St. Matthew’s Gospel portrays Jesus as the new Moses

Father John A. Kiley

St. Matthew envisions Christ upon a mountain four times in his Gospel account. Christ is taken by Satan to the top of a high mountain to be offered all the world’s kingdoms arrayed before them. Christ ascends another mountain for his introductory catechesis on the nature of the Christian life, the celebrated “Sermon on the Mount.” Again Christ and three select apostles climb Mount Tabor, the mountain of the Transfiguration, where Christ is glorified in the presence Moses and Elias. Now finally, Jesus invites the Eleven to meet him on the mountain of his Ascension in Galilee, charging them with a final commissioning to go out and become the Church, continuing the Incarnation down through the ages.

Clearly, the mountain is a literary device employed by St. Matthew to underline his understanding that Jesus Christ is the new Moses, the new Lawgiver, the new interlocutor between God and man, the new originator of a way of life. Moses famously ascended Mount Sinai (or Mount Horeb – take your pick) to initiate a new covenant between God and the Hebrew people. On that mountain, Moses met God personally, received the Ten Commandments from God, and then solidified the covenant liturgically at the foot of that mountain. It is no accident that the ancient Jewish way of life is labelled the “Mosaic Covenant” or the “Mosaic Law.” Moses, with God’s inspiration, truly established a way of life that endures in some quarters even to this very day. For centuries it was accepted that Moses personally wrote the first five books of the Scriptures, books outlining almost every detail of Jewish life. Even the secular world recognizes Moses as one of history’s great law givers, guiding and codifying human conduct for three-and-a-half millennia.

The final words of Jesus Christ in St. Matthew’s Gospel account are a brief outline of the new way of life that Jesus, as the new Moses, is proclaiming for the deliverance and salvation of mankind. First of all, Jesus claims universal jurisdiction: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Like Moses’ written words, the spoken words of Jesus are now binding. Thus Jesus declares a new law, a new life-style, toward which all mankind is destined. And no one is excluded from this new people of God. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…”

Like the Mosiac people of God, Jesus’ new people of God is a very practical establishment with rituals, instruction and responsibilities. Jesus’ new church is truly a way of life, a manner of living that touches all aspects of human involvement with God. Jesus instructs the Eleven to bring the Good News of salvation to the people, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The church of God under Christ has its liturgies, its ceremonies, its rituals. Here, baptism represents all those sacramental encounters that will celebrate and confer the new Christian way of life. The church of God under Christ will also entail instruction, a broader explanation and deepening appreciation of all that Christ has said and taught. Jesus, ever the rabbi, says simply “…teach them…” And, like the people of God in Moses’ time, those who are invited to the church of God under Christ are “to observe all that I have commanded you.” So, there are commandments, demands, responsibilities within the church of God under Christ just as there were commandments (actually 613 of them) under Moses in his day.

An outline of a church, an outline of a lifestyle, an outline of a way of life, can be easily discerned in this brief farewell speech of Jesus Christ. Jesus plants the seeds for the Church’s liturgical life (baptize them); for the Church’s evangelical, catechetical and magisterial life (teach them); and for the Church’s moral life (observe all that I have commanded).

And Jesus finally adds one very consoling and very Moses-like promise. Unlike the other ancient Hebrew leaders, a grave was never assigned for Moses. There was a tradition that Moses, even in death, continued to influence his people, to guide, direct and inspire them. Certainly, Jesus’ final words are uttered in the same spirit of unending advocacy: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”