The Gospel According to Matthew: His Story

Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey.

The writing of a history is a most difficult undertaking. The historian spends a great deal of time ascertaining the events and facts of a certain time. He does research. He examines records. He interviews persons closely involved in the matter. The result is a stunning array of facts and figures, relationships, names, persons, and characters. But he cannot take all this raw material and place it in a book in a random order. He must place all of it in the service of a certain thesis, a point that he wants to make. Then he arranges his material with great care, so that it serves this purpose. If the writer does his job well, the reader can take the finished product and understand the history. 

A disciple of Jesus Christ, Matthew, faced such a task. As a disciple of Jesus he lived with his Lord, ate and talked with Him. He was witness to the words spoken and the works performed by Christ. He also did research. He ascertained the facts by looking into the genealogical records and the Scriptures of the Old Testament. He spoke with the persons who witnessed the events of Jesus' life before he came on the scene. He had thousands of bits of information before him. When it came time to present these things, he had a clear purpose before him. It was his purpose to show that the person with whom he lived and walked, ate and drank, whose teachings and works he witnessed, was indeed the Messiah promised by God, the Savior of the world. Indeed, it is the purpose of this gospel account to show that Jesus was the promised king of the Jews. For this reason he begins with these words, "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham."

Though all of that be true, we are forbidden from putting this work of Matthew on a par with the histories of Josephus, Heroditus, Eusebius, Schaff, Pelikan, or Hoeksema. This book is not ultimately Matthew's history, but God's history. God superintended the whole composition of the book. He superintended the life and character of Matthew, making him a fit penman for this His story. He caused Matthew to see and to hear the things he saw and heard. And when Matthew set pen to papyrus to write this gospel, God worked with His human instrument. The result: The Word of God. Holy Scripture. Wholly divine!

This means, as we take up and read this gospel account, we must not place ourselves over it. It does not become our place to critique its words, form, or content. Because it is a word from God, we submit to it. But it also becomes our desire to hear what God has to say to us concerning Jesus Christ. We learn from God Himself what happened, how, and why. We must also say that the same purpose that Matthew conveys is first of all God's. God demonstrates that this Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah, our Lord and Savior.

The "Other" History

Within this history we are given another history. The opening verses of this gospel present a history of persons, all catalogued and categorized by Matthew. One by one they appear in a line, from Abraham to Christ. Again, we might expect this in any history of a particular person. In most biographies of great men and women, the biographer will go to the parents and grandparents of that individual. He will reach as far back as he can to establish this person in a history of persons. He will show the noble features of the lineage, implying that great things were to be expected from this heritage all along. With Matthew, things are different. He gives no idealized, romantic portraiture of glorious persons, taking the good, and leaving out the bad and ugly. He gives it all. 

This different nature leads us to two conclusions. First, as God's history, its accuracy is of great importance. It is not embellished, edited, and redacted, to leave out the sin and to give us characters unblemished and unflawed. Sin and grace are found together. Second, we have presented the important doctrine that even out of sin, God brings forth the greatest result, the fulfillment of the promise. Out of this line, warts and all, comes His Christ.

The greatest profit it is to see this. From a human point of view, we would reckon the matter beyond hope. One patriarch follows another into near oblivion. One king follows another into near oblivion. One man follows another, again, into near oblivion, leaving a man unknown, to be reckoned the husband of Mary, the mother of this Jesus of Nazareth. Give the work of describing this history of Abraham's or David's descendants to a historian. All he could see at the end would be a collection of loose threads. Where is the promise of God given to Abraham and David?

But no obscurity with God. When we ascend to the higher view, seeing this as God's history, we see something amazing. It is not Abraham that matters. Nor is it David that matters. Nor Salathiel. It is the Messiah that matters, Jesus of Nazareth. Abraham and his entire lineage is in the service of Christ — from God's point of view, who determines the end from the beginning.

Sin and Grace in the Service of Christ

Such is what makes this history fascinating. All these persons with their characters stand in the service of Christ. We find here the sinners. Notable among them is Manasseh, who placed altars to idols in the temple, sacrificed his sons, and filled Jerusalem with the blood of the saints. His sins are mentioned as the final cause for the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of Judah (II Kings 23:26, 27). Had he held the Christ-child in his arms, he would certainly have killed him. Yet he is found in the book of the generation of Jesus Christ. Here we find Tamar, who gave birth to Phares by her abominable sin with Judah. These, under the wrath of God, were nevertheless used by God in the service of Christ.

We find also the sinful saints. Among them were those who knew the greatness of their sin, and thus the greatness of Jehovah's salvation. David the king, the man after God's own heart, "begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Uriah." Solomon, king after David, with his many foreign wives who led his heart astray. Hezekiah, who vainly boasted of his treasures to the Babylonian embassage. Josiah, proudly marching against Pharaoh-Necho against the commandment of God. Sinners saved by grace. By grace God gave to these the promise, and also gave them faith in the promise.

The enemies and friends of Christ. The reprobate and the elect. With them all God had his plan, to bring the Messiah into the world. How brightly grace shines against the dark backdrop of man's depravity!

God's Covenant Faithfulness

All these stand in the service of the promise. This is how we are to understand the mention of two particular individuals in the line of Christ, Abraham and David. It is not the point that the covenant line has a certain beginning with Abraham. It is not the point that the royal line has its beginning with David. Neither is it the point that Abraham is the father of the race of the Hebrews. Nor that David is the type of Christ. These things are all true. And we may well admit that Matthew mentions Jesus as the descendent of David to show that He is indeed king of the Jews.

The ultimate point is to show that Jesus as the Christ is the fulfillment of the promise made by God to both Abraham and David. Matthew writes, "The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." Abraham and David have this one thing in common: God made the promise that of their seed He would bring forth the Messiah. ConsiderGenesis 17:7 and 18:22 in the light of Galatians 3:16, and II Samuel 7:12-17 in the light of Acts 2:29-36.

Now we can see how high the ways of God are, unfathomed and unknown. After so many generations, three times fourteen, giving us forty-two, or six sets of seven, one would give up on the promise's fulfillment. And what changes through these fifty-two! The making of one pilgrim into a great nation under a great king. The falling of that great nation into destruction and captivity. The humble return of that captivity and its small renewal. Then, deep apostasy: the Pharisees with their legalism, and the Sadducees with their modernism, and the Essenes with their asceticism. The Herodians with their politicism. Was there any hope for the Messiah to appear? Not by man. But with God. Where man fails utterly, because of his sin, God remains faithful. At exactly the right time (not after one seven, but after six of them), He brings the Messiah into the world. Out of obscurity...light! The Messiah comes from God alone. The history of the Messiah also comes from God alone. The salvation of Messiah is just as sure, for God alone performs it. It is all His story!

Questions for Further Meditation and Study

1.What are some of the limitations placed on profane or church historians as they write their histories? Was Matthew aware of these limitations when he wrote this gospel, or was he aware of its inspiration as he wrote? In what ways will our knowledge of this gospel account as inspired affect our reading and study of it? Of what particular comfort is the knowledge that this gospel is inspired?



2.The genealogy of Christ, yes. But is this the physical lineage of Christ through Mary, or is this the physical lineage of Joseph, attributed legally to Christ? Consult past articles on this from the Standard Bearer, notably the exchange between Professor David Engelsma and Reverend Herman Veldman. There is a third possibility, which Calvin raises, namely that Matthew gives neither. Calvin believed that this is only a legal lineage of royalty, with several breaks in blood-lines.



3.This passage must define our view of Old Testament history from Abraham to the return from captivity. How is it helpful to know that all of this history is in the service of Christ? What do we learn about God's providence, and its extent of operation? How is this of help to us, who live in the history of "these last days"?



4.We take notice of the repetition of the word "begat." Taking this word in relation to God's covenant promise made with Abraham, what do we learn here about covenant history? More particularly, what do we learn about the importance of bringing forth covenant seed and raising them in the fear of God? Perhaps our descendants will be numbered among the spiritual giants, having a prominent place in the annals of heaven! What is the importance of committing our "history" into the hands of God?



5.Speaking of the covenant promise: What is that promise? What is the role of Abraham and David with regard to the promise? Where can you find the cosmic nature of those promises, as made to these two? How does it make this genealogy of Matthew of great significance to us who are not of the physical seed of Abraham?



6.Pick out some of the individuals mentioned in this genealogy. Did they stand for or against God? In their consciousness? In God's eternal plan? Which ones show in a particular way the power and beauty of God's grace? How does this genealogy teach us that reprobation serves election, particularly Christ the Head of the elect?