Arnold Rothstein “was an American racketeer, crime boss, businessman, and gambler who became a kingpin of the Jewish mob in New York City.”[i] Some say he also conspired to fix the 1919 World Series, evidence of the corruption he allegedly organized in professional sports. Not surprisingly, Rothstein famously said, “Look out for Number One. If you don’t, nobody else will,” a common phrase used by people who think primarily of themselves.
So-called kingpins like Rothstein will eventually bow to the King of kings, who is Jesus Christ.[ii] At that time, they will be forced to stop thinking primarily of themselves.
Matthew, a first-century Jewish tax collector, wrote a gospel to the Jews to present Jesus, a rabbi from Nazareth, as the King of the Jews. Matthew offered convincing evidence that Jesus was indeed the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, possessing the proper lineage and all the rights to sit on King David’s throne, plus the throne inside each of our hearts. “Who is your king?” is a fitting question to ask throughout Matthew’s gospel.
The best scholarship says that Matthew penned his gospel after Mark in the middle of the first century (50s and 60s A.D.).[iii] To satisfy his Jewish audience, Matthew uses a fulfillment formula to link Jesus to the many Old Testament Messianic prophecies. Thirteen times he says that something took place in Jesus’s life and ministry to “fulfill the word of the Lord through the prophet.”
The King’s Birth and Appearance
Matthew begins His gospel with a genealogical record. The genealogy traces the royal lineage of Jesus, which links Him to the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. Matthew’s Jewish audience would have expected this link to be made of anyone making a Messianic claim (1:1-17). Matthew organizes the genealogy into three groups of fourteen names: Abraham to David, David to the Babylonian deportation, the Babylonian deportation to the Christ.[iv]
Matthew also includes the names of five women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba), and Mary, the mother of Jesus—each with a culturally scandalous story.[v] For example, two of the women were foreigners (outside the covenant community) that God used to advance His Messianic purposes. Typically, Jewish genealogies did not contain the names of women.
Joseph learns about the supernatural nature of Mary’s pregnancy from an angel of the Lord, who appears to him in a dream, saying, “For that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (1:20). Matthew immediately links this news to Isaiah’s prophecy, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means God with us). Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem as Micah’s prophecy foretold (Micah 5:2). Since then, we mark our calendars by the birth of the King of kings.
Chapter 2 begins with the Magi’s visit, unique to Matthew’s birth narrative (2:1-23). After bringing their gifts to the child, the wise men depart to their own country by another way, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the despot, who ordered the killing of all male children below the age of two. Being warned in another dream, Joseph escapes Herod’s holocaust, returning to Nazareth safely with Mary and Jesus after Herod’s death.
Decades later, Jesus appears as an adult ready to fulfill His Messianic calling. His ministry begins after Matthew records John the Baptizer’s preparation ministry (3:1-12), Jesus’s baptism by John (3:13-17), Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness (4:1-11), and the calling of Jesus’s disciples (4:18-22).
The King’s Teaching and Miracles
Both John the Baptist and Jesus announced, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” something you would expect a king to say. In chapters 5-7, Jesus sets forth the laws and standards of His kingdom in a major discourse known as the Sermon on the Mount, delivered with authority in a beautiful field on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Sermon on the Mount is the Constitution of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Many Jews believed they must abandon their orthodoxy to follow Jesus. But Jesus made it clear that He came to fulfill the Mosaic law, not abolish it (5:17-20). He raises the bar on righteousness by revisiting the Commandments, using a familiar formula. For example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:27-28). Jesus tells His disciples that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees (5:20).
Jesus also reflects upon the three pillars of Jewish piety in the kingdom of heaven—giving, praying, and fasting—and taught His followers a model prayer, which begins with the words, “Our Father” (6:1-18). God as Father was a new concept for the Jews. There is much more to Jesus’s kingdom teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (5-7), including what He said about practical matters like money (6:19-24) and worry (6:25-34).
Next, Matthew puts the King’s power, authority, and compassion on display by recording twelve miracles Jesus performed, including the cleansing of a leper (8:1-4), healing Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14-17), and healing two blind men (9:27-31). Signs and wonders accompany Jesus’s ministry as proof that He is the Messiah. In response to Jesus’s growing popularity, the Pharisees accuse Him of blasphemy (9:3). This is the beginning of the conflict that arises between Jesus and the religious leaders.
In chapter 10, Jesus delivers a discourse on discipleship, giving the Twelve (listed by name in 10:2-4) “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and affliction” (10:1). He sends His disciples to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:5-15), prepares them for persecution (10:16-25), tells them not to fear (10:26-33), establishes the expectations of discipleship (10:34-39), and introduces kingdom rewards (10:40-42).
Positive and negative responses to Jesus’s ministry follow in chapters 11-15. He delivers another major discourse on the kingdom of heaven (13:1-58) and speaks in parables to conceal the truth from those who reject it. This section of Matthew’s gospel ends with the death of John the Baptist (14:1-12), Jesus feeding thousands of people miraculously (14:13-21, 15:32-39), Jesus walking on water (14:22-36), and other miracles.
The King’s Opposition and Offer
The next major section of the book (16-23) begins with the Pharisees and Sadducees arriving to test Jesus by demanding a sign from heaven. Sarcastically, Jesus gives them a lesson in weather forecasting and then says the generation that seeks for a sign is evil and adulterous. “No sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (16:4).
Jesus departs with His disciples and comes to the district of Caesarea Philippi, where He asks them the most important question anyone can answer, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Peter quickly replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirms Peter’s confession and then reveals the church (ecclesia) He will build on the foundation of Peter’s rock-solid response (16:13-20).
Throughout this part of the gospel, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection twice, disturbing the disciples with the news (16:21-23, 17:22-23). He also performs more miracles, teaches more parables, and gently rebukes the mother of two disciples for expecting her sons to receive preferential treatment in the kingdom of God.
At the beginning of the Passover celebration in Jerusalem, King Jesus rides into the holy city on a donkey to fulfill another Old Testament prophecy (Zechariah 9:9-12), presenting Himself as Israel’s Messiah. The euphoric crowds shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (21:1-10). Less than a week later, they executed Jesus on a Roman cross between two thieves. Between His triumphal entry and His crucifixion, Jesus experienced more confrontation with the religious leaders, including the time He cleansed the temple. Matthew concludes this section by recording seven woes Jesus delivered to the Scribes and Pharisees (23:1-26).
The King’s Signs and Prophecies
Early in the final week of Jesus’s life, He gathered on the Mount of Olives with four of his disciples—Peter, James, John, and Andrew—to answer their questions about the end of the age. Matthew records the Olivet Discourse in chapters 24-25.
Jesus predicts the following general signs will appear like “birth pangs” at the end of the age: False Christs, natural disasters, wars, persecution, pestilence, apostasy, lawlessness, and the worldwide preaching of the gospel (24:4-14). Then, Jesus jumps forward in Bible prophecy to the midpoint of the Tribulation and reveals a specific sign known as “the abomination that causes desolation” (24:15-28), first spoken of by Daniel (Daniel 9:24-27). This prophecy describes when the Antichrist will desecrate the Jewish temple and unleash peril on the earth, “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (24:21).
Then, Christ predicts His glorious return but reminds His disciples that nobody knows the day or the hour of His second advent (24:29-51). Jesus adds two parables to His prophetic teaching. The Parable of the Ten Virgins (25:1-13) encourages readiness, while the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30) encourages faithfulness. The wide-ranging discourse ends with a sobering description of judgment at the end of the age, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, separating the sheep from the goats (25:31-46).
The King’s Rejection and Triumph
Following Jesus’s predictions about the end of the age, Matthew moves carefully through the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of our Lord (26-28). He begins with Jesus predicting His passion by saying to His disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified” (26:2). Matthew follows with a description of the religious leaders conspiring against Jesus with political calculation.
In Bethany, at the home of Simon, the leper, a woman anoints Jesus with an alabaster flask of expensive oil. Then, Matthew records the Passover meal Jesus held with His disciples in the Upper Room, followed by the prayer meeting in Gethsemane. Judas arrives at the garden and betrays Jesus with a kiss, a signal to the soldiers who came to arrest Jesus and take Him to Caiaphas, the high priest. As Jesus predicted earlier, Peters follows and denies Jesus three times before the rooster crows (26:6-75).
Caiaphas sends Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman official who presides over Jesus’s trial and orders His crucifixion. At the request of the angry mob, Pilate releases Barabbas, a criminal, instead of Jesus. What might have looked like a good man falling victim to religious politics and mobocracy was the unfolding of the eternal plan of God to redeem lost sinners. Thus, Jesus, who resolved to do the Father’s will, shows remarkable restraint throughout His betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
Before they nailed Jesus to the cross, Roman soldiers ridiculed Him. Matthew writes, “And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, ‘Hail King of the Jews!’” (27:28-29). The point of Matthew’s gospel is that Jesus is everything they say He is by their mockery. After spitting on Him, they led Jesus away to be crucified, taking Him to “a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull)” (27:33).
Matthew records only one of the seven cries Jesus made from the cross. Around the ninth hour, He cried out in loneliness, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (27:46). Moments later Jesus died. Then, four dramatic events happened that seemed to validate Jesus was indeed the King of the Jews. First, the thick veil of the temple tore in two, from top to bottom, something human hands could not do. Second, an earthquake splits rocks and opens tombs. Third, dead saints rise to life and walk out of the tombs. After Jesus’s resurrection, Matthew says the resurrected saints appeared to many in Jerusalem. Fourth, a Roman centurion observes what is happening and says, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” (27:51-56).
They buried Jesus in a tomb given to Him by a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin and secret follower of Jesus. Remembering that Jesus said He would rise from the dead three days later, Pilate secures the tomb “by sealing the stone and setting a guard” (27:66). However, the grave could not hold Him. Three days later, “after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week” (28:1), Jesus rose from the dead as He predicted, validating His Messianic claim. The Roman centurion was right—Jesus was and is the Son of God!
Ironically, women came to the tomb first and then announced the good news to the disciples.[vi] When the chief priests learned all that had taken place, they bribed the soldiers to say the disciples stole the body, which was the first of many unproven theories attempting to discredit the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Matthew completes his gospel with Jesus appearing to His disciples on a mountain, telling them to “make disciples of all nations” (28:16-20). They give their lives to fulfill the Great Commission because Jesus Christ is much more than a kingpin like Arnold Rothstein; He is truly the King of the Jews and Savior of the world. So, who is your king?
[i] Arnold Rothstein, Wikipedia, accessed on November 19, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arnold_Rothstein
[ii] See Philippians 2:10-11 and 1 Timothy 6:15.
[iii] The nearness of the gospel writings to the actual events adds credibility to them.
[iv] It was not uncommon in Jewish genealogies to leave out some names. Matthew might have chosen the number fourteen because it is twice seven, the perfect number. Or, because the numeric number of David’s name in Hebrew is seven.
[v] Tamar shamefully disguised herself as a prostitute to get pregnant by Judah, her father-in-law. Rahab was a prostitute, Ruth was a Moabitess, Bathsheba had an adulterous affair with King David, and Mary became pregnant when betrothed to Joseph—all culturally scandalous stories!
[vi] Culturally, women had little standing in the first century Matthew would not have reported that the women arrived first if it were not true.