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Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Genealogy and Birth of Jesus —Matthew 1

Old Testament genealogies

Readers today would find a book that began with a long genealogy somewhat strange, even off-putting. But there are Old Testament books whose opening chapters are almost entirely genealogy, for example First Chronicles.[i] Perhaps this is why the church father Papias called Matthew’s style “Jewish.”
The first 9 chapters of First Chronicles contain a series of genealogies, which lead up to Saul, Israel’s first king in chapter 10, but reach their climax in chapter 11 and following, where David is introduced as the culmination of Israel's quest for a king after God’s own heart. In much the same way, Matthew uses this genealogy to introduce Jesus as the greatest "son of David" and the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan to save his people from their sins.
This Davidic focus of Joseph’s genealogy is reinforced by Matthew’s calling attention to the number 14 in the names (Mt 1:17). For the numerical value of the name David, arrived at by totaling the values of each letter in the Hebrew, is 14.
The genealogy contains the names of men and women, of Jews and Gentiles, and of faithful worshipers of God and unfaithful people. Jewish genealogies were mostly patrilineal, but exceptions existed at least in giving the parentage of a woman or her descendants (but not her ancestors beyond parents), see Gen 11:2922:20-2435:22-26; 1 Chron 2:18-21, 24, 34, 46-49; 7:24.[ii] Why this assemblage?

The simplest suggestion is that the gospel Jesus brought and Matthew was here proclaiming would break down the barriers between (1) men and women, (2) Jews and Gentiles, and (3) the respectable and the unrespectable members of society.[iii] In Matthew’s narratives we will see men and women coming to Jesus for healing, forgiveness and to become disciples. We will see Jews and Gentiles doing so. And we will see apparently pious ones like John the Baptist and probably Peter, James and John, and we see “sinners” like the tax collector Matthew.

Matthew doesn’t claim that this genealogy shows that Jesus somehow “inherited” faith and virtue from his ancestors, but that the checkered history of faithful and unfaithful Israelites and their kings was “fulfilled” by Jesus in two different but complementary ways. All that was faithful in Israel’s past was fulfilled in the life of perfectly obedient, perfectly faithful Jesus. And all that was unfaithful in Israel’s past was atoned for in the sacrificial death of Jesus. Joseph’s foster child was to bear the name “Jesus,”  because “he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus’ people are sinners, but they are also sinners who like Abraham and David look to the forgiving God in faith.

Son of Abraham

Keep in mind that Matthew introduces this genealogy—and the book as a whole—by calling Jesus—not just “son of David”—but “son of David, son of Abraham” (Mt 1:1). Jesus did not “inherit” in a genetic way either the goodness or badness of his listed ancestors. But by singling out two in particular—Abraham and David—at the outset, Matthew does seem to be saying that Jesus was the “son” of each of these in regard to either his role or his character, or even both. And I would like to suggest that in both cases Jesus can be “son of” the man by showing similarity to that man himself and being the beneficiary of God's promises to that man and his "seed" (or "son").

Matthew wants to suggest by the twin patronymic “son of David, son of Abraham” and by the genealogy, that—quite apart from DNA, because Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father—Jesus “inherits” (in the sense that he "mirrors") both Abraham and David in such a way as to prove by his actions that he was their son. Remember what Jesus once said to his opponents about how you can tell whose father a person has?
I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38 I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you do what you have heard from your father.’”  39 “Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. 40 As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. 41 You are doing the things your own father does.” … 44 You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:37-44 NIV)
Like father, like son! Abraham was famous for walking by faith in God’s promises. Jesus was not only the “seed” of Abraham through whom the nations would be blessed, but he was also a perfect model of all that was noble and good about Abraham himself.

But in the second sense Jesus was like Abraham’s literal son Isaac in Genesis 22. In that chapter God commanded Abraham to offer up his only son Isaac on an altar on Moriah. Abraham showed his intense love for God by being willing to do this, although God stopped him before he could slay his son. It was a test of Abraham’s love. But it was also a test of Isaac’s obedience and faith. Jesus was both Abraham by his faith and obedience, and he was Isaac by willing to be put to death as a sacrifice for our sins.

A third way in which Matthew may see Jesus as the “son of Abraham” is that the promise to Abraham that all the nations will be blessed through him and through his “seed” finds its fulfillment in Jesus who was the “seed” of Abraham. This may be the weakest of the interpretations, since Matthew doesn’t use the word “seed” here, as Paul will later.

“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;  I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3 NIV)

[God said to Abraham], “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you … 18 and through your ‘seed’ all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:16-18)

Son of David

If we follow the same line of the double inference of the word “son of” in the case of David, Jesus is the true “son of David” in the sense that his life often bore striking similarities to the life of David.

David similar to Jesus

As David’s son, Jesus was not just a descendant like all the others in the genealogy. He—more than any other human in history—brought to full flower all that was good in the historical David. We will see in coming weeks how many of the things that happened to David or that David did are repeated in a more elevated level in Jesus’ experience. Jesus was the culmination of Israel's monarchic history, the fulfillment of all the kings who had gone before, and the embodiment of Israel's hope. But he was also the realization of the ideal, of which David was an imperfect representative. Let us now just briefly see some of the ways that David as king prefigures Jesus.

He was also the son of David through Joseph’s line as the one to fulfill the promises God made to David in 2 Samuel 7.  Matthew is telling us that Jesus is the “son of David” intended  in God’s covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7. Jesus—by virtue of Joseph being his adoptive father—was in line to legally be king of Israel in David’s line. 

This is why Matthew’s use of the genealogy is unlikely to be simply an argument for Jesus’ right to David’s earthly throne. Keep in mind that, when Jesus proclaimed to his countrymen that "the kingdom of God is at hand," and himself by implication as their king, he didn’t recite his foster-father’s genealogy to buttress this claim!

If being David’s “son” implied being like David, how does Matthew see Jesus to be like David?

King without need of genealogy
Like David before him, his kingship was due to God’s election and anointing, not to having kings as his ancestors. In retrospect, we can see in the final blessing on his sons by Jacob (Gen 49:10), that the “scepter” would not depart from Judah. But there was no indication in the historical books from Joshua down to David that Israel understood that the king had to be from the tribe of Judah. In fact God through Samuel first chose Saul who was from the tribe of Benjamin. So David’s claim to kingship was not genealogical, but based on God’s sovereign choice of him as indicated by the anointing through Samuel. Similarly, Jesus’ kingship is due to God’s choosing him and his anointing by the Holy Spirit. In Matthew’s report of Jesus’ baptism by John a dove (representing the Holy Spirit and God’s anointing) descended on Jesus from heaven, and a voice indicated his election with the words:  “This is my Son, the beloved/chosen one, in whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:16-17). This—not his genealogy—authenticated him as God’s king, just as the same things authenticated David.

An anointed king who slew Goliath
Later in Matthew, Jesus was accused of being able to expel demons because he had a pact with the Prince of Demons, Beelzebub. In reply he pointed out that this would mean that Satan’s house was divided against itself. Instead, he observed, one has to first bind that strong man and only after that plunder his house (Mt 12:22-30). The meaning of Jesus’ statement becomes clear when we see how Matthew and Luke (Mt 4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13) show Jesus victorious over Satan, who is “the Strong Man,” before he began his public ministry in Galilee, where he cast out many demons. Consider the parallel in David’s life. David’s first test, after he was anointed by Samuel, was his duel with Goliath, the Philistine champion. Goliath was more than just a strong Philistine warrior. As their champion he represented them. The text in 1 Samuel 16 makes it quite clear: David represented the army of Israel, and Goliath that of the Philistines. Their one-on-one combat took the place of a full battle between the two armies. The outcome of the duel would determine the outcome of the nations in combat. In that sense, after David defeated and killed the Philistine “Strong Man”, his subsequent victories over their armies were simply a mopping up operation: the outcome was already decided.

An anointed king unrecognized, going about doing good
Readers of 1 Samuel together with the inner circle of Jesse’s family are privy to God’s secret anointing of David. But the nation as a whole is unaware of it and only gradually becomes aware of his fitness. His fitness is shown by the risks he took, exposing his whereabouts to the murderous Saul hot in his pursuit, just in order to help his own people defend themselves against the Philistines (for example, see 1 Samuel 23). 

Similarly, readers of the gospels together with Jesus’ own family and his small circle of disciples are aware that he is the Messiah, Israel’s promised king. But the nation as a whole does not know this, and only gradually becomes aware of his fitness. They become so, because—in spite of the criticisms generated by his miraculous healings, exorcisms, and teachings (for example, see Matthew 12)—Jesus persisted in doing so— "he went about doing good" (Peter's summary of his life in Acts 10:34-43).

An anointed king persecuted to death, refusing to use force to defend himself
Although David knew that he was Yahweh’s anointed, he awaited God’s own time for his kingship to be realized. Although he was persecuted by the man in power, Saul, even unto death, he refused to take up arms against Saul or to use force to gain the throne, even when his men claimed that God had given Saul into his hands in order to kill him (see 1 Samuel 24). Similarly, Jesus refused to defend himself physically when he was arrested in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:47-56).

And before that, he refused to gain the kingdom that was rightfully his without waiting on God to give it to him. How does Matthew show this anywhere in his gospel you can think of? Where was he offered the kingdom on terms he would not accept?

Matthew (4:8-10) and Luke (4:5-8) make that clear in their accounts of his testing by Satan, where one of the offers was all of the kingdoms of this world, if he would only bow and worship Satan, which of course he refused to do.

As in the case of the literal "son of Abraham," Isaac, so in the case of the literal "son of David," Solomon, Jesus showed striking similarities.  Like Solomon, Jesus was wise. As Solomon composed most of the proverbs and parables in the Book of Proverbs, so Jesus uttered profound wisdom to his hearers, often in the form of parables (Matthew 13). 

A Perfect Introduction to Matthew's Narrative

We couldn't ask for a better introduction to Matthew's narrative about Jesus than this. We have been tipped off right at the beginning of the story to what we should look for in it. We should look for Jesus as a Man of Faith, a King who is known by his inner circle but rejected by most of his countrymen, who goes about doing good and healing, who will be persecuted and whose death will be plotted and carried out, but who will (like Isaac) voluntarily submit, trusting his loving Father, and who will prevail, becoming the Victor over the Strong Man Satan, and purging the sins of his people. Matthew has mined the riches of the Old Testament story to identify many figures whose virtues—much magnified—were fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah. 

[i] Also Genesis. The genealogies in the Book of Genesis connect the periods of the earliest history of Mankind down to Abraham. The short genealogy in the opening chapter of the Book of Exodus connects Jacob’s story (including Joseph) with the time of Moses’ birth and the exodus. Other OT genealogies also serve to connect the descendants with their past. But perhaps the closest parallel to Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is found in First Chronicles.
[ii] The women in Jesus’ genealogy may have been given only to specify how the line descended when the husband had more than one wife. This was certainly true in the case of David and might have been the case with Boaz and with Rahab’s husband.
[iii] Of the many other suggestions—all of which have seeming exceptions—the other plausible one is that they are all Gentiles who had joined Israel, and are therefore converts to Israel’s faith. There is slight evidence for this for all of them—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba—but it is strongest with Rahab who betrayed her city of Jericho to enable Israel to enter the land, and Ruth who left her homeland Moab in order for Naomi’s God to become her own God. This fits Matthew’s emphasis on the openness of the gospel to the gentiles, but it doesn’t explain why all four are gentile women, not just loyal male converts.  It also presumes that Uriah the Hittite could not have married an Israelite girl name Bathsheba.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Yom Yom is active again

Hi again!
You may or may not have missed my Bible study blog over the past—almost a year, I think! But I have missed you, and missed writing it. I won't go into all the details now. But those who live in the Chicago area or are close to my family know that we have been heavily involved in selling one house and buying a smaller, one-storey one, and paring down our possessions for the move, and making it. Whew! Just talking about it exhausts me! The upshot is, that now we are relatively settled, and I have re-established my schedule of work on various projects. The decks are cleared, and I am eager to do some serious Bible study again with whomever wants to follow along.

As many of you know, Bible study isn't just about accumulating facts, as intriguing and fascinating as that can be. It is about deepening our knowledge of the God who wrote the Bible, and about disciplining our lives to be His good disciples. This takes a great deal of commitment. 

As in some of our past studies, this one is also being pursued simultaneously by the choir Bible study group of the church Wini and I attend. I wish it were possible for each of you to meet and get to know the others. I am probably the only one who knows you all. And it is my privilege and joy to do so. 

Well, let me get to the main point of today's posting. What will we be studying together? I have chosen one of the gospels. It is one that I have not taught for—I think—over ten years at least. It is the Gospel according to Matthew. The early Church decided to put it at the very beginning of the New Testament for a good reason. The man whom God used to compose it, Matthew, or Levi as he is sometimes called, was a "tax collector" by trade, which meant he was very organized and efficient. He had a mind for facts and figures and an excellent memory. On top of that, because he was in the profession of tax-collection, he knew shorthand and could take brief notes of what Jesus said or did quickly and accurately.  He was one of the original Twelve disciples chosen by Jesus and probably an eyewitness himself of much of the events he records, but whatever he himself did not see or recall he collected from the material in the Gospel of Mark which appeared earlier than Matthew's own Gospel.
Since Matthew's gospel is long—28 chapters—we will require over a year to work through it, one lesson per week, with a summer break. 

Some of you, who like to plan ahead, may want to have some idea of what I intend to cover in the upcoming weekly postings. So here is just a general overview.

Last Sunday in the choir study group I gave a brief introduction to the Gospel of Matthew. So I have appended that here.

This coming Sunday afternoon I will post my study of the first chapter of Matthew. We will then continue at a pace of no more than one chapter per week, sometimes taking one chapter's material over a two-week period.  By the time we break from Matthew for the summer months (around the first of June), we will have studied the first 10 (possibly 11) chapters of the total of 28. Then we will resume in the fall and continue through to the following June, when we will have completed the study.

So welcome to the group! And now here (below) is the gist of what I taught last Sunday by way of introduction.

How is Matthew Distinctive?   
Why are we told some things and not others in the four canonical gospels? The great biblical scholar Alfred Edersheim, who was also a Jew who had come to believe in Jesus as his Messiah, said it well:

[T]he design of the Gospels was manifestly not to furnish a biography of Jesus the Messiah, but, in organic connection with the Old Testament, to tell the history of the long-promised establishment of the Kingdom of God upon earth.

“Why,“ we may ask, “does each of the four gospel writers omit some stories that are in others and include other events not in the others? And why does each follow his own order of events, except for the main events? Is this merely in order to express their own individuality? Or are they writing for different audiences?" 

It is quite fashionable nowadays in scholarly circles to think that each gospel was not so much a product of a single author as of a single church or ”community,” and that the “gospel” that is produced is more of a statement of faith of that community, defining itself over against differing groups, often in a rather polemic way and by representing its own unique views as stemming from the Founder, in this case Jesus. Therefore much of what each community produces as the deeds and sayings of Jesus is rather a reflection of the distinctive history and beliefs of that community. 

It follows that there is much in each gospel that does not represent authentic deeds and sayings of Jesus. To make such inventions less reprehensible to today’s audience, scholars like these maintain that the new “sayings” were uttered by local Christian prophets in the name of the risen Jesus and were therefore considered legitimate to read back into the earthly ministry of Jesus. These scholars read the gospel accounts not with any hope of learning about the historical Jesus, but in order to learn about four of the earliest communities of Christians. 

Such a conception may appeal to some scholars, even paralleling in their thinking the authorship of certain Old Testament books—such as Isaiah—by “schools” of that prophet’s disciples. But it departs dramatically not only from the views of biblical authorship held by Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, but also from the specific teaching of Jesus himself and the apostles, who always held to individual authorship of inspired scripture. For example, the apostle Peter wrote:
“knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21).  
Therefore most Evangelicals would reject the extreme forms of this view that Matthew and the other gospel writers were merely retrojecting upon the gospel narratives of Jesus' earthly career teachings that arose only within their own worshiping community. 

More likely each gospel writer wrote his gospel in order to fill a perceived evangelistic and pastoral need for information about what Jesus did and taught. His own location may have been the first readers, but just as Paul could write a letter to one church and ask that it be passed to neighboring ones, so each gospel writer expected that his gospel would circulate in a much broader circle, and not only among those already believers.

Yet, each gospel writer tells the plan of God in Jesus a little bit differently, because some of the four had a particular audience mainly in view. Most scholars think that Mark wrote mainly for a Gentile audience, perhaps even a Roman one. Matthew, on the other hand, wrote primarily for Jewish believers. 

Although Matthew could count on his Jewish hearers having more “background” than a raw pagan audience, he wished to correct false conceptions within the Judaism of his day, just as Jesus had done. 

In the Gospel of Matthew we encounter the following issues that the author treats: 
  • the meaning of "righteousness," 
  • the nature of the reign of God and salvation, 
  • the identity and roles of Jesus, 
  • the relationship between God’s grace and his demands, 
  • judgment by works, 
  • the extent of the Church’s mission, 
  • the role of the law in Israel’s history and for the believer in Jesus, 
  • the place of Israel in God’s plan, 
  • the extent of love, 
  • the communal life of the Church, and 
  • the nature of discipleship. 

Since raw pagans had no preconceived notions of what “righteousness” might mean, nor did they care about the relationship of the law of Moses to their salvation, these were subjects of particular relevance only to Jews.

Content Unique to Matthew
Since it appears that Matthew had access to Mark’s gospel and used it as a source, we will see the ways in which he adapted that material in order to convey his own particular concerns. We will see that he and Luke also had access to a source of the sayings or discourses of Jesus that Mark either did not know or chose not to use. And each used this source in slightly different ways. 

But like Luke, Matthew also contributed additional content from his own research. Some of Matthew’s unique content gives us some idea of the particular emphases that he wished to give tp the understanding of our Lord Jesus’ person, his mission, and his intentions for his disciples. 

Among these are the following:  (1) attention to Joseph's role as Jesus’ protector and foster father, (2) the visit of the Magi which hints of gentile involvement in God’s plan for the salvation of the lost, (3) Jesus' stay in Egypt as an infant and its connection with the typology of Jesus as a personification of Israel, (4) Herod's massacre of the children of Bethlehem and the comparison it evokes with David’s persecution by Saul, (5) the Sermon on the Mount and its suggestion of Jesus as the new Moses, (6) the Transfiguration, (7) and the Olivet Discourse, comparing Jesus both with Moses’ farewell discourses and with OT prophets of the End-Time.

Among the particular emphases of Matthew in his presentation of Jesus are:

The Kingdom and Kingship of Jesus. This emphasis is present from the very first chapter, where the genealogy of Joseph, the foster-father and therefore legal father of Jesus, is given, showing him to be descended from the royal line of King David. Then, at the time of Jesus' birth, pagan scholars from the East see a star that portends the birth of a king of the Jews, leading them to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem and inquire as to his whereabouts. When Jesus announces "the kingdom of God is near," he clearly  implies that he is the King in person, and in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount he proclaims the "constitution" or law of his kingdom, and does so with an authority which contemporary teachers of the law of Moses did not have.

The Fulfillment of OT Prophecy in Jesus. Much more often than the other three gospel writers, Matthew identifies events in Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection as fulfilling specific, quoted prophecies from the Old Testament.

Jesus as Expounder and Expander of Torah. Far from rejecting the Torah of God given through Moses, Jesus taught it correctly and sought to protect it from false interpretations imposed upon it by some religious leaders in Israel in his own day. His interpretations were not all unique. Some can be found in other Jewish teachers of his time. But most of them show a striking originality and profound understanding of the heart of the Torah. An indication of the confident originality and authority of his teachings is evident in the phrases often found in the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard how it is said … but I say to you …"

Jesus as Personification of Israel. Jesus was not only a loyal Jew and a protector of his people's heritage as the chosen people of God. He was also the very embodiment of the ideal that God intended for Israel in the Old Testament. So that Matthew, unlike the other three gospel writers, highlights ways in which Jesus appears to represent Israel itself as God intended her to be.  We see this in several places, but chiefly in Matthew chapter 2, where Herod tries to kill the infant Jesus, as the pharaoh of the exodus tried to eradicate Israel by killing all the boy babies, and where Matthew describes Joseph’s bringing Jesus back from Egypt after the death of Herod by quoting the prophet Hosea’s words “out of Egypt have I called my son,” which refer to Israel’s exodus from Egypt.  Matthew wishes us to see in Jesus the achievement of what God intended in Israel, the perfect obedient Son. 

Jesus as Founder of the Church. Jesus came to call God's chosen people Israel to repentance and to faith in himself as the promised Messiah and King. But, also in accordance with promises in the Hebrew Bible, he came to call to faith and to incorporation in the people of God, Gentiles.  And because it was predicted that many among the Jewish people would not accept him, thus excluding themselves from God's people, there would arise a new community of the Messiah, showing both continuity with Israel and distinctiveness. In Matthew chapter 16 Jesus told his disciples that  "… I will build my Church" (Matt. 16). "Will" is a future tense. The building would not begin until Jesus had died and risen again, and until the Holy Spirit would descend upon the community of believers in Acts chapter 2. The English word "church" sounds very un-Jewish to most of us. But the Hebrew or Aramaic word Jesus used, and the Greek equivalent that Matthew used to translate it, is right at home in the Greek translation of the Old Testament as a designation of Israel herself. It means a community of obedient worshipers, which is what Jesus meant when he spoken of building "my community of obedient worshipers," my "church."

Of the four gospels, Matthew's shows is organized and presented in a way that is easiest to learn. The sequence of events and teachings is not chronological, but topical. And, having a good mind for numbers, Matthew often remembered ways in which Jesus used groups of teachings, in threes, and fives and sevens. This he passed along, so that future disciples of Jesus could remember them in these groups. 

From beginning to end, Matthew's gospel stresses the need for believers in Jesus to be "learners," that is "disciples." In Jesus' final command to his apostles in chapter 28, he tells them not just to spread the gospel to the nations, but to "make disciples" out of all nations. 

As we read and study it this winter and spring, let us commit ourselves to do so as Jesus disciples, learning from each chapter and verse how to follow Him.