With Matthew’s Gospel we cross from the Old Testament to the New. And yet the nature and purpose of this gospel account in particular shows that the step is not far, nor was it not foreseen, as the author will show from the opening genealogy, and from his many quotes of Old Testament prophecies. Some of them foreshadow the life of Jesus in detail, others are more like types or symbols. The Hebrew Bible even gives some structural shape to the gospels, Matthew particularly. In Matthew we will find five major discourses of Jesus, like the five books of Moses, or the Pentateuch. Jesus, then, is a new Moses, and more than that.
The meaning and scope of Jesus for the nations, as foreseen by the Hebrew prophets, is visible as well from the start, in the arrival of the magii from the east to worship him. So is the cosmic and apocalyptic conflict between God and Satan (and his earthly agents), from King Herod’s assault, to Jesus’ temptation, to, finally, Jesus’ crucifixion. Also note the prominence of dreams in Matthew’s Gospel.
The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) is the first major discourse of Jesus, in which his teachings, like those of Moses and the Ten Commandments, come down from the mountain. Jesus’ intent is not to undo nor replace the Law of Moses, but to fulfill it in such a way that the bedrock moral prescriptions, such as against murder or adultery, are made even more strenuous and binding than they were under Jewish practice at the time. The “perfection” to which we are called in Matthew 5:48 is that of being perfectly indiscriminate in our love for all, friend or foe, as is God. Reflecting God, by the empowerment of God, is the only way the Sermon on the Mount makes sense and can be binding upon the disciple of Jesus. An overarching, unifying theme that also sorts out Jesus’ ministry and teachings, is the kingdom he comes to inaugurate, “the kingdom of heaven.” Other gospels call it “The Kingdom of God,” but Matthew’s version, like the others, a translation of the original Aramaic, is probably closer to the reverent circumlocution that a Jew of his time would have used to avoid naming God directly. Like so much else in the gospels, the kingdom of heaven is the fulfillment of everything the Old Testament prophets promised, and what the Old Testament Psalms prayed for.
The Sermon on the Mount begins with blessings (“The Beatitudes”), which can be understood to mean that God will bless (or make happy) those who act in these ways. They can also be understood to mean that, being truly blessed by God would and should result in such behavior as being “poor in spirit,” “hungering and thirsting after righteousness,” and even being persecuted. Either way, expect a stunning 180 degree reversal of the way of the world and of conventional wisdom, based on human power.
And yet the ritual and ceremonial aspects of the Law will be relaxed, because they are “fulfilled” by Jesus in his role as high priest, “Lord of the Sabbath,” and Lamb of God. Conflicts with other Jewish rabbis, teachers and traditions arise over the meanings and observances of these laws, which Jesus resolves with stunning incisiveness by appealing to his authority as “Son of Man.” That is the title which Daniel gave to the human figure who, representing the saints to God and God to the saints, inherits and rules the earth representing both (Daniel 7:13).
In the midst of this, Jesus is teaching and forming not just new persons but a new people, a new Israel, beginning with twelve disciples, in a surprising reprise and reversal of a previous Jesus (or “Joshua,” the same name), the first Joshua, who led twelve tribes through Canaan. Let this Second Joshua surprise you as he inverts the sword of the First Joshua into the cross, the second Tree of Life.
PSALM 74 is a lament for the restoration of Zion and the Temple, after its destruction, likely the one in 586 BC. In verses 13-14, the symbolism of the monster Leviathan and its destruction could apply to Egypt and its defeat at the Red Sea (Exodus 14-15). As God did then, he is implored to do again.
PSALM 75 could almost be the divine response to the previous lament, in Psalm 74. God still rules and will carry out his judgments against the ungodly nations, regardless of how powerful and successful they appear. The Psalm even contains a prophecy directly from God, in verses 2-5. The image of verse 8, in which God makes the nations drink to the dregs the intoxicating effects of their own willfull idolatry and violence, was also attested to by the prophets of the time, such as Ezekiel and Jeremiah.
PSALM 76 continues in the vein of Psalms 74 and 75, celebrating God’s sovereignty over the nations and reminding his people of his victories on their behalf in the past. This is in keeping with the Exodus tradition, and those accounts in the histories that follow, of where and how God fought on behalf of his people; they only needed to show up, stand firm and “see the salvation of God.” The prayer of this psalm, especially verses 11 and 12, will be fulfilled in the vision of Isaiah 2, when people of all tribes will flock to God to learn God’s way of peace.
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