The Gospel According to Matthew
Part 1 by: Ronald L. Dart
Today, I have a curious job. I want to take a book that is probably very familiar to you and make it unfamiliar. The book is "The Gospel According To Matthew." It is the first book in the New Testament, and because it is the first book in the New Testament, it's arguably the most read book in the Bible.
I would say if you call yourself a Christian, you have probably read the book of Matthew many times. Now the reason I want you to approach it as an unfamiliar book, is because of the old human habit of seeing what we expect to see. We have so many ideas about Jesus. So many preconceptions about Christianity, that sometimes when we read through the Gospel accounts, we see things that are not really there, and at the same time, we fail to see things that are right in front of your face.
Take the title of the book for instance. The title of the book is not Matthew, although we speak of it that way all the time. We say, "In Matthew 14 verse eight you find this ..." The title of the book is not "Matthew," the title of the book is not "The Gospel of Matthew." The title of the book is: "The Gospel According To Matthew." Then when you get to Luke you will find "The Gospel According to Luke." You'll find "The Gospel According to Mark" and "The Gospel According to John."
Now, I think it is really fascinating that not one of these books and there is no book that does this, purports to be, (quote) "The Gospel of Jesus Christ" (end quote). And that's really interesting all by itself.
Now, if I were to tell you that there was a mishap that happened to a friend of ours and another friend of ours named Bill, actually saw the event, and I give you the whole story about what happened, about this mishap and then I say, "Well at least that is the story according to Bill." What have I told you? What do you conclude from that? Well, right off the bat, you will conclude that I was not a witness, but Bill was. And I have also acknowledged, that another witness might have seen things a little differently from Bill. Now, I don't mean to suggest by that, that Bill is anything less than absolutely truthful. All I'm saying is that Bill might not have seen everything that there was to be seen, so that little phrase 'according to' that you see in the titles of all those Gospel accounts in your Bible, is really very significant. It tells you that, the person who put the title up there says, "That this is the message, that this is the Gospel according to this person. He is telling you his version and his story.
12 Official Witnesses
Now I get the feeling that people often approach the four Gospels with some misconceptions. Chief among these is the fact that they forget that the men are witnesses, who are passing on their official testimony. Now, what do I mean by that? Well, you know in the New Testament, it tells us that Jesus was very careful to select these original 12 apostles and when Judas, one of the 12 betrayed Him and committed suicide, we find that the apostles when they got together had to replace Judas. There had to be 12. In the first chapter of Acts there is this little segment that Peter stands up and in front of them all, and he says, "Now, from those among us, who accompanied us from the beginning until now, must one be appointed to be a witness of His resurrection."
So, there were 12 official witnesses of Christ's resurrection. I think that's an important consideration. Now, when we come back to the four Gospel accounts, why would I say that these are the official testimony of these people? Well, let me draw this distinction. In the New Testament you have the official testimony, where someone sits down and deliberately tries to lay out the story so that we could hear it, read it and understand it. Then, there are other places in the Bible where people sit down and they write letters, epistles as they are called in the New Testament, to other people or other small groups of people. These epistles or letters are very focused, they deal with specific problems of the day. They deal with the problems of specific people, sometimes they are addressed to one person and there's a relationship between, say, Paul, on the one hand, and Timothy on the other, that is rather fascinating, as one reads through first and second Timothy and discovers this relationship and analyzes the things that Paul feels he should tell Timothy.
But Paul, when he sits down and writes the letter to Timothy, is not thinking of these letters in terms of 'testimony,' of bearing witness to anything. He is just writing to Timothy, but because you and I take the letters, we have somehow come into possession of them, they become evidence, for us, and they are a testimony of sorts, even though the person who wrote the letter was not attempting to give us testimony.
Testimonials and Affidavits
But Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, did very much intend to give us testimony. They intended to testify to the ministry and the work of Jesus Christ. In a manner of speaking, what you have in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is the equivalent of four sworn affidavits, concerning a span of 3 1/2 years in the life and work of one, Jesus of Nazareth. They will tell you a little bit about what went before that ministry, but since they were not really witnesses to it, they give it very short shrift.
What Luke had to say about the birth of Jesus, he had to glean from Mary or other people who were there at the time because he wasn't. That is one of the reasons as you read through these accounts, you find the early years of Jesus so sparsely represented. We would love to know a lot of things about the childhood of Jesus and what happened when he was 16? What happened when he was eight, but the truth is, what the New Testament is concerned with is the testimony about His message and about His ministry, not so much about His life as such.
So, these gospel accounts are affidavits. These official testimonies are of the 3 1/2 year period of the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, eyewitness accounts can oftentimes differ because people are standing in different places. If you're standing behind a man you can't see his facial expression. If you were standing in the room when Jesus healed a man with a withered hand but you were behind the guy with a withered hand and you actually didn't see the withered arm, you didn't see it in the process of being straightened out and become whole just like the other one. You're just not in a position to testify about that event, like an apostle who was standing in front of him and saw the hand become whole. That's easy to understand.
Now, in the case of the gospel accounts, all of the 12 may not have been present when some given event happened and so consequently they may be telling you about it from 'hearsay.' They may not tell you about it all. They may eliminate it completely from their account. Not because it didn't happen but because they weren't there.
Jury and Affidavits
Now if you were sitting on a jury where these affidavits were being presented, you would have the task of reading through the affidavits and trying to come to a conclusion about what really happened here. You would not start with the assumption that the witness was lying or that any of the witnesses were lying, rather, you would start with the assumption that they are telling the truth, and they have no particular reason to lie. This is especially true in court, where they come into court, they put their hand on the Bible, they raise their right hand to heaven and they swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You have no reason to believe they're not telling the truth because if they are found not to be telling the truth, they could go to jail. This is serious business.
Witnesses Telling the Truth
But really, we start with the assumption that these witnesses are telling the truth. The fact is, if you look back at all these historical documents, if you don't start from the presumption that people are telling the truth, then, you have to conclude that no historical document has any reliance at all, because a lie is only meaningful as it set against the background of the truth, that is to say, it only has a chance of working in an environment of the truth.
Now, if you read these accounts, you're going to find it very difficult to conclude that these men are lying. Just because the accounts differ in various ways would not lead you to believe that the witnesses were false, you would only come to the conclusion that they approach the facts of the case differently.
Affidavits Absolutely Identical
Let me ask you this, "If you're a member of the jury, and these four affidavits are presented to you and every affidavit is absolutely identical, what would you conclude? Well, if the attorney who presented them before you, laid them out or the witnesses who said this, these are the affidavits that are there, you would conclude somebody, someplace is lying. In fact, the whole story would be called into question. If every single one of these documents was identical, word for word. At the very best, what you would conclude is, you have the testimony of one witness, not four, and so you're left with the curious anomaly that the variance in the documents, even the seeming disagreement between the documents, serves to substantiate something very important, that these documents were created independently of one another, that they are the testimony of witnesses that are not in collusion, not in collaboration, not attempting to deceive you, but are simply trying to tell their story the best way they can tell it.
So when we call this 'The Gospel According To Matthew,' we acknowledge that this is the testimony of a witness to the Gospel. Now, there are some related questions that need to be talked about here and we will talk about them.
Scriptures Are Inspired
Now it's true that Christian people hold various opinions about the authority and the inspiration of Scripture. They will all agree and they all will say, "Yes, I believe that the Scriptures are inspired, I believe that all four of the Gospels are inspired," but they will really disagree about the nature of inspiration of the documents, but let's hold on a moment, because I will guess that there is someone out there who is going to ask the obvious question and one that a lot of us Christian folks don't ask very often and it's important.
He says, "Okay. It's well and good for you Christian people to say you believe the Bible is inspired, but I'm not a Christian yet! How can I know that it is inspired?" You will say, "Well over there, Paul wrote to Timothy and he said "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine ......" The person listens patiently and then says, "Okay, fine, but what you're telling me is that there is a Scripture that says the Scripture is inspired, but the Scripture in that case is bearing witness of itself. Isn't it?" "Uh, well, uh, yeah, I guess in a sense, that is what's happening."
So, how do you explain it to the non-Christian? What you're going to have to explain to him is the testimony, if you are going to try to testify about the Bible, you can't use the Bible as the testimony, so you have to go back to something else and say, "The Bible is inspired because," and you've got to give him something, don't you, that will help this non-Christian, who is trying to become a Christian, find a way to trust the Bible. Say "Yes that is the word of God. Yes it is inspired. Yes, I really do believe that." You know I could come to you right now, I could say, "Now, I am inspired by God and you would not consider my claim of inspiration to prove anything, would you?
You would have to have something outside of that claim, my own claim, because all I'm doing is bearing witness to myself.
Now what we are really looking for when we argue that the Bible is inspired, is, we are looking for an authority. So when we ask if the Bible is inspired, we are asking if it is authoritative. Is it the word of God that I'm reading here or is it the word of Matthew? Or do I dare ask this, is it both? Is it possible to be the word of God and to be the word of Matthew?
Now the core of the problem of Biblical inspiration is this, as I ask you a moment ago, if I come to you and claim that God inspires my word, is that proof that He does? Of course not! So if the Bible itself claims inspiration, why should a person who is not a Christian or a believer yet, consider that as proof that the Bible is inspired? Now, I realize how heretical this sounds, I am sure, but we have got to approach this thing honestly don't we? And if the unbeliever approaches you with his question, what are you going to do with the poor guy? Are you just going to quote Scripture to him and tell him the Bible's inspired? What he wants to know is if the Scripture is trustworthy, true or believable in the first place. You and I believe the Bible is inspired, but what we believe is not relevant to his question. In fact, the belief in Biblical inspiration can only come after the witnesses have been heard, not before.
But in fact, it is not a mere claim to inspiration that leads us to the conclusion that the Scriptures are inspired. It is the Scriptures as a whole, for one has to listen to all of the testimony of the witnesses, before we can really decide whether this man or this woman who is testifying to us is really believable.
Now, in studying the witnesses, we are allowed to ask, if they are telling the truth. It's perfectly all right for you, to open up your Bible, read one of the New Testament books like Matthew or Mark or Luke or John and ask yourself, "Is this man telling the truth?" If we believe they are and if a part of their claim is that they are inspired, then we are also entitled to ask how they were inspired? And we are entitled to ask what that inspiration actually means?
For example, by saying that, "Matthew's Gospel was inspired by God," do we mean that Matthew sat down at a table and there was a voice, the Holy Spirit was in the room with him and he heard this voice in his ear, dictating the words, and all that Matthew had to do was sit there and write them down. Now if that's the case, then surely we are dealing with, and in Matthew, the word of God, the problem we have is obvious, how do we know that that's what happened? Because there are two significant problems with it. First, if the Holy Spirit dictated the message to each of the gospel writers, then the title really ought to be, 'The Gospel According to the Holy Spirit,' shouldn't it? Rather than "The Gospel According to Matthew?
And also, you have to understand that if that is true, then we are left with only one witness, which according to God's Law, is not enough. You probably have heard this much about the Bible "That in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established" (Matthew 18:16, Deuteronomy 19:15). God wants in any court of justice, there is to be at least two witnesses, preferably more, to testify as to the truth of events, circumstances, persons, crimes, whatever it may be.
Why Didn’t Jesus Write His Own Gospel?
Now, this may also answer the question for us, if we think about it long enough, as to why Jesus did not write His own Gospel, because that would've been very useful, wouldn't it, for Jesus to have written a Gospel. Let's say the length of all four Gospels combined, laid out exactly and precisely what it was He was trying to say. It would have answered a lot of the questions that have been raised and of course, if He's doing it, the Holy Spirit is doing all this together, then they can anticipate the problems we would have and it would clear up all those things and leave it clean as a whistle for us so we would know exactly how to obey God, exactly what to do, exactly where to go.
Why didn't Jesus write His own Gospel? Well, He would've been bearing witness of Himself, and He said, "If I bear witness of myself then my witness is not true" (John 5:31-32). He says basically that, you can't treat it as the truth, if I bear witness of Myself.
Four Different Minds
It is clear that in reading the four Gospel accounts that they all have different perspectives, different styles, different vocabulary, you don't even need to read Greek to recognize it. By the time you get through reading these four Gospel accounts, in any translation that I have ever seen, you are going to be left with the very clear distinction that you are dealing with four different minds. And of course if you're able to read them in the original languages and if you have the skills to study them carefully, you are going to become even more convinced of the fact that you're dealing with four different minds, because you have got different vocabularies, syntax and structure, the way they approach things, the way they think about it.
Now, I have no question in my mind that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were inspired as they wrote. They were inspired in the sense of being empowered, motivated, and encouraged to write. But what if in the process of empowering and motivating them, having done this, then God left them strictly alone in the writing process. What if He did that? How do we know He didn't? Well, why would He do that? The answer to that is not hard to find really.
What is the point in having witnesses, if the judge is going to tell him what to say? I mean, you are sitting here in a jury and they bring this witness up to the stand, and they set the poor guy down there and the judge asks him a question and then gives him the answer he is supposed to give and the guy repeats it just like the judge says. Then he gets up and leaves the courtroom and the judge then says, "Now you heard this witness." No, you have not heard the witness! You heard the judge. The judge has told you what to believe, and told you what's supposed to have happened. The next question you would have, if you're honest with yourself, you would ask, "What am I doing here, the judge doesn't need me? He has his mind made up, let him decide. Let me get out of here."
Believing is Not quite the Same as Seeing
Now, if you're a Bible reader, you already know how important the ideas of witnesses, testimonies and belief are in the Bible. The words crop up again and again and again. You're supposed to believe! Now believing is not quite the same as seeing. You may say, "Seeing is believing," but believing is not necessarily seeing. You believe things many times that you have not seen. Fair enough? You believe things oftentimes based on the testimony of people.
So when the Bible speaks of believing, it means that you the jury have decided that you're going to believe the testimony of the witnesses. Your belief then, in Jesus Christ, your belief in God, your belief in salvation, rests on the testimony of real witnesses. It does not rest in the allegation of this or that church father who tells you that the Bible was inspired. Think about it. If you have some church father down about the year 200, who writes a letter and tells you that the Bible was inspired. Are you're going to believe that because he told you that? Well, I suspect that there are a lot of people who do! They believe that the Bible was inspired because this or that church father told them it was so.
So why then should I believe that the testimony of the New Testament is true because of what Eusebius or Origen or Clement or one of those early church fathers said? I mean why do I believe their testimony because of what they say? Why don't I listen to the testimony itself? The problem is a problem of evidence. One can assert Biblical inspiration of this or that form but what is the evidence they bring into court? The evidence, my friend, is the testimony of the witnesses, and that testimony must first be established, before you can believe it. You have to hear it. If you're going to be the one who believes or doesn't believe. You have to listen to it carefully. You have to analyze it. You may want some help from someone in analyzing it. You may want a scholar, you may want to know what the early church fathers had to say about the books for that matter. But the truth is, you have got to understand the testimony before you can believe it or not believe it.
Your Faith May Be Vulnerable
I may be wrong, but I have a feeling there are a lot of people who say they believe in Jesus, who have really not heard very much of the testimony. They have accepted it on the 'say-so' of others.
I am going to tell you something that may make you a little uncomfortable, but you need to understand this. If you have never carefully studied the Testimonies of the Witnesses of Jesus Christ, then your faith is vulnerable. It could very easily be shaken. You can very easily fall aside from the faith that you think you believe, and the Christianity or the religion in which you trust, because you have not founded it upon the testimony of the real witnesses. You have taken the word of other people, of secondary witnesses to them.
What am I saying? I am saying , if you call yourself a Christian, you need to be very familiar with the Gospel according to Matthew and Mark and Luke and John.
Study Carefully the Testimony of Matthew
In this series of articles, we are going to study carefully the testimony of one of these witnesses, his name is Matthew and we are going to assume, that Matthew is accurate and truthful. By the time we finish his account, I will suggest this to you, we will never be able to assume that the man is less than truthful. We should avoid, however, as we study Matthew imposing 21st century standards of accuracy upon him. Matthew did not have a tape recorder. He did not have a transcription machine, so his recollection and his testimony of the precise words of Jesus may differ ever so slightly from the testimony of Luke. Now this is not in the category of an error. The objective is the sense of what Jesus said, not the precise words and since we don't read the original languages, precision is not very useful to us anyway. Think about it. A verbally inspired original is useless without a verbally inspired translation, and of course neither one of them is subject to empirical proof on our part.
The power of the four Gospels lies in their independence and their truthfulness. It does not lie in their verbal accuracy. You cannot impeach a witness because of technical variances in his testimony. Let me tell you what I mean. Suppose you're a jury member and they bring in a witness. The first witness testifies that the defendant walked into the room, shouted obscenities at the teacher, shot him dead, then slapped a girl who was screaming, then left the room. Got it! That's the crime.
Then we call in another witness, and this witness tells us that, the defendant entered the room, shouted obscenities at the instructor, waved a gun, slapped a screaming girl near him, then shot the instructor and then left the room.
One of them says that he slapped the girl before he shot the instructor and the other witness said as he slapped the girl after he shot the instructor and there's other little small differences.
Let me ask you, are you prepared to acquit the defendant based on inconsistencies in this testimony? Not likely! Did both witnesses tell the truth? Absolutely! Did they agree on the time line? No. But wait for it, the time line was not a part of the truth. The time line was not critical in this particular case, if the time line were a part of the truth, we would have to deal with it. But in this case, there is no question, that the man who is accused, walked into the room and shot this man dead!
And the inconsistency between these two witnesses, far from putting aside the truth of the matter, establishes their independence and makes both of the more believable. Odd, isn't it?
You will find that the gospel writers will from time to time vary in the time line of the events in Jesus' ministry, but the time line is not part of the objective truth. What we will come to see is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John set out to testify as to the truth of Jesus' message and of His ministry.
What we are going to be doing in this series of articles is looking at the life and ministry of Jesus Christ through the eyes of Matthew, an eyewitness, a real person, who finally late in his life sat down to tell us what Jesus said and did.
Until next time, this is Ronald Dart saying, "Listen to the witness."
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This article was transcribed with
minor editing from a Born to Win Radio Program by: Ronald L. Dart
Titled: The Gospel According to Matthew - Part 1
Transcribed by: bb 8-1-21
Ronald L. Dart is an evangelist and is heard daily and weekly
on his Born to Win radio program.
The program can be heard on over one hundred radio stations across the nation.
In the Portsmouth, Ohio area you can listen to the Born to
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