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Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas! Thoughts on Jesus' Genealogy

One of the portions of Scripture I look over at least once every year--and sometimes at Christmas--is the genealogy of Jesus Christ given in Matthew 1:1-17.  Since I tend to prefer the King James Version more as I get older, it's a passage that is full of "begats", so I'm sure people will wonder why I value it so much.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I believe the nativity narratives of Matthew 2 and Luke 2 are glorious, whether read in English, Greek, Chinese, or French, to list my own reading languages. As for the Prologue to the Gospel of John, which is often read on Christmas, I can only bow before the majesty of its message, that God Himself took on our flesh and dwelt among us. But the genealogy of Christ given in Matthew is a strong reminder of how Jesus is not only truly God and truly man in one person, but how fully he identified with our humanity.  "For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren" (Hebrews 2:11). Indeed, the opening chapter of Matthew gives us the message of the whole Bible on a single page.

What sort of brethren does our Lord confess?

Jesus Christ has a history as do all other men. By placing Jesus in the context of a long family history, the Gospel shows us Jesus as a real, flesh-and-blood human being living among other men and taking his place among them.  Yes, I confess the Virgin Birth as showing how Christ offers a new beginning for our human race, but I think that Matthew's purpose in his first chapter is to stress that Jesus comes with a family and a history.  There is a clear time-and-place context into which he comes.  He is not merely a myth of some distant dreamtime or a fictitious "everyman".  He has called another man his father, and that father Joseph had others whom he called father.  He has a mother named Mary who is a wife.

And, as a man, Jesus is as unique as any other; indeed, more so.  He bears his name, and had we lived in the Judaea and Galilee of the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate, and asked for one Jesus son of Joseph son of Jacob son of Matthan, people might have turned us around in the road, pointed to one of the neighbors, and told us, "that's him."

By no means is the confession of Jesus' humanity a sin or the preserve of the scornful or the scoffer.  The ancient creeds that tell us he was truly and fully man as well as truly and fully God based themselves not on late corruption, but on the testimony of the Gospels.  So, in this season of the year, let us be thankful for the King of glory who took on and knew our very human woe.

Jesus Christ identifies with his own Jewish people. People are historical, cultural, and social animals.  Indeed, when Aristotle spoke of man as a "political animal", he meant that man is a creature who finds his place as part of a defined community--the city, or polis, of ancient Greek thought. 

The Bible says the same of Jesus by placing him squarely in the stream of Jewish history.  Matthew's genealogy not only lists the illustrious names of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that of the kings David and Solomon, but also points out how Jesus' family history was marked by the rise of the patriarchal family, the growth of the Israelite kingdom, and even the great chastisement of the Babylonian captivity.

And this should cause us to pause and consider.  How often are the great narratives of political movements, nations, companies, and families no more than the dreary recounting of how great the publicist's clients are; how splendid their triumphs; how worthy they are on their own achievements to rule over and direct us lesser mortals. How much our modern stories reinforce our cynical view that history is written by winners in order to justify themselves.

Yet the Biblical history with which Jesus identifies is one that is written by losers, who admit their own failing.

Often, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, in which awareness of Islam in all of its ugly triumphalism became more widespread, the foes of the Gospel were quick to point out that the Books of Moses and Joshua called for the wholesale extermination of the Canaanites and record the divine wrath against the whole cities of Sodom and Gommorah.  But these critics too often missed the fine print.  The Torah warns the Israelites that if they fell into the same abominations practiced by the nations in the land of Canaan, they, too, would meet a similar fate.  The historical books of the Old Testament record for us not the pleasant tale of conquest, but the cautionary tale of a heedless nation that periodically ignored the divine warnings, and so came to exile by the rivers of Babylon. The books of the prophets, while full of hope in the future Messiah, are at the same time divine indictments of an unbelieving people.  Yet by God's grace that failure of the Hebrew kingdoms was the backdrop for the late coming of the Messiah, which Matthew announces.

If you are an ambitious student of the Scriptures--which I pray that all may become, read the Gospel of Matthew after a reading through of the entire Old Testament, especially the Torah, historical books, and prophets.  The life of Jesus which Matthew presents is that of the Messiah recapitulating in his own individual life the life of the nation, from an infancy in Egypt (perhaps he there learned the Greek of teeming Alexandria, the language in which the New Testament was written?) to an exile on the eastern side of Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, perhaps on the same spot over which the prophet Ezekiel observed the Shekinah glory departing some centuries earlier, to an atoning death fulfilling all those of the Levitical cult, to a resurrection presaging that promised in Psalm 16, Daniel 12, and Ezekiel 36.

But before we pass from this Israelite history to other lessons given by Jesus' genealogy, let us pause to consider some of the people listed.

Jesus Christ, although sinless, identifies with sinners. Our Lord belongs to the tribe of Judah, begun in an illicit coitus between the patriarch and his daughter-in-law Judah.  Of most of the kings in the genealogy, the Bible gives a negative judgment of how they led their people in sin. We see a refutation of the proud doctrine of salvation by race rather than grace in the Gentiles Rahab and Ruth; showing how indeed the house of Abraham was starting to be a blessing to the nations (cf. Gen. 12:1-3) even before the final, great blessing God brings in the Messiah.  Yet one of these women who contributed to our Lord's heritage was, the Bible tells us, the harlot Rehab. 

So, if Jesus Christ is not ashamed to list such people as his kin, let us learn a humility in dealing with others, and let us not think better of ourselves.

We are rightly concerned with the decay of the American family and the widespread "immoral revolution" sweeping our land.  Yet some of the people whom Jesus took as his kinsmen were themselves caught up in very similar failures and sins.  These, however, were embraced by the Word of God to be forgiven and remade.

Yes, our Lord rebuked sin.  Even before he became man and dwelt among us, he rebuked sin through the Law and the Prophets.  But his coming was not to merely judge sin--and if thou, O LORD, shouldst mark iniquities, who could stand? (Psalm 130)--but also to work atonement, through which sinners might be reconciled to God.  And this is the great work which Christ calls us to continue.  I hear from many the complaint that we Christians are often sanctimonious and judgmental.  Perhaps it has some justice.  We should remind our hearers that the point of having a church and continuing the witness is so that more fallen and sinful people might, through Jesus Christ, be reconciled to God.

So, in this season, let us humbly accept the gift of salvation which God has given us in Jesus Christ, and Confess him before men.

1 comment:

  1. Intriguing site "Kepha" - at a later date I'll return for a more studious perusual. (I've linked through one of your comments over on Dip's site.)

    You might, perhaps, enjoy reading from one of my boyhood friends' site - though of late he's been crowing up a recently published novella, I think you'll get what I'm alluding to from his sidebar info: