Gospel Perspectives in Matthew and Luke

Written by Prof Johan Malan.

Abstract: Matthew and Luke proclaimed the same Gospel message, but applied it to different groups of people. Knowledge of these differences and complementary perspectives will help us understand the distinctly different positions and prophetic roles of Israel and the church.

Jesus Christ is the greatest of all the prophets. In His teachings and parables He made searching expositions of the spiritual state of people and unambiguously indicated the way to forgiveness and salvation. He also made dramatic revelations of contemporary and long-term events and often referred to the end of the age. In the last week before His crucifixion He stunned His disciples with a statement that Jerusalem would be destroyed and that of the majestic temple buildings no stone would be left upon another that would not be thrown down. They anxiously asked: “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Mt. 24:3 NKJV).

In the discourse following this question, various events of significance for Jerusalem and the Jewish nation during the first century were foretold, as well as a review of world events in the end-time before and leading up to the Second Coming of Christ. In order to correctly interpret the sequence of events as well as the people involved (Jews and/or Gentiles) it is imperative to study the relevant prophecies from the perspectives of the various Gospels.

There are sound reasons for the different presentations of the Gospel and the Olivet Discourse by Matthew and Luke (Mark's version of the Olivet Discourse being virtually the same as that of Matthew). Appreciation of these facts should keep one from reading the version of Matthew only and wrongly identifying the prophetic future of the church in the typically Jewish scenario described by Matthew.

The perspective in Matthew

An intensive study of the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) reveals the fact that they have complementary theological perspectives. Although the basic message of salvation is communicated by all three of them, the Gospel of Matthew was written for the Jews. It has a decidedly Jewish orientation in which the first place in the kingdom of God is often assigned to Jews. Preference is explicitly given to Israel for proclaiming the message of God's kingdom. In the period before the national rejection of Jesus by the Jews, the disciples were ordered to concentrate on Israel and not to go to Gentiles such as the Samaritans (10:5-6), while Jesus said He Himself was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (15:24).

In Matthew, a positive stand is taken in support of the law (the Torah) and its relevance as a divine guide for spiritual and moral norms is confirmed (5:18-19). Jesus said that He did not come to destroy the law but to fulfil it (5:17). The law was fulfilled in the Messiah’s New Testament law of love (22:36-40). “On these two commandments [of love] hang all the Law and the Prophets” (22:40; see also Rom. 13:8-10).

The writer of this Gospel is intent on indicating the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. These two Testaments converge in the Messiah's redemptive work and ministry; therefore, the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets are not abolished but find their final fulfilment in the new covenant of the Messiah. As proof of this relationship Matthew frequently refers to the Old Testament by, among others, 43 quotations and a further 22 allusions. This is done to demonstrate to a sceptical nation that the life and works of Jesus in minute detail fulfil the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

The presentation of facts about the virgin birth and naming of Jesus, His temporary sojourn in Egypt and subsequent stay in Nazareth, the fact that He healed the sick, spoke in parables, rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and was eventually forsaken by His disciples, is explicitly associated with Old Testament prophecies “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (1:22; 2:15, 23; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54). Important facts about His birth in Bethlehem, the unbelief of the Jewish nation and their rejection of Jesus, as well as the fact that He would be betrayed and sold for 30 pieces of silver, are consistently linked to Old Testament prophecies (2:5; 13:14-15; 26:31; 27:9). The quotations from and references to the Old Testament in the other Gospels are not nearly as numerous and extensive as those in Matthew.

As a predominantly Jewish work, Matthew clearly depicts Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. A Jewish genealogy is quoted for Him, which is reckoned from Abraham who is the first Hebrew – and not from Adam, as Luke does. His descent from David is often mentioned and strongly emphasised (1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15; 22:42-45). His genealogy proves beyond any doubt that He is heir to the throne of David and therefore King of the Jews (see 2:2). Apart from these facts, His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary fulfils the sublime expectation of the Old Testament prophets of the coming Messiah, thereby rendering Him in a very special sense the Son of His heavenly Father. Because He is God (11:27) He can rightfully claim the title Immanuel – God with us (1:23). The Messiah is portrayed as the ‘Son of Man’ whose coming was prophesied by Daniel (Dan. 7:13-14) and who will, in the end-time (Dan. 12:4), be seated on the throne of His glory to judge the nations (16:27; 24:30; 25:31; 26:64 et al.).

The Messiah’s kingdom is a very common subject in this Gospel. God the Father assigned the rule over His kingdom to His Son, the Messiah, who will sit as King on the throne after His Second Coming (25:34, 40). It is clearly described as an eschatological kingdom, which will be established in the end-time when the Messiah comes on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (24:30).

In keeping with the general approach in the Gospel of Matthew, the prophecies are discussed in such a way that they relate primarily to the future of the (unsaved) Jewish nation. The time frames used for these prophecies are two generations: the first one is the generation following the rejection of Jesus as Messiah (23:34-36) and the other one the generation directly preceding His Second Coming (24:32-34).

The first generation started with Jerusalem (the seat of government and core of the Jewish nation) rejecting Jesus as Messiah, and this generation ended with the destruction of Jerusalem (23:37-38). Prophecies that were fulfilled during the first generation are the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the enemies of Israel, to the extent that not one stone of the temple buildings would be left upon another that would not be thrown down (23:37; 24:1-2). At the end of this generation Jerusalem would become desolate and its inhabitants either killed or dispersed (23:38). These prophecies were literally fulfilled during the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. That happened almost 40 years after the beginning of the church dispensation and serves as a clear indication that God keeps on dealing with Israel as a distinct entity – they were not replaced by the church. Although individual saved Jews become members of the church during this dispensation, that does not change the fact in any way of Israel’s unique prophetic future as a nation.

The last generation would start with Jerusalem being restored to the Jews in preparation for another opportunity that they will have, as a nation, to accept Jesus as Messiah. After being rejected by the Jews during His first coming, Jesus said that He would go away but when He returns to Jerusalem, they will accept Him as their Messiah-King: “…for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!’” (23:39). The Jews pronounce this quotation from Psalm 118:26 every year in a liturgical prayer during the Feast of Tabernacles, not realising that they actually refer to Jesus as their Messiah.

Jesus told the unbelieving Jews that they would have to face the great tribulation before the Messiah comes again in power and glory (24:21). The end-time will be characterised by the rising of false christs and false prophets (24:4-5, 11, 24) when a counterfeit Messiah will come to them, pretending to be the true Messiah (24:23-27). It will also be a time of wars, famines, pestilences, earthquakes and the severe persecution of God’s people (24:6-7, 9).

Matthew devotes a long section to the end-time flight of Jews from Judea to the mountains (24:15-22). He clearly links the starting-point of this event to the desecration of the temple in Jerusalem by the false messiah, as prophesied by Daniel: “…when you see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place… then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (24:15-16). Daniel (9:27; see also 11:31-39) says that this event will occur in the middle of a year-week (a period of seven years) thereby indicating that the false Messiah will conclude a covenant with Israel for seven years, but in the middle of this period he will desecrate the temple by declaring himself to be God and setting up an image of himself in the Holy of holies.

The Jews who refuse to accept the false messiah in his capacity as self-declared God, will have to flee quickly before his advancing armies. Jesus said they should pray that their flight might not be in winter or on the Sabbath (thereby implicating orthodox Jews), “for then there will be great tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of the world” (24:20-21).

The Lord will allow this flight to save the Jews from total annihilation by the false messiah. Those who fled will experience severe anxiety and hardships as they will still be in the time of Jacob’s trouble (Jer. 30:7). At the end of this week of tribulation, the Messiah will return to Jerusalem at His Second Coming (24:29-30). The surviving Jews will then say: “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” (23:39).

The perspective in Luke

This Gospel was dedicated to Theophilus, a senior official in Rome, and afterwards distributed in Antioch among a predominantly non-Jewish community. Events in this Gospel are discussed in a chronological order, while Matthew arranged the information according to the subjects concerned.

To Luke, the Gospel message has a much more universal application as it is meant for all people regardless of their nationality or class. He does not deny the Jewish context of the Gospel but explicitly indicates the world-wide objectives of preaching the Gospel message. That is the reason why Luke does not offer a Jewish genealogy for Jesus, as in Matthew where His descent is only reckoned back to Abraham, but traces it back to Adam. Christ, therefore, addresses all the descendants of Adam and not only the lost sheep of the house of Israel who are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He became man for all of us, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (19:10).

This approach is evident from the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) and also from the rebuking of the Jews because of their intolerance towards the Samaritans (9:51-56). In this Gospel, Jewish people were reproached by the Lord Jesus since nine of the ten lepers whom He healed, all nine Jews, acted ungratefully by not returning to thank or follow Jesus. Only the tenth one, a Samaritan, turned back to glorify God (17:11-19). In Luke 10, seventy disciples were sent out to proclaim the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles. Matthew did not record this incident as the assignment of the 70 was not only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

In his prophetic review, Luke not only discusses the fate of the unbelieving Jewish people but he also records prophecies related to the Messianic believers, the non-Jewish Christians and the nations. The first generation escape of Messianic believers from the destruction of Jerusalem, which had been promised by Jesus, is described by Luke (21:20-22) but not by Matthew. Luke then goes on to mention “the times of the Gentiles” (21:24) which would elapse from the first generation until late in the last generation of the present dispensation. This period was not even mentioned by Matthew as he confined himself to the divine history of Israel (the same approach was followed by the prophet, Daniel, who gave no indication of the long break between the 69th and 70th year-weeks in his prophecy on Israel – Dan. 9:24-27).

The restoration of Jerusalem would mark the end of the times of the Gentiles as Jerusalem would be trampled by the Gentiles “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (21:24). Luke then proceeds to describe a period of world-wide distress among the nations, leading up to the Second Coming of Christ (21:25-27). The great tribulation is not discussed in any detail by Luke – neither does he mention the flight of the Jews after the desecration of the temple in the middle of the week, as Matthew has done. Luke only summarises the great anxiety and cosmic signs of the tribulation period and then offers a sure way to escape it: “Watch therefore and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (21:36). Matthew did not make mention of this promise of escaping the tribulation since the Jewish people, as a nation, will have to pass through the time of Jacob’s trouble because of their spiritual blindness.

From the different perspectives adopted by Luke and Matthew it is very clear that the promise of escaping the tribulation period is only made to the disciples of Jesus by Luke (21:36). Furthermore, it is obvious that His disciples in the end-time would be mainly non-Jewish (24:47). They are encouraged to live vigilant lives so that they may be worthy to escape the coming tribulation by being removed to the blessed presence of the Son of Man. This title of Christ (the Son of Man) is used more often in Luke and alludes to His position as God-Man for the salvation of all who believe in the human family.

By promising an escape route to both first generation and last generation believers (Lk. 21:20-21, 36), Jesus confirms the fact that believers are never judged with unbelievers. As in the days of Noah and Lot, believers must first be removed from disaster area of divine judgements before the wrath of God is poured out upon the wicked.

A final comparison

In Matthew, a further striking feature of the presentation of the prophetic message is that Jerusalem (of which the inhabitants represent the core-group of the unbelieving Jewish nation) is addressed in the first person with a message that directly concerns the Jews. In proclaiming first generation prophecies, Jesus said: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I wanted to gather your children… but you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate” (Mt. 23:37-38). The same approach is followed in last generation prophecies: “When you see the abomination of desolation (the false messiah desecrating the temple)… flee to the mountains… Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ [Messiah] or ‘There!’ do not believe it” (Mt. 24:15-16, 23). During the subsequent coming of the Son of Man, all the tribes (nations) of the world will mourn (Mt. 24:29-30). In this way the Jews are told that not only they will mourn for Him whom they have pierced (see Zech. 12:10), but the remnant of the Christ-rejecting nations will do the same. Nevertheless, the primary message in these prophecies is directed to Israel.

In Luke, the prophetic message is not addressed to the Jewish nation in the first person, but to the disciples of Jesus (whether Jew or Gentile). In connection with the first generation destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus said to His disciples: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near” (Lk. 21:20). All references to Jerusalem and its inhabitants are made by Luke in the third person. Even the Gentiles, who are explicitly included in the prophetic scenario, are referred to in the third person as Jesus communicates information about them to His disciples. The Messianic (Jewish) believers are told that their persecution by orthodox Jews will begin before the tribulation period: “But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons” (Lk. 21:12). In reviewing the major signs of the tribulation period, Luke does not single out Israel but mentions all the nations: “And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity… men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of heaven will be shaken” (Lk. 21:25-26). But the true disciples of Jesus are assured, in the first person, that “you… will escape all these things… and stand before the Son of Man” (Lk. 21:36). This is definitely not a message to Israel, but to the end-time disciples of Jesus Christ.

In Luke, the end-time scenario is clearly linked to the end of Jerusalem’s trampling by the Gentiles: “Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Lk. 21:24). It needs to be indicated here that biblical Jerusalem (the Old City, also referred to as the City of David) was physically recaptured by Israel in June 1967 during the Six Day War, while its political restoration to its former status as capital of Israel occurred in August 1980. These events ushered in the end-time generation before the Second Coming of Christ (Mt. 24:34; Lk. 21:32).

Taking into account the different prophetic perspectives in Matthew and Luke, the parameters of the two critical generations in the present dispensation between the first and second comings of Jesus are as follows:

The first generation: This generation started with the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah-King and ended with the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The big war by a Roman army caused the death of many Jews in Jerusalem, while the surviving remnant of the inhabitants were taken as captives of war and became dispersed to other nations. During the first generation, Israel and the church coexisted but Israel was gradually phased out as a vehicle for world evangelism due to their rejection of the Messiah, and the church was phased in to fulfil the assignment of evangelising the world.

The times of the Gentiles: The long period between the first and last generations is described as “the times of the Gentiles” (Lk. 21:24). During this period the entire non-Jewish world (including the dispersed Jews) would get the opportunity to become members of the kingdom of God by accepting Jesus as their Messiah and Redeemer and be born again (Mt. 28:18-20; Lk. 24:45-49).

The last generation: This generation started with the recapture and political restoration of Jerusalem by the restored people of Israel. During this generation the church and Israel will initially co-exist, but before its final seven years (the 70th week of Daniel) the church will be phased out by way of the rapture (Lk. 21:36) and Israel as a nation gradually phased in as the spiritually restored people of God. The first phase of their spiritual restoration will be the salvation of 144 000 Jews early in the tribulation period, soon after the rapture, while the whole remnant will be saved at the end of the tribulation period when the Messiah returns to Jerusalem (see Zech. 14:4-5). On that day, the remnant of Israel will say to Him: “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” (Mt. 23:39; see also Zech. 12:10; 13:1, 9).

In connection with the last generation escape of believers (Lk. 21:34-36) Proff. Walvoorrd & Zuck (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 258) say: “Jesus warned His disciples to be ready at all times. Though a believer will be able to anticipate the coming of the kingdom by the signs, it is possible to get so entangled with the affairs of life that some will not be ready for the kingdom when it comes – unexpectedly (Lk. 21:34) and universally (Lk. 21:35)… It was against this wrong attitude that Jesus said, ‘Be careful (v. 34) and be always on the watch’ (v. 36).” The universal nature of the catastrophes of the tribulation is mentioned in Luke 21:25 where it is plainly stated that on the (whole) earth there will be distress of nations, while in Luke 21:35 Jesus says that the sudden coming of the day of the Lord will affect all people on earth: “For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth.” When the heavenly Bridegroom suddenly and unexpectedly takes His bride away, the false messiah will be revealed and the wrath of God poured out over all the inhabitants of the earth. It is in view of these coming events that we must watch and pray that we may be worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass (the worst tribulation and suffering known to mankind) and to stand in the wonderful presence of the Son of Man in heavenly places.