During the season of Advent we are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We are getting ready to celebrate the fact that our Lord Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary at Christmas. We have two accounts in the New Testament that tell us about these events: Luke chapters 1-2 and Matthew chapter 1.
On the surface of things, Matthew’s account – and his Gospel as a whole – does not begin in the most exciting manner. In fact, it begins with seventeen verses that we usually skip in order to get to the really interesting material. The evangelist places a genealogy at the start of the Gospel.
Matthew begins his Gospel by writing, “The book of the origin of Jesus: Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham.” Matthew announces what the rest of the genealogy demonstrates: Jesus is the true Christ who descends from David. God had spoken his promise that David would never lack a descendant on the throne (2 Samuel 7:12-16). These Davidic kings would be God’s “son” (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7) – his messiah (anointed one) (Psalm 2:2). Yet God promised more than just a series of kings, most of whom proved to be disappointments. He promised that he would provide the Messiah – the one upon whom the Spirit would rest (Isaiah 11:1-2). This one would rule justly, destroy the wicked (Isaiah 11:3-5) and usher in a new era of peace that would extend to creation itself (Isaiah 11:6-9).
The evangelist also reminds us that the story of Jesus the Christ is grounded in God’s promises to Abraham – his promise to make Abraham into a great nation and that in Abraham all families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3). It begins with the start of Israel’s history in the first of the patriarchs. Yet in doing so, Matthew also provides an allusion to the fact that this One descended from Abraham brings salvation to all nations.
Matthew then provides a genealogy of Jesus – a list of the ancestors who preceded Jesus and from whom he descended. It’s a long list of funny sounding names. Genealogies are nothing new in the Scriptures. You find them in lists like “the book of the generations of Adam” in Genesis 5:1-32. However, there is something different about the way Matthew sets forth the genealogy. While genealogies normally list a person’s descendants, the genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel provides Jesus’ ancestors. The book of the generations of Adam provides those who came forth from Adam. The book of the origin of Jesus provides all those who led up to Jesus – he is the focus of genealogy. And since this is a genealogy that goes back to Abraham and David, we learn that Jesus is the culmination of Israel’s history.
This point becomes clear in the way Matthew lays out the genealogy. He summarizes it at the end by writing, “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations” (Matthew 1:17 ESV). Biblical genealogies are not comprehensive – they are selective and usually don’t include every generation. Most likely the number fourteen came from the fourteen names found in the genealogy of 1 Chronicles 1-2 that provided a basic source for Matthew.
What is significant is the threefold repetition of this pattern. The division into three periods draws upon the idea found in Jewish apocalyptic eschatology that God has ordered history into distinct periods that are moving towards a pivotal end-time (eschatological) moment. The arrival of Jesus Christ is not just the culmination of Israel’s history. It is the culmination the history of the entire creation. It signals the arrival of God’s final end-time (eschatological) action.
The genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel teaches us about how we should view the events of Christmas – and the time in which we now live. At Christmas “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). God’s saving purposes that he was working through Israel were fulfilled as he acted through the incarnate Son of God to save humanity and renew creation. In the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, God has begun the Last Day (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). He has begun the renewal of all of creation (Matthew 19:28; Romans 8:18-23). This dramatic action commenced as Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
In the incarnation of the Son at Christmas, God began the events that culminated on Good Friday and Easter. Christmas begins the final stage of God’s saving work, and because of what was accomplished on Good Friday and Easter, we now live as those “on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11 ESV). Christmas reminds us that we do not live in ordinary times. We live in the last days when the risen and ascended Lord has poured forth his Spirit (Acts 2:14-21; 31-33). We live in the last days when we have been made a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) in Christ through the work of the Spirit in Holy Baptism (Titus 3:5). We live in the last days when the presence of the same Spirit guarantees that we will share in Jesus’ resurrection (Romans 8:11). And so, Christmas and the celebration of Christ’s first coming prompt us to pray “Come Lord Jesus!” as we eagerly await his second coming on the Last Day.