Reading Matthew With An Eye For Parallels
I caught up with Raymond Johnson at the recent annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention where we talked about our individual Ph.D. work. In talking about our favorite subject (the Gospels!), Raymond shared some fascinating insights from his research in Matthew. I asked him to share here on the blog.
READING NARRATIVELY: BAPTISMAL TYPES IN MATTHEW’S GOSPEL
One of the keys to reading the Gospels well is to read them with the literary features of a narrative in mind. This is especially true when reading the carefully crafted literary masterpiece known as the Gospel of Matthew.
Two of the crucial questions readers can ask while trying to understand individual scenes throughout the Gospel are:
- “Where will I see this again?”
- “Where have I seen this before?”
This is particularly pertinent when interpreting the beginning of the Gospel narrative in light of the end, as well as the end of the Gospel narrative in light of the beginning. For, at both the beginning and end of his Gospel, one of Matthew’s chief concerns is clarifying the identity of “Jesus”—Who is this man?
Parallels in Jesus’ Birth and Death
A familiar example for readers can be seen in the uniqueness of the events surrounding the birth and death of Jesus. On the one hand, at the beginning of the Gospel he is
- conceived of the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:20)
- in the womb of a virgin (Matt 1:18)
- in fulfillment of the Scriptures (Matt 1:23)
- after being announced in a dream by an angel (Matt 1:20).
On the other hand, at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, after crying out with an earth-rending voice and yielding his spirit (Matt 27:50), several cataclysmic events occur:
- the curtain of the temple is torn (Matt 27:51a),
- the earth shakes (Matt 27:51b),
- the rocks split (Matt 27:51c),
- the tombs open (Matt 27:52a),
- and lifeless people whom Matthew calls “saints” are raised to life (Matt 27:52b).
Again, when Jesus was born, children were slaughtered (Matt 2:16); when Jesus died, the dead were raised to life (Matt 27:52).
Reading with the literary features of a narrative in mind accentuates Matthew’s point—Jesus is one uniquely born; Jesus is one who uniquely dies. The uniqueness surrounding his life teaches us something about his identity and mission.
Parallels in Jesus’ Baptism and Death
A less familiar example can be seen in the scene preceding Jesus’ death and how it alludes to the imagery of his baptism; how it further clarifies the identity of the man called, “Jesus.” At his baptism:
- Jesus speaks (Matt 3:15),
- the Spirit descends upon him (Matt 3:16),
- and the Father audibly testifies from heaven to his identity (Matt 3:17).
In the very next Gospel-scene after God the Father identifies Jesus as the Son with whom he is pleased (Matt 3:17), Satan challenges Jesus identify (Matt 4:3, 6).
Similarly, immediately prior to his death, the pharisaic naysayers challenge the identity of Jesus (Matt 27:40, 43).
Then, after crying out with a loud voice twice (Matt 27:46, 50) an unnerving silence pervades the scene before Jesus yields the Spirit and dies (Matt 27:50). It is only after Jesus’ death that Matthew notes how the Father testifies to Jesus’ identity as the “the Son of God” by means of the cosmological and apocalyptic imagery (Matt 27:45, 51-53); it is only after his death that the gentile centurion positively identifies him as the Son of God in response to the events that testify to his identity (Matt 27:54).
Why the Parallels Matter
The question, then, is “Why did Matthew intentionally employ this imagery in his Gospel-narrative?” The narrative structure is intended to accentuate Jesus’ identity—at his birth, wise men are confounded as a star guides them to the Lord of heaven and earth (Matt 2:1-12); at his death, the heavens, which he created, mourn in darkness (Matt 27:45) and the earth, which he created, breaks (Matt 27:51), giving back the dead as a testimony to his dominion as the Son of God (Matt 28:18).
As the Son of God, he saves people from their sins (Matt 1:21). Further, Matthew’s intentionality in his narrative structure is intended to accentuate the mission Jesus’ death necessitates—his death is life-giving and ultimately salvific for persons from every nation who profess faith in his name (Matt 28:16-20; cf. 27:54). Since Jesus is the Son of God and his life is unlike any other life, his death is a life-giving death (Matt 27:52); since Jesus is the Son of God and his life is unlike any other life, his death has meaning for the nations (Matt 27:54; 28:16-20).
Matthew concludes his Gospel with a reference to the beginning of his Gospel emphasizing the missional implications of Jesus’ life, for Jesus “bears fruit” through the disciples he promises to be with until the end of the age as they are on mission for the renown of the Triune God (Matt 28:20; cf. 1:23).
Raymond and his wife, Meghan, live in Louisville with their three daughters, Abigail, Charlotte, and Emily. He is a Ph.D. student in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is on the ministerial staff at Ninth & O Baptist Church, teaches preaching as an adjunct instructor at Boyce College, and is the Assistant Director of Student & Alumni Services at Southern Seminary. Follow him on Twitter at @raymondj17.