The Artistic Evangelist: Seeing the Structure of Matthew’s Gospel

quino-al-110318-unsplash.jpgIn his theological commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, Jonathan Pennington spends chapter five outlining the structure of Matthew’s Gospel and the Sermon on the Mount, in particular. Following Robert Gundry’s observation that Matthew is a book filled with “literary and theological art,” Pennington alerts the careful reader to the way Matthew organized his Gospel.

What follows are a few observations about the way Matthew wrote his Gospel and how the whole book is held together with a discernible fivefold structure. Tomorrow, I’ll provided a detailed outline of the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew: The Literary Artist and Artistic Theologian

In general, Matthew is a “skilled literary artist,”book one who communicates his meaning through the structure of his Gospel (110). On this point, Pennington observes how Matthew as a writer is a theological artist and an artistic theologian.

Matthew is the “definitive” Gospel when it comes to structure. “The Gospel of Matthew displays greater design, balance, proportion, and order than any of the other three Gospels” (James Edwards, The Hebrew Gospel and Its Development of the Synoptic Tradition, 246)

Matthew’s literary skills, notably, are not so much in the telling of epic and moving narratives; one unexpected observation about Matthew in comparison with his Synoptic brothers is that his narrative pericopes are generally much shorter and less detailed than theirs. Moreover, none of the Gospels fall into the genre of epic story; they are biographies primarily. Matthew appears to be concerned less with the individual narratives per se than with how these stories fit together in conjunction with major teaching blocks to tell a larger story. Matthew’s literary skill is all about structure. Many of the most important aspects of Matthew can only be discerned by paying attention to broader structures and themes rather than the individual story, noting how various aspects of the material are structured together.

Therefore, in reading and rereading Matthew one begins to sense that there is much more going on than first meets the eye in the arranging and crafting of the stories into groups and patterns. I often think of Matthew as having divine crop circles. To see the pattern, image, and message, one must get to a higher elevation, an altitude of reading that provides perspective to see larger patterns. When walking in the midst of the fields of stories, following along after Jesus, seeing him interact with others and hearing him teach, the reader is amazed at his teaching and actions. This alone would be sufficient and a contribution to our understanding of Jesus. But the evangelist is doing more than data-dumping assorted stories. He is an artist and a theologian, a theological artist and an artistic theologian. Matthew’s voice—which is all that we have access to in his Gospel’—is found in paying attention to how he retells the individual pericopes, but much more in how he shapes and molds and structures his many stories and teachings into the piece of theological art that the First Gospel is. With Matthew the whole (communicated through complex and beautiful structures) is always more than the sum of the parts. (105–06)

Recognizing Matthew’s literary skill is important for interpretation because it validates the structures we find in the text. Indeed, when we come to the Sermon on the Mount and observe many literary structures, its important to see that these are not creations of the reader but intentions of Matthew himself. Matthew employs literary structures to convey his message and our understanding of his meaning and theology depends on seeing how he has shaped his book.

The Structure of Matthew’s Gospel

Getting more specific, one of the most profound literary structures to observe in Matthew’s Gospel is the five discourses that hold the book together (ch. 5–7; 10; 13; 18; 23–25). Importantly, each of these five discourses is concluded by the words, “and it happened when Jesus had finished . . .” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1) (107). Interacting with the work of Dale Allison who argued for “an intentional pattern that alternates between interconnected narrative and teaching blocks,” Pennington argues for a “a set of five distinct discourse-narrative blocks [DN]” (109).

These DN blocks are all interconnected and together flow along the plotline of the Gospel story. That is, these identifiable DN blocks are not clunky impositions onto the plot . . . but instead are skillfully interwoven and carry the story along by tying in with both what precedes and what follows them. Matthew has created five modules Each consist of a discourse followed by a narrative that flows from it and leads to the next discourse, with the slight modification that the final unit reverses the order to conclude the fifth discourse. This set of DN units comprises the body of the main story (4:23–25:46). This narrative is then bookended with an introduction (1:1–4:16) and conclusion (26:17–28:20), with two bridge passages that span between the introduction and conclusion and the body (4:17–22 and 26:1–16). (109–110).

Following Pennington’s outline and labels, the body of Matthew’s Gospel looks as follows:


Or, if Pennington is correct regarding the chiastic structure of Matthew can be outlined like this (cf. 110–11):

A  Righteousness (4:17–9:38)

B  Witness (10:1–12:50)

C  Kingdom Parables (13:1–17:27)

B’  Church Community (18:1–20:34)

A’  Eschatology (21:1–25:46)

As Pennington explains,

Each of the five major discourses has its own distinct teaching focus (righteousness, witness, kingdom parables, church community, and eschatology), but woven throughout each of these is a meta-theme that God is revealing himself in Christ and that this revelation results in or creates a separation of people into two groups, those inside and those outside, based on faith-response to Jesus. This theme is found throughout each of the discourses, including the Sermon, as we will see, but is most obvious and prominent in the central third discourse. Matthew 13, which serves as the chiastic center of the book, is built entirely on the idea that God’s revelation of himself creates a separation between peoples, as can be seen in the lead parable of the sower/four soils, in the Isaianic quotes about revelation to some (13:14-15 from Isa. 6), and in the parables of the wheat and tares and dragnet of fish. (110)

From these structural observations, Pennington draws many cogent implications. However, the most profound in my mind is the way the chiastic structure of Matthew’s Gospel sets the first and fifth discourses at the same level. In this way, we see at least three important large-scale observations:

  1. The nine macarisms (statements of blessedness known as the Beatitudes) pronounced over the disciples of Christ (Matthew 5:3–12) are counterbalanced with the seven woes pronounced on the Pharisees (Matthew 23).
  2. The separation of wise and foolish, good and evil, disciples and hypocrites are prominent in both the first and last discourse. This suggests that we might read these two discourses together.
  3. The focus on wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount and eschatological judgment (or apocalyptic revelation) in Sermon on the Mount of Olives bring together the twin themes of wisdom and apocalyptic. This combination was common in Second Temple Judaism and adds weight to the reading the first and last discourse together (cf. pp. 25–29).

From these observations and more, we can see why Matthew is a skilled literary artist and an artistic theologian. Indeed, his Gospel weaves together a tapestry revealing who Jesus is. And the careful reader must pay close attention to how it is structured in order to understand its message.

For more help on seeing the structure of Matthew’s Gospel, pick up Jonathan Pennington’s book (The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing) or watch Tim Mackie’s two videos on Matthew.


Tomorrow, we’ll hone in on the Sermon the Mount itself and see how Matthew has shaped Jesus’ Sermon to highlight its kingdom message.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash