You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
How does Matthew’s gospel follow through on the angelic announcement that Jesus’ name (which means “he saves”) is related to his saving people from sin?
The first place to look is in Matthew’s telling of the Last Supper. Jesus said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28) Here, it is easy to see Matthew’s intent in terms of sacrificial atonement – that is, Jesus’ death is a sacrifice by which sins are forgiven – a perfecting of the temple’s offerings related to sin and atonement. Matthew’s intent is clear in the phrase “for the forgiveness of sins,” for he alone among the synoptic gospels reports these words in the Last Supper narrative.
That Matthew understands Jesus as fulfilling the Law’s purpose and replacing the temple system is evident throughout his gospel. Jesus’ crucifixion tears the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies – the place in the temple where the High Priest offered the yearly sacrifice for the people on the Day of Atonement. Matthew records Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction, and twice he reports the accusation that Jesus said, “Tear down this temple and I will rebuild it in three days.” Even though this accusation comes from the lips of his enemies, it tells the ironic truth. For those who belong to him, the risen Jesus replaces the temple as the center of the life of faith.
In Matthew’s gospel, however, Jesus’ saving people from their sins does not take place solely on the cross. His entire ministry is part of that effort. He heals, but he also forgives.
Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Then the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man. (Matthew 9:2-8)
The paralyzed man is forgiven because Jesus says so. In the model prayer, Jesus teaches people to pray for forgiveness and forgive others. He adds,
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)
Here forgive is conditioned on possessing a forgiving spirit. God has taken the initiative, and those who receive God’s forgiveness must also forgive others.
For Matthew, salvation from sin includes both forgiveness and formation. Following the synoptics, Matthew interprets Jesus’ death as the “blood of the covenant.” Jesus’ language recalls the covenant initiation rite of Exodus 24.
So Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He got up early in the morning and built an altar with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel at the bottom of the mountain. He sent young Israeli men to offer up burnt offerings and sacrifice bulls as peace offerings to the LORD. Moses took half the blood and put it in bowls, while he sprinkled the other half on the altar. He took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do and obey.” Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD made with you based on all these words.” (Exodus 24:4-8)
The people fell far fell short of the covenant’s demands, but the prophet Jeremiah envisioned a day when God would make a new covenant with Israel.
“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Jesus sees his death as initiating Jeremiah’s new covenant; his blood was its sign and seal. Jesus saved his people from their sins, then, both by forgiving their sins and by writing God’s law on their minds and hearts.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus accomplishes this largely by properly interpreting and applying God’s law. Jesus is the one who teaches God’s way of life as no other does. Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ authoritative instruction which, when put into practice, saves men and women from destruction.
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27)
Matthew does not envision Jesus’ forgiveness, then, as simply a “get out of jail free” card.
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)
As strict as Jesus’ teaching sounds, he believes that his way of righteousness is more healthful, humane and beneficial to the soul than the path offered by the Pharisees. Jesus’ path is the path of blessing and wholeness.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
For Matthew, then, Jesus’ salvation from sin has two components: forgiveness for past sins and the possibility of joyful faithfulness and true righteousness in the present.
Salvation from sin also has an eschatological component. John the Baptist warned of the wrath to come and Jesus taught that God would judge the world at the end of the age. God was present in Jesus’ works of power, in his life of humble vulnerability, in his acts of forgiveness and in his teaching of righteousness. To recognize the work of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, to welcome him and his disciples with hospitality, to repent of one’s sin, to live in accordance with Jesus’ teaching in a new covenant with God: all of these things formed the basis of one’s acquittal before the eternal judge of humankind.
God’s people – forgiven and now living as God requires – will be delivered on the coming day of judgment. Evil doers, however, face utter destruction.