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In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.
It has been said that when one meets an Englishman, if he asks a question it will be about the nature of one's work or business. My own experience tells me that, though this can be the case, it is far from being a universal truth. Television drama suggests that perhaps the aristocracy is more concerned with family and blood. Members of other nations, including the Welsh, will begin with "Where are you from?" followed by "Who do you belong to?" This concern for relationship is to be found too among the Jews and other ancient peoples. Thus, Paul describes himself as "a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of the Hebrews." Kinship was important and each family needed to know and declare its ancestral pedigree for such knowledge was the basis of all social relationship.
Matthew sets out the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph's line, a chapter rarely read but deserving of better treatment. In beginning with the phrase "book of the generations," Matthew is following a pattern to be found in the Book of Genesis. Chapter 5 opens with "the list of the descendants of Adam" and its list of generations leads to Noah, "a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God." Noah was God's agent of the new beginning for the human race after the flood and thus a prototype of the Saviour who was to come. Matthew's account sets out the generations: from Abraham to David with a list of patriarchs, David to the Exile, listing kings, and the Exile to Christ, giving the names of individuals, suggesting that the revelation of God's plan of redemption continues through each epoch. The call of Abraham marks a new beginning after Babel and reaches its climax in David. Then come the events leading to the Exile. The return from Exile is another new beginning, reaching its climax in the coming of Christ. Three kings are omitted from the list – Ahaziah, Joseph and Amaziah – these were not of the house of David, indeed, they were opposed to it.
Surprisingly, there are four women: Tamar (Genesis 38. 11ff), Rahab the harlot (Joshua 6. 17, 22-25), Ruth the Moabitess (Ruth) and Bethsheba (2 Samuel 11-12), wife of Uriah the Hittite. These are not only female but also foreign and the relationships of all four were unusual. What is stressed is that each of these women either kept the Covenant or entered into it by an act of faith. God's kingdom is based on his covenant of grace and is open to women and foreigners on equal terms, to pagans and prostitutes alike.
Matthew is concerned to tell his readers, Jewish Christians, that Jesus is the anointed King, of the royal line of David and Israel's promised Messiah. Jesus is too the descendant of Abraham, the Father of the People, by whom all the nations of earth are to be blessed. This evangelist is concerned to explain why Gentiles are to have a place in the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore among God's people on earth. He is preparing the way for his record of the denunciation of the Pharisees and Sadducees by John the Baptist (3.7-10): 'Do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our ancestor," for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham,"' as well as the declaration by Jesus in the story of the centurion's servant (Matthew 8.5-13) that "many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness." Matthew is concerned to stress that the news he records is the fulfilment of the eternal purposes of God. So, in 1.22-23, he quotes Isaiah 7.14: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel." On at least three other occasions in the first two chapters he refers to Scripture to confirm what he is claiming. There are, too, close resemblances between the flight into Egypt and its return with the story of Moses (see Chapter 12). Christ sacrifices relationship with God, family and the respectable for the sake of outsiders.
Whereas Matthew opens his Gospel with his genealogy table, Luke places his account between that of the Baptism of Jesus and his temptation in the wilderness. Luke works backwards from Joseph to Adam, through Nathan, a less important son to his father David and on through Jacob, Isaac and Abraham, through Shem, Noah and Seth to Adam. It has been suggested that his purpose in working this way is to draw his readers' immediate attention to Jesus himself. The lists between Abraham and David are almost identical but are vastly different from David to Joseph; in this section only two names appear on both lists, those of Shealtiel and Zerubbabel. The differences in these two genealogies have caused debate among scholars down the ages, especially since such details were usually painstakingly recorded by Jewish scribes. For example, it was said at Tantur in 1989 that there was a Jewish family in Galilee which had never left its village, which could trace its ancestry back to around 150 B.C.
Luke's list begins at Luke 3.23 with "He [Joseph] was the son (as was thought) of Heli ..." This creates a problem from the start because Matthew 1.16 declares: "and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ." One of the earlier theories explains this by the tradition of "Levirite marriage," whereby if two brothers live together and one dies, leaving no son to succeed him; his brother would marry the widow to provide sons to carry on the name and line of the deceased brother (Deuteronomy 25.5-10). By this, Joseph was the legal son of Heli, who had died, and the natural son of Jacob. By this theory, Joseph's grandfathers - Luke's 'Matthat' and Matthew's 'Matthan' - are brothers, both of whom married the same woman, so that Matthat's son (Heli) is the legal father of Joseph and Matthan his natural father. Perhaps such theorising is really beside the point. Martin Luther said that Joseph's line is recorded by Matthew and that of Mary by Luke whilst Julius Africanus suggested that, as has been noted, Matthew follows the natural line and Luke the legal.
The evangelists' concern with ancestry was quite common in the ancient world and is still important in many parts of the world. Being able to recite the names of your forefathers was proof of belonging. Being "one of us, not one of them" was essential for survival. Questions of status too were settled by reference to ancestry. Ezra 2.62 tells of the search for proof of priestly status after the return from exile: "They looked for their entries in the genealogical records but they were not there and were excluded from the priesthood as unclean."
Both Matthew and Luke, however, though setting out to present history, are concerned with more than history. Both are concerned with the kerygma, the proclamation of the Gospel. Jesus is not another pagan demi-god; he is a human being, with a human family. He is the Son of David the King, a claim repeated in the New Testament. This is stressed by both evangelists, who also state that Jesus is the son of Abraham. This is Matthew's main concern in beginning the family tree with Abraham. For Matthew and his Jewish readers, this Jesus is a human being, the Son of David the King and the Son of Abraham, father of the people, but for Matthew he is too the Son of God, the Christ/Promised Saviour and Emmanuel, "God with us." It is worth noting that Matthew uses the phrase 'Son of David" ten times, more than the total usage by Mark and Luke put together, whilst the phrase is totally absent from John's Gospel.
Luke's birth narrative tells us that Jesus is the son of Mary, who is also of the house and lineage of David and a descendant of Abraham but he takes us back to Adam, "the father of us all," and through Adam to God. Jesus is the Son of Man and Saviour of all humanity. The central declaration of both writers is that Jesus, Lord and Redeemer, is the Son of God. He has come to bring God's wandering children back into his family, part of a redeemed creation.
It seems to be that the sense of belonging has weakened considerably during the last century. Young people leave home for university or work and often do not return home permanently. The strong sense of community to be found in the South Wales mining valleys, though still, perhaps, stronger than in other, more prosperous places, is nonetheless not what it was. One of the great concerns of the Christmas which is just past is that one million pensioners spent the holiday in loneliness. Another sign of this is the fact that a large amount of British new housing is aimed to young people who choose to live alone. Hearing the pensioners' story made me say that at least belonging to a church provides a sense of belonging but then I recalled being in a crowded church on Christmas morning where people seemed very friendly to each other but ignored us completely.
God our Father: your Son Jesus Christ became a human being to claim us human beings as sisters and brothers in faith. Make us one with him, so that we may enjoy your love, and, as he lived, so may we live in joyful service as your children; for the sake of him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Questions for thought or discussion
1. How important, especially for Christians, is a sense of belonging to others?
2. One church secretary wrote of meetings which attracted "the right sort of people." What is the significance for us of Tamar the Harlot, Ruth the Moabitess and Bathsheba, listed in the genealogies or of Mary Magdalene, Matthew the tax-collector and Simon the leper?
3. Can a true Christian community be unwelcoming to strangers and outsiders?CHAPTER 2
Prototypes and Promises
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them from afar off were assured of them, embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on earth ... Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Doubtless, we have all met people who decided to have a go at reading the Bible by starting with Genesis because that is the first book in the volume as it has come down to us. They planned to read straight through, only to get bogged down sooner or later in the Old Testament. However, editorial order is not everything. The Hebrew understanding of God began with the people's experience of his involvement in their exodus from Egypt. It was that experience which started their relationship with God and their questioning search to know him better and understand him more fully. The Hebrew Bible is the record of that search and that relationship.
Christians need to read their Scriptures in a Christian way so that the Christian starting point for Bible reading is not the Old Testament but a gospel, probably that of Mark. What is even more wrong for a Christian than starting with Genesis is believing that Christians do not need the Old Testament. The Old Testament is essential to our understanding of the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the whole of the message of the New Testament. At the same time, the key to understanding the Old Testament is Jesus Christ. Saint Augustine the Great speaks for the early Christian Fathers in his statement that "the New Testament is the consummation or fulfilment of the Old." Thus the Old Testament needs to be read in the light of its fulfilment in Jesus Christ. When that happens, then Jesus appears in all sorts of unexpected places.
Genesis 1.31 portrays the last day of the creation: "God saw everything that he had made and indeed, it was very good." The final words can mean "completely perfect." What is God seeing here? Is it what happened by the end of the sixth day? Or is God looking through all the process of creation to its final fulfilment? Does the picture include the whole sweep of world history as presented in the Scriptures? The rest of the Bible story is to do with human failure and God's grace – his love for those who have no claim on it, who do not deserve it – and the way in which that grace leads to final victory and fulfilment of divine purpose. John opens his gospel with the trumpet sound of his Prologue, where he calls Christ the Word, declaring that the Word was there at the beginning, when God spoke and creation came about.
The Hebrew Bible, which became for Christians the Old Testament, tells of the preparation for the coming of the Saviour of the world. The God who saw "that everything was very good" was active throughout the biblical story in working to ensure that it was to be so in the final fulfilment of his purpose. The redemption of humanity is set out early on in that story, with constant pointers to how it is to be brought about through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man.
We can find pointers to Christ in events and festivals. The God met in the Exodus is found to be Lord of nature and history; he judges tyrants and is merciful to his people, with whom he creates a covenant relationship. The lambs slaughtered at Passover point to the Lamb of God, "with all the marks of slaughter on him" and "slain from the foundation of the world."
The unleavened (flawless) bread of the Exodus becomes the Bread of Life, broken for us. Christ is the first fruit, sown for a great harvest. His power and glory were seen at Pentecost, when his Spirit filled the temple, a promise that later that same Spirit would overflow out into the world, fifty days after the resurrection of Christ.
The gospels seem to suggest that the coming of Christ in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius was a sudden event, long awaited but then unexpected whereas, in fact, the incarnation followed on an ages-long process of preparation of his way. The accounts of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds tell of surprise and amazement but the magi, like the elderly Simeon and Anna, point to searching and faithful waiting.
It was by the Word that God spoke as he walked with Adam in the garden, that he led Noah into the ark, that he made a covenant with Abraham. This is how he called to Moses from the burning bush, divided the Red Sea, led the people through the wilderness and gave them the Law at Sinai. He spoke with patriarchs, kings and prophets and to common people. They became the instruments of his purpose. None of these may be called a 'plaster-saint'. All are human, with foibles and faults but all respond to the call of God with greater or lesser faith and obedience. They contain three basic types: the first two contain prototypes of Jesus, whose lives point to something in the story of Christ; the second group declares the promises of God, which are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, whilst the last group contains those people who are faithful, whatever befalls them: in the New Testament such people are called "the saints." We meet some of their sort in the evangelist's accounts of the Nativity.
Who are some of these prototypes? Abraham responded without hesitation to the call of God to leave home and go on a journey not knowing where he went, as the first to walk the missionary road of God. Where he goes, what he does and what he experiences is for the good of others: "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house ... I will make of you a great nation ... and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. So Abram went ..." God calls a man, who is released from all tribal ties and sent to be the father of a new nation, through which the whole human race is to be blessed through all generations. The Tower of Babel story reveals the human tendency to create "us and them." This time it is a united race which seeks independence of God and that leads to ruin. The calling of this one man and the covenant made with him gives hope for all the world, a hope which is fulfilled in a son of Abraham, who takes on himself all the sin and sorrow of the world and carries it to his cross for the salvation of all the world. Just as Lot is saved because of Abraham, so the world is saved because of Jesus. The prophets Isaiah and Zechariah take up the theme in Abraham's calling. It is repeated on at least three occasions in the New Testament.
Joseph incurred the anger of his brothers, who sold him at a price into slavery in Egypt, where he endured cruelty and hardship, before being exalted to the king's right hand. He ensured that there was bread in Egypt. All of this was for the sake of the salvation of his father, brothers and their descendants, and through them the whole human family, to whom and for whom Christ came as the Saviour and Bread of Life.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Pathway to the Stable"
Copyright © 2017 Ivor Thomas Rees.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
1 Belonging 7
2 Prototypes and Promises 13
3 Cousin John 22
4 Mary's Visitor 28
5 Family Get-Together 33
6 Joseph the Carpenter 36
7 City of David 41
8 A Common Lot 50
9 Faithful Ones 55
10 Four Songs 60
11 Foreigners! 63
12 Herod the King 70
13 Refugees and Asylum Seekers 77
14 Growing Up 82
15 Fanfare 89
16 Bugle Call 93