The Gospel of Matthew and the Bridge

On Sunday we read Matthew 1:1-17 as one of the scripture readings. No doubt some of the people were wondering why I chose it. I was wondering why I didn’t ask someone else to read it! It is one of those passages that is full of long names tracing an even longer genealogy. It is hardly ever read in church and rarely makes anyone’s “favourite verses” list. So why did I choose it? Or better question, why did Matthew choose to begin his account of Jesus with it?

Some would think that Matthew gets off to a tedious and boring start. Wouldn’t the account of Jesus’ birth have made a much more riveting beginning? Except, as Matthew points out, you can’t begin a historical account of Jesus with the birth of Jesus. You need to go much further back than that. The history of Jesus is bound up with the history of all God’s people through the ages. In beginning his account of Jesus with the genealogy from Abraham on, Matthew may as well have said “insert the entire history of the God’s people here.” Jesus is intimately connected with all that has gone on before and all that has gone on before is intimately connected with Jesus.

When we look closely at Matthew, it is little wonder his Gospel comes first in the New Testament, for of all Gospels, Matthew is the most keen to point out the link between the Old and New Testaments, between the promises and prophecies God gave his people in the past and the fulfillment of them through Jesus. Matthew’s account of Jesus provides a bridge for God’s people to come to faith in God’s Messiah. We will see some examples of this shortly.

But first, who is Matthew and why should we listen to him? Those of us who are Christian will naturally point to the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures by the Holy Spirit, so we trust them even if we can’t positively identify the authors. The author behind the author is God. But even the non-believer has good reason to stop and consider Matthew’s account. Many tend to think that the Gospels were written so long after the events they describe that the Jesus they describe is a fabrication. However, we have good reasons to believe that Matthew, Mark, and Luke, at least, were written somewhere in the 50’s to 60’s, so only 20-30 years following the events of Jesus when plenty of eyewitnesses were still around to corroborate all that is written. In the case of Matthew we have no reason to believe that the records of the early Church are wrong in ascribing them to the disciple Matthew Levi. He was the tax collector that Jesus called to be one of the twelve close disciples. Therefore he was certainly close to the action and therefore an eyewitness to much he writes about.

So in what ways is an eyewitness showing us the bridge between God’s promises to His people and His fulfilment of them through Jesus? Let’s take a look at some examples of how Matthew’s account begins by building bridges to the Hebrew Scriptures. In addition to the genealogy, which itself confirms that Jesus is a proper decendant of King David, the first four mentions of Jesus all speak of him as “Messiah” which is God’s “anointed,” that is, the one prophesied in the Old Testament. Next, all through the account of Jesus’ birth we have the expression of “so it can be fulfilled” and then a quote from the Old Testament. This happens quite often, for example in 1:22;  2:15; 2:17,18; 2:23.

We want to be careful here to not get so wrapped up in the details that we miss the overall point. Yes there are individual prophecies that Jesus fulfills, but these point to the fact that Jesus is the grand fulfillment of the grand hope God had instilled in His people all throughout history. The promised Messiah is here and his name is Jesus! The promised salvation is here and it is through Jesus!

The Gospel also concludes in a way which builds bridges to the Old Testament:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

The mention of Jesus meeting the disciples on the mountain is another important reference to the Old Testament, for it was upon a mountain that Moses received the law. Now One greater than Moses is here: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore . . . teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded.” It is significant that Jesus points to his own teaching while on the mountain, and not the law.

Another reference to the Old Testament within these concluding words of Jesus is “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Here we are to think back to Abraham where the nation of Israel had its beginning:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

Remembering that Matthew begins his Gospel account with a genealogy that starts with Abraham, we are meant to see here that the grand story which begins with a promise of blessing for all the nations finds its conclusion, or rather a new beginning with Jesus. It is in Jesus that the promise is kept. It is in Jesus that all nations can now find blessing.

But Jesus’ words on the mountain point us even further back in the Hebrew Scriptures than Abraham: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This takes us right back to Genesis chapters one and two when God dwelled with Adam and Eve in perfect relationship. But whereas we can speak of God dwelling with Adam and Eve at the first, in chapter three we see Adam and Eve no longer dwelling with God, being barred from the Garden as a consequence of their sin.

The Hebrew Scriptures go on to relate how through history there was some question as to whether God was with them or not. The tabernacle, and later temple, both pointed to God’s presence, yet also God’s distance. The tabernacle was right among the people, yet only a few could get near and only through a lot of rigmarole of ritual cleansing. Through the temple God was symbolically saying “I want to dwell with you, be with you, and be your God, but I am holy and you are not so I can’t really.” But Jesus says “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” With God all things are possible including getting us from a Genesis three sin conundrum to a Revelation twenty-one salvation solution:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them. Revelation 21:3

Jesus not only fulfills Old Testament prophecies, he also is the solution to Old Testament problems, or rather the sin problem plaguing all of humanity, but revealed to us in the Hebrew Scriptures.

By now I hope you get the point that Matthew was writing to help the person whose hopes were pinned on the God of Israel, to now pin their hopes on Jesus. But more than that, Matthew was writing for anyone who knows that humanity needs help. By pointing back to the Hebrew Scriptures Matthew is telling anyone and everyone that God has been working all along to reestablish his relationship with humanity – and through Jesus your are invited into relationship with God. While the book of Matthew is a bridge between the Old and New Testaments, it points far beyond itself, to One who is a true bridge. The bridge is not a new way of doing religion, the bridge is a person, Jesus Christ. If Matthew is a bridge helping us get from Old Testament hopes hopes to New Testament realities, Jesus is the bridge getting us from Genesis 3 problems to Revelation 21-22 possibilities, from sin to salvation. Is there a bridge you need to cross?

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

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The Gospel of Mark and the Essential Question

Who is Jesus? Your answer to that has huge implications for how you will live your life, and all the decisions, both big and little, you make along the way. It will also have an effect on what comes next after this life, but more on that later. For now as we dig into the Gospels of the New Testament we want to recognize the central question of the gospel of Mark. Who is Jesus? This question of identity is fundamental to Mark’s Gospel. In a Facebook challenge last year I was asked to list my favourite scriptures over the space of ten days. On one day I listed the entire Gospel of Mark as a favourite scripture passage, for while we tend to read the Bible in small chunks, the whole of Mark belongs together. It is the shortest of the Gospels and as such gives us “the Essential Jesus.”

But how does Mark even know who Jesus is? Why should we listen? The Christian believers among us will appeal to his writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But there are reasons even the unbeliever should pay attention to what Mark has to say. From the writings of early church fathers we have good reason to recognize Mark as John Mark mentioned in the New Testament, and as a companion to Peter the disciple. Mark is said to have brought together his Gospel based on the preaching of Peter. Therefore what we have in Mark is not something cooked up a century after the facts, but an account based on eyewitness testimony. So the question is therefore not even, “who is Jesus according to Mark,” it is “who is Jesus according to people who were there and knew him?”

So who is Jesus according to the eyewitnesses? What are the earliest conclusions drawn about the identity of Jesus? Let’s look and see some examples of how the Gospel of Mark spells this out:

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:1-3)

Straight off we are made aware of Jesus being the Son of God, but even more profound is the reference to a prophecy from Isaiah 40:3. John the Baptist in just a few verses says “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” (Mark 1:7) The inference from Isaiah 40 is that Jesus is not merely a prophet, nor merely even the Messiah, but rather God Himself. Isaiah 40:3 explicitly refers to God by name. Furthermore, who can baptize with the Holy Spirit but God Himself? “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)

Next is a voice at the baptism of Jesus: “And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11)

Next is an unclean Spirit: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24)

Next is the questioning of the religious leaders: “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone” (Mark 2:7) And then a miracle by Jesus to show that he can back up his authority to forgive with authority to heal.

Next are the reports of what people are concluding about Jesus:

When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons. (Mark 3:21-22)

Next is the questioning of the disciples at the stilling of a storm: “And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”(Mark 4:41 NRSV)

Next is the confession of a man possessed by a legion of demons: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” (Mark 5:7 NRSV)

By now I am sure you are getting the point of how Mark time and again brings us back to consider the identity of Jesus. Next up is an important confession right in the middle of the Gospel:

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27-30)

There are other examples from the following chapters but let us skip forward to what happens following Jesus’ arrest:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
62 Jesus said, “I am; and
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven. ’”
63 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 64 You have heard his blasphemy
(Mark 14:61-64 NRSV)

Here Jesus is speaking of his own identity and is pointing to himself as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Daniel 7 where the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of God’s Messiah who will reign forever.

And finally, we have the identity of Jesus spoken of by the Roman centurion: “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” (Mark 15:39) The fact should not be lost on us that the centurion stood for the authority of Rome and that he ultimately took his orders from the emperor. But here he witnesses the death of One greater than the emperor.

So why does it all matter? Why does Mark have us wrestle with the question “who is Jesus?” Let us go back to the beginning: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Jesus was good news to all who met him. You could see that among those who experienced the wisdom of his teaching, and of course the benefits of his miracles. But that good news points us to an even Better News. Early in the book Mark gives us a summary statement of what Jesus was doing:

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)

While being healed is good news, being offered a vital connection with God is Good News. God has come to us, which normally should be a terrifying event for sinners like us. But instead of coming to condemn, He has come to forgive and offer salvation. The Kingdom is coming and the Good News is that though we deserve to be rounded up as enemies of the Kingdom, we are welcome instead to be a part of it. Repentance is the way of accepting this offer.

Having considered the first verse, let us now look to the last. According to most Bible scholars Mark has an unusual ending at Mark 16:8 where we find the response of the women to the empty tomb: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8 NRSV) Yes, there are other verses following this one in most Bibles, but if you follow the footnotes you will see that they are probably added later. Many a snake handler in certain churches would have been been wise to check the footnotes and have some respect for Biblical scholarship.

So why does Mark end his account with fear? Actually it is better to say that he does not end his account at all, but rather leaves the ending quite open. Will the women be filled with terror so that they will never speak up about Jesus? Or will they recognize that the death and resurrection is evidence of really good news? The point is, once you grasp the identity of Jesus, and the gravity of that identification, then it is up to you whether the Gospel ends with fear or rejoicing. If Jesus were to return tonight would that be good news to you? Your answer to that will depend on your response to Mark’s question: “who is Jesus?”

The Gospels. How Do We Know They Are True?

How do we know any of it is true? Why bother reading the Bible? In our church family we are encouraging the reading of the Gospels over the season of Lent. We will be reading all of the Gospel of Mark, all of the Gospel of John, and parts of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (A reading schedule is available at calvarybaptistcobourg.com). Why bother committing to such reading? How do we know the stories about Jesus and his teachings in these Gospels are not just fairy tales made up by the disciples?

So how do we know? Consider John 15:26,27:

26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27 ESV)

These two verses point us to two answers.

First, we have the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. In verse 26 Jesus says that “the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” This inner testimony from the Holy Spirit can come rather like an intuition but it can also come along as strong feelings, like sorrow and regret or of joy and belonging. This is not just testimony that indeed there is a God, this is testimony that the God Who is wants to have a relationship with us:

14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. (Romans 8:14-16)

This testimony of the Holy Spirit is to the reality and love of Jesus, but also to the truth of the scriptures.

Jesus was real to me long before I knew there was any evidence for the truth of Christianity which brings us to the second way we know the Gospels are true. We have the historical record, we have the testimony of eyewitnesses: “you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” (v.27) Keep in mind that here Jesus is speaking specifically to the disciples, that they are to become eyewitnesses of the facts about who Jesus is, what he said, what he did, how he died, and how he was raised to life again. Because of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit we do not need evidence to believe, but when something is true we can and should expect the evidence to point in that same direction. We have this evidence through the disciples who were eyewitnesses. We have their genuine testimony preserved for us in the Gospels.

2 Timothy 3:16 points out an interesting fact about the works that make up the Bible:

16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Saying that scripture is inspired by God is different than saying scripture is written by God. God is to scripture what the flute player is to music. The music that comes from the flute will be according to the desires of the flutist, but the flutist very much wants to use the flute. There is no scripture without God, and it is exactly as he has planned it to be. Yet there is no scripture without some very genuine flesh-and-blood people involved also. While the testimony of the Holy Spirit may convince us of the truths of scripture as we read, the fact that flesh and blood humans were involved as eyewitnesses points us to some evidence quite outside ourselves.

There are a few things for us to note:

  • The Gospels were written by eyewitnesses or people intimately connected with the eyewitnesses of Jesus. It is interesting and instructive that we do not have just one Gospel written by one person, or even one written by Jesus. Instead we have multiple witnesses. This is not one person attempting to get a new religion going as we often see in cults. Instead the early Christian movement is many people responding to what they saw in and through Jesus. Experiencing the risen Jesus caused many people to recognize the gravity of all the facts around Him. The Gospels were written to get those facts down. This makes better sense than the theory that someone or a group of people tried to turn Jesus into something greater than he actually was.
  • The Gospels preserve the eyewitness accounts of genuine eyewitnesses. Slight discrepancies between the Gospels on minor matters can be a source of stress for those who see the inerrancy of scripture as meaning that God should inspire out and iron out every such thing. However, these slight discrepancies do point to the genuine nature of the Gospels as coming from eyewitnesses to genuine events. The inerrancy of scripture means that the Bible is exactly the way it needs to be do reveal to us exactly what God wants to reveal. That there might be differences, take for example the manner in which the death of Judas occurred, makes no difference to God’s revelation of fundamental truths. That the accounts are not exactly the same demonstrate that the accounts are genuine for it is human nature to remember the important bits of what we experience with greater clarity than the details.
  • The Gospels were written quite closely to the events they desrcibe as a means to preserve the eyewitness accounts. If the Gospels were written even one hundred years following the events they describe and there was not already a coherent Christian movement you might be able to make a case for them being written in an effort to help create yet another new man-made religion. But they are dated much earlier to the events they describe, some scholars putting them as close as within thirty to forty years after. This would put them at about the time people realized they had better start writing things down before the eyewitnesses all passed away. They were written at a time all the facts could still be checked. And they were written after the movement had already gained steam. They were written to preserve, not fabricate.

As we consider the truth of the Gospels, we should not be surprised by efforts to discredit the Gospels and the eyewitnesses that stand behind them. If it is true that Jesus rose from the dead, then it is also true that he died that our sins might be forgiven. And if it is true that he died that our sins can be forgiven, then it is also true that we have a sin problem in the first place. Therein lies the problem for many people. It is not just about confessing interesting facts from history. It is rather confessing a fact about ourselves; we have a sin-against-our-Creator problem and we need help.

Some people are interested in Jesus the way an hobbyist might be interested in airplanes or cars. I can tell you many interesting (to me) facts about airplanes and motorcycles, but they do not change my life one bit. Facts about Jesus, however, are life changing. I remember not wanting to wear glasses and so I refused to admit that I needed them. In grade six I needed to squint to see what was written on the blackboard. By grade eight it seemed I needed to squint to be able to see that there was a blackboard. When I first wore my glasses I felt embarrassed and worried about the names I might be called. But I also saw clearly for the first time in years and wondered why I had waited so long. Those who may be embarrassed at the thought of becoming a Christian, once they do so will wonder they didn’t do so earlier. That I need glasses is a life-changing fact, and the glasses themselves have been life changing. Sin is a life changing fact and Jesus Himself is life-changing.

So as we read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, how do we know they are true? And how do we know that the Good News, the Gospel itself is true? We know it by the testimony of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds, and by the compelling testimony of credible witnesses in history. And how can I know I am loved and forgiven by God? The evidence of God’s love is in Jesus, His death and resurrection. The Holy Spirit and the eyewitness accounts stand as witnesses to that love.

Next week we will be looking more closely at the Gospel of Mark.

——

For a much better discussion of the eyewitness testimony to Jesus, please see this book.

(All scripture references are taken from the NRSV unless noted otherwise.)