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The Birth of Jesus
Claim Your Story
Think back for a few moments about how you first learned the Christmas story. Did you see the story unfold in a children's pageant at church? Did you sit in the lap of a parent or a grandparent, reading together from a children's Bible storybook? Did you talk about the events surrounding Jesus' birth as your little fingers positioned and repositioned the figures in a ceramic Nativity scene?
Perhaps as a youth you were a player in an outdoor live Nativity scene. Perhaps you listened as the Christmas story was read aloud from one of the Gospels during a worship service. Try to recall the plot line and all the characters involved. Chances are that the Christmas story etched in your memory is a composite of the accounts in Matthew and Luke, probably with embellishments and omissions.
The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of Jesus' birth and the events surrounding it in a particular way. It begins by tracing family lineage but with a different list of names than in Luke. The writer of Matthew reminds the reader of Old Testament passages that he now recognizes as prophesies of Jesus.
In Matthew's Gospel an angel appears—not to Mary but to Joseph. There is a wondrous star in the sky instead of a choir of angels. Wise men, not shepherds, come to honor Jesus. There is no mention of the Roman Empire, instead, a shrewd and brutal King Herod. Why do you suppose Matthew tells the Christmas story this way? What does the Gospel writer want you to notice?
Enter the Bible Story
Emile Cailliet, for many years a distinguished professor of philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary, never saw a Bible until he was twentythree years old. By that time he had already served in the French army in World War I and was beginning to establish himself as one of France's brightest young scholars. When the Bible came to his hands, he opened it—quite by chance—to the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew. As he read, he realized, with "awe and wonder," that this was the book that understood him. This was the book that in all of his studies he had unknowingly been seeking.
That word would please the author of Matthew's Gospel and all of those first-century readers who not only read and memorized its pages but who made handwritten copies for other readers. For some readers then and now, Matthew is their introduction to Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God. For others who already believe, Matthew answers many of their questions about Jesus: his birth, his teachings, his death and resurrection. Especially, Matthew introduces us to Jesus' teachings about the kingdom of heaven, teachings that raise questions even as they give answers and demands.
Above all, however, as you look at Matthew thoughtfully and—better yet, reverently—you see it is a book that knows you and that challenges you to a new, more wonderful, more demanding life.
Matthew and the Hebrew Scriptures
Most Bible scholars feel that Mark was the first Gospel written. Why then is Matthew the opening book in our New Testament? Quite clearly, because this Gospel makes the most direct tie with the Hebrew Scriptures, thus indicating that the two testaments belong together, that the best basis for understanding the New Testament is found in the Hebrew Scriptures, and that we call these Scriptures the "Old" Testament because they precede the New Testament and prepare us for understanding it.
A thoughtful reader might easily think that Matthew's primary aim is to show this connection. He begins in a "Hebrew" way: "A record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1). The Hebrew Scriptures are full of genealogies, as we discover especially in Genesis, Ruth, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. The Hebrew Scriptures also emphasize history, because their writers believed that God is at work in history. Thus Matthew summarizes his genealogy by historical periods: "So there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen generations from the exile to Babylon to the Christ" (1:17).
An earnest first-century Jew would see the history of his or her people as breaking naturally into a period from Abraham, the father of their nation, to David, their epochal king. Then the period continues with David to the Babylonian captivity, the crisis that most severely tested their nationhood and that at the same time sealed their identity as the people of the Scriptures and the synagogue as the place of learning.
Matthew adds what he sees as the third great period, from Babylon "to the Christ." He presents Jesus Christ as the ultimate fact of his people's history. All else is prelude.
See, then, who Jesus Christ is. On the one hand, he is the product of a long line of Jewish generations and a figure in history like any other human figure. At the same time, he is the breaking point in history, God's unique invasion into our human story. Mind you, as I indicated a moment ago, the Jews believed that God was always operating in history. This event, the birth of Jesus Christ, however, was an event like no other in history and yet beyond history.
Matthew makes still another tie to the Hebrew Scriptures when he reports on the unique circumstances of Jesus' conception: "Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled" (1:22). The Hebrew writers are quoted throughout the New Testament; but this phrase, "spoken through the prophet," is a favorite with Matthew. By it he reaffirms the connection between the Hebrew Scriptures and what he himself is writing. For Matthew it is a seamless unit.
In its own way, Matthew is a scandalous book. The genealogy follows the usual Hebrew pattern of identifying children through the line of the father. Unlike most such genealogies, however, this one introduces the mother on four occasions: Tamar (1:3), Rahab (1:5), Ruth (1:5), and "the wife of Uriah" (1:6).
If you know the Hebrew Scriptures as did the first Christians, you would know that (1) Tamar's twins were born of an incestuous union with her father-in-law; (2) Rahab had been a prostitute in Jericho; (3) Ruth was a woman of Moab, a nation with whom Jews were not supposed to intermarry; (4) and "the wife of Uriah"—well, her name was Bathsheba; but when Matthew identifies her not by her name but by her being "the wife of Uriah," he is reminding his readers that she and King David first came to know one another in an adulterous relationship. Matthew's use of the phrase that ties her to her first husband is a sharp, stark reminder of David and Bathsheba's history, an element so significant that even the eventual product of their union, Solomon, is not enough to justify their past.
However, it isn't quite right to speak of Matthew as a "scandalous" book. Rather, it is a typical biblical book in that it portrays the human story as it is, the story of human beings, with our strange mix of the base and the noble, the sinner and the saint, the misery and the grandeur that characterizes all humans. The Bible isn't always a pretty book, but it is always an honest book. It never uses evil to titillate, as do some contemporary novels and sitcoms. It never denies that evil exists, and it doesn't carefully skirt around troublesome data.
Still more important, the Bible in general and Chapter 1 of Matthew in particular make clear that God isn't discouraged by our human sinfulness. God sends the Redeemer through a genealogical line that has its fair share of people we'd rather omit from our ancestral record, as if to make clear that while sin is not good, neither is it victorious: God can work in the midst of its mess.
Perhaps one of the overlooked factors in Mary's being a virgin is to say rather dramatically that God breaks into the all-too-typical line of sin with the classical symbol of purity: a virgin. It is as if the virgin's appearance overcomes all that has come before. Sin may mark our human story; but victorious divine intervention is our story's ceaseless, sometimes unbelievable, wonder.
Matthew Tells the Story
Matthew finishes his genealogy and then continues almost matter-offactly: "This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place" (1:18). We're hardly ready for the story that follows: a typical village couple, Joseph and Mary (the girl in her early teens), in the year of their engagement. In their culture, the year of engagement or betrothal was one in which they were considered legally married, except for the right of cohabiting. If the man were to die within that year, the woman was legally identified as a widow, even though still a virgin. At this point, as Matthew reports it, the young woman, Mary, "became pregnant by the Holy Spirit" (1:18).
Joseph's first response is, by the law of his time and culture, generous. He wanted to avoid public humiliation for Mary and began arranging for a quiet dissolution of their engagement. However, an angel intervened in a dream, telling him not to be afraid because Mary's child was from the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph was given a significant bonus: The name of the child was revealed to him; and he was to give the name Jesus, "because he will save his people from their sins" (1:21).
As Matthew continues the story, he reminds his readers of another name for this child: Emmanuel, meaning "God with us." Jesus of Nazareth was to be God's singular visitor to planet Earth. Matthew then adds an earthy but significant detail: that Joseph "didn't have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son" (1:25), thus underlining the quality of Mary's virginity.
At this point the story takes a dramatic, romantic turn—the coming of the wise men. This is Matthew's way of indicating that though Jesus comes from the line of David and the kings of Israel, he is a worldwide figure. As I see it, the wise men are not only representatives of another ethnic culture but are also a bridge between the Hebrew prophets and the wisdom of the Gentile world.
The wise men made their journey by light of their best scholarly studies of the stars and probably of their philosophical writers. However, they received their final direction by way of rabbis who pointed to the writing of the Hebrew prophet Micah, who had identified Bethlehem as the birthplace of Israel's coming king.
History seems to indicate that there are times of particular spiritual hunger, when people are more sensitive to the Spirit of God. Certainly this was true of the period in which Jesus Christ was born. Greeks, Romans, and Jews alike were on the quest. The Greeks were in search of better forms of government; the Romans, in their aggressive way, were establishing enforced world peace; and the Jews had a new hunger for freedom and for their promised Messiah.
Now East and West meet via the Hebrew prophets and the best knowledge of the Gentile scholars. The prophet Micah, via Herod's counselors, completed the journey for the star-led wise men, so they could lay their offerings at the feet of the Baby born to peasants from the hill country town of Nazareth.
The Story's First Villain
However, no story on our planet goes far before a villain appears. Joseph could have been such a villain, a well-meaning one, simply seeking to protect his own justified rights; but Joseph was a good and righteous man. He was restrained from thwarting the purposes of God. I'm quite sure there's something for all of us to learn in Joseph's story. Often God's best purposes are delayed or temporarily frustrated by those of us whose intentions are right but whose vision is narrow. Fortunately, Joseph was receptive enough before God to become an aide to the divine plan rather than a deterrent.
Not so with King Herod. Where Joseph was a good and righteous man, Herod was a fearful and conflicted one. In many ways, Herod had been an especially good and generous king to the Jews; but he was a man maniacally suspicious of everyone, fearful someone would take his throne from him. Driven by that fear, over the years Herod ordered the death of his wife, his mother-in-law, his oldest son, and two other of his sons in a psychotic drive to protect his throne. So when wise men appeared in Jerusalem looking for the new King of the Jews, it's easy to predict how Herod would respond.
Herod may have been mad, but he was no fool. He inquired of his religious and legal experts (the two were often one in first-century Judaism, since the law of Israel was the law of the Scriptures) to learn where the Messiah was to be born. They directed Herod's attention to the prophecies of Micah (Micah 5:2) that identified Bethlehem.
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men to learn when they had first begun following the star and also, of course, to win their loyalty by assisting them with the information about Bethlehem. "Go and search carefully for the child," Herod said. "When you've found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him" (Matthew 2:8). Herod's honor to potential kings had a deadly quality!
So, ironically, with Herod's assistance, the magi made their way to Bethlehem. If there was a miracle in the wise men's search and in the human assistance of the counselors in the king's court who narrowed their search, the greatest miracle was in the magi's recognition of the Baby being cared for by the teenage peasant girl and her carpenter husband. The wise men knew how a king should look and the accoutrements that should mark his setting. None of these expectations were fulfilled in this Child. To see a king in such ordinariness required a leap of faith.
The magi made such a leap. In fact, they made that leap with such certainty that they not only presented their expensive gifts, but they chose to return home by another route in order to avoid the promised meeting with King Herod. The twentieth century's premier poet T. S. Eliot, who knew something himself about a leap of faith in his conversion to Christianity, described what happened to the wise men as seeing "a Birth, certainly," but also for them a "Death, our death," because they could no longer be at ease with their old gods. The challenge of the Christ, whether in his birth, his death, and resurrection, is to receive him as Lord of life and to give up our old lives in order to become his disciples.
At this point the Christmas story takes a bitter turn, something in harsh contrast to the mood of our conventional Christmas cards. Frustrated by the realization that the wise men had fooled him, Herod visited upon the Bethlehem area the same insane murderous tactic that had meant the decimation of his royal family. He ordered the execution of all male children in the area two years old and younger.
The actual number of deaths would not have been large, since it was an area of small population; but the ruthless act and its incongruity with the birth of our Lord is a grotesque dramatization of the unceasing war between good and evil and the innocent victims of this eternal struggle. It reminds us again that the Bible is never simply a feel- good book but an honest one— sometimes more honest than the earnest, sentimental reader wants to hear.
The Trip to Egypt
Joseph had already been warned in a dream and had escaped with Mary and the Infant to Egypt. Tradition says that they remained in Egypt perhaps two years, long enough that Egypt's Coptic Christians have several sites and legends about the time the Holy Family spent there.
In time, Joseph was again counseled in a dream. He was told that Herod was dead and that the family should settle in Galilee where there was more security. They made their home in Nazareth, so it is that our Lord is known as Jesus of Nazareth.
Nazareth was a city on the edge of one of the great caravan roads of the ancient world, where traders traveling between Damascus and Egypt could be seen daily. Still, the city was a strangely sheltered place in the hills where the people had an accent of their own and lives that generally were free of the influences of Rome and Athens. Here Jesus the Nazarene was to prepare for the three years that would change the history of our human race.
Live the Story
What would you be missing if you didn't know the Christmas story as Matthew tells it? Oddly enough, some Christians are startled to learn that Jesus was a Jew. Matthew rehearses Jesus' roots in the history of Israel and in the Hebrew Scriptures to make clear that Jesus is the fulfillment, not the repudiation, of that heritage. Think about the particular names in the genealogy, women as well as men. What does that suggest about the way God works? What does it suggest about how God might use a person like you?
What would you be missing if you didn't know about Joseph's special role in the story? Imagine how he must have felt! Consider the difference —for Joseph and for you—between doing the conventionally proper thing and trusting God to bring about something new in a difficult situation.
Excerpted from Matthew by J. Ellsworth Kalas, Jack A. Keller Jr.. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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