Distinctive Theologies in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew

Course: Biblical Theology

Lecture: Distinctive Theologies in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew


This is tape four in the series on the Theology of the Gospels.

In our first three lessons, we looked at themes both distinctive and dominant to the synoptic gospels' portrait of Jesus.  We looked at that which was most likely, even from a purely historical point of view, not presupposing Christian faith, to be historically accurate or inferable from that which is historically accurate.  To complement this focus on the material most common to the three synoptics, we now focus in turn on the distinctive theologies or, better put, what is both dominant and distinctive within each of the given synoptic evangelists.

Because there is good reason to believe that Mark was the first of the four gospels written, we will begin with an overview of some of the key items dominant or distinctive to Mark.  Then we will proceed to Matthew, Luke and John.  So, to a theology of the gospel of Mark.  For each of our four reviews of gospel theology, we will begin with views of Jesus, since clearly Jesus is the central character around whom a gospel centers.  Then we will move on more briefly to other key theological items in each gospel.

I. Key Theological Emphases in the Gospel of Mark

a. Mark's View of Jesus

For Mark, much of what he is trying to do theologically appears to be related to the unique two-part structure of his gospel.

1. Jesus as Miracle Worker and Popular Prophet

It has regularly been observed that, from 1:1 to 8:29 (or perhaps 8:30), there is entirely a focus on Jesus' adult ministry.  It has rapid action, fast-paced narrative sequence and the frequent use of the word immediately to link events potentially separated by a certain amount of time to keep that sense of rapidity going.  Per segment of text, there is a significant focus on Jesus as miracle-worker and as the popular self-styled prophet/rabbi that attracts ever-increasing crowds. This is in part because of His teaching, but even more because of His miracles.  Indeed, there is what one might call a growing sense of Jesus as a divine Messiah.

2. Jesus as Suffering Servant

This is followed then abruptly with 8:30 (or 8:31) to the end of the gospel with a much slower narrative in terms of the amount of time covered.  There is much more of a focus on the preparation for Christ's death and the road to the cross.  There is a much higher percentage of dialogue and teaching, as over against miracles or other fast-paced events.  And thus the focus is much more on Jesus as the suffering Messiah.

Various proposals from time-to-time have attempted to understand Mark as having inherited one of these two points of focus from his tradition – from Christians who began to put together their way of framing the life of Christ before him.  Mark then uses the other one of the two emphases as a balancing feature.

Thus, for example, some have stressed that, as the gospel spread into Greek and Roman circles, Jesus may well have been thought of as a theos anēr, the Greek for a divine man, a deified hero or great wonder-worker according to Greco-Roman categories.  This is a very exalted figure, but one whom Mark then ameliorates or moderates with his portrait and emphasis on Jesus as Suffering Servant.  Conversely, others, though perhaps not as often, have seen Mark as inheriting the view of Suffering Servant and wanting to balance that out with his emphasis on Jesus' great power and authority and miracle-working ability.

Both approaches, however, seem too one-sided.  A writer wanting to play down what he believed was too strong an emphasis in his tradition would probably not have retained a full half of his gospel for that emphasis.  For this reason it would seem that Mark is deliberately trying to stress both Jesus' divinity and His humanity, both His suffering and His exultation.  He stresses both the road to the cross and His coming glory foreshadowed in part already during His ministry.

b. Titles Used to Refer to Jesus

1. Son of God

In addition to this balance, a key Christological title for Mark is Son of God or, at times, just Son.  While not occurring frequently in the gospel, it appears at highly strategic places in Mark's narrative.  First of all, it is in Mark's opening verse which forms a kind of headline to the gospel: the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Christ and Son of God.  It recurs again in the climactic position on the lips of the centurion who watches Jesus die and confesses: "Truly this man was the Son of God" (15:39).  In between these two texts, we read that the voice from heaven designates Jesus as Son at His baptism (1:11) and then again at His transfiguration (9:7).  Intriguingly, elsewhere the title occurs only on the lips of demons representing their supernatural knowledge of Jesus' identity (see 3:11; 5:7).

2. Christ

The other Christological title that appears in Mark's opening verse is indeed Christ, the Greek translation of Hebrew Messiah or Anointed One.  This title is not particularly common either.  In fact, it does not appear again until Peter's confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi (8:29), and then six times later in Mark's narrative.  But all of these opening eight chapters, as already noted, seem to build toward the confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi as the pivot or hinge or turning point of Mark's gospel, with Peter's bold announcement immediately silenced as Jesus goes on to redefine it in terms of the suffering that Peter is not yet ready to accept.

Indeed, what makes the title "Christ" so significant for Mark is not its frequency, but the fact that this practice of Jesus silencing those who come to recognize him as Messiah (or its functional equivalent) put so starkly with Peter (8:30) is a recurring both dominant and distinctive theme in Mark.  It appears in the other gospels, but not nearly as frequently.  More so than elsewhere, Jesus regularly commands people not to tell anyone about His identity.  We see this when He separates off the insiders from the outsiders in terms of those who understand parables (4:10-12).  We see it when demons' confessions of Christ are rebuked (1:25, 34; 3:12).  We see it when spectacular miracles are followed up by commands to silence, as if that were realistically possible (see for example 1:44; 5:18-19, 43; and so on).

A famous view was promoted by the turn of the 19th to 20th century scholar, William Wrede.  He dubbed this the Messianic Secret theme, or motif, in Mark's gospel.  He argued that this was Mark's technique for introducing the view, or the conviction, that Jesus was the Messiah, when in fact He had never Himself made or acknowledged such claims.  The idea then was that Mark introduced this literary fiction of Jesus, regularly silencing people who had come to this understanding, so that they would not tell others.  This then supposedly explained why in Mark's day, writing probably in the 60s, he was able to call Jesus the Messiah, even though many of his readers presumably would not have heard of this claim before and wonder why they had not heard of it.

It is much more likely, however, that Jesus did believe Himself to be the Christ and so proclaim and acknowledge that fact.  But He was very hesitant about accepting the title, or accepting it unqualified.  This, no doubt, would have produced premature enthusiasm for a military ruler or royal Messiah, when in fact that was not how He saw His mission during this first coming of His on earth.  Clearly popular Christological hopes did not leave room for a suffering Messiah.  It was not just Peter who was unprepared for such a claim.  Only after Christ's crucifixion and resurrection could His more glorious nature be described without this kind of fear of misunderstanding.  Thus 9:9 is the one place in Mark's gospel where the Messianic Secret theme appears, but a limit is put on the so-called secrecy.  After His resurrection, then that veil of secrecy can be lifted.

3. Suffering Servant

As we noted in discussing the theology of the death of Christ in the synoptics in our previous lecture, it is Mark's gospel also that contains the two most crucial passages for demonstrating His role as Suffering Servant in 10:45 and in 14:24. 

c. Role of Disciples and Discipleship

When we turn to other distinctive and/or dominant themes of the gospel of Mark outside of perspectives on Jesus, the role of disciples and discipleship hits us immediately.  Somewhat akin to the Messianic Secret theme is the frequent negative portrait of the disciples, particularly with them also failing to understand fully what Jesus was about.  As we already mentioned, even they, at one level, did not grasp Jesus parables, though at least they remain followers of Jesus to hear the explanations which others do not (see 4:11-13, 33-34).  Elsewhere Mark describes their heats as hardened or that they have little or no faith.  They are perplexed or puzzled after various miracles.  On one crucial occasion after the transfiguration, they are wholly unable to fulfill Jesus' already previously given charge to them to cast demons out of a particular individual (see 9:14-29).

And as we already noted, Jesus has to rebuke Peter immediately after his confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi, because he has no room for a concept of a suffering Messiah.  Indeed the account of the disciples' spiritual blindness on this occasion is contrasted with two miracle stories shortly before and after this passage (8:22-26; 10:46-52) in which literal blind people received their sight and apparently become spiritual followers of Jesus as well.

Then, of course, climactically at the end of the gospel, Peter denies his Lord and Judas betrays Him while all the disciples flee.  On the assumption that Mark's gospel ended at 16:8, as it does in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts, the entire narrative ends with the women fleeing the tomb saying nothing to anyone because they are afraid.

On the other hand, while they do fail to understand, the disciples are also those who did respond to His initial call to follow Him (see the various call narratives in chapters 1-3), are given truths that outsiders are not permitted to receive (4:14-20; 7:17-23), and get to hear promises about the future in which, at the end of human history as we now know it, they will receive special privileges, or in the case of Jesus' resurrection in the more immediate future.  Thus, their ultimate role seems somewhat ambiguous.

The same can be said for Jesus' women followers, even though they were not part of the formal gathering of twelve apostles. Throughout most of Mark's gospel they appear to fare better than the inner circle of twelve men.  Jesus praises their tenacious faith (5:28, 34; 7:29), their sacrifice (12:41-44) and lavish love for Himself (14:3-9).  When the men flee, the women stay and are there present to watch Jesus die on the cross, to see where He is buried and go to the tomb to honor it after the Sabbath has past (though, of course, they do not find it).  But the women's bewilderment at the angel's announcement of the resurrection, their flight and initial silence with which the most probable earliest form of the gospel ended, somewhat qualifies their success earlier on.  This suggests that ultimately all of Jesus' followers of either gender fail Him at one point or many.

At first glance, this would seem to be an odd emphasis for a gospel, until we realize that Mark was probably written to Roman Christians in the 60s.  This was shortly before or in the midst of Nero's persecution of Christians in that region.  Therefore, this is, in a backhanded way, a theme that has particular poignancy for these Christian churches.  They would have known, by the very fact that disciples had subsequently come and evangelized them (Peter himself being the first leader of the church in Rome), that the disciples did not end on the bleak note that it appears they might in Mark's narrative alone.  Jesus was able to reinstate them and use them mightily in the first generation of Christian history as described in the book of Acts.

Therefore, those who felt inadequate or felt that in one way or another they had already denied or betrayed their Lord during times of persecution should have been able to take heart.  Just as Jesus was able to forgive His closest followers when they repented and use them mightily, He could do the same with them. 

d. Mark's View of End Times as Imminent

Another key theme for Mark has often been identified as his view of eschatology or end-times events as still imminent.  He sees it as still a lively hope of that which might happen quite soon.  This is appropriate for the earliest gospel.  One looks particularly at the one extensive sermon that Mark preserves compared to numerous, longer, uninterrupted messages in the other gospels and discovers that it is the sermon Jesus preached on the Mount of Olives about the events surrounding the destruction of the temple and then beyond that to the end of the age and to His return in chapter 13.

e. Use of the Word Gospel to Refer to the Story of Jesus' Life and Ministry

So too it would appear that Mark may well have been the first Christian to use or reapply the term gospel, Greek euaggelion, or good news, for the story about Jesus, rather than just the message Jesus Himself brought and announced.  This is the way a number of translations take Mark 1:1 – the gospel of Jesus Christ; the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  The of the means about.  In several other places in Mark's narrative, he adds the term gospel into his narrative where others do not have it.  Understandably, Mark's finished product was then given this title and it became increasingly a way of referring to a book or work of literature about Jesus. 

II. Key Theological Emphases in the Gospel of Matthew

Compare then these brief theological musings concerning Mark's theological emphases with what we find when we turn to the gospel of Matthew.  Matthew's structure, more often than not, parallels Mark's.  He too has a key turning point at Peter's confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi in chapter 16, with the pivot probably coming between verses 20 and 21.

a. Five Key Discourses

But it would appear that Matthew is also particularly concerned to introduce into Mark's narrative (which he otherwise broadly follows) five key segments of texts that appear as sermons or comparatively uninterrupted discourses of Jesus of a chapter or more in length.  These five include the so-called Sermon on the Mount (in chapters 5-7); the instructions to the disciples for their first missionary journey (in chapter 10); a lengthy discourse in parables (13:1-52), eight to be precise; Matthew 18 entirely devoted to the topics of humility and forgiveness, both from divine and human perspectives, addressed solely to the disciples; and then chapters 23-25.  These can be viewed as either one or two addresses back-to-back that include His woes to a select group of scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy (chapter 23), followed by His discourse, or message, to the disciples on the Mount of Olives about the coming end.

b. Matthew's View of Jesus

1. Jesus as Teacher like Moses

Thus, as we turn to views of Jesus, it is appropriate to begin with Jesus as teacher for Matthew's distinctive portrait.  Some have even gone so far as to observe that the five blocks of sermonic material in Matthew match in number the five books of Moses in the Torah or Pentateuch  (Genesis through Deuteronomy, the five books of the law with which the Hebrew Scriptures begin).  This may well be simply a coincidence.  It is hard to know how it would be proved.  But in either event it is certainly fair to see Jesus as being portrayed as a teacher like Moses, but also as One who is greater than Moses.  His teaching is not simply a new law, but a law that is doable, written on human hearts as Old Testament promises of the new covenant stressed.  Jesus also speaks of this in His paradoxical words in Matthew 11:28-30 in which He invites all who are weary to come to Him for His yolk is easy and His burden is light.  These are terms not normally associated with that which is either easy or light.

Still, like Moses, Jesus has miracles surrounding His infancy – another key distinction between Matthew and Mark.  The first two chapters of Matthew show key events surrounding Jesus' birth.  He causes turmoil among the rulers of the land, again like Moses.  Again like Moses, He survives when babies His age are massacred.  He retraces the journey of the exodus to and from Egypt.  He is tempted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, just as the Israelites wandered in the wilderness.  But where they gave into temptation, Jesus resists.  Perhaps then, we are also to see some of this parallelism as showing Jesus succeeding where Israel of old, at the beginning of the first covenant between God and His people, proved a failure.  Even mountains, much like Mount Sinai where Moses received the law in the book of Exodus, remain more significant in Matthew than in other gospels – including as places of revelation, not only in the Sermon on the Mount, but in the Transfiguration and the giving of the Great Commission. 

2. Titles Used to Refer to Jesus

i. Son of David

Titles more common and distinctive to Matthew include Son of David, which stresses His regal ancestry and thus King and Royal Messiah as well.  Son of David occurs nine times in Matthew, eight of which are not found in any other gospel.  The title fits Matthew's Jewish orientation (which we will turn to in a moment), and the conventional expectation of a Messiah who would be a descendant of the lineage of the house of David and who would exercise kingly functions.  Thus Herod and his followers (2:1-12) fear a literal king who will dethrone them because their power is illegitimate – illegitimately usurped.  And Pilate wonders (27:11) if Jesus is a King of the Jews.  Intriguingly, whereas these people in power who should have been able to recognize a true Messianic candidate but can't, individuals who address Jesus as Son of David are consistently the powerless ones (particularly those in need of physical as well as spiritual healing).

ii. Son of God

We may also speak of a heightened Son of God Christology in the gospel of Matthew.  Key references, again, frame Matthew's text (see both 2:15 and 26:63).  The devil assumes Jesus to be God's Son at his temptation (4:3, 6).  Only in Matthew do the disciples confess Jesus as Son of God after he walks on the water (14:33).  This is one of those places where in Mark, dramatically different, their hearts are hardened.  Of course, one can imagine some mixture of both after such a remarkable miracle, so that these need not be flat out contradictions.  But it is striking how each writer chooses to emphasize a different aspect of the account in line with their overall emphases.

Perhaps even more striking is the elaborate expansion of the Cesarea Philippi narrative in Matthew 16.  Instead of having Peter confess Jesus as the Messiah and then having Jesus immediately silence him, Peter says: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus replies: "Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven."  And Jesus then goes on in the famous passage regarding the keys to the kingdom to declare that on the rock, which Peter represents, He would build His church.

iii. Emmanuel - God with us

Another framing device sees Jesus as not merely a heightened Son of God but God with us, Emanuel.  This title used at His conception (1:23) and implicit in His closing promise (28:20):  "I will be with you", God with you or us always.

iv. Lord

Perhaps the most important of Matthew's titles for Jesus is not one of his most distinctive. Many people call Him Lord here and in other gospels.  And, as we noted in our last lecture, in some contexts it need mean nothing more than Master.  But in several places particularly in Matthew (see 8:2, 6, 25; 9:28 and perhaps also 2:2; 8:11; 14:33), He is apparently worshipped as one who alone has divine power. 

c. Wisdom Incarnate

Finally, we may note the theme of wisdom incarnate in the gospel of Matthew.  In 12:42 and 13:54, Jesus' wisdom is highlighted.  In 11:19, John the Baptist and Jesus are said to vindicate God's wisdom.  And in 11:25-30, which we have already alluded to part of, Jesus calls the lowly to Himself and promises them rest in a passage quite similar to one in the intertestamental book of Wisdom attributed to Ben Sirach.  Perhaps Matthew has a slightly distinctive concern, at least among the synoptic gospel writers, to portray Jesus as God's wisdom incarnate based on the already existing pattern of Proverbs 8 and 9.

d. The Move from Particularism to Universalism in the Offering of the Gospel

Other distinctive and dominant themes for Matthew include what has been called the move from particularism to universalism in the gospel offer.  More clearly than in any of the other gospels, early on in Jesus' public ministry, He stresses that His mission is solely to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel".  He makes this claim both in the context of sending out the twelve (10:5-6) and also in His initially brusque reply to the Canaanite woman's appeal for healing for her daughter (15:24).

Yet this is also the gospel that ends with the fullest version of the Great Commission in which Jesus sends His disciples to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all nations.  Matthew is the only gospel that includes the quasi-parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46), announcing the judgment of all peoples or nations, presumably following the evangelism of all nations.  And Matthew is the only gospel which, in its account of the parable of the wicked tenants (21:43), includes the line from Jesus that the kingdom would be taken away from the current Jewish leadership and given to a people or nation who will produce its fruit.

Thus, it appears that Matthew is following very much the logic that Paul in Romans 1:16 spells out: that the gospel was first of all a message of salvation for the Jews, because they had been God's elect people in the Old Testament.  Because it was from them that the Messiah was to emerge, they had the right to hear the gospel first.  But God's intention was never to stop at that point.  It was then to move on the rest of the world.

e. The Jewish Emphases in the Gospel of Matthew

The very Jewish emphases of Matthew's gospel can be viewed in numerous other respects.  Matthew quotes the Old Testament about twice as often as Mark and has about twice as many texts in which the Hebrew Scriptures are explicitly said to be fulfilled.  We see a barrage of these already in the infancy narrative (chapters 1 and 2).  Indeed, if one asks why Matthew includes such different events surrounding Christ's birth as Luke (the one other gospel to deal with this period of Jesus life), the answer almost certainly is because he is portraying those five clusters of events that can be said to fulfill various prophesies, either literal or by typology (that is to say, patterns of God's acting in human history repeating).  And he does so because, as early church tradition uniformly insisted, Matthew is the one gospel of the synoptics, and probably the one gospel of the four, written to exclusively, or almost exclusively, Jewish Christians.

Not surprisingly, he would want to link the story of Jesus as he presents it back to the Old Testament wherever possible.  This was both to confirm these Jewish Christians in the choices they have made to follow Jesus, as well as to give them theological ammunition (as it were) to defend those choices as they share the good news with family and friends in the Jewish world who have not yet chosen to follow Jesus as Messiah.

In the same context, we are not surprised to see the concept of Jesus fulfilling the law and the prophets (5:17-20).  Prophecy in the sense of prediction, we, of course, expect to be fulfilled.  But how is the law fulfilled – especially when the examples in the rest of chapter 5 in the Sermon on the Mount are all examples in which Jesus takes issue with prevailing interpretations of the law, if not with the law itself?  Presumably the answer is that the word for fulfill can and did often in the Greek, and the underlying Hebrew and Aramaic, mean something like what in English we would mean if we said to fill full – that is to bring to full completion all of the intended meaning of some initial law or principle or event.

f. Jesus Demands Righteousness of His Followers

Thus a dominant and distinctive theological emphasis in Matthew's gospel is also that He regularly demands righteousness of His followers.  Indeed Jesus requires a greater righteousness than even the key Jewish leadership (5:20 ).  But, again, if we appeal to 11:28-30, we see that with this greater demand comes a greater empowerment.

g. Discipleship

When we look at Matthew's view of discipleship and, although it can be and has been overstated, there is nevertheless a perceivable difference between the relatively negative, or at least very ambivalent portrait of the disciples in Mark, and a somewhat more positive picture of them in Matthew.  In a number of key places where Mark stresses their lack of faith, Mathew focuses on at least a fledgling belief that they do have (see 8:26, 13:51 and 14:33 again).

h. Matthew Uses the Greek Word for Church, "ekklesia"

Intriguingly, Matthew is also the only one of the four gospels ever to use the Greek word for church, ekklesia.  And then he uses it only three times and in two verses (16:18; 18:17) in the context of Peter's foundational role in the assembly of the Jesus' followers and then when similar promises are given to the entire twelve in the context of community discipline and forgiveness (18:17).

i. Matthew Refers to Jesus' Followers as "Little Ones"

A distinctive term for Matthew for Jesus' followers is "little ones" (see 10:42; 18:6, 10, 14; 25:40), stressing the Christian's humble position before God.

And it is possible that Matthew may reflect the later establishment of key offices or roles in his church, or in the Christian church more broadly, with such distinctive references as those to wise men, prophets and scribes (10:41; 13:52; 23:34).

He may even be concerned to oppose false teachers in his midst who rely on a kind of charismatic or elitist's spiritual, self-appointed authority despite an unwillingness to follow even basic universal moral law that spans both covenants.  This could explain the strong warnings of the Sermon on the Mount (for example, 7:15-23). 

j. Growing Conflict with Jewish Authorities

Finally, a key theological emphasis in Matthew, also reflecting the narrative structure of the gospel, is the growing conflict with Jewish authorities.  Whereas in Mark, these conflicts seem to punctuate a narrative which otherwise returns to speak of Jesus' popularity and fame until reasonably close to the final stages of His earthly life, in Matthew a graph could be plotted of a fairly linear downward progression of the state of affairs between Jesus and the Jewish leaders of His society as things become more and more hostile as Matthew's narrative unfolds.

How does this mesh with a gospel which, as we have already seen, is otherwise so thoroughly Jewish?  Most likely Matthew's Jewish Christian audience, sometime in the 60s at the earliest, has increasingly broken from the local synagogue many times.  No doubt, this was because it was the Jews who expelled their members who acknowledge Jesus as Messiah.  But, as we see so often in the book of Acts when Paul is rejected by sufficient numbers of the local synagogue so that he turns to the Gentiles in that community, the location of his ministry does not geographically move very far afield.  Indeed, Graham Stanton has used the expression "the synagogue across the street" based on various archeological excavations from communities in the ancient Mediterranean world where church and synagogue were literally across the street to one another to suggest the theological environment in which Matthew's church finds itself.  Or, put another way, these are not Jewish Christians who have left their ties behind them and simply become assimilated to part of a larger Gentile community.  They are still actively engaged in defending their choices and in trying to call their Jewish friends and family to join them.

Thus warnings of coming judgment make sense in this context – even the strong ones, like the woes of chapter 23 or the cries of the crowd at the crucifixion in 27:25, "His blood be on us and on our children."  Nothing here should be taken as indicting the entire Jewish people or a generation beyond that in which judgment did fall on the children of the generation that crucified Jesus (that is to say, in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 by the Romans, 40 years after Christ's crucifixion in AD30).  Still there is judgment on those who were antagonists toward Jesus and never repented from that position.  Many of these then went on to be persecutors of Jesus' followers as well.

Given this background it is not surprising that Matthew has a distinctive and dominant reference to the Sadducees among the various Jewish leaders, since they held the power in the Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus' crucifixion.  They appear seven times in Matthew, always negatively, whereas in the rest of the gospels they appear only twice.