In the first episode of the twentieth season of The Simpsons, Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17) finally makes prime time. Ned Flanders, the Simpsons’ good-hearted evangelical-ish neighbor, tries to redeem the time by reciting the New Testament while he and Homer stand stuck in concrete. As Ned launches into the genealogy on the opening page of the New Testament, viewers are expected to cringe at the prospect of a lengthy genealogical recitation.
Many contemporary Christian readers will either read the genealogy during Advent this December or as they start a Bible reading plan on January 1. I suspect that most of us aren’t that different from The Simpsons’ audience. We can scarcely wait to finish the genealogy to get to “the good stuff.” Of course, Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus turns out to be much more interesting than we suspect, but the feeling that we’re still “waiting for the good stuff” is an ironically appropriate response to reading through Jesus’ family tree.
Waiting to Arrive
From time to time, Christians take to the airwaves and bulletin boards to tell us that Jesus’s return is right around the corner. Churches or movements find themselves captivated by a vision of some grand new season or some fresh work that the Holy Spirit is about to produce. There’s a tendency to flock to ministries that seem to have it made. We dream about what God might do for us or through us if we could only touch the hem of a ministry’s robe. But these seasons seem to pass without a sense of arrival. It can make the rest of us feel like we haven’t quite made it yet, like we’re not really firing on all cylinders or ticking all the boxes.
This feeling that we’re trapped in the mundane and “waiting to arrive” also tends to feature in our individual lives, particularly as we plan resolutions for the advent of a new year. Laudable goals will often only ever be halfway attained. We lose ten pounds, but not the thirty we’d hoped. We decide to read the Bible daily, but get stuck in Leviticus somewhere around spring break. We cut the cord to spend more time with family, only to discover that Netflix is actually more entertaining than assisting with math homework.
Trained by American secular testimonies to “follow our heart” and “pursue our dreams,” we wallow in vocational and marital discontent, waiting to arrive at the place where all our hopes and expectations are fulfilled. We go through dry spells. In January of this past year, the cover of Oprah Winfrey’s O: The Oprah Magazine promised that it was the “Year of You”; but for many of us that promise never materialized.
To make matters worse, many of our measuring sticks don’t do us any favors. We’re made to feel that if our quiet times aren’t long enough or if they fail to reach some spiritually exciting level, we’re not going to be equipped for a day—much less a life—lived in the Spirit. These measuring sticks imply that the reason we’ve not “made it” (whether in personal happiness, relationships, or spiritual success) is our own failure to “arrive.” We’re left to focus on ourselves and what we do to the exclusion of what God has accomplished in Jesus. At their worst, they teach us an Americanized version of self-help: that we could “arrive” if we only ticked one more spiritual box, attended one more seminar, or extended our quiet time by another fifteen minutes.
A Genealogy of Waiting
This feeling that we’re stuck in our waiting is not unique to us. God’s people went through whole centuries of silence waiting for God’s promises to come true. During the season of Advent, where Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus often features in sermons and readings, many Christians choose to remember that “waiting” is a more normal state than “arrival.” The genealogy also is a popular read on January 1, as many Christians set out to read the Bible (or at least the New Testament) in a calendar year. Whether one celebrates Advent or not, the genealogy of Jesus suggests that it’s a safe bet that 2017 will involve more spiritual waiting than spiritual arrival.
Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus starts with Abraham, who lived more than 2000 years before the time of Jesus. When Matthew knit this genealogy together, he designed the seams to highlight God’s ancient promises to Israel. Readers find the eras of Israel’s story marked out by Abraham the patriarch, David the King, and the Exile. God made a covenant with Abraham and his offspring that the whole world would be blessed through him (Gen. 12:1-13). He promised David that his son—who would also be God’s son—would rule on the throne, and that even the nations would one day be under his reign (2 Sam. 7:8-15). He also promised a New Covenant and New Creation after the disaster of Exile (Jer. 31:31-34).
Matthew brings all these themes together in his genealogy because he sees Jesus as their fulfillment hundreds or even thousands of years after the promises were made. The genealogy captures this expectation and longing for more, pointing forward to the Messiah. But it also should serve to remind us that God has more left to do. For every moment where a promise finds a dose of fulfillment—Isaac is born, the Promised Land is reached, Solomon is enthroned as David’s royal son, the exiles come back to Judah—there seems to be much more yet to come.
When we look at the New Testament, we learn that even the promises to Abraham and David haven’t found their final fulfillment. David’s son is still extending his reign and putting all things under his feet, and Abraham’s family of faith is not yet finished blessing every family of the earth. The genealogy isn’t just a glimpse back at the past. It’s a way to remember the future. So it’s appropriate that Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is often read during the Advent season.
One of the more shocking things my students learn as we study the New Testament is that their salvation is not yet fully completed. It’s true that the Bible often speaks of our salvation in the past tense (both at our conversion and especially in the death and resurrection of Jesus). But we also learn that we are not yet fully adopted until we have resurrected bodies (Rom. 8:23), and that “our salvation” is also a future event that is nearer to us now than when we first believed (13:11).
This is why the New Testament doesn’t simply urge us to look backward at our justification for inspiration, nor does it encourage us to measure God’s power solely by personal transformation or spiritual experience in the present. We’re to be a waiting people, looking forward to the “blessed hope” of the unfathomable beauty we will find in the face of Christ (1 John 3:2; Titus 2:13). For the Second Advent will be even more world-changing than the first.
The Mission in the Meantime
Matthew alludes to Genesis in his opening two words, which literally read “book of genesis” (biblosgeneseos in Greek). Our English translations of those words—“book of the genealogy,” ESV; “an account of the genealogy,” NRSV; in a footnote the NIV offers “account of the origin”—are accurate renditions of the Greek words, but cannot bring out the rich allusions Matthew probably has in mind. He seems to be consciously tying the story of Jesus back to the very beginning of God’s involvement with creation and humanity. God’s promises to Abraham appear to come as the result of the chaos that has befallen the whole world because of sin (Gen. 3–11).
God sets up Abraham’s family to be the place where the nations find blessing. But it doesn’t always work out that way. As the dark and shady characters of the genealogy suggest, Israel is human, and thus more zero than hero. As Sam Allbery put it, “Matthew’s genealogy includes the outcast, scandalous, and foreigner. The family Jesus comes from anticipates the family he has come for.”
Even in the darkness, there are still moments of beauty. Matthew names four Gentiles in the genealogy who joined the family of Abraham: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah. Each of these four characters was widely considered to have been a convert who left the idols of the nations and was transformed into a righteous follower of Israel’s God. Each of these Gentiles is a down payment on God’s plan to bless every family of the world. In this way, Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus reminds us that our mission during the waiting period is active, not passive. Just as Matthew begins his gospel by reaching back to the beginning of history, he ends it by reminding us that King Jesus is present with us as we fulfill his command to make disciples of sinners in every nation until the end of history (Matt. 28:18-20).
A Sacrificial King
The interpretation of other aspects of the genealogy is a rather speculative enterprise. We have to exercise caution in interpreting such a sparse document and must acknowledge that we don’t know precisely what Matthew means. But biblical texts are “fraught with background,” as the literary critic Eric Auerbach put it, and they invite the use of biblically informed imaginations.
The characters in the genealogy certainly provoke the imagination. Judah is an unrighteous louse who sold his brother Joseph into slavery (Gen. 37:26-27), took up with Canaanites (38:1-2), deprived his daughter-in-law of a husband (38:6-11), and then slept with her when she was dressed as a prostitute (38:12-19). But when Judah is confronted with his sin, he has the sense to acknowledge that he was not righteous. Remarkably, he becomes a hero in the story in subsequent chapters by being willing to become a servant so that his brother might go free (44:43-44).
Similarly, Jechoniah, also called Jehoiachin, was a wicked king who nonetheless gave himself and his family up to Babylon, with the result that Jerusalem was spared (albeit temporarily) from wholesale destruction (2 Kings 24:12-15). At least some interpreters in Matthew’s day, such as Josephus, regarded Jechoniah as a heroic figure who chose to obey Jeremiah’s call to submit to Babylonian power rather than embracing opposition (Jer. 29:1-13).
Both of these figures appear to be linked in the genealogy by the addition of the phrase “and his brothers” (Matt. 1:2, 11). Why would Matthew highlight them in the genealogy? Could it be that he interpreted them as sacrificial leaders, flawed heroes who pointed to a descendant who would lay down his life for his brothers (28:10)? Perhaps through their self-sacrificial acts, these flawed characters point us to the greater sacrifice of Jesus, who became a servant and laid down his life that others might go free. In Judah and Jechoniah’s life, the line of kingship is later said to come through Judah (Gen. 49:8-11) and Jechoniah (Jer. 24:1-7; 2 Kings 25:27-30). Their greater descendant is also proclaimed the world’s true Lord (Matt. 28:18) after his far greater sacrifice: death on a cross.
This interpretation of Jechoniah and Judah is admittedly speculative. But if it’s what Matthew had in mind, the genealogy doesn’t just reveal the Messiah’s sacrificial vocation, it also sheds light on our own vocation during this great season of waiting for our glorification. We, too, are called to sacrificial lives of service that are shaped by Jesus’ own service (Matt. 20:25-28). And just as Jechoniah, Judah, and Jesus were exalted after their sacrifice, we also shall find an eternal enthronement (19:27-30). Our arrival isn’t just a moment of release, but an era of royal rewards.
In a sense, the historic Christian faith tells us that the past and the future are far more important than our present moment, even if it feels as though all that matters is how we feel right now. To be sure, as the creed says, “we believe in the Holy Spirit” and in his present work in the church. It’s not a stark choice between either “waiting” or “arrival”: those of us who confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead are now newly created in Christ, included in his church, and indwelt by the Spirit (2 Cor. 5:16-21).
But far too often the fuel for a Christian life of faith, hope, and love is limited to present ministry success, present moral achievement, or our present sense of spiritual satisfaction. We cannot measure our lives by the way we feel, the degree of accomplishment we sense, or the quality of our devotional time. These barometers are not reliable indicators of the victory that Jesus has already won or the final victory that is on the way, nor can they fuel the Christian life of “waiting.” In Advent, in 2017, and throughout our lives we wait in faith that God really did begin to fulfill his promises when he sent Jesus 2000 years ago. And we wait in hope that he will indeed return, even if there’s another 2000 years to go.
In the meantime, we work while we wait, but not because our arrival depends on our spiritual prowess and success. We know that if God redeemed the story of Israel summarized in the genealogy and put to use a host of messy, incomplete lives therein, he can redeem us. The first appearance of Israel’s Messiah was worth the wait. His return will be the worth the wait as well. On that day, we’ll finally be able to say we’ve arrived.
Jason Hood serves as director of advanced urban ministerial education and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Boston campus. His next book is God’s Empire (IVP, forthcoming).