The Gospel of Matthew is a treasure house stored with a wealth of sermon material. Yet for many preachers the door to this treasury has been locked by Higher Critical scholars. But such was not the intent of those scholars. Their purpose was to clarify the teachings of the various books of the Bible, and Higher Criticism is indeed invaluable as an aid in the sphere of Biblical introduction, where it has a legitimate and important function. But as a result of the use of what sometimes proves to be only a critic’s imagination, the tendency has been to confuse rather than to clarify the text for the preacher.
What is in the mind of the present-day preacher as he takes a text from Matthew’s Gospel? One steeped in the lore of Higher Criticism immediately faces a number of questions. Is the text a translation from a document originally written in Aramaic? Does it come from Mark or from the hypothetical document Q? Or is its source some other unknown document? Or does it come from oral tradition? Does it show church or Hellenistic influence? Is it the work of the first or the second century? Is it the work of the original author, a redactor, or an editor? Is it legend, tradition, or history?
Caught in the maze of such questions; the preacher does not go to his pulpit and declare of the text, “Thus saith the Lord.” Indeed, to avoid insincerity he may turn away from the Bible as the source of sermon material and tum instead to current events, modem literature, social problems, or church programs.
But today something is happening in the realm of scholarship. Now one may dare to question long-venerated hypotheses without being accused of obscurantism. A prominent New Testament scholar, Dr. Vincent Taylor, in writing about a number of hypotheses under question says, “The celebrated Q Hypothesis is a case in point. In recent years it has been assailed by several scholars, including Abbot B. C. Butler, of Downside, in his Originality of St. Matthew (1951), and Dr. Austin Farrer, of Oxford, in A Study in St. Mark (1951). Its substance has been replaced by several Roman Catholic scholars of first rank, who prefer to think that the original sayings-source was an Aramaic Matthew used in the later Gospels” (The Expository Times, September, 1955). Other scholars, such as Professor J. H. Ropes, have questioned the very existence of the Q document.
As every scholar knows, the hypothetical Q document has entered into the warp and woof of almost every New Testament Introduction. The abandonment of this hypothesis will have the effect of making them obsolete. In the light of the recent assault on the Q hypothesis one may echo what Professor A. M. Hunter wrote concerning the “Proto-Luke Hypothesis,” “So twenty-five years after its propounding, this hypothesis remains hypothetical.”
A working hypothesis
A working hypothesis for the study of the Gospel of Matthew is this: The Gospel of Matthew was written by an eye-witness who received special grace and guidance from the Holy Spirit to give a faithful account of the things heard and seen and of information received from other sources.
The history of Higher Criticism reveals one discarded hypothesis after another. This is due to speculation in the absence of objective evidence. Generally, certain hypotheses have been adopted because they have been accepted by distinguished scholars. But, generation after generation, the subjective reasoning of scholars has been proved erroneous. Although desiring to give credit for constructive work, one cannot help questioning whether the influence of Higher Criticism on the study of the Bible is out of proportion to the lasting contributions it has made to the science of exegesis.
Uniqueness of Matthew
It is no accident that the Gospel of Matthew stands at the beginning of the New Testament, for Matthew forms the connecting link between the Old Testament and the New. More than any other Gospel, it concerns itself with Old Testament prophecy. There are over sixty references to the old dispensation. Frequently one finds such expressions as “that it might be fulfilled” and “thus it is written by the prophet.” This is in contrast to the absence of such expressions in Mark and Luke.
The Jewish constituency was foremost in the mind of the author of the Gospel of Matthew. This is seen incidentally in that he presupposes the reader will know the geography of Palestine and its customs, manners, and ceremonies. For instance, in the matter of washing the hands before eating bread, Matthew takes for granted that the readers are acquainted with that custom (Matt. 15: 1,2); but Mark feels that he should explain to his readers that this was the tradition among the Jews (Mark 7:3). Even more from the general content of the Gospel, we can sense that Matthew had Jewish readers in view. He wanted the Jews to see that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah who had come to establish the kingdom of heaven upon earth. But, alas, as Matthew so vividly portrays, the Jews would not recognize Jesus as the Saviour of Israel.
The conflict between the true conception of the Messiah and His kingdom and the false conception held by contemporary Judaism might be termed the plot of the Gospel. With increasing crescendo the Jewish leaders are warned and also denounced for their false views. This emphasis begins in the third chapter with John the Baptist warning the Pharisees and Sadducees that the axe was laid at the root of the tree and denouncing them as a generation of vipers. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns against the false righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. He distinguishes between the true meaning of the Old Testament teachings and the false accretions of the elders. In the eighth chapter Christ prophesies that “the children of the Kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness.” This is followed by such expressions as “O generation of vipers” (12:34), “ye hypocrites” (15:7), “blind leaders of the blind” (15: 14). A dramatic climax is reached with the denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in chapter 23.
The increasing enmity of the religious leaders may be gathered from these statements: “This man blasphemeth” (9:3); “Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?” (9: 11); “He casteth out devils through the prince of devils” (9:34); “Behold a man gluttonous, and a wine bibber” (11:19); “By what authority doest thou these things?” (21:23); “He is guilty of death” (26:66). This enmity is climaxed by the terrible cry, “Let Him be crucified.”
Though the apostle wrote with the Jews in mind, the note of universality is not missing. Matthew alone presents the story of the Magi, the first representatives of the Gentiles. He records the wonderful faith of the Roman centurion and the prophecy in connection with it: “Many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.” No doubt with sad heart he records another prophecy of Jesus: “The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” The great ecumenical reach of the Gospel is seen in the recording of the Great Commission: “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations” (ASV).
The following is a broad outline of the Gospel: (1) Introduction, chapters 1, 2; (2) Christ’s entrance into his public ministry, chapters 3-4: 12; (3) Galilean ministry, chapters 5: 12-18: 35; (4) Judea and Jerusalem, chapters 19, 20; (5) Passion Week, chapters 21-27; (6) Resurrection and Ascension, chapter 28.
Tools for exposition
For the study of each book of the Bible a minister should have at least three or four good commentaries. Because of its clear exegesis and homiletical aids the commentary by Dr. John A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, although first published in 1886, is still superior. A good example of the lexico-grammatical method of exegesis is H. A. W. Meyer, Handbook to the Gospel of Matthew (1875). One must be on guard against some of his conclusions; nevertheless his commentary is valuable. He is prone to assign needlessly a role to legend, e.g., the story of the Magi. Another standard work is Alfred Plummer’s An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (1909). Plummer does not give a verse-by-verse exposition. Rather, he treats each incident of discourse as a unit which is helpful.
Other commentaries of value are those of Calvin, Simeon, and Lenski. Calvin has rightly been called the prince of exegetes, and all later commentaries benefit from his work. In 1820 a work by Charles Simeon appeared under the title Expository Outlines on the Whole Bible. This work has recently been reprinted. The preacher who desires practical helps and outlines will find this book of great aid. Another recommended work is by a Lutheran scholar, R. C. Lenski, Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (1931).
The Church has been enriched with the labours of learned men in the field of exposition. Neglect of the fruits of their work can only impoverish the pulpit. A diligent use of the commentaries suggested above will enable the preacher to be like the householder described in Matthew 13: 52, “who bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.”
J. Marcellus Kik is associate editor of Christianity Today.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 60+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more