Christmas - Week 2
Most today when they think about the story of Christmas and reference the Bible will turn to the book of Luke for most of the story of Jesus’ birth and the book of Matthew for another brief reference to His birth. In our first note in this series last week, we reviewed highlights of chapter 1 from Tim Keller’s book, “Hidden Christmas”. That chapter highlighted that the first thing we must look at with Christmas actually comes from the Old Testament. We looked at Isaiah chapter 9 where Isaiah prophesied about a child being born, coming to those living in a land of deep darkness. The child was a light that came to the world as a gift. Understanding the darkness of that time and considering the darkness of this present time is critical towards helping us understand why Jesus came into the world. It is a critical part of properly understanding the true meaning of Christmas.
In Tim Keller’s book, the second chapter starts with a passage from the first chapter of the book of Matthew. This gospel account was written by Matthew, a Jew and one of the twelve who walked with Jesus for three years. This Gospel begins in ancient times, providing a long, seemingly tedious genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17. Why would this oldest of the New Testament texts begin in this manner? The answer goes back to what we looked at last week. Last week we saw that Christmas is about a “coming” of someone to us. It is about something much more than a birth. God had prepared for the arrival of His Son before He even created the Earth based on what is revealed in Revelation 13:8.
Matthew does not begin his story of Jesus’ birth by saying “Once upon a time”. He begins instead by saying “this is the genealogy of Jesus Christ”. Matthew is grounding what Jesus Christ is and does in history. He is telling us Jesus is real. He is telling us that what he is writing really did happen. He is not giving us advice. He is giving us news, good news. The biblical Christmas texts are accounts of what actually happened in history. They are not fables or fairy tales. The Gospel narratives are telling you not what you should do but instead, what God has done.
Matthew chapter 1, may look like a genealogy and it is, but it is also a résumé. In those times it was your family, pedigree and clan – the people you were connected to – that constituted your résumé. The Jews went to great lengths to record this type information due in part to what was required in order to become a priest. Priests could only be descendants of the tribe of Levi. A genealogy was a way of saying to the world, “This is who I am”.
In that day, as today, people tinkered with their résumé. Having interviewed and hired many college students, graduates and professionals over my career, I have had the opportunity to witness first hand how people write their own work history. People will work hard sometimes to cover up anything in their track record that may not reflect positively on them. Kings such as Herod the Great (king of Judea when Jesus was born); actually had many names stricken from his public genealogy because it would have made others look upon him unfavorably. He was not a Hebrew but actually an Idumean whose father was an Edomite that had converted to Judaism for political reasons.
Matthew though does the very opposite. His genealogy of Jesus is shockingly unlike other ancient genealogies. To begin with, there are five women listed in the genealogy, all in essence mothers of Jesus. This will not strike modern readers as unusual but in ancient societies, a woman was virtually never named in such lists, let alone five of them. Three of these women (Tamar, Rahab and Ruth) were not even Jews, making the recording of their names even more unique. Including non-Jews brings in “racial outsiders” to the genealogy of our Lord.
Another point with these names is that they bring in some sordid, nasty, and immoral incidents in the Bible. Matthew includes Judah the father of the twins Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar (verse 3). Tamar was married to Judah’s oldest son named Er. He died before Tamar and he had an opportunity to have any children. The custom in those days was that another of Judah’s son’s would then bear a child with Tamar to honor their brother and to honor their brother’s wife. Judah did not follow through with his obligation as the father-in-law to ensure this custom was honored for both the sake of Tamar or his son Er. Tamar then tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her by pretending to be a prostitute. When Judah found out she was pregnant he tried to have her stoned until she presented evidence that he was actually the father. Out of that encounter were born the twins Perez and Zerah. Matthew recorded the names of Tamar, Perez and Zerah to ensure this whole story was resurrected in this genealogy. It was out of that dysfunctional family that the Messiah came.
Then look at Rahab (verse 5). She was not just a Canaanite but also a prostitute. This prostitute was the great grandmother of king David if you look at verses 5-6.
Next, look at how verse 6 describes King David and Solomon. This verse states “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife”. Matthew does not include the name of Bathsheba but he does include her nonetheless by saying “Uriah’s wife”. Why does Matthew do this? Matthew wants to make sure we recall a tragic and terrible chapter in Israel’s history. When David was a fugitive, running for his life from King Saul, a group of men went out into the wilderness with him, came around him, and put their lives on the line to protect him. They were called his Mighty Men. There were thirty-seven of them in all. They risked everything for him, and Uriah was one of them, a friend to whom David owed his own life (2 Samuel 23:39). Yet years later, after David became king, he looked upon Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, and he wanted her – badly – if you know what I mean. He slept with her and then arranged to have Uriah killed in order to marry her when it was discovered she was with child. Matthew does not leave off the name of Bathsheba as a slight against her. He leaves off her name in order to slam David! It was out of that, another dysfunctional family, and out of that deeply flawed man, that the Messiah came.
So Matthew provides for us in the first chapter of the New Testament, an account that includes adulterers, adulteresses, incestuous relationships, prostitutes, cultural outsiders, racial outsiders and murderers. The Law of Moses excluded these type people from the presence of God and yet they are all publicly acknowledged as the ancestors of Jesus. Obviously Matthew starts his gospel record this way due to being led by the Holy Spirit to do so but the fact that Matthew had been a tax collector, hated by his Jewish brethren, when Jesus called him to be a disciple could have also had bearing on why Matthew included all of these sordid details. Matthew was himself a Jew, but an “outsider” due to his profession. Yet he found grace in the eyes of the Lord.
What does this mean? First, it shows us that people who are excluded by culture, excluded by respectable society, and even excluded by the Old Testament law of God, can be brought in to Jesus’ family. Your pedigree doesn’t matter and it does not even matter if you have committed murder. If you repent and believe in Jesus, the grace of Jesus Christ can cover your sin and unite you with him. Jesus can make you as pure as snow, washing all of your sins away forever.
On the other hand, look at King David. He had all of the world’s power and credentials one could want. He was a man and not a woman. He was a Jew and not a Gentile. He was royalty and not poor. Yet Matthew shows us that he too can be in Jesus’ family only by grace. His evil deeds were worse than anything done by the women in this historical record and yet there he stands. It is not the good people who are in and the bad people who are out. Everyone is in only by the grace of Jesus Christ. It is only what Jesus has done for you that can give you standing before God.
In Jesus Christ, prostitute and king, male and female, Jew and Gentile, one race and another race, moral and immoral – all sit down as equals. God’s family is made up from those equally sinful and equally lost, equally accepted and equally loved. If you read over this first chapter of Matthew and think to yourself, “boring”, you are totally missing a huge picture of God’s mercy and grace hidden within the Christmas message.
Something else we see from this genealogy is that the promise of the Messiah took generations to come to be fulfilled. There is something to learn here for our “have to have it now type society” we live in. Jesus is prophesied of in Genesis 3:15 as the one that would crush the head of Satan. The genealogy we are looking at starts with Abraham. It is centuries later before the angel comes to Mary and tells her about the child she was to bear. As we referenced last week, it was 400 years between the last prophet prior to Jesus – John the Baptist, and the previous prophet from God - Malachi. The promise was a long time coming. You cannot judge God by your calendar. God may appear to you to be slow but He never forgets His promises. He may seem to be working very slowly or even to be forgetting His promises but when His promises come true, and they will come true, they always burst the banks of what you imagined.
We may think God has forgotten His promises but he comes through in ways we can’t imagine before it happens. Think about how our incarnate King came. He was born not in a castle but in a cave hollowed out in the side of a hill with animals there in that cattle stall around Him. There was not even a bed to put Him in after His birth. He rested instead that blessed night in a feed trough filled with hay. Our Lord confounded all expectations but it was only by coming in weakness and dying on the cross that He could save us. God kept His promise. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his poem “Retribution”, “Though the mills of God grind slowly, They grind exceedingly fine”. Christmas tells us that God may seem to have forgotten, but right now, He is in the process of arranging all that will fulfill His great promises. As Ephesians 3:20 tells us, He is able to give us more than we dare think or imagine.
There is one final point from this genealogy that we need to look at. Jesus is considered our ultimate rest. At the end of the genealogy, Matthew makes much of the number of the generations. In verse 17, Matthew says there are fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the exile in Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to Christ. So there have in essence been “six sevens” of generations, and that makes Jesus the beginning of the seventh seven.
If you have been in church much in your life, you may have heard people refer to numerology and the significance of the number seven. As we see in the first chapter of the book of Genesis, God did all His work in six days and then rested on the seventh day. Going further, in the Mosaic Law, every seven years the farmer was to let the land lie fallow to give it a chance to replenish its nutrients, and so the seventh year represented rest. Finally, we are told in Leviticus 25 that the last year of the seventh period of seven years, the forty-ninth year, was to begin a year of jubilee. In that year all the slaves were to be freed and all debts were to be forgiven. All the land and all the people were to have rest from their weariness and from their burdens. The seventh seven, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, was a foretaste of the final rest that all God’s children have when they enter God’s rest as outlined in Hebrews 4:1-11.
Matthew is telling us that this rest will come to us only through Jesus Christ. Jesus has provided for your salvation. It is nothing you have to do but rest in Him and the work He has done. All you truly need in this life is God’s grace and you can have it in spite of your failures.
We need to also rest from the troubles and evils of this world. We feel like we have to control history, we have to make everything go right, but this is not only exhausting but also impossible as we discussed last week. Christmas tells us that despite appearances to the contrary, our good God is in control of history. And someday He will put everything right. Some of our inward rest comes when the Spirit reminds us of all this final salvation and ultimate rest. We have, then, a powerful hope in the future that is not mere optimism. It is a certainty that, at the end of all things, all will be well. The glory of God will cover the world the way the waters cover the bottom of the sea. Jesus, the Jubilee King, will give us the final, perfect rest of love and joy.
Christmas is not “Once upon a time something happened that gives us advice on how we should live better lives”. No! Christmas is the good news that Jesus, the Light, broke into the world to save us. Christ, the Savior, is born!!
Next week – The Fathers of Jesus