The Gospel in the Gospel According to Matthew
In chapters 5-7 we have an example of Jesus' preaching, perhaps the supreme example in all the Gospels. And the truth is, it's not exactly what we might have expected. I mean, hadn't John recognized Jesus as the "coming one" that he had been looking for? And hadn't God confirmed that with a voice from the heavens? And hadn't the Holy Spirit descended upon him in a manner that was apparent to all? But now he is not preaching, as we might have expected, "Here I am . . . the one John was speaking of." He is not preaching, "The kingdom of God is here." No, he's preaching the same message that John preached: the kingdom of God is near. And he's preaching, in chapters 5 through 7, a way of living as we await that kingdom's full "coming."
It is a remarkable document, these three chapters, and one for extended meditation, but I'm going to point out only one matter here. The sermon on the mount is not a gospel message. Isn't that interesting? Why do you think that is?
It's perhaps worth noting that Christ, in inaugurating his ministry by submitting to the baptism of John (Mt. 3:13-15), was in effect "going undercover." That is, for the time being, he was not openly declaring the full revelation of what it would mean for him to assume this mantle of messiahship. Thus, "the sermon on the mount" may be seen as a preparatory message, in advance of the full unfolding of what his coming is all about.
As noted above, it is essentially the same message as John's, and yet it is accompanied with healing. Thus his fame spreads and many come to him, and to these people he preaches his "sermon," a message about the attitude his hearers are to have as they await the kingdom. He is saying, in essence, Yes, the kingdom is near, very near, so see to how you walk. And here are a few pointers: blessed are the poor in spirit, etc.
At the end of this sermon we are told: "And when Jesus finished these sayings the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority...." The wisdom of Christ's words revealed, perhaps, just how the "near" the kingdom really was. This matter of "speaking with authority" was apparently as striking and noteworthy, to those listening, as his healings had been.
And so we arrive at chapter 8. Herein Jesus proceeds to heal 1) a leper, 2) the centurion's daughter, and 3) Peter's mother-in-law, 4) many who were demon-possessed, 5) many who were sick, and 6) two Gadarene demoniacs. But amidst all this we have the first hint, inserted by the author with the benefit no doubt of hindsight, of the full meaning of what Jesus was doing. Was he simply demonstrating the power of the kingdom? Well, there is that, yes, but Matthew seizes the opportunity to point to the fundamental meaning of Christ's healings. Read verses 16-18 again:
That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: "He took our illnesses and bore our diseases."Isaiah 53 of course. And it is here, in these verses, that the Gospel intrudes on Matthew's story, orienting our understanding. Is Jesus simply waving a wand and making sickness go away. No, in some way as yet not clear, Jesus is "bearing our diseases." What can this mean? We shall have to keep that question in mind as we read on.