And how does this powerful and world-changing story begin? It kicks off with a family tree!
Abraham --> Isaac --> Jacob --> Perez --> Hezron --> Aram --> Aminadab... And so it goes on, and on, and on.
Have you ever been at someone's house when they break out the old home videos? That's not exactly my idea of a great night (even when it's my own family)! But if you watch long enough you might just see something worthy of a cameo on America's Funniest Home Videos, so you grin and bear it. You watch, all the while hoping that something good happens.
The culture of Jesus' day had no video cameras or wikipedia links from one name to the next, so people passed down the stories that went along with the names. As the names of Jesus' family tree roll along, the reader encounters the scandalous names of Tamar (her story includes the seduction of her father-in-law), Ruth (her story is a story because she was an outsider to the people of Israel), and Bathsheba (her story includes an adulterous affair with King David). In our day, this family tree would've no doubt been scooped up by TMZ or US Weekly.
The line moves in fits and starts. It draws the reader forward and then backs down. It lurches forward again and then seems to fall flat.
Abraham...David - these were prominent figures.
And then it tapers off with Solomon, Rehoboam, and Abijah - they brought chaos and disorder.
But then it gets better with the mention of Josiah - he restored order and worship of God in the land.
It trails off again with the mention of the exile to Babylon - the punishment for Israel's continued neglect for her God-given calling.
It daringly picks back up with Eleazar, Matthan, Jacob, and Joseph - they're at least back in their land, even though their under foreign occupation.
Then comes the finale, the name of above all the other names (literally and theologically), Jesus - he is called "the Christ."
The Christ, the Messiah is to be the rightful King of the Jewish people in their own land. So the reader is expected to ask, "Who is this King?"
Matthew's whole gospel is written to show just who this King is, but here he offers two names (or a name and a title) to whet our appetites for the main course he is about to serve.
Name #1: Jesus (Matthew 1:21)
He is to be called "Jesus," which means "YHWH [God] saves." This is because he will save his people from their sins. He will deliver his people from their exile which they are presently experiencing as a result of their sin manifested through their collective infidelity to the covenant with God. Jesus, then, will be the King who goes down with his people into the real exile of sin and death, and then emerges to lead them up and out the other side.
Name #2: Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23)
He is to be called "Emmanuel," which means "God with us."
This name has been celebrated in recent centuries in the song, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Here's a video with the song and the lyrics:
With these two names, Matthew has drawn together two aspects of Old Testament expectation. He insists that God will save his people from exile and the real enemies of sin and death (of which Babylon/Rome is a mere puppet). And he'll do it through Jesus, the Savior. Then he insists that God will come and dwell with his people. And he'll also do that Jesus, the King.
So right from the start, the New Testament leads us to encounter Jesus: the fulfillment of Israel's hope, the Savior, the King, God with us.
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