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Theme of Jesus' authority in Matthew's Gospel

Theme of Jesus' authority in Matthew's Gospel

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

The author of Matthew’s Gospel was preoccupied with the issue of Church leadership. To understand this we have to switch our attention to Antioch, in which city the Gospel in all likelihood was given its final edition. During the second half of the first century, when Matthew’s Gospel was finalised, the Christian community in Antioch was sorely tested by `false prophets’, by people who claimed to be Christian while deviating from Christian beliefs and practices.

We will consider the following topics:

Sects in Antioch

The Nicolaitans, for instance, advocated a compromise between Christianity and paganism. They claimed to follow Nicolaus of Antioch, one of the first seven deacons (Acts 6,5). As far as we can make out from scanty historical data, they allowed Christians to take part in pagan ceremonies (Revelation 2,6; 2,15).

Another troublesome group were the disciples of Simon the Magician who had already clashed with Peter in Samaria (Acts 8,9-24). One of them, Menander of Samaria, made converts among the sport and contest loving population of Antioch. His follower Satornilus preached a mixture of Christian and pagan doctrines. Christ, he said, was a divine figure who came to this earth to fight evil. To deceive Satan he took on the appearance of a human nature. He never was a real human being.

This sect is mentioned by IRENAEUS, Against Heresies 1,23-24; JUSTIN, Apology 1,26; EUSEBIUS, History of the Church 2,13-14; 4,7.3. Because of the insistence on ‘appearance’, Greek: dokêsis, the disciples of Simon the Magician are also known as ‘Docetes’. They became forerunners of the classical Gnostic sects of the second century; see R.M.GRANT, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, New York 1959.

A third group that posed problems were the disciples of John the Baptist. They continued to exist for some centuries as a distinct Jewish sect on the periphery of Christianity. Paul converted twelve of them when he visited Ephesus (Acts 19,1-6). The Johannites accepted many of Jesus’ teachings but seem to have denied his resurrection, as well as Christian baptism in Jesus’ name. It is for this reason that Matthew inserted the discussion between Jesus and John at Jesus’ baptism; to assert that Jesus is greater that John even though he submitted to John’s baptism (Matthew 3,14-15, which is proper to Matthew). We may presume that the Johannites had a considerable following in Antioch.

All such splinter groups - and there may have been more - threatened to destroy Christian faith and split the Christian community. Matthew’s Gospel countered this threat by reminding Christians of Jesus’ warnings against false prophets (Matthew 7,15-20; 24,4-5; 24,23-25). The Gospel also showed that Jesus had taught with authority and that this authority had been passed on to the leaders of the Church.

The theme of “authority” in Matthew’s Gospel

In Matthew’s Gospel stress is laid on Jesus’ own authority:

`He taught people as someone with authority, not as their scribes.’ Matthew 7,29; compare Mark 1,22.27; Luke 4,32.
`The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’. Matthew 9,6; compare Mark 2,10; Luke 5,24.
`Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things’. Matthew 21,23-24.27; compare Mark 11,28-29.33; Luke 20,2.8.
`Heaven and earth shall pass away, my words shall not pass away’. Matthew 24,35; compare Mark 13,31; Luke 21,33.
`To me has been given all authority in heaven and on earth’. Matthew 28,18; proper to Matthew.

Jesus delegated this authority to his disciples.

  • “He gave the twelve disciples authority over unclean spirits so that they could cast them out, and heal every disease and every infirmity.” Matthew 10,1; compare Mark 6,7; Luke 9,1.
  • “If anyone will not listen to your words . . . . , it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town!” Matthew 10,14-15; compare Mark 6,11; Luke 10,10-12.
  • “Amen, amen I say to you. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you loosen on earth shall be loosened in heaven.” Matthew 18,18; addressed to all apostles; compare John 20,23.
  • “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go out and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have spoken to you. See, I will always remain with you, till the end of time!” Matthew 28,18-20.

These last words which Matthew tells us were spoken ‘on a mountain in Galilee to which Jesus had directed them’, remind us of how God on Mount Nebo showed Moses the promised land and how Moses authorised Joshua, his successor, to conquer it for his people. See Deuteronomy 34,1-4; Joshua 1,1-9.

Read: J.M.REESE, ‘How Matthew portrays the communication of Christ’s authority’, Biblical Theology Bulletin 7 (1977) pp. 140-141; T.F.McKENNA, `Matthew on Church Authority’, The Bible Today 17 (1979) pp. 2035-2041.

Leaders with authority in the early Church

Who were these Church leaders who, according to Matthew, continued to exercise Jesus’ authority in the community?

The New Testament speaks of

  1. ‘elders’ who were appointed in local Churches (see Acts 14,23; 15,2.4.6). The Greek word is presbuteros, from which our `priest’ is derived.
  2. ‘overseers’ (Acts 20,28; Philemon 1,1; 1 Peter 2,25). The Greek is episkopos, the origin of words such as Bishop, episcopal, and so on.
  3. and ‘deacons’ (Acts 6,1-6; Romans 16,1).

Initially the terms were still used rather vaguely. All the elders of Miletus are called `overseers’ (bishops) by Paul (Acts 20,17 and 20,28) and Paul refers to himself as a‘deacon’ of Christ’s Church (Colossians 1,23.25).

In the pastoral epistles a clear shift to more precise job descriptions can be discerned (1 Timothy 3,1-13; Titus 1,5-9). Soon after, the letters from St.Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, give us a picture of Church leadership that involves three ministries: bishops, elders (=priests) and deacons.

Specific leadership groups in Matthew’s Gospel

The need of the community at Antioch to be guided and protected by strong leadership may help us read Matthew’s Gospel better.

Peter who according to ancient tradition was‘bishop’ of Antioch before moving to Rome, is portrayed in Matthew’s Gospel as the pattern for bishops.

  • Peter’s confession of Jesus’ messiahship is singled out for special mention (Matthew 16,17).
  • Jesus provides the Temple tax for himself and for Peter (Matthew 17,24-27).
  • Peter is called the `rock’ on which the community is built (Matthew 16,18). He was originally called Simon, but Jesus gave him the Aramaic name kephas (rock) which, precisely because of the significance of its meaning, was translated into Greek as Petros (rock); see John 1,42; 1 Corinthians 9,5; 15,5; Galatians 1,18; 2,6-14.
  • To him are given‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 16,19).
  • The authority given to all Church leaders of binding and loosening, is given in a special way to Peter (Matthew 16,19; compare Matthew 18,18). It makes Peter the ‘authorised interpreter of Jesus’ teachings’; G.BORNKAMM,‘The Authority to “Bind” and“Loose” in the Church in Matthew’s Gospel’ in G.STANTON (ed.), The Interpretation of Matthew, London 1983, pp. 85-97.
  • In Peter we can mirror the special role and authority entrusted to the ministry of the bishop. Read R.BROWN et al. ed., Peter in the New Testament. A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars, Mineapolis 1973; R.BROWN, ‘The meaning of modern New Testament studies for an ecumenical understanding of Peter and a theology of the papacy’ in Biblical Reflections on Crises Facing the Church, New York 1975, pp. 63-83.

The twelve Apostles, on the other hand, reflect the authority and task of the presbyters and deacons.

  • To them are addressed the apostolic sermon and the sermon to Church leaders (Matthew 10,1-42 and 18,1-35).
  • Like Jesus they should be filled with compassion, seeing how people are ‘confused and helpless like sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9,35-38).
  • Again like Jesus, they should exercise their authority as a ministry, realising that their task is to serve, not to be served (Matthew 20,20-28). The Latin word minister means ‘servant’.

One aspect of our being together‘in Jesus’ name’ is our being in harmony with the community’s leaders. For it was in Jesus’ name that authority was exercised. Peter cured a lame man ‘in the name of Jesus’ (Acts 3,6; 4,7-10). Baptism, forgiveness of sins and salvation were brought ‘in Jesus’ name’(Acts 19,5; Luke 24,47; 1 Corinthians 6,11). The Gospel was proclaimed‘in Jesus’ name’ (Acts 4,17-20; 5,28.40; 9,27-28). Devils were thrown out ‘in Jesus’ name’ (Acts 16,18; 19,13-16). Persons who harmed the community were expelled ‘in Jesus’ name’ (1 Corinthians 5,3-5).

To be assembled ‘in Jesus’ name’ (Matthew 18,20) presupposes the approval and protection of those in the community to whom Christ entrusted his authority.

John Wijngaards

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