CHIASM MATTHEW 4:17-23
A–From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (v. 17)
B– And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. (v. 19-20)
B–and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (v. 22)
A–Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (v. 23)
Explaining the Chiasm
This chiasm marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry through the eyes of Matthew. Verse 17 references the term, Kingdom of Heaven, referred to as simply kingdom in verse 23. The Hebrew for Kingdom of Heaven, malchut shamayim, is found in only two ancient sources, the New Testament and Rabbinical literature. Surprisingly to most people, this term, along with its equivalent, the Kingdom of God, is not found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Mishnah, we find a statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korhah: “Why is ‘Hear O Israel’ recited before ‘If then you obey the commandments’ in the daily prayers? To indicate that one should first accept the kingdom of Heaven, and only afterwards the yoke of the commandments.” (Mishnah, Berachot 2:2) By this, he meant to say that when one signaled the intention to keep Torah by reciting Deuteronomy 6:4, it indicated one’s submission to the rule of God in his life, thus enabling him to keep the “yoke of the commandments” (Deuteronomy 11:13-21).
In verse 17, Jesus launched his preaching with the proclamation ” the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” The Greek word translated as “near” is eggus. Since in the parallel verse, 4:23, Matthew states that Jesus “taught in synagogues,” we can deduce that Jesus used the Hebrew, karav, a word that considers the Kingdom as something so near that it is in “the same space as.” Spatially and temporally, the Kingdom of Heaven has entered this world in the here and now. Verse 23 stands as a synthetic parallelism to verse 17, explaining that “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” is the “good news of the Kingdom.” The good news or gospel translates the Greek word, euaggelion, which in turn, corresponds to the Hebrew, basar. To hearers among first-century Jews, basar would mean the good news that a new king had come to rule. Jesus’ gospel announced the entrance of God’s rule into the world.
Verses 17 and 23 point to the center of the chiasm in verses 19, 20 and 22, in which Jesus recruits his first disciples. Two words repeat in verses 20 and 22, “immediately” and “follow,” signaling the presence of a parallelism in the text. “Immediately” is the Greek euthus, as found in the phrases “immediately they left their nets” as well as “immediately they left the boat and their father”. While euthus has a temporal meaning in many instances, it also references something spatial, as in one who goes “straightaway” or in a direct path. This same word is found in Matthew 3:3 in which John the Baptist heralds the coming of the Lord: “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight (eutheias, the adjectival form of euthus).’” This declaration was, as stated, taken from Isaiah 40:3 in which the Hebrew yashar is translated properly as “straight.”
The second repeating word is “follow.” This word in Greek is akoloutheo, meaning to join on a road or way. Those whom Jesus called joined him “straightaway” on his way. By this, Matthew explained what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of Heaven. It was a movement of men, led by Jesus, who entered the sphere of authority of a king who had come to rule, the God of Israel. At the onset of Jesus’ mission, two sets of brothers–Peter and Andrew, James and John–were called to be made “fishers of men.” Matthew concludes this narrative by stating that while Jesus was leading the first four disciples through Galilee (verse 4:23), “ Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed (akoloutheo) him.” (verse 4:25)
A Lesson in Leadership
The chiasm directs us to an understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven and to Jesus’ message of the gospel. It is followed by verse 24 in which the author states “The news about him spread throughout all Syria; and they brought to him all who were ill, those suffering with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and he healed them.” This healing ministry resumes in chapter 8 in which Jesus heals a leper, a centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother and a host of others. We might have expected this series of healings to be joined to the healing ministry introduced in verse 4:24 as examples. But no. . .the narrative makes a “detour” to what we familiarly call the “Sermon on the Mount” (referred to henceforth as the Sermon) encompassing Chapters 5, 6 and 7. Why? Perhaps this is simply in keeping with the chronology of events. However, Matthew’s placement of the Sermon may, in fact, be purposeful for a reason other than adherence to a specific chronology.
We begin with discerning some elements of the literary arrangement of the Sermon. A pattern emerges at the beginning and end. It opens as follows:
“Now when Jesus saw the crowds (tous ochlous), he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, (Matthew 5:1)
Notice “the crowds.” This word repeats toward the end of the Sermon.
” When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds (hoi ochloi) were amazed at his teaching.” (Matthew 7:28)
The very next thing Matthew reports at the beginning is:
2 and he began to teach (edidasken) them.” (Matthew 5:2)
This corresponds to the following at the end of the Sermon.
“For he was teaching (didaskon) as one having authority, not like their scribes.” (Matthew 7:29)
From this, we build a chiasm.
A– “Now when Jesus saw the crowds (tous ochlous), he went up on a ”
B– and he began to teach (edidasken) them.” (Matthew 5:2)
A–” When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds (hoi ochloi) were amazed at his teaching.” (Matthew 7:28)
B–“For he was teaching (didaskon) as one having authority, not like their scribes.” (Matthew 7:29)
We have a chiasm with an A-B-A-B structure. The “crowds” are mentioned at the beginning and end of the sermon, pointing us to the central activity of Jesus during the Sermon: teaching.
Advancing into the Sermon’s content, Jesus makes a bold pronouncement “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) The word for “law” in Greek is nomos, which means law or rule, our typical understanding in the English language. However, if as many scholars agree, Jesus spoke in Hebrew, then what word would nomos correspond to in Hebrew? The word translated as nomos in the early Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, was torah. To the ear of a Hebrew speaker, torah would not mean law. Rather, it would mean instruction. Again, we see the emphasis of the Sermon on teaching.
Moving further into the passage, Jesus comments on the commandments found in the Torah. “ Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19)
This verse in itself is a chiasm with an A-B-C-A-B-C pattern.
A–“. . .anyone who breaks (luo) one of the least of these commands,” (v. 19a)
B–“and teaches (didasko) others accordingly,” (v. 19a)
C–“will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.” (v. 19a)
A–“but whoever practices (poieo),” (v. 19b)
B–“and teaches (didasko) these commands,” (v 19b)
C–“will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus teaches that we must not “break” even the most minor command. Rather, we “practice” the commands. The word, poieo, has its root in the manufacture or making or producing of things. According to Jesus, we hold and fashion the commands of God, keeping and preserving them, rather than the opposite, breaking them. When we do this, we are in a sense, productive. This same word, poieo, is used in Matthew 7:17, in reference to the metaphor of the good tree that produces (poieo) good fruit, and its opposite. Looking back at verse 5:17, when Jesus speaks of fulfilling the instructions of God, he is doing that in the sense of preserving them. Those who preserve God’s instruction, keep it and teach it to others are considered “great” in the movement led by Jesus, the kingdom of heaven.
Toward the end of the Sermon, Jesus again talks about instruction. “Therefore, whoever hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. (Matthew 7:24a) “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.” (Matthew 7:26a)
Let’s again look at the literary arrangement.
A–“Therefore, whoever hears these words of mine”
B–“and puts them into practice (poieo)”
C–“”is like a man who built his house on the rock.”
A–But everyone who hears these words ,”
B–“and does not put them into practice (poieo)”
C–“is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”
To the Hebrew listener, to hear words is to do those words–to obey them. The one who obeys and makes, manufactures or produces something from those words is the one who builds his house upon solid rock. Rock is a metaphor for the words of Jesus, which are in turn, the words of God.
The literary arrangement at the beginning and end of the Sermon points to the instructions within the Sermon. Those begin with instructions on how to keep the precepts of the Torah–the commands including, but not limited to, murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, retribution and love of neighbor. Other instructions include guidance on giving, prayer, forgiving others, fasting, managing wealth and worry, as well as teaching not to judge others and how to be generous.
We now have an insight, through the eyes of Matthew, about why the narrative shifts from the discussion of healing and before that, the call of the first disciples and the following of the crowds, to the Sermon on the Mount. It tells us that while the call of God to enter His Kingdom under His rule is important, it must be accompanied by instruction. When we follow Jesus, it is imperative to understand the will, ways and point of view of the one we follow. In order to follow Jesus, you have to know something. As the Sermon opened, Matthew noted the crowds following Jesus as he ascended the mountain (v. 5:1). This pointed to the reaction of the crowds at the conclusion of the Sermon, “for he was teaching as one having authority.” (v. 7:29) This marked the first use by Matthew of the word, authority (exousia). There are several other significant uses of this word that follow (v. 8:9, 9:6, 9:8, 10:1, 21:23, 21:24, 21:27) culminating in Jesus’ declaration that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (v. 28:18)
The Hebrew word for disciple is talmiyd. It is based on the word, lamad, meaning to learn as well as to teach. From ancient times forward, the education system in ancient Israel began with a bet sefer, meaning house of the book, in which youths at a very early age would memorize the Torah. At the age of accountability, roughly 13, the youth would enter a bet midrash, a house of learning, where they would learn the interpretation of their master of the Torah they read and memorized as children. Beginning at this stage, the talmiyd was to follow in the footsteps of his master, to emulate the ways and mindset of his master, to become a representation of his master such that when people looked at him, they saw the master in him. This is how we, as followers of Jesus who are responding to his call, are to follow him. It comes with instruction in his will, ways and mindset. When people look at us, they should see Christ in us.
Some people, perhaps most, lead by virtue of their position. Others lead by virtue of their knowledge. I worked for the State of California for almost 28 years, the last 13 as a supervisor. I saw many leaders come and go. I am reminded of an occasion in which the Director of the entire department for which I worked visited our office. He was appointed by the Governor, then Arnold Schwarzenegger, to his position. On his visit, he was accompanied by an administrator who managed our division, but not the whole Department. So, she held a lower position than he did. We had a meeting in which the Director addressed the two hundred employees of our office about the mission of our organization. After his prepared remarks, it came time for questions from the staff. With each question, he turned to the woman who accompanied him for the answer. Her name was Deborah, and for each question, she had an authoritative answer. Before long, in the eyes of the audience, the Director faded into the background and Deborah stepped forward to guide the discussion. His was a superficial understanding, hers was deeper. Although he held the higher position, she led by higher knowledge.
This was a great lesson to me, reinforcing the idea that those who lead have to know something. It is not enough to be appointed to a position. When I became a supervisor, it was my business to know all I could about the work at hand, not just the mission at hand, but how to do the work of that mission, and to be able to pass that knowledge along to those I was responsible for leading. This is the task of pastoral leadership as well, not simply to occupy a “chair,” but to be intimately familiar with the will, ways and point of view of our leader and king, Jesus, so that the knowledge of that can be passed along to the next generation of leaders.
 Matthew is widely considered to have directed his writing to a Jewish, Hebrew-speaking audience. It had already become customary among Jews to avoid articulating God’s name. Jews today sustain that custom, by and large. So, being sensitive to this matter, Matthew used the term Kingdom of Heaven instead of Kingdom of God.