to happen. They bring gifts and bow down to honor "the King of the Jews," while the actual Jews in the story (Herod and the power-hungry creeps in Jerusalem) are desperately trying to kill their messiah. Not exactly what God intended to happen.
Or is it?
The magi's awesome gift-giving abilities have inspired loads of writers and artists:
How do you go about ruining a lovely gesture like a kiss? Just ask Judas.
A "kiss of death" is basically something that seems okay on the surface but actually leads to your ruin. For example, it might not seem like a big deal when your friend comes up to you and kisses you on a lovely night in a garden. Happens all the time, right? Okay, maybe a little overly touchy-feely, but we're not worried.
Of course, when this happens to Jesus, it signals the end for him. Judas is giving him up to the authorities. And even though Jesus is embracing death, he's also a little hurt. After all, this sign of friendship has marked him as a dead man. And that, Shmoopers, is Irony 101.
We don't recommend trying the Kiss of Death at home. Instead, check out these incarnations all over pop culture:
The Gospel of Matthew is pretty tame when it comes to sex. We mean, come on—Mary doesn't even have to do the deed to conceive Jesus. But there is a bit of violence with the massacre of innocents courtesy of King Herod. A massacre is one thing, but little kids? That's a whole new level of brutality. It definitely makes Judas betraying Jesus and getting him arrested and killed pale in comparison. But at the same time, crucifixion is a torturous death, so tack that one onto the violence tally, too.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
With one of the most beloved Christ-figures in literature, C.S. Lewis's book gives us one lion of a metaphor depicting the ministry and passion of Jesus. Lewis also uses the Narnia cornerstone as a commentary on Christian virtues. But as a kid, it's easier to just focus on the adventure.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Hello Simon! Or should we say Jesus? Portraying another Christ-figure within a great work of literature, Lord of the Flies speaks volumes on the topic of human nature.
Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis
Now onto the comic relief. While the comic strip isn't heavily focused on religious themes, its title does come directly from Matthew 7:6.
"The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry
This short story shows how love is the greatest gift that can be given. And how the wise men basically invented Christmas presents.