Reading Matthew as the Climactic Fulfillment of the Hebrew Story, by Martin C. Spadaro. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015, 299 pages, $34.00, paper.
Scholars commonly call Matthew the most Jewish and pro-law Gospel in the canon. Matthew was composed, they say, for a predominantly Jewish community of Christians who continued to observe the Mosaic law. Many scholars see serious tension between Matthew and the Apostle Paul on this issue: Matthew was pro-law and Paul anti-law. A few have argued that Matthew wrote explicitly to counter Pauline influence in the early church. While more conservative interpreters obviously refuse to set one biblical writer against another, many of them adopt a milder version of the same perspective. They typically interpret Matthew as if Jesus is simply refuting the Pharisees’ misinterpretation of the Mosaic law and showing his followers how to obey it according to its true intentions.
While such approaches can be (and, I believe, ought to be) challenged on several fronts, Martin Spadaro has opened a new front, presenting an innovative and stimulating study that claims Matthew does something much more drastic and grander than these approaches contemplate. Spadaro, a Presbyterian minister in Australia, argues that Matthew wrote to advance and complete the Old Testament story as a whole. In short, Matthew presents Jesus as coming to terminate the Mosaic covenant and thus to decommission Israel’s temple and priesthood, and in their place to establish the prophesied New Covenant. This gospel thus serves as a prophetic indictment, documenting the grounds that justified this judgment and describing the work of Christ that brought about this radical development in redemptive history.
Although not a comprehensive study of Matthew, Spadaro works his way through the main points of its storyline to establish his case. Matthew 1–4, he argues, presents Jesus as the “heir apparent,” the true Israel and well-qualified Messiah. These chapters also describe the opposition that arose against Jesus from the beginning (39). Then, in Matthew 5–7, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives his “mission statement” (88). He is not just critiquing contemporary applications of the law, nor is he laying the ground for a law-observant Christianity. While it also indicates the character of the new-covenant community, the sermon chiefly presents Jesus as the fulfiller (not abolisher) of the law and prophets (Matt. 5:17) in terms of settling accounts with Israel and foreclosing on their unpaid debt.
Spadaro next considers John the Baptist’s important role in the Gospel. Although Jesus proclaimed “good news” for those who followed him, John proclaimed a wrathful Messiah and the “bad news” he also brought. God sent John before Christ to purify the nation for his arrival, and to reject him was to reject the whole of the law and the prophets.
Spadaro next considers Matthew 8–12. Here, he explains, Jesus carries out a mission of compassion, mercy, and amnesty to various sections of the Hebrew community. Nevertheless, the response was appalling, and Jesus’s ministry was largely rejected, making the community vulnerable to judgment. The parables that follow, in Matthew 13 and later in the Gospel, serve as “instruments of indictment” (146–47). Matthew capitalizes on the indictment of Isaiah 6:9–10 far more than the other Gospels do, and he considers God’s charge in Isaiah to be “unfinished business.” Given that “the severest images of future punishment found in the Christian Bible are attached to these Matthean parables” (184), Spadaro believes these texts contribute greatly to his broader case.
The book then makes the case that the concept of Jesus as Messiah, in Matthew, has to do with his priesthood as well as his kingship. Here, Spadaro considers a number of texts throughout the Gospel that highlight the failure of Israel’s priests under the law and present Jesus as a new and better priest who could meet the people’s needs. This discussion leads Spadaro to his final main topic, the concluding events in Jerusalem in Matthew 21–28. He argues that Matthew presents the story of Jesus’s passion as judicial action against the Levitical priesthood, which effects “the termination of the Mosaic administration” (236) as well as providing salvation for those believing in Jesus.
In my judgment, Spadaro’s study is well worth reading for those preaching or teaching the Gospel of Matthew, or for those who simply love this first book of the New Testament. Spadaro’s volume has limitations, to be sure. It is not a commentary and should not be viewed as a substitute for use of commentaries and journal articles that provide detailed studies of particular texts. It also makes many claims that are arguable and that cut against prevailing views of Matthew. No reader will come away convinced by all of Spadaro’s suggestions. And it’s good for readers to keep in mind that this book is an argument for the importance of a particular theme in Matthew, and thus does not give as much attention to other themes that are also undoubtedly important in this Gospel (as Spadaro himself would acknowledge). Preaching or teaching Matthew emphasizing only the theme Spadaro’s book emphasizes would be imbalanced.
But this book is very helpful for several reasons. For one, it helps to explain something that every attentive reader of Matthew notices: there is a lot of divine wrath and judgment in this Gospel. Spadaro makes a plausible case that this pervasive theme of judgment is not tangential to the main message of Matthew but something quite central to its message.
Furthermore, this book helps readers to appreciate that Matthew’s vision was big, not small. Matthew was not writing to a small community of Jewish Christians or trying to carve out a place for Torah-keeping within early Christianity, as many scholars portray it. Rather, Matthew wrote with the whole of the Old Testament in mind, with a view to God’s purposes in and faithfulness to the Old Testament covenants, and in defense of Jesus as the effective Messianic priest of a New Covenant community. To whatever extent one might (inevitably) disagree with some of Spardaro’s particular claims, his reading of Matthew from this big-picture perspective is very helpful.
Finally, Spadaro’s work provides a healthy antidote to the many works that present Matthew’s Jesus as sort of tidying up some mistaken uses of the Mosaic law so that Christians can be better Torah-keepers than the Pharisees. Spadaro brings out something that is true of Matthew as well as of Paul and other New Testament writers: although holy, righteous, and good, the Mosaic law was ultimately a ministry of condemnation that brought the Old Covenant people under just condemnation. While it remains essential to affirm the deep continuity of God’s redemptive work throughout the various administrations of the covenant of grace, it is also crucial to recognize that with Jesus’s earthly ministry the Old Covenant has become obsolete (Heb. 8:13), and the people of God now enjoy many things that are wonderfully new. This idea is not just present in Matthew; it is prevalent in Matthew.
David VanDrunen is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the Robert B. Strimple professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California. Ordained Servant Online, April 2019.