Who Is Jesus? [Part 1: Book of Matthew]

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. —Matthew 28:18

This month we’re answering the question, Who is Jesus? No one else in history rivals his influence. Even people who don’t call themselves Christians admire him. I was in conversation with a Muslim recently who told me he loved Jesus. But the very popularity of Jesus makes him useful to people for their own purposes. What is Jesus really about? Who is he?

Do a Google Images search of Jesus and you’ll see a Catholic Jesus, a hippie Jesus, a black Jesus. Everybody wants their own Jesus. It’s understandable. The Bible says, “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). God made himself like us. He identified with us. So, in a way, there really is a hippie Jesus, and so forth. But he’s still bigger than all of us put together, and he won’t be a tool for someone else’s purpose. He is who he is. As we accept him in reality, we experience him in reality.

These four Sundays in July, let’s go to the four gospels – Matthew today, then Mark, Luke and John – and let’s see him together with new eyes. All four gospels share the same Jesus. But each gospel has its own angle of vision, showing us more of him than we would see otherwise. And the gospels are our primary source. The Bible puts us in contact with the real Jesus. That needs to be said today, because it’s popular to say we have to go around the Bible to recover the actual Jesus of history. It’s popular to say the later Christian church embellished Jesus with layers of theological exaggeration, to strengthen the church’s power base. But that doesn’t make sense. The four gospels are too honest about the disciples to work as propaganda on their behalf. The Bible presents the disciples as spiritual idiots.

For example, the gospels tell us that all the disciples chickened out and abandoned Jesus when everything was on the line (e.g., Matthew 26:56). There is much in the Bible that puts the disciples in a bad light. And when the four gospels were written, the disciples were leaders in the church. If the story was doctored up to make the church look good, why does it make the leaders look bad? We need to look at our own doubts about the Bible and ask where they are coming from. If we don’t examine our own doubts, we will end up concocting our own designer Jesus, out of our own preferences, and why is that convincing? We need the real Jesus, and the best access we have to him is the Bible.

Read the four gospels. How do they strike you? Do they read like fiction? I think they come across as amazing but carefully written and sober-minded. Contrast the biblical accounts with, say, the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas from maybe the middle of the second century. Here is how it starts out:

This little child Jesus, when he was five years old, was playing at the crossing of a stream. And he gathered together into pools the running water, and made it instantly clean. … Having made soft clay, he molded from it twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things. And there were many other children playing with him. When a certain Jew saw what Jesus did, playing on the Sabbath day, he at once went and told his father Joseph: “See, your child is at the stream, and he took clay and made twelve little birds, and has profaned the Sabbath.” Joseph came to the place and looked and cried out, saying, “Why do you do on the Sabbath things not lawful to do?” But Jesus clapped his hands and cried out to the sparrows, “Be gone!” And the sparrows took flight and went away chirping.

The gospels of the New Testament do not have Jesus involved in pranks. The biblical Jesus never works a miracle as a stunt. He never even performs a miracle for his own benefit, certainly not for his amusement. He always helps others by his miracles. It’s the Bible that shows us a serious Jesus, to be believed.

Today let’s look at him through the lens of Matthew’s gospel. Here is how the gospel of Matthew is organized. It falls into seven sections. The introduction, in chapters 1-4, shows Jesus’ roots deep in the Old Testament. The conclusion, in chapter 28, shows his resurrection. The introduction looks back to the past and the nation of Israel. The conclusion looks into the future and the worldwide kingdom of Jesus. Between the introduction and the conclusion are five sections in Matthew’s gospel. Each one includes teaching by Jesus, then acting by Jesus – words and then deeds, speeches and then proof that his word carries weight. Here is how it unfolds. First, chapters 5-9. In 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, he presents his kingdom. In 8-9, he proves that his kingdom is a place of healing for broken people. Second, chapters 10-12. In 10, he becomes controversial. He says, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). But in 11-12, he adds reassurance: “Come to me, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus is both controversial and restful. Third, chapters 13-17. In 13, his parables of the kingdom polarize everyone. You are either in or out. Then in 14-17, he shows why he’s the flashpoint of division. This is the gravitational center of Matthew’s gospel, where Peter says to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Fourth, chapters 18-23. In 18-20, Jesus teaches us how to live in his kingdom, how to live together as a new community. In 21-23, he is rejected by his own Jewish community. Finally, chapters 24-27. In 24-25, he predicts how he alone will conclude world history with a final judgment. In 26-27, he himself comes under judgment at the cross and dies.

But what is Matthew saying by all this? He wants us to know basically one thing about Jesus.

Jesus is God’s ancient plan

We might think of Jesus as God’s response to the mess we’ve made, an afterthought, a back-up plan. We think of our Air Force pilots scrambling to their planes when the radar picks up enemy fighters coming in. But God never scrambles. Jesus is God’s original purpose. He is an ancient King, with deep roots. He is the promise God made to us from the beginning. How does Matthew show us Jesus as God’s long-term plan?

It starts in chapter one, verse one: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” David lived 1000 years before Jesus, and Abraham lived 2000 years before Jesus. And Matthew’s point is that Jesus was the one finally to inherit the promises God made to these men so long before. So Jesus was not a religious innovator. The newness he brought recovered the pristine reality with God that the centuries of human religiosity had lost.
Thirteen times in Matthew we read that Jesus “fulfilled” the Old Testament.

In chapter one, for example, the way he was born fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Matthew 1:23). Jesus alone is God-with-us. He alone is God with us, not just a nice man. He alone is God with us, not against us. He alone is God with us, not with worthy people but with us sinners. Jesus fulfilled God’s ancient prophecy.

In chapter two, the way he had to be brought back to Israel from Egypt fulfilled the prediction of Hosea: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matthew 2:15). The interesting thing is, if you look into the book of Hosea, the “son” in that context is the nation of Israel back at the exodus. But the way Matthew read the Old Testament, everything was about Jesus. He is God’s better “son” who doesn’t betray the Father, the way Israel did, but obeys perfectly—for us.

My point is this: The Bible is how God explains to us where we came from and who we are and why we matter and where it’s all going. But we are not the key to our own story. Jesus is, and always has been. He appears on every page of the Old Testament. Look at the fulfillments here in Matthew’s gospel, and you’ll see what I mean.

Another way Matthew gives us depth perception for grasping who Jesus is is “the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, for example, this way: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). The promise of the kingdom goes way back in the Old Testament. God kept saying, “I’m coming to you. I will rescue you. I will rebuild what you’ve destroyed. I will re-create human beauty. I will bring my kingdom of grace to you, no one can stop me, and it will never end.” And all through those centuries, people who believed God had waited and waited and waited. They even became confused. They lost sight of the sufferings of their coming king and thought he would come in immediate victory. But it wasn’t that simple. Saving us is not simple. We’re in too deep for that. So, where is the kingdom? Why does evil remain so strong, even after the King has come?

On the one hand, the kingdom did come in Jesus, because he is the King. He said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). But on the other hand, Jesus also put his kingdom out in the future. He taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10). He prophesied, “Many will come from the east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11). So, the new world we’ve always longed for has already come in Jesus, but it has not yet come in the fullness of his power. This is why life remains hard, even after Jesus died for our sins. This is why we need to remain humble and patient. Jesus didn’t promise a quick transition.

In fact, he told us, in chapter 24 – the Olivet Discourse – that he would delay the fullness of his kingdom. He told us that during this long delay false Christs and false hopes would rise up to tempt us away into their nothingness. He compared this waiting period we’ve been in for 2000 years now to a woman in labor pains, struggling to come to birth. He told us there will be a definite end, when he will bring his new world to birth (Matthew 24:8, 14). In the meantime, while we wait, anything that pulls us away from loyalty to Jesus is an Antichrist. You may be aware that the prefix “anti-” in Greek can mean both opposed to and substituting for. Any hope that substitutes itself for Jesus, any hope that displaces Jesus, as what we’re banking on is an Antichrist. It’s all around us right now. And it will be, until he returns. Don’t expect an easy run.

But the one inevitability we can count on is not death and taxes but the return of Christ, to bring in the fullness of his glorious kingdom forever. He has already met the conditions by his perfect life, and he has already paid for our sins by his guilty death. We’ll see many trends come and go, we’ll see cultures rise and fall. But every day, through it all, we can cherish what Jesus said: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35).

Everybody needs a better future. Everybody needs something to look forward to. But without a grand, thrilling, long-term hope that will outlast everything, we fill our lives with short-term hopes, just to keep us going—a trip to Europe, a new car, a better job. We get energy for living today by keeping before us “the next thing” for tomorrow, however small it might be. But without a long-term hope, it’s masking our despair underneath, it can’t go on forever, and what then? We don’t want to build our lives on one darling little Antichrist after another. Not when the King has come in our weakness, to identify with us, and is coming again in his power, to rescue us forever!

In Jesus, God brought a love and a purpose and a plan for the whole world that is so big we barely believe it. But when we believe it, our hearts feel that future grandeur even now. It makes us strong, to face anything.

That takes us to the second thing I want to say this morning, based on Matthew’s presentation of Jesus as God’s ancient promise to his broken people in a broken world.

Who Jesus is forces us to ask who we are

All we need, to inherit the glory of the coming kingdom, is Jesus alone. The thief crucified next to him said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Matthew 23:42-43). Do you see the irony? The religious people were too good for Jesus, and disqualified themselves. The thief reached out, and was drawn in. This irony runs throughout Matthew’s gospel. For centuries God had been making promises uniquely to Israel, but too many of God’s own people just didn’t care.

In many cases, it was the outsiders who wanted Jesus, and they got him. In chapter 1, the genealogy of Jesus includes four women before Mary, all of whom were outsiders – morally or in another way. In chapter 2 the wise men travel hundreds of miles, guided by a star, of all things, to worship the child Jesus. On their way, they go to Jerusalem to ask specific directions. The rabbis know exactly where to turn in the prophecy of Micah chapter 5 for their guidance: the little village of Bethlehem not far away. But those rabbis didn’t get off their behinds to walk six miles down the road to check it out. The wise men from far away got Jesus, and the rabbis so close by missed him.

There are two people in Matthew’s gospel whose faith impresses Jesus – a Roman soldier in chapter 8, and a Canaanite woman in chapter 15. Jesus said to the Pharisees that the Queen of Sheba will rise up at the judgment to condemn them, because she came from far away to learn from Solomon, and he said, “Something greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42). He said to the religious authorities, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31).

Throughout Matthew’s gospel the insiders, who should have been eager – they’d had the Bible for so long – they opposed him, and the outsiders who didn’t mind inconvenience got him. This reveals who his true followers are. The insiders were thinking, “Do I have to?” The outsiders were thinking, “Do I get to?” That’s all it takes to miss out on Jesus or to have Jesus. It doesn’t matter if you have a lifetime of exposure to the gospel. If all you can do is think of what he’s costing you, you’re an outsider, no matter how qualified you think you are. But if your heart is rejoicing over all you’re gaining by him, you’re an insider, no matter how badly you’re disqualified in other ways.

I was rebuked in this way as a young man during the Jesus Movement of the late 60s. Through my teenage years I was embarrassed to be a Christian. I envied my unbelieving friends. I wanted to move their way. Then God poured out the Holy Spirit on L.A. And I saw thousands of my generation running past me, toward Jesus. I was rebuked, and I needed that rebuke. I had to change my attitude, or miss out on the blessing.

In Matthew 22 Jesus tells a parable in which a king gives a wedding feast for his son. He sends out servants to invite his friends. But they wouldn’t come. He sent out more servants. Again, nobody came. So the king said to his servants, “Go get anybody who doesn’t mind being freely included in my eternal banquet.” And Jesus said, “Those servants gathered all whom they found, both good and bad. So the wedding hall was filled with guests” (Matthew 22:10).

The only other question as important as Who is Jesus? is the question Who are you? Maybe you’ve been exposed to the gospel all your life. If so, your heart should be the most eager for him. But if he feels more like a burden than a burden-lifter, you need to repent of insulting the King. But he will fill his wedding hall. And everyone there, both good and bad, will be happy forever. And if you have no background, and you feel awkward right now because here you are in church, but you want Jesus, the real Jesus, because you’ve given up on yourself and you need something more – I want you to know, you can have him freely. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. . . . I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13). The Bible says, “By his stripes, we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5; Matthew 8:17). At the cross, he absorbed into himself all the sickness that makes us sick of ourselves and sickening to others. And by his resurrection, he gives newness of life to anyone who will receive it with the empty hands of faith.

Who is Jesus? He is God’s deepest purpose to remake the whole world. Who are you? If you need him to remake you, he is near to you right now, whatever your background. Even after all the disciples betrayed him, the risen Lord said, “Do not be afraid. Tell my brothers they will see me” (Matthew 28:10).