A comparison of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke
Synopsis:The four accounts of Jesus life and ministry vary in their content. Some of their content can be found in all four while other parts are unique to that particular gospel. Even the content which is shared can vary in detail. The following essay examines the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke as an example of two gospels sharing information, though differing in there theological emphasis. The essay assumes the integrity of both accounts, and regards them both as legitimate accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. Overarching themes of both gospels are identified and substantiate by the content of each gospel. It is within the context of these overarching themes which the similarities and difference between the two accounts need to be considered.
A brief reading of the gospels reveals that they all address one issue – the person and ministry of Jesus. In this, a great amount of overlap can be found among the gospels, more so among the synoptics. If all four gospels are about the ministry of Jesus, the question may be posed, why have four gospels been written? Yet within the similarities of overlap, numerous differences can be found in the gospels in the way of variations in the text of individual passages, additional or abbreviated material, and reordering of events. The gospels of Matthew and Luke will be surveyed in order to observe the similarities and differences in these texts. These two gospels have been chosen due to the similarities they share.
From the seventeen parables found in Matthew and nineteen in Luke, six are held in common. From the twenty miracles found in both Matthew and Luke, thirteen are held in common. Both Matthew and Luke give details on Jesus’ infancy (Matthew 1:18 – 2:23; Luke 1:5 – 2:52); the preparatory ministry of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-12; Luke 3:1-20); the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 3:13 – 4:1-11; Luke 3:21 – 4:15); Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (Matthew 4:13 – 19:1; Luke 4:16 – 9:62); and Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem, passion and ascension (Matthew 21-26; Luke 19-24). In these accounts difference can be observed in the particulars. Generally, Luke gives more details in these accounts. The greatest difference between the gospels is Luke’s coverage of Jesus’ Judean ministry which is unique to his gospel (10:1 – 18:14). To understand the reasons for these similarities and differences in Matthew and Luke and the way they have been structured, the theology and purpose of both gospels will be considered.
Gospel of Matthew
The main concern of the gospel of Matthew is to demonstrate how Jesus and his ministry are a continuation and a fulfilment of the Old Covenant. Several features of the gospel and their contribution to the main concern will be briefly considered.
1) Jesus’ Identification with David
The gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus mentioning two key figures in Israel’s heritage (1:1). The first of these figures is David. The mention of David connects Jesus to the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7:1-16) as the one whom through David’s throne would be established forever. Matthew shows that the kingship of Jesus is recognised from his birth by foreigners (2:1-2, 11), and that Jesus claim to the throne is asserted by Jesus himself (12:42; 22:44), especially by his provoking actions during his final entry into Jerusalem (21:1-11). This aspect of Jesus identity is recognised and accepted several times throughout the gospel by social outcasts and general public (9:27; 12:22-23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15). Jesus’ kingship was also recognised by Roman authorities who regarded it to be such a threat, infanticide was employed to prevent the rise of a rival king (2:16). Despite the responses from Rome and the general public, the religious establishment rejected Jesus’ kingship outright (27:41-42, this could be the issue behind the lack of repentance as Jesus compares himself to Solomon 12:38-42).
2) The identification with Abraham and fulfilling the Covenant as Israel
The second key figure Matthew mentions is Abraham. The identification of Abraham links the ministry of Jesus to the Abrahamic covenant, and the promises of land, nation, and blessing (Genesis 12:1-3). Though Israel received something of the promise, what they received was lost at the time of exile, and (they) never received the fulfilment of that promise. Jesus’ inaugurates the fulfilment of the promise by becoming Israel for Israel. This is a strong theme in the gospel as Jesus and his family is forced to flee from the infanticide of Herod to return to Israel at a later time. Matthew makes the comment that this was to fulfil the Scriptures thus identifying Jesus as a second Israel (2:15, Cf. Hosea 11:1). This identification with Israel is important as consideration is given to the reconstitution of the law.
3) The Miracles of Jesus
Jesus’ identity as the ‘Son of David’ also has implications for the Kingdom of God. The Son of David was to be sent “…by God specifically to the people of Israel to bring them salvation and deliverance by healing them of their diseases.” Hence four out of the nine references to the ‘Son of David’ are given in the context of healing to support this theme (Matthew 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30, 31).
The idea of Jesus being sent specifically to Israel is also stressed. As Jesus sent out his twelve disciples on mission he instructs them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5-6). However, though Jesus was indeed sent to Israel, as he personifies and reconstitutes Israel, he would also become a blessing to the nations fulfilling the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). This appears to be the case in Jesus’ healing of the daughter of a Canaanite woman (15:21-28). Though Jesus was sent to Israel, the blessings of theocratic rule would extend beyond Israel and to the nations.
Not only does Jesus’ healing ministry have implications of Jesus’ identity, it also has implications for the Kingdom of God. Matthew understands Jesus miracles as the inauguration of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 11:2-6; 12:28). McKnight also suggests the healing ministry is also connected to atoning sacrifice. Matthew understands Jesus’ healing ministry as a fulfilment of the image of the suffering servant (Isaiah 53. Cf. Matt 8:16-17
). However, Matthew does not apply this passage to explain Jesus’ death. Instead, there is a clear foretelling of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice as the Son of Man (20:28). It may be in this instance Matthew is using the title ‘Son of Man’ to refer to one who is authorised by God. Again, these assertions add to the identity of Jesus, and his importance in salvation history.
4) Identification with Moses and Israel
The identification with Moses implies the reconstituting of Israel by Jesus. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation (4:1-11) contains explicit allusions to the accounts of Moses. Just as Moses spent forty days and nights with God (Exodus 9:18), so Jesus now spends the same time being tempted. Unlike the original Israel that failed, Jesus does not fail thereby creating faithful Israel. The allusion continues as Jesus constitutes a new community (4:18-22) and reconstitutes the law (5-7). The reconstitution of the law, commonly known as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, is fundamental to Matthew as Jesus dismisses Jewish tradition (5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43), restoring the standard of righteousness which he will fulfil as the new Israel for Israel.
5) Rejection of the religious establishment
The gospel of Matthew stresses the uniqueness of Jesus from Roman, and the Jewish religious establishment. As already has been noted, there was enmity between the Roman authority and Jesus shortly after his birth. The recording of Jesus coming from Nazareth and beginning his ministry in Galilee (4:12-13) would not have been viewed favourably by the religious establishment as inhabitants of Jeruselem despised the region – a sentiment echoed in John’s gospel (1:46). Other examples of where the religious establishment would find Matthew offensive is in the instance of Jesus’ commendation of the faith of a Roman Centurion (8:10-11), and Gentiles being counted among his followers (4:24-25). Mathew also contains teaching which is explicitly against the religious establishment (5:20; 23:13-36).
All this demonstrates that though Jesus was not part of the religious establishment or Roman authority, he was nonetheless the fulfilment of Scripture and the continuity of the Old Covenant. Nine times in the gospel the life and ministry of Jesus are said to fulfil Scripture (Matthew 1:22; 2:15; 3:15; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54). These are included in the one-hundred and thirty plus references in the Old Testament – more than the other gospels.
Gospel of Luke
It is quite clear that Luke (the author of both the third gospel and Acts) is aware of other accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry (1:1), and he is not about to repeat the same emphasis. While Matthew’s main concern to show continuity from the Old Covenant to the person and ministry of Jesus, Luke’s main concern is to demonstrate the break away from traditional Israel, to a new covenant in Jesus and its applicability to the entirety of humanity. This is not to say Luke perceived the person and ministry of Jesus as having no connection with the Old Covenant. Though the gospel presents Jesus as distinct from the Old Covenant, it is still concerned to demonstrate the person and ministry of Jesus as a fulfilment of Scripture (2:23; 3:4; 21:22; 24:44), and in the recording of events which resemble events contained in the Old Testament. In this, Luke provides a universal presentation of the ministry of Jesus in the sense that it is not restricted to national Israel – this same theme prevails throughout Acts. The manner that Luke achieves this will be briefly considered.
1) The break from traditional Israel
The ministry of John the Baptist is contained in all four gospels, though Luke provides much more detail including the prophecies and circumstances surrounding his birth. It is the events surrounding John’s birth that are mentioned first, before the events that surround Jesus’ birth. The reasons for this are apparent when the circumstances of John’s birth are considered.
Several key points concerning John and his parents, provide powerful allusions to several Old Testament identities through whom God performed extraordinary works which had a profound impact on the history of Israel. Luke informs his readers that Zechariah and Elizabeth were advanced in years, and Elizabeth herself was barren (1:6). John, their promised son, was “…not to drink wine or strong drink.” (1:15). It was in these and similar circumstances that Isaac (Genesis 17:15-19), Joseph (Genesis 29:31; 30:25); Samson (Judges 13:2-5, 24), and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1, 20) were born. Hence Luke gives clues that God is about to do something different in the history of Israel. To be sure, John does not claim to be the Christ. Instead, the ministry of John was to testify to the one who was Christ (3:15). Similarly, Jesus was born of a childless woman, though not due to barrenness (1:34). Jesus confirms John’s ministry by recognising him as the last of the Law and the Prophets (16:16; 7:6-28). Hence John’s ministry serves as a transition between New and Old Covenants.
2) The universality of the Gospel
As Luke intends to demonstrate the universality of the gospels, he records a number of events not contained in the other gospels. These events involve people who would not be considered worthy.
Luke records the people to receive the angelic proclamation of Jesus birth were shepherds (2:8-20). Shepherds were a despised class as Hendriksen remarks, “…because of the very nature of their occupation, to observe all the regulations of the Mosaic law-and especially all the man-made rules superimposed on that law!” Nonetheless, these were among the first people to learn of God’s actions and respond to them.
Other reordering of social expectations can be found throughout the gospel such as chapter 18. In verses 9-14, Jesus tells a parable of a Pharisee and a tax collector, exemplary of a just and unjust person, and reverses the expected outcome (v14). In verses 15-17, Jesus welcomes children who have no social status, and exemplifies them for those who would follow him (v17). In verses 18-30, Jesus dialogue with a rich young ruler reveals that entry into the kingdom can not be gained by human effort, and those riches, often associated with observant Jewish leaders, hampered people from entering the kingdom. Similarly, Jesus tells of a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus, and again, the expected outcomes are reversed (16:8-31). Jesus also warns against the entrapments of riches and comfort (6:24-26). To be sure, Luke is not asserting that the poor and oppressed enter the kingdom while the rich people are condemned. Following shortly after Jesus dialogue with the rich young ruler is the occurrence of a tax collector who is inherently rich, and is declared to be a ‘son of Abraham’ due to his repentance. Hence Luke is merely demonstrating those who would not be considered as being in the kingdom in fact are.
Consistent with this theme is Luke’s treatment of the religious establishment. Though Luke records sayings of Jesus critical of attributes which may be true of religious authorities, there is no direct public criticism as there is in Matthew. Luke’s ‘Sermon on the Plain’ (6:17-49), which appears as an abbreviated form of Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5-7) does not contain any comparisons to the teaching of religious authorities, or ‘you’ve hear said’ statements (Matthew 5:17, 21, 27, 33, 38, 43). Luke also records Jesus as receiving hospitality from Pharisees and being able to gently teach (7:36-50), though later invitations would not be so hospitable (11:37-52). Hence Luke provides little basis to dismiss the possibility of the religious authorities from entering the kingdom of God.
All these theological themes of Luke serve to introduce Jesus’ final commission to the Disciples (24:48); which Luke will espouse in his second volume.
Both Matthew and Luke share much of the material. However, they use their material differently to establish their own purposes. It is important to consider these purposes for understanding the individual accounts and events which form each gospel.
Bauer, David R. ‘Son of David’ in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green & Scot McKnight. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Bock, Darrell L. ‘Gospel of Luke’ in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green & Scot McKnight. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Hendriksen, William Luke. Banner of truth New Testament commentary. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1978.
Hendriksen, William Matthew. Banner of truth New Testament commentary. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1973.
House, Wayne H. Chronological and background charts of the New Testament, Academic Books, 1981.
Howard, Marshall, I. ‘Son of Man’ in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green & Scot McKnight. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Keeber, Craig S. The IVP Bible background commentary, New Testament on CD-ROM. ((Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
McKnight, Scot. ‘Gospel of Matthew’ in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green & Scot McKnight. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Riesner, Rainer, D. ‘Galilee’ in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green & Scot McKnight. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
© The Student’s Desk, 2007.
 Wayne H. House, Chronological and background charts of the New Testament, (Academic Books, 1981), 109-115. Totals my differ pending the definitions of ‘parable’ and ‘miracle’. David R. Bauer, ‘Son of David’ in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green & Scot McKnight. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 769. Howard, Marshall, I. ‘Son of Man’ in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green & Scot McKnight. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 776. Rainer, D. Riesner, ‘Galilee’ in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. J. B. Green & Scot McKnight. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 253.
 William Hendriksen, Luke. Banner of truth New Testament commentary. (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), 149.
 Craig S. Keeber, The IVP Bible background commentary, New Testament on CD-ROM. ((Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992).
 William Hendriksen, Luke. 831.
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