On the one hand, the Gospel of Matthew is the arguably easiest of all four Gospels to preach. For many Christians, Matthew is a familiar text, perhaps the most familiar of any in the New Testament. Anyone who takes the time to read it from cover to cover of course opens first to Matthew. If anything gets read, it’s his Gospel. Moreover, the Gospel of Matthew contains many of the most familiar episodes and teachings in all the Gospels, such as the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem, the flight of Joseph and Mary to Egypt, the Sermon on the Mount, the parables of the kingdom of heaven, and a host of other well-known passages. In light of such considerations, one can reasonably conclude that Matthew is one of the most comfortable and familiar of New Testament texts, and should be somewhat easier to proclaim than, say, Romans or the book of Revelation.
On the other hand, one can also make a good the case that the First Gospel is one of the most difficult Gospels to preach. The reason is quite simple: perhaps more than any other Gospel, Matthew presupposes an intimate familiarity with Jewish Scripture. Note my emphasis on the word ‘intimate’. Matthew does not just assume a vague familiarity with the writings Christians refer to as the Old Testament, or even a basic biblical literacy. Rather, he assumes (and even demands) a remarkably deep and abiding knowledge of the persons and events that populate the pages of Jewish Scripture. This can be seen both in the fact that Matthew frequently quotes the Scriptures and perhaps even more in his multiple allusions to the Old Testament. These allusions are often implicit, not explicit. As such, they require a working knowledge of Jewish Scripture on the part of a reader (or preacher) able to pick up on often subtle similarities and dissimilarities between the words and deeds of Jesus and the writings of the Old Testament.
To say the least, such intimate familiarity with Jewish Scripture is not always true of contemporary Christian readers. And yet it is essential for understanding and explaining the meaning of Matthew’s portrait of “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). On every page of his Gospel, Matthew is constantly echoing or alluding to, if not outright quoting, a host of texts, figures, and events from ancient Jewish Scripture that he sees recapitulated in the words and deeds of Jesus. This concept of biblical events both prefiguring and being fulfilled in the life of Christ is known as typology, which is Matthew’s predominant way of reading Scripture. The basic presupposition of his typological approach to Jewish Scripture and the person of Jesus is that God acts through various Old Testament types that function as foreshadows or prefigurations of what he will ultimately accomplish through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
In this brief overview, I want to suggest the biblical typology of Matthew’s Gospel is arguably one of the most helpful ways of unlocking the treasures of meaning present in his Gospel and of overcoming the difficulties that proclaiming him might present to an audience unfamiliar with the Old Testament. In particular, I want to offer four biblical types as keys to aid preachers in explaining the theological riches present in the First Gospel. To use Matthew’s own words, by means of a typological approach to Jewish Scripture and his Gospel, the contemporary preacher is able act like the “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven,” who “brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52). With that goal in mind, the five biblical types that I have found most helpful in interpreting this gospel are: (1) the New Moses; (2) the New Israel; (3) the New David; and (4) the New Solomon.
In what follows, we will briefly examine each of these, making just a few observations about how they function in Matthew’s Gospel as keys to understanding the identity and mystery of Jesus Christ. Because our space is limited, I cannot offer anything close to an exhaustive account of these types. However, I would recommend keeping them in mind as one reads and rereads the Gospel in preparation for preaching, so that new insights and new connections between Jewish Scripture and the life of Jesus can emerge with each new reading.
1. The New Moses
If there is any biblical prototype at work on virtually every page of Matthew’s Gospel, is the figure of Moses. In ancient Jewish Scripture and tradition, Moses is of course the great prophet who received the Law directly from God, gave it to the twelve tribes of Israel, and sealed the covenant between God and Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-24). When we turn to the pages of Matthew’s Gospel, we see a plethora of powerful connections between the prophet Moses and the first-century prophet from Nazareth, Jesus of Galilee.
For example, in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ infancy, the wicked “king” Herod orders all “the male children” of Bethlehem to be slaughtered (Matt 2:1-3). In the midst of this terrible tragedy, however, the infant deliverer, Jesus is saved from certain death by the actions of his parents, who bear the names of Joseph and Miriam (the Hebrew form of the Greek name, “Mary”) (Matt 2:13-15). No ancient Jewish reader familiar with Scripture could fail to hear the echoes with the near-escape of their ancient deliverer, Moses, who likewise narrowly escaped being slaughtered after the wicked “King” of Egypt, the Pharaoh, after the latter had ordered all the “male children” of the Hebrew slaves to be killed (Exodus 1:8, 15-18). Against all odds, “the child” Moses was likewise saved from death, also at the hands of a young girl named Miriam, his sister (Exodus 2:1-10).
Along the same lines, there is the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus recapitulates the actions of Moses by giving a torah—a code of “teaching” or “instruction”—to the people at the scene of a mountain (Matthew 5-7). Like Moses, Jesus delivers this law to his people following a period of forty days of fasting and isolation (Exodus 34:28; Matthew 4:2). Unlike Moses, however, who ascends Mount Sinai in order to bring down the Law to the people of Israel who failed to prepare themselves to encounter God (Exodus 19), Jesus leads his followers up to the unnamed mountain in Galilee and gives them a new law which he explicitly sets in contrast to the Law of Moses. “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you” (cf. Matthew 5). Both the standards and the setting of this new law are ‘higher’ than the old.
Along the same lines, the transfiguration of Jesus stands as a monument to the fact that Jesus is not just a ‘new’ Moses, but greater than Moses. In Matthew’s account of the event, Jesus goes up “a high mountain” with Peter, James, and John and is transfigured so that his face “shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). This transfiguration echoes the transformation of Moses’ own countenance, which becomes luminous after entering into the ‘glory cloud’ of God’s presence atop Mount Sinai (Exodus 34). Should there be any doubt about whose transfiguration is greater, it is Moses himself, who, along with Elijah bears witness to the unveiled glory of Jesus’ face alongside the three chosen apostles (Matt 17:3).
2. The New Israel
In the writings of the Old Testament, the word “Israel” can have several different meanings. For one thing, it can refer to the person of Israel, the patriarch Jacob, who is renamed after wrestling with God (Genesis 32). In addition, it can refer to the people of Israel, the twelve tribes who descended from Jacob their father, and who were set free from bondage in Egypt (cf. Exodus 1).
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus recapitulates in himself the exodus journey of the people of Israel—the twelve tribes descended from Jacob, in at least two ways.
The first of these takes place during his baptism by John, when the Father in heaven speaks and says of Jesus: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). In the Old Testament, the language of divine sonship can be applied to angels (cf. Job 1), the king of Israel (Psalm 2; 2 Samuel 7), or the people of Israel as a whole. The most famous example of the latter is when God says to Pharaoh at the inauguration of the exodus: “Israel is my first-born son, let my people go” (Exodus 4:22). Given the presence of exodus imagery and echoes throughout Matthew’s Gospel, one can see in this identification of Jesus at his baptism as the beloved son of God an implicit identification of him as a new Israel, whose passage through the waters of the Jordan signals the time of a new exodus. In the first exodus, however, Israel, the beloved son of God, passed through the waters of the Jordan to enter the earthly promised land of Canaan (Joshua 5). In the new exodus of Jesus, it is not the land that is opened before him but the heavens, signaling the singular importance of the fact that his kingdom will be “the kingdom of heaven” (e.g., Matthew 4:17).
Along the same lines, at the very start of his public ministry, Jesus goes into the desert for “forty days and forty nights” in order to pray, fast, and do spiritual battle with the devil (Matthew 4). As we just saw above, on the one hand, this action echoes Moses’ forty-day fast at Mount Sinai. On the other hand, it also hearkens back to the forty years of testing the desert of Sin that the people of Israel endure on their way to the Promised Land of Canaan (Numbers 14:26-35). By going into the desert Jesus is recapitulating the temptations of his ancestors who wandered in the wilderness for so many decades. But unlike the wilderness generation, Jesus does not succumb to temptation, but rather triumphs over it, and thereby redeems it in himself, and upon completion of this trial immediately returns to Galilee to begin preaching the good news of the kingdom of God in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, where the exile of the northern tribes of Israel began (Matthew 4:12-17; cf. Isaiah 9:9-2; 2 Kings 17).
3. The New David
After the prophet Moses, there is no figure in the Old Testament who is more memorable and more significant that David of the tribe of Judah, son of Jesse and king of Israel. In fact, from a numerical perspective, the figure of David dominates Jewish Scripture; he is mentioned over 1000 times in the Old Testament. Perhaps most significantly for us, it is David above all whose kingship and kingdom laid the foundation for the ancient Jewish hope for the Messiah: the “anointed” king (Hebrew mashiah; Greek christos), who would one day come to restore the kingdom of David, which had fallen into ruin with the exile of the ten northern tribes of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. and the exile of the two southern tribes of Judah by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. In the wake of these two devastating tragedies, the biblical prophets began to speak of a future “David”—a new David—who would one day come and restore the people of Israel (e.g., Isaiah 11; Jeremiah 16; Ezekiel 36-37). In later rabbinic tradition, there was a saying about the Messiah: “The Holy One, blessed be He, will raise up another David for us” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b).
Matthew’s Gospel lets the reader know from the very first verse to pay attention to connections between King David of old and “Jesus Christ (Greek Iesous Christos), the Son of David” (Matthew 1:1). His gospel begins with a lengthy genealogy of Jesus, and this genealogy is explicitly Davidic: not only is David the only one who is called “the king” (Matthew 1:6), but the two turning points in the genealogy revolve around the figure of David (Matthew 1:17). After this Davidic introduction, the Gospel is replete with allusions to David: Jesus is born the southern town of Bethlehem, the city of David’s origin (2 Samuel 16), and the place from which the Davidic Messiah was expected to hail (Micah 5:2-4). Jesus’ proclamation is focused above all on the kingdom of heaven, which finds its closest linguistic parallel in the biblical reference to “the kingdom of the LORD” (1 Chronicles 28:5), which is applied to the historical kingdom of David, and which was supposed to last “forever” (2 Samuel 7:13). When Jesus gives Peter the “keys” of the kingdom, he uses the language that the prophet Isaiah applies to the chief steward of the kingdom of David, upon whose shoulder was placed “the key of the house of David” (Matthew 16:13-18; cf. Isaiah 22). During his last days in Jerusalem, Jesus was betrayed by one of his most intimate followers: Judas. But this was not the first time such a betrayal had taken place. In Jewish scripture, King David himself was plotted against by Absalom, his own son, who not only sought to betray his father unto death, but also, when he failed, hanged himself (see 2 Samuel 17; Matthew 26-27). Last, but certainly not least, when hanging on the cross, Jesus cries out in his agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-50). In his very last moments, the messianic heir of David’s kingdom makes the words of David his own, quoting Psalm 22, which is explicitly identified in Jewish Scripture as “a psalm of David” (Psalm 22:1).
However, just as with Israel and Moses, Jesus in Matthew is not merely a new David; he is also greater than King David. For Matthew, Old Testament types are never greater than their fulfillments. This is nowhere more clear than when Jesus poses the question: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” To this, the Pharisees respond: “The son of David.” In response, Jesus replies: “How then is it that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord?” Here Jesus cites Psalm 110:1, and continues: “If David thus calls him Lord, then how is he his son?” (Matthew 22:42-45). The whole point of this exchange is to transform and elevate the audience’s understanding of the Messiah: According to Jesus, the Messiah is not the son of David—intriguingly, something the future king is never explicitly called in the Old Testament—but rather David’s Lord.
4. The New Solomon
The final figure from Jewish Scripture we will examine here is King Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba, who ruled over Israel during its “glory days,” when the Temple was built, the Israelites finally had “rest” from their enemies, and even the Gentiles came to Jerusalem to see its glory (1 Kings 4-8; ca. 960-920 B.C.). Although close readers of Matthew often notice the parallels between Jesus and Moses, or Jesus and David, Solomon is often forgotten.
The story of Solomon and the Temple really begins with David’s infamous affair with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 11). The (second) child of David and Bathsheba was Solomon. As is well known, he asked for wisdom from the Lord, and received it (2 Chronicles 3:8-12), so that “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore” (1 Kings 4:29-30). Perhaps even greater than Solomon’s wisdom, however, is the fact that it is he who builds the dwelling-place of God, the Temple in Jerusalem. Although it is King David who originally asks to build God a “house,” the Lord denies his request and promises instead that David’s son will build the Temple (2 Samuel 7).
With this biblical background in mind, several striking parallels between Jesus and Solomon appear in Matthew’s Gospel. We’ve already noted how Matthew begins his Gospel by referring to Jesus as the “son of David” (Matt 1:1). This title not only highlights his Davidic lineage, but also calls to mind the most famous of David’s sons: King Solomon himself (2 Samuel 7:14). Just as Jesus is identified as the “beloved son” of God (Matthew 3:17), so too Solomon’s original name was Jedidiah, which means “beloved” in Hebrew (2 Samuel 12:24-25), and who is referred to by Nathan the prophet as the “son” of God (2 Samuel 7:14). Just as Solomon was anointed king with oil, by Zadok the priest in the river Gihon (1 Kings 1:38-39), so too Jesus is anointed with water and the Spirit by John the Baptist in the river Jordan (Matthew 3:13-16; cf. Luke 1:5, in which John is identified as a Levitical priest). Remarkably, Solomon was reputed to have composed some three thousand “parables” (Hebrew meshalim; Greek parabolas; 1 Kings 4:31-32, 34); so too Jesus spoke to the crowds “in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable” (Matthew 13:34). As the book of Sirach says of Solomon: “For your songs and proverbs and parables, and for your interpretations, the countries marveled at you” (Sirach 47:17).
Last, but not least, Matthew also frequently depicts Jesus performing exorcisms: over and over again in his Gospel, Jesus is busy casting out demonic spirits (Matt 4:24; 8:28-34; 9:33; 10:8; 17:20; 15:21-28). Although the Bible itself makes no reference to the fact, in ancient Jewish tradition, it is striking to note that king Solomon was believed to have been the greatest of all exorcists. According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, Solomon “left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return, and this method of cure is of great force unto this day” (Josephus, Antiquities 8.42-49). When this ancient Jewish tradition is taken into account, the Solomonic identity of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel becomes even clearer. By means of his exorcisms, Jesus is the true “Son of David” who, like Solomon “casts out demons” (cf. Matthew 12:22-28), but who, unlike Solomon, establishes a “kingdom” that will not be “divided” and torn to pieces (see Matthew 12:22-28). As Jesus declares at the end of this same chapter: “The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” (Mathew 12:42).
Although the above is but a few morsels of the rich typological fare Matthew sets before his readers, it nevertheless represents an important sampling of just how pervasive biblical typology is on the pages of the first Gospel. If preachers of Matthew’s Gospel are going to open up this treasure trove of insights into the mission and message of Jesus the Messiah in Matthew’s Gospel, close attention will have to be paid to the biblical background of every chapter, every image, and indeed every word in this amazing Gospel. In this way, the Gospel becomes both ancient and new, and the contemporary ‘scribe’ trained to interpret the word of God can truly become a scribe of the kingdom, “who brings out of his treasure”—that is, Matthew’s treasure—“what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52).
At a time when contemporary Christian familiarity with the persons and events of the Old Testament may not be at its historic peak, this may take a bit more effort than some other preaching endeavors. But in my experience, Christian students of the Word of God are hungry for a deeper understanding not just of the ethical message of the biblical text, but of the deeper meaning of salvation history as a whole. A typological approach to Matthew’s Gospel is one way—one excellent way—to lead open hearted followers of Christ to a deeper understanding of the first Gospel and a closer encounter with the one who is truly greater than Jacob, Moses, David or Solomon.