As we approach our study of the New Testament this year, we are like the inquisitive Theophilus of Luke searching for the certain witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. To satisfy such spiritual desires, faithful early Christians, such as Luke, composed lengthy expositions called “Gospels” filled with narratives, homilies, hymnodies, miracles, parables, sayings, doings, doctrines, and, most importantly, the sure witness of Jesus as the promised Christ.
We have four such Gospels in our canonical New Testament that share this testimony of Christ. But just as four master painters use various styles to represent the same landscape, so too the four Gospel writers have unique approaches to sharing their certain witness that Jesus is indeed the Christ.[i] Additionally, each of our Gospel witnesses includes unique perspectives and valuable information as they describe life models of worthy and God-fearing individuals who populate the stage of Christ’s life such as Mary, Joseph and John the Baptist.
Availing ourselves of the first chapter of both Matthew and Luke, we will highlight their unique expressions of Christ centered testimony and then we will discuss the individual characters found in those chapters.
Like the other Gospel writers, Matthew approaches his task with a desire to testify of Jesus. His focus, however, has some unique aspects, some of which we will discuss here.
First, Matthew delights in testifying that Jesus is the covenant Messiah. Matthew’s genealogical account begins with Jesus as a son of David and a son of Abraham. These two individuals are the most notable for the covenants God made with them, covenants that also apply to their descendants and their people the Israelites. To Abraham, God covenanted property, posterity and priesthood (see Genesis 15 & 18), all of which are promises of eternal life guaranteed by Christ unto the faithful. To David, God covenanted to establish his throne forever, a covenantal promise fulfilled by David’s true heir to the throne, Jesus Christ.
Second, Matthew stresses that Jesus is the covenant Messiah by means of the numbered generations which he employs. In some circles of Jewish thought, numbers held symbolic significance. For example, the number 3 represented “covenant” and the number 14 represented “Messiah.” We notice that in the genealogical list that there are several individuals who are of the 14th generation and thus are a messiah figure. David is one of these. Matthew is careful to note that Jesus is the third of fourteen generations. Not only is Jesus a messiah figure (since he is of the 14th generation) but indeed Jesus is the covenant Messiah because he is the third fourteenth generation.
Matthew also shows that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Again we turn to Matthew’s genealogical introduction for evidence of this testimony. Notice that Matthew highlights some of the most honorable and noteworthy individuals of the Israelite/Jewish family. The same two heroes mentioned above, Abraham and David, are the first to begin the list, highlighting Jesus’ connection to the greatest Israelite heroes. Other honorable Jews are also found in the list such as Zerubbabel, builder of the second temple after the Babylonian exile, and Boaz, who married Moabite Ruth. What is interesting about the inclusion of Ruth is that she was a gentile woman. Matthew also lists the union of Judas and Tamar (a union of infidelity). What does this tell us? Matthew indicates with his genealogy that Jesus truly is the Jewish Messiah but He is also the Messiah for all peoples in whatever circumstance that they may be.
Fourth, Matthew testifies of Jesus as the royal Messiah. This again is linked to the covenants of an everlasting throne that God promised unto King David. Additionally, a carefully reading of Matthew will reveal that Jesus is indeed heir to the throne of David through direct father to son lineage.
One final aspect of Matthew’s style that we should mention here is his knowledge of the Old Testament and his predilection to draw upon those scriptures to establish that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, fulfilling specific prophecies. As you read through the Gospel of Matthew over the next several months, keep these Matthean characteristics in mind and perhaps record the ways that these characteristics are expressed in later chapters.
Luke most likely was writing his testimony of Christ for an audience that had not grown up with the Jewish faith. He was careful to portray Jesus as the Messiah of all people, but more than the other gospel writers, Luke focused on the humility of the Savior and His special mission to the meek, lowly, oppressed and down-trodden. I will step outside of the assigned reading for a moment to share an example of this. We see in Luke 2 his version of the Christmas story, complete with humble shepherds and a humble birth in a lowly stable. Contrast this to Matthew’s Christmas (in Matt. 2) story which focuses on the royal characteristics of Christ birth (i.e. kingly men give Him the gifts normally accorded a king). These two views of the same event so richly enhance our understanding of Christ and his attributes.[ii]
Another way that Luke testifies of Christ is by appealing to beautiful psalms and hymns expressed by faithful saints such as Mary and Zacharias. In fact, nearly half of the first chapter of Luke is devoted to the psalms sung by Mary and Zacharias (respectively Luke 1:46-55 & 69-80). For an introduction and scriptural exposition of Mary’s psalm, read the Meridian article titled “The Psalm of Mary.”[iii]
Saints of New Testament Times
Matthew and Luke introduce us in their opening chapters to several New Testament characters, individuals who stand as models of righteousness (Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zacharias and John the Baptist). Let us take a few moments to learn about the work of God from these individuals.
Mary—The Mother of God
The name “Mary” derives from the Hebrew name “Miriam,” which means “bitter.” At first glance we may consider that the name for the mother of God is inappropriate given the sweet and beautiful role she played in the Plan of Salvation. Yet, with a little more reflection we remember that Miriam was the sister of Moses, who likely received the name “bitter” to reflect the awful reality of Israelite bondage to the Egyptians. But it was Miriam who led the women of Israel in praise, song and mighty rejoicing after the Lord delivered them through the Red Sea. Indeed, Miriam is even called a prophetess in Israel (cf. Exodus 15:20-21). In this light, Mary the mother of God has a worthy namesake.
We know precious little of the man named Joseph. Based on Matthew’s genealogy, Joseph was heir to the throne of David, yet from what we can surmise he spent his life in the trade of carpentry. We also can guess at the integrity and good heart of such a man who discovered that his fiancé was expecting a child but not wanting to shame her did not publicly expose her. However, we hear nothing else of Joseph after the young family returns to Palestine from Egypt, except for the temple episode when Jesus was a mere lad of twelve years. Perhaps Joseph passed away before Jesus’ formal ministry began. We do not know, and though speculation may be interesting, it generally offers few rewards.
The name Joseph is of promise to us, for in Hebrew it means “God will increase.” This is both a worthy and fitting name for the role that Joseph played for Jesus. Indeed, God did bring increase through Jesus – increase of love, meekness, righteousness, power, light, truth and knowledge. We may also find fruitful parallels between Joseph of Egypt and Joseph the carpenter. Both went into Egypt under dire circumstances and in both situations the sojourn in Egypt proved to be an act of salvation for Israel.
Zacharias—Father of John the Baptist
Zacharias is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Zechariah, which means “Jehovah remembers.” After many years of silence, when no prophet was found in Israel, Jehovah would indeed remember His covenants unto the children of Israel and raise up again a new prophet that would sound the warning voice.
It is interesting to note that Zacharias’ namesake was a prophet of the Old Testament, who prophesied of the coming Messiah of Zacharias’ own kin. Let us consider a few of the words of Old Testament Zechariah and then remember how they began to be fulfilled in Zacharias’ own day:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” (Zechariah 9:9)
This prophetic statement of Zechariah is like the clarion call of Zacharias’ son John for Israel to behold their King and make His paths straight. Also compare the above passage to Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem described in Matthew 21.
Here are additional messianic prophesies from Zechariah and how they relate to the New Testament:
“As for thee also, by the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water.” (Zechariah 9:11)
“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might begin us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit; by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison…for for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:6)
“So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver.” (Zechariah 11:12)
“Then Judas…brought again the thirty pieces of silver…and he cast the pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood.” (Matthew 27:3-4)
“What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.” (Zechariah 13:6)
“He shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.” (John 20:20)
Elisabeth—Mother of Israel’s New Prophet
Elisabeth is a beautiful Hebrew name that means “consecrated to God”, a name entirely worthy of a woman who consecrated her greatest desire unto God, the desire to have a child. In this regard, Elisabeth is in league with many of our most revered matriarchs from the Old Testament such as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Hannah, who all struggled with barrenness.
We remember that Hannah covenanted to consecrate her child unto the Lord if He would grant her the blessing of bearing a child. The vow that Hannah made to the Lord is called the Nazarite vow, which includes promises that a razor would never come to the head of the child and that the mother would abstain from strong drink and any unclean thing as she carries the child. Hannah’s prayer was answered and several years later she presented the young boy Samuel to Eli, the High Priest over Israel in that day. Samuel later became one of the greatest prophets Israel had known, anointing King David who inaugurated Israel’s “Golden Age.”
This episode is similar to another Old Testament story in which a barren woman invoked the Nazarite vow as she pleaded with the Lord to bless her with a son. An angel appeared unto the woman with a promise that God would indeed bless her according to her desires. The son that she bore, upon whom a razor never was to fall, was the famed and mighty Samson who delivered Israel out of the hands of its Philistine enemies.
Thus we find that barren Elisabeth is like so many other faithful Old Testament women, who heard the voice of angels promising a child of much hope. In Elisabeth’s case her child was one of the greatest prophets ever to raise a voice in Israel.
John the Baptist
Like other mighty men born of promises to barren women, John, whose name means “God is gracious/God is merciful,” lived a life much along the lines of a Nazarite vow (such as Samuel and Samson). He lived in the wilderness, feeding off of locusts and honey, wearing a camel’s hair and being generally perceived as a wild man from the desert. But he came to prepare the way of the Lord and to make His paths straight. Significantly, John’s birth, 180 days before that of Jesus, did symbolize making the pathways straight, for 180 degrees is a straight line. Just as Samuel the prophet prepared the way for David to be king over Israel by anointing him for that end, John the Baptist was a mighty prophet, preparing the way for the true King of Israel, baptizing Him for that purpose. And just as Samson was a judge and deliverer of Israel from her enemies, John the Baptist prepared the way for New Testament Israel to be saved from her most pressing enemies, namely Lucifer.
Search the Scriptures
What we have covered here is but a small sampling of the many marvelous treasures packed into the scriptures. These treasures are available to each of us, it simply requires a portion of God’s spirit and the effort on our part to open the scriptures and experience for ourselves the magnificent blessings of God’s word. As we carefully read and ponder the scriptures, we discover the amazing richness of individuality of expression among the various writers. Each unique voice offers tantalizing ways for us to ponder the scriptures; each approach can bring a wealth of understanding. Thus, when we know the authors as individuals, when we understand their authorial nuances and characteristics, our scriptural experience can be enhanced. And when we combine these unique voices, a veritable harmony emerges inviting us to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing [we] might have life through his name.” (John 20:31)
[i] See John Tvedtness’ recent Meridian article titled “Who Wrote the Gospels?” which deals with a few of the characteristics that mark difference between the four Gospel writers.
[ii] John W. Welch & John F. Hall, Charting the New Testament (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), chart 7-3.
[iii] These two New Testament psalms are also called The Magnificat (Mary) and The Beneficat (Zacharias).