56 years ago I had my first encounter with God as an 8 year old choir boy on Christmas eve. Four years later at 12 I began an immature relationship with Him. Four years after that I started preaching at age 16. It seems weird to say it but I have been in this journey of seeking to know Him for over a half century now. Like the story recorded in the Bible and most of the people I know it has had many ups and downs but it is the central story of my life and the one thread that runs through it all. Quickly added to that thread, in relative terms, was my union with Barbara. We married when we were 20 so 43 years of that journey have been with her. In many ways I cannot now separate those journeys. The discovery of Him has been so intertwined with our marriage and family relationship that it would have been a completely different journey in any other context.
Roughly 40 years of that journey were spent in some kind of explicit church leadership. As you know it has led us to travel to over 30 different countries and experiences beyond anything we might have imagined when we started. I just noticed that I shifted to “we” just now. That really is how I view the journey; as a “we” journey rather than a “me” journey. We have seen God’s people in so many forms and cultures.
Along the way I got a seminary degree. With over 40 years of preaching suffice it to say I have spent a great deal of time studying the Bible. That study has been a central part of this journey. I don’t study so much these days, but daily reading of the Bible remains a part of my normal rhythm of life.
I am writing this because my wife and children miss my preaching. That is pretty amazing to me. They had to listen to me for so long. For the most part my grandchildren haven’t had that same experience. I also think about several generations from now when my family remembers old Bill and Barbara. I am writing for you, dear family, and the ones you will bring into this world even generations from now. Any one who wishes is welcome to listen in and if you find any value here so much the better.
I have called this Biblical reflections. I am making no attempt to be scholarly or even preachy, though I may get carried away at points and “wax prolific” that is not my intent. I am just going to read through the Scripture and reflect as I go. I am not going to plan anything out and thus this will be spontaneous. I am an external processor. Sometimes I don’t know what I am thinking until I try to articulate it. That is the way I am going to approach this. I am going to give myself permission to wander around as my thoughts emerge stimulated by God’s word as revealed through the Scripture.
Finally, don’t think of this as a book, though it may turn into that. Think of this as a stimulation of conversation. As you will see as you read my thoughts the essence of spirituality is a relationship with the living God through Jesus Christ our brother/Lord/God. It is about a conversation not an arrival. In fact, “arrival” is the death of any relationship. In spiritual terms it is the heart and soul of “religion.” God never intended to establish a religion, in my view, but rather a real conversation in the context of others involved in the same conversation. This is not to say there is no value in religious forms and structured, but that value is relative to how well it serves a living relationship with a living God.
So, the point is nothing would be more fulfilling to me than to have you share whatever thoughts this might stimulate in your own reflections. Again, I think of someone in our family reading this 150 years from now. What would it be like to read my reflections and then see what Rachael thought, or Chris, or Rebecca, or Rudy, or Lacosta or Susannah, or Barbara, or Matt, or Emma, or CTY, or Maddie, or Gabe, or Trin or Luke, or the others to come? Imagine a journal of generations of our family reflecting on their relationship with God through the Scripture. Wouldn’t it be cool if this becomes a journal never finished?
Anyway, here we go.
I am reading from the English Standard Version (ESV)
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
The first word in the Canonical record about Jesus Christ is a genealogy. From the outset it is the account of God Who is very man of very man. He is the son of David showing us what a true king should be and the son of Abraham showing us what a true follower of God should be.
Incarnate God had to be of one particular ethnicity. It is not the ethnicity that is important, it is not that the Jews are a special people deemed righteous enough for God to become one of them. Rather they are the people through whom God chose to reveal Himself. If there is anything special about them it is that they represent the fallenness of us all as the Old Testament record clearly shows.
The intention had always been that through this people, chosen by God, all peoples should be chosen and His revelation through them is His revelation through and for all peoples. One only has to go back to the call to Abraham (cited here in this very first sentence of the revelation) to see that as true. To revere the Jewish people as special above all other people is to perpetuate the very same error that ultimately led to their judgment and exile.
So, in this first sentence Abraham is mentioned so that we will understand that in being the son of Abraham He is the son of all men.
He is also the son of David. David was the ruler of whom it is said that he was a man after God’s own heart. Again, a very flawed man but one whose life was a pursuit of living out a dynamic relationship with God and leading his people to do the same. Lifetime sincerity in a marvelously flawed container. In David’s story we all have hope because he shows us that God loves the life time of pursuit understanding the flawed character of the pursuer.
Being the son of David, He will show us how true rulership is intended and the true nature of authority and its exercise. Jesus the Son of Abraham reveals to us how to follow God and Jesus the son of David shows us how to represent God to other people. He is Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
Jacob is the patriarch whose name was changed to Israel. Jacob is the name used in Scripture whenever it is referring to flawed nature of the man, whereas Israel typologically refers to the renamed and re-natured man. It is also interesting to me that Judah is the son mentioned in this genealogy. Typically, in that time the first born son was the one who carried the family birthright. This is a human convention unbinding on God. Judah was the fourth son born to Jacob and Leah, and the one from whom the Jewish people derive their name.
Also, Joseph was the hero son of this generation, yet the story follows through the line of Judah rather than Joseph. From my perspective there is a clear theme already showing in the Gospel accounts that this good news is based on God’s goodness not ours. To be sure, there is real human goodness in people, but at its best it can fickle and inconsistent and at its worst is cruel and completely self-centered. The good news is based on the redemptive power of God rather than fickle goodness of human beings.
And Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram…
There is no effort to hide the humanity of Jesus lineage. And naming a woman, based on my understanding, is highly unusual. There are four women named in this genealogy and we will get to them one by one as they come up. Just the naming of a woman is ground-breaking. But this is not just any woman.
Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Judah. She was not treated with integrity by her father-in-law being promised a son as husband following the death of two other sons who had been married to her. There is no implication in the Biblical record that she had anything to do with their deaths, they simply happened, and with the men as the cause of the death.
When she realized that Judah was not going to keep his end of the bargain with the next son Tamar dressed up as a prostitute, gave herself sexually to her father-in-law and conceived the children named here in the genealogy. (I will have to go back and check to see whether or not Tamar had twins, because if not then that would establish a longer term relationship between Tamar and Judah.)
So naming Tamar includes the lie of Judah, the deception of Tamar, an illicit sexual relationship between father-in-law and daughter-in-law, Judah’s participation in prostitution. Clearly, not the kind of family story one wants to sit around and tell at family reunions. Not only that, but Judah surely had other children and grandchildren, though perhaps no more sons. Yet the lineage is carried on through the children with his daughter-in-law rather than through the more “legitimate” children.
Three verses into the story of Jesus Christ we are already into the complete humanity of the story.
As I am writing this I am thinking about the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox insistence on the purity of Mary as a pre-requisite for her being the mother of Christ. This seems to be opposite of how the story is being told. I suppose one could argue that this opening chapter is setting the context so that Mary’s purity stands in even sharper contrast. On the other hand, then why put it there at all? Why mention Tamar and her thoroughly sinful relationship with Judah, the very Patriarch from which the Jewish people derive their name?
Matthew 1:4 – 6
… and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nashon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, (5) and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, (6) and Jesse the father of David the king.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,…
We are six verses into the gospel story and we have already encountered incest, now through Rahab a prostitute who was a hero in the story of Israel’s defeat of Jericho who produced a son, Boaz, who is an honorable man of integrity who married a foreign woman, Ruth. Ruth was David’s grandmother and Solomon’s great-grandmother.
David is said to be the man after God’s own heart, was at best only 3/4 Jewish and then fathered Solomon through an adulterous relationship with Uriah’s wife. Solomon may have been the greatest of Israel’s kings and yet his life was filled with wandering from God as well.
As I have already written, the point of all this seems to me to celebrate the wonder of God and the incarnation of Jesus squarely into the human condition with all its wonder, failure, joys and grief. There is no effort on Matthew’s part to clean the story up. If anything he goes out of his way to point out the skeletons in the family closet. That should give us all hope. No matter the level of our family dysfunction (and they all are to some degree) Jesus can relate. This is the foundation of the Gospel story found in just six verses of something as dry and potentially boring as a family genealogy.
And Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abihah the father of Asaph, (8) and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, (9) and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jothan the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, (10) and Hezzekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
For most of our journey in the Lord we have been deeply committed to the notion of generational transfer. Early in our marriage we started to recognize the reality of spiritual genetics as well as physiological genetics. With that in mind we were intentional about what family characteristics we wanted to try and stop in our generation and which ones we wanted to enhance and see move forward. It will take several generations to find out whether or not we have been successful.
Along the way, we have come to abandon a form of religious social determinism. What I mean by that is the notion that if you do everything correct as parents all will be well with your children and if your children grow to have troubled lives it is because you failed them as a parent. We have seen a great deal of psychological damage done in families as a result of this kind of thinking.
While I am absolutely convinced that the quality of our parenting matters greatly to our children, there are so many other factors that play into the equation, not the least of which is the choices of each individual human being in how they will respond to the circumstances and challenges of life. I have seen people raised in horrible circumstances and great neglect grow into power contributing adults. Conversely, I have seen those who seemed to have the best parenting and privileges life can offer grow into disturbed, dissatisfied and destructive adults.
The message to parents, do the very best you can with your children. It makes a massive difference. But don’t give yourself too much credit if they turn out well and don’t dive into despair and personal blame if they do not. After all God, the perfect parent, watched as his kids in the perfect environment, Eden, made choices that led to destruction and pain for many.
Why did I write all this from this passage in Scripture. Because if you were to look up each of the names mentioned in this genealogy you would find that some of the most righteous kings had some of the most unrighteous and destructive children. What’s more, and even more surprising to me, is that some of the worst kings had some of the most righteous children. And to further the point of the genealogy God is showing us that the perfection and glory of Jesus Christ is set squarely in the context of humanity in all its wonder, shame, glory, depravity and reality. He is very man of very man while being very God of very God as the creed declares.
Matthew 1:12 – 17
12 And after the deportation to Babylon:
The Babylonian captivity, in my view, is the beginning of Judaism as religion. Why do I make that kind of distinction? God never intended to establish a religion but rather a relationship with His creation and specifically with humankind. Religion is a human construct that attempts to put things in a form through which a relationship is mediated. I am going to write some things now that will put me on thin ice with a certain kind of thinking. Remember as you read this that I am writing so that you can see into the way I think about God and our relationship with Him through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Religion views all that we know about God as prescriptive as opposed to descriptive. Let me use an example from my work these days. We are working to define some particular tools we need to accomplish certain business objectives. Since we are in an exploratory phase in this process not much is certain. Just that is a lens on our relationship with God, in reality the wisest among us, the most spiritually advance among us is still in an exploratory stage. As soon as one ceases to be in exploration then that person will start defining their understanding at that particular moment in their journey. From that point on the goal becomes protecting and justifying that definition. As we have tried to provide guidelines for the leaders who are working on the tools we have given them descriptions of what they are to provide from their understanding of the work they are doing.
We started calling them templates. This created a sense in the ones developing the tools that they needed to give us answers that fit precisely into the pattern of our templates. Just this week I suggested that we stop calling them templates, but rather guidelines. Templates determine the form, guidelines provide guidance for thinking and leave room for thinking outside those particular forms. Religion as a template for how to related to God leads toward a legalistic adherence to human understanding of how to relate to God. If we related to Scripture as definitive and prescriptive in its intent then we get that kind of religious approach to our relationship with God.
On the contrary, if we view the Scripture as descriptive and filled with guidelines for our relationship with Him then it provides parameters and pathways to guide our relationship with the Infinite One allowing for as much creativity as He desires in that relationship. Religion tends to be made up of rules and regulations as primary, whereas real relationship requires rules but is not constrained by them. The rules only serve as guidelines or rails on which the relationship runs well.
Coming back to our verse above and the phrase, “After the deportation to Babylon…” The Israelites rightly understood that they were the chosen people of God but were way off the mark of what that meant. We will save that discussion for another time. They took their identity as God’s chosen people and interpreted that to mean that He would guard them at all costs even in the face of their own apostasy. In other words they were like spoiled children who knew they should behave well but didn’t believe there would really be any consequences as a result of their bad behavior.
However, that was a false understanding and the Babylonian deportation was a massive spanking or discipline from God for His chosen people. Following that deportation the Israelites wanted to make sure they never got in trouble again. So, they tried to understand what they had done to get them there in the first place. They chose the thought that they had broken God’s rules rather than broken their relationship with Him. If you read carefully through the prophets in the Old Testament you will see the pattern that God was constantly calling His people back to a relationship with Him. But the Israelites chose to focus on the rules. Think about it, if rules are the issues and you don’t want to get in trouble again, then the best thing to do is make sure you have all the rules in place and understood and not to break them. This is the heart of religion. This is precisely what Jesus came to abolish, not the rules themselves but the thought that obeying the rules could ever replace a real relationship with God.
…Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Amor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father Eliud, 15 and Elud the father of Eleazar, and Elazar the father of Matthan, and Matthew the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
This brings us to the end of the genealogy. All of this humanity ending up with a human being named Jesus who was born to a woman named Mary who was married to a man named Joseph. This is the Christ that the rest of this book is going to attempt to explain to us.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.
I should add here, if I haven’t already, that I am writing my thoughts as they come after typing a passage without referring to any other sources. That is not because there is not tremendous values in those other sources, but rather because I have spent a life time in study of the Scripture though I would not call myself a scholar but rather a passionate student, and I want to let that investment come out of my heart, mind and soul as it will.
That said, verse 17 divides the story we are about to enter into four broad chapters in history. The first is the chapter of God’s relationship with all humankind and earth leading up to the time when he chose a particular man, Abraham. Some one had to be chosen, some family had to be chosen, some ethnicity had to be chosen. That family had to come from some nation and from all of that a baby was born, Jesus Christ.
I will probably hit upon this particular theme over and over again. I’m not sure but I wouldn’t be surprised. God had to chose someone through whom He would enter into His creation. That doesn’t make the person or people chosen special in any sense other than representing all of creation. If that people are chosen because they themselves are special then it underscores the story of all religion, that is there are “special” people who can touch God rather than there is a special God that touches all people. In my view the point of starting this account of Jesus Christ with this genealogy is precisely to make this point.
Broad chapter two is the chapter from Abraham to David, which is all about the formation of that people we just talked about. This story is told in the first nine books of the Bible; Genesis through 2 Samuel. It is the story of the expansion of Abraham’s family into a clan and ultimately into a nation. It is the story that gives us the foundations of the law code. It is a story filled with human heroism and human frailty, even human evil. The culmination of the chosen person is a chosen nation. Again, chosen as a channel of God’s love, mercy and redemption.
Broad chapter three tells the story of the kingdom of Israel, its high point reflected in the life of a very fallen man, David. David underscores the point I am making here. The Bible tells us that he was a man after God’s own heart. In other words he was the kind of person God holds up as an example for all of us. I have often wondered about that because David is so far from being an exemplary moral example. He was gifted, brave, a worshipper, seemingly naive in his younger days. He sure had mixed motives. He took on the giant Goliath and killed him but made sure of the reward before doing so. He was an extortionist (see the story about Abigail and her husband), a con man and deceiver (see the story about faking insanity so that he could live in another country while running away from his king), an adulterer and murderer.
So what was it about this guy that God liked so much? Oh, if only we could get this life would be so much more filled with joy and peace for us all. God puts David up as an example for us all because of David’s passionate relationship with God. It is filled with ups and downs, successes and dramatic failures but it was the central pursuit of David’s life. That is what God wants from all of us. Moral performance is important because it describes a life lived that produces more life rather than hurt for others and oneself. But moral performance is at best a tricky walk for all of us. It was never intended to be the standard, pursuit of God is. If you want an example of the kind of person God wants you to be study the life of David.
As it was with David so it was with the kingdom. I’ll never forget when Barbara and I did our scripture immersion some years ago. We cancelled everything on our schedule until we read through the Bible from beginning to end. By the time we got to the end of the Old Testament we were so glad to get to the gospels because the story of Israel the nation was bi-polar, up and down, filled with more villains than heroes. What is the point? People are messed up. God loves those messed up people and wants them to live in relationship with Him knowing how messed up they are.
Which leads us to broad chapter four, the time from the Babylonian captivity to Christ. This is the period when the people chosen to be the conduit of relationship with God to the rest of humanity form a religious mindset while being punished by captivity in Babylon. Then they return to their home country and bury themselves deeper into religion. Why? They were trying to stay out of trouble by “being good.” But that is not the way to stay out of trouble. The best way to stay out of trouble is to hang around with someone who trouble wants to stay away from. The story of this period is that the people of God chose religious behavior over relationship with the living God and the record says the word of the Lord was rare in the land.
All that is about to change in the most fantastic way possible with the birth of the Christ.