By Leroy Huizenga
Leroy A. Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Human and Divine Sciences at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND. He is the author of Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew.
The theme of “fulfillment” in the Gospel of Matthew has occasioned much discussion, particularly in light of the “lure” of the formula quotations, in which St. Matthew uses a common formula to introduce quotations from the Old Testament, such as “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matt 1:22). But the phenomenon of “fulfillment” permeates the entirety of the Gospel of Matthew; it is not found only in the formula quotations. They “lure” us away from all the other ways the Gospel of Matthew presents fulfillment. Every word of the Gospel of Matthew is geared toward fulfillment, showing how Jesus and the Church fulfill stories and figures from the Old Testament and Jewish tradition. Indeed, Jesus’s very life takes the very shape of Israel’s story.
This makes sense of the structure of the Christian Scriptures, which situates the Gospel of Matthew in the canonical center as the First Gospel, as well as making sense of the Gospel of Matthew itself. The Gospel of Matthew comes first precisely because it is a Gospel of fulfillment, the canon suggesting to Christians that Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of the prophets’s words, which come last in the Christian Old Testament.
The Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as a new Israel, as the embodiment of Israel. The formula quotation of Hosea 11:1b in Matthew 2:15 (“Out of Egypt have I called my son”) presents Jesus as the embodiment of Israel. So too does the story of Jesus’s Temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1–11) concern the testing of Jesus as the embodiment of Israel. The ideal reader raises the question, however, as to whether Jesus as the embodiment of Israel will be faithful, for Israel’s history contains instances of gross failure and disobedience by corporate Israel and otherwise heroic individuals therein. Hosea 11 itself recounts the disobedience of Israel. The Temptation Narrative answers this question affirmatively and definitively: Jesus is tested (4:1); Israel was tested in the wilderness (Deut 8:2). Jesus is in the desert forty days and nights (Matt 4:1); Israel was in the wilderness forty years (Deut 8:2). Jesus is hungry (Matt 4:1); Israel was hungry (Deut 8:3). In this brief story there are three quotations from Deuteronomy (Deut 8:3 in Matt 4:4; Deut 6:16 in Matt 4:7; Deut 6:13 in Matt 4:10). In this section of Deuteronomy, Israel is adjured repeatedly to be faithful to the Lord in light of the Exodus and the giving of the Commandments (Deut 5). As such, “we have before us a haggadic tale which has issued forth from reflection on Deut[eronomy] 6–8. Jesus, the Son of God, is repeating the experience of Israel in the desert.” Jesus obeys perfectly, unlike Israel in the wilderness. If one has an incarnational reading of Matthew 1:23, then, God himself (who is not the God of the philosophers but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel) who has come to his people in Jesus fulfills Israel’s story himself. All other Christological typologies and titles ought to be subordinated to this one. Jesus fulfills not only particular biblical personalities in a typological way but indeed the entirety of the “law and the prophets” (Matt 5:17).
If God fulfills Israel’s story in Jesus, then an ideal reader sees more clearly the Matthean emphasis on continuity. It is easy to emphasize discontinuity in the Gospel of Matthew, given the history of Christian anti-Judaism, the Gospel’s own historical role in generating that history as it suffers misreading, and the radical claims of newness in the Gospel, rooted in the uniqueness of the divine authority of Jesus’s own person (see, for instance, Matt 7:29: “for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes”); Jesus is the one who is so bold as to issue his own commandments (see 5:19–20, in which the near demonstrative pronoun qualifying “these” commandments and the repeated references to the kingdom of God Jesus inaugurates [see 4:17] indicate not the Law and Prophets as such are in view, but Jesus’s own commandments which follow in the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospel as a whole). But there is continuity: Jesus fulfills the line of Israel as son of Abraham (a new Isaac, and thus a sacrifice) and son of David (Christ) (1:1–17), as God himself come to earth (1:18–25) who is with us always (1:23; 28:20).
Jesus is and remains Jewish. Jesus assumes a Jewish worldview, whatever his particular mindset within Judaism. Jesus does not start from scratch, as docetic and moralistic Enlightenment theology would have it. And an ideal reader perceives that continuity. The story of Israel culminates in Jesus the Jew, but—as a result both of the divine plan as indicated in the story of the Magi and the quotations of Isaiah 9 and 12 and also human hostility—Jesus founds the Church not to replace Israel in a brute substitution but to continue her work to be the servant proclaiming “justice to the Gentiles,” Jesus himself leading those Jews (and also Gentiles, post-resurrection) who would join him as his disciples as he, God with them (Matt 1:23), present in their midst when gathered (18:20), promises to be with them to the end of the age (28:20). The time of the Gospel of Matthew, then, is the now: the time of the Eucharistic mission of the Church to all the nations, as the Church is to do what Jesus commands, which chief above all other things is to celebrate the Eucharist (26:26–29), which he commanded by his example in its institution. The Gospel of Matthew makes clear that Jesus Christ stands at the center of salvation history and that his presence in the Eucharist stands at the center of the Church’s mission and thus our salvation today. Commanded to make disciples of all nations, the Church stands in the time of Eucharistic mission.
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Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew, by Leroy A. Huizenga, reveals the significance of St. Matthew’s Jesus: He is Emmanuel, God with us always, who saves his people from their sins by dying for them. Keyed to the lectionary and featuring a section on the relevance of St. Matthew’s Gospel for our contemporary age, Behold the Christ will make the Gospel and indeed the Faith real to today’s readers.