Peter Leithart, President of Theopolis Institute, has written an excellent and accessible two-volume commentary on Matthew in the Through New Eyes commentary series. Leithart, like many others, understands that Matthew presented Jesus as a new Israel. He is the Son of God who perfectly obeyed in every way, unlike Israel. Taking cues from Ben Bacon and Dale Allison, Leithart shows that “Matthew organized his account of the life of Jesus as an Irenaean recapitulation of Israel’s history, in which Jesus replays both major individual roles of that history (Moses, David, Elisha, Jeremiah) as well as the role of the nation herself” (7).
There is no series preface or author preface. After the Table of Contents Leithart gets down to business on Matthew’s structure. (This first chapter showing Matthew’s structure can be downloaded here). Leithart notes that rather than merely being a new and greater David/Abraham/Solomon/Prophet/Israel, Matthew portrays Jesus as moving through Israel’s entire history by using words and picking up on themes from the Old Testament. There are five discourses in Matthew:
- Matthew 5–7: The sermon on the mount, Jesus as a new Moses.
- Matthew 10 and Jesus’ mission to the twelve looks back to Deuteronomy and the succession of Joshua after Moses.
- Matthew 13: The parables of the kingdom show Jesus having the wisdom of Solomon.
- Matthew 18: Jesus forms a community in—an Israel within an Israel—just as Elijah and Elisha did during the Omride dynasty (if this idea sounds forced, he develops it further in volume two, which I am also reviewing).
- Matthew 23–25: When Jesus declares eschatological doom in the temple precinct, he is reminiscent of Jeremiah (even quoting him) who condemned Israel’s religious leaders.
But even the narrative sections between the five discourses elaborate on Israel’s history. Just as Numbers had ten rebellions, Matthew 8–9 show ten miracles. Jesus typifies David in Mathew 11–12, and in Matthew 14–17 he does miraculous works in the same vein as Elisha (and Matt 14 is when John the Baptist dies, just as Elijah was taken away). In Matthew 19–22 Jesus is likened to Joash, Jehu, and Jeremiah. References to Jeremiah continue in Matthew 26–27. Given the allusions to Lamentations (Matt 27:34>Lam 3:19; Matt 27:39>Lam 2:15), Jesus is not presented as the suffering servant, but the suffering city of Jerusalem. These final moments “show that Jesus experiences the exile and restoration of Israel herself in His death and resurrection” (41).
In a simplified version of Leithart’s comparisons, Matthew presents Jesus as re-enacting and fulfilling Israel’s story from the OT (bold are the five discourses, italicized are the narrative portions):
- Matthew 1–4: Jesus lives through Genesis and Exodus (re-enacting parts of Moses’ life pre-Sinai).
- Matthew 5–7: Sermon on the Mount // Jesus as a new Moses.
- Matthew 8–9: Ten miracles // Israel’s rebellions in the wilderness (Numbers)
- Matthew 10: Jesus’ mission to the twelve // the succession of Joshua after Moses.
- Matthew 11–12: The conquest and monarchy with Joshua and David
- Matthew 13: Jesus’ parables // Solomon’s wisdom
- Matthew 14–17: Jesus performs miracles // Elisha
- Matthew 18: Jesus forms an Israel within an Israel // Elijah and Elisha did the same during the Omride dynasty.
- Matthew 19–22: Jesus the apocalyptic prophet // Joash, Jehu, Jeremiah
- Matthew 23–25: Jesus, like Jeremiah, condemns Israel’s religious leaders
- Matthew 26–28: Jesus is both the suffering prophets (Jeremiah) and the destroyed city (Jerusalem). His death is exile from God, but his resurrection is the ultimate return from the exile of death.
Volume 1 covers Matthew 1–12 (points 1–5 above); Volume 2 covers Matthew 13–28 (points 6–11). Below are just a few highlights from the book.
A New Genesis, a New Creation, and a New Commission
Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy, which begins with the phrase Βίβλος γενέσεως, a phrase which occurs ten times in the Greek version of Genesis. Matthew is presenting us with a new Genesis, a “new creation.” Just as God created “the heavens and the earth,” at the end of the Gospel Jesus tells his disciples he has been given “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18). In 2 Chronicles 36:22–33—the last book in the OT—Cyrus declared that “the God of Heaven” had given him “all the kingdoms of earth.” He told the Jews to “Go up!” and build the temple in Jerusalem. Leithart notes, “Jesus claims a wider authority; He claims authority in heaven too” (45). And Jesus tells his disciples to “go” too, but under his authority. However, they, having God’s Spirit, are God’s temple, and they go out into the world of gentiles to declare Jesus as king.
The Sermon on the Mount
Leithart’s thoughts on the Sermon were wonderful. In noting Jesus’ “You have heard… but I say you to…,” Leithart remarks that “Jesus is not correcting the law but the practical and pedagogical distortions of the law that were widespread in Judaism” (107). Jesus doesn’t merely describe how our attitudes should be. We aren’t merely to do these acts with a different attitude; we are to do them differently.
Throughout the sermon Jesus “describes right living, righteousness in actual life” (108). Jesus doesn’t just say, “Don’t be angry” in Matthew 5:22. Jesus’ commandment is to be reconciled. Break the “cycle of anger and insult that leads to murder” (109).
In regards to going the second mile, giving up our cloaks, taking the second slap, Leithart presses us to think about whether we trust God. We live in a hard world we were need to defend ourselves, cur some corners, step on some toes. But Leithart writes, “Jesus says, No The whole issue comes down to trust. Do you trust your Father to give you what you need if you do what Jesus says? Do you trust that you’ll still have clothes if you keep giving them away, that you’ll still have bread if you are generous?” (110).
Along with thinking of “perfection” as “sinlessness” (not doing evil), also think of it as “maturity” (doing righteousness). You love your enemies. You spend time praying for those who hurt you.
The Temple in Matthew 7
Leithart provides tables to show how places in Matthew refer to the Old Testament. I know the above paragraphs were brief, but Leithart makes the connections spectacularly. (In his book on Matthew, Patrick Schreiner largely follows Leithart’s structure). This structure also makes sense as to how Leithart sees the temple in Matthew 5–7. There Jesus climbs a mountain, like Moses did at Sinai and in Deuteronomy, and “He instructs His disciples in the righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees… laying before Israel the choice between life and prosperity, death and disaster, a choice between maintaining their ‘house’ and seeing it dismantled by a rising ‘river’ (cf. Isaiah 8)” (14–15). Because Israel in Isaiah’s day had sinned so much against God and had not repented from their ways, God was going to send the waters of Assyria to “sweep on into Judah, it will overflow and pass on, reaching even to the neck, and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land” (Isa 8:8). If Israel, its people and especially its leaders, didn’t repent and follow the words of the Son, their “house” (the temple, Matt 24) would be knocked down by the waters of Rome.
I enjoy reading Leithart’s books. He never follows the often-disconnected-verse-by-verse analysis of many commentaries, but handles the flow of thought and meaning all at once. He is easy to read, enjoyable even. He doesn’t put forth his idea of Matthew’s structure for “scholarly fun,” but to interpret the Word rightly in order to change how we live. I read a sizeable chunk of this commentary in one evening. If you are a layperson, a pastor, or a teacher of some kind working your way through Matthew, I highly recommend these commentaries.
- Series: Through New Eyes
- Author: Peter J. Leithart
- Paperback: 268 pages
- Publisher: Athanasius Press (January 17, 2018)
- Read the first chapter
Buy it on Amazon or from Athanasius Press
Disclosure: I received this book free from Athanasius Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.