There was that old, old commercial for Life cereal. Two boys are staring at this bowl of unknown slop. One pushes it in front of the other. He pushes it back. Neither one wants to try it because they were told it was good for them, and they know that any cereal that is good for you tastes horrible. Finally, one of the kids comes up with a sure-fired test to find out how bad the cereal tastes. They slide the bowl over to Mikey who hates everything but, apparently, will try anything. Mikey digs in. The boys are ready for him to spew it out of his mouth in disgust but, instead, he scoops up a second spoonful! “He likes it! Mikey likes it!” Who knew tasting soggy cereal could be so rewarding!
Here’s my confession (as if you didn’t know already): I love this stuff. I love thinking about how the gospels were composed and how one gospel compares to another and identifying each gospel’s unique features. I just love it. Now, my hope is, that as I slide the bowl over to you, you will love it, too. But here’s the secret: just like Life cereal, it’s even good for you. It is good for you to know how the gospels came about and to see the human hand behind these words. Too often, we over-accent God’s involvement in this process, almost to the exclusion of the human agent. But that’s not good. We need to see these books as truly God inspired but, at the same time, truly and completely a work of human authors. Now, if you just like these discussions for the “taste,” that’s okay, too! But my hope is that when we are done, you will have a new appreciation for the men who wrote these books and will feel, in part, like you now know them better for having studied their books. I hope you will feel somewhat like you’ve talked to them. And if that isn’t true yet, well, let me introduce you to Matthew.
Last week, we looked at Luke’s birth narrative and saw how his overarching purpose shaped how he told the story of Jesus’ birth. Everything he includes (the women, the shepherds, the angels) and everything he does not include (and just look at Matthew’s gospel to see what that entails) are choices Luke made that he believed furthered the development of his overarching purpose and his major themes. In short, if it didn’t serve his storyline, he left it out. Same with Matthew. And that is why Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ birth, while telling the same story (the story of Jesus’ birth), are so very, very different. Just a quick glance at the two gospels’ accounts prove that. Matthew seems to accent Joseph more, while Luke seems to highlight Mary (Why? Because Luke likes to highlight women of faith). Matthew starts off with a genealogy and goes from Abraham to Jesus. Luke waits to place his genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3 (isn’t it interesting that both feel absolutely compelled to have a genealogy?). But Luke’s genealogy starts from Jesus and goes backwards to Adam. Luke’s first big story is Zechariah’s encounter with the angel (which quickly develops into the story of Elizabeth because Luke likes to highlight women of faith). Meanwhile, Matthew’s first big story is Joseph wrestling with what he should do in light of Mary’s pregnancy. Luke has shepherds visit the manager. Matthew has Magi visit the house where Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus are living. Luke has the holy family leave Bethlehem and return to Nazareth. Same with Matthew, except he has the angel warning Joseph to flee Bethlehem and move to Egypt because Herod is planning on massacring all the boys in Bethlehem. Joseph and family then live in Egypt for a year or two or three before they return to Nazareth. In short, they are very different. The question is why. The answer is they were both being steered by the themes their authors felt were necessary to accomplish their overarching purpose.
Let’s take Matthew’s “Christmas story” as our test case today, and let me provide three quick examples.
First example: the genealogy. Interestingly (read, not so interestingly), Matthew starts off his gospel, not with a bang, but a whimper and the worst kind of whimper, a genealogy. You may ask why anyone would think starting any book off with a genealogy is a good thing, but Matthew does. And my guess is that his original audience thought it was a good idea, too, because it linked Jesus to Abraham and to God’s promise that all the world would be blessed through him. It is almost as if, here in the genealogy, Matthew is reminding his audience that our God is a God who is faithful and true, a God who does not forget his people, but comes to redeem them. And it seems with an introduction like this, that Matthew’s audience would most clearly be Jewish followers of Jesus the Messiah. Who else would read this list and say, “I want to read more of this Matthew guy!” except those who find their history in these names? But the genealogy is here to do more than allow Matthew simply to connect with his Jewish audience. He is making incredibly strong comments about who Jesus is and what he came to do. Not only is Jesus the son of Abraham and the son of David but he is also a son of the exile. Now, you may not see that, but Matthew’s original audience would most certainly have. See, there is something odd about the last set of fourteen names. You can see that Matthew has divided up his genealogy into three segments, each segment containing fourteen generations. The first set goes from Abraham to David. The second goes from David to Jeconiah in exile, and the third set goes from “the exile” and Jeconiah to Jesus. Now, it is important that tax collectors be good at math. They don’t have to do calculus, but it is good if they can count. But Matthew, the tax collector, apparently can’t count. Even though Matthew says there are 14 generations here, he seems to be one off. There are only thirteen names here. Now, if you count “the exile” as a name, then it works; but “the exile” isn’t a name. But it is a major issue in Jewish theology in the first century. See, most Jews, Matthew included, didn’t believe the exile ended when the people returned to the Promised Land but that it still continued even into their day. Israel was still in captivity, and the Gentiles were still in power. And that fact weighed heavily upon every Jewish soul (that’s why it is so prominent in the genealogy). In Matthew’s first two chapters we will encounter this theme of exile in several places. The slaughter of the innocents, Rachel weeping for her children, and the quote from Jeremiah are all based in this idea that the exile continues, Israel’s slavery continues. But then, Matthew quotes Hosea where God calls his son “out of Egypt.” That is also an exilic theme, but it is different. It speaks of the end of the exile. It speaks of God rescuing his people. It speaks of God leading his people out of slavery and blessing them. Why are there only thirteen generations listed in the last grouping? Because God is bringing an end to the exile and “cutting it short.” He is, in the person and work of Jesus, calling his people out of exile and into freedom. Matthew’s theme of “an end to the exile” shapes how he tells the story of Jesus’ birth. He tells the story of the holy family going to Egypt just so he can show God calling his son out of the land of slavery and bringing an end to the exile because the Messiah has come.
A second example: You may have noticed a ton of references to the Old Testament in Matthew’s birth narrative. In fact, you can’t turn around and spit without hitting some verse that says “and this fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet.” To be sure, Matthew quotes from the Old Testament more frequently than any other New Testament writer (which supports what we said above that Matthew was writing to a believing Jewish audience). But Matthew is not only highlighting predictive prophecy (“this act fulfills that prophecy”) as some kind of neat apologetic tool. He seems to be (okay, he IS) linking Jesus to the whole Old Testament, almost as if (okay, EXACTLY as if) Jesus was Israel 2.0 (a new and improved Israel). Israel/Jesus go down to Egypt and return. Israel/Jesus go into the wilderness to be tempted. Israel/Jesus are called God’s servant (Isaiah 40ff and Matthew 12). It’s all over the place in Matthew; but in every case, where Israel failed, Jesus is faithful. In short, Matthew’s theme of connecting Jesus to the Old Testament shapes how he tells the story of Jesus.
A third example. Have you ever noticed that Matthew is structured around five main teaching discourses (the Sermon on the Mount, the sermon in the sending out of the twelve, the sermon on the parables of the kingdom, the sermon on community life and the Olivet Discourse)? Interestingly, the Torah is also comprised of five books (Genesis to Deuteronomy). More interestingly (I am about to say something profound here, so hang on), the Sermon on the Mount was on a mountain. Who else in the Bible is connected to a Mountain? If you said, Moses, you’re right! Moses received the law on the Mountain. Jesus proclaims his law on a mountain. It is hard not to connect those two dots! Without a doubt, Matthew seems to be presenting Jesus, not just as Israel 2.0, but also as Moses 2.0, a new lawgiver and a new leader who would lead the people out of their slavery. And remember, when Moses failed, it was Joshua who led the people into the Promised land. “Jesus” is the Greek form of the name “Joshua,” which means, “the Lord saves.” Matthew’s theme of connecting Jesus to Moses as one greater than Moses shapes how he tells his story of Jesus.
But Matthew was also answering a question that was very real and painful for the believing Jews of his day: If Jesus is the Messiah, why are his people, the Jews, rejecting him while Gentiles are flooding into the church? Matthew answers this question throughout his gospel, culminating with the giving of the Great Commission; but he gives two hints of an answer in his account of Jesus’ birth. He tells of four Gentile women in the genealogy without whose daring faith, the whole line of Jesus would have crumbled. And he pictures Gentile wise men coming to worship the King of the Jews while the citizens of Jerusalem refuse to come and worship him. Matthew’s theme of Gentile inclusion into the people of God shapes how he tells his story of Jesus.
Maybe it’s just me, but I love to see how all these things connect. And I love that Matthew and Luke and the other two authors of the gospels aren’t just writing a distant biography of someone they admired; they were proclaiming Christ with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength so that all of their readers would see Jesus through their eyes and follow him. So, here’s my final thought. If you are unsure about Jesus, pick up one of the gospels and read it start to finish. It sounds like a lot, but here’s what I would say to you, “Try it! You’ll like it!”