Eschatology Outlines: No. 8 Final Thoughts

Posted by R. Fowler White

As we close out this fairly lengthy series, it might be useful to conclude with several overarching observations.

Recurring patterns. Looking back over these Eschatology Outlines, it may have struck the reader that the biblical writers teach us and therefore expect us to see recurring patterns as God works in history, not least as the future is presented as the past reconceived and finalized. Remarkably, this “patterning” discloses to us both the organic unity in God’s revelation and the consistency in God’s governance of history. In it we see the signature of the Bible’s Divine Author, transcending the particular contributions of the individual human authors. All of this moves and induces us to a high and reverent esteem of Holy Scripture that takes all the more seriously the Bible’s own claim to be inspired by the Spirit of God.

Trajectory, boundaries, and consensus. As it relates to eschatology, a full review of early church history (as found in, e.g., C. E. Hill, Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Millennial Thought in Early Christianity (second ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001) would show us where the trajectory and boundaries of orthodox eschatology were set, but we can only summarize those points here. Before the Council of Nicea in AD 325, the church expressed a broad consensus confessing Christ’s second coming, the general resurrection and judgment, the programmatic oneness of God’s people, and the eternal state. There was no consensus on the belief in a 1,000-year earthly kingdom after Christ’s return and before the eternal state. Interestingly, affirming or denying that millennial era was tied to one’s doctrine of the intermediate state of the righteous dead. The question being asked was this: where do the souls of the righteous dead go when they die? There were, in general, two answers. On the one hand, those who believed that the righteous dead occupied an intermediate state underground (“in the lower parts of the earth”) also affirmed the doctrine of the 1,000-year kingdom. On the other hand, those who believed that the righteous dead occupied an intermediate state in heaven denied the doctrine of the 1,000-year kingdom. As the church came consistently to confess the doctrine of the heavenly intermediate state, the doctrine of a millennial kingdom after Christ’s return faded from view. After the Reformation, however, divergent opinions on the 1,000-year kingdom reemerged. Then, in the 1830s, three closely related views—premillennialism, pretribulationism, and dispensationalism, with their programmatic distinction between Israel and the Church—congealed into an eschatological framework. Over the next century that framework grew to dominate in Bible-believing circles, as the spread of dispensational-pretribulational premillennialism tracked with developments in the fundamentalist-liberal controversy. Over the last 50 years or more, differences among sincere, well-meaning Christians on all sides seem to have moderated. Yet in church pews, popular discussion, and media, dispensationalism and its entailments are widely presumed. Thankfully, the Bible-believing church maintains its adherence to cardinal doctrines at the heart of its historic confession, focusing on Christ’s return, final resurrection and judgment, and life everlasting in the world to come. Granted our continuing differences, however, we can only help ourselves by thinking about how to manage them. What follows are some suggestions.

Burden of proof. While acknowledging that certain cardinal doctrines distinguish the church’s confession, new (novel) beliefs, which the church through its shepherds and teachers has never confessed, do occasionally emerge. To be taken seriously, these novelties must bear the burden of proof and demonstrate that the weight of the relevant biblical, historical-theological, and systematic-theological evidence is not only with them but is, in fact, weightier than usual. This is the case because it is unlikely, though it has occurred and is certainly still possible, that the church’s devout and learned shepherds and teachers, along with the great majority of serious Bible students, would for centuries have missed the Spirit’s teaching in Scripture.

Common duties. Meanwhile, our continuing duties to others in the church include obligations to take seriously the historic consensus of the church and to seek further unity beyond that consensus where possible. Such obligations require us to love those with whom we differ, trying to understand not just what they believe but how they reach their conclusions. Gaining answers to both the “what” and the “how” questions, we just may discover where our facts or conclusions are wrong or incomplete and uncover reasons for greater agreement. Overall, sticking to these duties, we’ll likely find that our emphasis will fall on doctrines held in common and expressed in the church’s confessions across the centuries.

God has given His people hope. Ever since our first parents were banished from Eden, God’s people have looked to the future in hope for a new city in a new garden on a new mountain where God will dwell forever with man. We long for that city’s security and purity, for a new creation ruled, filled, and at rest. We ache for the Last Adam—our Bridegroom, God’s Dragon-Slayer and Temple-Builder—to complete the rescue of His bride. The Bible’s eschatology sustains and nurtures those expectations in us, as it declares the vindication of good over evil, of light over darkness, of life over death, of blessing over curse. Because our God is the one true God, singularly sover­eign and wise, we know that final destinies of blessing or curse are traced to His one beneficent purpose (Lam 3:37-38; cf. Gen 50:20). With that purpose, God obliged Himself to resolve our liability as sinners to judgment that resulted from His decree to permit man’s fall into sin. His resolution of that liability was to make the death of a Substitute the way to life for His chosen people. Thereby He has assured us that the Bride chosen for the Last Adam, though presently corruptible, will ultimately put on incorruption. Through the Lord Christ, she will witness the death of death and the issue of all things into the glory of the one true God. In the end, then, the Bible’s eschatology—God’s eschatology—is a true moral optimism in which our God will be no frustrated Deity, nor will our Bridegroom be defeated in His mission to rescue His Bride.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7G Interpreting Rev 20:11–21:8

Posted by R. Fowler White

The visions of Rev 20:11–21:8 are the last set of visions that we’ll examine in the light of the themes of “battle and building.” Starting off, let’s notice why we should treat the vision sequence in 20:11–21:8 as a unit.

1. The unified picture in 20:11–21:8. Following the fiery destruction of the nations and the devil in 20:9-10 and the desolation of the present creation in 20:11b (cf. 6:12-17; 16:17-21; 21:1), we’re told in 20:12-13 (cf. 11:18) that those once dead were standing (20:12), having been released from their burial sites for judgment (20:13-14a). Introduced after the present heavens and earth disappear in 20:11b, the woe of the unrighteous, whose names were not in the book of life, is underlined in both 20:15 and 21:8. Introduced after the new heavens and earth appear in 21:1a, the weal of the righteous, whose names were in the book of life (21:27; 3:12), is highlighted in 21:2-7. Seeing, then, both the resurrection and the judgment of all in 20:11–21:8, the visions form a unified picture of the heavenly court’s final session in which the Divine Judge resurrects and judges all the dead. With that scene in mind, we can summarize how the combat and construction themes help us understand what’s going on in 20:11–21:8.

2. Victory over our last enemy. First, the emptying of all burial sites (natural or supernatural) in 20:13 signals the final overthrow of bodily death. Both the unrighteous and the righteous share in that victory. Yet for the unrighteous, that victory is no victory at all because it’s as empty as their grave: ironically, it issues in a death worse than bodily death. Having no share in the first resurrection (20:5), they emerge from their tombs only to be thrown into the lake of fire where the second death will forever have power over them (20:15; 21:8). By contrast, for the righteous, their victory over bodily death is as full as it is final. Full because, having taken part in the first resurrection, the second death has no power over them; final because they will abide forever in their eternal home with their God in the new creation, never to suffer death again (21:4). Only the righteous, then, will truly have title to proclaim, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? (1 Cor 15:54b-55a).

3. Our final residence with our God is a temple. Second, with the victory theme in clear view, the building theme is expected to shine through in the consequences that follow not only death’s defeat in 20:11-15 but the defeat of the Gog-Magog enemies in 20:7-10. The pattern we saw in 20:1-6 appears again in 20:7–21:8, and the pattern in 20:7–21:8 parallels the pattern in Ezek 38-48. The OT prophet had revealed God’s establishment of the new temple-city in the new paradisal land following His defeat of Gog-Magog. We already know that when the saints shared in the victory of the second death, their first resurrection announced their spiritual re-formation as the kingdom and beloved city (20:4, 6, 9). So, when we reach 21:1ff., we know that the saints have now shared in the victory over bodily death and that the promise Christ made in 3:12 is now to be fulfilled. He had said of the victorious saint that at His coming (cf. 3:11) I shall make him a pillar in the temple of my God … and I shall write upon him … the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from heaven. So, when the saints share in the victory over bodily death, the holy city image reappears in 21:2, 10. In fact, John describes the new city in 21:3 as the dwelling place (i.e., tabernacle) of God. Seeing these images side by side, we recognize that the saints’ presentation as the city-tabernacle in 21:2-3 (cf. 21:9-10) is the building episode that we expected to follow the Divine Warrior’s victory over His last enemy. Presumably, then, the new Jerusalem that appears in chap. 21 after Christ’s return in 20:9-11 is the temple-city that He promised to build using his saints as living stones, indeed, stones resurrected from physical death! Even the eternal heavens and earth should also be understood in the light of the temple building theme since John calls attention to the absence of all that is unclean from that final residence of God and His people (21:27; cf. holy, 21:3). All in all, then, not only do the saints, as living temple stones, make the lasting city holy (21:3), but the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple (21:22). Everything about the final residence is temple, a holy house built to the glory of God with man!

4. Conclusion. As we reflect on the contents of the visions in Rev 20:11–21:8, the “battle, then building” themes help us to see that the (second) resurrection constitutes the Divine Judge’s victory over death, while the saints’ resurrection and the creation’s restoration constitute the twofold building project that follows the victory over humanity’s last enemy, death. In all of this, it’s not hard to see that John has framed the Apostles’ teaching about Christ’s redemptive work at His return so that it conforms to the theology of “victory, then house building.” What is more, we see how much of a debt John owed to his OT heritage, a heritage that he embraced no doubt to inspire our confidence in our Lord Christ’s purpose and power both to triumph over His and our enemies and to establish His holy habitation with His holy people.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 8 Final Thoughts

Christ’s Family Tree in Matt 1:6b-17

Posted by R. Fowler White

In my previous post about Christ’s family tree from Abraham to David, we noticed that the tree was an amalgamation of Israelite and Gentile branches. Now we turn to the branches from King David through the exile to Christ Himself (Matt 1:6b-17), and once again we realize that this is no ordinary list of names. These branches carry the history of not just a nation but also a royal lineage, both reeling from the travesty of David’s sins with the wife of Uriah and against Uriah himself. Having laid bare the root of Israel’s division into ten northern tribes and two southern tribes, Matthew would show us again how God’s grace overruled the moral chaos in and among His people to keep the line of Christ alive.

The Evangelist opens this segment of the family tree by casting a knowing glance toward King David’s affair with the woman-whose-name-shall-not-be-mentioned. She was the wife of the faithful and elite Gentile warrior Uriah, whom David conspired to get killed in an effort to cover up his tryst. The effects of David’s sins on his family and on the nation of Israel were catastrophic. We’d prefer to remember David as a war hero and conquering king, but the Evangelist pushes us to face the reality of who Christ’s ancestors really were and what they really did.

Matthew wants us mindful of how David yielded to sexual indulgence and excessive ambition … how he so badly mismanaged the raising of his children that he sired not only insurrectionists but an incestuous sex offender. Later in life, David was presiding over the nation when it collapsed, and he was responsible for his family when it fell apart. Embedded in the names of 1:6b-11 we find the conflict among his sons and the revolt they led against him. We recall too the revolt of the ten northern tribes of the twelve that made up the nation. Do we remember just how bitter the fruit of David’s sins was not only in his family’s history but in the whole nation’s history? Yet the fruit here is not only bitter. As we turn from King David to his descendants, the names in Matthew’s genealogy remind us how God brought hope to the nation: hope in the midst of failure during the divided kingdom and during the southern kingdom’s final years.

For Matthew, it seems, this hope-amidst-failure was epitomized in David’s son Solomon himself, whose divided heart led to a divided nation and bore a spiritually divided lineage. We track these divisions in the four royal father-son combinations that Matthew mentions after his brief glance at Solomon. We’re to remember that bad father Rehoboam begat bad son Abijah, and bad father Abijah begat good son Asa. Then good father Asa begat good son Jehoshaphat, while good father Jehoshaphat begat bad son Joram. Clearly, Solomon’s divided heart begat a divided lineage. And as we reach the final branch in Christ’s pre-exilic family tree, we stumble on Jeconiah and his brothers. Remember them? No? No, not so much. They’re David’s descendants who were taken prisoner by Nebuchadnezzar, enduring the shame of being the last royal family of Judah before the exile. So, what was going on among Christ’s ancestors from Solomon to Jeconiah and his brothers? Despite bad royal seed, God raised up good royal seed and, in the midst of failure, He was giving hope. Though King David’s sins wrecked the purity and peace of his family, his descendants, and his nation, God’s grace was finally irresistible, preserving the line of the Messiah.

There’s one last segment of Christ’s family tree for Matthew to cover: he walks us from the exile to Christ’s birth in 1:12-17. Having given us three selective groups of fourteen generations to aid our memories, Matthew informs us that even through the deportation God preserved the line of Christ. Made obscure by the exile, only two names in the final group stand out. The first mentioned, Zerubbabel, was heir to David’s throne and governor of Judah after the return from exile. Then we reach the last name, that of Joseph, only to notice that once more Matthew departs from the standard genealogy formula and recounts a most extraordinary event. Matthew states only that Mary was Christ’s mother. Wait. What? Though Joseph is the last natural branch that links Jesus to David, Matthew indicates that he was not Jesus’ biological father. How, then, was Joseph a link between David and Jesus? The facts of how Joseph got into Jesus’ genealogy may rattle our cages.

On the authority of Matthew’s account, we learn that it was through the power of the Holy Spirit that Mary became the mother of Jesus, and it was therefore not through ordinary biology but through adoption that Joseph, a son of David, became the father of Jesus and Jesus the son of David. Furthermore, however, Matthew would have us reckon with the world-altering fact that Jesus, conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit, is truly David’s God as much as He is truly David’s son! He is the eternal Son of God in the flesh, God-with-us, Immanuel! And it was Heaven that mandated that His parents give Him the name Jesus because He had come to save sinners from their sins!

Christ’s family tree is no mere registry of names, is it? No, these names carry indelible memories of God’s power in His grace to overcome the sin that destroys both individuals and nations. Is it not transparent from this genealogy, then, that we must confess on bended knee that God, from all eternity, did—by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will—freely and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass? Moreover, must we not confess that He was pleased, in His eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, His only begotten Son, to be the mediator between God and man? Knowing Christ’s family tree as Matthew has given it to us, let us be sure to confess Him as the God-man, son of David and son of Abraham, who came to save us sinners from our sins.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7F Interpreting Rev 20:7-10

Posted by R. Fowler White

As I understand it, the vision in Rev 20:7-10 depicts the Divine Warrior’s age-ending victory over Satan-led nations who were threatening God’s kingdom-temple with desolation after they had turned His creation into an abomination of desolation. Let’s see if we can shed light in particular on the meaning of John’s depiction of that kingdom-temple as the camp of God’s people, the city he loves (NIV; cf. the encampment of the saints, the beloved city [CSB]) in 20:9.

1. Parallels to Ezek 38–39. Like 20:4-6, the vision in 20:7-10 is shaped by chapters from Ezekiel where we find a group of visions that reflects the OT pattern of “combat, then construction” that we’ve mentioned before. We can be sure that John has adapted Ezekiel’s visions of God’s victory over the chaos-causing nations because in 20:8-9 he explicitly mentions the Gog-Magog passage in Ezek 3839. In fact, in Rev 20 as in Ezek 3839, the Divine Warrior intervenes in the conflict with His customary weapon of theophanic fire to destroy those who attack the city of God (Rev 20:9; Ezek 38:22; 39:6, 9-10; cf. Ps 46:9; 76:3).

2. Camp, city, and saints. After the fiery destruction of the nations and the devil in 20:9-10 and the desolation of the present creation in 20:11 (cf. 6:12-17; 16:17-21; 21:1), we expect, following biblical patterns, to read about an episode of cosmic (re)construction in the visions that follow 20:7-10. And, in fact, that’s what we find. The theme of construction-after-victorious-combat clearly helps us understand what we read in 20:11–21:8 (we’ll explore that point in a subsequent post). Yet, interestingly, while we expect to find a building project in the visions after 20:7-10, we also see a building project within the vision of 20:7-10 itself. John sets before us the camp of the saints, the city God loves in 20:9 (NIV; cf. CSB). When he describes the camp of the saints using the additional terms the beloved city, his description links the saints with the four-square configuration of Israel’s camp in the wilderness (see, e.g., Num 2) and with the city of God that was represented in the tabernacle and the temple (Ps 27:4-6; Isa 4:5-6; Ezek 40:2–42:20). Described as the camp that is the city, the saints are an extraordinary sight to behold: they are God’s holy protectorate that has itself become the tabernacle-temple-city through Christ, the greater Moses and the greater Solomon. We get confirmation of this identification from another parallel to Ezek 3637.

3. A dwelling place for God’s Spirit. John’s presentation of the saints in 20:9 forms a really striking parallel to Ezekiel’s vision of Israel in Ezek 37:26-28. There we learn that, in the day when the Spirit rebuilds Israel’s house (37:11) by spiritual resurrection (37:1-14; cf. 36:27), that house will be the very dwelling place (Heb. mishkan, “tabernacle”) of God. No doubt this will be the case because, as we see in 36:27; 37:9-10, 14, the house will itself have become a sanctuary for God’s Spirit. Furthermore, according to Ezek 38–39 (especially 39:29), it is these very Spirit-indwelt residents of God’s dwelling place who will prove to be indestructible in the day of the nations’ final assault in Rev 20:7-10.

4. Parallels in the NT. In light of the parallels in Ezek 36–39, we can say the visions of 20:4-10 depict the saints as the kingdom-temple-camp-city built by Christ after His capture of the dragon in 20:1-3. The saints are nothing less than the blessed kingdom-temple built by the victorious Lamb in 20:4-6 and the beloved camp-city defended by the Divine Warrior in 20:7-10. What makes John’s visions all the more compelling is that their teaching is not at all isolated from the rest of Revelation or the NT. We’ve already seen the theology at the heart of Rev 1:5-6; 5:9-10; 12:10-12; 14:1-4 (with John 2:19-22; 5:24-29). Yet the parallel to Ezek 3637 shows up again in the broader NT when Paul and John both refer to those chapters in other contexts. Paul describes the church as the new covenant temple in 2 Cor 6:16, citing Ezek 37:27. John recounts Jesus’ teaching on the new birth in John 3:5-8, alluding to Ezek 36:25-27; 37:1-14. Then, while reviewing Jesus’ post-resurrection words and deeds and specifically His breathing (of the Spirit) on the Eleven in John 20:22, John touches on Ezek 37:9 (cf. Gen 2:7). With more space and time, we could show in detail how the theology of the camp of God’s people, the city he loves in Rev 20:9 is consistent with Paul’s and Peter’s presentation of the church in 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19-20; Eph 2:20-22; and 1 Pet 2:4-9 as a spiritual house for God in the Spirit.

5. Conclusion. We’ll close these comments on Rev 20:7-10 by stressing the power of John’s vision there. Like his OT forebears, Ezekiel in particular, John found in the ancient “battle and building” themes a theological prism through which he could make known to us the dynamics at work in our experience as the church militant between the first and second comings of Christ. By knowing and pondering those dynamics, our longing to see the final manifestation of Christ’s power in the devil’s death and the nations’ vanquishment and in the establishment of our eternal residence with God only grows stronger.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7G Interpreting Rev 20:11–21:8

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7E More on Interpreting Rev 20:4-6

Posted by R. Fowler White

As I suggested in a previous post, the vision of Rev 20:4-6 concerns that session of the heavenly council of God in which authorization is issued to avenge the blood of the martyred saints whom Christ, with the living saints, had built into God’s kingdom-house of priests through their participation in the first resurrection. Let’s narrow our focus in this post by looking in some detail at John’s description of the saints’ worship, name-bearing, first resurrection, and reign in 20:4-6.

1. Background. Before we get to 20:4-6, let’s recall that in 1:5-6 and 5:9-10 John implicitly compares the Lamb’s redemptive work for the church to God’s victory over Egypt and His subsequent constitution of Israel (with her tabernacle) as His kingdom-dwelling place. Then, in 5:5 the Lamb’s redemptive victory becomes the victory of a new David, that lion-warrior of Judah who was given rest from his enemies before turning his attention to building the Lord’s temple-house. Finally, in the Divine Warrior victory song of 12:10-12, saints are described as those who have obtained victory over their draconic accuser on account of the blood of the true Lamb (12:11), whose blood, unlike that of the first Passover lamb, secures the release of God’s people from their sins. Thus, when in Rev 1, 5, and 12 John invokes the redemptions of Israel under Moses and David to describe the church’s experience, the point we should not miss is his willingness to employ the battle and building themes of the OT to explain the significance of the church’s redemption through Christ’s work. With this background, we have good reason to expect these same themes will help us clarify the interpretation of 20:4-6, especially since that vision follows a vision of divine victory over the dragon in 20:1-3.

2. Worship and name-bearing. So, what can we say about the saints’ worship and name-bearing in 20:4? We agree with those who see those activities as issues that led to the saints’ martyrdom. Probing more deeply, it’s interesting to notice that John’s description here connects back to these saints’ participation in the new exodus and their re-creation as the Lamb’s kingdom. The connection comes to light in Rev 14:1-4. There, John links worship and name-bearing with redemption by the Lamb (14:3-4) by recalling the lyrics of the Divine Warrior victory song in 5:9. The word redeemed (by the Lamb) also reminds us of the victory lyric in 12:11, compelling us again to connect the saints’ redemption with Israel’s exodus. To speak of the saints’ worship and name-bearing, then, is to speak of their participation in the new, Messianic exodus and of their reconstitution as Messiah’s kingdom.

3. Parallels to Ezek 36-37. Coming to the saints’ participation in the first resurrection and their reign as the kingdom of priests, let’s consider briefly the parallels between 20:4-10 and Ezek 36-39. Like the sequence in Ezek 36-39, the sequence in Rev 20:4-10 has the saints’ resurrection and reconstitution preceding God’s victory over the Gog-Magog rebels (we’ll get to them later, God willing). To get the meaning of the resurrection in 20:4-6, we should consider the meaning of the resurrection in Ezek 36-37. The OT prophet uses the metaphor of physical resurrection to describe the spiritual re-creation of Israel as God’s kingdom of priests. In fact, the metaphor describes Israel’s transformation into a temple for God’s Spirit. In keeping with the parallel in Ezek 36-37, then, we should interpret the saints’ first resurrection and reign in 20:4-6 as their spiritual re-creation as God’s kingdom of priests, as their transformation into a dwelling place of God’s Spirit.

4. The beatitude of 20:6. Confirmation of the interpretation above comes in 20:6 where John describes the blessing of partaking in the first resurrection by way of a contrast. On the one hand, the blessing announces the partakers’ redemption from the power of the second death (20:6b). But, on the other hand, the blessing records their constitution as a kingdom of priests to God and Christ (20:6c). Yet there is more.

Wise as God is in the application of redemption to Christ’s people, He ensures that neither bodily death nor eternal (i.e., the second) death will frustrate the final redemption of His people. As a result, the Spirit of Christ applies His victory to His people in a particular sequence. To be specific, since there must be no threat of eternal death to Christ’s people after they’re delivered from bodily death, the Spirit delivers them from eternal death before He delivers them from bodily death. Likewise, since there can be no deliverance from eternal death after bodily death, the Spirit delivers Christ’s people from eternal death before their bodily death. The beatitude of Rev 20:6 distills the point: the Spirit’s application of redemption delivers Christ’s kingdom-people from the second death before He delivers them from death, lest the second death still threaten them after their deliverance from death (thus the first [spiritual] resurrection in 20:4-6 precedes the general [bodily] resurrection in 20:13-14a; cf. John 5:24-29). Likewise, the Spirit’s application of redemption delivers Christ’s kingdom-people from the second death before their martyrdom occurs, lest their death prevent their deliverance from the second death.

5. Summary. The first resurrection and reign of the saints in Rev 20:4-6 highlight two blessings bestowed on the church: 1) their spiritual resurrection that takes place before both their physical death and their physical resurrection, and 2) their transformation into the kingdom-temple built by Christ (just as we saw in John 2:19-21; 5:24-29). Having been united even now with the Lamb in His resurrection and reign (cf. Eph 2:5-6; Col 3:1), the saints take courage in the authorization of God’s heavenly court to avenge their blood, should martyrdom be their portion. In the truths of the vision and beatitude of Rev 20:4-6, then, the saints will find the comfort and hope they need to persevere in the face of marginalization, persecution, and even death.

Eschatology Outlines: No. 7F Interpreting Rev 20:7-10

Christ’s Family Tree in Matt 1:1-6a

Posted by R. Fowler White

The family tree of Jesus Christ as Matthew presents it, and the window that it gives us into His human origins, is as intriguing as it is startling. When we review it closely, the lessons are arresting. One means that Matthew seems to use to give us clues to his lessons is when he adds phrases to the standard genealogy formula of “X was the father of Y.” Notice, for example, these three listings: “Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers,” “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,” and “Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary.” Additions such as these, and even omissions of certain names, seem to be among Matthew’s tactics to focus our attention where he wants it to go. Let’s see what we can find.

The Evangelist presents to us, first, the branches of Christ’s family tree that came from Abraham to King David (Matt 1:1-6a). Strikingly, here we see that certain natural branches (i.e., Israelite descendants) were selected and cut off from the line of the Christ, while unexpected unnatural branches (i.e., Gentile descendants) were grafted in. Check out the details.

Matthew begins with a summary of his message about Jesus’ human origins: He is the son of David and the son of Abraham. His family tree starts with His lineage from David and Abraham (notice the reversed chronology), evidently and primarily because of the covenant promises God gave to each. What makes this the more interesting is to recall the events in each man’s life that gave rise to the promises they received. One event that made David’s reputation (before his tragic fall into sin with Bathsheba) was his victory over Goliath, the enemy of God’s people. It was a victory that adumbrated his future subjugation of the foreign enemies that remained in the land after the conquest under Joshua. God rewarded David’s faith with the promise that his son would be better than he and would have the better, final victory over the enemies of God’s people. In fact, in the narratives that follow the family tree, Matthew will show us that Jesus is indeed better than David. He is, in fact, the obedient Royal Son who defeats the greatest enemies of God’s people: sin and death, the devil and the world!

But what of Abraham? Two events stand out in Abraham’s saga as preludes to God’s promises to him. At the beginning, we remember that it was by faith that Abraham left his home in Ur to go to a land of which he knew nothing other than that God would show it to him. Let that reality sink in for a moment. Later, toward the end of his story, by faith Abraham offered up his unique son Isaac in sacrifice to God, and God delivered Isaac from death. On both occasions, God rewarded Abraham’s faith with a promise to provide him a seed, a son in whom all the nations of the earth would find blessing. No wonder Matthew shows us by the end of his Gospel that Jesus launched a pan-national evangelistic campaign through His Apostles. This was the commission from none other than that Son of Abraham who, having offered Himself in sacrifice and been raised from the dead, brings the blessing of salvation from sins to all the nations!

With the summary of Jesus’ human origins before us in the headlines about David and Abraham, Matthew moves on to tell us that, from Abraham through David, God grew and trimmed Christ’s family tree. The Evangelist tells us that by grace God chose certain natural branches, but He cut off others. He included Isaac and Jacob, but cut off Ishmael and Esau. The Lord also included Judah, the natural branch who persuaded his brothers to sell their brother Joseph into slavery and was otherwise known in Scripture as a devious, conniving, promiscuous womanizer. Of course, He also included David the king, the war hero who fought God’s enemies; the king who reformed the nation and established its worship. This was David the poet, musician, and prophet in Israel; a friend to Jonathan, the firstborn son of none other than his nemesis Saul. This was David the adulterer, the accomplice to murder, the failed husband, the failed father. One message Matthew would have us get: in God’s determinations of Christ’s ancestors we do well to recognize His grace to the natural branches that He included and His severity to those that He excluded.

Matthew’s account of Christ’s family tree continues as he recites the names of those unnatural Gentile branches whom God grafted in by grace. God grafted in the sons of Tamar, the Gentile daughter-in-law of Judah. She is the woman who took the desperate step to save the coming Messiah’s lineage from extinction by posing as a prostitute to seduce negligent Judah to make her the mother of his twin sons, Perez and Zerah. God also grafted in the son of Rahab, the Gentile prostitute who believed in the God of Abraham, and was saved by Joshua and his spies from the destruction of Jericho. Further, God grafted in the son of Ruth, yes, even Ruth, the Gentile widow from the shamed line of Lot.

The family tree of Christ from Abraham up to David the king was quite an amalgamation, wasn’t it? It was a tree of natural Israelite branches and of unnatural Gentile branches. More than that, it was a tree husbanded by the singularly sovereign God who overrules sin for His own good purposes, even to bring His eternal Son into the world to save sinners.

Stay tuned for a meditation of Christ’s Family Tree in Matt 1:6b-17.