Understanding the wider purpose of the biblical writers

I was just yesterday preparing the second sermon in a series we will be starting in Matthew halfway through July this year. In the first two chapters of Matthew, the gospel writer is clear on his purpose. Chapter 1:1 begins with a genealogy. But Matthew specifies that it is the genealogy of Jesus Christ (that is, Jesus the Messiah) and traces the line through Abraham and David, to show that title is perfectly well placed. Even his carefully constructed sets of 14 generations are pointing to his link to David, probably through gematria.

Matthew goes on to point out that birth of Jesus Christ. Again, that messianic title gives away what Matthew is trying to point out specifically. Matthew then focuses in on Joseph, the one through whose line Jesus has any claim to be a Son of David. We’re told these things happened to fulfil specific messianic prophecy.

Chapter 2 begins similarly. The wise men from the East come in search of ‘the king of the Jews’. In other words, they come looking for the promised messiah too. Even Herod recognised this was messianic because he summoned the scribes and teachers of the law to find out more details so he could kill off the one he through might usurp his throne. Matthew is still banging away at that messianic theme. The rest of chapter 2 shows the fulfilment of various other messianic prophecies. So, by the end of chapter 2, Matthew has been piling it on thick. See, Jesus is the messiah!

It seems pretty clear what Matthew’s purpose is in writing his gospel. Yesterday, I was prepping a sermon on chapter 3 and a bit of chapter 4. But what is particularly helpful when it comes to trying to work out what the passage I was prepping yesterday is really about is understanding why Matthew has written his gospel. Everything up to chapter 2 is Matthew going on and on about how Jesus is clearly the Christ. So, what might the bit of chapter 3 and the first bit of chapter 4 be about? Ultimately, it is further evidence that Jesus is the promised messiah. Chapters 1-4 also have a bunch of typological things to say about Jesus and Israel that are significant, Son of God is both typological and messianic, but it’s all part and parcel of saying Jesus is the Christ.

The reason I mention this – apart from it being on my mind – is to make a slightly wider point. Not a particularly insightful one, but nevertheless a useful one (I think). That is, when it comes to biblical interpretation, we are usually trying to understand the original intent of the author. But when it comes to understanding the intent of the author in this passage, it is often a good idea to understand the intent of the author about why he is writing this book at all.

So, in my case, how are we to understand the flow of why John the Baptist is banging on about repentance, Jesus is then baptised with the Spirit descending on him and the Father announcing him as his son and then the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness to be tested? What links all of those things together? It would be very easy to take each of those vignettes and treat them all separately. Perhaps there are some interesting points to be made about baptism and repentance from John, some good trinitarian theology to highlight when Jesus is baptised and then some helpful insights about temptation and Satan’s doings all discovered across three broadly unconnected sermons. But it seems to me, Matthew has purposefully grouped these things together. They are, in fact, a natural follow on from his first two chapters. But we only see it if we hang them together and we recognise Matthew’s wider purpose.

His first two chapters have been clearly about showing Jesus is the messiah. So, when we get to Matthew 3, what is John doing? He is preparing the way for the messiah. He is telling people the kingdom is at hand and they need to prepare to meet the messiah. What is going on when Jesus gets baptised? Not fundamentally trinitarian theology (though that is evident), but Jesus being anointed by God’s Spirit as messiah and the Father announcing this is my true Son, Jesus is true Israel, this is the messiah promised long ago. What then is going on in Chapter 4? The Old Testament is littered with potential new Adam’s who all seem to promise much but ultimately fail like their father before them. Jesus is presented as the latest potential new Adam – the one through whom God will rescue his people – but will he be faithful where Adam, and Israel, failed? Matthew 4 says yes! The messiah, the servant of God who will rescue God’s people, is here! The thread is all about Jesus as the Christ and the related issue of sonship.

But those things are only really clear when we understand what Matthew is writing his gospel for in the first place. We can take any one of those events and treat them as standalone sermons (there is, incidentally, nothing wrong with doing that). But we can see all the more how they hang together when we understand Matthew’s purpose in writing. His aim is to show that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the true Israel. How these individual events hang together, and how they relate to one another, and what each of them specifically mean are all clearer when we understand that purpose.

So, my point is simply this: work hard to figure out why the author is writing their book at all. It may just help you see the threads in a book. It may help you understand how passages hang together and why they have been ordered as they are. But it will also help you figure out the meaning of this passage, because it is likely this shorter passage will be serving the overall intention of the author somehow.