When studying the Bible, it is always helpful to understand the historical context of the book you are studying. Who wrote the book? When was it written, and where? Why was it written? What issues was the author writing to address? Where does this book fit into the overall history of God’s story? Before we study each book of the Bible, I will provide a brief background and context to the book in order to answer these questions and help your understanding of the book.
WHO WAS MATTHEW?
Matthew was born a Jew and was named Levi (Mark 2:14, Luke 5:27). He was a tax collector (Matthew 9:9) for the Roman government, which made him an unpopular guy with everybody – but especially with the Jews. Nobody liked tax collectors; most of them were corrupt and extorted money out of people. Still, nobody liked them less than the Jews did. At this point in history Israel was under Roman rule. Romans were Gentiles (non-Jewish), which in the eyes of the Jews made them an unclean, idolatrous people. To be a tax collector was bad enough, but to be a Jewish man working for a Gentile occupying force to collect money on their behalf from the Jews was seen as a terrible treason.
WHERE AND WHEN WAS IT WRITTEN?
Matthew’s Gospel is estimated to have been written around 37 AD, probably in Palestine. By the time Matthew wrote his account of Jesus’ life and ministry, he was a disciple of Jesus; no longer a tax collector and no longer going by the name of Levi. He wasn’t the only one who changed his name after becoming a follower of Jesus – Simon became Peter, Saul became Paul, Levi became Matthew. Their lives were so radically changed when they met Jesus that they turned their back on their old ways. Having a new name was symbolic of their new life. Matthew also turned his back on his old job of collecting taxes for the Romans in order to follow Jesus.
The themes that Matthew addresses in much of his narrative appears to imply that he lived at a time of great evil and backsliding among the Jewish people. He speaks of broad ways and narrow ways, bad trees and good trees, goats and wolves among the sheep, and people who can cast out demons and yet are rejected by God because of their “lawlessness”. He records Jesus of having warned the Jews that “the kingdom of God will be taken away” from them and “given to a people producing its fruits” (Matthew 21:43).
WHY WAS IT WRITTEN?
Matthew’s gospel is a record of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The words “fulfill” or “fulfilled” appear 26 times in Matthew’s account. As you read, you will often see Matthew saying things like, “this took place to fulfill” (Matthew 1:22), “this was to fulfill” (Matthew 2:15) and “Then was fulfilled” (Matthew 2:17) and so on. A common theme in Matthew’s writing is that he regularly points out that certain events were fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. He is showing that things that were said and written down in the Old Testament many hundreds and even thousands of years earlier were now happening or had happened. Matthew makes more than 60 references to Old Testament scriptures in his book.
Matthew begins his book this way too, showing us an amazing fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The first chapter might seem boring at first – it looks like it’s just a list of names. But when you look carefully, you will see that Matthew is telling us something really important. With that list of names, which is a genealogy (a family tree), Matthew is proving that Jesus is from the line of Abraham and David; that is, that Jesus is the promised Messiah, and that He is the King whose kingdom will last forever (2 Samuel 7:12).
Of all the gospels, Matthew’s gospel account is the most Jewish in theme. He is writing to a Jewish audience to show them that Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament promises and that He is the promised Messiah they have been expecting. However, Matthew is also showing that Jesus is the Saviour not only of the Jews, but of the whole world (in other words, also of the Gentiles). There are Gentiles in the genealogy of Jesus (Rahab and Ruth). The wise men who traveled to see and adore the baby Jesus – a story only found in Matthew’s account – were Gentiles. Most importantly, Jesus himself teaches that the gospel is to be proclaimed throughout the whole world (Matthew 24:14) and commands his disciples to do exactly that (Matthew 28:19).
Throughout Matthew’s account we see an emphasis on the kingdom of God. Matthew wants his audience to know about the kingdom over which Jesus rules as King. The Jews believed themselves and the nation of Israel to be God’s people, but Matthew’s gospel shows the kingdom of God to be a spiritual kingdom; a kingdom made up of believers of every nationality who are saved by Jesus’ saving work. Therefore, Matthew underlines the relationship between the kingdom of God and the Church, which is all people in heaven and on earth, of every tribe, nation and tongue, who believe in and worship Jesus as their Saviour and their God. The Church on earth is therefore called to represent Jesus’ kingdom, and to live here as ambassadors and messengers of the kingdom of God. We are called to be salt and light, compassionate and kind, pure and peaceful; a community of disciple-making disciples, here to tell the whole world about our King.
Campbell, I. D. (2008). Opening up Matthew (p. 18). Leominster: Day One Publications.
Poole, M. (1853). Annotations upon the Holy Bible (Vol. 3, p. 1). New York: Robert Carter and Brothers.
Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 1669). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
Vincent, M. R. (1887). Word studies in the New Testament. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.