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bible jesus

Joseph the Dreamer

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The birth narrative in Matthew is told entirely from Joseph’s point of view, and like his namesake in the final 21 chapters of Genesis, Joseph is a dreamer of dreams. Through dreams God communicates with him, telling him to take Mary as his wife, to flee the murderous cruelty of Herod, to return to Israel, and to make his home outside Judea. It is even possible that, like Joseph of old, he was the one who interpreted the dream of the Magi, warning them not to return to Herod, for how would anyone know about it unless the Magi had told someone, and who better to tell than Joseph?

The first two chapters of Matthew recall the history of Israel and various prophecies about the coming Messiah, some of which don’t seem so much prophetic as historical. The story of the Magi serves to recall the prophesied birthplace of the Messiah in Bethlehem. It also introduces a recurring theme in Matthew of acceptance by Gentiles and rejection or dismissal by the Jews. Though the Magi threw all Jerusalem into consternation with their talk of searching for a recently born king, there is no record that anyone from Jerusalem accompanied them to Bethlehem to find the child. So the Jews are repeatedly agitated by Jesus, but very few become his followers, and within a few decades of his resurrection, his Gentile followers outnumber his Jewish followers.

The coming of the Magi also provides the impetus for the flight into Egypt, where Jesus lived with Joseph and Mary until the death of Herod. Matthew appropriates a verse from Hosea, where it was clearly meant as a reference to the Exodus, and applies it to Jesus. “Out of Egypt I called my son.” In doing so, he seems to authorize a reinterpretation of the Old Testament that centers on Christ.

The most troubling reference to prophecy is the last, where Matthew refers apparently to multiple prophecies or to a general consensus of prophets that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene. There is actually no such prophecy in the Old Testament nor in any extant text that might have been considered prophetic. Moreover, the town of Nazareth is likewise never mentioned prior to the gospels. However, Jesus was repeatedly referred to as “of Nazareth,” so much so that his followers were said to be “of the Nazarene sect” many years later when Paul was arrested in Jerusalem (Acts 24:5). It’s possible that Nazareth had taken on a pejorative meaning, much as we might say someone was from Podunk, meaning an insignificant hick town. In this view, Matthew was summing up a prophetic tradition in Judaism which held that the Messiah would come from humble origins. This would also explain why he refers to “prophets” rather than to a single “prophet” as in other passages in the chapter.

After chapter 2, Joseph never makes another appearance in Matthew, although we are told that Jesus had a brother named Joseph, along with James, Judas, and Simon. We also learn that Joseph was a carpenter. So after taking pains to present Joseph as a dreamer like Joseph of old, Matthew tells us almost nothing else about him.

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jesus law religion righteousness salvation sin spiritual life

Fulfilling the Law

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“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

Matthew 5:17-18

One of the charges leveled at the early church—and indeed at Jesus himself—was that they taught people to ignore the demands of the Torah, referred to here as the Law and the Prophets. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contrasts the behavior expected of his followers with the behavior demanded by the Law. He makes it clear at the outset that his intention is not to get rid of the Law or supersede it. Instead, he is going to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.

What does it mean to fulfill the Law and the Prophets?

Of course, the immediately obvious answer is that the Old Testament contains numerous references to a coming Messiah, so Jesus could be proclaiming himself to be that Messiah. But Jesus doesn’t refer only to prophecy. He refers also to Law, to the rules God gave through Moses for governing human behavior. He claims that he has come to fulfill those rules. What can it mean to fulfill the Law?

One of the repeated themes of the Old Testament is that no one is righteous. Paul summarizes it in Romans 3 where he quotes eight Old Testament passages about the universal depravity of human beings. No one, Paul claims, keeps the Law. Is it because the demands of the Law are too difficult to be kept? Is it because, as many of the poor in Jesus’ day apparently believed, only the wealthy can afford to meet the Law’s demands? Regardless the reasons, the Torah is clear that everyone is guilty of not keeping the Law.

Despite these warnings from the Torah, the Pharisees and religious leaders in Jesus’ day thought of themselves as keeping the Law. They were confident that by keeping the commandments and doing pious acts, they were meeting the requirements of the Law and would be saved. Jesus again and again exposed their hypocrisy and pointed out that they were deluding themselves. In fact, far from being righteous enough on their own merits, they were actually in worse shape than the “sinners” they so despised.

Jesus fulfilled the Law by keeping it, not as the Pharisees kept it by assiduously following the rules to the letter while gratifying their own lust and greed and desire for power. No, he kept it as it was intended: as a guide to loving God and other people. He kept it by doing good. In the end, he fulfilled the Law by meeting its demands for justice in his own body, a blameless, unblemished Lamb sacrificed for human beings’ inability to fulfill the Law on their own. To those who by trusting in him accept his sacrifice, he gives the ability by his Spirit to see him as he is and become like him, doing good wherever they go.

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