Matthew was apparently a pretty straight forward kind of guy, not the sort to beat around the bush or hide things in elegant language. He tells us upfront, in the first sentence of his Gospel what he is trying to accomplish by writing. He says,”This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham…”, and then begins the begats.
What, that wasn’t all that clear? Sure it was. Matthew is telling us that he intends to present Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the fulfillment of prophecy, as the Priest/King of Israel. And to do so he starts, not as John did at the very beginning of the world, but at the very beginning of the Jewish people, with Abraham.
A great many scholars have weighed in on the genealogy to show its historical issues. For example, three kings Ahaziah, Joash and Amaziah who are recorded in II Kings are left out and there are no fewer than 4 women mentioned in the lineage (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba) which was not the usual practice in a patriarchal society.
So what’s going on here? The Jewish tradition was to cast their beliefs in the form of a story rather than as a proposition as in Western/Greek cultures. Think for a moment of the Apostles Creed where the first line is “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” This is a very western formulation, a proposition for discussion or debate. Now take a more Jewish formulation from Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth.” Same stuff, but now it’s a story, not a bullet point in a list.
Matthew is doing the same thing, he’s telling a story about the Messiah’s relation to the Jews, how He was entwined throughout the history of its people. I think He wishes to include by mentioning them, each of the stories represented by these names in the story of Jesus. Which of the stories has he selected that you find most interesting? Why does he include Rahab, the prostitute and Ruth, the Moabitess in this genealogy? What hope or reassurance do you find in any of these stories?
Then there is the matter of the 3 14’s, they must be important because Matthew calls them out in 1:17. Three was the number of Devine Perfection, so 3 X 14 generations. Additionally 3 X 14 = 6 X 7, right? So Jesus then begins the 7th 7. 7 was the number of spiritual perfection and 7 7’s was perfect perfection.
Its not that the genealogy is not really a genealogy, it is, its just that its more than that.
Then Matthew tells three other stories that, each in their own way, serve to link Jesus to prophecy and the Jewish scripture.
1) Joseph’s acceptance of Jesus into his household as a son.
This story shows Jesus as the legal descendant of Abraham through his acceptance by Joseph, but also the Sinless Son of God conceived by the Holy spirit. Isn’t saying that with a story nicer than the flat out proposition?
2) The story of Herod and the Magi.
Prophecy is front and center here. The Magi are told where to find the child by referring to prophecy. Therefore the prophets of old had as their subject Jesus of Nazareth.
3) The Slaughter of the Innocents and the Flight to Egypt.
Prophecy is fulfilled once more when at the direction of the angel Joseph takes his family to Egypt so that he can be called out of Egypt. And yet again when Jeremiah’s prophecy is fulfilled and Herod orders the slaughter of children under 2. And yet once more when Joseph settles in Nazareth when it has been prophesied that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene.
Throughout his Gospel Matthew is concerned with “proving up” Jesus’ credentials as the Jewish Messiah and his relationship to the prophecies of Jewish scripture. But what the heck does that mean to you or to me?
It means, first, that God did not abandon His people or His promise. If Jesus is the Christ, but not the Jewish Messiah, then God has foresworn His promises. But he has not. Jesus was first for the Jews. He was for their salvation and it was (I think) for this reason that Matthew wrote. Would you trust a God who went back on his word?
Second it shows prophecy fulfilled, but by the actions of God in history not just through some deterministic clockwork. Think about it; in each case where Matthew shows prophecy fulfilled God acts. The Holy Spirit acted to conceive a child with Mary, He told Joseph to accept the child, he prompted the Magi to come to Jerusalem with a star, he warned Joseph to go to Egypt and later to settle in Nazareth.
And third, our salvation, just like the fulfillment of prophecy, it is by God’s current actions we are saved. Not our actions, God’s actions. Jesus atoning death and resurrection is sufficient for our salvation, but God remains active, prompting us toward that salvation. God has not left the world behind with a take it or leave it deal without caring whether we will accept his offer. His Spirit is still here, whispering in our ear, like the Angel did to Joseph, urging us to follow Him or to follow Him more closely.
At this Advent season is there not hope to be found in the knowledge that God has always kept His promises to His people and that He has not left us to our own devices, but continually pursues us in love and care?