Yesterday we took a quick look at what Mark was up to in writing his gospel. This we did by examining his introduction and found that he believed the gospel of Jesus Christ to be about the culminating story of Israel, the long-awaited new exodus, when YHWH rejoined his people at last. That’s Mark’s version of the gospel, which then takes 16 chapters to unfold.
But what about the other gospel writers? What was their take on the gospel they were committing to papyrus? Was Mark way off base in making the gospel into the final chapter of a vast epic? Let’s have a quick look, as we did with Mark, at the introductions of the other three gospels. This should tell us something significant about the meaning they saw in Jesus’ story.
We’ll start with Matthew (we’ll get to Luke and John soon enough), winner of the boring-est introduction to any book ever. Most of us hardly realize that Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy. That’s because we open the New Testament, find a list of names that takes up a whole page, and skip right on to the interesting stuff about Jesus’ birth. I mean, that’s where the story really starts. Amiright?
But Matthew, naturally, is smarter than we are. He knows what he’s doing.
His genealogy is broken up into three chunks. The first runs from Abraham to David, the second from David to Israel’s exile into Babylon, then the third from the exile to Jesus. These are not insignificant divisions, not by a long stretch. Matthew has paused, on each occasion, at critical turning points in Israel’s history. (This is likely the primary reason this genealogy skips generations and fits so neatly into the 3×14 mold. It’s a stylized account meant to tell us something more significant than just who exactly were Jesus’ ancestors.)
First, we get Abraham: the father of all Israelites. Abraham is where the story begins. This is where, for all intent and purpose, God begins his work at rescuing the planet he created. That is effectively the promise given when we first meet Abraham in Genesis 12:
The Lord said to Abram: Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Gen. 12:1-3, HCSB).
There, in a nutshell is God’s agenda for Israel. They will be blessed so that through them the whole corrupted world might be rescued. And Matthew is telling his audience up front that the story of Jesus is a critical chapter in that grand narrative.
Secondly, Matthew lands on King David, the high point in Israel’s long history up to the first century. David was the benchmark for Israel in terms of both its political and religious life (as if we could separate those from Israel’s perspective; they are one and the same, really). Not only that, but it had been promised David that he would have a son whose kingdom would never end, because of its intimate connection to YHWH (2 Sam. 7:11b-16).
Matthew is again giving a massive exaggerated wink to his audience: Remember the hopes we received as a people from our great King David’s story; this story about Jesus is that story.
Lastly, Matthew highlights with exile in Babylon. This is probably the one aspect of Israel’s history that most Christians are least familiar with. Israel getting hauled off to faraway Babylon doesn’t make for a simple Sunday school story. What do you do when the supposed heroes of the Bible become so corrupted? (These days, you make a Netflix original out of it, but whatever.)
But the exile is terribly important to Jews, especially those of Jesus’ own day. Although by then many Jews had long since returned to Jerusalem and its environs, they still had a strong sense that the exile was not yet over. In the Bible itself, this is probably most clearly expressed by the prophets Nehemiah and Malachi. Nehemiah has a critical passage in which he cries out to the Lord over the nation’s political situation, still operating under the jurisdiction of the pagan Medo-Persians (Neh. 9:36-37). Malachi speaks of the people still awaiting the return of YHWH to his people, the very passage Mark had used in his introduction (Mal. 3:1-4).
Again, what is Matthew up to with this genealogy? Like the opposite of putting the medicine in the candy, Matthew has masked the treat with boiled spinach. His genealogy carries the delicious meaning in its structure: Jesus’ gospel is about exile coming to its end and a new stage opening in the history of YHWH’s people.
What is Matthew’s gospel? His story of Jesus is the story of saving promise given to Abraham centuries earlier. It is the story of the new and greater son of David ascending his everlasting throne. It is the final end to the incessant exile Israel had suffered under for over 500 years. According to Matthew, Jesus’ life is about all these at once, and much more.