Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Matthew Got It Right

One of the more painful experiences that come with writing is setting yourself up to be rejected. Other words that come to mind include rebuffed, slighted, discarded, and eliminated. Some responses are a “fast no.” Other editors are more kind (“We’ve chosen to go another direction”). The worst are the proposals that get no reply. To be ignored has its own sting.

One book that did get published early on was the New Testament book kata matthaion (aka “According to Matthew”), and I am glad for him. But editorial committees must have been more generous in the first century. And marketing teams might have been happy just to get a proposal. I imagine if I submitted a book pitch with the title, According to John, it would have struck the editorial board as unimaginative and the marketers as somewhat egocentric. But it is the interior that I would have imagined to be the most problematic—especially the beginning. Have you noticed? Matthew’s opening paragraph has no breaks, consisting of one long genealogy. On the surface, it has all the fascination of a government tax code.

If arousal is nature’s stimulus for propagating the human race, this beginning leaves one with a headache. Matthew could have started with a piercing question or created tension with an unresolved mystery. Openings need to create momentum and excite curiosity. But there is none of this. Perhaps I am being too critical (rejection letters do this). In fairness, writers have to find their own style. Matthew was, after all, a tax collector, so maybe I should cut him some slack. It’s the nature of such types to have a fascination with records. But let’s be honest. If Matthew were to submit his proposal today, I would be surprised if it got further than a one-minute scan. I picture this response—

“Dear Matthew-

Overall, the story you write has suspense, mystery, and lots of good characterization. You use very few if any semicolons (which in our judgment are ‘transvestite hermaphrodites’ representing absolutely nothing). Nice work. But some improvements need to be made, especially with the introduction. You may want to consider DELETING it. Who, in God’s name, would remember these names?

The easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading. And readers will stop reading your book after the second or third line. Those who read in today’s culture (and there are not many) have the long-term memory of a fruitfly. Did you not learn anything from the Book of Numbers, as well as Chronicles? And by the way, those books don’t sell! You must get to the point. Reading this is like watching a movie that begins with 45 minutes of credits—name after name scrolling across the screen. Tell us why we should read this book from the start!

Genealogies are nice for people who are into reading loan title reports, but that’s a really small market. Do we need to know who fathered who? And here, you must be more creative. The language is hopelessly redundant. Twenty-seven times—“the father of.” Try to use a thesaurus.

We wish you well in your writing future—your friends at IVP.”

But here’s how I imagine Matthew would reply—

“Thanks for the advice, but I am not trying to please the market. It’s not about establishing a national platform and determining what sells, but what God has called me to write. And by the way, I actually think this is an appropriate and necessary introduction because it explains Christmas—which most people have no clue. Just look at the market for inflatable snowmen and decorated pigs!

If you read with any kind of attention, you will notice that the first two words are remarkable in themselves. biblos geneseos (book of genesis) are the same two words that begin the Greek translation of the book of Genesis. I am calling attention to the fact that my book begins the second testament, announcing yet a new creation, a new beginning. God is creating a new world to address the broken one. Can you imagine a more audacious statement to start a book?

But look closer. Developing the genealogy of Jesus is a way of saying that Jesus’s coming was not so much about beginning a story as entering an existing one. From the start, I am building a case that the God of the universe came to connect with humanity and unite us with himself. It’s inconceivable to imagine a greater mystery! These words should draw readers in and get their heads spinning. Otherwise, consider them braindead, suffering in some narcoleptic coma.

Consider the radical contrast. The pagan gods Rome tried to pawn off to the world were mythic creatures of one’s imagination, borrowed from the Greeks, and separated from flesh and blood. But the Lord of the universe became present, inhabiting our story in the here and now. Think about it. His coming was neither imaginary nor celestial—nor virtual. He did not connect via a podcast or zoom. His appearance was not a hologram mapped electronically. God did not communicate via some computer-generated call (“Hello, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”). His coming was analog—not digital. Incarnational versus “excarnational.”

The genealogy tells us Jesus took a tedious, circuitous route, a journey measured not in miles but in position. He submitted to human nature, shrinking to the size of a zygote, growing fingers and toes and inching down the birth canal. Sure, go ahead and make fun of the endless “the father of,” but in each statement Jesus is grounded in human history. Each line declares that Jesus embraced embodiment. He participated in our sin-drenched human condition, yet without sin.

Yes, I get it. If I was writing to please the market, I would have scrubbed the genealogy of its more disreputable characters, or at least reduced it to a small snippet for withered attention spans. But look at the names, and you can’t but notice that each one underscores that God came in the flesh, not as some wealthy, powerful mover and shaker, a blue blood obsessed with having the right papers. Rather, these opening words tell us Jesus waded into a sea of sickness and disease—ear infections and stomach aches and tooth decay—with a bloodline filled with names “whose closets seem to be bursting with skeletons.”

Clearly, it was God’s intent all along to reveal the results of a DNA test, and it is far from impressive. Have you noticed that almost everyone mentioned had messy lives? Here’s the first list–

  -Abraham caved in and had sex with a slave

  -Jacob was a liar who stiffed his brother, was a dysfunctional husband, and an absentee father

  -Judah-though singled out as the representative of the 12 tribes, slept around

Even the women highlighted are problematic—

  -Tamar was a Canaanite who acted as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law Judah

  -Rahab was a Canaanite sex worker, working in a system that destroyed any hope of her flourishing

  -Ruth was a Moabite refugee way down on the social registry

  -and the wife of Uriah was an assault survivor. I could not bring myself to mention her name.

As long as we are naming names and exposing the skeletons, let’s consider these geniuses—

  -David was an absentee father who was carried away by his lusts

  -Solomon slept around and used his power to burden a nation

  -his son Rehoboam, acting like an adolescent prone to prove himself in pool halls, fractured a nation

  -Abijah committed all the sins his father had done

  -Asa started well but died with a hardened heart

  -Joram walked in the same evil ways as Ahab, king of Israel

  -Uzziah became so full of pride God smote him with leprosy

  -Ahaz’s idolatry became his downfall

  -and Manasseh was into unspeakable evil, bowing to idols and sacrificing his sons in the fire

Almost all were fabulists, braggarts who habitually walked into screen doors, and almost all were surrounded by lickspittles and sycophants.

And then there is my final list, which points to its own period of shame. Many of these fathers were unwilling to repent, leading to their deportation and loss of everything—land, temple, kings, and seemingly all of the promises of God.

Yes, this was the line of Jesus. Almost everyone was “bittersweet, beastly-angelic, unfaithful, complicated, and inconsistent.” It may not, at first, play to the edges or hold the reader’s attention. But if you stop to contemplate (a rare habit in today’s culture), you will see the compelling truth presented by the Spirit (the one who inspires my words). If you have problems, take it up with him. The names affirm over and over that that our God came to identify with us and our shame. In his mercy, he weaved his humanity into our humanity.

More, these words convey that our redemption required incarnation. For anyone to be saved, God had to become a man, becoming like us in all of our pain and humility. To be the perfect mediator, Jesus had to be fully God and fully man. To be born of God, God had to be first born of us.

I would think such an astounding truth would rival the substance of any bestseller on the New York Times’ list. And by the way, last I checked, indications are my book, and its adaptations, have the potential to be best sellers. I believe it will one day be published, and who knows, it might be translated in nearly every language, with annual sales of 600 million dollars. It could dwarf every other book. Rumors are it will eclipse the writings of Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Updike, Lewis, and Tolkien.

Still with me? There’s one more reason I began this book as I did, and it may be the most relevant reason. And relevance matters, right? Examine the genealogy and you will discover that Christ came to show us what it means to be human. And this matters, because we have forgotten. While divine love compelled God to embody and connect, most of our cultural impulses are pushing toward disembodiment and disconnection.

Have you noticed how so many live under a “regime of screens” and speak with talking robots? You claim to have friends on Facebook, many of whom you have never met. You maintain that you are part of a church, but given your growing choice to opt for virtual worship, you are part of a community with people and pastors you have never interfaced with.

The genealogy declares that Jesus came in real time to be with real people in a real context.

He did not hide in some heavenly cocoon or keep his distance (as if becoming a man was beneath a transcendent God). Isn’t it ironic how many today claim to be “spiritual” but are not into organized religion? They say they are into Jesus but not into the church. Imagine Jesus saying, “I’m into being sacred, but I am not into the messiness of being human.”

So. . . yes, the genealogy is a necessary introduction. It’s a statement that God took on flesh to connect with us, identify with our weaknesses, be the necessary sacrifice, and call us to take on flesh. Isn’t it time we embody faith? In a season that celebrates the incarnation of God, isn’t it time to resist the growing tendency to be excarnational? Our inhuman world needs the church to be the literal and physical body of Christ.

Merry Christmas, Matthew, son of. . .

1 Comment
  • Deborah Hays
    8:47 AM, 25 December 2021

    As always, well written and desirable to read. God has certainly blessed you with an incredible gift. Merry Christmas John.

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