If you have ever seen a “Red Letter” Bible, you know how easy it becomes to pick out the words of Jesus in the Gospels. You may also know that the Gospel of Matthew has a ton more red font than Mark. Why? Because Mark focuses more on Jesus’ activity while Matthew is focused on his teaching.
If you skim through Matthew in a “Red Letter” Bible, you will find a few long sections of uninterrupted red font. Sayings that Luke spread out across many chapters about Jesus’ life are gathered into lengthy sermons in Matthew. Most people have heard about the first one: the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). However, 4 other sermons have been formed out of Jesus’ sayings around common themes: Instructions for Disciples in Matthew 10, Kingdom Parables in Matthew 13, Dealing with Sin in the Church in Matthew 18, and the Judgment Sayings of Matthew 23-25.
In total, Matthew created 5 long sermons out of Jesus’ sayings. We know the 5 sermons were created intentionally because they all have the same ending: “when Jesus had finished saying these things” (Matthew 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). This literary marker gets the attention of the careful reader. It brings up the important hermeneutical question: Why did Matthew organize Jesus’ sayings into 5 sets of instructions?
The Gospel according to Matthew organizes Jesus’ sayings into 5 sets of instructions to mirror the 5 books of the Law—the first 5 books of the Bible that Jews call “Torah.” Jesus’ words are being put on par with God’s words first revealed at Mount Sinai. That is significant. Jesus' teaching has become what Moses' instructions were: God's law for God's people. When put in that light, you can see the way Matthew’s Gospel structures Jesus’ sayings actually says quite a lot in itself.
The allusions to the laws of the first covenant become even clearer when you investigate the form and content of Jesus’ first and most famous sermon given on a mountain. Have you ever thought about the fact that Matthew situates the first long sermon on a mountain? Do you think it is intentionally meant to mimic God’s first giving of the Law on Mount Sinai? Absolutely it is. If you have overlooked that detail your whole life, it’s because you were not immersed in the Torah as a child and did not participate in the Law’s required Jerusalem pilgrimages to worship as an adult. The Jewish audience of Matthew’s Gospel wouldn’t miss these subtle connections between the Law of Moses and teaching of Jesus.
The Sermon on the Mount begins in Matthew 5:3-12 with the Beatitudes. Why? It’s not an historical accident. The beatitudes intentionally echo the blessings of Deuteronomy 28:1-14 that Israel proclaimed from Mount Gerizim after entering the holy land. According to Deuteronomy 27:11-12, Moses commanded half of Israel to stand on Mount Gerizim and recite the blessings of obeying God. It is believed the Israelites repeated this corporate act every seven years when they gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Booths (Deuteronomy 31:9-13; m. Sotah 7:8). Since the structure of the blessings and the mountain setting is similar for both Jesus’ beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-12 and the traditional Jewish recitation of Deuteronomy’s blessings, the relationship must not be overlooked. The Gospel of Matthew is purposefully connecting the two events. What’s the purpose? Jesus is gathering Israel on a mountain to declare the new characteristics of those who will be blessed. The covenant requirements for God’s people are changing. Jesus is redefining Torah.
Some Jews expected a significant change to the Torah and Temple practices at God's next great act in history. The Dead Sea Scrolls recovered from the Qumran caves describe a community of zealous first-century Jews waiting for a climactic moment in salvation history. They expected God to rearrange the power structure, cleanse the Temple, and revise the Law of Moses.
The Temple Scroll (11QTS) records the expected changes to the Law. Columns 48-66 of the Temple Scroll provide a revised version of the Law (framed after Deuteronomy 12-26) designated for the time when a new Temple is constructed and a new Davidic king reigns in an age to come (see Wise, M. O. "Eschatological Vision of the Temple Scroll" JNES 49 : 155-172). Why should you care? Because…
Jesus did exactly what the Temple Scroll anticipated.
Jesus revised how teachers of the Law had told people to apply the Law of Moses. Whereas the Temple Scroll decided to apply priestly standards to everyone, Jesus attacks human traditions that distorted the original intent of the Law. He trashes specific regulations and instructions that are antithetical to God’s mercy, justice, and faithfulness in Matthew 5:31-47.
- Divorce: Even though Moses created a written divorce certificate to protect the rights of a woman (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), Jesus made it clear divorce is not God’s plan (Matthew 5:31-32)
- Vows: Since Jesus’ contemporaries had devised a complicated system of making public oaths that no longer honored the intent behind the commands about oaths in Deut 23:21-23 to do what you say, he called for an end to vows and a return to letting your “yes” mean “yes” and your “no” mean “no” (Matthew 5:33-37)
- Retribution: Issuing punishments equal to the offence (“an eye for an eye” in Deuteronomy 19:21) had morphed from the positive outcome of ending cycles of vengeance to a negative outcome of excusing retaliation. So Jesus taught his followers to “turn the other cheek” and return good for evil (Matthew 5:38-42) to motivate oppressors to repent.
- Enemies: Commands to annihilate enemies who attacked Israel (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) became an excuse to hate all foreigners. So Jesus instructed people to love and pray for enemies to truly embody God’s mercy (Matthew 5:43-47).
Jesus reoriented the entire Jewish world. Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Torah had been the center of their theological and political world. Jesus was changing the loci of divine activity with his subtle yet powerful allusions to the Jewish world.
In Jewish tradition, Jerusalem was the “light of the world” (Isaiah 2:2-4; 42:6; 49:6; Micah 4:1-3; Sib. Or. 5:420-423; Gen Rab 59:5; Pesiq. R. 20:7). But Jesus expands that role. Jesus applies that title to anyone who follows his teaching: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14-16). That changes a centuries-old storyline. It’s a new and radical revision to the story God is writing.
In Jewish worship at the Temple, every offering had to be sprinkled with salt (Leviticus 2:13; Ezek 43:24; Jub 21:11; 11QTemple 20). Salt was so integral to Israel’s obedience to the Law that it earned the label “salt of the covenant.” It became representative of proper worship to God and atonement for sin in the Old Covenant. But Jesus leaves interest in the Temple sacrificial system behind and calls his followers the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). What does that mean? Jesus’ followers become the way in which God’s forgiveness and proper worship can be brought to the entire world. That role nullifies the necessity of the Jerusalem Temple.
Jesus’ final blow to the Torah comes in a closing parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. He tells the story of a wise man who builds his house on the rock and a foolish man who builds his house on sand. The house built on a rock would make his Jewish audience think about the Temple on Mount Zion. Israel believed the Temple could not fall. God would not let his house crumble. But Jesus is undermining their beliefs in the same way Ezekiel had to challenge fake prophets who denied Jerusalem’s coming destruction (Ezekiel 13:8-16).
The house on the rock that does not fall when the storm comes is not Jerusalem’s Temple, but rather those who hear and do the words of Jesus. As Jesus states plainly, “Everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.” The one who changes his allegiance from the Temple and the current interpreters of Torah to become one who follows Jesus will remain. His words are the new Torah that will outlast the impending destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and its Torah-mandated sacrifices. That’s an unbelievably offensive claim to Jews in Jerusalem. No wonder the religious leaders there had him killed.
This structural and historical analysis of the Gospel according to Matthew dramatically elevates the significance of Jesus’ sayings. Matthew’s structure tells an informed Jewish audience that Jesus is the new Moses. His words are the new Torah. His 5 sermons now do what the 5 books of Moses did. The covenant is changing and therefore the content of God’s commands change as well, just like the Temple Scroll anticipated.
The Gospel of Matthew shows how Jesus’ ministry marks a new day in God’s relationship with his people. It is the only Gospel to describe how the veil inside the Temple ripped when Jesus died. It is a symbolic statement that the old way is gone, and the new way of directly encountering God through Jesus has arrived. The Temple’s role has been disrupted. The darkness, earthquake, and resurrections recorded in Matthew 27:45-54 were all eschatological signs of a change in the ages. Many Jews had expected those events when God stepped into human history to revolutionize the way he related to his people. And God sent those signs so they knew it was happening.
Jesus is the teacher of a new Torah. His words replace the books of Moses. His sacrifice undermines the Temple. His people become the locus of his presence rather than Jerusalem. They are the light of the world bringing a priestly message of atonement for all. The way Matthew’s Gospel organizes Jesus’ life for a Jewish audience makes all these moves clear.
We must pay careful attention to how and where his message is delivered, not just what is said, to understand its significance. Jesus doesn’t just add on some extra points to Mosaic Law. Jesus rewrote what God requires of you. He reenacted the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai and the recitation of blessings on Mount Gerizim to redefine God’s instructions for his people. He revised God’s Law to recapture the intent of God’s heart. That’s a big deal we better not miss. We better take those red letters as seriously as the Gospel of Matthew meant them.
Article based on chapter from Dr. Paul Penley's forthcoming book