Essay / Theology

Salvation in Matthew (with an Assist from Paul)

The Gospel of Matthew is a book about salvation. The author sets up the topic very clearly in the first chapter, in the section that provides the two names of Jesus. The angel says to Joseph (Matt 1:21) that Mary “will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The name Jesus (which we’ve already heard several times, in 1:1, 1:16, 1:18) is not just spoken but interpreted: it means YHWH saves, and that is the meaning of the life of this man named Jesus.

Immediately Matthew interjects (1:23) that this fulfills the promise in Isaiah, “they shall call his name Immanuel (which means God with us).” Stack these two naming oracles on top of each other and you get Matthew’s purpose: To tell the story of Jesus in a way that shows how the God of Israel will fulfill prophecy by saving us from our sins and being with us in person.

But does Matthew connect all the dots and show the reader how Jesus saves? Certainly Matthew is an intricately-structured book, and you’d have to be pretty obtuse to miss the big, fat, main structural point: Matthew begins by announcing that Jesus will save his people from their sins, and he ends by telling how Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. The expectation of salvation is established, and the cross and resurrection satisfy the expectation. Nor does Matthew present Jesus as the passive recipient of the fate that befalls him, but rather as the active instigator, always in charge and carrying out a plan. Jesus predicts his death and resurrection four times, with mounting clarity and intensity (16:21; 17:12; 17:22-3; 20:18-19), so when it happens the reader has been prepared to understand it as part of Jesus’ plan.

As a reader, I’m both satisfied and unsatisfied with Matthew’s presentation of salvation, in different senses. On the one hand, I get it: If the question is how we are saved, the answer is provided in the story of Jesus. And I know that the Holy Spirit speaks in a variety of voices in the canon of Scripture, and he gave us Matthew’s narrative soteriology (doctrine of salvation) so we could learn to track along with the story and see it develop.

But on the other hand, I always wish Matthew had concluded his gospel with a few direct, interpretive statements to be the other bookend for his clear opening statements. To be honest, I kind of wish he’d specify the nature of salvation as clearly as Paul does in the epistles.

Paul’s theological vocabulary, which often feels like “home base” to me, would yield a statement something like this:

We are justified by grace alone, not by works. We receive that grace through faith, which is itself the gift of God. God set forth Jesus as a propitiation for our sins, by which God forgives us. When God places us in Christ, we spiritually die and rise with him, and are united with him forever.

Can this kind of Pauline “salvation by faith” soteriology be extorted from Matthew’s Gospel? Sort of. There is salvation language, and faith language in important places in Matthew:

9:2, 22- “Your faith has saved you.”

14:30 – “Lord, save me.”

18:6 — “these little ones believe in me”

27:42 – “He saved others, he cannot save himself.”

Jesus makes several statements in Matthew that sound like overall purpose statements about his ministry, and both of those give a decidedly theological edge to the narrative as well: in 20:28, he says “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” And in 9:13 he says “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” The vocabulary of salvation there is rich, and not far from Pauline specificity: Jesus’ own purpose was to call sinners and give his life as a ransom.

The interpretive balance I’m looking for is, on the one hand, to hear Matthew’s Gospel on its own terms, so I know what the Holy Spirit is saying through Matthew. But on the other hand, I have learned something from Paul that I want to use as a tip to help me know what to look for in Matthew. I don’t want to pretend I’ve never read the rest of the New Testament when I read Matthew, but I also don’t want to miss what’s in Matthew by projecting other voices onto it.

To go deeper into Matthew’s own witness to salvation, you have to pay very close attention to the way he cites Old Testament passages as being fulfilled in Jesus. God’s plan is carried out in the life and death of Jesus. And since Jesus is the active administrator of that plan, his words at the last supper are crucial for understanding what he thinks he is doing: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

I know how to say the message of salvation in Paul language. But in pure Matthew language it would be something like this: God fulfilled his promises to Israel by rescuing believers from the broken covenant, saving both Jew and Gentile from our sins by being God with us in Jesus, whose death was the blood of the covenant poured out for the forgiveness of sins. And in Matthew language, it would also come with a detailed story that includes what Jesus said and did during his ministry. It also sets the whole topic of salvation in the context of a relationship of disciple to master. I want to make sure I get all of that from Matthew, and not miss it by forcing Matthew to speak Paul-ese. Perhaps the alert reader should keep Paul in the back of his mind when reading Matthew, but not in the front of his mind.

Gospel and Epistle go together wonderfully. J.I. Packer once framed the relationship this way:

Gospel study enables us both to keep our Lord in clear view and to hold before our minds the relational frame of discipleship to him. The doctrines on which our discipleship rests are clearest in the epistles, but the nature of discipleship itself is most vividly portrayed in the Gospels…. We should think of the theology of the epistles as preparing us to understand better the disciple relationship with Christ that is set forth in the Gospels.

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