The Fundamental Thought and Purpose of the Gospel of Matthew - Part 2

Translated from the Introduction to Prof, Robert Kübel’s Exegetisch-homiletischez Handbuch sum Evangelium des Matthäus.1

By H. B. Hutchins.

Taken from THE BIBLICAL WORLD - April 1893


2. The result of the data thus collected as bearing upon the question of the fundamental thought and purpose of this gospel may be stated as follows: It presents Jesus to us as the Christ, who brings in the kingdom of heaven. The wretched are drawn to him, and especially the poor people of Israel, who are as sheep without a shepherd. But Israel, through the influence of the Pharisees, the leaders of the time, is prevented from coming to him. Hence, the throwing open of the kingdom of heaven to the wretched involves Jesus in bitterest conflict with the Pharisees, a conflict which he opens in the very beginning with the sermon on the mount, and which, indeed, in the end, costs him a felon’s death on the cross. But out of this bitter labor of the Servant of God, there come not only Christ’s own victorious resurrection and exaltation to the lordship of the world (xxviii. i8), as he himself will Anally demonstrate in his Parousia, but also the New Testament church and the salvation of the world. Matthew shows, however, that this Jesus really is the Christ, because in his person, in his teaching and work, in his end, everything has been realized which, according to the Old Testament, is to be expected of the Christ. It is realized in his person, because, as is already indicated by his descent, birth, etc., he is the promised son of David, and he is at every turn constantly more clearly and decisively recognized and acknowledged as “ Son of God.” It is realized in his teaching and work, because his work is that of the Isaianic Servant of God, the shepherd who cares for the flock of God ; this is the act of the “righteous man” (xxvii. 19, 24), who fulfills all righteousness, who himself most carefully obeys the will of God, but —quite different from the Pharisees—lays an easy yoke on his disciples. His teaching, also, is that of the true “righteousness,” the teaching of the kingdom of heaven, into which men enter through the forsaking of sin and the denial of self and the world, and as citizens of which they bear the cross in following Christ, receiving, however, in return, the glorious “ reward in heaven.” Lastly, it is realized in his end, because in it the fulfillment of the “ Scriptures ” comes out with perfect clearness. In his death the ransom is paid for the many. In the New Testament blood of the passover a new covenant is established ; the closed sanctuary is opened ; the righteous dead of the Old Testament who await redemption are waked to life. Furthermore, a fulfillment of the law and the prophets is given, in which positive and negative are conjoined. The higher view demanded by the old itself is re-established, the divine kingdom of the Son of Man. According to his idea this is an all-embracing kingdom (viii. 11), and although for his earthly task as teacher, Jesus limited himself to the territory of Israel, yet all who hunger and thirst are invited to enter. Indeed, since Israel despises this invitation, the kingdom of God passes over from Israel to the Gentiles, and the departing Lord gives command that all nations be made his disciples. And this passing over of the kingdom to the Gentiles becomes final with the judgment upon Jerusalem, and it is precisely to the significance of this critical epoch that Matthew refers with special emphasis. But with this epoch also, the transition is made to the time of the fulfillment, to the Parousia, I and the setting up of the kingdom of glory. But the kingdom of the spirit brought by Christ is not universal in the sense that there is not to be a great distinction among its “called,” only a few of whom, as “chosen,” really belong to it as citizens and heirs. The New Testament church is a peculiar union of brethren, with strict discipline over one another, and with the word of pardon, which is a word of “ binding” as well as of “ loosing.” Tares and wheat are commingled, but at last they will be completely separated, and hence the most important duty is seriously to prepare oneself for this final crisis. In short, the purpose of this gospel is in the critical period of the final passing over of the kingdom of God from the Jews to the Gentiles, and in expectation of the consummation of the kingdom, to present Jesus as the Christ whom the Jews have wrongfully rejected, and who therefore justly gives them over to judgment and turns to the Gentiles with the offer of salvation—the salvation which he, as the promised Messiah and Servant of God, has wrought out by his teaching, by his labor on behalf of men, by his suffering, by his resurrection, and which he will perfect when he comes again in the glory of his kingdom—the salvation which is offered in his community to all the wretched, but which, as it is ethical in its results, must exhibit itself in the practice of the “ righteousness ” which belongs to it.

3. Is the definition of the purpose which has been given to be somewhat more specialized or modified ? Or must we assume, besides the chief purpose described, still another secondary purpose, suggested by what the gospel perhaps intimates in reference to a special circle of readers to which it is addressed ? From what has been said already, it is evident that the author is a Jewish Christian. He is not, however, a Jewish Christian in the technical sense of a narrow-minded, particularistic, and dogmatically conceived Judaism, but, partly in the sense of being related to Israel by virtue of descent, as well as by his manner of thought and expression; partly in the sense of having a preponderating interest in the question of the relation of the New Testament to the Old, and in the recognition of Jesus as the Christ, etc. If the author was an apostle, he surely belonged to the "apostles of the circumcision,” who labored chiefly, at all events, for the circumcision. But, granting that, is this gospel intended chiefly or solely for the circumcision ? Are the readers also Jewish Christians ? And if such is the case, must we assume that he has particularly in mind a special circle of Jewish Christians (Palestinians, perhaps) without, however, excluding the rest of the circumcision. We can answer the first question in the affirmative, if we do not mean that the author intends to write only for the Jews, with express exclusion of the Gentiles. The example of Paul on the one side, and of Peter and John on the other, shows that the division of the field of labor (Gal. ii. 6-10) was not in general intended to be so sharply made. And if this gospel lays especial stress on the proof that Jesus is the Christ, that was a subject quite as interesting to the Gentile Christians as to the Jewish Christians. And, even in those New Testament writings which have Gentile Christians as their chief or only readers, the greatest importance is attached to the question of the relation of the New Testament to the Old. Moreover, if the author, as has been shown, writes in the time of the passing over of the kingdom of God from the Jews to the Gentiles, and represents this event as taking place through the righteousness of God and in virtue of the express words of Jesus, then along with this idea he has in view eo ipso a Christianity in which the circumcision more and more ceases to be a special sphere shut off from the rest. In such a Christianity the congregations from among the Jews, in so far as they do not wilfully exclude themselves by becoming more and more sectarian, must gradually coalesce with the congregations from among the Gentiles. Therefore, Matthew can by no means have intended to write for the Jewish Christians in the sense of excluding the Gentile Christians. He writes for the entire Christian world. But since he is himself a Jew, it is self-evident that he has in mind the circle to which he himself belongs, as the circle which will be the nearest and the immediate readers of the gospel. We cannot, it is true, from any single direct indication in the gospel itself, learn to whom the author has especially directed his writing. The case is entirely different, not only with Luke, but also, to a certain extent, with John (xx. 31). But the view that he writes, in the first instance, for Jewish Christians, is sustained by indirect proofs contained in the entire method of the gospel as hitherto presented. The genealogy traced from Abraham, the conflict with the Pharisees, etc., were more important for Jewish Christians than for Gentile Christians. In the thought of the author himself, however, this is important for the Jewish Christian readers, not in the sense of any gratification of national pride, but in the entirely reverse sense of the contest with Judaism, understanding his word in what, for brevity, may be called the anti - Pauline sense. The presentation of this conflict is not, to be sure, his special purpose in the composition of this gospel; but the emphasis on the positive side of the fulfllment of the law and the prophets through Christ (v. 17 ff.) as well as the reference to its negative side, particularly again in the matter of the passing over of the kingdom of God from the Jews to the Gentiles, becomes intelligible, if we recognize that, together with his chief purpose, he intends also to combat narrowly Jewish conceptions within Christianity itself. The particular opponent whom Matthew attacks is, to be sure, Pharisaic Judaism itself as it placed itself in opposition to Christianity from without. But in so far as Pharisaism in the form of Judaism made itself felt on Christian soil, this also is attacked by such opposition. By this we do. not mean that such polemic is the peculiar purpose of this gospel. It bears none of the marks of a polemic tendency-writing (tendenzschrift''), or, indeed, of a ' tendemschrift' of any kind. But the manner and the method of the author’s treatment of the work of Jesus, the manner of his selection from and his formation of the discourses of Jesus Christ, etc., show that he is a man whose writing without any effort or intention on his part is necessarily though incidentally influenced by this conflict.

But the immediate circle of readers addressed by this gospel —and this brings uS to the second question—might be conceived of still more definitely, and in this way there be discovered another aim, secondary, indeed, but not unimportant in its bearing on the character of the gospel and the date of its composition. Are the Jewish Christians, of whom as readers the author is in the first instance thinking, to be looked for especially in Palestine ? So the church fathers for the most part assume. The fact that the author “ does not explain Old Testament and Palestinian allusions”—cf. e. g. Matt. xv. 2 with Mark vii. 3f, the failure to explain the term, “holy city,” iv. 5, xxvii. 53, etc.— does not necessitate our answering this question in the affirmative, for this was not necessary for Jewish Christians, and besides, there is an opposing consideration in the interpretation of Hebrew names and words (i. 23; xxvii. 33-46) which proves—as does also, perhaps, the peculiar relation of this gospel to the LXX. — that the Hellenists are by no means to be thought of as excluded from consideration. For the contrary position we can adduce Matt. xxiv. 15-20. To be sure, Mark xv. 14-18 agrees with this almost word for word, and, according to our conviction, we have here a truly reported speech of Jesus. Hence, the purpose contained in the passage must be regarded as the purpose of Jesus himself, and the reason why this discourse is reported so accurately (cf. on the contrary, Luke xxi. 2off.) must be regarded as common to both the evangelists. Indeed both, by the phrase " Let him that readeth understand,” call especial attention to the matter. However, the report of Matthew does differ, as has already been said, from that of Mark by its use of the expression " in the holy place,” and especially, “on the Sabbath” (20); in addition Mark lacks (14) “spoken of by Daniel the prophet.” Matthew therefore keeps more specially in view the subject under discussion. Now, in this passage the point is, that the inhabitants of Judaea—the expression is entirely general, therefore it means not merely the Palestinian Christians—when they see the abomination of desolation shall flee forthwith. And the injunction, “ Let him that readeth understand,” to which we supply as the object of “readeth,” not the words of Daniel, but the words of Jesus, has— not exclusively, but yet in a measure—the sense: “Take heed to what you have read ; if it comes soon, then follow this summons, etc.” If this view is correct, the author is thinking especially of the Palestinians, for only for them, viz., “those in Judaea,” had the emphasizing of this injunction any meaning. Therefore, we shall be obliged to answer our question in the affirmative, in that we distinguish three circles of readers of whom the author is thinking. The widest circle is composed of Christians in general; the more limited circle is that of the Jewish Christians; the narrowest is that of the Jewish Christians in Palestine (in a certain sense also, the Jews). It is self-evident that these concentric circles are not mutually exclusive, but at special points the narrower and the narrowest circles become prominent as the ones who are immediately addressed. And if we consider what has just been said, together with the remarks before made in regard to the special purpose as determined by the conditions of the time, we discover this also, as a special secondary purpose, viz: To give to the Jews instruction and warning for the time of judgment closely impending over Jerusalem and Judaea.