The Art of Strange Righteousness | Matthew 1:18–21
Matthew begins his gospel with an expansive, and exhaustive genealogy. Where Jesus is identified with the highest members of the Israelite family. Kings, priests, prophets, and psalmists. And in all this Jesus is this climactic cumulative character encompassing all of humanity in his body. This is the king about whom this gospel will be about.
And in line with this grand backstory Matthew announces to us that he will now give us the story of this King’s birth. But as will become a theme in Matthew’s gospel this opening story does not unfold as we are expecting.
Here’s what the text says, Matthew 1:18–21:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
With Jesus’ pedigree we are expecting a parade. But instead, King Jesus’ birth almost divides a family, causing a divorce. Furthermore, his birth will look like infidelity, adultery. Mary is pregnant without being with a man.
Now why did this climactic king’s birth take place in this strange way? Matthew could have easily left it out and he did not include it just for its drama or to give the story texture. So why did he include it? And why did God design his son’s birth in this manner?
Well first, as we saw in the video about women in Matthew’s genealogy, there is an appearance of infidelity, impurity, but in reality, it is the exact opposite. Mary appears to have been impure, sleeping with another man and becoming pregnant, but in reality she has the purity of soul to accept the savior into her body.
You see, Jesus’ whole ministry will have this same shape. He will constantly be accused of violating the law, of sinning, but in reality he is doing the opposite. He is accused of sin because he is healing on the Sabbath when in reality he was doing what the Sabbath was designed for, the restoration of life.
And this is the same shape of Jesus‘s greatest act. It will appear to be the opposite of what it is. It will appear to be defeat when in reality it is victory.
Second, this strange birth will show us the first example of the different kind of righteousness that Jesus describes. Remember, he will say that we need to have a righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees. But he is not talking about in quantity, just more righteous acts, but in quality. There is a new kind of righteousness that is needed.
Notice, our narrator, for the first time in the Gospel has evaluated a character as righteous. In verse 19 it says, “And Joseph, being a righteous man…” And given how uncommon it is for biblical narrators to give explicit evaluation of characters, why here?
You see, Joseph exemplifies the righteousness of Jesus’ kingdom. In the law, if someone is caught cheating on their spouse, you may bring them to trial and if there is sufficient evidence, they will be killed. That is not to say you have to do this, but you may bring them to trial.
Matthew tells us that “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” So Joseph’s righteousness is a generous righteousness. The kind of righteousness that does not want to shame people, but wants to give the benefit of the doubt, that seeks the highest good for them even when there’s massive evidence against them. It’s a justice that doesn’t lay heavy burdens. That wherever there’s a possibility of life and lightness, the burdens are lifted.
So Jesus’ birth is strange because his kingdom is strange and different. It’s not like the kingdoms of this world. In the next chapter there will be another King, Herod, who will also not be what he appears to be but in the opposite direction.
To the world, Jesus appears to be unrighteous, when he is righteous. Herod will appear to be King when his far from it. He will appear to be wise, but be outsmarted by a child, appear to be a protector but in reality a murderer.
The world is upside down, so when the world looks at Jesus’ right-side up kingdom, it looks upside down, strange. And it will take a right-side up king to turn this world around. And that, my friends, is why, the Bible is Art.