Matthew 1:1 - Jesus' Subtle Identity
The first sentence in Matthew’s Gospel is this, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” Why start this way?
By the time we get to Matthew’s Gospel, we’re in the fifth act of a five act play, we’re at the end of the story, so where are we in the story, what’s happening?
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And he created man and woman and designed a home for them in the Garden of Eden and gave them jobs to do to expand God’s kingdom of Eden to the whole wild world. And they had 1 rule, but Adam and Eve broke it. So they were kicked out, exiled from the garden.
No the interesting thing about the rest of the story in Genesis is that the book of Genesis is organized around 10 genealogies. And these genealogies start with the phrase “The book of the genealogy of” some person. So the first book in the Bible has 10 genealogies and this is very different from every other book in the Old Testament.
Well the story goes on and that same story that happened in the garden will happen again with Israel writ large. That is God will make another special place and bring his people Israel into this place and give them rules again. And once again they will disobey and be kicked out, exiled from the land.
And this is the grand story of the Old Testament. It starts high and it ends low, we start with God in God’s place and we end up without God out of God’s place. That’s the story until Matthew.
Now, what if you were Matthew and you wanted to communicate that something different, something new was going to happen how would you communicate it. Well, Matthew goes back to the first book of the Bible, and uses that same phrase that was used 10 times in the beginning. “The book of the genealogy”, and he uses it as the first thing, the first phrase in the book. Matthew is saying that what’s happening with Jesus is so fundamentally different and new that it’s like having a whole new Genesis.
And this whole new thing, this new creation starts with Jesus Christ. Now Matthew has done some subtle things here and it’s easy to miss. But to understand what he’s doing we have to compare this genealogy to the genealogies is in Genesis.
Now, the purpose of this genealogy is to tell us about Who Jesus is. For instance, right at the beginning it says Jesus is the son of David which means that he is in the kingly line and he’s the son of Abraham so he’s in the line of the covenant. But the way that Matthew structures this first sentence hints at something even deeper about who Jesus is. Look at this.
In the genealogies in Genesis they will say that it is the genealogy of a certain person. For instance Adam and then the rest of the genealogy will tell us all the people Who came from, who were generated from Adam.
So Adam produced, generated Cain and Abel. But notice the way that Matthew structures his genealogy, “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham. By writing it in the same way as the genealogies in Genesis, Matthew is implying that Jesus generated these people. In some mysterious way, Jesus was the source, the origin of all of these people. Now, who is able to do that. It’s like later in the Gospel when Jesus calms the storm, controlling creation, the disciples will say, “who is this that even the winds and the seas obey him” “Who is this?”
The three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all communicate Jesus’ divinity but do so subtly. This is different from John’s Gospel. John will start out saying that Jesus is God in the flesh and so if you’re ever wondering what God would do would be like if you were a man then John’s Gospel is for you because the whole book, everything that Jesus does is explaining the divine character. The other three Gospels and Matthew in particular will focus on other aspects of Jesus his identity but they will offer fascinating and subtle clues of his divine nature that our authors will provide even in the first sentence.
So Matthew begins his gospel by telling us there’s a whole New World that’s coming and it’s centered around this one man Jesus Christ. Now if I told you that there was a whole New World and it was starting with one man your natural question would be, “Well, who is this man and what is he like?” And that is the question that this genealogy is designed to answer. And we will see that out of the thousands and thousands of people that Matthew could have chosen, he selected only a few and arranged them in a fascinating way and that’s what we will look at next week.
H/T Peter Leithart for this insight in his magnificent introduction to the four Gospels: The Four: A Survey of the Gospels: A Survey of the Gospels.