“I have tried drugs and a little of everything else, and there is nothing in the world more soul-satisfying than having the kingdom of God building inside you and growing.“
– Johnny Cash
When we read through Matthew’s Gospel, it is unmistakable that the Kingdom of God has an incredible significance in his account of Jesus. In a striking 53 references, we see a brilliant interweaving of a theology for the Kingdom with a revelation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and rightful King. Many scholars at the very least agree on the significance of the Kingdom in Matthew’s Gospel, with many concluding it is the unifying theme around which the story told by Matthew focuses. This reality has vast implications for how we read Matthew’s Gospel and how we live accordingly. To summarize these thoughts, I would suggest that the central purpose of Matthew’s Gospel is revelation of the Kingdom of God and Jesus as the rightful, rejected, yet reigning King.
When we consider the individual purposes of the Gospel writers, it is, of course, important to remember that all of the biblical witness carries the fundamental purpose of recording God’s revelation of Himself to mankind. However, it is both helpful and necessary that we see that God has unique purposes for progressively revealing His Word as he has throughout time, at various stages of redemptive history, across cultures and through various authorial pens. All of Scripture attests to the same God, functioning concurrently but not uniformly. The same is true for our fourfold Gospel witness. Have you ever wondered why we have four Gospels that supposedly tell the story of one Jesus? Have you been curious as to why these four accounts seem to overlap at various times, present the order of events differently, or even omit what seem to be crucial teachings of Jesus? There are many explanations as to why this is, but for the sake of the discussion about purpose/theme, suffice it to say that the Gospel writers all recorded completely true accounts, but did so uniquely both for theological purposes (to reveal certain truths about Jesus and the gospel) and rhetorical purposes (to reveal these truths for a specific audience).
With that said, we have just a little background to start considering some of the unique themes of Matthew’s Gospel and his portrait of Jesus. As I stated before, the central theme of Matthew’s Gospel very apparently seems to be the Kingdom of God. You might notice that the phrase “the Kingdom of God” is not so common in Matthew’s Gospel, but is instead expressed by the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven”. Some scholars have suggested that the reason for this is because Matthew’s Jewish audience would have been familiar with and even naturally formed language to avoid using God’s name out of reverence. This certainly fits well within Jewish theology and does accurately depict Matthew’s intended Jewish audience, but there is very little reason to believe this to be the reason for Matthew’s phraseology. Others, like RT France, reject this idea but still hold that Matthew’s usage of KOH and KOG have perhaps slightly different meanings. Still yet, scholars like Jonathan Pennington, reject that Matthew’s usage of KOH is “reverential circumlocution” (or – not using God’s name out of reverence) but is instead synonymous with the usage of KOG and actually fits within and serves a larger theme of Heaven/Earth in Matthew. I wholly agree with the latter of these arguments.
However, there is far more to the significance of the Kingdom than just its prominence in the vocabulary of Matthew. As I stated at the onset, one of the most helpful places to look for the significance of the Kingdom in Matthew is his portrayal of Jesus. Ultimately, Matthew’s Gospel is a call to follow a person. Donald Senior writes, “Every aspect of Matthew’s theology is ultimately connected with his convictions about the identity and meaning of Jesus.” The person of Jesus is intricately interwoven with Matthew’s theological purposes, but rather than giving a systematic theology of Jesus, Matthew primarily takes a biographical approach in revealing a person. The picture of that person has been debated by scholars for centuries. Ben Witherington suggests that Jesus resembles a “sage”. E.P. Sanders suggests Jesus is an “apocalyptic prophet”. Some have even imported certain inaccurate and unhelpful social paradigms to suggest that Jesus was a subversive patriarchal-fighting feminist (see E.S. Fiorenza). This discussion is surely important because the person of Jesus is important in for the Gospel writers. I wouldn’t say that any of these portrayals (save for that last one) are incorrect. I would suggest, however, that the best portrayal of Jesus (particularly in Matthew’s writing) will highlight the theological significance of Jesus as Messiah/Prophet/King. For the purpose of this discussion on centrality of the Kingdom in Matthew’s Gospel through the revelation of Christ as King, I will focus on the latter of those aspects. As I stated before, Matthew’s presentation of Jesus is as the rightful, rejected, yet reigning King. From the very beginning of this gospel account, we get important insight into the person of Jesus:
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
– Matthew 1:1
This genealogy might seem unimportant and you might have been tempted just to skip over a long list of names you don’t know, but there is actually incredible significance here. Luke’s Gospel also includes a genealogy, but it begins with Adam. Interestingly, Matthew’s account begins with a genealogy starting first with Abraham, but the significant figure ordering this list is that he was the Son of David. Why is this important? Abraham, of course, was the Father of the Israelites, the covenant people of God (Genesis 12:1-3). They were the people of God’s blessing and Abraham was, understandably, an important figure for the identity of Israel. This explains why Matthew might start the genealogy with Abraham: it’s a prophetic reading of the promise first made to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 – that through Abraham’s offspring – the world would be blessed. The Messianic interpretation would tell us that through the covenant of Christ, the descendent of Abraham, the world will be blessed. But David is also a key figure in this genealogy; he calls Jesus Christ the Son of David. In 2 Samuel 7:12-16, God promises to establish David’s Son Solomon as King, but suggests that all his lineage would be established in the ruling of the Israelites. This is where the theology of Second Temple Jews (Jews in the 1st Century – after the temple was rebuilt in 516 BC to its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE) is important because they carried with them a certain expectation that God would bring about redemption through the throne of David. As it says in Amos 9:11, “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old”. Likewise, Jeremiah prophesies of how “David will never lack a man to sit on the Thorne of the house of Israel” (Jeremiah 33:17). Embedded in the theology of the Jews, particularly Second Temple Jews, was an expectation that God would rebuild, restore, and reestablish His Kingdom.
Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ genealogy is mean to cue up that connection for his primarily Jewish audience. Jesus was the fulfillment of the promises to David and would sit on the throne occupied by his forefathers. He was the one through whom God would establish his Kingdom and restore His people once more. It is clear from Matthew’s presentation and other sources that the Jews likely expected a Messiah who would lead them back into political, military, or economic power, but Jesus ushered in the Kingdom in a new way. The Jews were looking for their next Saul who had an attractive, commanding presence (1 Samuel 9) and could lead them into power and settle the disputes they had with the Romans. Instead, they were delivered a greater David, a King after God’s heart in a way that no prior king had been who would usher in a Kingdom “not of this world”.
The onset of Jesus ministry is likewise marked by a declaration that there was no longer a need for expectation; “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). In the Sermon on the Mount that (Matthew 5-7), we see what I like to refer to as a “charter for the Kingdom”; a declaration of the Kingdom and a call to allegiance for the people of God. It serves as a picture for how the Kingdom will look and is meant to call us into an alignment with Heaven. Walter Rausenbusch says, “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven.” With that said, embedded in the Sermon the Mount is a call to repentance and a reorientation of one’s life around obedience to God though following Christ as His disciples. It is a broad call to allegiance with a sober reminder that not everyone who hears the words of Jesus will respond to Him (Matthew 7:21); there will be those who hear the declaration of but do not enter the Kingdom (Matthew 25:33). Jesus is the rightful King to whom authority the authority of God has been given. Matthew’s Gospel expertly bookends Jesus ministry with this: Jesus declares the Kingdom coming with authority (Matthew 7:29) and with all authority commissions the Church to take the gospel to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:18-20).
As I mentioned, however, Jesus was also rejected by those who would not hear this call of the Kingdom and turn to him. Jesus reminds his followers that they will be hated by their fellow neighbors because they hated him also (Matthew 10:22). The Pharisees play an important role in Matthew’s account to demonstrate how their obtuse interpretations of the Law kept them from seeing the Kingdom (Matthew 12:34, 23:1-39). They followed the letter of the Law to perfection, but missed a whole devotion to Christ as King in their hearts. Jesus was the “chief cornerstone” who has been rejected (Matthew 21:42) by those who heard the declaration of the Kingdom but did not produce the fruit of belief and obedience (Matthew 13:18-19). He was crucified after a crowd chose a criminal to walk free (Matthew 27:15-23) in the place of the one who came proclaiming a way of salvation for all who would believe.
However, Matthew’s presentation of the Gospel ends with the glorious depiction of a rightful yet rejected Messiah King gloriously defeating death. The angel tells the two women who came to search for him at the tomb “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (Matthew 28:5-6). Jesus ultimately sets the record for his own authority and sonship of God straight in His resurrection. He defeated death and returned to His people with more authoritative direction: “Go and make disciples“. Jesus and the Father have always been one (Matthew 11:25-30), though Jesus took the lowly form of a suffering servant, was rejected, mocked and accused, and crucified on the cross. The Son of Man had no place to lay his head for a time (Matthew 8:20), but would boldly spoke of the day to come at which he would occupy His throne (Matthew 19:28) because he had always been and forevermore will be the reigning King.
The Kingdom of God is not a sidelined concept in the Scriptures and the person of Jesus is the central method through which this theology is revealed in Matthew’s Gospel. As Matthew Bates writes in his book Salvation by Allegiance Alone, “The Son of God is now the enthroned and actively ruling Son of God, the cosmic Lord… it is safe to conclude that this new super-exalted status as cosmic Lord is not peripheral to the good news about Jesus. It is at the very heart and center—the climax of the gospel. Jesus has been enthroned as the king. To him allegiance is owed.” It is in our following of King Jesus as his disciples that our hearts and lives become reoriented around the things of God. It is through the revelation of King Jesus that we understand, as Leo Tolstoy says, “The only significance of life consists in helping to establish the kingdom of God.” As we read about the Kingdom of God foretold, restored, and established in Matthew’s Gospel, the person of Jesus draws us ever-nearer to not only a right understanding but an alignment with the Kingdom as his followers.