The Long-Awaited Messiah: Son of Abraham, Son of David
Think about the genealogy recorded in Matthew 1:1–17. If we, in our 21st-century Western context, were tasked to write the beginning of the New Testament, we probably would not have started with such a list of names. While this approach may seem foreign, the timeline recorded in this genealogy has much to say to us. Matthew’s genealogy goes all the way back to Abraham, around 2,100 BC. We know from the Old Testament that it is Abraham’s offspring who was going to be a blessing for all people. There would be a kingly ruler who would come from Abraham’s line, who would be honored worldwide (Genesis 49:10). Over one thousand years later, around 1,000 BC, these promises were realized through David’s kingship. And yet, God issued an even greater promise: a descendent of David would rule on his throne forever.
As the timeline progresses, some might have wondered if God’s promises had failed. The Northern Kingdom of Israel fell in 722 BC, and the Southern Kingdom was conquered and sent into exile between the years 605 and 586 BC. Where was the Davidic king now? Though God eventually brought a remnant of his people back to the land, the Old Testament ended with the messianic promises unfulfilled, still looking forward to God’s provision of salvation. With this background in place, Matthew’s genealogy explodes with new meaning: Jesus is the true seed of Abraham, the son of David, who will reign forever and ever!
There are four specific features of Matthew’s genealogy that deserve further comment. First, the first two words of Matthew’s Gospel, biblos geneseōs (“The Book of the Genealogy”), point the reader back to God’s original creation, thus linking Jesus’ birth with God’s sovereign plan for his creation. Second, five women are mentioned in the account of Jesus’ ancestry: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. For a first-century genealogy to mention women at all is out of the ordinary; for these women (besides Mary) to be outsiders with a touch of scandal is astonishing. Third, the genealogy also breaks normal form in introducing Mary: Jesus is specifically mentioned as the biological son of Mary but not of Joseph. Finally, the divisions of fourteen generations between major sections of salvation history shows that God is sovereign over all time and history.
Many have wondered about the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies. The most plausible explanation is that Matthew’s version is a “dynastic document,” whereas Luke’s version is more biological. In other words, “Matthew provides the legal line of royal inheritance; but those who wish can connect this lineage with Luke’s physical line by means of two adoptions” (42).
God With Us, Born of a Virgin
We have seen that the biblical narrative as a whole points to Jesus as the seed of Abraham, the son of David. But what evidence is there in the Gospels themselves that Jesus truly fulfills these important roles? Among many other pieces of evidence, the birth narratives present “miraculous events and supernatural announcements” in order to show that “Jesus was not just a son of David; he was the long-awaited descendant of David who would fulfill God’s promises to his people” (46).
One of the key miraculous events of the birth narrative is the virgin birth itself. This event has often been surrounded by controversy, and even now new publications appear that doubt the historicity of this event. Despite these detractors, there are five reasons why Christians should treasure the virgin birth. First, Scripture clearly testifies to it. If we deny the virgin birth, we are denying the reliability of the Word of God. Second, it emphasizes the deity of Christ. The fact that Jesus had no biological father points to his divinity. Third, it also emphasizes the humanity of Christ. The divine Son really put on flesh and dwelt among humans, beginning with his conception and birth. Fourth, it reinforces the sinlessness of Christ. If Jesus were the natural-born son of Joseph and Mary, it would be difficult to understand how Adam’s guilt would not be passed on to Jesus. Fifth, it highlights the nature of grace. Our salvation does not come from our own efforts; rather, it comes from God’s supernatural initiative.
Another important connection pertaining to the virgin birth relates to the relationship between the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 and the virgin birth itself. The original context of Isaiah’s prophecy was an encouragement to the Israelites of Isaiah’s day: By the time this child was old enough to speak and discern between right and wrong, the danger from Syria would be over (56). The Hebrew word for “virgin,” ‘almah, can also mean “young woman.” The original referent of the ‘almah was probably “the prophetess” of Isaiah 8:3, and Isaiah’s own son most likely fulfilled the prophecy. Matthew then indicates that the virgin birth constitutes a double fulfillment of that prophecy (Matthew 1:23). Matthew rightly recognizes that there is more to Isaiah’s prophecy than could be fulfilled by Isaiah’s son. Jesus is the only one who can truly uphold justice and righteousness forever (Isaiah 9:7). What a beautiful picture of God’s work on our behalf!
Conflict Between Two Kings and Two Kingdoms
The beginning of Matthew 2 tells us that Jesus was born during “the days of Herod.” Who was this Herod? “Herod was a famous, dangerous, brilliant, paranoid, successful, cruel, lucky, and long-living king” (63). The Romans ruled over Judea, and Herod served the Romans as a client king from 37–4 BC. The historical records are fairly clear that Herod died some time during 4 BC, which means that Jesus must have been born before then, most likely some time in the years 6 or (perhaps most likely) 5 BC.
Matthew 2:1–12 records the well-known story of the interchange between Herod and the wise men. The wise men show up in Nativity scenes and Christmas songs, but we need to be diligent to make sure our ideas of the wise men come from Scripture, not from contemporary culture. For example, although Matthew tells us of three distinct gifts, nowhere does it say that there were three wise men. In addition, the wise men did not visit Jesus on the same night as the shepherds; they came later, perhaps as much as a year later, as by then Jesus and his parents live in a “house.”
Though we may need to “unlearn” some of these popular beliefs, there are also rich theological truths we can learn from the appearance of the wise men. First, the coming of wise men from the East is a powerful picture of the worldwide scope of Jesus’ salvation. Second, the wise men provide a powerful contrast with King Herod. Whereas these influential men came to worship the true king, Herod was threatened by the appearance of another king. Every Christmas (and indeed, every day!) we must answer the same question for ourselves: Will we bow the knee to King Jesus, or will we fight for our own rights?
Exile, Holocaust, and Nazareth: Prophecies Fulfilled
Matthew 2:13–23 is composed of three different episodes that are based on three events that fulfill Old Testament expectation. The first is the reference to Hosea 11:1–3 indicated by the phrase “out of Egypt I called my son.” What is Matthew doing by connecting this event early in Jesus’ life with this passage in Hosea? Essentially, Matthew helps us see that Jesus typologically fulfills many aspects of the history of the nation of Israel. For example, Jesus chose twelve disciples replicating the pattern of the twelve tribes of Israel. He was tempted in the wilderness for forty days; Israel was tempted in the wilderness for forty years. He was baptized in the Jordan River in a way that is meant to parallel Israel’s “baptism” in the Red Sea coming out from Egypt.
The second Old Testament reference is Jeremiah 31:15. The original context of Jeremiah 31 is the Babylonian exile. When Jeremiah proclaims that “Rachel weeps for her children,” he is poetically referencing the sorrow of the events of the exile, but this sorrow is felt in the context of a coming joy that will far exceed the current sadness. By connecting the massacre of the innocents under Herod and the violence of the Babylonian exile, Matthew is also indicating that God’s people can experience a joy that has now come in the person of Jesus.
The final Old Testament quotation is perhaps the hardest to interpret. Matthew 2:23 reads, “And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.” The most immediate problem is that it is hard to locate the Old Testament reference for the quote. But there are two important details to note that will help for understanding this passage. First, Matthew tells us that the word was spoken by the prophets (plural). This makes it possible that Matthew is drawing from several different prophetic expectations, not one single quote. Second, the Hebrew word for “Nazareth,” ntzrt, is similar to the Hebrew word for “branch,” ntzr. This linguistic connection could refer to the messianic Davidic branch in Isaiah 11:1.
All in all, Matthew’s birth narrative gives an edifying picture of how Jesus fulfills Old Testament expectation: “He is the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the Son of God, Immanuel, a new Israel, and a new Moses” (90). Even this brief glimpse of the early days of Jesus through the lens of Matthew has provided a more compelling and soul-satisfying picture of Christmas than anything our contemporary culture has to offer.