I am amazed as I continue to study the Gospels that they are much more than the merely chronological selection of episodes I thought they were in my childhood. As I look deeper at the their structure, I see that they are literary and complex and that as Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message.” In other words, the structure itself has a message beyond the words.
Matthew’s Gospel is structured symmetrically, chiastically, just like John’s, and the recurrence of the mountains is the key to unlocking the central message.
The Sermon on the Mount
Various miracles, teachings and confrontations
The Mount of Transfiguration
More healings, teachings and confrontations
The Mount of Olives Discourse
Jesus the Legislator
The first mountainside teaching is all about a new moral standard. People of all faiths recognize in Jesus a great teacher, a great moralist, someone with an impeccable standard of conduct. But there’s more. Moses delivered the law from Mount Sinai. And Jesus is delivering a higher standard from this mountain, equating name-calling and hatred with murder, and lust with adultery. (Matthew 5:21-30)
Jesus the Prophet and Judge
In the great democracies of the West, the legal and judicial branches of government have been separated to provide balance and to limit power. However, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus not only makes the laws, he also judges. He is the only sovereign who has the moral perfection to be uncorrupted by unlimited power. His last mountainside teaching is about the coming judgment. Jesus warns his disciples that though he is going away for a long time, when he returns he expects to find people watching, waiting and working. For those who are ready, there will be a celebration and reward. For those who are not ready or who have neglected to do what the master expected, “there will weeping and gnashing of teeth” as they are expelled into “outer darkness”.
I see a parallel to the ministry of Elijah who confronted the people of Israel and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel in a dazzling showdown. Elijah prays that Israel may know that the Lord is God and that He is turning their hearts back to him. In response, fire comes down from heaven and consumes the sacrifice and the altar, foreshadowing the fire of the final judgment. Elijah is saying, “God or Baal? You can’t “limp between two different opinions.” (1 Kings 18:21). Jesus is saying, “Follow me or be cast into eternal punishment.” (Matthew 25:46)
Jesus the Beloved Son
Six days after telling his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him, and predicting that some of his disciples would see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom before they died, he calls Peter, James and John and goes up a mountain where he is “metamorphosized” before their eyes: his clothing becomes brilliant white and his face shines like the sun. But wait, who is that with him? Moses and Elijah. Wow—do you see the beautiful symmetry?
And what is the spoken on this mountain? The very voice of God the Father declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to him.”
So the line of symmetry of Matthew’s gospel falls on his central message: Listen to Jesus, who is even greater than Moses the Law-giver and Elijah the Prophet.
I hope you enjoy exploring the Gospel according to Matthew with this structure in mind, either for the first time or the umpteenth.
For a lot of people, the Bible is either art or truth. For me, it's both, and I hope to persuade readers in both camps to see the other perspective.