In this lengthiest of Gospels (28 chapters), we learn how the early Christians connected the movement of Christianity back to the first-century Palestinian Jew called Jesus of Nazareth. It shows a Jesus, probably originally for an audience of early Christians who were Jewish, who has come to fulfill the Old Testament Law, prophecies and covenant, but also to bring the Good News to all peoples. And it gives the reader a guidebook on Jesus’ teachings for how to live as a Christian.
On its face, the Gospel reads like a biography of Jesus’ life and teachings. Some say that there are five sections or “books” of stories, each followed by sermons and teaching. All this is meant to echo the five principal books of the Torah revered by Jesus’ contemporaries. This does not include the finale – the passion, death, and resurrection story.
Matthew opens with Jesus’ genealogy, starting from Abraham— showing Jesus to be special before he’s even a glimmer in the eye of his earthly mother. The first three chapters describe his infancy, including a visit from the foreign Magi— showing him to be special for all nations. These chapters also include the story of Herod’s order of the massacre of children (the so-called -Holy Innocents) to root out Jesus, and his family’s flight to and return from Egypt— paralleling Jesus’ Jewish ancestors’ escape from slavery to the Promised Land.
In the remaining chapters, readers follow Jesus’ ministry through his native Galilee (chap. 8 and on) to his rejection in his own hometown (13:54) to the feeding of the thousands (15:32 and on) to his transfiguration on the mountain (chap. 17), to ministry in Judea and Jerusalem (chap.19 and on) to his passion, death and resurrection (chap. 26–28). The reader glimpses Jesus in a number of roles: as proclaimer of the kingdom of God; as teacher of morality; as healer of sick and possessed; and as Son of God proclaimed by people and natural forces alike. He is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy who transforms that tradition, brings the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles.
Though the Gospel of Matthew is the first book in the New Testament, it is probably not the oldest book, or even the oldest gospel. Scholars think the book was written in ancient Syria or Caesarea Maritima using lots of material from the Gospel of Mark (written 64-69 A.D.) but in a more fleshed-out way. Matthew also seems to share some of its material with Luke’s gospel— scholars surmise the two had a common source they call “Q” (no relation to the Star Trek NextGen character). Matthew was probably composed between 80 and 90 A.D. (about half a century after Jesus died and rose). It was written for a church in strife, after the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem.