Article of the Month



The Beauty of Matthew's Gospel

William Hendriksen


Matthew’s Gospel has been called “the most important book in the world” (Renan), “the most successful book ever written” (Goodspeed). It describes a Christ who proceeds from glory, through suffering, to glory. It starts out by picturing the exalted Son of David, conceived and born in accordance with prophecy (chapter 1), receiving honor due to a King (chapter 2), heralded by a way-preparer (who was himself also an object of prophetic prediction), and at his baptism acknowledged by the Father as being his beloved Son, the Son with whom he is well pleased (chapter 3). Though tempted by Satan, he triumphs over every temptation. “And behold, angels came and were rendering service to him” (4:1-11).

So far Matthew has pictured the beginning or inauguration of the work which the Father had given his Son to do. Cf. John 17:4b. Up to this point all has been light and glory. Has it really? No, not entirely. Even in these first few chapters we have already been told that Joseph had been divinely instructed to take the little child and his mother and to escape to Egypt, “for Herod is about to search for the little child, to destroy him” (2:13). Moreover, were not even submission to baptism and to the temptation-experience elements in Christ’s humiliation, even though in both of these the divine glory also shines through? Though it is true, therefore, that the emphasis in this earliest part of Matthew’s Gospel is on the glorious character of Jesus, the path of suffering is already foreshadowed. Though “the Son of David and of Abraham” is described as worthy of the crown, the way of the cross which leads to this crown is already prefigured.

At 4:12 a new section begins, continuing all the way through chapter 20. Here Matthew describes the progress or continuation of the task that had been assigned to the Mediator. In this large middle section of the book the author summarizes “The Great Galilean Ministry” (4:12-15:20) and “The Retirement Plus Perean Ministries” (15:21 through chapter 20).

Matthew is not trying to give us a day-by-day or even a month-by-month outline of the words and works of the Lord. He is thematic rather than strictly chronological. Nevertheless, repeated reading of the material which he offers makes it easy to see at least a thought-connection between the paragraphs as they follow each other. To show this for each of the twenty-eight chapters would be impossible in a journal article. It may be helpful, however, to indicate the connection between some of the chapters. In Galilee Jesus announces his theme: “Repent” — “Be converted” may well be an even better rendering — “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (4:17). So we are not surprised to note that the Sermon on the Mount, governed by this theme (see 5:3, 10, 19, 20; 6:10, 33; 7:21), follows in chapters 5-7. The citizens of the kingdom, their character and blessedness, etc., are described in 5:1-16; the “righteousness” of the kingdom (i.e., the righteous demands of the King upon the citizens), in 5:17-7:12; and the earnest exhortation to enter the kingdom, in 7:13-29. Chapter 5 (see especially vss. 17-48) shows that the King demands of his subjects a righteousness which is far superior to that of the scribes and Pharisees. Over against all kinds of rabbinical perversions of the moral law Jesus sets forth its inner spiritual meaning. He places all the emphasis on love — even toward enemies. The chapter closes with the touching words: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Sincere self-surrender to the heavenly Father, committing everything to him and expecting everything from him, is the theme of chapter 6, ending with the unforgettable words, “Do not therefore become anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day has enough trouble all by itself” (6:34). Duty toward one’s fellowmen — beginning with “Do not pass judgment (on others), that you may not have judgment passed on yourselves” — opens the chapter. The exhortation to enter the kingdom ends with the parable of the Two Builders, the wise and the foolish: “Down poured the rain, and there came the flood, while the winds blew and fell upon that house, but it did not fall, for it was founded on rock. . . . Down poured the rain, and there came the floods, while the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and the crash it produced was tremendous” (7:25-27).

The law of trust and of love set forth in the Sermon on the Mount is carried into practice by Jesus himself, as is clear from the series of mighty and merciful works mentioned in chapters 8 and 9. The arrangement is not chronological but climactic. By a touch of his hand Jesus cleanses a leper; but the next case, that of the grievously stricken centurion’s servant, is, if possible, even more wonderful: from a distance — hence without even a touch — the servant is cured. The Great Physician’s healing power is not applied to “strangers” only; no, it is just as effective in the case of a familiar friend (Peter’s mother-in-law). In fact, no sickness, however grave or “incurable” it may seem to be, is outside of his power to heal (8:14-16). Did we say “power”? Yes, power, but definitely also love, tender sympathy, for by means of this ministry of healing “what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet” was being “fulfilled,” namely,

He has taken our infirmities upon himself,
And carried our diseases [8:17].

His sovereignty reaches even further, for winds and waves obey him (8:23-27). Demons surrender to his will (8:28-34). Why, he even has power to forgive sin! (9:2). To top everything else, not only is he able to cure what no doctor on earth had been able to cure (9:20-22; cf. Mark 5:25, 26; Luke 8:43), but he imparts life to a dead child! (Matt. 9:18, 19, 23-25).

Side by side with this gripping climactic arrangement of miracles in which Christ’s power and his love are revealed, Matthew pictures the growing antagonism of the Pharisees. They become filled with envy when they notice the enthusiasm of the multitudes, hear blind men address Jesus as “Son of David,” and see their Enemy perform a double miracle upon a man who is possessed by a demon and deprived of the power of speech: “The crowd was filled with amazement and said, ‘Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.’ The Pharisees, however, were saying, ‘By the prince of the demons he casts out demons’” (9:27-34).

The hostility of the scribes, Pharisees, priests, etc., against Jesus grows in intensity. Whisperings and slander become direct accusations. These, in turn, change into actual plots against Christ’s life. In these schemes to destroy Jesus the help of others — sometimes the most unlikely allies — is called in. As Matthew pictures it, little by little this hatred mounts toward a climax (9:34; 12:14; 15:1, 2; 16:1; 26:3-5,57-68; 27:41-43,62-64; 28:12-15). So deadly and infernal does the envy of the opponents become that at last they do not even pronounce their Adversary’s name any more. They simply say, “he,” or “that deceiver.”

Very striking in chapter 9 is the contrast between the self-centered Pharisees (vs. 34) and the self-sacrificing Jesus (vss. 35-38). They were filled with envy, he with compassion. They were constantly thinking about themselves, he about others: “Now when he saw the throngs his heart went out to them [or: “he was moved with compassion for them”], because they were fatigued and forlorn, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest [is] plentiful, but the laborers [are] few. Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to thrust laborers into his harvest.’ “ So these men pray. . . Then (10:1) they themselves are the first to be appointed as laborers. Could any pictures have been more beautiful, any chapter-connection more unforgettable?

Chapter 10 accordingly contains the “Charge to the Twelve.” It is Christ’s second great discourse, and is arranged as methodically as was the first (the Sermon on the Mount). First (10:5-15) the specifics of the charge are given: the disciples (10:1) — now also “apostles” (10:2) — are told where they should and where they should not go, what they have to proclaim, what they must do, in what condition they must set out on their tour, and with whom they must lodge. In the second part of the discourse (vss. 16-42) the charge begins to blend with prophetic discourse. Here Jesus describes what will be the people’s sharply contrasted response: some will accept; others will reject the message and the men who bring it. But though the missionaries will be persecuted, they must not lose heart, for: (a) the Spirit will give them words to speak (vs. 20), (b) the Father will tenderly care for them (vss. 29, 30), and (c) “I,” says Jesus, “will confess them [acknowledge them as my own] before my Father who is in heaven” (vs. 32).

Acknowledging and honoring those who have confessed him is exactly what Jesus does in chapter 11 in connection with John the Baptist, whom he reassures (vss. 1-6), and whom he defends before the public, speaking with distinct approval of the work which this herald had performed (vss. 7-19). Many of the people, however, had refused to take to heart the words of John and both the words and works of Jesus. Accordingly, the impenitent cities are denounced (vss. 20-24). In the closing paragraph of this chapter (vss. 25-30) withering denunciation is replaced by tender invitation: “Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest,” etc.

That very word “burdened” is the link between chapters 11 and 12, for one of the burdens about which Jesus must have been thinking and from which he desired to deliver the people was that of rabbinic sabbath regulations. Chapter 12 begins as follows: “Now at that time Jesus on the sabbath went through the fields of standing grain.”

In connection with each of the first twelve chapters it has now been shown how close is its connection with the one that precedes. The same is true with respect to all the remaining chapters, and most of the paragraphs within the chapters. Matthew’s Gospel is a closely knit organism. It resembles the gradually unfolding bud of a beautiful flower. That is true with respect to the book considered as a whole. It holds with respect to the 6 — not 5 ! — discourses (a. chapters 5-7; b. 10; c. 13; d. 18; e. 23; and f. 24, 25).

We have already seen how the tension between Jesus and the Jewish leaders increases until it reaches its climax in connection with his death and burial. Now when one considers the three lessons about the cross (16:21; 17:22, 23; 20:17-19) he soon discovers that here too the pattern of gradual unfoldment is clearly evident: the Lord imparts this information a little at a time. Too kind a Savior is he to tell the story all at once. Cf. John 16:12. Besides, from the very beginning and on every later occasion the Master as it were softens the blow by emphasizing that the cross is not the end of the story: there is going to be a resurrection on the third day. Also, the cross itself, far from being an instrument of defeat — except for the enemy! — spells victory, and this both for Jesus and for his disciples (10:39).

And so this marvelous story moves on to its dramatic and glorious close, as it pictures the climax or consummation of Christ’s task on earth: the cross that earns and necessitates the crown (chapters 21 through 28). And what could be a more triumphant conclusion than the very final paragraph, describing the Conqueror’s great claim (28:16-18), great commission (28:19, 20a), and great comfort (28:20b)?

And now a few “miniatures,” “details,” or “close-ups.” Matthew’s Gospel is full of them. The following are but samples:

  1. The storm (8:24-27). Did you notice that Jesus is in full control of that tempest even before he rises to rebuke it?
  2. Perfect safety on the troubled sea, in a dark night (14:23, 24). Did not Christ’s intercession (on the mountain) guarantee the disciples’ safety?
  3. Marvelous combination of holy indignation and tender compassion (21:12-14).
  4. That “Watch at the Tomb”: stationed (27:62-66), shaken and scattered (28:4); bribed (28:11-15). What a theme for an Easter sermon!


Dr. William Hendriksen was a very well known Bible commentator who's writings have grown in popularity over the years. He held degrees from Calvin College (A.B.), Calvin Seminary (Th.B. and Th.M.), and Princeton Theological Seminary (Th.D.). He served as pastor of several large congregations of the Christian Reformed Church in Zeeland, Muskegon and Grand Rapids, Michigan from 1927 to 1942. He also held the position of Professor of New Testament Exegetical Theology at Calvin Seminary. He authored many books, among them were The Covenant of Grace, The Bible on the Life Hereafter, The Sermon on the Mount, More than Conquerors, Bible Survey, and the most popular, The New Testament Commentary series.

Dr. Hendriksen wrote this article after completing his massive commentary on Matthew.


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