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Opening Matthew's Gospel

Many people have questioned the purpose of the genealogies as they begin to read Matthew’s Gospel. Right from the starting gate, Matthew declares to us that His Gospel is a Jewish story, that it may be for the Gentile world as well, but the story itself remains Jewish. Matthew’s genealogy is in fact a short-hand history of the Jews in itself. Almost every character mentioned reminds Matthew’s readers of where the story has come from and, hence, where it is headed at this critical junction that we call “the gospel announcement.” The story Matthew tells in this genealogy is a winding, varied, and sometimes scandalous tale. “Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…” For those of you who don’t remember that story (see Genesis 38), Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. “Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab”, who was a harlot spared from the destruction of Jericho (Joshua 6:25). “Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse. Jesse was the father of David the king.” Ruth was a foreigner who married into the family of Israel by choosing, not only to marry an Israelite, but by choosing to worship Israel’s God. This foreigner, Matthew wants us to see, is the grandmother of Israel’s greatest king to date, King David. Yet, even this greatest king’s immediate lineage is marked by a scandalous episode where David murders one of his generals and steals his wife. This murder and adultery produced the next king in David’s line, Solomon. Nevertheless, David was Israel’s greatest king until the King that Matthew is about to introduce to us arrived.

The birth of Jesus is undeniably strange, but I think that Matthew wants to say to us that when you look at the winding story of Israel, leading up to this point, there have been many, many, strange occurrences along the way that God has used. Why should the strangeness of the Messiah’s birth surprise us? Many people question the legitimacy of the “virgin birth” stories, as they undoubtedly did in Jesus’ own day. In fact, that may be why Matthew tells us this part of the story at all. In John’s gospel, we hear insinuations made about the birth of Jesus: “We were not born in fornication…” (John 8:41 emphasis added). Matthew hopes to set the record straight. At least, I assume so. Whatever the case, I think Matthew would say (if you didn’t believe the virgin birth story), “no matter whether it was fornication or a sovereign act of God, this is the Messiah we have been waiting for and it is clear, through a glance into our history that God is willing to use and redeem such circumstances.” I think that Matthew would do this, but He is writing from a culture of honor and shame, where the honor of our Lord may be at stake. In such a case, Matthew may not be willing to concede the virgin birth as being anything other than the truth. But inventing such a fanciful tale seems hardly what someone would do if they were hoping to establish credibility. It seems more likely that this is what really happened and Matthew just adds it to the long list of strange occurrences in Israel’s history. Interestingly, nothing much hinges on this fact, so far as I can see. Was it necessary that Jesus would have no earthly father so that He could be “fully God and fully man”? I think not. That requirement would lead us to believe that Jesus was NOT fully man but only seemed like a man, since his other half originated from God, and no other human being has THAT advantage. (That statement alone betrays the fact that I have a preconceived view of who “God” is, and I am trying to make Jesus fit into that image, instead of the other way around). We may be reading into this story our own concepts of separating the “secular and the sacred”. In our minds, it is unnatural for God to cause someone to be pregnant outside of normal sexual relations. It makes much more sense to us that we would do the normal earthly stuff and God would do the normal “heavenly” stuff. But for Matthew and the other first century Jews, it would not have been much of a stretch to consider God being intimately involved with the affairs of His people. After all, why should sex produce children at all?! That’s just plain weird. Is the virgin birth really any different from the birth of Isaac through Sarah? Or the birth of Samson from Minaoh’s barren wife? Or the birth of Samuel through Hannah? If God had been intimately involved with the births of Israel’s judges and deliverers in the past, would it not make perfect sense that He should be so involved with the birth of the Messiah? Interestingly, only Matthew and Luke give any account of the virgin birth. Neither Mark nor John tell us anything about the virgin birth. It is possible that Mark did indeed include an account in his Gospel and it has been lost to us (much like the end of his Gospel has been). But nevertheless, the sovereignty of God did not preserve such an account for us. The point being, for Mark and John, so far as we can tell, the virgin birth plays little to no role in attributing divinity to Jesus. For that we will have to look elsewhere. But this is not all that Matthew wants to say through his opening genealogy… Matthew puts these names into six groups of seven names, with Jesus being the beginning of the seventh group. Seven is the symbolic number of completion in the symbolism of ancient Judaism. This is a reflection of their understanding of Yahweh, with Whom they believed themselves to be in covenant, as being the creator God who completed his work week with a seventh day to enjoy all that He had accomplished. In the creation story found in Genesis, Yahweh completes His creation project on the on the sixth day and rest on the seventh, but this is an end to the first part of the project, not a completion of the whole thing. As the story unfolds, we see human idolatry and rebellion plug itself in and wreak havoc on the creation. The human beings are sent into exile, and God is left with the problem of figuring out how to get His creation project back on track (since His image bearers have become part of the problem instead of the solution). The result is that God chooses Abraham and his future family (which would come forth from a woman well-past the age of child-bearing) to be the means by which God would restore the creation project. To Abraham was born Isaac, and to Isaac was born Jacob whose name was changed to Israel. Thus, Israel is called to be the solution to the problem of evil. But as Israel’s history unfolds, it becomes immediately apparent that this nation has the same problem as the first man and woman, and so they too are sent into exile. But the promise made to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob was that God would come and dwell with His people, He would be their God and they would be his people, and He would restore them to the land. This would be the end of exile. Matthew is saying, with the birth of this seventh seven, God’s long-awaited, promised end-of-exile is about to happen. The end of exile, the “one like Moses”, and the renewal of Israel to bring her to her intended destination are some of the key themes that I see early in this first part of Matthew. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t assume that these will be key themes throughout Matthew’s Gospel. And with that, we are ready, more or less, to plunge into Matthew’s Gospel.

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