Does Matthew hold to penal substitutionary atonement, a theological position clearly taught in the Apostle Paul and other places of Scripture? After studying and preparing to preach on Matthew 20:17-28, I have a great confidence to what I already knew: YES, Matthew does hold to the theological view known as penal substitutionary atonement.
In preparing to preach on Matt 20:17-28 at Cross of Christ Fellowship (crossofchristfellowship.org), I noticed that the passage before me had a very simple structure: an event is foretold (17-19) and the event is explained (20-28). God is so kind to help us in these ways by allowing us to behold an action and then understand its significance. We are given insights into the most important event in all of history.
The event is foretold in Matt 20:17-19 as Jesus speaks of his coming death and resurrection. This is the third time we hear Jesus directly speak about his impending death and resurrection in Matthew. The details given are precise: being handed over to religious authorities (18), being condemned by them (18), being delivered to secular authorities for mocking, flogging, and crucifixion (19), and being raised from the dead on the third (19). Here we have a clear foretelling of an event which is going to happen to Messiah Jesus, one we see take place exactly as Jesus described it when we read on in Matt 26-28.
Then, immediately after, we receive an explanation of the SIGNIFICANCE of the event in Matt 20:20-28. The explanation comes in the context of a discussion about true greatness, where Jesus shows that true greatness is found in taking the role of a servant rather selfish ambition (Matt 20:20-28a). We see Jesus give a statement at the end of the discussion that gives us one of most explicit and succinct explanations of the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection (the event explained in 20:17-19): “The Son of Man…came to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus knew that his death and resurrection had a glorious and dramatic significance, it was the event that would bring about the salvation of his people (something that was foretold of Jesus in Matt 1:21 “save his people from their sins”). In this phrase we see the concept of PENAL SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT. The language of ransom speaks of God’s deliverance, and in the context of Matthew we learn that what people needed was to be saved from their sins (Matt 1:21). So, Jesus takes delivers his people from the power and penalty of sin on the cross (see also 2 Cor 5:21); this is the PENAL aspect. We the substitutionary aspect in the language of “for many” in that Jesus substituted himself in the place of all who place their faith in him. And we see the atonement aspect here in that what is accomplished in Jesus’ death and resurrection is a restoration of a relationship with God.
Remembering this can instill greater confidence in the trustworthy nature of Scripture. Sometimes I hear that Matthew and the Synoptics taught a different message from John or Paul and the Apostles. But passages like this show that they all held the same view, though they used different language and occasions to explain it. Matthew held to the concept of what we would call penal substitutionary atonement.