Matthew 1:1-17 Exegesis and Sermon

Posted: March 4, 2012 in New Testament
Tags: , , , , , ,

The book of Matthew is typically labeled a “Gospel” or the “good news” about the Kingdom of Heaven that has been inaugurated and made available in the person of Jesus.  Matthew is the first of four Gospels that mark the beginning of the Christian New Testament, which may have something to do with the early notion that it was more “historically accurate.”  The order has remained the same despite contention that Matthew’s Gospel is not necessarily the most accurate in a strictly historical sense.

The term “Gospel” alerts us to a particular way in which to read these texts.  Namely, these texts serve to proclaim something to which we are called to respond by aligning our very lives with it.  It is “good news” because it reveals God’s decisive, redemptive actions in the world.  Furthermore, it is “good news” because it is an invitation to become citizens of the Kingdom of God.  This invitation and revelation is issued to the readers by offering insight into the significance of Jesus’ birth; life, teaching, and miracles; death by crucifixion; bodily resurrection on the third day; and commissioning of the Church.

The singular focus of Matthew’s author on the person of Jesus has led many scholars to notice similarities between this text and ancient biographies.  These biographies are not identical to modern ideas of biography, but rather have the intended purpose of recounting specific events from a person’s life that represent the person’s “essential being.”[1]  Hagner notes, “It is increasingly realized that Matthew is a Bios (“life”) that bears sufficient resemblance to Greco-Roman biographies.”[2]

Other genres may also shed light on the intended purpose of the author.  Hagner suggests six other categories that may be suitable designations for Matthew’s genre: Midrash, lectionary, catechesis or catechetical manual, church correctives, missionary propaganda, and polemic against the rabbis.[3]  The various designations are not necessarily mutually exclusive and can potentially be combined to offer a fuller picture of Matthew’s intentions.  For our pericope, it is sufficient to say that Matthew’s Gospel functions primarily as an ancient biography or Gospel.  In other words, there is a driving purpose behind the content, structure, and the scenes that are included in this text.  They are all fashioned for the purpose of revealing to the “hearers” who Jesus really is.

The introductory chapter of Matthew opens with a “genealogy” (genesis) which traces Jesus’ family lineage back to Abraham.  However, this is no mere reporting of Jesus’ genetic heritage.  Rather, it is a very specific rendering of that genealogy, which gives us insight into the very person of Jesus.  For instance, the genealogy is divided into three “epochs” of Israelite history: from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian Exile, and from the Babylonian Exile to the birth of Jesus.  Fourteen generations are recounted in each of these epochs, with no little redaction made to fit this formula.[4]

Of course, when reading other genealogies from the Old Testament that includes these various lineages, one is easily able to see the significant amount of progenitors that are left out of the lineage in Matthew’s Gospel.  That’s not to say that the Gospel writer is being underhanded or deceitful or that they do not know the lineage.  Rather, there may be something specific being introduced by the divisions of history in such a manner.

A number of suggestions have been offered to explain the significance of the “fourteens.”  Without discounting other possibilities, one stands out as a strong contender for unfolding the significance of this division.  Hagner comments, “If we take the three fourteens as multiples of seven (i.e., six sevens), then with the coming of Christ we are about to enter the seventh seven, the period of perfection and fulfillment.”[5]

Another population suggestion among scholars is that the number fourteen references King David.  Letters could also represent numbers in Hebrew.  David’s name in Hebrew adds up to fourteen.  Thus, they reason that David might be in mind.  However, given that the text is written in Greek, not Hebrew, this is an unlikely proposition.

Bruner suggests the division of three fourteens might be best seen as a slanted “N.”[6]  The history of Israel begins with Abraham and the Abrahamic covenant which culminates in the golden age of King David.  However, from that point on, the history of Israel declines due to poor leadership (characterized by idolatry and unfaithfulness by Israel) which eventually leads to Babylonian Exile.  The Exile continues through the rule of various nations from Babylon to Rome, but is now overturned by the establishment of God’s Kingdom through Christ Jesus.

The geneseōs, applied to Jesus Messiah, would remind cultivated readers in the Roman Empire of the new ‘beginnings’ promised to the world by the Roman emperors, particularly Caesar Augustus.  ‘It is hard to say whether the birthday of the divine Caesar is more joyful or more advantageous; we may rightly regard it as like the beginning of all things, if not in the world of nature, yet in advantage; everything was deteriorating and changing into misfortune, but he set it right and gave the whole world another appearance… The birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning of the good news… to the world on his account.’[7]

The apex of history, according to Matthew’s Gospel, is found in Jesus who establishes this new beginning through the proclamation that the Kingdom of God has now come.

This history is rooted in the first name or event acknowledged at the beginning of each generation of fourteen: Abraham, David, and the Babylonian Exile.

In recalling stories of Abraham, David, and the exile… the audience learns something of the nature of God.  This God constantly intervenes in human affairs.  God took initiative in calling Abraham and selecting David.  God promised Abraham land and descendants and David an eternal kingdom.  God remained faithful to these promises even when both men failed.  Abraham and Sarah’s age threatened the promise, as did the offering of Isaac as a sacrifice… and the devastating experience of God’s judgment in exile.  Yet God remained faithful and acted powerfully to deliver on the promises.  Continually God guided Israel forward into a new future.[8]

God’s reign has been established and is being established “on earth as it is in heaven.”  In Christ Jesus all the promises of God are “yes.”

We are introduced to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: “Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1).  This is not only to indicate where Jesus comes from.  Instead, “’Son of David’ had become, by the first century, a title for the messianic deliverer who would assume the throne of David in accordance with the promise of 2 Sam 7:4-17 (the Davidic covenant), thereby inaugurating a kingdom of perfection and righteousness that would last forever.  Jesus is that promised Son of David, and already Matthew’s great stress on fulfillment is anticipated.”[9]

Likewise, “’Son of Abraham’ also carries a note of promise and fulfillment… The Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:1-3, etc.) speaks of blessing through Abraham for ‘all the families of the earth.’  In Jesus, through the line of Abraham, that promise is fulfilled.”[10]  In other words, the blessing of God’s covenant and salvation is not only extended to Israel but to all nations!

This leaves us with a question about the nature of God’s salvation.  Some scholars contend that God’s salvation does not entail geo-political realities, but revolves around the issue of sin.  Warren Carter notes:

To contrast ‘forgiveness of sins’ with ‘deliverance from political oppression’ anachronistically and inappropriately assumes a divide between the religious and the political spheres… strangely asserts that oppression has nothing to do with sins, incorrectly posits a monolithic view of messianic expectations, and conveniently overlooks a very immediate form of ‘political oppression’ in the Gospel’s world, namely Roman imperialism.[11]

For one, it does appear that the Kingdom of God is at least a viable, perceived threat from the Empire.  If Jesus were merely preaching about the forgiveness of sins, which did not antagonize the powers that be, then Jesus would likely not have been crucified.  Yet, Jesus dies the death of an enemy to Rome at the behest of the Jewish leaders.

The pax Romana promised by Caesar was in a constant state of threat.  Peace was maintained by the keen edge of soldiers’ blades.  Violence was not an unfamiliar method employed by Rome to maintain its tentative hold on its vassal nations.  Pilate is well aware of these pressures and fears an uprising, which would not put him in good graces with the emperor.  It is quite obvious to the hearers of this story that Rome’s idea of peace is more akin to oppression than true peace.

The subversive nature of the Kingdom only serves to highlight the differences between God’s Kingdom and Roman authority.  In Matthew 2, we see this on prominent display.  The poser king, Herod the Great, hears about the birth of Jesus and immediately seeks to kill him because of the threat to Herod’s power.  On the other hand, Jesus, King of the Jesus from the Branch of David, is the Messiah that comes in meekness.  He is defenseless as a baby.  Yet, Jesus is ultimately shown to have power over death, whereas Herod is ultimately subject to death.

In a similar manner, where the Jewish rituals and laws had become an oppressive system upon the people, Jesus offers them rest!  He softens the Law in some areas and makes them stricter in other ways.  Of course, the Jews don’t appreciate Jesus undermining everything that constitutes their power and ultimately plot to kill him.  This would have been wonderfully powerful material to read in the midst of such tumultuous times!

To better understand the context, dating the Gospel may serve a useful function.

For instance, the omission in Matt 21:13 of the description of the Jerusalem Temple as serving ‘for all the nations’ (Mark 11:17) and the reference in Matt 22:7 to the king burning the city may reflect the destruction at Jerusalem by the Roman armies in AD 70.[12]

If the date reflects a post- 70 CE world, this would definitely shape how we should read this text.           For instance, it is evident that shortly after Jesus ascended into the heavens, the Christian Church came under persecution.  Before he was executed by Nero in early 60 CE, Saul, later the apostle Paul, voraciously pursued and persecuted Christians.  Christians, at that time, were still a part of the synagogue, although tensions continued to build.  Eventually, Christians began to be kicked out from the synagogues.  In fact, the Jews instituted a curse against the heretics, which was intended to weed out the Christians because they wouldn’t be able to curse themselves.

We cannot fully discern the date or setting of this Gospel.  The textual clues point to a volatile situation for the Church in a place that would have a significant Gentile population.  Jewish Christians appear to be the intended audience of this Gospel, but we cannot rule out that there may have been some Gentile hearers (thus, a significant emphasis on the Gentile mission?).  What we do see is that God’s Church will prevail against the “gates of hell.”

Ultimately, the concern for covenant faithfulness is abundantly clear.  Jesus states that he has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them.  In the midst of being called heretics, the question of faith inevitably arises.  Is Jesus really a faithful fulfillment of God’s Law?  Matthew’s Gospel quotes Old Testament scripture profusely in an attempt to show that Jesus does truly complete God’s promises.  The call then is for those who “hear” to be faithful and respond in obedience to everything God has commanded through Jesus!

Contemporary Issues

            Within the contemporary American church, there is an attitude of pessimism about the direction our world is headed.  After all, one need only listen to the media’s portrayal of world affairs, which seems to paint a bleak picture with little, if any, positive stories.  There seems to be ample proof that the world is going to “hell in a hand basket.”  How can there be any hope in the midst of such dire, dark circumstances?

In this view, the world is on a downward spiral toward a cataclysmic end.  And, it seems that God has lost total control of Creation.  Chaos reigns while we wait for Jesus’ return and the final consummation of his Kingdom.  As such, it seems that the Kingdom is a distant, future reality that is really not here and now.  We circle up in our holy huddle to protect ourselves from the coming destruction.

However, Matthew 1 presents a very different picture about history as a whole.  Namely, it shows God to be in control of history.  Despite its brokenness and blemishes, God is in the business of redeeming those situations in fulfillment of the covenant with God’s people and in fulfillment of God’s ultimate salvation through Christ Jesus.  Even those moments and places where the will of God was explicitly not being done (i.e., Manassah), God ultimately redeems it for God’s glory!

As such, we are to anticipate the day of the Lord and to fulfill the Great Commission in making disciples and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded.  Not only that, but we face the future with hope!  It is not naïve pessimism, but rather trusting in God’s steadfast love and fidelity to God’s covenant.  And, it is a faith that God’s power is ultimately greater than our deepest brokenness.

God’s salvation and redemption, however, do not always happen in the timing we desire or expect.  God, at times, seems to delay action.  We question God’s love and mercy in those moments.  Yet, as demonstrated in the genealogy, God redeems those situations in the “fullness of time.”  God is working even in the moments we think indicate God’s silence.  God is weaving the threads of history into the tapestry of His-Story.

Also, Matthew 1 displays the Kingdom as a very inclusive type of reality!  Jews are not the only nationality represented within this pericope.  Rather, a Moabite, a Canaanite, and a Jerochoite are only a couple of the surrounding Gentile nations represented.  Although Gentiles are not the majority demographic, it is still very telling that these “outsiders” are included in the history of God’s salvation.

These Gentiles from the surrounding nations create an inclusion with the final chapter of Matthew.  The Church’s mission, again, is to “make disciples of all nations.”  This call should not come as a surprise because, as Matthew demonstrates, God has been doing that very thing from the very beginning.  Although the covenant was given to Abraham, the covenant was meant to be a blessing to all peoples.  As such, we are called to invite the “outsiders” into fellowship and extend the blessing we have received through Christ Jesus to them as well!

 

Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig L. Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997.

Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew. Waco: Word Books, 1987.

Carter, Warren. Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2001.

Carter, Warren. Matthew: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist. Rev. ed. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.

Garland, David E. Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary. Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2001.

Hagner, Donald Alfred. Matthew 1-13. Dallas: Word Books, 1993.

Hare, Douglas R. A. Matthew. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993.

Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. Softback ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.

Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Matera, Frank J. New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007.

Varughese, Alex, Roger Hahn, David Neale, Jeanne Orjala Serrao, Dan Spross, and Jirair Tashjian. “The Gospel According to Matthew.” In Discovering the New Testament: Community and Faith, 109-123. Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 2005.

 

SERMON

Weddings are joyful and momentous occasions.  We understand that such ceremonies should adequately communicate the solemnity and seriousness, as well as, display the celebratory nature of such things.  Thus, we spend months planning, inviting, decorating, and preparing for the blessed day.

There is no solemn promise, no sacred trust that is as precious as the marital relationship.  The covenanting of two people promising to forsake all others “’til death separates” says this is a forever type of relationship.  It is a commitment to one another in spite of whatever life might offer them – “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.”  It is a relationship founded upon the fidelity of those covenanting together in this sacred union.     

Israel’s sacred union with God was conceived in the covenantal relationship with Abraham, the father of the faith.  God promised Abraham (then Abram) that he would be the father of many nations and would be a blessing to all nations (Gen. 12:1-3; 22:16-18).  That same call was also extended to Israel after God delivered them from Egypt.  God said they were to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).  They were God’s treasured possession (Ex. 19:5).  Israel was called to be a blessing to the nations by representing God back into the world.  The future was pregnant with possibility.

King David was remembered as the greatest king Israel had ever known.  He was a “man after God’s own heart.”  Thus, God also established a covenant with David, saying:

And I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed.  Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, as they did at the beginning and have done ever since the time I appointed leaders over my people Israel.  I will also give you rest from all your enemies.  The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you (2 Sam 7:10-11).

The Psalmist proclaims this promise in song, “I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn to David my servant: Your seed will I establish forever, And build up thy throne to all generations” (Ps. 89:3-4).  It was the promise for God’s people, not only of enduring kingship, but forever relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!  Abraham and David both symbolized the covenant established by God with God’s people.  God’s promises provided the foundation for a future hope.  It was a hope that Israel waited to be established.

In our world today, we are all too familiar with broken marriages.  This has become a prevalent feature for many families across our society.  People within the Church have not fared much better.  Infidelity crushes those caught up in its vortex.  It destroys families, severs relationships, and scars the innocent.  The ripple effect is felt far beyond the husband and wife.  Friends, family, co-workers, and children all suffer the consequences of these fissures.  We wonder in these moments how we arrived at this place and if there is really any hope of redeeming the brokenness.

Despite having covenanted with God to be God’s people, Israel often lived unfaithfully to that covenant.  The history of God’s people is littered with the examples of infidelity, brokenness, and self-destruction.  The genealogy of Jesus recounts the disgraces that pock-mark the face of Israel’s heritage.  The history of God’s people not only includes infidelity, but also includes the “unmentionables and the unwanted” of the world.

Such blemishes included Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah’s wife (a.k.a. Bathsheba).  These women were Gentiles, outsiders to the covenant that God had established with God’s people.  Ruth was a Moabitess, a people whose lineage stemmed from Lot’s incest with his daughters.  According to Deuteronomy, they were not even allowed to be in the assembly!  This was not the only strike against them.

Tamar, Rahab, and Uriah’s wife had something more in common.  Tamar tricked her father-in-law, Judah, by posing as a prostitute.  Rahab didn’t pretend to be a prostitute, she was a prostitute.  And, Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, whose name is not even used, committed adultery!  These are King David’s ancestors, with the exception of Bathsheba!

These are far from the only embarrassing facts concerning the history of God’s people.  The two heroes of Israelite history, Abraham and David, are far from perfect models of fidelity and steadfastness.  Abraham laughed at God’s suggestion that he would be a father.  He doubted that it was possible, questioning God’s timing and ability to make it happen.  In fact, he complains that God has not made good on the promise and, as a result, Abraham’s distant kin, rather than a son, will inherit everything!  King David, a man after God’s own heart, committed adultery, tried to cover it up, and then has Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, murdered on the field of battle.  Not only that, David demonstrates poor leadership over his family.  It results in sons being killed and losing his kingdom for a time.  These are the great heroes of the faith, the people with whom God chooses to covenant!?

But, it doesn’t end there!  The vast majority of kings following David are less than admirable.  Solomon failed to uphold the requirements of a king given in Deuteronomy.  He became like Egypt, enslaved his people, and his heart turned away from God.  Ahaz and Manassah were monarchs that did evil in the eyes of the Lord.  In fact, Manassah was considered the most evil king that had ever ruled Israel!  That is quite an accomplishment!  Remember how vile Ahab was considered?

Two bright spots appear in the otherwise bleak background.  Asaph and Amos are mentioned in the time between David and the Babylonian exile.  They are not actual descendents of David; Asa and Amon are replaced by Matthew with these two individuals.  Asaph, the Psalmist, and Amos, the prophet, represent the praise of God in the community and the call for Israel to live justly.  Yet, we know that Israel ultimately fails to live out this call!

God’s people did not always honor their side of the covenant.  They worshiped other gods and became like the other nations.  They offered religious ceremonies and rituals that did not enjoin the heart.  The consequence of Israel’s unfaithfulness descended upon them in the form of Babylonian exile.

The Babylonians swept down upon Israel like a mighty tsunami, wiping everything out in its path.  Cities were razed, many people were slaughtered.  The influential citizens that survived were marched into captivity by hooks in their lips.  The poor and insignificant were left behind to scrounge whatever measly existence that might be found.  The Temple, the place of God’s presence, had been torn down.  Jerusalem was in shambles, a shadow of its former glory.

Babylonian exile befuddled the Israelites.  The devastating exile called into question God’s promises.  Had they been imagined fantasies?  Had God failed to keep the other side of the covenant?  Had God rejected God’s people, disowned them?  Where could hope be found if God had failed to make good on those promises given to Abraham and David?

Although Israel eventually returned to Jerusalem, they were never quite free from other overlords.  Babylon was replaced by Persia, the Greeks, and then Rome.  Israel was not a nation and they were surrounded by enemies.  Israel longed for God’s promises to be fully realized and soon.  The prophet Isaiah had said that there would be a king from the line of David that would rise up and lead Israel and make good on God’s promises!  Israel waited expectantly for the anointed one of God, a Son of David, to overthrow these oppressive nations and establish God’s reign.  They waited to see if God would remain faithful to the covenant.

Divorce has become part of our everyday language.  The breach of trust in a relationship leaves a gaping hole that many find unable to patch.  Unfaithfulness quite often leads to the cessation of the marital relationship.  The hurt becomes a festering wound, culminating in the amputation of the covenant promise.  And, in fact, we expect this to be the outcome when relationships suffer these types of travesty.  The only one that can restore the relationship is the one who has remained faithful, but we don’t hold any fantasy that this might happen… especially when unfaithfulness has been a consistent pattern in the relationship.

Why should Israel expect any less?  Why should they expect God to remain faithful when they had not?  They waited and they waited and they waited.  Generation after generation went by without the promises being fulfilled.  Generation after generation passed by as God seemed to remain stoic and silent.  Maybe God had forgotten them or perhaps no longer cared.

The lineage in Matthew’s Gospel reminds us that this is the backdrop of God’s story.  God had given the covenants to God’s people, but the Babylonian Exile appeared to have extinguished any hope of that happening.  Everyone longed to see God act in a definitive way to establish the covenants’ promise and to establish God’s people again!  That is the situation into which Jesus is born and from which he is descended!

In Christ Jesus all the promises of God are “yes!”  In the person of Jesus the covenants find their fulfillment.  He is the root from the stump of Jesse, who will establish God’s eternal Kingdom.  He is the promised Son by whom all the nations will be blessed because he is “Immanuel, God with us!”  God’s Kingdom is made available to both Jews and Gentiles.

Not only that, but God accomplishes salvation in the midst of and despite some major roadblocks.  The history of God’s people is full of brokenness and unfaithfulness.  It is full of characters of ill repute.  It contains people from the wrong side of the tracks, the “less than desirables.”  We see these things as predicaments to be solved or hidden, but God uses them as opportunities to display God’s glory.

If God is capable of transforming the broken mess that is Israel’s history and using it for God’s glory, establishing God’s Kingdom, and providing the vehicle of God’s salvation for humanity, then how can we say that our lives are beyond the grace of God?  Who are we to claim that our brokenness is beyond God’s saving power?  If God is capable of accomplishing God’s purposes through history in Christ, can those purposes not also be accomplished in our own lives through Christ Jesus?

            God is a faithful God that desires relationship and is in the process of redeeming history so that as we look back we can see the unfolding of His-Story!  Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God has come near.  The proper response to the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom in our lives and world is to repent, to turn.  It is a call to turn away from a life of disobedience to a life wholly devoted to the covenant-faithful God!  His invitation remains: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).


[1] Garland, David E. Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary. Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2001, 5.

[2] Hagner, Donald Alfred. Matthew 1-13. Dallas: Word Books, 1993, lvii.

[3] Ibid, lvii-lix.

[4] Ibid, 6. Hagner posits that in order for fourteen generations to be counted, one must not count David twice.  Also, due to an editing error, Jeconiah may actually refer to two people.  Jehoiakim, in this scenario, would be the last name of the second group and Jechoniah would be the name starting the third group of fourteen.  The differences in spelling are minimal and could have easily been mistaken for the same person (and, thus the scribe changed the name for uniformity).

[5] Ibid, 6.

[6] Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew. Waco: Word Books, 1987, 4-5.

[7] Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew. Waco: Word Books, 1987, 2.

[8] Carter, Warren. Matthew: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist. Rev. ed. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004, 108.

[9] Hagner, Donald Alfred. Matthew 1-13. Dallas: Word Books, 1993, 9.

[10] Ibid, 9.

[11] Carter, Warren. Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2001, 76.

[12] Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997, 217.

 

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Comments
  1. So much info, thank you for using layman’s terms. Me likey…

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