Matthew 1:18-25, The Genesis of Jesus Christ

[December 22, 2013] Today is the last Sunday of Advent and this year our text is the second half of Matthew chapter one. It is the narrative description of the first half, which, as all are familiar with the New Testament know, is: “The roll of the genealogy [genesis] of Jesus Christ …” Verse 18 begins, “The genesis of Jesus Christ was thus.”

When we read through the genealogy we come at last to verse 16 where the pattern changes. For generation after generation, we read, so-and-so begat (was the father of) so-and-so. Verse 16 begins in the same way, “and Jacob begat Joseph,” but then continues, who is “the husband of Mary; of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.” In other words, the genealogy only goes up to Joseph. Joseph does not beget Jesus. He is the husband of Mary who gives birth to Him.

What the rest of the chapter shows is how Joseph legally adopts the Child of Mary as his own, making Him his legal Heir. “You must name Him,” the angel of YHWH says in verse 21, and in verse 25 Matthew tells us, “and he named Him Jesus.” This happened at Jesus’ circumcision (Luke 2:21) at which Jesus formally became Joseph’s Son. As Joseph was the son of David, so now is Jesus, not by biological but by legal descent.

Matthew is at pains to establish at the very beginning of his gospel that Jesus is the “Son of David,” the Heir to the throne of David, for otherwise the title of “Christ” (Messiah) cannot belong to Him. His legal descent is enough to qualify Him and is perhaps all that matters. We are not told of Mary’s descent.

Christ, as we all know, is a title, not a name. “Christ” is the English transliteration of the Greek word Christos, which translates the Hebrew word Mashiach, which is transliterated into the English word Messiah. It means “anointed one” and refers to the ritual of consecrating someone for a task by pouring oil on their head. In the Old Testament, prophets, priests and kings were thus anointed. The word came to refer to “The Coming One,” a King in the line of David who would restore both kingdoms of Israel and establish and rule the Kingdom of God during the Messianic Age as promised by God in the Scriptures (in the Torah, the Prophets and the Psalms). Not only were people expecting the coming of a King in the line of David, they were also expecting a Priest like Aaron and a Prophet like Moses or Elijah. While Jesus identifies John the Baptist with Elijah in Matthew 16:10-13, Jesus Himself is the Prophet par none; and upon His ascension He is a High Priest greater than Aaron (“You are a priest forever of the order of Melchizedek,” Psalm 110:4). When Matthew says Jesus Christ he is apparently referring to Jesus’ kingly role.

Jesus was anointed by God at His baptism. So, though entitled Christ from His birth, He technically did not become the Christ until His baptism when the Holy Spirit came upon Him, anointing Him for the work which God had given Him to do (Luke 4:18).

So Matthew opens the words of the New Testament with, “Roll of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.” Matthew’s gospel too is the first one written. As far as Matthew was concerned, it was the only gospel. It was important then for him to establishes this at the very beginning of his narrative of the “Good News,” the Gospel, good-spell, or good story, the eu-angellos. It connects Jesus to the hopes of the people of Israel, in particular, the people of the Jews, the descendants of the Kingdom of Judah. Anyone who misses this point misses the Gospel. There is no Gospel without the Old Testament and without the Jewish people (and the people of Israel). This is as true today as it was then.

Matthew tells the story of Jesus in connection to the people of Israel. He tells how the gentiles are included, but the gentiles are included in the hopes of the people of Israel. Never does Christ turn from the people of Israel to the gentiles. When the gentiles come to believe—whether in the gospel itself or at the time Matthew wrote, and it is still true today—they come to believe in the God of Israel. The Messiah, the Christ, is the Messiah of Israel. This is the One whom the gentiles come to believe. In the first century of the church, any outsider would have seen this. The gentiles who came to believe in Jesus, forsook their idols and turned to the god of Israel and adopted the Jewish Scriptures as their own. Some of them became Jews by the rite of circumcision, others did not; nevertheless, these others clung to the synagogue—if possible—where the Jewish Scriptures were kept and read and studied. They were more than the “god-fearers,” gentiles who attended synagogue but still kept their idols. They were “god-fearers” except they went further, they gave up their idols. And they believed that the promises of God to Israel belonged to them too insofar as they belonged to Israel’s Messiah. They believed that the Messiah of Israel had called them as much as He had called Jews, and that they too belonged to the Messiah’s qahal (assembly) that anticipated His coming Kingdom and awaited its arrival. But for Matthew there is no question that the call to the gentiles takes place always within the context of God’s relationship to Israel.

Caveat: even in the fulfillment of the promises, Israel always has a special relationship to God (a covenant) that the gentile believers in Israel’s Messiah do not share. To the Israelites belongs the promise of the land of Israel (when the promise is fulfilled; this promise does not entitle them to the land before God gives it to them, except where it is legal and ethical for them to have it) and of descendants. These promises, given originally to Abraham, are fulfilled for the gentiles in the Messiah Himself. He becomes their Promised Land, and He the Seed of Abraham Who is multiplied in them, who are called out of every nation of the world. For the gentiles (and for all the Jews who anticipate His coming in glory and believe in Him now) all the promises of God are focused on and fulfilled in Jesus’ own Person. This does not, however, exclude a wider more concrete fulfillment when the Kingdom comes. Israel and the nations will be transformed in a way that the church does not know at present, except spiritually.

This is all to say that no Christian can disavow the Jews and still call herself a Christian. The Jews may not recognize us, but we need to recognize that Christianity is not a separate religion from Judaism. The two religions are sisters, sharing a common heritage, and always belong in some way to each other. Israel is a sign to the church and the church is a sign to Israel. Neither of us has a future without the other.

This does not mean that gentile Christians ought to try to convert the Jews. There is no precedent for that in the New Testament. It is God’s affair, and Jews speak to Jews. The Jews believe in the Messiah, in the Coming One. They just do not recognize that Jesus is the One Who is coming. No Jew is abandoned by God because they do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Both Jews and Christians share their anticipation in the coming of the Messiah. When He comes, He will identify Himself. The Jews may or may not be surprised, but what the Scriptures do tell us (and Jesus affirms) is that when He comes, the Jews will welcome Him. For Christians, we believe He Who will come is He Who has come. I am not so sure that the church will be as welcoming when He comes. When He reveals Himself, we may well be those who attempt to hide from the coming judgment! They “hid in caverns and among the rocks of the mountains. They said to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us away from the One who sits on the throne and from the retribution of the Lamb. For the Great Day of his retribution has come, and who can face it?” Maybe not (I am not so sure).

I believe that His coming will be a universal manifestation of the spiritual revelation of Who Jesus is. (You may describe it as a metaphysical revelation.) It may not look like the artists’ depiction at all; which would in any case be more like a scene from a science fiction movie. While we speak of His coming in picturesque terms, we are using mythical or metaphorical language about something that will strike us all much more than if our images were literal, to the very core of our being. Factually (visually, perhaps), it is beyond what anyone can imagine.

Let us return to the text of Matthew.

The Virgin Birth (Matthew 1:18, 20, 23)

While Matthew is concerned with the adoption of Jesus into the lineage of David, he also makes this remarkable statement that we must not overlook: “His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph; but before they came to live together she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” The angel of YHWH reiterates what Matthew has told us, “She has conceived what is in her by the Holy Spirit.” She was found to be with Child by means of (ek) the Holy Spirit. Jesus was conceived without the agency of a male, without male initiative, without a male’s insistent thrusting. It is God (the Holy Spirit) Who is the origin of His being, His humanity.

When Abraham took things into his own hands, he gave birth to Ishmael and God was silent for thirteen years. Then El Shaddai—the God of the mother’s milk—appeared to him (Genesis 17) and demanded that he circumcise (cut around) the flesh of his foreskin—of his offending member—as “the sign of the covenant between Myself and you” (verse 11). Only then was Isaac conceived, when Abraham and Sarah were both beyond the age when that was possible. Not sex but male prerogative is put into question. Circumcision becomes a metaphor for circumcising the heart or for circumcising the “flesh” (meaning the body when it is treated as a separate thing from the spirit which gives it life, as an ideation of the mind, as if the soul alone could give life to the body, the “body” really only existing in the soul: this is what is meant by “flesh”). God insists on being the Initiator; God will not be displaced by the ego of men who insist that they be in control, that everything depend on them.

Mary conceives but without a male. She conceives by (literally “out of”) the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit took the male role and inseminated Mary. No. In fact, the Holy Spirit is feminine in the language of the Hebrews. The ancients thought that the male provided the seed and the female only provided the ground into which the seed was planted. They did not understand how Mary could have conceived without a male seed. They nevertheless insisted that it was so.

We know that it is possible for Jesus to have been an XX male (normal males are XY) with all the genes in the Y chromosome present. “A male born of a virgin would have two XX chromosome genes for each of its counterpart Y genes. Normal males would have only one X chromosome gene for each Y counterpart gene. This pairing would apply to each of the thirteen genes on the Y chromosome that has an X counterpart” (Frank J. Tipler, 2007, page 171). The probability of this happening is 1 in 120 billion, so it would be practically impossible, but it would be technically possible as a miracle.

In any case, we know that all of Jesus’ genetic material, His genetic code, came from Mary. None of it came from elsewhere (from heaven, say). God was not the genetic father of Jesus and did not inseminate Mary in that sense. Nevertheless, God was the one who took the initiative in Jesus’ conception. No male did and neither did Mary. The probability of her conceiving Jesus as a virgin is impossible (though scientifically possible), and therefore His origin is divine. He is the Son of God in this physical sense, as well as in the different theological sense. He was therefore physically the Son of God in time as well as eternally the Son of God. However, all of His material is human. Apart from sex, He was genetically identical to Mary.

In this sense He is more like Isaac, the son of Abraham, than Isaac is in that He is the Child of promise Whose conception depended entirely on God. Though Abraham was circumcised, as a warning against his self-will, he nevertheless still impregnated Sarah. In Jesus’ birth the male was completely absent.

Why was this necessary? What was God up to when Mary became pregnant? Jesus’ has His origin from God alone, yet His human integrity is completely intact. He is entirely 100% human, and His physical descent from the human race is entirely intact.

However, Jesus’ personhood has its origin in God. He is, as Matthew says, Immanuel, “God-is-with-us.” He is the presence of God among us and alongside us. God is everywhere present of course, but this means that God is personally present in Jesus. When we meet Jesus we are meeting God. When He looks at me, it is God looking at me. Or to put it another way, when Jesus says “I,” it is God’s “I” that is speaking. His “I,” which is conscious, is divine even if His “Me,” the self of which He is aware, is human (that is, it is His self in the field of consciousness that He has as a human being). His person pre-existed His humanity and became human. This is what takes place in the divine initiative. God, Who is eternal and eternally pre-exists every point in time, initiated and became the creation of the human being in Mary’s womb. His personhood is divine even though His being, His nature (this nature), is entirely human.

Where is His divine being then, His divine nature? It is, of course, everywhere. It is not manifest in any exceptional way, however, in Jesus’ humanity. It is hidden from view. The fact that His person is God is incognito in His humanity. It becomes revealed inwardly (not outwardly manifest) to those who connect in a special way to His person. Then they see through His humanity to His person and see that He is God. Nevertheless, His humanity is very much His own. It is inseparable from His person, even if someone might only see the exterior. His humanity is the humanity of His divine person; it is His nature, His being, as much as His divine being and nature is (even if it is assumed and not native or original to His person). In other words, His toenails are as divine as His soul and spirit, even if they do not yet share the properties (or perfections) of His divine nature—they will in His resurrection. These are subtle distinctions, but deviations from them lead us into heresies.

It may be that this is the significance of the adjective “holy” before Spirit. The Holy Spirit, as opposed to merely the Spirit of God, is the sanctifying Spirit, the Spirit that divinizes. In this case, it is not just the spirit of God causing a miracle, as an act of power, but the Spirit of God initiating the conception of God’s own person (the pre-existent Son of God) as this human being. The One Who will be born is holy, set apart from all other human beings (Luke 1:35). The Spirit of God is not called holy simply because She is holy but because She makes holy, She sanctifies and glorifies. Jesus as the person of God is holy as such (as the Son of God) but not yet glorified (which happens in resurrection).

God interacts with us as persons as a Person. Jesus is the person of God. So also is the Father of Jesus, Who is the one God. So also is the Holy Spirit; She is also God. God in fact has (is) these three persons, even though God has only one being, one nature. The person is in each case singular (I am face-to-face only with the Son, or the Father, or the Spirit, not all three at once), yet They are not three parts or modes or phases of God; They are each the entire divine nature; and God is these three persons at the same time, always. When we say Jesus is the person of God, we do not mean that the Father and the Spirit are not, or that God only has one person; only that in Jesus we meet the entirety of God in His person. When the Father of Jesus becomes our Father and we address God as Father, the person of the Father is the entirety of God. When Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is God Herself in person, and the entirety of God, not some sort of power of God, or a particular aspect of God.

“God-is-with-us.” As Matthew tells his gospel, it will be the story of God with us. This presence of the Son of God is highlighted again in the middle of the gospel when Jesus says, “For where two or three meet in My Name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20), and again at the very end when He says, “And look, I am with you always; yes, to the end [consummation] of time” (28:20). He is the reign of God in our midst, and when John the Baptist, who is preparing the people for the coming of God, and Jesus too announce, “The kingdom of the heavens is close at hand,” or near, they are referring to Jesus’ own presence now in their midst. The kingdom of heaven (literally, the kingdom of the heavens) is the kingdom of God, the heavens being a euphemism for the divine Name (although the kingdom of God has a broader scope than how Jesus uses the term “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s gospel, which is a little more specific). The kingdom of God is close at hand because Jesus Himself is near you, in your very midst.

The Gospel according to Matthew introduces Jesus as the coming Son of David, born like Isaac solely by the divine initiative as God’s gift, to become God’s own presence, the person of God, in our midst.

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