Christ comes to claim us. How do we remain vigilant for Christ’s appearance?
These summary themes come from Dr. Craig Satterlee, former professor at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, currently serving as bishop of the NW Lower Michigan Synod.
Isaiah 2:1-5 – A hopeful vision of the end times.
… In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”… Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
…You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness…
Matthew 24:36-44 – As we are vigilant in life, so we should be ready for the coming of Christ.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
It is my pattern to use the first Sunday in Advent (or sometimes Christ the King Sunday) to introduce the congregation to the gospel for the coming year. In this case, that gospel is Matthew. There are a number of very good commentaries on Matthew.
- David Hill wrote a commentary for the New Century Bible Series.
- Kingsbury wrote a book called Matthew as Story.
- I’m particular to Craig Keener’s book, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary.
- Last cycle (2013-14) I used Stanley Hauerwas’ commentary on Matthew from the Brazos Theology Commentary on the Bible series.
- Additionally, I will spend some more time with Mark Allan Powell’s God with Us. More on this one below.
How is Matthew used in Year A?
First, a look at how Matthew is used in the lectionary this year.
- Advent: Matthew 24, 3, 11 and 1
- Christmas: Luke 2, Matthew 2, John
- Epiphany: Matthew 2-7
- Transfiguration: Matthew 17
- Lent: Matthew 6, 4, 17, 21, 26, 27 and Lent 3: John 4 (woman at the well), Lent 4: John 9 (healing of the man born blind, Lent 5: John 11 (raising of Lazarus)
- Three Days: John Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter (option for Matthew 28 Easter Day)
- Easter Season: All John and Luke
- Summer: Matthew 7-16
- Fall: Matthew 18-25
Introduction to Matthew’s Gospel
Matthew is a Jewish gospel. He assumes his hearers are Jewish as well. As David Garland points out, Matthew makes no effort to explain hand washing rituals, the two didrachma (temple taxes), the seat of Moses, phylacteries and fringes, or flight on the Sabbath (24:20). Matthew’s Jesus is sent only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He is completely obedient to the law and is the “fulfillment of the law.” Matthew shows interest in Gentiles, but probably to bring them into a Gentile Jewish community, gathered around Jesus.
Matthew’s gospel is neatly arranged into five sections like the five books of Moses. Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, the new law-giver. “You have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Sermon on the Mount. Moses said… now I say to you…
In the early 20th century, B. W. Bacon noticed that Matthew used the phrase, “When Jesus finished saying these things…” (Καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τοὺς λόγους τούτους…) five times, at the end of five long discourses, or sermons (Mt. 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1). He pointed out the five-fold narrative/discourse structure. To oversimplify, one could organize Matthew’s gospel as follows:
Introduction: Matthew 1
- Narrative: Matthew 2-4. Discourse: Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount)
- Narrative: Matthew 8-9. Discourse: Matthew 10 (Missionary Discourse)
- Narrative: Matthew 11-12. Discourse: Matthew 13 (Parables of the Kingdom)
- Narrative: Matthew 14-17. Discourse: Matthew 18 (Living in Community)
- Narrative: Matthew 19-22. Discourse: Matthew 23-25 (Olivet Discourse)
Conclusion: 26-28 (Death Resurrection)
Introducing the New Testament
Mark Allan Powell is a professor at my own Alma Mater, Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. I’m a bit of a Mark Allan Powell junkie; I’ll admit. Nevertheless, his textbook on the New Testament, helpfully named Introducing the New Testament, is the second most popular New Testament textbook. It is written at the undergraduate level and is extremely user-friendly. What I love about Powell’s book is that it comes with a website that houses all the illustrations and also numerous others that would not fit in the book – brilliant. You can also watch some videos by Dr. Powell himself.
Powell reminds us that 90% of Mark’s gospel is also in Matthew’s gospel. For various reasons, scholars believe Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke used it as one of the sources for their gospels. The gospel is anonymous, but later Christians attributed it to Matthew based on a comment by Papias (early second century). Papias says that Matthew the tax collector was collecting sayings of Jesus and translating them into Greek. Eusebius took this to mean Matthew, the tax collector, wrote this gospel, and so it is named. Matthew’s use of the Jewish Scriptures and customs suggests training as a scribe.
Here is a list of the material that is unique to Matthew’s gospel, including the only passages in which Jesus talks about the church. Jesus intends to build a church in Matthew’s gospel, and he gives advice on how matters should be handled in that church.
Jesus shows less human frailty in Matthew than in Mark’s gospel. One would say it has a higher christology than Mark, though significantly lower than John.
Hyperlinks 5.1 to 5.28 provide some outstanding snapshots of Matthew’s gospel.
God With Us
Another book by Powell approaches Matthew from a pastoral perspective. Most books on Matthew approach it from a systematically theological perspective: What are Matthew’s Christology, soteriology, eschatology, and ethics? Powell’s hope is that looking at Matthew through a pastoral/ministry lens might offer new insights into Matthew’s perspective.
The book has five chapters:
- Social Justice
Powell points out that Matthew’s gospel comes to a close without the mission having been accomplished. Not only have the disciples not preached the gospel to the whole world (Matthew 24), they have not preached it anywhere. Not only have they not made disciples of all nations (Matthew 28), they have not made any disciples. Matthew’s gospel ends in a way that feels somewhat incomplete. Unlike Luke, with Matthew we don’t get the rest of the story.
What is the mission of Jesus in Matthew’s terms? Powell points out Jesus’ relationship to the law. Sometimes he relaxes it, other times intensifies it, but it seems clear in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ mission is to be the fulfiller of the law. Powell puts in one column all the verses in which Jesus lays out his sense of his own mission, and in another the verses in which he spells out the mission of the church. The juxtaposition sparks new insights. The earthly, eschatological, and ethical imperatives of the kingdom cannot be fulfilled until he returns, but until then, the mission of God begun in Jesus is to be carried out by the church. There are challenges for us here.
Worship is not as prominent a theme in Matthew as in Luke. There are no major works on worship in Matthew. Powell begins with a study of the eight words Matthew uses for worship. Then he looks at those who worship in Matthew: the Magi, the leper, the crowds, a ruler, Jesus, the disciples, a Canaanite woman, the mother of James and John, and children. He points out 13 explicit acts of worship.
There are several different kinds of worship in Matthew’s gospel. Some pray with requests. There is an economy to worship in Matthew’s gospel. God already knows what you need, so there’s no need to heap up empty phrases like the hypocrites. Some respond with worship to healing. Others are overwhelmed with the presence of God, as in the transfiguration. People respond in Matthew sometimes with joy and sometimes fear, awe, or doubt. The disciples are afraid when they hear God’s voice at the transfiguration.
Finally, Powell points out the diversity of worshippers. They are of all ages; one-third are women and two-thirds men. They vary ethnically and economically.
Teaching is, of course, part of the Great Commission in Matthew 28, or at least obeying Jesus’ teaching. However, this is the only place it is mentioned as a post-Easter event. Jesus’ mission is teaching, preaching, and healing, but teaching is conspicuously absent from the disciples’ job description. In fact, Jesus explicitly forbids them to allow people to call them rabbi, father, or catechists.
But Matthew 28 makes it clear that teaching is one of the ways the church makes disciples. Powell explores what is to be taught, by whom, and to whom? The results of allowing Matthew to not be invaded (for a moment) by Mark, Luke, and John are interesting.
Matthew does not refer to Jesus’ ministry as teaching. Telling parables reveals the mysteries of the kingdom, but Matthew does not refer to this activity as teaching. The only time Jesus “teaches” in Matthew is in chapters 5-7, known as the Sermon on the Mount. In these verses, keeping the law is paramount. At times the law is loose (it’s okay to pick grain on the Sabbath to alleviate hunger). Other times it’s bound even tighter (even having lustful thoughts is adultery). Jesus’ disciples bind and loose the law according to Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ interpretation of the law is to be supreme.
Teaching is for the church. Don’t cast pearls before swine. The ethical standards of the Sermon on the Mount are likely to be too high for most of the world. In fact, 5:1-2 suggests the Sermon is for Jesus’ disciples and not the crowd. Ironically, the world has often found the ethical teachings of the Sermon on the Mount compelling in a magnetic way. The astonished crowds “listen in” and are mesmerized.
In 5:2 Jesus emerges as the master teacher. He restricts teaching authority at first, but later seems to open it up. Authority is a big deal in Matthew’s gospel. There is danger in teaching. A hypocrite is one who teaches one thing but does another. So it’s best not to judge. Focus on your own game. Powell contends the establishment of a hierarchical teaching office is forbidden in Matthew. The community is to be egalitarian. Jesus will be the only teacher. Perhaps Matthew intends his gospel to be the teaching authority. Powell suggests that Matthew offers no distinction between teaching and doing. Jesus teaches. The little-faith, cowardly disciples are just to DO.
A reminder: Matthew’s witness is not The Biblical Witness. He is one voice among many. Intentionally so. We are taking a microscope to the mind of Matthew, who is redactor of Jesus, Mark, and who knows what else.
Anyone who has read Powell’s book Giving to God, knows he’s brilliant on stewardship. And anyone who’s read Matthew knows that the three parables most often used to teach stewardship of any kind (earth, time, money, etc.) come from this gospel: Matthew 21:33-43, 24:45-51, 25:14-30. Powell has a grand time rummaging around concepts of stewardship (oikonomos) as managing a household.
Powell explores motive, principle, and human relationships of stewardship. Matthew’s concept of stewardship is grounded in some indelible truths: everything we have belongs to God, on whom we depend, and to whom we owe a debt we can never pay. All stewardship begins here.
As an aside, Powell points out that for Matthew, even divorce is a stewardship issue. No one has the authority (that word again) to separate what God has joined. We are stewards of our relationships, which are given to us by God.
In Matthew, justice is one of the weightier matters of the law. Those who hunger for justice will find satisfaction. Matthew challenges the concept that God’s will is done in the church rather than in the world. Matthew understands justice won’t be complete in the world, but Jesus’ followers are to live justly anyway. The Gentiles lord it over one another, but “it shall not be so among you.”
Powell points out that the most popular justice text is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, but the popular interpretation is not supported by modern scholarship. Matthew is more focused on justice within the community than without and has been criticized because of this. Powell doesn’t condemn or defend Matthew’s concept of justice, but works to describe it as accurately as possible. Preachers should read this carefully instead of pontificating on Matthew based on popular opinion.
This book is 21 years old. There has been a lot of ground-breaking New Testament scholarship in the last 21 years, and yet this book still has a fresh view. In fact, it feels very much like a piece of that research, drawing on modern literary theory and composition criticism. I look forward to this year, looking at the gospel and at Jesus through the eyes of Matthew’s community and his theology. I look forward to rediscovering why the church put this gospel as the first book of their New Testament.
I’ve spent my entire way introducing Matthew’s gospel. I will, however, offer a few thoughts on the gospel text appointed for the day.
It is interesting that the first day of the new church year begins with the end in mind, toward the end of Matthew’s gospel. Advent is like that. The short, four-week season originally was to meditate on the second coming of Christ. The season was to prepare for Christ’s coming, not to prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. The earliest Advent sermons don’t mention the birth of Jesus, even on the fourth Sunday of Advent, a few days before the Nativity.
This text is in line with that tradition. It comes from Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, the final of the five great discourses in Matthew, so named because it was delivered from the Mount of Olives.
Regarding the end of the world, Matthew’s Jesus wants his followers to know that no one knows the when this will happen, not even the angels or he, himself. I like to tell congregations, “If Jesus doesn’t know, it’s doubtful that evangelical preacher down the road does.” Apparently there were end times predictors of the precise last day back in Matthew’s time as well.
Proponents of the Rapture racket also like to use this as a proof passage
For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.
The idea is Christ will rapture the faithful, and the unfaithful will be “left behind,” as in the book series. But read more carefully. Noah and his family got on the ark, and the wicked were swept away. The wicked are not left behind; they are swept away by the flood. It’s Noah and his family that are left behind. In Jesus’ story, you want to be left behind.
Then Jesus gets to the point:
Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
Wake up! Become spiritually alive. Don’t lose heart or grow weary in doing good or practicing your faith. Don’t grow weary in loving your neighbor, as God loves you. Follow the new law, and the new lawgiver, Jesus, who teaches the law of love.