The Structure of Matthew's Gospel

St. Matthew built an interesting structure into his gospel, overall. There's a prologue and an epilogue, bookending five separate sections. These five separate sections are almost universally understood to remind the reader of the five books of Torah. It is very clear that Matthew wrote with a Jewish readership in mind; his main theme was to show how God transformed the Old Covenant into something new, ushering in the new age of the Messiah. Everything in his gospel references the Old Testament, as we shall now see.

The Gospel begins with a prologue, often called The Infancy Narrative (chapters 1 & 2). The final chapters of the Gospel (26, 27 & 28) are often called The Passion Narrative. These bookends explain the coming of the Messiah and why He came: to save us from our sins. In between these bookends are the details, specifically describing the transformation of the Old Covenant into the new, of the Temple into the Church, of the People of Israel into the People of God. These details are divided into five books, each of which begins with a narrative, then ends with a lengthy discourse of Jesus. Each discourse concludes with a common phrase: “And when Jesus finished these [sayings]…”

Book One – The New Covenant
Narrative: The Beginning of Jesus’ Public Ministry (ch 3-4)
Discourse: The Sermon on the Mount (ch 5-7)

Book Two – Witness to the New Covenant
Narrative: The Miracles of Jesus (ch 8-9)
Discourse: The Mission of the Twelve Apostles (ch 10)

Book Three – Judgement on the Old Covenant
Narrative: Jesus Curses the Pharisees (ch 11-12)
Discourse: The Parables (ch 13)

Book Four – Purpose of the New Covenant
Narrative: The Call of the Church (ch 14-17)
Discourse: The Call to Mercy (ch 18)

Book Five – Transformation from Old to New
Narrative: Judgment on the Temple and Jerusalem (ch 19-23)
Discourse: The End of the Old Covenant (ch 24-25)

Now let’s review each of these five books.

Book One – The New Covenant

Narrative: The Beginning of Jesus’ Public Ministry (ch 3-4)

The narrative portion tells us of St. John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. It is followed by Jesus’ 40 day temptation in the wilderness. We can compare with the Exodus narrative, when Israel passed through the Red Sea, then wandered in the wilderness for forty years. This section ends with the call of the twelve Apostles, reminding us of Israel’s twelve tribes. We are reminded here of Israel under Moses, when God gave His Law to Israel on Mt. Sinai. It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus (the new Moses) gave the New Law also on a mountain: the discourse portion in this first book is the famous Sermon on the Mount. (We can also note how the Temptation in the Wilderness reminds us of The Fall in Eden; see this essay.)

Discourse: The Sermon on the Mount (ch 5-7)

This discourse begins with the Beatitudes, those nine blessings granted to the faithful Christian. Compare with Moses who also offered blessings, if and only if Israel obeyed the Law; he also offered curses should Israel fail to obey the Law (Dt 28). In the New Covenant, there are only blessings. Jesus’ sermon was essentially a commentary on the old Law, renewing it and clarifying it. Everything He mentioned was based on precepts of the Old Covenant Law. We further note the audience of Jesus’ discourse; it was to all people. Jesus was announcing the New Covenant to the world, and explaining the new Law; we infer from this that that the Chosen One’s are now all people. By tradition, we believe this discourse took place on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, located in Samaria; the audience was likely comprised of Samaritans, that is, not Jews.

As noted earlier, this discourse (and the first book) ends with the phrase, “And when Jesus finished these sayings,…” (Mt 7:28). Compare with Dt 32:45, when Moses completed his lengthy discourse to Israel, just before they entered the Promised Land: “And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel,…”

Book Two – Witness to the New Covenant

Narrative: The Miracles of Jesus (ch 8-9)

Jesus has now announced the New Covenant to the world. But for the Jew, such an announcement demanded a witness. This second book declares such witness under the guise of miracles. That is the purpose of miracles, of healings and the like: to bear witness to God. Furthermore, as we saw in another essay, the particular miracles here are not just random wonderworks, but specific proofs from a Jewish point of view that Jesus was God Himself. They refer back to the purity laws of Leviticus. Again, we are reminded of Torah.

At the end of this narrative, Jesus comments that the people following him “are like sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36); therefore laborers are needed, i.e. shepherds. Jesus begins His second discourse to His shepherds/laborers – the twelve Apostles. Let’s compare with the story of Joshua. In Numbers, after the forty years journey ended, God took Moses up a mountain to show him the Promised Land. God had already told Moses he would die before Israel entered the Promised Land. Moses, therefore, asked God to commission another shepherd of Israel to replace him; God chose Joshua (which is the Hebrew form of the name Jesus.)

15 Moses said to the LORD, 16 "Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, 17 who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in; that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep which have no shepherd." (Num 27:15-17)

We see here the source of Jesus’ comment. It was Joshua who led the twelve tribes of Israel into the Promised Land, crossing over the Jordan River which ‘parted’ for them as the Red Sea had done of old. One man from each of the twelve tribes set a stone in the river; the resulting twelve stones became a memorial to this sacred and miraculous event, wherein the geographic nation of Israel began. In the same way, Jesus (Heb: Joshua) chose twelve men whom he ultimately sent out to baptize, creating ‘living stones’ (1 Pet 2:5).

Discourse: The Mission of the Twelve Apostles (ch 10)

In Mt 10, Jesus gave His discourse addressed to the twelve Apostles only, explaining their mission. With Joshua and the crossing of the Jordan River fresh in our minds, we should remember the military conquests Israel made among the nations they supplanted, beginning with Jericho. In the same way, Jesus’ discourse invokes military images with His Apostles, calling them to courage despite persecution in the ‘enemy land’ to which He is sending them (Judah).

34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mt 10:34)

The Apostles were called to shepherd God’s people, but in this role they would fight against evil. As Joshua and the twelve tribes of Israel fought physical battles to enter the Promised Land, so Jesus and the twelve Apostles fought a spiritual battle to lead the sheep to heaven – a battle which has never ceased and which the apostolic successors, the bishops, have ever fought. The Apostles and their successors were sent out (the Greek word apostolos literally means one who is sent) to bring Jesus to all peoples, as witnesses to the New Covenant.

Book Three – Judgement on the Old Covenant

Narrative: Jesus Curses the Pharisees (ch 11-12)

We now come to a watershed event in Matthew’s gospel. The narrative portion is a condemnation of the Jewish leadership of that time, which explains why that time was the time for the Messiah to come and usher in the final age. It begins by Jesus praising St. John the Baptist, who was attacked by the religious leaders – the Pharisees – and ultimately murdered by the Judean king, Herod. Throughout this narrative, we read how the Pharisees attacked Jesus, the Messiah. Ultimately, they declared His spirit to be Beelzebub – they witnessed the Holy Spirit in their midst and confused it for the devil. Jesus then condemned them:

31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Mt 12:31-32)

This event changed everything. The religious leaders of Judaism were judged and condemned and the Old Covenant would fall. As explained in another essay, this event led to the fall of Judah, the destruction of the Temple, and the end of the Mosaic covenant. Also, as explained in that same essay, from that time on, Jesus preached in parabolic form – not a good sign at all. In this narrative, Jesus makes a curious reference to the Queen of the South who visited Solomon to hear his wisdom. In fact, Matthew only mentioned wisdom three times in his gospel – all in this third book. This was evidently an allusion to Solomon, who, as read elsewhere, was a paradigm for the anti-christ, that harbinger of the end of days. Judgement Day is at hand.

Discourse: The Parables (ch 13)

The discourse of this third book consists of several parables. Per the previously referenced essay, such parables were used when judgement was given; the parabolic format implying the one judged was not privy to understanding. These are not homespun stories for easy understanding by the masses, as so often believed; in fact, they are rather difficult to understand. We can first notice that these parables were preached to the masses. Jesus explained to His disciples that even the people did not understand, because they were under the same curse as their leadership. Each parable speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven, i.e., the New Covenant Church. Each parable speaks of separating the bad from the good – the Pharisees and their followers will be separated out from the Church.

There is an interesting twist to the placement of chapters here. When St. Matthew wrote his gospel, there were no chapters or verses. These things are modern additions, chapters being placed in the 13th century by Stephen Cardinal Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury. In this gospel, Cd Langton began each narrative and each discourse with a new chapter. Only here, at the end of this 3rd discourse, does he begin the next narrative in the same chapter (13:53-58). Why? Perhaps because he saw that narrative as an important story still related to the theme of judgement. It’s the story of Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, who refused to believe in Him; it includes the 3rd mention of the word wisdom, so tied to the anti-christ theme.

Book Four – Purpose of the New Covenant

Narrative: The Call of the Church (ch 14-17)

Jesus has now condemned the Old Covenant Temple, after having born witness to the New Covenant Church. He will now explain this new Church. Recall that salvation history teaches us something that virtually all other religions deny: that by our own efforts we will necessarily fail in our quest for union with God. The novelty of Christianity is that God will bring us to Himself without any action on our part; we need only accept His embrace. Of course, this is our problem – we can’t let go of our love of self and allow the love of God to enter our hearts. Christian piety is merely a set of actions that attempt to admit our self-love. Fasting, for example, is an admission that I love to give myself pleasures. It reminds me that I have this wall between me and God, a wall of self-love. I then ask God to break down this wall. This constant asking of God, in prayer, to break down these selfish barriers between He and I is called contrition. God responds to this request with Mercy – He overcomes the barriers and unites Himself to us. This is the characteristic of the Church: God’s mercy. Everything about the Church and about our lives is to be a reflection of the mercy of God, His deep love for us that stops at nothing, even consuming Himself on a cross, to bring us home to Him.

This fourth narrative begins with the beheading of John the Baptist. Then (a) Jesus heals many; (b) he feeds 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish – a Eucharistic action (cf. Jn 6). Then Jesus walks on water; as explained elsewhere, he again proves Himself to be God by this miracle. Then Jesus heals more sick. There is (c) an episode of conflict with the Pharisees , followed by a story of a Canaanite woman’s great humility approaching Jesus.

Here we see images of compassion, of the Eucharist, and of humility; these in contrast to the callousness of the Pharisees. Then, as if to emphasis this, we read again how (a) Jesus heals many; (b) he feeds 4,000 people with 7 loaves of bread and a few fish – a Eucharistic action. There is (c) an episode of conflict with the Pharisees and Saducees, where Jonah is mentioned (see here). Then the famous giving of the keys to the Kingdom to Peter (see here) occurred, and Jesus makes His first reference using the word “church.” As the priests of the Temple had been condemned, Jesus created a new priesthood, starting with Peter, the chief steward. Of interest: Talmud says that as the first Temple was being destroyed by the Babylonians (c. 587 B.C.), a group of young priests took the keys of the sanctuary and through them into the air from the Temple roof to give them back to God. A hand from heaven reached out and took them (Talmud Ta’anit 29b). In Mat 16, God gave those keys to Peter.

Next Jesus was transfigured before three of his Apostles; they saw Him as God and not merely as human. They saw Moses and Elijah, again OT images here representing the Law and the Prophets that were subservient to Him. According to legend, Elijah had led a community of prophets who lived on Mt. Carmel. Elijah’s community of prophets were called out of the general Israelite populace to become the “sons of the prophets” (2 kgs 2:3). Likewise, the word Jesus used in this 4th narrative - church or ecclesia - means those who are called out. We are called out of the world and out of sin. Unlike the Pharisees, we are to renounce callousness and to embrace compassion and humility; these are the characteristics of the New Covenant Church, and we are to receive our strength to such characteristics via sacramental grace.

This fourth narrative which mentioned Jonah and Elijah by name also referenced Elisha by the feeding of the multitudes (cf. 2 kgs 4:42-44), Isaiah by Jesus’ compassion on the sick (Is 61) as well as the keys of the Kingdom (Is 22:22), Daniel by Jesus referring to Himself as the Son of Man (Dn 7:13), etc. That is, in this section that begins with the death of the Baptist – the last OT prophet - there is an emphasis here on the OT Prophets. This narrative includes many examples of prophecies fulfilled. Here, also, Jesus first spoke of His coming Passion, the primary theme of OT prophecies.

Discourse: The Call to Mercy (ch 18)

In the fourth discourse, the emphasis is on sin and forgiveness. The audience consists of His disciples. It is fitting in that the mission of the Church is to bring mercy to the world, with the sacraments being the channels of such mercy, those who will be responsible for the sacraments receive this teaching. They are granted the charism of binding and loosing, as was Peter earlier in this section. This teaching is clear: sin is the problem. Jesus offers forgiveness of sin and we who are images of Christ are to be merciful like Him. The parable of the Unforgiving Servant gives us pause: the servant was forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents, which was about 15 years’ worth of wages. He, in turn, refused to forgive a debt of 100 denarii, which was about 100 days’ wages. God forgives us much; therefore we should forgive the little things we suffer from others. Mercy is the hallmark of Christianity.

Book Five – Transformation from Old to New

Narrative: Judgment on the Temple and Jerusalem (ch 19-23)

Now we come to the end of Matthew’s journey using the OT to explain Jesus’ life. The old has been judged and condemned; it will give way to the new. How? Here Jesus tells us that the OT world – Mosaic Judaism – is to come to an end. He revives prophecies of the destruction of the first Temple in 587 B.C., pointing towards the immanent destruction of the second Temple. This fifth book draws extensively from the Prophets, who spoke of the destruction of the first Temple and the restoration of God’s people after the Babylonian exile.

In Mt 19:28, Jesus spoke of a “new world;” in the Greek, the word here means regeneration or restoration. In Jesus’ day, it was used to describe a renewed Judah after the Babylonian exile. Jesus uses it here to mean a new restoration, after the fall of the second Temple (c. 70 A.D.). The Apostles will sit on twelve thrones with Jesus. Compare this with Ps 122, which speaks of a glorious Jerusalem, where thrones are set for judgement. The Apostles will judge, not in a common way as we might think of judges, but in bearing witness to Christ by their roles as ministers of grace.

In Mt 21, we read the account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. There are many parallels between this and Solomon’s coronation (1 kgs 1:32-40). Matthew quotes from Is 62:11 and Zech 9:9. As soon as He entered the city, Jesus went to the Temple, where He drove out the money-changers and declared the Temple, in a sense, desecrated. Compare with Jer 7, where God lamented the faithlessness of Judah and their unworthiness to enter His Temple.

Jesus then cursed a fig tree, which was a symbol of Old Covenant Israel (cf. Jer 8:13, Hos 9:10). This is, again, an image of judgment. The chief priests of the Temple confronted Jesus, after which Jesus again spoke in parables. A key parable was that of the wicked tenants of a man’s vineyard; first they murdered his servants (the prophets) and finally murdered his Son – this a prophecy of those same priests who would order Jesus’ execution. In chapter 23, Jesus spoke seven woes upon the Pharisees, recalling similar woes in Is 5, Ezek 24, Hab 2, and of course in reference to Lev 26:18, as we read in another essay. The woes end with Jesus’ judgement on Jerusalem, as he quotes Jer 22:5. Jesus then leaves the Temple and Jerusalem, heading east (towards Mr. Olivet), calling to mind Ezek 10:18-19, when the Shekinah, the Glory Cloud (the Holy Spirit of God, visible) left the Temple in the same direction and stood on Mt. Olivet.

Discourse: The End of the Old Covenant (ch 24-25)

The discourse in this fifth book of Matthew is called the Olivet Discourse, as Jesus preached while sitting on Mt. Olivet just outside Jerusalem. Many Christians see in it a prophecy of the end of the world; however, like all prophecies, it had an immanent meaning: Jesus spoke of the end of the Old Covenant world, which took place later in 70 A.D. when the Roman army razed Jerusalem to the ground and the Temple was never built again. The images Jesus described in chap 24 were remarkably true to the historical accuracy of the seize of Jerusalem. I will explore this in another essay later. The discourse ended with (1) a call to be vigilant, and (2) a description of the judgement. This is the famous final judgment scene were Christ, on His throne, separates the goats from the sheep. The sheep are those who were merciful and cared for those in need; the goats cared for no one. It was a cutting image of the state of Judaism in that era. In the end, the Christians would be saved and the Temple leaders and their followers would be destroyed; Christians living in Jerusalem read the signs as described by Jesus in this Olivet Discourse and fled from Jerusalem to the mountains in time to escape the Roman army.