By Joshua Wester
New Christians or Christians who are trying to develop a habit of regular Bible reading are often encouraged to begin with the Gospel of John.
And I understand why: John is filled to the brim with exciting stuff. It begins with an epic prologue, and right away, you see Jesus performing miracles and saying challenging and provocative things. So, it’s certainly a good place to meet Jesus in His Word, and it keeps your attention as you learn.
Still, though, most often when I’m reading the Bible with someone to disciple them or to help them explore Christianity, I start with the Gospel of Matthew.
It helps them understand an ancient tradition.
For someone who’s unfamiliar with Scripture, it’s easy to help them understand that the Bible is broken down into two parts: an old covenant and a new covenant. Because of that, it also makes sense to most new Bible readers that the beginning of one of those sections—Matthew—is a natural place to start.
Of course, you could make the case Genesis might be a more natural place to start, but I’ve not had any real difficulty helping people understand that reading the 27 books of the New Testament is a more easily-attainable goal than the Old Testament’s 39.
While it isn’t terribly important for someone to have a detailed knowledge of the entire Old Testament background before diving into the New Testament, it is helpful to understand the New Testament is deeply rooted in an ancient tradition of faith.
Matthew helps us see this by opening with a genealogy. Obviously, a person with no Bible study in their background isn’t going to know (or maybe even appreciate) the names of descendants and ancestors. But even so, any person will immediately understand that Jesus comes from the line of a king, and that the story of His people begins with a man named Abraham.
That knowledge alone is really helpful for understanding the story of Jesus and navigating the contours of the New Testament. And throughout the rest of the Gospel of Matthew, we’re constantly reminded and informed about the Jewish faith and tradition Jesus was a part of.
It helps them understand the Kingdom.
The most significant reason why I encourage new Bible readers to begin with Matthew is because it immediately focuses their attention on the kingdom of God, which is perhaps both the most important and most misunderstood theme in the New Testament.
Matthew captures this theme for us in a particularly clear and helpful way (not that John neglects or is unclear about the kingdom theme in Jesus’ ministry). Of the 154 times the word “kingdom” is used in the New Testament, 53 of those instances occur in the Gospel of Matthew.
Matthew tells us clearly Jesus’ ministry was centered on the kingdom: “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17). And from there, Matthew records Jesus teaching about the kingdom in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount—especially within the Lord’s Prayer—and as Jesus does miracles and casts out demons and sends His disciples on mission.
One of my favorite places in Matthew is chapter 13, where he records the kingdom parables in which Jesus tells us what the kingdom is like and how it grows. And in the book’s final chapters, we see Jesus telling His followers about the kingdom they’ll inherit because of their faith in Him (Matthew 25:34).
It helps them understanding the whole story.
The final reason I encourage people to begin reading the Bible in Matthew is because of the ending.
Though it sounds strange to say, the Gospel of Matthew does an excellent job of telling the story of Jesus as a story of redemption accomplished by sacrifice. Jesus came preaching about a kingdom, but instead of wearing a crown of gold, He wore the crown of thorns (Matthew 27:29).
Matthew helps us make sense of the death of the King. He shows us a detailed picture of the depth of Jesus’ suffering—from His anguish in Gethsemane to His agony at Golgotha. Christians need this.
The Great Commission only makes sense when we understand the mission of Jesus. Because the Son of God gave His life to accomplish this work—offering redemption to sinners and bringing the kingdom of God to earth—He sends us out to spread the good news by making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).
There’s no “wrong place” to start when a person picks up a Bible. All 66 books tell one story, and all of it points in the same direction.
I’ve always been struck, for example, that the Holy Spirit used a passage on immorality from Romans 13 to open Augustine’s eyes to the truth of the gospel. Still, I encourage people to start with Matthew because I think it helps set them up for success by allowing them to see, in miniature, what’s being done across all of the pages of the Bible.
The desire for a person to even read the Scriptures is always more important than where they choose to read from. But I think for a lot of people, the Gospel of Matthew is the best place to begin.
Joshua is director of ministries at Redemption City Church in Franklin, Tennessee, and serves as the chair of research in Christian ethics for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.