I didn’t grow up in church. I went to church, but I can’t claim to have been paying attention. There’s a real possibility that I’m still the unofficial record holder for connecting the dots on the weekly bulletin. At one point, my teenage self told my mom I was an atheist. She cried. (Sorry Mom.)
Truth is, I had doubts. I doubted that Jesus of Nazareth even walked the Earth — let alone was crucified for me. Thus, I have a lot of empathy for first-century Jews, the ones to which Matthew originally wrote his account of the Gospel.
His initial audience, Jews and early Christians with Jewish roots, were raised memorizing the Torah. And they could likely recite each messianic prophecy found in the Old Testament. (There are at least 44 messianic prophecies.) They also found themselves in a culture yearning for the Messiah to come in their day. Furthermore, they lived at a time in which countless false prophets claimed to be the anointed one and called disciples of their own.
So it is with skepticism that Matthew’s audience receives his account of Jesus. By initially adhering to their legalistic nature, by acknowledging the prophecies, by meeting his audience where they are, Matthew is able to guide them past their skepticism to become followers of the one and only Christ.
With this in mind, Matthew starts his account of Jesus quite boldly. The first line, “This is the genealogy of the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham” (NIV) makes claims that most of us, modern-day Christians, take for granted or plainly overlook. Countless times have I read this passage and left unaffected.
The 1599 Geneva Bible translation may capture the sentiment more accurately — or, at least, closer to how I’ve come to view it.
That Jesus is that Messiah, the Savior promised to the Fathers. (GNV)
But in his opening passage, Matthew leaves no ambiguity about why he is writing. There is no filler in his work, and this isn’t meaningless back story. He is laying the groundwork with three claims from the start.
- Jesus is the Messiah, the one and only anointed one, the Christ you’ve been waiting for.
- Jesus is a descendent of King David, thereby an heir to his throne as foretold in both 2 Samuel and Isaiah.
- Jesus is a descendent of both Abraham and Jacob, as foretold in Genesis (here and here) and Numbers.
Jesus is that Messiah
Messiah is Hebrew. Christ is based on the Greek word Christos. Both translate to anointed one.
Having previously thought the titles Messiah and Christ only referred to Jesus, reducing these terms to anointed one seems to remove the exclusiveness of the title. Granted, being anointed by God is an exclusive club, though the membership numbers more than Jesus. Kings Saul and David were both anointed to lead Israel.
So it is with this in mind that we can imagine the propensity for numerous rabbis, probably each very charismatic, to build their own kingdoms by claiming to be an anointed one, a messiah. Quite honestly, I don’t think this has left our culture. The only difference is that those building their own kingdoms today refrain from actually calling themselves messiah.
Monty Python did a wonderful job conveying the bursting anticipation for a messiah in their 1979 parody, Life of Brian. The movie’s story line follows Brian of Nazareth, who spends his life being mistaken for a messiah, although he clearly does not want to be and even attempts to evade those that would be his followers.
Therefore, Matthew tells his audience to ignore all of the others because Jesus is not a messiah; merely one anointed by God. He is the/that Messiah. The anointed one, the only anointed one, the prophets foretold about. This is what separates Him from the imposters.
The Son of David
Just in case his audience wasn’t clear which messiah he’s referring to, Matthew immediately specifies that Messiah is the Davidic Messiah. You know, the one mentioned in Second Samuel (2 Samuel) and the one mentioned by the Prophet Isaiah.
In 2 Samuel 7, King David, whom the Jews revered for uniting the tribes of Israel and defeating any enemy that came before them, had found rest in his palace. At this moment, he appears to feel ashamed for having a home while the Ark of the Covenant still resided in a tent. Remember, it’s David’s son Solomon who built the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
The Prophet Nathan came to David with a message from God. Effectively, God rhetorically asks David “Have I ever asked you to build me a house?” Instead, God exhibits humility and once again upholds His covenant originally made to Abraham.
He blesses David, not because David earned it or could ever earn it. But He blesses David because He is faithful.
Through Nathan, God continues by telling David that He (God) will establish a house for David. Specifically, one of David’s offspring will establish the kingdom forever — and that this offspring will be flogged by men!
He (God) closes with these words to David.
Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. (NIV)
Generations later, the prophet Isaiah writes of a forthcoming child given to the people of Israel. This child will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, (and) Prince of Peace.’ Specifically, ‘He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom.’ (NIV)
First century Jews were awaiting a Messiah, from the line of David, to re-establish the throne and kingdom of David. Matthew is making it very clear that Jesus was (and is!) that Messiah.
The Son of Abraham
Every single Jew would know that David descended from Abraham. Thus, if Jesus was a descendent of David, He was also a son of Abraham. My take is that Matthew included this additional title, the son of Abraham, to reference the original covenant with the Jewish people. In Genesis, God promised to bless all nations on earth through the offspring of Abraham.
Whether or not this is the correct interpretation of Matthew’s intent, the reference to the original covenant drastically expands who this account of the Gospel is written. And, expanding on that, foreshadows a subsequent theme that Jesus came for all — not just the Jewish people. His message to this world certainly is inclusive and everlasting.
Much like early Jewish Christians, I needed to check some boxes. I needed some assurance, some evidence, that this Jesus even existed. For them, it was evidence that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies they knew by heart. For me, this assurance came in learning that those who would benefit the most if He had never walked the earth acknowledge that He did — and in many instances view Him as a prophet!
Yes, this seems to undermine the very premise of faith. However, each day I’m realizing more and more that faith is something that I continually need to work on and develop. I need to pursue Him, to trust Him.
What hurdles have you placed before you that are holding your faith back? What boxes do you need to checked? What is keeping you from pursuing God?