The gospel of Matthew contains three major divisions set off by the parallel statements at 4:17 and 16:21: “From that time on Jesus began. . . .” Mt 1:1-4:16 introduces the person of Jesus Messiah, Son of God; 4:17-16:20 is the proclamation of Jesus Messiah, Son of God, to Israel; and 16:21-28:20 is the passion and resurrection of Jesus Messiah, Son of God. The specific structure of each of the three major divisions is discussed in the course of the commentary.
This structure implies that Matthew is interested chiefly in Christology and that he presents Jesus primarily as Son of God: (1) the divine sonship of Jesus pervades the first major division, which introduces the person of Jesus (1:18-25; 3:17; 4:1-11); (2) each of the three major divisions climaxes in the declaration that Jesus is the Son of God (3:17; 16:16; 27:54); and (3) the book reaches its climax with Jesus addressing the post-Easter disciples in his capacity as Son of God (28:18-20). The meaning of the divine sonship of Jesus is discussed below under III. The Theology of the Gospel.
In addition to this threefold division, there are other structural features that pervade the gospel. The first of these involves the relationship between Jesus and his disciples: Matthew repeatedly compares the person of Jesus with Jesus' expectations for the disciples. In other words, Matthew emphasizes the similarity between Jesus, as he is presented in this gospel, and what the disciples are expected to be and do. In terms of mission, the disciples (the church) are to engage in a ministry that is modeled on the ministry of Jesus (9:35-11:1; 28:18-20). In terms of behavior, they are to lead lives that are in complete accord with the kind of life Jesus lived (e.g., 20:16-28).
By means of this comparison, Matthew communicates two important ideas. First, the ministry of the disciples (and later the church) is, in a real sense, a continuation of the ministry of the earthly Jesus, deriving its power and guidance from the ministry of Jesus as presented in this gospel. Second, the Christian life is defined by the model of Jesus so that the good life, the life that is acceptable to God, consists of Christlikeness.
A second structural feature involves the relationship between Jesus and the religious authorities. Matthew repeatedly contrasts Jesus and these authorities. In other words, Matthew emphasizes the differences between Jesus and his opponents.
The theological function of this contrast is twofold. For one thing, by presenting Jesus over against the religious authorities, Matthew is able to show with clarity the majesty and righteousness of Jesus. Furthermore, the religious leaders serve as a negative model for discipleship, i.e., the disciples are to be like Jesus by being unlike the religious authorities. Thus the religious authorities, and indeed Israel as a whole, become representatives of disobedience and judgment. Believers must do everything they can to avoid the behavior and consequent tragic end of unrepentant Israel.
Another structural feature in the gospel is climax. The narrative moves towards its climax in the Cross and Resurrection and finally in the missionary commissioning of 28:16-20.