Matthew: Gospel of Fulfillment

By Dr. Scott Hahn


Matthew's Gospel revels in linking the Old Testament to the New. A biblical scholar provides keys to unlock this Gospel, which will be read on most Sundays this year.Q U I C K S C A N

 A Catholic 'Key'
 The Biblical 'Type'
 The New Hidden in the Old 
 The Promised Son
 New Moses, New Exodus
 David's Kingdom Comes (Again)
 The Kingdom's Keys
 A King's Reception
 Written Text, Living Word 

I was flush with the pride of discovery.

The paper I’d just presented to a doctoral seminar on the Gospel of Matthew was important and original. I was convinced of it. Even the grueling, two-and-a-half-hour session of questioning by my professor and fellow students had left me—and my thesis—unscathed.

I argued that Matthew’s account of Jesus giving Peter the “keys to the kingdom” cites an obscure oracle of Isaiah about the transfer of “the key of the House of David.” What Jesus confers upon Peter—namely, authority over his Church—corresponds to what Isaiah’s king confers upon Eliakim in making him prime minister of the Davidic kingdom.

Earlier scholars, both Protestant and Catholic, had noticed the Isaiah citation. And you don’t have to be a scholar to notice that Matthew is filled with quotations, citations, allusions and echoes from the Old Testament.

I felt I had a fresh insight, however, in seeing how the citation helps us understand Matthew’s meaning and Jesus’ intention. As I saw it, the passage depicts Jesus as the new Davidic king and the Church as the restored kingdom of David.

 A Catholic 'Key'

It was this conclusion and others like it that eventually led me to become a Catholic.

It wasn’t long after I entered the Church that I encountered these biblical passages again—in a setting I was hardly expecting.

It happened one day at Mass. The first reading was taken from Isaiah 22, the same obscure oracle I’d studied in such detail for my paper. Now, that’s an interesting coincidence, I thought. A few minutes later, the priest proclaimed the Gospel: Matthew 16—Jesus giving the keys to Peter!

What were the odds of those two Scriptures being read at the same Mass? I asked myself. At the time, I was learning a lot of things about being a Catholic, including how the Church’s liturgy worked. I felt as if I’d hit some kind of lectionary lottery.

Only later did I discover that the readings we hear at Mass aren’t chosen by holy happenstance. My innovative interpretation of Matthew 16 was one that Catholics had been hearing in the liturgy for years.

 The Biblical 'Type'

In the nearly 20 years since I became a Catholic, I’ve had this experience again and again in the liturgy.

Sunday after Sunday, the Church gives us a pattern of biblical interpretation, showing us how the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the New Testament. It’s no wonder the Church does it this way. The Church learned this from the New Testament writers, who learned it from Jesus.

The evangelists understood the Old Testament as salvation history, the patient unfolding of God’s gracious and merciful plan to fashion the human race into a family of God that worships and dwells with him.

Some early believers wanted to throw out the Old Testament as irrelevant. But those people were quickly branded as heretics. For the early Church, Israel’s story was their family story.

The words and deeds, historical figures and events in the Old Testament concealed deeper layers of meaning, meanings only fully revealed with the coming of Jesus. The flood and Noah’s ark were “types” or signs to prepare us to understand the saving work of Baptism and the Church. The manna God gave the Israelites in the desert was also a “type” of the true bread from heaven that God would give us in the Eucharist.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls this way of reading “typology” (see #128-130; 1094-1095). Typology is the guiding principle the Church uses in selecting the readings we hear at Mass. As the Pontifical Biblical Commission said in its important 1993 document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, “By regularly associating a text of the Old Testament with the text of the Gospel, the cycle often suggests a scriptural interpretation moving in the direction of typology.”

 The New Hidden in the Old

All this is important to keep in mind as we now begin to read Matthew’s Gospel Sunday by Sunday over the course of the new Liturgical Year (Cycle A).

With Matthew, we have a master of typology. Matthew’s Gospel is a prime example of what St. Augustine was talking about when he said that the New Testament is concealed in the Old and the Old Testament is revealed in the New.

You can’t read Matthew without having your ear tuned to the Old Testament, from which he quotes or to which he alludes four or five times per chapter, more than 100 times in his Gospel.

Matthew writes this way because he wants his fellow Israelites to see that their covenant with God has been fulfilled in Jesus. Get used to words like “fulfill” and “fulfillment”! You’re going to hear them repeatedly in Matthew’s Gospel.

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, for instance, Matthew explains how Mary is found with child: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (Matthew 1:22-23). (All citations in this article are from Matthew, unless otherwise noted.)

Again, on Palm Sunday, when Jesus is arrested in the garden, he says: “But all this has come to pass that the writings of the prophets may be fulfilled” (26:56).

 The Promised Son

The numerous fulfillments Matthew tells us about are intended to signal one thing: In Jesus, God is finally delivering on the promises he made throughout salvation history.

Matthew announces this in his very first line, which we hear in the Christmas Vigil Mass: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1).

In this one sentence, Matthew drops four critical Old Testament references and he expects his readers—including you and me—to get them.

First, the word we translate as “genealogy” is genesis, the Greek word for “creation” and, of course, the name of the Bible’s first book. Matthew also evokes God’s covenants with Abraham and David, both of which involved a promise of divinely given sons.

At the dawn of salvation history, God made his covenant with Abraham, promising him an heir whose descendants would be as countless as the stars in the sky, a chosen people through whom God would bestow his blessings on all the earth (see Genesis 22:16-18). Centuries later, when the descendants of Abraham had become a mighty kingdom, God made a climactic covenant with David, his handpicked and anointed king.

By an “eternal covenant,” God promised that David’s son would be his own son and that he would reign forever, not only over Israel, but also over all the nations. (To read more about the Davidic covenant, see 2 Samuel 7:8-16; 23:5; Psalms 2:7-8 and 72:8, 11.) In effect, God’s covenant with David is a promise to finally fulfill his covenant with Abraham—making Abraham’s descendants, gathered into the kingdom ruled by David’s son, the everlasting source of blessings for all the world.

Unfortunately, David’s kingdom crumbled and the people were swept away into exile about 400 years after David died. This “Babylonian exile” is the turning point in Matthew’s genealogy. He repeats the phrase four times so we don’t miss it (1:11 and 12, and twice in verse 17).

This is his way of showing us that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah in Hebrew) the prophets had hoped for, the new son of David who would liberate Israel from its enemies, restore the lost sheep to the house of Israel and establish a new covenant that would embrace all nations. (For background on some of these prophecies, see Isaiah 2:2-3; 7:14; 9:1-7; 11:1-5,10; 42:6; 55:3-5; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 31:31-34; 32:36-41; Ezekiel 16:59-63; 34:24-30; 37:23-28.)

In that first sentence, Matthew gives us a summary of his Gospel and the entire New Testament. It is a book about the new world created by Jesus; the Christ sent to fulfill God’s ancient covenant promises to David and Abraham.

 New Moses, New Exodus

In showing us how Jesus fulfills God’s promises, Matthew wants us to see the connections between his life and that of the first great deliverer of Israel, Moses.

Especially in his early chapters, Matthew wants you to hear lots of familiar echoes: What figure before Jesus is born under threat of death, facing a tyrannical ruler who has decreed that all firstborn Hebrew males are to be killed? What other figure in salvation history is saved by family members and remains in exile until those seeking his life are dead? (To compare the stories, read Matthew 2:13-20 and Exodus 1:15-16; 2:1-10; 4:19.) Not once in all this does Matthew say, “Jesus’ early life looks a lot like Moses’.” He doesn’t have to.

This understanding of Jesus as a “new Moses” continues throughout Matthew’s Gospel.

As Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea as God’s beloved son, Jesus too passes through water in his Baptism and is also called God’s Son. (Compare Matthew 3:17 with Exodus 4:22.) As Israel left the waters to be tested in the desert for 40 years, following his Baptism Jesus was immediately driven into the wilderness to be tested for 40 days and 40 nights.

When you hear the story of Jesus’ testing by the devil on the First Sunday of Lent, be sure to notice how his temptations correspond to Israel’s in the wilderness (see Matthew 4:1-11).

First, Jesus is tempted by hunger, which had caused Israel to grumble against God. Then he is dared to put God to the test, to question God’s care for him. This recalls the Israelites’ testing of God at Meribah and Massah. Finally, he is tempted to worship a false god, which Israel actually did in creating the golden calf. (To read about Israel’s temptations, see Exodus 16:1-13; 17:1-6; 32:1-35.)

Notice also that each time Jesus rebukes the devil, he quotes Moses. Each quote is carefully chosen from a key section in the Book of Deuteronomy in which Moses warns the people to learn a lesson from their unfaithfulness in the desert. (Compare Jesus’ words to Deuteronomy 6:12-16; 8:3.)

As Moses climbed a mountain to bring the people the Law of God and the covenant, Jesus climbs a “mount” and delivers a new Law and a new covenant. Moses commanded the Israelites to commemorate God’s covenant in the Passover celebration (see Exodus 12). Jesus institutes a new Passover, the Eucharist. As Moses sealed the Old Covenant with the blood of sacrificial animals, Jesus seals the New Covenant with his own blood, and even quotes Moses’ words: “This is the blood of my covenant.” (Compare Matthew 26:28 and Exodus 24:8.)

Matthew sees Jesus leading a new Exodus: this time, not from a political tyrant whose armies are drowned in the sea, but from sin and death, which are destroyed in the waters of Baptism.

It can’t be stressed enough that, for Matthew, this is salvation history, not literary allusion. Matthew isn’t writing a clever story designed to evoke memories of Moses and the Exodus. Matthew, like all devout Jews of the time, believed that God’s saving words and deeds in the past formed a kind of template for what God would say and do to save Israel in the future.

Moses himself had promised that a prophet like him would one day arise (see Deuteronomy 18:15). And the prophets increasingly talked about a “new exodus” that would return the scattered Israelites and bring them to Zion for a great festal gathering with all the nations (see Isaiah 10:25-27; 11:15-16; 43:2,16-19; 51:9-11; Jeremiah 23:7-8; 31:31-33).

Matthew sees Jesus doing the same things that Mark and Luke saw him doing. But in writing his account, he wants us to see how in doing these things, Jesus is fulfilling God’s promises.

 David's Kingdom Comes (Again)

As Jesus moves closer to Jerusalem, Matthew shows us a different Old Testament pattern emerging in the life of Jesus. Actually, from the very start, he has told us that he believes Jesus to be the new Son of David and restorer of the Davidic kingdom.

On the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus announces “the kingdom” for the first time. Matthew adds a curious detail—that Jesus is in Galilee, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali (4:13). Why do we need to know that? Because that’s where David’s kingdom started to crumble, when Assyria invaded this very region some 700 years earlier (see 2 Kings 15:29).

Isaiah predicted God would begin restoring the fallen kingdom precisely where its disintegration began. And Matthew sees Jesus fulfilling this prophecy (see Matthew 4:12-17 and Isaiah 9:1-2, 7). That’s why, when we hear this Gospel on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, we’ll also hear the reading from Isaiah.

 The Kingdom's Keys

Perhaps the pivot of the Gospel is Matthew 16—the scene that kept me up nights as a doctoral student—the giving of “the keys” to Peter. As Catholics, we’ve all heard the story. But we need to listen to it again in a “Davidic key.”

Simon’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” brings together the most important titles the prophets and psalmists had used to describe the promised son of David. He was to be the “anointed one” (“the Christ”) and “the Son of God” (see Psalm 2:2, 7; 89:27; 2 Samuel 7:14).

Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter (Greek for “rock”), and tells him: “Upon this rock I will build my Church” (16:18). 

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had spoken of “a wise man who built his house on rock” (7:24). This was a subtle reference to Solomon, who was revered for his wisdom (see 1 Kings 3:10-12) and who built the Temple on a rock (see 1 Kings 5:31; 7:10). Matthew sees Jesus as the new Solomon, the new Son of David, building a new spiritual temple—his Church—on the “rock” of Peter’s faith.

As Isaiah had foretold, the keys of David’s kingdom would be given to a new royal steward or prime minister. Isaiah promised that this prime minister would be a father over Jerusalem and would have full authority: What “he opens, no one shall shut.” So Jesus gives Peter the keys and the power to “bind” and “loose.” (For Isaiah’s prophecy, see Isaiah 22:20-24).

 A King's Reception

When Jesus finally reaches Jerusalem, Matthew paints us a picture that looks a lot like the Old Testament scene of the anointing and crowning of David’s son Solomon. (Compare Matthew 21:1-11 and 1 Kings 1:38-45.) In case we don’t get the subtle allusions he makes, Matthew depicts the crowd crying out to Jesus as the “Son of David.”

And the drama in Matthew’s final pages turns on whether Jesus is in fact the Davidic Messiah. Note how often the Davidic phrases—“Son of David,” “Son of God” and “King of the Jews”—appear in these pages.

Matthew leaves no doubt where he stands. In the last scene of his Gospel he depicts Jesus as the king’s heir. As God had promised to David, Jesus is the Son of God, given “all power” over “all nations” until the “end of the age” (28:18-20).

Matthew’s Gospel of fulfillment is complete: Jesus is the long-awaited Son of David and Son of God. His Church is the restored Kingdom of David, which will be the font of blessing for all nations—fulfilling the covenant that God made with Abraham at the dawn of salvation history.

 Written Text, Living Word

With Jesus’ parting words, “I am with you always,” Matthew points us back to the first of his Old Testament fulfillments—that the Messiah’s name would be Emmanuel or “God is with us.”

The divine mission has been accomplished, he is telling us. God’s plan for history has been realized. Jesus has taught us to pray to God as our Father and has given us the means of becoming beloved sons and daughters in Baptism. And in the Eucharist and the Church, he is with us always.

This is what God desired from the first pages of the Old Testament, when he walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day—to dwell with his people that all might share in the divine presence.

We hear God’s desire in one of the most beautiful Davidic prophecies: Ezekiel’s promise of a new King David to rule the nations by an “everlasting covenant” in which God would dwell with his people forever (see Ezekiel 37:24-28).

This is the promise Matthew sees fulfilled in the paschal mystery of Christ. But this divine fulfillment is not one of termination but of continuation.

Salvation history continues in the liturgy, which we celebrate at Christ’s command. In this sacred memorial, the sacred words of Scripture perform a sacred deed—changing bread and wine into his Body and Blood. “Written text thus becomes living Word,” as the Pontifical Biblical Commission has said so well. By this living Word proclaimed in the liturgy, your life story and mine are joined to the story of salvation begun in the Scriptures.

I learned this by surprise as a new Catholic. You can relive my “discovery” on the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time when the Liturgy of the Word again pairs the reading of Isaiah 22 with Matthew 16. But we can all share in this dynamic experience every Sunday, as we hear the Old Testament revealed in the New, as the written text is once more made living Word.