Friday, January 3, 2014

Matthew 1: Continuity and Discontinuity

Matt 1:1-17 A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob,Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,  Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah,Abijah the father of Asa, 8 Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram,Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon. After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, Abiud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Eliud, Eliud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.

When I was in the first month of my Pre-University Year 1 in 1971. I was given a copy of Gideon's New Testament (KJV) which was distributed to all new students in the class. I had never seen a New Testament before and so I was curious and flipped open to read the first page (Matthew 1), It went: "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram; And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon..." By the time I came to the end of verse 16, after navigating 39 begat's, I was convinced that whatever the New Testament was, it was a most boring book indeed! I closed Gideon's New Testament and never touched the bible again until I came across the Living Bible in 1973.

I am quite sure that many believers are also of the same opinion that Matthew starts his Gospel in the most boring way by listing the genealogy of Christ. But for me, fast forward to 2014, forty-three years later, Matthew 1:1-16 is a most fascinating study of Christ. Among other reasons suggested by bible scholars, I think the most important reason why Matthew decided to start his Gospel with a genealogy of Christ is to emphasis continuity rather than discontinuity with the Old Testament. For him, Christ was not a break from the Old Testament story but the end of a long story which began with God's promise to Abraham 2,000 years earlier with this promise in Genesis 12:1-3. Paul himself emphasizes this continuity between the Old and New Covenants when he argues that the promise "offspring" in Genesis 12:7 onward refers to a single Person: "Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, "And to offsprings," referring to many, but referring to one, "And to your offspring," who is Christ" (Gal 3:16-17, ESV).

So, the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to begin his gospel with the genealogy to emphasize continuity rather than discontinuity between the Old and New Testament Scriptures. This continuity can be expressed in terms of Promise (OT) and Fulfillment (NT). Christ himself said that he did not come to abolish the OT but to fulfill it: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (Matt 5:17-18). In other words, Jesus is saying that the OT remains relevant "until heaven and earth disappear" (which obviously have not). Of course, Christ came to make obedience to the spirit of the Law possible, rather than the letter of the Law. So Paul agrees: "He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant- — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor 3:6). In other words, the Old Covenant emphasizes the obedience to the letter of the law which means death because we were unable to keep it. However, the New Covenant emphasizes the Spirit which gives life by making obedience possible by grace.

Without the Spirit, the Law became a burden to keep. Nicky Gumbel of Alpha gave this very interesting illustration. He says that the Law was like canned food he has to carry on a hike. While it was in the haversack, it was a heavy burden. Very often, he would get tired and stop to eat the food. As soon as the food entered his stomach, he was energized. The food not only gave him strength to continue but it removed the burden of carrying it as the haversack had now become lighter. So, the food is like the Law: when it is external it is a burden. But the Spirit has come to make the food internal and what was a burden becomes a blessing.

The Law is not abrogated but evolved: from a burden of rules, rituals and regulations, it becomes a relationship of obedience of love from the Spirit that has been poured into our hearts. Instead of being guided by a Rule-Book, we are guided by the Ruler Himself, Jesus Christ. But we have to remember the Author of the Rule-Book (OT) is the same Spirit: "Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:20-21).

Jesus reinterpreted the Law under the dispensation of the Spirit in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The Revised & Updated Law of the Spirit was not just inward but its standards have gone up: lust is now adultery, anger is now murder, our word is now our vow, justice is now returning good for evil, love is now what we do for our enemy, not our friend, and perfection is now the new standard (Mt 5:17-48): "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48).

There is a teaching going round that Jesus does not mean what he says when he tells his discioples to be perfect, The argument goes this way: "Does Jesus expect His disciples to gouge out their eyes or cut off their hands? No right? So, all his commands are just impossible to keep and just illustrative to tell us that we cannot keep the law." But just before Jesus reinterpreted the Ten Commandments in Matthew 5, He told his disciples, "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5:20). I believe he meant what he said in Matthew 5-7. And he demonstrated it could be done in his own life--which is recorded in the Gospels for all future generations of his disciples to show them what true sons of God should be like.

Will this make us more guilt-conscious? Of course! We ought to feel guilty when we sin because the Holy Spirit comes to convict us of our guilt so that we can re-align our lives with Christ. As much as Jesus received the power of the Spirit at His baptism to live out His life of obedience to the Father, so we too are expected to "follow in His steps" (1 Peter 2:21), having received the same Spirit which calls out to God, "Abba, Father!"

Jesus Christ is the climax of God's revelation which began in Abraham, mediated through the prophets and finally in Himself. He reveals to us how a true son of God lives. Mahatma Gandhi once remarked that if only Christians in India had lived like Jesus Christ, all India would have been converted. Apparently, they had not and so Gandhi remained a Hindu, though he adhered to Christ's teachings as found in the Sermon on the Mount. This is in contrast to many modern Christians who claim that Jesus' teaching is impossible to keep even though we have the same Holy Spirit as Christ.

May God open our eyes as we walk through the Gospels over the next few months, that we might understand Jesus Christ as a Model of true Christianity. Let's not just focus on the heavenly Christ--it's time to get down to earth!

Father, deliver us from our spiritual blindness that we might live like Your Son who came to as a living Demonstration of what a Christian should be like. Amen. 

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