Introduction to Matthew

Key Notes: His genealogy. The Wise Men and their sources. Joseph as a major player. The Virgin Birth / Conception.

I am attracted to Matthew because of his Old Testament orientation. He has as many as sixty quotes or references to Old Testament texts, more than the other Gospel writers. He writes to a Jewish audience and speaks much of the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than the Kingdom of God, respecting Jewish wishes to avoid the word "God" lest it be used in vain. (Ex.20:7). We learn details of Jesus' early life. His theme is Jesus, son of David and son of Abraham, proclaimed by Peter as "the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

The book is divided into three parts by the phrase which concludes each section: "...from that time Jesus began...."

There are five discourses in Matthew, each concluding with the phrase "when Jesus finished all these sayings".

An outline of Matthew uses the phrase “When Jesus finished these sayings":

It is evident that Matthew is highly organized and therefore we understand that his interest is not so much in straight biography as in grouping material for teaching. Nevertheless, the account of Jesus' life follows that of the other Gospel writers fairly closely.


There are many appearances of the preincarnate Christ in the Old Testament. Some of these appearances are more dramatic than others. Some were awesome, if not terrifying.

That is what we would expect.

1:1–17 If God came to earth again, what would that look like? When we read Matthew, we are asked to believe the impossible, even the absurd, that the Second Person of the Trinity was born into the world of a woman and had a human lineage attached to Abraham the Hebrew. Admittedly Abraham was a great man by anyone’s criteria, but look at the lineage that follows.

The men of Israel were worse.

Like all of our own genealogies, it is a spotted and embarrassing record. And that seems to be Matthew’s point. Christ came into the world in a kindred grossly contaminated with sinners. Yet He came, not as a sinner, but as a Savior—Jesus.

Matt. 1:18–25 What will He look like? He does not come from Heaven riding on the cherubim or in a chariot of fire. He does not appear full-grown, glorious in kingly splendor. He comes in our world as a newborn, perhaps 7 lb., 10 oz. Unthinkable. And the circumstances are dubious. His mother is pregnant before her marriage. Her husband is asked to believe the impossible: “…that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”  But as the Angel assures Mary, “With God nothing will be impossible.” Lk. 1:37.

There was no wedding ceremony, such as we read for others in Cana. (Jn. 2:1). They had been living in their separate homes during the formal engagement. To break the engagement in that culture would require a divorce and public notice. The angel vetoed that idea. Joseph obediently and quietly took her to his home in Nazareth. He did not sleep with her until the baby was born. Those months would be an anxious, sober time, thrilling and yet most puzzling. Joseph worked at his carpentry. Mary pondered.

The prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 given to King Ahaz says, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call His name Emmanuel.” Seen in the simplest way, the passage cannot be referred to anyone but Christ. Under virtually all circumstances, a woman who conceives is not a virgin. How would the verse be a sign to Ahaz? That is a puzzle and much has been written about it. I believe it meant something to Ahaz, but we are not told what it meant, or how the prophecy played out in his times.

2:1–12   More strange events came, although somehow easier to grasp. Astrologers / magi / magicians / wise men come from the East, guided by the unique appearance of a star. At Jerusalem, everyone knew the prophecy where the King of the Jews would be born. They readily quoted Micah 5:2.

"But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for Me
one who is to be ruler in Israel.
{whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.}"

Why was the last line left off of the quotation? Did Jerusalem not want to think about the Messiah as God—One whose origin is from eternity? Matthew does not hesitate to tell us that in other places.

How did the wise men know where to go and when? Around 600 BC, Daniel, a Hebrew captive, was made chief of the wise men of Babylon. (Dan. 2:48). He survived the transfer of power from Babylon to the Medo-Persians. (Dan. 6:2). He was given the only clue we have as to the time of Messiah’s coming —490 years after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem. (Dan. 9:24). “Your people” in Daniel means the Jews, so they had two clues—a when and a where--somewhere in Israel. We surmise that Daniel’s writings were kept with other official records and pored over by astrologers and wise men for these many years. The Medo-Persians were succeeded by the Greeks and the Greeks by the Romans, but the wisdom of the ancients apparently did not disappear.

Herod the Great was upset; and when Herod was upset, everyone else in Jerusalem was upset, too. This paranoid and violent genius was capable of anything. He built the beautiful third Temple and the citadel at Masada. He killed his wife and two of his own sons. He would be delighted to come and worship the new king, only five miles away from Jerusalem? He did not. Curiously, there is no evidence that the Jewish leaders came to look for themselves either.

Many speculations have been made about the star. Balaam prophesied years before:

“A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” (Num. 24:17)

That star refers to a great person, the One who will use the scepter. But what was the star over Bethlehem? How could it move? Was it a comet? How could it direct them? The pillar of cloud and fire that directed Israel in the wilderness in Exodus is easier to imagine.

The wise men came to worship Him with costly gifts worthy of a great person. Worship implies that they saw the face of God in this young child, perhaps just beginning to walk. Gold is a gift for a king (Psa. 72:15); frankincense is used in sacrificial ceremony (Lev. 2:1); myrrh is a burial fragrance (Jn. 19:39) but also a perfume for lovers. (Song of Solomon 1:13). A long tradition says there were three kings because there were three gifts. “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” In the medieval world they were given names (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar) and even racial traits.

The message should not be missed: Gentiles came from afar and worshiped, with small evidence to go on. The Jews did not come a short distance, with strong evidence in front of them: “He came unto His own and His own received Him not.” (Jn. 1:11, KJV). The work of John the Baptist (Matt. 3) would be needed to catch Israel’s attention.

2:13–18  In fact, Jerusalem, in the hands of Herod (an Edomite, a remote descendent of Esau), tried to kill Jesus. Herod never sent a posse of spies to find the Christ Child. The troops just went in there swinging wildly at babies and young mothers. They slaughtered all the male children under 2 years of age in the region, hoping to catch Jesus with the sweep of the scythe.

Rachel weeping for her children is taken from Jer. 31:15, a lament for the people of Jerusalem being killed by the Babylonians. Rachel is spoken of as the mother of Israel. Her tomb was nearby in Ramah. The lament in Jeremiah is followed by a prophecy.

“Keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, says the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.” Jer. 31:16–17

Even in the midst of both tragedies, hope was extended. There was a future for Israel—judgment and mercy. That was also a message of Jesus’ birth.

Staying in Egypt would not be uncomfortable, because there were colonies of Jews in many major cities. Joseph was a carpenter. They had a supply of gold.

“Out of Egypt I called My Son,” in Hos. 11:1, refers to Israel’s Exodus, but the prophet goes on to say that Israel fell into idolatry anyway. Is Christ seen as the second Moses, leading His people out of slavery? Were the Jews of Jesus’ generation also falling into idolatry? Certainly not in the form of Baal and Ashterte, as in the days of the monarchy. But they nevertheless had made their own image of God, and Jesus would later fight against their spiritual darkness.

2:19–23   With God’s guidance, the family of three went back to Nazareth. We do not know the OT source (i.e. “the prophets”) for “He shall be called a Nazarene.” It is not a corruption of Nazirite; Jesus was not a Nazirite. (Num.6). Perhaps it is a reference His home-town—“Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46, KJV) He was “a root out of dry ground.” (Isa. 53:2)

Matthew’s five quotations of OT have most moderns scratching their heads. He does not meet our Germanic standards of exact correlation. Since we don’t think like NT writers any more, Matthew must be wrong. But it is more likely that we are wrong. Matthew has credentials and perspective that we do not have. The Hebrew dictum was that the whole OT is a testimony to the Messiah. Edersheim (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah; Longman’s, 1896) has an appendix with 35 pages of rabbinical OT references to the Messiah, many of which we would not recognize. We have to learn their way of thinking. They are not obliged to conform to ours or admit error.

Joseph was the major player in these chapters. He carried the burden of a family he could not fathom. He was given five visions to guide him.

  1. He was advised by an angel to accept Mary’s pregnancy quietly. 1:20
  2. He named the new Child "Jesus." 1:25
  3. He was warned by an angel to escape to Egypt. 2:13
  4. The angel advised him when to return. 2:13
  5. A dream prompted him to go to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. 2:22–23

He was self-effacing and obedient. He deserves great praise.


Since Matthew lists 14 generations in the thousand years between Abraham (2000 BC) and David (1000 BC), and 14 generations in 600 years between David and the Exile (586 BC), you know that the Bible is not using genealogy as a marker for chronological time. We know from other OT records that many generations were left out. Hence Bishop Ussher’s estimate of the time of Creation based on Genesis genealogy is most likely to be incorrect and by a wide margin.

Jesus is revealed through seven names in this passage.

  1. "Jesus" means"Savior." He will save His people from their sins.
  2. "Christ" means "Messiah", "Anointed" . He is God's chosen Servant.
  3. "Son of David" puts Him in line for the throne, a sign of His royal status.
  4. "Son of Man" identifies Him with humans. It is a mark of His humanity.
  5. "Son of God" marks His unique relationship to the Father.
  6. "Immanuel", God with us, is a mark of His deity.
  7. "Nazarene" puts Him among the lowly and the poor of the earth.

He is also worthy of our worship. Worship of Christ will be referred to ten times in Matthew. It is a cardinal sign of His Deity.

Is the Virgin Birth an important doctrine? [Or more accurately, the Virgin Conception.] William Barclay says, “This is a doctrine which presents us with many difficulties; and our Church does not compel us to accept it in the literal in the physical sense. This is one of the doctrines on which the Church says that we have full liberty to come to our own conclusions.” (The Gospel of Matthew. W. Barclay; Westminster, 1975; p. 20)

John Stott comments:

“I sometimes wonder if the major cause of much theological liberalism is that some scholars care more about their reputation than about God’s revelation. Finding it hard to be ridiculed for being naïve and credulous enough to believe in miracles, they are tempted to sacrifice God’s revelation on the altar of their own respectability. I do not say that they always do so. But I feel it right to make the point because I myself felt the strength of this temptation.” (Authentic Christianity. J. Stott; Edit., T. Dudley-Smith, IVP, 1995, p. 122)

What are the options? Christ was born of the Holy Spirit without a human father, or He is the illegitimate son of Mary by Joseph or some other man.

Matthew and Luke make their cases plainly.

The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is important:

Let us be clear that we are not talking about Roman Catholic teaching of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity or Assumption into Heaven. The catechism says:

“Finally, the Immaculate Virgin, preserved from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things….”

“Taken up to heaven, she did not lay aside this saving office, but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation….Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress and Mediatrix.”
     (Catechism of the Catholic Church. Doubleday, 1995; p. 273, 275)

Note that the Virgin Birth is not the same as the Incarnation. The Incarnation teaches that Jesus was true God and true Man, without either nature being absorbed or compromised by the other. The Ebionites, early Jewish followers of Jesus, taught that He was the great prophet and moral teacher, but not divine. They could not accept His deity. The Docetists took the opposite tack. He was God and looked like a man but was not truly human. He could not be human without being sinful. The truth lies between these two errors.

The Old Roman Creed (Circa 150 AD), a precursor to the Apostles’ Creed, reads:

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Christ Jesus His only Son our Lord,
who was born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,
who under Pontius Pilate was crucified and buried and the third day rose from the dead,
and in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh and the life everlasting.”
     (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. G.W. Bromiley et al, Edit.; Eerdmans, 179. Vol.1, p. 808)

Obviously, the early Church Fathers thought the Virgin Birth was a crucial doctrine because they made it part of a very short creed.

But the rest of the New Testament does not pay attention to it. Mark and John do not speak of Jesus’ virgin birth. Paul and Peter do not mention it in their theological material, but they don’t mention anything else about His early life, either. Jesus’ early life was simply taken for granted. The apostles concentrate on Jesus’ adult ministries and their implications. A large amount of attention is paid to the last week of His life.

Take your choice.

He is God’s uniquely born, Holy Son, Emmanuel,
whose going forth is from eternity,
able to save all others;
He is an illegitimate child,
a sinner who needs salvation himself.

The choice is vital.