The Part of the Christmas Story Nobody Reads

I would imagine that most people reading this blog have been at a few Christmas Eve church services or other church services this time of year. And you’ve probably heard the Christmas story read from the Bible several times. And so, if you were to open up a Bible to the gospel of Matthew and start reading in chapter 1, verse 18, you’d find what is probably a pretty familiar story. It starts like this:

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.

And you’d go on to read that an angel visited, Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, wise men came to visit him, and so on. All crucially important, but most likely pretty familiar stuff to you.

But notice that all of this starts at v. 18. Interestingly enough, Matthew doesn’t start his account of Jesus with the actual details of his birth. No, he actually starts his gospel with a genealogy, which, unless I miss my guess, most of us give about about .7 seconds of a attention to before we skip on to what we view as “more important stuff.”

So this leads to a couple of questions. Assuming Matthew’s purpose is not to waste paper or bore his readers, why does he start his gospel with what seems to be just a long family tree? And how in the world does it relate to the Christmas story?

Well, I think the answer, in large part, has to do with the fact that this list of names is actually a shorthand way for Matthew to remind his readers of some very important information. It’s a shorthand way for him to tell an amazing back story—the history of what God had been doing and unfolding for hundreds, even thousands of years before Jesus was born.

I say that because Matthew’s first readers—who were most likely Jews like himself—would have been very familiar with that history. And so, when they heard many of the names that Matthew lists, they would have been instantly reminded of what God had done in the lives of those people, through those people, sometimes even in spite of those people.

So, for example, let’s think for a minute about the two most prominent names on the list, names that Matthew draws particular attention to. The first is Abraham. Mattew’s readers would have been reminded that God had called him to be the father of a great nation, but also that through him, God promised to bless all the families of the earth (see Gen. 12).

And then there’s David. His name would have reminded people that God had made promises to Israel’s greatest king as well, promises to establish his throne and his kingdom forever.

In fact, as time unfolded, God revealed more about that promise. Many years after David reigned, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah about a person he would raise up to sit on David’s throne. In Isaiah 9, we read something else that Matthew’s reader’s might well have remembered:

2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as men rejoice
when dividing the plunder.

And then a few verses later:

6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.

In the midst of all these names, Matthew also makes mention of something he refers to as simply the exile to Babylon. Again, his readers would have known exactly what he meant. As much of the Old Testament reveals, the Jewish people proved to be stubbornly disobedient, despite the Lord showing them a remarkable degree of patience and sending them warning after warning through his prophets. And so he finally punished them, sending a foreign nation to conquer them and force them into exile.

Because as grim as those days were, that whole episode was also linked with great promises from God. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God pledged that he would not only to gather his people back from that exile, but also to establish a new covenant with them, one in which he will forgive his people’s wickedness and remember their sins no more.

Matthew’s genealogy hints at all of this—and that’s just the highlights. We could go on to reflect on other names and other stories that also reflect the grace and faithfulness of God.

It’s to this back story that Matthew very consciously connects Jesus. In doing so, he’s saying that Jesus is part of the plan that God had been unfolding for literally thousands of years. In fact, he’s directly hinting that Jesus is God’s most amazing gift of grace, the final and greatest part of the plan, the fulfillment of all those incredible promises.

For example, by noting that Jesus is the son of Abraham, Matthew is foreshadowing that Jesus will be the means through which God’s blessing for all the families of the earth will come about. He also makes plain that Jesus is the son of David. He will be the one that that will sit on David’s throne, ruling over all things, bringing about peace and justice and joy.

And by calling to mind the exile, Matthew hints that Jesus is bound up with those events as well. In fact, later in the chapter, he makes this connection clear, relating that God commands Mary and Joseph to name the child Jesus—meaning “the Lord saves”—because “he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). Jesus will be the one who will bring about the promised new covenant and the forgiveness of sins for his people.

All of this points to just why it is that Jesus’ birth is such a big deal. And all of it is hinted at, packed in, a family tree.

So, with those first few verses, Matthew sets the stage for Jesus. And if we keep reading his story, we find that what began in that dirty little manger, by way of a bloody cross and an empty tomb, will one day end in a completely renewed world, where God himself will dwell with the people he has rescued from their sin. There, they will no longer struggle, with “death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (see Rev. 21:1-4).

That is why the Bible calls the birth of Jesus “good news of great joy.” My hope and prayer is that you will understand Christmas to be exactly that.

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