And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:15)
Matthew was a Jew who wrote his gospel primarily for Jews.1 Unless you grasp that, you will fail to understand the depth of its message. You will certainly not understand the fullness of its teaching about how we can be saved through Jesus Christ.
Take for example the importance of works in our salvation. Paul tells us in his letters that we can only be saved by grace through faith,2 but Matthew clarifies that this is only true because our faith is placed in somebody else’s works. Or take the role of the Mosaic Law in our salvation. Paul tells us that we are justified by grace through faith and not by the Law,3 but Matthew clarifies that this is only true because our faith is placed in someone who has fully obeyed the Law of Moses. This teaching is left largely unpreached in many Bible-believing churches – so much so that you may even be shocked at the suggestion that works and Law are important for our salvation – but it is very important teaching. Matthew devotes a lot of his attention to it, and so should we.
Matthew is at great pains in his first few chapters to demonstrate that Jesus is the True-and-Perfect-Israel. His life mirrors the history of Israel, except that he walks perfectly along where others so often strayed. The very first verse of Matthew stresses that Jesus is the true seed of Abraham, the true Isaac who blesses all nations and whose offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.4 In 2:15 he is named as the true Son of God, the one prefigured by the nation of Israel in Exodus 4:22, Jeremiah 31:9 and Hosea 11:1. Matthew even supports this with a surprising quotation from Hosea to demonstrate that Jesus’ short time as a refugee in Egypt was a deliberate re-enactment of the years that Israel spent in slavery there. He survives a massacre of babies, which echoes the one inflicted on Israel by Pharaoh,5 and he is called out of Egypt just as God called out Israel at the time of the Exodus. All the while, Matthew is emphasizing that Jesus followed in Israel’s footsteps but walked perfectly wherever they failed.
In chapter 3 he is baptized in the River Jordan as Israel was baptized in the Red Sea,6 and in chapter 4 he spends forty sinless days in the desert to parallel Israel’s forty sinful years in the desert. Having finished this, he climbs up a hill to deliver the Sermon on the Mount as the New Covenant parallel to the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Some of this detail is exclusive to Matthew’s gospel because he wants us to grasp that Jesus is the True-and-Perfect-Israel.7
Matthew is also careful throughout his gospel to emphasize that Jesus fully obeyed the Mosaic Law, right down to its minutest requirement. He had no time for the “extra” rules of the Pharisees or for any other rules added to it by men,8 but he never disobeyed a single genuine command in the Law.9 In fact, he warned very clearly in 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Matthew is the only gospel writer to stress that Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan because of his perfect commitment to obey the Father and “to fulfill all righteousness”.10 He wants us to grasp that Jesus is the perfect and unblemished Keeper-of-the-Mosaic-Law.
Matthew preached salvation by grace through faith, just like the other apostles. He wants to clarify, though, for his Jewish readers, that this does not mean that the Old Covenant is ignored with the coming of the New, but that it is honoured and fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah. We are not saved because God has decided to look upon Jesus’ life, death and resurrection instead of the righteous requirements of the Mosaic Law. We are saved because Jesus fulfilled those requirements to the full, and because God counts his righteous obedience as if it were our own. As Paul writes in Romans 5:19, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” This is borne out by the teaching of the Old Testament, which tells us that we will be saved because “his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him”, and by the New where Jesus gives us the option of receiving “my reward” or else “I will give to everyone according to what he has done.”11Ultimately we are all saved or condemned by works and the Law. We are either condemned through our own failure to live up to them, or we are saved through our faith in Jesus who lived up to them for us.
This was very important for first-century Jews to hear, but it is also important for us to grasp too. It will save us from many of the errors we can fall into regarding the Gospel.
Many Christians remain riddled with guilt over their past or present sins, struggling to believe that God can sweep their sins under the carpet and forgive them for their actions. The reason they struggle to believe it is that they know instinctively that a just God simply cannot act that way. Matthew agrees with their conclusion, but then enlarges their understanding of the Gospel. God does not sweep their sin under the carpet at all. He placed their evil deeds on Christ when he crushed him to death at Calvary, and he places Christ’s righteous deeds on them so that all he sees through their faith is perfect Law-keeping and unblemished obedience. The Gospel is deep, wide and gloriously perfect. Ignoring the detail about how Christ has redeemed us is to make the Gospel less like the good news that it is.
Many non-Christians struggle at the point of conversion, because they have also failed to grasp the depth of the Gospel. My wife and I met with a non-Christian friend last night who had heard the Lord speaking to her and was on the brink of conversion. She spoke her mind freely and asked, “How can I become a Christian when I have slept with so many guys that I can’t even remember their names?” Later in the conversation she wondered “How can I commit my life to Jesus when I don’t think I could ever keep up the Christian life?” The message that she and many other non-Christians need to hear is the Gospel of Jesus’ righteous life. God can forgive her every sin and lead her by the hand every day of her new Christian life, because at the end of the evening when she prayed and asked for forgiveness she was not simply saved by grace through faith.
She was saved by grace through faith in the righteous works and perfect Law-keeping of the man Christ Jesus. Now that’s what I call Good News.
1 This is why he starts with a Jewish genealogy, quotes from the Old Testament at least thirty-five times, and uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” as a Hebrew way of saying “kingdom of God” without using the divine name.
2 Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 4:5-6, 16.
3 Romans 3:20-28; 4:13-14; Galatians 2:21; 5:4-5.
4 Genesis 12:2-3; 15:4-5; 22:16-18; 26:2-5; Galatians 3:16.
5 Exodus 1:15-22.
6 1 Corinthians 10:2.
7 Matthew even makes a link in 2:23 between Jesus coming from Nazareth and him being the fulfilment of the devout order of Nazirites, which included Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist among its number. He is probably quoting from Judges 13:5.
8 Matthew 12:1-14; 15:1-20; 23:1-7, 23-24.
9 Matthew 5:17-20; 8:4; 17:24-27; 18:16; 26:59-60.
10 Matthew 3:15. The other gospels do not include this comment.
11 Isaiah 62:11; Revelation 22:12.