In the literature of the church that remains from the first three centuries the Gospel most often referred to is Matthew's. Its place in the order of the canon as the first Gospel probably reflects the church's estimation of its priority theologically rather than chronologically.
In order to understand the theology of Matthew's Gospel it is helpful to begin at the ending. Its climatic conclusion, the Great Commission (28:16-20), has been called the key to the Gospel's theology. Several important themes are brought together in these verses.
First is the focus on the resurrected Christ. Each of the Gospel writers portrays a facet of Jesus' life and ministry. Prominent in Matthew's Gospel is the picture of Jesus as the Christ, the messianic Son of God who was also the suffering servant.
At this baptism Jesus told John that his ministry was "to fulfill all righteousness" (3:15). Righteousness in Matthew is a term meaning covenant faithfulness, obedience to God. An angel told Joseph that Jesus "will save his people from their sins" (1:21). Later Jesus told his disciples that he had come "to give his life as a ransom for many" (20:28). The prayer of this righteous Son in Gethsemane, "not my will but yours be done" (26:39), was fulfilled on the cross and affirmed by the Roman soldier's confession, "Surely he was the Son of God" (27:54). Christ had fulfilled all righteousness. He had been perfectly obedient to the Father's will. It was this resurrected Christ, possessing the regal authority of God (13:37-42; 26:64), who appeared to the disciples to commission them.
Another aspect of Matthean Christology is the affirmation of Christ's spiritual presence with the disciples. Jesus assured the disciples, "I will be with you" (28:20). The first of a series of OT texts cited by Matthew is Isaiah's prophecy of Immanuel (Isa. 7:14). Its significance is made clear in the phrase "God with us" (1:23; Isa. 8:10). Christ's presence continues. Jesus' promise to the disciples, "Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (18:20), was additional confirmation of his presence. Matthew wanted his readers to know that the regal ascended Christ was also spiritually present with his disciples (cf. Eph. 1:22-23).
This relates also to the Gospel's ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. Alone among the Gospels Matthew used the word "church" (Gr. ekklesia, 16:18; 18:17). Not without reason has this been called "a pastoral Gospel." Matthew saw that much of what Jesus had taught the disciples was applicable to the church of his own day. Of great importance in this regard was the commission to make disciples of all nations (28:19).
Jesus preached the good news (4:23) to Jews (Galilee and Judea, 4:25) and Gentiles (Decapolis, 4:25). His disciples and the church which they founded (16:18) were to do the same. John's Gospel records Jesus' self-confession, "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12). Matthew, on the other hand, underscored the disciples' missionary responsibility by recording Jesus' statement, "You are the light of the world" (5:14).
The disciples, and the church, were to continue the ministry of Christ.
They were to make disciples of all nations. Israel, indeed, had been temporarily displaced as God's chosen instrument of ministry (21:43). But this displacement was not permanent (19:28; 23:39). However hard of heart most Jews might be to the gospel, the mission to Israel was to continue alongside the mission to the Gentiles until Christ returned at the end of the age (10:23; 28:20; cf. Rom. 11:11-12, 25-26).
Making disciples involved more than preaching the gospel, however. Matthew recorded Jesus' commission to make disciples by "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (28:20). A disciple was to be righteous, to be obedient to God.
The model for the disciple was Jesus, the perfect Son who fulfilled all righteousness by rendering complete obedience to the Father's will (4:4, 10). That same righteousness was to characterize the disciple (5:20). Obedience to God was to be a priority in the disciple's life (6:33). Complete devotion to the Father was the goal (5:48).
The will of the Father was made known in the teaching of Jesus. Matthew devoted a considerable portion of his Gospel to the record of Jesus' teaching. In addition to five distinct units (5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23-25), Jesus' instruction is repeatedly featured in the Gospel elsewhere (e.g., 9:12-17).
But Matthew was under no illusion that knowledge alone would lead to righteousness. Teaching was essential, but it had to be met with faith. Despite their scrupulous observance of the law, Jesus had excoriated the Pharisees for lack of faith (23:23). The righteousness recognized by God was first of all inward and spiritual (6:4, 6, 18; cf. Rom. 2:28-29). Those who believed in Jesus had their lives transformed (8:10; 9:2, 22, 29). Not so much the greatness but the presence of faith was important (17:20).
Where faith existed, however, it might be weak and wavering. Matthew reminded his readers that even in the presence of the resurrected Christ, some of the disciples doubted (28:17). Frequently Jesus addressed the disciples as ones of "little faith" (6:30; 8:26; 16:8). This was exemplified in Peter's experience. He boldly responded to Jesus' call to come to him on the water but then wavered in his faith because of the fearful circumstances (14:30). Without the intervention of Jesus he might have perished.
Matthew likely saw an application in this for his readers. Jesus had warned his disciples of the persecution facing those who proclaimed the gospel (5:11-12; 10:24-25). They would be opposed by Jew and Gentile (10:17-18). The natural response in the face of such opposition was fear (10:26-31). Self-preservation led to denial of Christ (10:32-33). This was what Peter had done at Jesus' trial (26:69-74).
Jesus responded to Peter's failure on the sea by rescuing him. In the same way, failures of faith among the disciples and the sin that resulted should be met not with condemnation but with forgiveness and restoration (18:10-14).
The designation "little ones" in 18:6, 10, 14 may refer to disciples like Peter whose faith was weak in the midst of difficult circumstances. In 10:41-42 Matthew recorded Jesus' description of prophets and righteous men as "little ones." The next verses relate the imprisonment of John the Baptist and his question about Jesus as Messiah (11:2-3). Jesus met John's doubts with assuring words (11:4-6) and went on to commend him (11:7-19). That was the model for ministry to those in need (cf. 10:42; 25:34-40) and the spirit in which the Great Commission could be carried out.
This mission was to continue until the "end of the age" (28:20). When the gospel had been preached to all nations, then the end would come (24:14) and Christ would reign as king (25:31-34). Reference to a kingdom recurs throughout the Gospel. The beginning verses link Jesus to David the king (1:1, 6). Unlike the other Gospels, Matthew uses the phrase "kingdom of heaven" far more frequently (thirty-three times) than the phrase "kingdom of God" (four times). The expressions are probably equivalent with a possible difference in emphasis only. The "kingdom of heaven" may stress the spiritual nature of the kingdom.
The term "kingdom" seems to have a spiritual and a physical aspect to its meaning. The spiritual aspect was present in the ministry of Jesus (12:28) but the physical consummation is anticipated at his return (19:28). The kingdom of heaven about which Jesus preached was entered by repentance (4:17). Forgiveness was based ultimately on Christ's death (26:28).
Opposed to the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of Satan (4:8-9; 12:26), from whom those with faith in Christ are delivered (12:27-28). While Satan is powerless before the Spirit of God (12:28), nonetheless he will actively hinder and counterfeit the work of God until the consummation (13:38-39).
The ministry of the kingdom carried on by Christ is continued by the church (16:18). The Spirit who enabled Christ to carry out his work (12:28) will enable the disciples to continue it (10:20). The ministry of the church is thus a phase of the kingdom program of God. Ultimately God's program with Israel would also be compelted with a positive response to the gospel of the kingdom (19:28; 23:39; cf. Rom. 9:4-6; 11:25-27). Then the "end of the age" (28:20) will come. The king will separate the righteous from the unrighteous (7:21-23), the sheep from the goats (25:31-46), the wheat from the tares (13:37-43). Those who have not done the Father's will (7:21), who have not believed in Christ (18:6), will merit eternal punishment (13:42; 25:46). The righteous will enter into eternal life (13:43; 25:46). Until then, the followers of Christ were to "make disciples of all nations" (28:19).
D K Lowery
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
E. P. Blair, Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew; P. F. Ellis, Matthew: His Mind and His Message; R. H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art; D. Hill, The Gospel of Matthew; J. D. Kingsbury, Matthew: Structure, Christology, Kingdom; J. P. Meier, The Vision of Matthew; E. Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew; R. E. O. White, The Mind of Matthew.