Matthew’s Genealogy, Part 1: Abraham and David

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Introduction

The gospels are by and large some of the easiest and most popular books within the Bible. They are popular because, unlike doctrinal or historical books, the gospels are easily digestible and narratival. Mark, for instance, is just a short sixteen chapters, and moves rather quickly from scene to scene, covering the high points of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew is very similar to Mark except on a few points. One such point is Matthew’s introduction. Instead of beginning with the birth of Jesus like Luke, or with Jesus’ public ministry like Mark, Matthew makes the point to begin with a lengthy and quite detailed genealogy. For most in the Western world, genealogies have all but lost their significance. For this reason, NT Wright says aptly, “most [readers of the New Testament]…probably skip [the genealogy]. It’s exhausting, with all that begetting, but it’s also full of names that mean nothing to us”.[1] Richard Hays, commenting on Matthew’s genealogy says much of the same: “the genealogy may strike many readers today as nothing other than a dull list of names”.[2] However, for Matthew, this genealogy was not a dull list in any sense of the word. The reason the genealogy is not dull is because it is not after historical accuracy. Westerners so often associate genealogies with bare lists of names for mere historical purposes. However, genealogies within the biblical world were never used as bare lists. Even more, it is fairly obvious even after a cursory reading of Matthew’s genealogy, that it simply is not historically accurate. To be sure, Matthew is after history and his gospel involves real historical characters. However, he does not mention every name within Jesus’ lineage, nor does he even try. In fact, as will be covered, Matthew purposefully leaves out certain names and generations.[3] He even places in names that would have normally been left out! It seems quite odd that Matthew would do that. However, it comes to make sense when one considers that the purpose of this genealogy is theological rather than historical. As Nineham asserts, “the Matthean genealogy is a theologically highly-charged document”.[4] It is the purpose of this paper to argue just what kind of theological document the genealogy is. It is the thesis of this paper that Matthew’s genealogy is a theological explication of the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Israel. Put another way: Matthew is arguing through his genealogy that God has lovingly and unconditionally vouched himself to fallen Israel’s cause in Jesus Christ. Despite their unfaithfulness, God has bound himself to them irrevocably through Christ. In this way, Matthew is, as Pope Benedict XVI explains, creatively using the genealogy “as a kind of heading to the entire Gospel”.[5] Benedict continues: “on this basis one could say that the genealogy… is truly a Gospel of Christ the King: the whole of history looks toward him whose throne is to endure forever”.[6] To put the thesis more narratively, Nineham says,

The genealogy…witnesses to…the implicit conviction that history is continually subject to the sovereign hand of God, so that his…people [Israel] have no ground to fear, and the explicit conviction that the time of Jesus’ birth was precisely the moment when it could have been foreseen that “the time was fulfilled and the kingdom of God would draw near”.[7]

In a series on essays, I will examine the genealogy as header-gospel or promise-fulfillment through four steps: Matthew’s reference to Jesus as seed of Abraham and David, his focus on the Babylonian captivity, his reference to four women, and finally his theology of the virgin birth.

Abraham and David

The first detail to examine within Matthew’s genealogy is his explicit connection of Jesus Christ with Abraham and David. Matthew begins the genealogy by explaining that Jesus is “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1, ESV). Craig Blomberg says that Jesus’ connection to David and Abraham is “the main portion” of the genealogy.[8] Indeed, the entire genealogy structures itself around the characters of Abraham to David. This is to be expected since Abraham and David are main characters in Israel’s story. However, there is another character missing from the text, which clues the readers in to what Matthew wants to get across by centering his genealogy on Abraham and David. Richar Hays explains:

From the founding promise to Abraham there is an ascending movement to the Davidic kingship (Mt 12-6) , then a decline into exile (Mt 6-11) it is very striking that Moses does not figure in this sketch of the plot of Israel’s story; it is a story about promise, kingship, exile, and return – a story in which the Law of Sinai plays no explicit part. This does not mean, of course, that Matthew has no interest in the Mosaic Law – quite the contrary. Nonetheless, his narrative strategy of beginning with the genealogy has the effect of highlighting Jesus’ identity as messianic king, rather than as lawgiver.[9]

This is a significant omission! This is especially important because Matthew is known for his focus on Jesus as a new Moses. Matthew’s connection of Jesus to Moses is made painstakingly obvious as he details Jesus’ infancy story along the same plot points to Moses’ story in chapters two and three. And yet, here in this large genealogy, Matthew leaps and skips over Moses and the ever important Sinai covenant. One wonders what could be the purpose of this omission.

This curious detail has to do with the nature of the various covenants related to the characters of Moses, David, and Abraham. Michael Horton explains that “Reformed theology properly recognizes the crucial differences between different…covenants…in scripture”.[10] Covenants are key in regards to the Reformed interpretation of the biblical narrative. What is more, there are differing types of covenants that function is differing ways throughout the narrative of the Old and New Testaments. Horton distinguishes between what he calls covenants of law and promise; or “royal grants” and “suzerainty treaties”.[11] Horton explains,

The suzerainty treaty is akin t a contract between a greater and lesser ruler… [which involved] stipulations (commands) and sanctions (curses for violations, blessings for obedience)… However, the royal grant was a gift bestowed by the suzerain upon a vassal… Royal grants were an outright gift by a king to a subject.[12]

According to Horton and Reformed theologians, both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were royal grants or promises made by YHWH to Abraham and David/Israel. The Abrahamic covenant related to God’s promise to bless the world through his seed, and the Davidic covenant had to do with God’s promise to never forfeit David’s line; to provide an heir to David’s throne. However, “the covenant at Sinai certainly bears the marks of a suzerainty treaty”, remarks Horton.[13] There are stipulations, conditions, punishments, judgments involved with the covenant associated with Moses.

When one understands that Matthew leaves out reference to Moses, it becomes clear that he means to communicate that God’s action through Christ comes by way of promise and not by way of law. There is then, a distinction within Matthew’s theology of what Paul commonly calls law and faith: God’s actions in Christ come not by way of the law; rather, God came regardless of conditioned obedience, even despite disobedience because of his promise made to Abraham and David. This does not, of course, mean that Matthew has a disparaging view of the law. On the contrary, he highlights the Mosaic Law more than any evangelist. Nor is he saying that obedience to God is not important or needed. Indeed, Christ comes not to abolish the law, but to uphold it by way of a way new covenant. However, what Matthew means to highlight is that God’s fidelity to Israel comes by way of unconditioned promise. He has made a promise to Abraham and to David, and he refuses to be unfaithful to his promise; even if Israel has been unfaithful to their promise! Thus, Matthew’s focus on Abraham and David means that God has come in Christ because of promise and not because of law.

            [1] Wright, N. T. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. New York: HarperOne, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, 67-68

            [2] Hays, Richard B. “The Gospel of Matthew: Reconfigured Torah.” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 61, no. 1/2 (2005), 5

           [3] France, Richard T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010, 30

           [4] Nineham, D. E., D.D. “The Genealogy in St. Matthew’s Gospel and its Significance for the Study of the Gospels.” Lecture, The Manson Memorial Lectures, May, 2017

            [5] Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. New York: Crown Publishing Corp., 2012, 4

            [6] Ibid, 4

            [7] D. E. Nineham, D.D. “The Genealogy in St. Matthew’s Gospel and its Significance for the Study of the Gospels.”

             [8] Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992, 53

             [9] Richard B. Hays. “The Gospel of Matthew: Reconfigured Torah.”, 7

            [10] Horton, Michael Scott. Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, 12

            [11] Ibid, 12

            [12] Ibid, 12-13

            [13] Ibid, 13

What is Repentance?

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Icon of the return of the prodigal son

Kallistos Ware, in his collection of fascinating essays called The Inner Kingdom, has an essay on repentance. He explains rightly that the life of the Christian is a life of constant repentance. He quotes St Isaac the Syrian who says that “this life has been given to you for repentance. Do not waste it on other things”.

The Christian life is meant for repentance, is defined by repentance, and should not be wasted. “But what, in fact, is repentance?”, asks Ware (p 45). This is an important question, because the word repentance, or perhaps otherwise known as penance, is loaded with images of guilt and self-punishment, sometimes even self-loathing. “Such a view is dangerously incomplete”, Ware comments. “Grief and horror are indeed frequently present in the experience of repentance, but they are not the whole of it, nor even the most important part” (p 45).

What then is repentance? Ware explains:

We come closer to the heart of the matter if we reflect on the literal sense of the Greek term for repentance, metanoia. This means “change of mind”: not just to regret the past, but a fundamental transformation of our outlook, a new way of looking at ourselves, at others and at God — in the words of The Shepherd of Hermas, “a great understanding”. A great understanding — but not necessarily an emotional crisis. Repentance is not a paroxysm of remorse and self-pit, but conversion, the reentering of our life upon the Holy Trinity (p 45)

Repentance is not necessarily sorrow for the past, though it can include that; rather, repentance means to change your mind, to understand reality different in light of what God as accomplished in Christ. It is, before anything else, a conversion of the mind: in light of the work of Christ, I now see and perceive reality and myself differently.

Ware continues this explanation:

As a “new mind”, conversion, reentering, repentance is positive, not negative. In the words of St John Climacus, “Repentance is the daughter of hope and the denial of despair”. It is not despondency but eager expectation; it is not to feel that one has reached an impasse, but to take the way out. It is not self-hatred but the affirmation of my true self as made in God’s image. To repent is to look, not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become. (p 45)

Ware then boils down repentance to a continuing daily attitude:

When interpreted in this positive sense, repentance is seen to be not just a single act but a continuing attitude. In the personal experience of each person there are decisive moments of conversion, but throughout this present life the work of repenting remains always incomplete. The turning or recentering must be constantly renewed; up to the moment of death, as Abba Sisoes realized, the “change of mind” must become always more radical, the “great understanding” always more profound. In the words of St Theophan the Recluse, “Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance…

To repent is to recognize that the Kingdom of heaven is in our midst, at work among us, and that if we will only accept the coming of this Kingdom all things will be made new for us (p 46)

To repent is to see clearly the world in light of God and his action in Christ. To repent is to see the kingdom in our midst. To repent is therefore to see the world rightly.

Luther, who picked up on this ancient understanding of repentance, rightly said in his Catechisms that repentance is simply a return to baptism. By this he meant that to repent is to see once again — over and over again — who God has made a Christian to be. To repent is to understand: “God has washed me, cleansed me, united me to the death and resurrection of Christ. Behold, all things are new!” To repent is to appropriate yet again this reality. That is not to say that the Christian life is simply a bare mental exercise of remembrance; there is moral effort and growth in holiness. The point however, is that to repent of your sin is to return once again and appropriate the reality of God’s action in Christ; and it is a life-long vocation.

Praying in Light of the Resurrection

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In his new little book on the atonement and resurrection, The Sign and the Sacrifice, Rowen Williams explains five ways in which the reality of the resurrection changes the lives of believers. The entire chapter is a goldmine of insights, but I want to hit on one point that I believe is incredibly important: if the resurrection is true, our prayer life changes. Specifically, if Christ has risen and has already entered into the holy place, face to face with Father, this changes fundamentally the way we approach God in prayer.

Rowen Williams explains:

It’s far too easy to fall into the way of thinking of prayer as a sort of “storming” of heaven, a campaign: somehow we’ve got to get enough petitions together to make God change his mind; or we’ve really got to exert a bit of pressure on God to make him do what we want; or even, God’s a very long way off and we’ve got to make a lot of noise to attract his attention; and all the various other distortions of prayer that are around. But if we are being introduced into a new world, the place where Jesus is, then prayer is most deeply “allowing God to happen in us”; the Spirit bringing Christ alive in us, being int he place where Christ is real, with the Spirit coming into us to bring Christ alive in our own hearts (p 92-93)

In other words, if Christ is already at the Father’s side, prayer is principally not working our way up to God to gain his favor. It is allowing the reality of Christ happen within us in the power of the Spirit. It is being joined to Christ in his face-to-face relationship with the Father. It is being united with Christ by the Spirit in his resurrection reality.

This turns prayer from a work to reception. It is receiving Christ’s accomplished relationship with the Father and practicing that reality.

Williams continues by explaining that because of the resurrection, prayer becomes a Trinitarian reality: we come to the Father through the work of Christ in the power of the Spirit. We do not come with our own accomplishments, but

I come before God allowing the Holy Spirit to put Christ’s words in my mouth, to let my breath by breathed anew by the Spirit, carrying the words of Christ, and just let the Trinity be where I am when I pray (p 94)

If the resurrection is a reality, prayer is our inclusion through Jesus in the community of the Triune God. We belong, as Williams says, “in God’s eternity” (p 94). What a joy!

The Mystery of God by Robert Barron

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I have passed this little 20 minute video on to a good few people. This presentation is a synthesis of the teaching of one of my favorite living theologians: Bishop Robert Barron.

The gist of this video is that God is the transcendent cause of all being. As Creator of everything “ex nihilo”, out of nothing, everything rises from him, and is continued by his hand. This means that God is not a competitor with his creation like the pagan gods of old. Rather, God is the non-competitive cause of all things. We find our being in him. This means the closer God gets to us, the more alive we become! Hence, the incarnation breathes life into the world again through the hypostatic union of God and man.

Please take 20 minutes to watch this magnificent summary of Barron’s teaching: