Fourth Sunday of Advent

Jesus’ person and mission compel people to make choices

silhouetted figure looking up at stars
Photo by Klemen Vrankar on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

December 18, 2022

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Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25

The Messiah has two fathers

The first line of Matthew’s Gospel, which may also be its title, introduces a series of identifications of Jesus: “This is the book of birth (origins/beginning) of Jesus the Christ, the son of David and the son of Abraham.” In 1:18-25, which also speaks of Jesus’ “genesis” (birth/origin/beginning), Matthew develops the identification of Jesus as Son of David and adds an implicit identification of Jesus as the Son of God, through the Holy Spirit. We also learn that the child of Mary and the Holy Spirit is to be named Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (1:21), and he will also be called Emmanuel—”God with us” (1:23). Matthew thus begins the Gospel by laying all his Christological cards on the table. 

Of these many identifications, two function as a pair that will define the stages of Jesus’ mission. The ministry of Jesus as Son of David will focus on his quest to heal, gather, and restore the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus will reveal his identity as Son of God in manifestations of divine power over sea and storm, for example, but ultimately and definitively in his conquest of death, which had implications not only for Israel and the nations, but for all of creation. There is, however, a snag, which Matthew had to resolve if these two identifications are to run together throughout the Gospel: if Jesus is God’s son, not Joseph’s, how can he also be a son of David? 

Jesus, the Son of David

At the end of the genealogy, in 1:16, Matthew has identified Joseph, who stands in the line of David, not as Jesus’ father, but as the husband of Mary. Matthew presents Jesus as Son of David by adoption, which Joseph will officially signal when, at Jesus’ birth, he publicly announces the child’s name (1:24), as the angel of the Lord has directed (1:21). Joseph is well qualified to serve as Jesus’ human father. When Herod threatens the baby’s life (2:13-18), Joseph flees with the family to Egypt. Joseph also departs from typical social mores when, at the angel’s instruction, he does not divorce Mary for unfaithfulness. Joseph is much like the patriarch after whom he is named (Genesis 37-50): moral, chaste, seeking the preservation and restoration of relationships, and attendant to God’s voice in his ear. As Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph also links Jesus with Israel’s long experience of brotherly alienation, betrayal, and enslavement, while pointing to the resolution of that story in the love and forgiveness that make possible the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel. Both Josephs model “restorative justice” by making space even for those who have harmed or dishonored them, thus making restoration possible or,  in this case, the birth of the one who will save the people from their sins. 

Matthew will portray Jesus, the Son of David, as an atypical monarch, a humble king who restrains and refocuses his authority in order to make space for and restore the lost, blind, lame, and deaf (for example, 9:27, 12:22-23, 15:22, 20:30-31, 21:9-15, 21:5, 26:50-56), whose condition Jesus frequently links metaphorically to the failure of Israel’s leaders. As Son of David, Jesus acts both to judge the powerful who mislead and exploit the people and to heal both individuals and the whole people of God. Finally, like David’s son Solomon, Jesus is a temple builder, but not a temple made by human hands, which will suffer judgment and destruction (24:1-2). Instead, when Jesus gathers, heals, and feeds people, even Gentiles and even in the desert, he is fulfilling the functions of the ideal temple. His resurrection after three days marks the transition from the old temple made by human hands to the new, living temple. This identification is deepened in the assertion that Jesus is also Son of God and “God with us.” 

Jesus, Son of God and God with us

Because Jesus is “from the Holy Spirit” (1:18, 20), he is also the Son of God. Matthew begins to develop the implications of this claim in 1:23, the first of Matthew’s “fulfillment quotations.” This quotation from Isaiah 7:14 is not meant as a simple proof text in support of claims that Jesus is the Messiah. Like many of Matthew’s fulfillment quotations, this citation conveys elements of both judgment and salvation. Isaiah 7 speaks of the birth of a child, who will be named “Emmanuel. His birth is a “sign” of God’s promise to deliver and bless King Ahaz and the Judean people with abundance, but also of devastating judgment if the sign is refused. When the son born of the “virgin,” or young woman, is rejected, he becomes a sign of judgment rather than deliverance. Matthew thus uses the citation of Isaiah 7:14 to indicate that Jesus’ person and mission compel people to make choices, resulting in both redemption and judgment. 

The identification of Jesus as “God with Us” also has roots in 2 Chronicles 36:22-24, a passage from the very end of the Hebrew canon that will  feature prominently in the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s story of Jesus. The Persian king Cyrus, who has just conquered the Babylonians, tells the exiles to go back home to Judah and rebuild the temple for their God, because all the kingdoms of earth have been given to him, “so may the Lord his God be with him!” (2 Chronicles 36:23, see also Matthew 28:18-20). “God with us” in Matthew 1:23 and 28:20 thus frames the whole Gospel, which serves as a comprehensive narrative that defines what it means for Jesus to be God with us. The culmination of Jesus’ mission in his death and resurrection means that God’s work of redemption has reached its climactic moment, when Israel is gathered and restored, the mission to the nations has begun, and the whole creation—heaven and earth—will be restored and renewed as God’s dwelling place. What role might disciples—all of us—play in the continuing realization of this story? How is this story still our story in a world ever more filled with greed, exploitation, violence, and death?