“Spirits with Ancestors”: Christology & Matthew’s Gospel

The gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy. Unlike the more obviously theological (and frankly, inspiring) prologue to the gospel of John, it is easy to dismiss this opening chapter. For me, however, it reminds me of the story I heard on uni mission one year of two young Bible translators in the tribal highlands of Papua New Guinea. They began their work by translating the Gospel of Matthew, beginning with the Nativity story because the genealogy seemed irrelevant. After each chapter was painstakingly translated, it was read aloud to the tribe; and each time, the response was polite but uninterested. Finally, the translators returned to the genealogy.

As it was read aloud, however, there was palpable tension among the hearers. At last the tribal leaders spoke. “We are familiar with spirits”, they said, “but spirits do not have ancestors. Who exactly is this Jesus Christ?” In that response to the genealogy of Jesus, we have the heart of the Christological mystery. Spirits do not have ancestors; yet the eternal Son of God does have ancestors. He is truly and fully human; and in Matthew’s gospel, both truths are presented to the reader.

Hendrick Terbrugghen, The Calling of St Matthew, 1621 (Centraal Museum, Utrecht)

Hendrick Terbrugghen, The Calling of St Matthew, 1621 (Centraal Museum, Utrecht)

The gospel of Matthew explicitly affirms this humanity by describing His birth from a human mother, the Blessed Virgin, and outlining His genealogy, as mentioned above. He is also shown in the gospel as eating and drinking (Mt 11:19), sleeping (Mt 8:24) and even being tempted by Satan (Mt 4:1). This humanity is particularly evident as Christ goes to the Cross. There, we see His human weaknesses. His soul was “very sorrowful” (Mt 26:38) and He prayed for “this cup” of suffering to pass from Him (Mt 26:39).

Similarly, Matthew’s gospel reveals Christ’s divinity. Throughout the gospel, Jesus acts as God, both in doing what only God can do (forgiving sins) and in receiving only what God can (worship). Jesus heals the paralytic so that we would “know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” (Mt 9:6) In forgiving sins, Jesus implicitly claims the authority of God for His own and his critics rightly recognize this is a claim to deity and accuse Him of blasphemy. Similarly, the gospel records that Christ is worshipped.  At His birth, the magi “fell down and worshiped him.” (Mt 2:11) After He walks on water, those in the boat also “worshipped him.” (Mt 14:33) Finally, at His resurrection, the disciples “took hold of his feet and worshiped him.” (Mt 28:16) These two marks, that Christ forgives sins and is worshiped, are the most explicit evidence of divinity in Matthew’s gospel.

Although the implication of both Christ’s humanity and divinity are clear in this gospel, that is not Matthew’s primary objective. At least, it is not the thrust of his narrative. Rather, his goal is to show that Jesus is the Christ, the promised messiah of Israel. The title Messiah (or Christos in Greek) means ‘Anointed One’. By post-exilic Judaism, it came to refer to a promised king who would redeem Israel from her various oppressions, whether from sin and defilement or from the Roman conquerors. As noted, Matthew states unequivocally, at the very beginning of his gospel, that Jesus is Christ. Similarly, when Jesus asks His disciples who the people say He is, Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:16) Jesus commends Peter because this knowledge was revealed to him by Father. (Mt 16:17)

Matthew also shows Jesus as fulfilling the many messianic prophecies. The narrative of His infancy echoes with the refrain that He fulfilled what was spoken by the prophets. (Mt 2:5, 15, 17, 23) Jesus also fulfilled the messianic prophecies more deliberately in His ministry. We see this when John the Baptist asks Him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Mt 11:3) Christ points to His deeds.

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me. (Mt 11:4 – 6)

These deeds fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah about the salvation of Israel (Isa 35), and in effecting them, Christ proclaims that He is the One who will redeem Israel. And indeed, Matthew describes in previous chapters how Christ healed the blind (Mt 9:27 – 31), the paralytic (Mt 9:1 – 8), the leper (Mt 8:1 – 4), and even raised up a dead girl (Mt 9:18 – 16).

It is not immediately obvious, however, that because Jesus is the Christ, He is therefore divine. Judaism was strictly monotheistic and the very notion of God in three persons, let alone the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity incarnate as man, would have been ludicrous. The Gospel of Matthew, however, reveals that the Jewish image of a human messiah is surpassed by the glory of the God-man Christ who will truly fulfil – in unimaginable ways – the many messianic prophecies. This is evident in the “titles” with which Christ is described as being: the Son of God, the New Moses, and the Son of Man.

The title son of God can sound like an unambiguous claim to deity. For most 1st Century Jews, however, it was a title for the (human) messiah. In the Old Testament, Israel is called “God’s son” (Ex 4:22), as are King David and his “son”, the Messiah (Ps 2). To be son of God was to be a son like David, the type of the messianic king. The potential of the messianic title ‘son of God’ is fully realised in the identity of Christ as the Son of God, or even more strikingly, as God the Son, eternally begotten of the Father.

Joachim Patinir, The Baptism of Christ, c. 1510 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Joachim Patinir, The Baptism of Christ, c. 1510 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Jesus Himself makes this connection between His identity as the Christ (or son of God) and as God the Son explicit when He asks His critics, “What do think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” They answer Him, “The son of David.” (Mt 22:42) Christ is not content, however, with this identification of the messiah as the merely human son of David. He replies,

How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under thy feet’? If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Mt 22:43–45)

Jesus says that the Christ, the son of David, is greater than David. But a son is not greater than his father, just as “a disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” (Mt 10:24-25) Thus, for David to call the Christ ‘my Lord’, he must be more than a mere human son. The answer Matthew gives is the same that Christians everywhere give, that this Christ is not merely a messiah, but divine.

The second “title” is that Jesus is the New Moses. This is not technically a “title” but more an implicit cluster of imagery. Nonetheless, Matthew unambiguously presents Jesus as the New Moses, the one greater than Moses. In doing so, he implicitly alludes to Christ’s divinity. Matthew makes numerous parallels between the life of Moses and of Christ, particularly Christ’s own exit or exodus from Egypt explicitly fulfills the type of Moses, and more broadly of Israel: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Mt 2:15)

This identification is clearest when Christ preaches the Sermon on the Mount. Like Moses, he goes up a mountain to reveal the Law of God. Unlike Moses, however, Christ speaks on His authority. Never once does He say, “The Lord says…”. Rather, He repeatedly says “You have heard it said… but I say to you.” (Mt 5:21 – 22, 28 – 28, 31 – 32, 38 – 39, 43 – 44) Because the Mosaic Law is the Divine Law, only God can alter it. By fulfilling and surpassing the Law, Christ claims the authority of God. The people are keenly aware of this distinction, and at the end of the Sermon, they marvel that “he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” (Mt 7:29)

The final title that reveals the divinity of Christ is the seemingly modest title, “son of Man.” This is Christ’s preferred title, perhaps because it seems so unassuming. It is, however, an allusion to Daniel’s prophecy about “one like a son of man”, coming with the clouds of heaven, who “came to the Ancient of Days” and to whom was given, “dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” (Dan 7:13 – 14) This is an eternal rule, and in calling Himself the son of Man, Christ claims this authority of dominion over the whole world. He makes this identification clear when He is before the high priest. There, Christ affirms that He is “the Christ, the Son of God.” (Mt 26:63) and that “hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The high priest rightly identifies as blasphemy. (Mt 26:26) Or rather, it would be blasphemy if it was not true. Thus, by calling Himself the son of Man, Christ claims a divine authority to rule and receive the worship of all.

To sum up, the gospel of Matthew reveals that Jesus is fully human, and that He is the longed-for Christ of Israel. He is also more than a merely human messiah, however. He is in fact the divine Son of God. In this, Christ is not another David ruling, He is the divine ruler of all. He is not another Moses prophesying, He is the very Word of God. And He is not another son of Man, He is the perfect God-Man to whom “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given.” (Mt 28:18). Such is the paradoxical nature of Jesus, the spirit with ancestors, who is Israel’s messiah and the world’s Redeemer.

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6 responses to ““Spirits with Ancestors”: Christology & Matthew’s Gospel

  1. Pingback: Getting to Know You (& A Letter!) {Not Alone Series} | Catholic Cravings·

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