[December 25, 2011] The passage before us, which I have chosen for this Christmas, begins the New Testament and sets the stage for Matthew’s presentation of the Gospel. For a Christmas meditation, it is striking in its affect. For more than anything else, here, Jesus is a King, and not just a King, but the promised One who would fulfill all the hope that permeates the prophets. While Luke focuses on the Savior and liberation and mission, Mark on the faithful One and steadfastness and martyrdom, and John on the “I AM” and the gift of divine life and union with Him, Matthew focuses on the King and the Kingdom and its demand for obedience. Let’s get started.
The Genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17)
The “book of the generation of Jesus Christ” refers, I believe, to the genealogy of Jesus in the first seventeen verses. Jesus Christ, we are told, is the son of David and the son of Abraham. We are reminded first of all of David and Abraham, and thus of the two covenants, one with Abraham and one with David. Each covenant was made respecting their “seed.” Isaac was the seed of Abraham, but was merely a type of the fulfillment of the covenant (the heir and sacrifice), the antitype being Christ. Solomon was the seed of David, likewise a type of the fulfillment of that covenant (as king of peace and builder of the Temple). The images of all four men, Abraham and Isaac and David and Solomon, are pregnant with what they suggest concerning the Lord Jesus.
The genealogy is Joseph’s. It is given here because, by Joseph’s naming of Jesus as his son (verse 25), Joseph adopts Jesus into this lineage. Jesus has no genetic connection to Joseph. Jesus is a clone of Mary, without any paternal genetic inheritance. Jesus’ belonging to the line of Joseph is legal, but legal it is. This is indicated by the switch to the passive voice in verse 16: instead of Joseph “begetting” Jesus we have Mary “of whom was born” Jesus. The virgin birth is presupposed. How Jesus came to be adopted by Joseph is explained in verse 18-25.
The genealogy is formulated to fit the pattern of three fourteens. Generations are skipped in order to underline the numerological significance, though what that significance is, is not clear. The fact of a pattern suggests divine intention and fulfillment. The number seven speaks of completeness, of which fourteen is twice, speaking of testimony, and we have three of these, suggestive of holiness and various enclosures (such as marriage and the Temple). Other possibilities also come to mind: ten plus four (four being the number of the creation) times three (suggesting the Triune God, Matthew 28:19). A rabbinical parallel that might have inspired Matthew is that fourteen represents half a lunar month. Abraham to David corresponds to the waxing of the moon (David being the full moon). From David to the deportation corresponds to moon’s waning and becoming dark. From the deportation to the coming of Christ the moon waxes again to its fullness.
Many things can be noted about the genealogy, but we will pass over these for now, except to make one observation: the mention of the four women before Mary. The one thing they have in common is that they are Gentiles. Tamar is considered an Aramean, Rahab is a Canaanite, Ruth is a Moabitess, and, while we know nothing about Bathsheba (perhaps for this reason, she is not mentioned by name), she is introduced as the wife of Uriah who was a Hittite. Their number, four, suggests the Gentile world, the four corners of the earth. By indicating them Matthew is hinting at the connection between the Messiah and the nations. The salvation and Kingdom of the Messiah extends even to the Gentiles, as Isaiah foretold and as is suggested by God’s covenant with Abraham, who would be a blessing to all nations.
The Adoption of the Son of Mary (1:18-25)
“Now the generation of Jesus Christ was in this way.” The word generation is the same as in the previous verses and in particular, verse 1. “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ … The generation of Jesus Christ was thus.” The book does not explain how Jesus came to be in the Davidic line, only that Joseph was the husband of Mary. The following verses provide this explanation.
The angel says to Joseph, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife.” Joseph is addressed as the son of David, for this is why he is significant at this point—he has the royal genealogy. “She will bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus.” Joseph names the Child when the Child is circumcised (Luke 2:21), thus claiming the Child as his own. “He took to himself his wife and he did not know her until she bore a son. And he called His name Jesus.” Thus Jesus is born of Mary when she was a virgin, though she was married to Joseph, and Jesus was adopted into Joseph’s lineage by Joseph’s act of naming Him, making Him his Son: so now Jesus too is a Son of David.
We want to consider the historical circumstances of the angel’s visit to Joseph, the significance of the other words that the angel says, and Matthew’s commentary about Emmanuel. However, before we come to that, let us put the question before us: why is it important that Jesus be the Son of David?
The importance of Jesus being the Son of David is that, as the Messiah, He is the heir to the throne of David, the King of Israel. Pilate calls Him the “King of the Jews” which is a Gentile title; on the lips of the Jews, He is the King of Israel, which encompasses the promise of a united kingdom. It is obvious why this is significant to the Jews. As entitled to the throne of David, He enters the City of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (chapter 21) and examines (and passes judgment on) those who were supposed to be the stewards of the City, who are supposed to recognize Him and hand the City over to Him. (Whether that was a practical or realistic possibility at that point is another matter: it was the theological significance of the moment). When the Messiah returns to Zion and sits on the throne of His glory, He will fulfill the promise made to David concerning his Son, and more significantly, He will fulfill all that the prophets attached to that fulfillment.
This is the significance of the Isaiah passage (7:14) quoted in verse 23. In the original passage, the words refer to the birth of Hezekiah when his father King Ahaz refuses to put his trust in the Lord. In response to Hezekiah’s faithfulness, God would deliver the remnant of Jerusalem, after He judges Israel and Judah, and will judge all the nations of the earth and restore the twelve tribes and a new age will begin. Yet while God delivered Jerusalem in 701 BCE through Hezekiah’s faithfulness, Hezekiah is only a faint foreshadowing of these great promises. Even Isaiah recognizes (in Isaiah chapter 1) that Manasseh was the opposite of his father, and in chapters 13—27 he shifts his focus on the weight of the Gentile “world” from Assyria to Babylon, Babel-Babylon becoming representative of the world (the anti-kingdom of God’s Kingdom), as it will continue to be until the Book of the Revelation. Hezekiah, in the canonical Book of the Prophet Isaiah becomes a foreshadowing of the Messiah. Everything said in Isaiah takes on a far more potent significance in the Messiah than it ever could have with Hezekiah, from the pronouncement of Isaiah 7:14 to the restoration of Israel to the salvation of the Gentiles.
It is the last aspect of the prophecies of Isaiah, the salvation of the Gentiles, which underlies the importance of Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah in verse 23. The Messiah will “save His people from their sins” (meaning Israel) and in Him “God is with us” is fulfilled with respect to Israel, but the salvation He brings extends beyond Israel to the nations. This is the most remarkable thing in the prophecies of Isaiah, and it did not escape the apostle Paul when he envisioned the mission to the Gentiles (indeed, he may have mapped out his work on the basis of Isaiah 66:19).
Perhaps, in fairness, we should not go too far beyond this in our interpretation of Matthew at this point. Nevertheless, Matthew probably did have in mind the mission of the church (the people whom the Messiah calls to Himself) to the nations and had in view in particular the mission of the apostle Paul (and others like him, if there were any, perhaps in the east).
The point here is that the Messiah, as the Son of David, is the Savior of the Gentiles as well as all Israel. Moreover, He is not just a king in an ordinary sense, but a King who carries out God’s purpose for the whole earth, who will execute God’s judgment on the nations, and who will bring salvation to the nations as well. The Gospel according to Matthew focuses on Jesus as this King, the King of the Kingdom of the heavens.
As King, Jesus requires obedience. We will mention this now because His kingship is highlighted at the very beginning of the gospel to introduce what will become thematic throughout the gospel. The gospel ends on this note: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and disciple all the nations, baptizing them into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
It will be important to pay attention in the Gospel according to Matthew to the question of authority and obedience. For, while the judgment of God is severe (we produce it, and it is extreme because our hatred of God is), the authority of God is exercised in suffering meekness. Moreover, while it is delegated—with its meekness—to the community, the community does not tolerate hierarchy. Nor may coercive power be ever exercised. Yet, obedience is still underlined, for to Jesus, His community is not what we would call a “voluntary society.” The fidelity that He requires is absolute, without compromise.
We find it hard to compromise with each other, but the obedience that Jesus requires demands that we die to our soul, our self-will. The lack of compromise that He requires does not concern that to which our ego attaches, nor does it concern our obedience to rules, Jewish halakhah or Christian “standards.” Rather it concerns our fidelity and obedience to the Person of Christ, which is an existential obedience to His living presence, the giving of our whole person to Another before us, an act of faith and love, and a finding of our own immanent center in Him (not, I repeat, in our own morality, righteousness, religiousness, or “group”), by His invitation and call.
“God with us” assumes the commandment of the Shema (to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and might) and signifies that in Jesus, as the Son of David, God’s Personal presence comes to us and is in our midst, indeed, is in the midst of us, as Jesus’ human presence through the Spirit by the eyewitness testimony of the Word. This is a consciousness of the divinity, not divinity as an essence (as we think of these things), but as the divinity is personally present and creates awareness of Itself and love for It in us. Paul already realized that the awareness, love and obedience created in us is the Holy Spirit’s own (1 Corinthians 2). It is the inner Trinitarian relationship, but—like the Incarnation, only in reverse—it becomes, by the grace of participation, our own as created.
The Gospel according to Matthew is framed by this refrain: “God with us” in the beginning and “I will be with you always” at the end. To highlight this refrain, in the middle Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered together into My name, there am I in the midst of them.” As we approach this gospel concerning the Kingdom, let this motif guide us.