In our previous session we took a look at some of the people and institutions that we will meet in the Gospel of Matthew. We now consider the text itself. Cole Porter suggested 'When they begin the beguine'. Matthew suggests ‘we begin with the begats!’
Before we read them, consider for a moment Matthew’s gospel as a movie rather than a book. When you go to the cinema, you settle into your seat, the lights dim and often the first thing shown (after all the trailers) is the title followed by the stars names in great big letters.
When you see the names you realize whether or not this an important picture! John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Tom Cruise, Kirsten Dunst... so the credits begin to roll. Matthew begins his gospel with a list of credits that includes some of the megastars of Jewish history. Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah... the kind of names that would have his targeted audience of folk with a Jewish background thinking... hmm... this may turn out to be quite a movie! So lets roll the credits... Matthew 1:1-17
Matthew 1:1 An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations. (Mat 1:1-17 NRS)
In some cultures, and Palestine at the time of the gospels was no exception , it was very important who your family is. Your family tree said a whole lot about your significance.
Matthew establishes Jesus in a relationship with both Abraham and David. He constructs a family tree that allows for Jesus to be both Messiah and King. From Abraham Israel had inherited its sense of destiny. The promise of a promised land was first delivered to Abraham. It was through the seed (descendant) of Abraham that all peoples of the world would one day be blessed. God entered into a covenant agreement with Abraham that his descendants would be blessed by God. So Matthews genealogy begins with Abraham.
The next significant figure is David. God's promise to David was that the Messiah would come through his family line, the ultimate king of Kings would be from the Kingly line of David.
A third significant event in the nations life was that of their exile to Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem. God s promises to restore remained in effect.
Numbers had a significance to biblical writers. Matthew groups his family trees into 14 generations (14 of course being 2 x 7 and 7 being associated with the 7 days of Creation). So we read in verse 17, ‘14 generations from Abraham to David; 14 generations from David to Exile; 14 generations from exile to the birth of the Messiah.’
If we compare Matthews genealogy to that of Luke we see Luke also groups his family tree into groups of 7, (but in reverse order) beginning with Jesus earthly father Joseph, back to David, back to Abraham, back to Noah and right back to Adam. Matthew writes with a Jewish readership in mind, Luke constructs a history for a more diverse audience.
Matthew is concerned to immediately place Jesus within a historical framework. For the Jews their history also shaped their destiny. It mattered greatly to them not just who they were, but whose they were. The promises of God were passed from generation to generation. So here is Matthew beginning on a promising note; the promises made to Abraham, the promises made to David; the promises made in exile; see now... they are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
And so the credits have rolled and we move to Act one, Scene One, Take one... the birth of Jesus Christ, a passage that helped launch a thousand Nativity plays!
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Mat 1:18-25 NRS)
Without this passage (and the complementary accounts in Luke) we would never have the season of Christmas. We may never have had a host of other things too, such as nun’s habits, the celibacy of the priesthood and the veneration of the Virgin Mary... but that's up for debate!
All of which is to say that we are immediately in a controversial area. Mary is to have a baby through the Holy Spirit, Joseph not being the biological father. There is talk of angels and dreams, of mystery and unfulfilled prophecy. We could get caught up in debating theories of virgin births and looking at alternative interpretations, but rather than follow that road, it is more helpful to ask what else is happening in the text as we have it in Matthew.
Firstly notice the integrity of Joseph. This is a story of a man constantly wrestling with the unbelievable. We are told he was a man ‘who always did what was right’. We are given a glimpse into his love both for Mary and her child. However bizarre the events appear in the midst of them Joseph remains faithful to his dreams.
Secondly we note the name of the child. Immanuel = God with us; Jesus = Savior. In verse 21 we are told ‘He will save His people from their sin’. There is sense of destiny in the story even before the child is born.
Thirdly, although there is much that is hard to understand in this account its purpose is to direct us the uniqueness of Jesus Christ that was there from the very beginning. His place in the scheme of things is significant, both through His ancestry and the fact that His life is birthed through the action of the God’s Holy Spirit. He is a son of God like no other. He is a child born to be a King like no other.
As we move to the second chapter of Matthew, although it contains much about wise men and the continuing dreams of Joseph, it is mostly about the actions of King Herod the Great. It as though Matthew, before he starts to introduce us to the radical servant King Jesus Christ would become, wants to give us a picture of everything a King shouldn’t be. Notice how in this passage the events are linked to the Old Testament.
Matthew 2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."
9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazarean." (Mat 2:1-23 NRS)
Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers, increases the significance of the birth of Jesus be having Him welcomed by Gentiles and associating Him with their prophetic traditions. They bring Him gifts that relate to the life He would live, gold, fit for a King, Frankincense, a perfume of worship and Myrrh, a spice related to suffering. (The significance of the gifts is wonderfully captured in the hymn ‘We Three Kings). Yet this chapter isn’t really about them, but about Herod’s dealing with them.
And even though Joseph is warned in three further dreams to firstly flee to Egypt, secondly to return to Israel and thirdly to move to Nazareth, his dreams revolve around the actions of King Herod and the appointment of his successor in Samaria, Herod Archelus.
We saw in our first session that our Bibles feature a number of characters of the Herod dynasty. The particular one we deal here is the grand-daddy of the bunch, Herod the Great who ruled from 47-4 BC. His power came to him through his father, who was a good friend of Julius Ceaser and secured his sons appointment to Judea. However Herod wasn't the only son. It took much political outmaneuvering and the violent removal of all opposition before Herod took the throne.
As a King he was both brutal and decisive; punishing and executing enemies, rewarding friends. That was how he came to power, that was how he stayed in power. Staying with movie imagery, if they made a movie about Herod it would probably make the Godfather or the Sopranos look tame!
He would torture his sons friends to discover if they were plotting against him. He had two of his sons executed by strangling them. When his oldest son attempted to poison him, he put him in chains and left him to rot. Then, in his old age, he grew ill with an incurable disease.
It was around about this time that visitors from the East arrive 'asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?' (v2). In characteristic fashion he arranges a secret meeting with them to ascertain how to quell this latest threat to his power. Under the pretension of wanting to also worship him, he seeks information of the whereabouts of this new King.
In verse 16 we are told that Herod discovers he has been tricked and in a stroke of extreme brutality orders that all of the infant children under two years in the Bethlehem region are to be murdered. Matthew sees this as an event pictured by the prophets. Verse 18 'Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
This act of infanticide was just the tip of the iceberg. Historians tell us that five days before he died Herod had his own son, Antipater executed. Then he called all the leading Jews of the day in his territory to the palace, imprisoned some of them and gave orders they were to be killed the moment he died. Why? He wanted to ensure there would be people mourning, not rejoicing, when death finally came to him.
Knowing of this background we should not be surprised that when Joseph has dreams of Herod they turn out to be nightmares. Joseph listens to his nightmares and understands them as warning that he is firstly to get out of Bethlehem, and travel to Egypt and eventually to take up residence in Nazareth. And again Matthew links the whole story into the visions of the prophets, verse 28; 'There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazarean."'
Before introducing to the King of Kings Matthew paints a picture of what a bad King looks like. And the canvas upon which he paints is that of the prophetic utterances of wise men, both in the land of Israel and in the lands of the Gentiles.
If we were to give a synopsis of tonight's episode for TV Guide maybe it would go something like this...
As a hateful old King is living his last days in the splendors of a marble palace, a child of noble heritage is born in a stable. There, surrounded by the warmth of animals, He enters the life of a poor and humble family. After a series of unprecedented prophetic events the family settles in a small town far from the seat of power. He becomes a carpenter, living and laboring in obscurity for thirty years. We hear little of Him, until one day He wanders down to the Jordan river and encounters a true prophet of His own generation. Tune in two weeks from now for the next amazing episode of... ”According to Matthew”