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Jesus in Matthews gospel

Sermon series two.

A baby was born to an unknown couple; his life was threatened by the king from the first; his parents took desperate measures to save him.

Sound familiar? Who am I talking about?

Jesus? Moses?

Both answers are right, and the two together are perfect.

Remember last time I was explaining that the writer of Matthew’s gospels was a Jew, and that this is clear in the way he presented his material about Jesus.

As well as the writer being a Jewish Christian, he was writing for a community of Christians who had converted from Judaism, a Jewish Christian church. They would all have been very familiar with the OT and Matthew did not need to explain when he was alluding to OT traditions and stories. They recognised them without that.

Last time we saw that the gospel is structured to remind readers of the 5 Books of Moses, the Torah or Pentateuch, with the five sections of teaching material that Jesus delivered. Like Moses, Jesus is the great law giver - only he is better than Moses.

 So when we look at the birth story in Matthew, it is no surprise that Moses is there between the lines again. His life was threatened by the Pharaoh who had decreed that all Jewish baby boys should be killed at birth. Jesus was sought at his birth by King Herod, who wanted to kill him to protect his own right to the throne and his heirs.

The slaughter of the innocents, we call it, when Herod decreed that all boys under 2 should be killed- echoing terribly the slaughter of Israelite baby boys about 1300 years before.

Jesus’ parents took him to Egypt for safety - just as Joseph brought his family into Egypt for safety during the famine - and it's important because Matthew can then say, ‘out of Egypt have I called my son’ - quoted from the OT and really it's about Israel leaving Egypt at the Exodus. Like gods people under Moses as leader, Jesus comes out of Egypt to become a great leader, far greater than Moses.

The next main thing we learn about Jesus from Matthew is at his baptism.  Whenever there is water, a river or sea, in the narrative, look for the symbolic links with big moments in Israel's past.

There are so many water stories in the OT. Moses divided the Red Sea and led the Israelites through. Joshua divided the river Jordan and led the people into the promised land. Elijah divided the Jordan too with his mantle, his cloak, and Elisha did the same to show that he had inherited Elijah's power.

Matthew is setting out to show that Jesus exceeds all that these great leaders in the past were:  Moses, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha.  Jesus did not split the river Jordan. That had been done before! So Matthew’s Jesus does not split the waters of the Jordan, he splits the heavens instead. To understand why, we need to remember Genesis 1, the creation story which says the firmament, or the sky, was made to separate the waters above from the waters beneath.  So Jesus steps into the Jordan, but splits not the H2O waters, but the firmament above, which releases the heavenly waters, and down came the Holy Spirit, the dove.  “Living water” is always a Jewish synonym for the Holy Spirit. The dove flew down and landed on him. This is not just a passing bird looking for a handy perch. Matthew was saying that Jesus split the boundary between heaven and earth, between the human and the divine, and a voice from heaven then called Jesus God’s “unique” son, that is to say, the one in whom the divine is met supremely. Here the divine is experienced in the human. Matthew’s baptism account is an interpretation of Jesus as the one in whom God was uniquely present, beyond any God presence the Jewish people had ever known. Both Matthew and his Jewish audience would have understood this message.

The words spoken as the firmament cracks open they would have recognised as quoted from Isaiah 42: ‘here is my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him’. This was one of the passages about the mysterious suffering servant, the perfect servant of God who sometimes seems to be the whole people of Israel, sometimes their king, sometimes one rejected by them all. Matthew of course wants to say, just as Jesus is greater than Moses or Joshua or Elijah with all their water splitting, so he was greater than the servant of Isaiah.

Immediately after the baptism of course Jesus retreats into the wilderness and stays there for 40 days - the symbolic number used also in the time the Israelites wandered in the wilderness - 40 years in their case - while God tried to mould them through Moses’ leadership into a people that would worship him. They went through all sorts of tests and trials, most of which -well all really - they failed. We are back to Jesus being compared to Moses - Jesus too has trials in the wilderness and is tempted to abandon God and worship other things, power, influence, fame, popularity. But in his case of course, he resists all these temptations and shows that unlike faithless Israel, he truly worships God alone. He is the perfect Israelite.

Well you are getting the general gist! No need to continue through the gospel. But whatever you are reading about Jesus, always ask yourself, does this echo some event in the OT? If so what is it saying about Jesus? Looking at that OT event is likely to throw light on why the story is there and what it is supposed to say to us.

Finally just to explain why this polemic was so necessary when Matthew was writing. It was towards the end of the first century; the new Christian church was under persecution, especially from the Jewish synagogues. It was absolutely necessary to put this gospel out there, written by an expert in the Jewish scriptures, to demonstrate just what Stephen and Paul said in their first speeches that we read in Acts - that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. Matthew takes this approach and explores it to the nth degree.  This would have been a powerful piece of literature in the Jewish community.

For us it is a reminder that we too need to put Jesus into his context as a Jew, and as a child of the scriptures. We will never understand the gospel properly without knowing the OT - those centuries of faith and reflection, the theological concepts they had developed and explored, the troubles they had been through, are all essential background and context for the figure of Jesus coming on the scene in the first century. He did not come out of nowhere. He was a child of his history as we all are, and to understand him we need to do our homework especially as we Gentiles are no longer intimately connected to the history of Israel, it’s no longer second nature to us. When we read Matthew, we are reading a very different gospel from Luke that we have been hearing week by week through this year. Luke was written for Gentiles -it’s much easier for us to understand, it has more universal appeal and clarity. Matthew speaks a special cultural language and communicates via the symbols and concepts of his ancestral faith and culture.