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

Galatians 1:3-5: The What and Why of Our Salvation

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Galatians 1:3-5 contains one of the most succinct, clearest, declarations of the gospel in the New Testament. These three verses contain not only the what of the gospel (what God did to save us), but the why (why would God choose to have mercy on us?).

Paul says in verses 3-5:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Notice here that Paul focuses on what God did to save us, and why he did it. So first, what did God do to save us? Paul says God saved us by giving Christ as a sacrifice for us. Jesus “gave himself for our sins”, is what Paul said. Second, Paul tells us why God saved us. God saved us because he mercifully willed to save us, and all to his glory.

What Paul is trying to highlight here is that our salvation is both from God and for God. All of salvation is from him, and consequently not from us.

God willed to save us, not because of foreseen merit, but simply because he chose to do so! And he saved us through Christ — we weren’t saved because of anything that we did (or didn’t do). We were saved because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He is the basis of our salvation.

And because of this, it is all for God’s glory! Do you see the beauty in what God did to save us, and why he did it?

Timothy Keller gives some great insights on this passage. He says,

What Jesus did: How did Jesus rescue us? He “gave himself for our sins” (v. 4a). He made a sacrifice which was substitutionary in nature. The word “for” means “on behalf of” or “in place of”. Substitution is why the gospel is so revolutionary. Christ’s death was not just a general sacrifice, but a substitutional one. He did not merely buy us a “second chance”, giving us another opportunity to get life right and stay with God. He did all we need to do, but cannot do. If Jesus’ death really paid for our sins on our behalf, we can never fall back into condemnation. Why? Because God would then be getting two payments for the same sin, which is unjust! Jesus did all we should have done, in our place, so when he becomes our Savior, we are absolutely free from penalty or condemnation…

Why God did it: This was all done out of grace — not because of anything we have done, but “according to the will of the Father” (v. 4d). We did not ask for rescue, but God in his grace planned what we didn’t realize we needed, and Christ by his grace (v. 6) came to achieve the rescue we could never have achieved for ourselves.

There is no indication of any other motivation or cause for Christ’s mission except the will of God. There is nothing in us which merits it. Salvation is sheer grace.

That is why the only one who gets “glory for ever” is God alone (v. 5). If we contributed to our rescue… if we had rescued ourselves… or if God had seen something deserving of rescue, or useful for his plan, in us… or even if we had simply called out for rescue based on our own reasoning and understanding… then we could pat ourselves on the back for the part we played in saving ourselves.

But the biblical gospel — Paul’s gospel — is clear that salvation, from first to last, is God’s doing. It is his calling; his plan; his action; his work. And so it is he who deserves all the glory, for all time.

This is the humbling truth that lies at the heart of Christianity. We love to be our own saviors. Our hearts love to manufacture glory for themselves. So we find messages of self-salvation extremely attractive, whether they are religious (Keep these rules and you earn eternal blessing) or secular (Grab hold of these things and you’ll experience blessing now). The gospel comes and urns them all upside down. It says: You are in such a hopeless position that you need a rescue that has nothing to do with you at all. And then it says: God in Jesus provides a rescue which gives you far more than any false salvation your heart may love to chase.

Paul reminds that in the gospel we are both brought lower and raised higher than we can imagine. And the glory for that, rightly, all goes to “our God and Father… for ever and ever. Amen…(source)

The Paradox of Sin

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In the latter half of Romans 1, Paul presents a very intriguing argument for the universal depravity of man. He states that God has provided the gospel to those who believe (Rom 1:16), because the wrath of God is revealed against all men for their ungodliness and unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). In other words, because we are so sinful and wicked, God has provided a means for salvation. If he had not, his wrath would remain forever upon us.

In Romans 1:18-32, Paul draws out the nature of this wickedness that merits God’s wrath. It’s very interesting to see the paradoxical manner in which he describes our sin. 

First, Paul says that our sin is willful and knowing rebellion against God. In Romans 1:20-21, Paul says that though we know that God exists, we willingly and purposefully rebel against him. He also tells us in Romans 1:32 that we know that those who act wickedly deserve God’s wrath. So sin, in this vein, is a meditated choice to rebel against God.

But while Paul does describe sin as willful rebellion, in this very same passage, he also describes our sin as uncontrollable “lusts” brought on by our “hearts of impurity”, “dishonorable passions” and “debased minds” (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). Paul finishes by saying that if God left us in our sin, our sinful desires would enslave us, ultimately sending us to hell. So in this sense then, though we willfully disobey God (Rom 1:20-21), we are also uncontrollably bound in sin. Our sinful desires so control us that we become “filled with all manner of unrighteousness” (Rom 1:29). 

In this way, sin is both something we choose, and something that controls us. Sin is both high-handed and willful rebellion, and all at the same time, a slave master who causes us to sin. 

Edward Welch comments on this truth, saying,

In sin, we are both hopelessly out of control and shrewdly calculating; victimized yet responsible. All sin is simultaneously pitiable slavery and overt rebelliousness or selfishness. This is a paradox to be sure, but one that is the very essence of all sinful habits. If  you deny the out-of-control nature of [sin], as some Christians have done, then you assume that everyone would have the power to change himself. Change would be easy. You would simply say, “Stop it. You got yourself into it, and you can get yourself out”. There would never be a sense of helplessness or a desperate need for both redemption and power through Jesus. So this cannot be our position. 

At the same time, there will be other problems if you ignore the in-control, purposeful nature of [sin]. [Sinners] will be quick to place blame outside themselves. They are left with no way to understand their guilt. The redemptive work of Christ is replaced by an emphasis on “healing” that is not rooted in the grace of forgiveness.¹ 

For Welch then, sin must be personal and purposeful, and enslaving and controlling. And certainly, it is biblical. We are slaves to our sin (John 8:44). Yet, our sin is not divorced from our will. We choose to disobey. We want to disobey (Joshua 24:15).

More than this, though, God addresses our confusing sin problem with a complex gospel. In Christ, God provides an atonement through which all of our individual, chosen sins can be forgiven. But also, by the work of the Holy Spirit, God washes us through regeneration, replacing our sinful heart with a new heart able and willing to obey God. No longer do we have to obey the taskmaster of sin, but we are empowered to obey God afresh. And no longer do we have a record stained with sin, but a clean one filled up with Christ’s righteousness. 

We have a paradoxical sin problem. But we also have a multi-faceted gospel solution. And we can be made new in Christ.

¹ Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave, Edward Welch

What God thinks of us in Christ

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When we are given new life in Christ, it is not as though we are merely forgiven, being given a second chance. It is not as though we are given a clean slate. It is not that God removes his wrath toward us until we go and sin again. It is not that God reluctantly acquits us, and sends us away. It is much, much more than that.

To be sure, we are forgiven, and our debt of sin is cancelled (Col 2:14). But this is only one side of what we experience in Christ. This is only one aspect of what happens when we are baptized into him (Rom 6). In fact, when we receive Christ’s death for ours, and his life for ours, we are given the entire life of Christ. All of it. We are given his righteousness (1 Cor 1:30). We are given his resurrected life (Col 3:3). We are given his victory and reign over sin and death (Col 3:1). We are given all that he has; everything that is his becomes marvelously ours: “the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours [in Christ]” (1 Cor 3:21-23)!

In Christ is not only the forgiveness of sin, but the bestowal of all of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. And this means that when God looks upon us in Christ, he no longer sees us according to our sin. He no longer sees us according to our mistakes. He no longer sees us according to our weaknesses. When he looks upon the sinner in Christ, he sees the perfect righteousness of Christ, and says, “My beloved son (daughter) in whom I am well pleased!” (Mt 3:17).

And as long as Christ is alive, victorious over our sin, reigning in righteousness and new life, this is always how God sees us. Our security is eternally based on what Jesus has done, no longer what we have done. Our acceptance is based on the infinite righteousness of Christ, not on our grievous sins. God bestows upon us the highest honor and acceptance, because in Christ is the highest honor.

As Paul says, “your life is hidden in Christ with God” (Col 3:3). This means we should no longer see ourselves according to the flesh (2 Cor 5:16). We should no longer look upon our old life of sin, which has died with Christ (Col 3:9-10), but walk in the newness of life which has been given as a gift in Christ. Paul tells us to put on Christ, and walk not in the old manner of life (Rom 13:14).

In a very real way, the Christian life is living in practice what God has given us in Christ (Col 3:1). It is not that we put no effort into obeying God — but rather, we obey God because God has first given us the perfect obedience of Christ (Phil 2:12-13)! Our entire identity is wrapped up, summed up, swallowed up by Christ’s perfect life, his atoning death, and his victorious resurrection. Our life is his, and his is ours. This is the definition of what it means to be in Christ. It is the totality of what it means to be a Christian. Our life is no longer our own. Our sins are no longer our own. Rather, Jesus takes all our sins, and bears them on the cross. And, Christ takes all of his righteousness, and clothes us in it.

As Paul so rightly says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Solomon rightly says, “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (SOS 2:16).

Would that we could see ourselves as God sees us in Christ! Then we would despise the sinful things our flesh still desires, for it was paid for in full by Christ. Then we would desire the righteousness of God, for it was so graciously given us in Christ. Then we would desire to live holy lives as God himself is holy, for that was the purpose for which we were redeemed.

To live unto God is first to know that in Christ, God loves, receives, and accepts unconditionally. Then we are free to live for him, not to be received, but because we are already received.

The Gospel for Toddlers and Theologians

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Jared Wilson, from his excellent book call Gospel Deeps, writes:

I have heard it said that the gospel is shallow enough that it is safe for a toddler to swim in, yet deep enough to drown an elephant. We might also think of it this way: We teach our little ones how to read by first teaching them their ABCs. From there, they may move on to the basic principles of phonics. ABCs and phonics are scaled for little children to grasp the English language. But some people get advanced degrees in linguistics. Same category, different levels. The gospel is like that. The ABCs of the gospel work very well for people at all levels of their faith, including wise and old pastors and brilliant theologians, but it’s possible to explore the ABCs into their inherent complexity.

Although a small child can learn the basics of the English language, many people will nevertheless tell you that English is not the easiest of languages to learn. In the same way, even the simple gospel can be seen less simply. Suppose we use the template “God saves sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ”. We could go on point by point through that simple statement and find depth along the way. God saves sinners through Jesus’ life? How so? Suddenly we are talking about Christ’s active obedience, the tension of the incarnation, the reality of temptation and the reality of sinlessness, and the like. How does God save sinners through Jesus’ death? There is a wealth of truth there, and now we are on the verge of discussing the various theories of the atonement. And since the resurrection changes everything, we are ready to talk about everything when we get to it! What sort of salvation does Jesus’ resurrection enact for sinners?

What we are glimpsing now is how a wardrobe can contain a world.