While the Gospel is bookended by the story of the mysterious birth and miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ, the majority of Matthew concerns itself with the teachings and acts of Yeshua Bar Abbas. The writer of Matthew appears to have been addressing an audience which was familiar with Palestine and Jerusalem, and even if they didn’t live there, they still heard accounts of what went on there, and some may have retained memories of when the Temple was still standing. All the Gospels were written after the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, which is why they all “predict” these events.
Matthew contrasts the legends of the messianic contender Yeshua Bar Abbas with the pagan myths of the Risen Christ, and it’s through the teachings that we meet the itinerant preacher who spoke with authority, performed miracles, attracted large crowds, and lead his followers into Jerusalem to take over the Temple and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. We see the man whose followers believed was the Messiah, come to restore the monarchy and expel the Roman occupiers. We also learn of the factions in Jewish society competing for prominence, and Matthew makes it clear throughout who their adversaries were by way of the groups first John, then Yeshua condemns.
One of the most important of these teachings, the Sermon on the Mount, leads off this portion of the Gospel. It begins with Yeshua going up onto a mountain with his closest apostles. From there, he simply starts speaking. This harkens back to Jewish history and traditions, as Yahweh, the God of the ancient Israelites, started out as a thunder deity that inhabited a mountaintop. Moses delivered his pronouncements from a mountain, and it was on Mount Sinai where he received the Law.
The prophets of the Scriptures were men of the people who were often called upon to speak truth to power. Through the Beatitudes, Yeshua speaks to the oppressed masses yearning for deliverance from Roman rule. He isn’t speaking to his most rabid supporters, the ones willing to die for him, but to the so-called “silent majority” who went about their daily lives, trying to eek out a living among the volatility of the times in which they lived. He bestowed eight specific blessings:
- Those who are poor in spirit shall have the Kingdom of Heaven
- Those who morn shall be comforted
- The meek shall inherit the Earth
- Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness shall be satisfied
- Those who are merciful shall have mercy
- The pure in heart shall see God
- The peacemakers shall be called sons of God
- Those persecuted for righteousness sake shall inherit the Kingdom of Heaven
He then issues a blessing for his followers, stating that those who are reviled and persecuted and whose names are falsely accused in his name shall have great rewards in Heaven. He compares them to the prophets of old and counsels them to let their light shine in the world.
On the subject of the Law, Yeshua says:
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”Matthew 5:17-18 (RSV)
This would have had an ironic meaning to Matthew’s audience, who already knew the outcome of Yeshua’s activities. In fact, they were, quite possibly, a generation or more removed from the times Yeshua is referencing and most likely centered in Egypt, far from whatever remained of Jerusalem. They already knew that the Kingdom of Heaven promised by Yeshua was not in their past and most likely not in their immediate future. Just like their forebears, who lived through the Babylonian captivity, all they had was the Law and their traditions.
Pharisees and Sadducees
Matthew once again revisits the central conflict of his Gospel:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”Matthew 5:20
He elaborates further in the next chapter.
“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”Matthew 6:1-8
Instead, Yeshua gives his followers the “Lord’s Prayer” as it has come to be known. It references the anticipated Kingdom, and counsels those listening to forgive their debtors and to avoid temptation.
Just like John before him, Yeshua sets himself in opposition to the Temple authorities. This would have resonated with the congregation of expatriate Jews who no longer had a centralized location for their faith and may have viewed the former Temple officials as collaborators who worked against the establishment of the Messiah’s rule and sold out their people to the Romans in exchange for their authority.
Other Christian Factions
Finally, we have a veiled reference to an important opposing faction in Matthew’s time:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”Matthew 7:15
In Romans, Paul identified himself as being from the tribe of Benjamin who’s described in Genesis as a ravenous wolf. Matthew’s audience would have clearly understood the reference here. Paul also claimed he was a Pharisee, who along with the Sadducees are cast as villains in Matthew’s Gospel second only to the Romans. Contrary to later teachings, the “church” was never a unified entity in the first and second centuries but scattered sects with their own teachings and truths. Paul was only one of many voices and many disagreed with him. Paul himself alludes to the factionalism of the early church in his dealings with the Jerusalem church and, especially, the Gnostics.
Paul was chief among evangelists promoting a dying and resurrected savior. His epistles rarely mention the person of Yeshua, but rather the Christ, and he makes it clear that belief in the Risen Christ is all that’s required to get into heaven (1 Corinthians 15:14). Matthew, on the other hand, gives the very words of Yeshua and provides details of his life on Earth and activities leading up to his arrival in Jerusalem, where, ultimately, his mission culminates.
A major theme in early Christianity was the debate about whether faith alone or faith combined with deeds will find favor with God. Paul was clearly in the faith alone camp. Matthew seems intent on dispelling this notion, since Yeshua’s lessons counsel followers to be active in their faith, tending to the poor, and healing the sick. As we shall see, Yeshua very much leads by example.