The symbol of Matthew is a man, while the symbols of the other evangelists are animals and a bird: the lion of Mark, the ox of Luke, and the eagle of John. There is a reason why antiquity gave to each of the writers of the Gospels the symbol it did. Each symbol then had reference to a particular wording. But now, when we consider the purpose of the author and the nature of the document he produced, these ancient symbols do not convey the same meaning they conveyed to people of earlier times. We are interested in the impression the evangelist had of Jesus and his motif for the presentation he makes of his Lord. The four symbols are adequate enough collectively since they indicate the fourfold picture of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Through them we see the same person but from different perspectives. However, in my opinion, they need to be reassigned.
The ox as a beast of burden belongs most appropriately to Mark, who sees Jesus as the servant of the God who sent him, while the man should be given to Luke, who presents Jesus to the Gentiles as the universal man. John's symbol of the eagle is still applicable, for to him Jesus is the divine word made flesh. Many lecterns in our churches carry the Bible on the back of the eagle.
The lion, however, belongs preeminently to Matthew. The lion is the king of beasts. Judah, also, is presented in the Old Testament in the form of a lion. Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father's children shall bow down before thee. Judah is a lion's whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass's colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes: His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk. Genesis 49:8-12
Matthew's purpose is to present Jesus as the long expected Messiah. He is the king who has been sent to rule his people. There is from start to finish a royal aspect to this Gospel. The nature of the first Gospel is the good news of prophetic fulfillment. That which was foretold long ago by the prophets has at last come about. Matthew's impression of Jesus is that he is of royal lineage, possesses divine authority, and has the prerogatives and powers of God. The Matthean motif in the presentation of Jesus is his inherent relationship to the Old Testament, showing he is not a contradiction to Judaism but rather the climax and completion of Judaic faith.
When Marcion in the second century tried to sever Christianity from its Hebrew origins and to disavow the Old Testament altogether, the Gospel he used was Luke's. After all, Luke had been written for the Gentiles.
But Matthew shows us that we could not have the New Testament if it were not for the Old Testament and that Jesus would not be Jesus if it were not for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Matthew's is the most Jewish of all the Gospels. We are indebted to this book and its gifted author for maintaining Christianity's continuity with its past. Often, therefore, when Matthew narrates an important event in the life of Jesus, he calls the reader's attention to a prophecy in the Old Testament of which this event is the fulfillment. Indeed, Matthew has devised his own rubric for doing this, and he uses the same pattern each time. ''Now,'' he says, ''all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet" (Matt. 1:22). There are nine other specific instances of this in his Gospel (Matt. 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9). But many more times than this Matthew makes allusions to various passages in the Old Testament as he tells his story.
The Gospel was obviously written by a Jew and one who knew his Old Testament well. One British commentator thinks the book is decidedly anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic, as we would say today. I have not been able to detect this in my study of the Gospel. What the British commentator cites as his evidence of anti-Semitism impresses me as being pro-Jewish, an eagerness on the part of a converted Jew to convince his own people of the truth of the message of Jesus and to offer them his savior as their savior, too.
The Gospel of Matthew is probably the fullest and the most well rounded of the four. It is designed especially for use by the growing and expanding church. The early church put Matthew first in the New Testament canon, and it has remained in that position ever since. The early church assumed that it had been written first and by a disciple of Jesus.
There are very close similarities between Matthew and Mark. Most modern scholars, especially among the Protestants, believe that Mark antedates Matthew by twenty or thirty years and that the author of Matthew used Mark as his principal source. Others think that Mark is a condensation of Matthew from a different perspective. Be that as it may, each Gospel has its own special emphasis. Here in Matthew we meet our teacher and savior as King and Lord, before whom in the end every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess him to be the rightful ruler over all.