The Background of the Gospel of Matthew

In the last post, we talked about the importance of historical context when reading the Bible. When we read any part of the Bible we need to remember that it was written by real people in real points of history. There is culture behind what we read in the Bible. And that culture influenced what we read today. 

In the post before that, we talked about reading the Bible like a whole story. When we read the Gospel of Matthew we need to read it like it’s a whole story. We need to look for how the Gospel flows and connects as we study.

Now, before we jump into the text of the Gospel of Matthew, I want to take some time to give you guys some background information on Matthew. I’ll walk through some of the historical and cultural background behind the Gospel of Matthew. Then I will give a brief outline of its structure. These things will be helpful for us as we study the Gospel deeper. 

Who Was Matthew?

Matthew (or Levi), the disciple of Jesus is the author of the Gospel that bears his name. Knowing this is important because that means he was an eyewitness to the things recorded in the Gospel. He actually saw them happen.

An important fact about Matthew is that he was a tax collector before Jesus called him (Matt. 9:9). And for a lot of us, this may not seem like a big deal. But in Matthew’s day, it was a big deal.

Tax collectors were Jews who worked for Rome by collecting taxes. Jews hated tax collectors. If you watch the series The Chosen you’ll see how well they depict this hatred. In the series when Jesus calls Matthew, Peter questions his choice. A tax collector was the worst thing you could be in Jewish culture.

Why?

One reason you may hear is that they took more than they were supposed to and kept the extra for themselves. And while there may be some truth to this, it’s not the whole reason.

Tax collectors were traitors. Jews hated them because they took money from their fellow Jews. This money went to fund the Roman Empire. In the eyes of the Jews, tax collectors were aiding their enemy. They sold out their brothers and sisters so they could get rich.

One of Jesus’ biggest critiques was that He was friends with tax collectors and sinners. The Jews saw Him eating with traitors. And it was even more outrageous for Him to call a tax collector to be His disciple. That will be something to remember as we read the Gospel of Matthew. Remember how Matthew was a direct eyewitness and recipient of God’s grace through Jesus.

Matthew’s Audience

Knowing Matthew’s audience is important to understand his Gospel. Knowing his intended audience will help us think about why he says the things he says. It also will help us understand Matthew’s primary point in writing his Gospel account.

Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, we see that salvation is for all people. But, Matthew’s main audience is Jewish.** How do we know this? Well, we can tell because of how much Matthew references the Old Testament. Out of all the books in the New Testament, he has the most. He quotes and alludes to the Old Testament on a regular basis.

If Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience it will be helpful for us to try to think about his Gospel from a Jewish perspective. When 1st century Jews thought about the Messiah they had some very specific things in mind. They were expecting a political king to come and conquer Rome. Once the Messiah conquered Rome, He would establish His kingdom. This was the king they were expecting. 

As we will see even in the first four chapters, the Messiah Matthew shows us is very, very different.

How is the Gospel of Matthew Organized?

One of the things I love the most about the Gospel of Matthew is how well he organized it. It seems like Matthew took the time to think through what he was writing. Even in these first four chapters, we’ll see how well he organized his account of Jesus’ life.

Matthew organizes his Gospel around 5 main sections. A prologue and epilogue make bookend these sections. The genealogy, birth narrative, and introduction of John the Baptist make up the prologue. The epilogue contains the crucifixion and resurrection. The rest of the Gospel centers around 5 sections of Jesus’ teaching, known as the 5 discourses. In between each of these sections, we have stories of things Jesus did.

Conclusion and Other Resources

Hopefully, this information will be helpful for you as we study the Gospel of Matthew. Knowing the background of the Gospel, or any book of the Bible is important in studying it well. We can gain a lot of insight as we study if we keep some of these things in mind.

If you want to learn more about the Gospel of Matthew, I encourage you to do some research on your own. In the last couple of posts, I gave y’all some of the resources I use a lot. I’ll list those again at the end of this post.

One thing I would encourage you to do is to check out the Bible Project’s videos on the Gospel of Matthew. These videos will give you a good idea of how the Gospel flows like a story. OverviewBible.com also has a good article on the Gospel as well.

​Other Resources

Blue Letter Bible
Bible Study Tools

In the next post we will be starting the genealogy. I’m going to spend a couple of weeks walking through the genealogy, so I encourage you guys to read through it a couple of times as we walk through it. I know the genealogies can be hard to get through. But God has shown me quite a bit from studying the one in Matthew. So, I think it’ll be good to spend a bit of time really digging through it.