Overview of Matthew 1-4

This is the first (of seven) brief overviews from a study I’m leading at my church on Matthew’s gospel.  It is a literary analysis that focuses on how the story is put together, while still touching on individual passages at times.  This is a summary of the first four chapters of Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew’s gospel begins with Jesus’ ancestry (1.1-17), which connects him with the entire scope of Jewish history through the three sets of fourteen generations, each of which relate to a specific context (patriarchs in verse 2-6, monarchy in verses 7-11 and the exilic/post-exilic in verses 12-16).  This is followed by an account of Jesus’ birth (1.18-25), which is really more about Joseph’s reaction and God’s influence (not control) of the course of events.  Jesus’ actual birth is a passing comment in verse 25, and, as my wife pointed out to me in an Advent sermon on this text, it is Joseph’s naming of Jesus that makes him the adopted son of Joseph and is then connected to the Davidic lineage.

Next comes a threat to Jesus’ life from the political leadership of the day (2.1-18), causing Jesus’ family to take refuge in Pharaoh’s Egypt (like Moses whose life is spared from a political leader who feels threatened by the birth of too many Hebrew boys by being taken in by Pharaoh’s daughter in Exodus 2).  After Herod dies, Jesus and his family make an exodus from Egypt that recalls the Exodus of the Jews (2.19-23), and they experience a deliverance/liberation through water (3.1-17)–baptism for Jesus; Sea of Reeds for the Jews.  It is in proximity to this water scene that both the Jews (Ex 4.22) and Jesus (3.17) receive their title/calling as “children of God” (a functional term that denotes a person, group or entity said to represent and embody God’s will in the world; cf. 2 Sam 7.14; Ex 4.22; Ps 2).

Jesus then journeys out into the wilderness (4.1-11), like the Jews who have just left Egypt, and he fasts for forty days and forty nights (4.2), like Moses on Mount Sinai when he receives torah (Ex 19ff).  After the period of fasting, Jesus  faces three temptations to turn from his calling as “child of God” (4.3-11), which recalls the temptations faced by the Jews during their journey to the land of Canaan.  Having remained faithful to his covenant commitment with God in the wilderness, Jesus returns to begin imparting God’s wisdom and instructions (4.12-17), like Moses coming back down the mountain to share God’s torah.

When you consider the narrative progression of Matthew 1-4–beginning with Jesus’ genealogy and culminating in the wilderness fasting/temptation and return to proclaim God’s kingdom–what you discover is a retelling (and reliving) of the history of the Hebrew people.  The genealogy reaches back to Abram’s calling and culminates with Jesus’ birth, connecting Jesus to all of Hebrew history.  The threat to Jesus’ life recalls the threat to Moses’ life, and both find safety in Egypt.  Jesus’ baptism recalls the Exodus event and his journey into the wilderness recalls the wilderness wandering.  The essential difference is that Jesus remains completely faithful to God’s grace-given covenant, to his calling as “son or child of God,” while the Hebrews before him had faltered at times.  Thus, there is a genesis (compare the Greek text of Mt 1.1 with the LXX text of Gen 2.4; 5.1), a new beginning with the birth of Jesus that shapes the destiny of humanity.  There is also a new exodus, a new birth into freedom from all that oppresses and enslaves us.

The opening four chapters prepare the reader for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the first collection of his teachings in chapters 5-7 (“Sermon on the Mount”), in which Jesus offers up a vision of the kind of life that God desires—a way of living that makes us fully and truly human, an ethic that shows us what it means to embrace the image and likeness of God in which we were formed.

Jesus has been baptized and has received his calling as “child of God;” he has gone into the wilderness and triumphed over temptations (recalling the Hebrews in the wilderness); and he has received wisdom/instruction from God (recalling Moses going up Mt. Sinai to receive torah).  Now he returns from the wilderness (he comes back down the mountain–to draw upon the Moses imagery) ready to call his first disciples (4.18-22) and teach them to embody the “higher righteousness” (the true intent and application of torah) in the “Sermon on the Mount.”

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