There were tens of thousands of them scattered throughout the Roman empire. They were Jewish people who had converted to Christianity, and who had decided to follow the man called Jesus the Messiah. But now the pressure was on. The year was about 80 A.D. The Christian church was in the middle of persecution from the governmental authorities. Christianity was not a legal religion. Nor was it a protected one like Judaism. It was more difficult than usual to be a Christian.
If a person called himself a Jew, he was safe from Roman prosecution. But wasn’t Christianity really just a branch of Judaism. There were Pharisees and Sadducees and Herodians within Judaism, why not see Christians as one more denomination within Judaism. Why not call ourselves Jews and be safe? And so at this period of history there were many Christians of Jewish background who were reverting back to a safer faith.
Matthew the writer of this Gospel looks on with concern at what is becoming an epidemic of defections, and taking his pen in hand, he tells them a story to let them know that they are spoiled for the old life. There is no sense in going back. He begins his argument of persuasion with the record of the birth of the Messiah.
Let me read five text to you that are scattered throughout the first two chapters. The genealogy that begins the book, is well worth the reading. I can only draw your attention to it now, but I will return to it later. There are five accounts after the genealogy that deal with the early days of Jesus. Let’s look at them.
The first account deals with the miraculous conception of Jesus, and Matthew writes:
1:22. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet,
“Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”
Matthew was quoting the passage taken from Isaiah 7:14.
The second account deals with the coming of the wise men to see the new born King. They do not know where he is to be born and so they ask for directions. Matthew writes:
2:5. The religious leaders told Herod that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judea are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; For from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel.”
This passage is taken from Micah 5:2.
The third account deals with the flight into Egypt to escape the murderous intent of Herod. Matthew writes:
2:15. The family remained in Egypt until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my Son.”
This text is taken from Hosea 11:1.
The fourth account tells the terrible story of the slaughter of the innocent children. Matthew writes:
2:17. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah,
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”
These lines are taken from Jeremiah 31:15
The fifth and final account tells us of Joseph bringing his family back into the Galilee, and Matthew adds:
2:23. “And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
(It must be said that no one knows what text Matthew has in mind as he quotes these words.)
The Age Old Longing.
Why does Matthew scatter these kind of references throughout his account of the life of Jesus? As we continue to read his gospel we shall see other references to the idea of Jesus fulfilling something in the Older Testament. The answer to that lies in one of the chief earmarks of Judaism.
Judaism was a religion of longing.
- We can go back to Abraham longing for a son, and longing for a land he can call his own.
- Go back to the enslavement in Egypt, and there was a longing to be free, that went unanswered for two centuries.
- Go back to the time of the Judges. It was the dark age in Israel’s life. Twelve times they are subjugated by enemies, and they cry out to God, longing for redemption, and 12 times they receive deliverers. But the judges are mixed blessings, and are not the answer, and so Israel cries out for a King. They yearn for someone to give them freedom and dignity and victory.
- They finally get a king. But is the longing now over? Oh no. Saul is a grave disappointment. Then along comes David. Surely he is the person to bring the dreams to fruition. But read the story. It is a tragedy. The dreams disintegrate. But then along comes Solomon. In him the hopes of a nation find new focus. But it is not long before that dream starts to unravel and Solomon rules by force and exploits his people, and leaves them in poverty and sets the stage for the dividing of the tribes into two distinct nations. Over the next three centuries, each new king is looked upon as the possible Messiah of his people. But each monarch has clay feet, and any redemption is short lived. Each one just brings their people closer to the brink of exile or annihilation. Assyria and then Babylon destroy the two nations and takes its survivors into exile.
- But the dream goes on, for finally, the exile comes to an end. They can go home. And the dream picks up tempo. Zerubbabel the governor, and Joshua the High Priest, are seen as the two messiahs who stand before God. They shall begin the new era, one that will be glorious and will be the start of an entirely new future! But add on a few more years and the two men fail to pull off the high expectation. And the people return to longing for redemption.
At times Israel put its longing in a king. Someone like David. At other times their longing focused on a priest, one like Aaron. At times their longing focused on a prophet, one like Moses or Elijah. And every time a new king was crowned, or each time a new high priest came to office, or each time a prophet came thundering God’s word, the hopes were all raised, and then in the course of the next few years were dashed.
The Maccabees brothers came to prominence in 167 B.C. The hopes soared once more. The Greeks were defeated, independence was gained. This family of heroes began a new age, and hope arose once more. It was believed that the fulfillment of the ages had come. But soon the Maccabean rulers were more evil than the gentile occupation forces had been, and the dream shattered again.
But longing was deeply rooted and it kept resurging again. And throughout Judaism some version of the song was always being sung, “O come, O Come Emmanuel, and set thy captive people free!” But the last word of the Old Testament is still a word of longing. It is the story of an unfulfilled hope.
The Birth of Jesus.
It is in response to that reality in Judaism that Matthew writes his gospel. Is there any sense in returning to Judaism? It is a world filled with thwarted longings. It only knows the language of hunger; it knows little about the language of satisfaction. So Matthew crafts his story to tell them the good news of the Gospel. Jesus is the fulfillment of the age old longing.
He introduces his gospel with a genealogy. It begins with Abraham. The father of the nation. But it ends with Jesus. The longing that was present in Abraham, and David, and Zerubbabel has come to a conclusion in Christ. In fact, Matthew has painted the picture very clearly. There were fourteen generations between Abraham and David, fourteen between David and the exile into Babylon, And fourteen from the exile to the coming of Jesus. He infers that all of Jewish history has been aiming for this very moment.
Then he tells the five stories and each time reminds his readers that this was to fulfill what the prophets had said long ago. This is one who was conceived by the Holy Spirit of God. This is one whom the wise came seeking. And before Matthew completes his gospel he will underscore that with the coming of Jesus, a greater than Moses, someone greater than Solomon, is here. Someone greater than the Temple has come. Someone has come who satisfies the longing for a glorious King, a faithful priest, and a true prophet. His name is Jesus! It his birth that we celebrate during these days of advent. Thanks be to God!