He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit….
For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. The first living creature was like a lion, symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second was like a calf, signifying His sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but the third had, as it were, the face as of a man – an evident description of His advent as a human being; the fourth was like a flying eagle, pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church. And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. – Against Heresies (c. 180 A.D.)
These are the words of Iranaeus a second century church father and apologist. Since the earliest days of the Christian church the four gospels have been seen as four perspectives of one account. Over time each gospel has been connected to a living creature, emphasizing some aspect of the that writer’s purpose and point of view.
Matthew has often been associated with a man, pointing to the advent of a human Christ, the Son of David and Abraham. The lion of St Mark shows courage, resurrection, and royalty – Mark displays Jesus as King. The ox, or bull, of Luke reminds us of Jesus labor and sacrifice for his people. The eagle associated with John, displays the soaring and dramatic nature of the eternal Word of God become flesh, and the Spirit hovering over the church.
During this advent and Christmas season we will no doubt hear again the most well-known aspects of the Christmas story – a manger, animals, and angels. But I’ll try to offer a little perspective each week as well, presenting some nuance and sometimes overlooked perspective each gospel writer portrays.
Matthew: God’s Christmas Is Promises Fulfilled
Matthew, the man, a disciple and apostle, wrote to show that God had broken into human history by sending Jesus of Nazareth – the God-Man on a mission. Matthew wrote to a mixed audience of Jewish and Gentile readers, and emphasized that Jesus has come as the true King, descendant of David, fulfiller of Old Testament prophecy.
The Gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham. In doing so Matthew shows us that Jesus ancestry is tied to Abraham and the covenant God made with him some 2000 years prior. Additionally, Matthew, a former tax collector himself, makes no effort to hide the fact that Jesus was a descendant of sinners and scandals. Jesus’ ancestors included prostitutes, adulterers, violent men, and other people with problems. In other words, Jesus was not the beginning of God’s story. God’s promises had already been revealed, and worked out in the lives of so many–men and women who had been part of God’s plan from the beginning. Sinners all, but people of God’s own redemption. Now salvation was coming through one man, the sinless, savior of all.
Next, Matthew tells the story of Jesus birth from the perspective of his parents – and especially Joseph. Upon finding that his betrothed wife is pregnant, Joseph hoped to justly, but mercifully break off the marriage. However, when God’s angel comes to Joseph explaining Mary was chosen to be the Christ-bearer, Joseph becomes a model of faithfulness for us, trusting God in spite of unique conditions. No more detail is given to the Savior’s birth, Matthew does not include the story of shepherd’s, angels or a stable, his point is to show that Jesus birth was a miraculous work of God which fulfilled the promises of old. We can also learn from this story how God uses ordinary people, Mary and Joseph, to do extraordinary things.
Matthew concludes his explanation of Jesus birth with the story of the Magi and two journeys. The first journey is that of the wise Men, who traveled a great distance to see the new king. God used a star, Scripture, and a dream to bring these first foreign converts to the baby’s side. As well as an unjust and murderous ruler, King Herod, the perfectly imperfect contrast to the new, True King who had come. Matthew shows us that God is powerful and faithful to his promises. As the second chapter winds down we find another journey, this one of the Divine First Family fleeing to Egypt to safety, and back again, a not too subtle reflection of the work God had done for his people many years previous, in giving safe passage, new life, and a new name as His Own.
God is Divinely willing to work in a messy world. He uses imperfect people to fulfill his plans, bringing grace and mercy to so many who expect only judgement. Matthew’s Gospel shows us that the coming of Jesus is truly good news. It is the great plan of God unfolding before our eyes to bring his Son and source of Salvation into the world and to the nations.