Every story has a setting. As Matthew prepares to narrate the story of Jesus, he sets it within its historical context, beginning with a long list of names comprising Jesus’ genealogy. His Jewish readers would instantly recognize this list of names was actually a series of stories threading together one long continuous story. Not just any story—their story. And yet not just mere history—revelation. For beneath the overlaid blacktop of our human story lies the foundational bedrock of the deeper, broader narrative—that of the glorious God telling a story of salvation by working redemption throughout human history.
Matthew begins Jesus’ story with the same character with whom God began his redemption story—Abraham. Since Genesis 3-11 showcases a humanity that rejects a holiness thrust upon them, God will thus cultivate it generationally through one special people; in Genesis 12:1-3, God chooses Abraham to go to a chosen place to become a chosen people, a blessed people through whom “all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
God continued this covenant-relationship with Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and subsequent descendants through the centuries. At a historic moment when “the LORD saved Israel” from Egyptian slavery, their covenant-role focused as God clarified they were to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”—a people of the divine King whose lives would display God’s holy worth and ways to the world.
Later generations, however, demanded a king “like all the nations”. Though called to be a kingdom of God’s holiness, they aspired only to be another worldly kingdom. But God kept his covenant and gave the people “a man after His own heart”, whom Matthew identifies as “David the king”. Matthew’s inclusion of “the king” is the first of two titles in his genealogy and its appearance says a lot, not just about the direction of Matthew’s narrative, but where God is steering his redemptive story.
With a wider monarchial witness to the world, David did his best to make it one of worship. For his heart of worship, God made a covenant with David that one of his descendants shall always sit upon his throne as his kingdom would “endure forever”, the fulfillment of which is the aim of Matthew’s text.
Israel, however, was not an ideal people, but an actual people. The story of redemption God has been trying to tell kept encountering rebellious resistance from the very characters through whom he was trying to tell it, including David. The generations of kings following David would sow national discord, institute idolatry, exploit their own people, align with idolatrous nations, shrug off justice; finally, at the height of the people’s entrenched indifference, God brought destruction against them. With Jerusalem and the temple destroyed, the surviving exiles were deported to Babylon to face humiliation and new threats, but not without a hopeful glimpse of a future kingdom God would set up which “will itself endure forever”.
God kept the covenant with Abraham and David, eventually bringing the exiles back to the chosen land to rebuild and return their hearts to God’s purposes. But their existence would mostly consist of wearily surviving the dominant civilizations expanding around and about them. As the rule and culture of the Roman Empire came to shape the ways and means of the world, the children of Abraham wondered and waited for the arrival of God’s kingdom with a son of David as its king. Thus Matthew’s genealogy finally comes to Joseph and Mary, “by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.”
Messiah is the second title to appear, and it means “Anointed” or “Chosen”, indicating one appointed to embody or execute a divine task. Throughout this redemptive history, framed by covenant and kingdom, Israel has never played their role righteously; Israel needed someone to show them how, to do it for them, to personify what the story was always supposed to be, to embody the redemptive righteousness God always purposed for them. Thus Jesus enters the story to embrace his Messiah role. How exactly he will do that Matthew has yet to relate, but for the moment, his genealogy has shown that Jesus’ story is the next chapter in Israel’s history, his revelation the next phase in God’s redemptive work for Israel and all the world.
How does this text set us upon the way of Jesus?
By setting the scene for Jesus’ story, the text provides us our entry point for stepping into God’s redemptive story; it makes us participants instead of spectators. We learn to walk upon the way of God by keeping company with Scripture’s characters, with whom we are now faith-companions. How they live out faith shows us how to actually do it and how not to do it.
The text also guards us from regarding a relationship with God simply between him and ourselves. The relationship may be personal, but it is not private. We are not in this story alone. Even though our lives or subplots may seem individually our own, we are an intimate part of an intricate community we impact by how we play our roles in God’s redemptive story.
Finally, since the text’s critical point is to show God’s redemptive story ultimately leads to Jesus as the “Chosen One” who shows how holiness is embodied, salvation is presented to us, not in the form of principles, but of a person. This implies discipleship is not simply about trying to live a better story, but about stepping into Jesus’ story, following him by conforming our lives to his holy character.
As we gradually navigate through Matthew’s narrative, Jesus will continually show us what it means to be his followers, but this initial text gives us our bearing. Human history has been and continues to be so mired in sinful horror and chaos, it seems a joke to hope there’s another way to be human, but that’s exactly who Jesus Messiah is—the Holy One who is the way in which God’s redemption is revealed to the world.