A Gospel for our Time

Themes of Matthew's Gospel

My news feed is populated with stories of the vulnerable suffering and I feel a temptation toward despair. What hope can I offer in a world of refugees and racism? As a Christian, I know about good news for the lost, but what about the displaced? I have a gospel for us sinners, but what about the sinned-against? My songs and slogans don’t feel sufficient or even credible alongside such an ugly and evil world.

But these past months, as I’ve lived in the story of Matthew’s Gospel, I’ve found a gospel written for a time like ours. I’ve found a manual for the disciples of Jesus living in a hurting world.

Jesus in Matthew is focused on the weakest, the littlest, and the least. No matter how low your social status, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus can relate to you and has brought good news for you:

  • Jesus came—not as a powerful ruler—but as a vulnerable and threatened baby who spent some of his earliest years as a refugee (Matthew 2:13-18).
  • When he began his public ministry, he only received disciples who knew that “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
  • The first topic of his signature sermon was the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and the meek (Matthew 5:3-5).

Throughout Matthew, Jesus associated with the social, spiritual, and economic outcasts. And Jesus powerfully taught that his disciples should take on a lowly position and that his Father is watching to see how his littlest and least are treated. Consider these words of Jesus:

  • “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” Matthew 10:42
  • “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” Matthew 11:25
  • “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Matthew 18:4-5
  • “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:6
  • “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 18:10
  • “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” Matthew 18:14
  • “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19:14
  • “From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise.” Matthew 21:16
  • “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:40

A King Who Uses His Authority for Good

At the center of Jesus’ gospel message is a “Kingdom.” The word itself appears more than 50 times—about twice a chapter. If you have any doubt, just look at how Jesus’ early ministry is summarized:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.

Matthew 4:23

What is this Kingdom and why is it good news even for the poor and mourning and persecuted?

It seems like authority and good aren’t words we see together very often. But, Jesus doesn’t flinch from claiming them both. Matthew opens with a genealogy of kings and the baby Jesus being worshipped by Magi and closes with Jesus boldly claiming “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

This audacious claim of absolute authority doesn’t seem to incite panic or even a cringe from the disciples. Any why should it? They’ve seen how Jesus uses his authority to bring good.

  • He beats back death (28:6).
  • He heals the sick (4:23, 8:16, and others).
  • He gives his own blood to forgive sins (26:28).
  • He stands in judgment over the powerful (15:12-14, 18:6, 25:45-46, and more).
  • He dignifies those who others don’t count (26:13).

Brothers and sisters, we have good news for the vulnerable and hurting—this good and powerful kingdom is theirs!

Brothers and sisters, we have good news for the vulnerable and hurting—this good and powerful kingdom is theirs!

It shouldn’t surprise us that the arrival of this authority is simultaneously embraced and opposed. The Magi worshiped the newborn, but King Herod slaughtered innocent children at the threat of this new king (chapter 2). A woman in Bethany tenderly anoints her savior, but just a few verses later “a large crowd armed with swords and clubs” comes to arrest their traitor (chapter 26). Throughout Matthew, Jesus is quite clear on this point: the arrival of his authority is simultaneously embraced and opposed. “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (11:5). And yet, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence.” (11:12).

Throughout Matthew, Jesus prepares his disciples for this reality. Opposition to Jesus should not surprise us (10:16) or intimidate us (10:28). We must not reply with violence (26:52), but with love and prayer (6:44), the illuminating words of God’s Spirit (10:20), and patient endurance (24:13). For now, evil and good may grow alongside one another, but at the end of the age, Jesus will uproot his enemies (13:40-41) and separate the wicked from the righteous (13:49).

Live the True Story

By the end of Matthew’s Gospel, it’s clear that Matthew expects us to respond in some way to what he’s just written.

In the last chapter, the chief priests pay the guards to make up a story that the disciples came and stole the body under cover of darkness. Matthew notes the “story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” (Matthew 28:15) Even in our day, many live as though that story is true: that there is no king and no kingdom; that there is no one who keeps watch over the vulnerable; and that there is no good authority; no one who can distinguish good from bad; no end except death; no true hope for the displaced, the excluded, the sinners, or the sinned against.

Thankfully, there’s another story and another way to live. The alternate (and true!) story is that Jesus rose from the grave, threw off the shackles of death, ascended to the right hand of the Father, and inaugurated a Kingdom that will have no end! Matthew calls us into this story and asks us to live accordingly.

Matthew asks us to live with faith. Since Jesus reigns and our value is secure in his Kingdom, we are freed from living lives of stinginess, worry, and self-preoccupation. Instead, we trust his protection, let our guard down, take up a low position, and live with joyfulness, generosity, and gratitude.

Matthew asks us to live with fidelity. Since Jesus reigns and we are subjects in his Kingdom, we are freed from having to guess for ourselves a path to a satisfied life. Instead, we trust his goodness and submit ourselves wholeheartedly to entire lives of holiness, worship, and devotion.

Matthew asks us to live with family. Since Jesus reigns and we are siblings in his Kingdom, we are freed from our fear of being alone or of being too dependent on others. Instead, we trust our Father is the head of the household and live as brothers and sisters in a new family growing in love for one another.

Matthew asks us to live with fanfare. Since Jesus reigns and we are the sounding board of his Kingdom, we are freed from our fear of others which drives us to silence and shame. Instead, we trust all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Jesus, and we live as a light that cannot be hidden.

This is the Gospel we are soaking in during Urbana and the days leading up to Urbana. If you haven’t already started it, accept the Matthew Challenge and get ready for all God has for you at Urbana 15.

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Comments

This stirred my spirit so much as I read it and made me want to dig deep into the Gospel of Jesus according to Matthew! So powerful and comprehensive, filled with so much hope and life. I am encouraged that the Kingdom IS for the least, as I am among that population myself! Thanks for writing this, Drew.

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