The Gospel of the Kingdom

IN THE BYZANTINE TYPIKA, the Scriptures read at the Divine Liturgy are chosen in two ways. On feasts the passages selected refer to the event being celebrated. The Gospel reading usually recounts the event while the Epistle selection often suggests its spiritual meaning.

On most days of the year the Church reads the Scriptures continuously according to the following pattern: the Gospel of St John and the Acts of the Apostles are read from Pascha to Pentecost; Matthew and the Epistles, beginning with Romans, are read from Pentecost to the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14). The Epistles continue in order after this feast with Hebrews read especially during the Great Fast. The Gospels are read as follows: Luke from the Holy Cross to the Great Fast and Mark on the weekends of the Fast as well as to fill in any gaps caused by the varying date of Pascha. Thus we are now at the start of the public reading of Matthew and Romans in the Byzantine Churches.

The Gospel of Matthew

In printed Bibles the Gospel according to St. Matthew is the first of the four. For many years this arrangement was thought to reflect the sequence in which the Gospels were composed: Matthew first, then Mark, etc. Most contemporary scholars, however, feel that the simpler Gospel of Mark was written first (before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70) and then developed by Matthew after that event.

The first ancient testimony to Matthew comes from the second century Bishop of Hieropolis, Papias. In a work now lost but quoted by others, Papias says that “Matthew composed the sayings [of Jesus] in the Hebrew dialect [of Aramaic]”. If Papias is correct, Matthew’s collection of sayings was written for a group of Jewish Christians who spoke the Palestinian (“Hebrew”) dialect of Aramaic. Matthew’s original work, then, may have been simply a collection of sayings later incorporated into the Greek narrative we now have.

Our Matthew, although written in Greek, was still written for Jewish Christians. Of all the Gospels Matthew is the one that most refers to the Old Testament. Jewish customs are mentioned but not explained since the readers would be familiar with them. Questions about observing the Law of Moses and the Sabbath come up again and again. We know that there were many Jews who understood and spoke Greek – it was the universal language of the Mediterranean – and there were many Jews who no longer spoke Hebrew or Aramaic. It is thought that the Gospel was written in a Jewish Christian community in Syria, probably at Antioch.

Matthew’s Gospel is clearly a literary work with specific movements and themes. Sandwiched between the infancy narrative and the story of the passion and resurrection of Christ, Matthew puts forth five narratives and discourses that remind us of the five books of Moses (the Torah). Jesus is the New Moses, giving the new law, written in the hearts of those who love Him. The Gospel is roughly divided in two, focusing on its main message. The first part leads up to the confession of Peter (“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”) in chapter 16 and the transfiguration of Christ (“This is my beloved Son”) in chapter 17. The second part then takes us to Jerusalem and the great events of the Paschal mystery. Jesus is revealed in His passion (“Truly this was the Son of God” – 27:54) and in His glorification (“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” -28:18). Jesus is not only the “new Moses;” He is the “One greater than the temple” (12.7), “greater than Jonah” and “greater than Solomon” (12.41-42).

Today’s reading from Matthew (4:18-23) is, as it were, the kickoff to the earthly ministry of Christ. Christ calls His foremost disciples, the brothers Peter and Andrew and their fellow fishermen, the brothers James and John. He then sets out preaching “the Gospel of the kingdom” (v. 23) throughout Galilee.
The kingdom of God was, at first, the Hebrew commonwealth, those who believed in the one true God. When a kingdom, “like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5) was established people began to think of God’s kingdom as a physical entity. After being a subject people since their subjugation to Babylon in 587 BC, the Jews sought freedom from their occupiers and looked to the Messiah as a political liberator. Jesus message contradicts this: “the kingdom of God has come upon you,” He says (Matthew 12:28), by His presence. He confronts the ultimate oppressor, through whom physical, psychological and spiritual traumas befall us, and He defeats him. The kingdom of God is where Jesus is and is revered.

Epistle to the Romans

The first printed Bibles did not attempt to put the Epistles in chronological order. They put the longest first and worked their way down to the shortest for each author. Romans is St. Paul’s longest epistle but not his first. At St. Paul’s death (c. AD 66) only one of our Gospels (Mark) had been written. His epistles are, therefore, the first surviving documents of the Christian movement.

In the first century AD there were long-established Jewish communities in all the principal cities of the Roman Empire. St. Paul’s own plan on visiting such a city was to first preach Christ in the local synagogue. Inevitably some people accepted that Jesus was the Messiah and others did not. In AD 49 Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome. The Roman historian Suetonius suggested that this was because the Jews were so vehemently contending about whether Jesus was the Messiah. In any case, Jews returned to Rome after Claudius’ death in AD 54. It was to the believers among them that Paul addressed his epistle.

In the selection read today St Paul affirms that “everyone who works what is good” – the Gentiles as well as Jews – can be just in the sight of God. While Jews lived in the midst of Gentiles throughout the Mediterranean world, strict Jews did not mingle with Gentiles. If a Gentile wished to join them – and some did – they would have to observe the entire Law, starting with circumcision, just as any observant Jew would do. Keeping the Law of Moses was the great – and only – sign that a person was living according to God’s will.

Paul’s teaching was very different. Observance of the Law of Moses was fine, but people could be pleasing to God by following what their conscience tells them is right for they would be following the heart of the Law (the Ten Commandments) without explicitly knowing it. As the third-century commentator Origen wrote, “The Gentiles need not keep the Sabbaths or the new moons or the sacrifices which are written down in the law. For this law is not what is written on the hearts of the Gentiles. Rather it is that which can be discerned naturally, e.g. that they should not kill or commit adultery, that they should not bear false witness, that they should honor father and mother, etc.” (Commentary on Romans 1.228).

Paul here prepares the ground for his most important teaching: that it was acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah which made one a true member of God’s People, be he Jew or Gentile. If a person believed in Christ, then it did not matter whether he was circumcised or not or whether he observed all the ritual practices of Judaism.