Eli T. Evans
There is a throne in Jerusalem to which there are many pretenders but only one rightful king. Who may occupy it? Herod? Caesar? The scribes and Pharisees?
In his Gospel, Matthew builds his case that a carpenter from Nazareth is the only one with a legal right to rule the “kingdom of God.” Matthew bookends his argument for Christ’s authority by affirming His deity—opening with the infancy narrative that highlights Jesus’ royal pedigree against the backdrop of Herod’s treachery (Matt 1–4) and closing with Jesus claiming “all authority in heaven and earth” for Himself (28:16–20). Jesus’ kingdom extends beyond Israel to encompass the whole world, meaning He is not only a teacher, prophet, and the long-expected Davidic monarch, but Immanuel, “God with us” (1:23).
Matthew covers the same ground as Mark, but he adds two key themes: authority and forgiveness. Just before His crucifixion, Jesus tells the high priest that he “will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power” (26:64). But unlike the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus uses His power to grant forgiveness to others, and He teaches His followers to do the same. Only Matthew preserves the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (18:21–35), and only in Matthew’s telling of the Last Supper does Jesus say that He is about to pour Himself out “for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28).
Jesus Fulfills the Law
Matthew’s argument depends on Jesus’ special relationship to the Law and the Prophets. He bolsters his case with more references to the Old Testament than any other Gospel writer. More than a dozen times Matthew says that Jesus “fulfills” (plēroō, πληρόω), meaning “to fill” or “to complete,” an Old Testament prophecy (e.g., 1:22–23; 12:17–21; 26:54, 56). For Matthew, Jesus is Messiah and king because Scripture declares it so.
Indeed, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that His purpose in coming is to “fulfill” the “Law and the Prophets” (Matt 5:17–20). This statement is unique to Matthew, as are the “you have heard it said ... but I say” statements of the rest of the chapter (Matt 5:21–48). The “I” in the repeated phrase “but I say” provokes the question, “By what authority does He say these things?” (see Matt 21:23–27; Mark 11:27–33; Luke 20:1–8; John 5:19–47).
Jesus Understands the Law
Jesus introduces these statements by proposing a standard of righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees”—one that extends beyond even the strictest contemporary interpretations of the law. He concludes with a command to “be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:20–48; see Lev 19:2). Here Jesus lays bare the intent of the law: to define and demand perfect holiness. Nevertheless, Jesus claims that His “yoke is easy” and His “burden is light,” while He calls the teaching of the religious elite a “heavy burden, hard to bear” (Matt 11:28–30; 23:4).
So Matthew defines the central conflict: Jesus radiates perfect holiness from the inside out and expects others to do the same, while the contemporary spiritual leaders “wash the outside of the cup,” but not their hearts, and “outwardly appear righteous to others, but within [they] are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (23:1–36).
People must have thought it absurd for Jesus to call the scribes and Pharisees “lawless.” Yet with this one word, He contrasts His transcendent viewpoint of the law (Matt 5–7) with the nearsighted legalism of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 23), undermining their authority and bolstering His own. This divide between legalism and legitimacy is further illustrated by Matthew’s version of the parable of the Two Sons (21:28–32), as well as his observation that, while the religious leaders may be fastidious in tithing their spices, they have completely missed the point of the law (23:23). Twice Jesus accuses the leaders of not understanding the statement “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (9:13; 12:7; cited from Hos 6:6).
Jesus Transcends the Law
There are two voices within the Old Testament: one demanding perfect obedience and another offering perfect forgiveness. Both voices are unequivocally One—the God of Israel (Exod 34:6–8). For Matthew, only Jesus speaks authentically with both voices. As the Son of Man, He is perfectly submitted to the law, and as the Son of God, He has absolute prerogative over it. Jesus alone keeps the law in every detail, and then bears its penalty on behalf of His people—securing both forgiveness and righteousness at once (Matt 20:28; see Isa 53:10–12).
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
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