Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Highway to Zion

In Matthew 11:1-6, Jesus is asked a question by John the Baptist: "Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?" The response of Jesus is fascinating: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me."

Now, for those who have been paying attention to the larger narrative of Matthew's gospel, when Jesus gave this response, he had just finished giving his first commission to the twelve disciples. Their mission, should they have chosen to accept it, was clear: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and proclaim as you go, saying 'The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying, so give without pay." (Matt. 10:5-6).  In this narrative, the twelve apostles are like the twelve disciples in the wilderness, sent into the promised land to spy it out, and Jesus, like Moses, is the representative of Israel throughout this mission (Num. 13:1-2, 17-20). The twelve apostles go into the land with the authority of Jesus resting on them, performing the miracles which only Jesus has shown can be done.

Just before the twelve disciples permeate the land to proclaim the news about the kingdom of God, Matthew records a series of ten miracles performed by Jesus, miracles of healing and restoration which cover all of chapters 8 & 9. Within this historical framework, Jesus shows compassion toward the people of Israel because they are like "sheep without a shepherd" (Matt. 9:36), which was a worry of Moses in the wilderness as well (Num. 27:17).

These are significant factors if one wants to understand the larger narrative of Matthew's gospel. After all, it was in the wilderness that Israel rebelled ten times (Numbers 14:22). But instead of judging Israel for rebelling ten times, their Messiah comes to heal and restore ten times. In chapters 8 & 9 of Matthew's gospel, the people of God are seen as wandering in a wilderness of barren spirituality, but Yahweh is in their midst to restore them to fullness. Yahweh is quenching their spiritual thirst and bearing their infirmities so they can walk on the highway of holiness which John the Baptist prepared for them (Matt. 3:1-3; Luke 3:1-6). All of this information helps place the people of Israel within a type of "wilderness" setting in Matthew's narrative at the time of Jesus' response to John's question, "Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?"

Within this larger "wilderness" motif of healing and restoration, Jesus gives sight to the blind, strength to walk for those who are lame, as well as the ability to hear for those who were previously deaf. And lest we forget, such signs of authoritative healing and restoration are the evidence that Jesus presents to John when asked if he is "the One."

But there is more to Jesus' response than what ordinarily meets the eye. Jesus' response to John is also a very clear allusion to the ministry of the Lord himself as presented in Isaiah 35:5-6.

Isaiah 35
1.    The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus.
2.    It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.
       The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
       They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
3.    Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
4.    Say to those who have an anxious heart, "Be strong! Fear not! Behold your God will come with
       vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you!"
5.    Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6.    Then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
        For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
7.    The burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.
        In the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
8.    And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness.
        The unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way.
        Even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.
9.    No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it.
       They shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
10.  And the ransomed of Yahweh shall return and come to Zion to singing.
       Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.
       They shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

In Isaiah 35, Israel is a "wilderness" and desert being restored with the "glory" and "majesty" of great cities, and even the "glory" and "majesty" of God Himself (verses 1-2). Israel is fatigued like a man with weak hands and knees, wandering in a wilderness; but God Himself is coming to save them (verses 3-4). Pools of water will cool the scorching heat of burning desert sand, and streams of water will quench the thirsty ground of this "wilderness." Even the places where wild jackals used to lie down and wait for their prey in this wilderness will become inhabitable because of the great flood of salvation promised to come (verses 6b-7). A highway of holiness is being paved for the people of God, even people who were formerly fools (verse 8). No lion or ravenous beast will remain on this path which God is laying down as a highway of holiness. And only the "redeemed" ones -- the "ransomed of the Lord" -- will walk on this highway, singing with everlasting joy, on their way into the city of Zion (verses 9 & 10).

In the middle of this grand description of salvation and entrance into the city of Zion, we find the passage which Jesus alludes to in his response to John the baptist. Blind eyes are opened. Deaf ears start listening. Lame men start walking, all because the gospel of God's coming Kingdom is preached to them. But within the larger narrative of Matthew's gospel, Jesus is not merely proclaiming God's good news. Jesus is God's good news. In Isaiah 35, a highway of holiness is being paved so that the "ransomed of the Lord" can travel with everlasting joy on their way to Mount Zion. But in Matthew's gospel, Jesus is not only the Coming One who paves the way for Israel's healing and restoration; He is also the One to whom the blind, deaf, and lame of Israel come. 

In the very beginning of the ten miracles (chapters 8 & 9), Matthew records three distinctive accounts in a row: Jesus heals a leper first, a gentile second, and a woman third. And according to first century records, these three categories share interesting similarities with the three intrinsic boundaries of Herod's Temple in Jerusalem (by which all of God's people would draw near to Him). Outside of Herod's Temple there was a court for women, surrounded by a court for gentiles, surrounded by another outer court. These constructed boundaries were the product of theological innovations among first century Judaism.  Such boundaries were not prescribed in God's Law. Modern research also confirms other first century Jewish customs which were not prescribed in God's Law. For example, a leper was never allowed within the Temple walls, a Gentile was not allowed access beyond the "Court of Gentiles," and women were not allowed beyond the "Court of Women." And yet, in Matthew's gospel, the first thing Jesus comes to heal and restore is access to God. In Matthew's "wilderness" account, the first places of restoration are the lawless boundaries of first century Judaism which restrict access to Mount Zion.

In Isaiah's "gospel" the people of Israel are called to draw near to Yahweh in the city of Zion. But in Matthew's gospel, the people of God draw near to Jesus. In Isaiah's "gospel" Yahweh has come to save His "redeemed" ones. But in Matthew's gospel, Jesus has come to save them. This was a tremendous offense to those who idolized Herod's Temple and it's theological construction. Herod's Temple was a world attraction, and many Jews idolized it because people would come from all over the world to see it and to learn about their god through it. But in Matthew's narrative, the world doesn't come to Herod's Temple. Instead, the world comes to Jesus. And Jesus says, "Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me."

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Israel's First King

Various scholars have pointed out that there are five "collections" of Psalms within the single "book" of Psalms currently found inside our Bibles (cf. Ross, Leupold, VanGemeren, Craigie, Wilson, etc.). The first collection describes God's kingdom among Israel, beginning with the coronation of Israel's king, followed by the various struggles of King David with the enemies of God, and the deliverance that God brought for the sake of His kingdom.

With this in mind, let's not forget that David was not the first king of Israel; and neither was Saul. YHWH was the first King of Israel (I Sam 8:7), enthroned within the Tabernacle that was constructed at the foot of Mt. Sinai. The ark in the Most Holy Place was His footstool, with Him seated above the Cherubim (I Sam. 4:4; II Sam. 6:2; II Kng. 19:15; Isa. 37:16; Psa. 80:1; 99:1). That's why the first collection of Psalms (especially Psalm 2) begins with the coronation of Israel's king: YHWH

If the biblical interpreter misses this aspect of biblical narrative, they may very well be misunderstanding the OT narrative in a big way.

Monday, January 14, 2013

O Sing a New Song to the Lord

On the second friday of each month, a robust, worship-filled event is hosted for evangelical Christians in southeastern Wisconsin. This event is formally known as a Community Evensong, and is represented by a handful of trinitarian, gospel-preaching, conservative churches that are committed to serving the communities of southeastern Wisconsin. It is hosted in Milwaukee, WI by Crossroads Church of God, a non-denominational church that has deep roots in Milwaukee soil. Every month at the Community Evensong, evangelical christians gather together to learn the Scriptures and to sing what they learn. The reason why I mention all of this is because last month I had the privilege of teaching at the Community Evensong for the first time. The scriptures we learned to sing in parts were from a hymn titled "O Sing a New Song to the Lord", which comes directly from the opening lines of Psalm 98. And so, my job this month was to teach that Psalm.

I didn't mention this in my message that evening, but it wouldn't surprise me if Psalm 98 was overlooked by many christians today, simply because it's a short 9-verse psalm that doesn't look much different than many other Psalms. In fact, it's so short, and so much like other Psalms, that some scholars think the author plagiarized earlier authentic Psalms for the composition of this one. For example, within it's nine short verses, Psalm 98 talks about the Lord doing wonderful things. It talks about the Lord's salvation and faithfulness, as well as His victory and righteousness. It talks about seas roaring and the waves of rivers clapping their hands together, all for the praise of God. But if you have ever read through the Psalms before, you know that you've heard all these themes before. This isn't new information. This isn't unfamiliar imagery. And so why did we bother learning this Psalm and this song for the Community Evensong event, especially if we already know what this Psalm is talking about?  The following is a brief response to that question.

Psalm 98 (ESV) is as follows:         
          1         Oh sing to the Lord a new song, 
        for he has done marvelous things! 
His right hand and his holy arm 
        have worked salvation for him. 
The Lord has made known his salvation; 
        he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. 
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness 
        to the house of Israel. 
All the ends of the earth have seen 
        the salvation of our God. 
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; 
        break forth into joyous song and sing praises! 
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, 
        with the lyre and the sound of melody! 
With trumpets and the sound of the horn 
        make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord! 
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 
        the world and those who dwell in it! 
Let the rivers clap their hands; 
        let the hills sing for joy together 
before the Lord, for he comes 
        to judge the earth. 
He will judge the world with righteousness, 
        and the peoples with equity. 

In order to appreciate this Psalm, it's important to first notice the way it is balanced. In the verses above, there are three distinctive units (vv. 1-3, 4-6, and 7-9). These three-part units are shown separately because this is the way it's composition would appear if read out loud from the original Hebrew scriptures. This balance of three-part units was intentional on the part of the original Hebrew author. The first unit is comprised of perfect-tense verbs, which, in English grammar, translates into past-tense verbs. In other words, the first unit is encouraging the reader in the present to look to the past and remember the past. The reader is to remember that "the Lord has done wonderful things!" (v. 1). The Lord "has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations!" (v. 2).  "The Lord has remembered His steadfast love," the result of which has been that "all nations have seen the salvation of our God." (v. 3).  All the credit of salvation, and even all the hope of God's people, rests upon God's sovereign initiative. And here, God's people are called to look back at God's loyal love to encourage their faithfulness in the present.

The second unit is comprised of imperfect, imperative verbs, which (to oversimplify what that means) is a fancy way of describing what God's people should be doing now in the present. And because this unit is filled with imperatives, it's content shouldn't be viewed as mere suggestions or whispers of advice. The text in Hebrew is actually shouting at us! Unfortunately the ESV has smoothed out the english translation of this section. More literal translations (like the NASB) are typically more helpful for understanding the emphasis of this unit. A more literal rendering of verse 4 would be:  "Shout joyfully to the Lord all the earth!!  Burst forth and sing for joy! And sing praises!"  The last verse of this unit is similarly expressed: "Shout joyfully before the King, the Lord!" This is what God's people are to do when they consider the faithfulness and lovingkindness of the Lord in times past. Our King, the Lord, is worthy of such emphatic praise!

The third unit refers entirely to the future, and this completes the balance for this Psalm. Again, some English translations have smoothed over the future emphasis contained in the original Hebrew. A better translation may be considered as follows:  "Tell the sea to roar and all it contains! Tell the world and all those who dwell in it! Tell the rivers to clap their hands! Tell the mountains to sing together for joy before the Lord! For He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and it's people with equity."  Not only is God worthy of such emphatic praise because He has proven Himself to be faithful and loyally loving to people in covenant with Him; but this passage teaches us that His praiseworthiness ought to be proclaimed from one generation to the next. The future of God's kingdom on earth is a glorious one that cannot be hindered from coming, and because of that expectation in the future, there is no reason to stop making a joyful noise in the present.

Of course, we must also keep in mind that this Psalm was written before the coming of the Messiah. Once the Messiah came, all that was merely anticipated became an inaugurated reality. This is why Jesus, at the inauguration of his public ministry could proclaim, "Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!" (Matt. 3:17).  The gospel is not merely a message of personal salvation.  It is far more than that!  Keep in mind that it was a "gospel of the kingdom" that Jesus proclaimed (Matt. 3:23), and it is that gospel which his disciples proclaimed too. The disciples of Jesus today are to proclaim that gospel as well. And according to Psalm 98, we proclaim the gospel of the kingdom loud and proud in the present for two reasons: First, it's because we know exactly what God's steadfast love and faithfulness has produced in the past. Secondarily, we know that God has promised the advancement and victory of His kingdom on earth throughout the future of redemptive history. These three aspects of our Lord's kingdom -- the past, present, and future -- is what Psalm 98 is all about.  Deo Gratias.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

More than five pillars

A few months ago I began a series about the literary structure of Matthew's gospel. Until now, a number of circumstances have kept me from continuing that series. And so, now that a few people have asked me to continue that series, and I have a little time on my hands to do so, I plan on picking up where I left off back then, which was a discussion about the "five pillars" of Matthew's gospel. (The three posts related to that can be found here, here, and here.)

As I mentioned previously, Matthew's gospel is structured around five major discourses, or "pillars." Each of the five major discourses is extremely obvious with a red-letter bible in hand. Just scroll slowly through Matthew's gospel with a red-letter bible and you'll see what I mean. There are five long chunks of red-lettering -- the words of Jesus -- which stand out on their own. These are the "pillars" which support the story of Matthew's gospel. And as I also noted in earlier posts (here and here) Matthew's story of Jesus is also intentionally written to cue in memories about the story of Israel. Or, as Leithart aptly titled his thesis, Matthew's gospel is the story of Jesus as Israel.

In order to appreciate the larger picture which Matthew has painted for us in this gospel, I have decided to extract some of the details in Leithart's thesis and place them below. I have also changed a few of the words which Leithart used, but all of the essential content remains the same. The five major discourses, or "pillars" of literary structure, are as follows:

1.  Matt. 5-7 = Sermon on the Mount
2.  Matt. 10 = Mission of the Twelve
3.  Matt. 13 = Parables of the Kingdom
4.  Matt. 18 = Instructions for a divided Kingdom
5.  Matt. 23-25 = Prophecy/Warnings for “The House of Israel”

If we take into account the theme of the first four chapters as well as the three closing chapters of the gospel (as noted in two previous posts, here and here), the five "pillars" of discourse would be sandwiched in the middle as follows:

1.   Matt. 1-4 = Beginnings, Birth, and Youth of God’s Son
2.          Matt. 5-7 = Sermon on the Mount
3.          Matt. 10 = Mission of the Twelve
4.          Matt. 13 = Parables of the Kingdom
5.          Matt. 18 = Instructions for a divided Kingdom
6.          Matt. 23-25 = Prophecy/Warnings for “The House of Israel”
7.   Matt. 26-28 = Death, Resurrection, and Great Commission of God’s Son 

If we were to translate this structure of Matthew's gospel from Israel's history, or, more properly, if we were to point out the shadows of Israel's life-history which Matthew is manifesting in the full reality of Jesus' life, it would look something like the following:

1)   Beginnings, Birth, and Youth of God’s Son = Genesis, Exodus, Travel to Mount
2)   Sermon on the Mount = Giving of the Law/Sinai Revelation
3)   Mission of the Twelve = Deuteronomy/Preparation for Conquest
4)   Parables of the Kingdom = Wisdom/Parables of King Solomon
5)   Instructions for a divided Kingdom = Period of Divided Kingdom
6)   Prophecy/Warnings for “The House of Israel” = End of Judah/Warnings of Babylonian Exile
7)   Death, Resurrection, and Great Commission of God’s Son = Death and Resurrection of Israel, and the “Great Commission” of the Lord’s “Anointed” (Cyrus)

The only portions which are not shown in this outline are chapters 8-9, 11-12, 14-17, and 19-22, which are simply narrative segments that provide continuity between each of the five "pillars" of discourse above. Again, with a few minor alterations to the wording which Leithart uses, the inclusion of those segments is as follows:

1) Matt. 1-4 = Genesis, Exodus, Travel to Mount
2) Matt. 5-7 = Giving of the Law/Sinai Revelation

Narrative  –  Matt. 8-9 Wilderness Wandering   (Israel under Moses + Joshua)

3) Matt. 10 = Deuteronomy/Preparation for Conquest

Narrative  –  Matt. 11-12 Entrance into Land/Rest + Rise of a King   (Israel under Joshua + David)

4) Matt. 13 = Wisdom/Parables of King Solomon

Narrative  –  Matt. 14-17 = Prophetic Ministry in the Northern Kingdom   (Israel under Elijah + Elisha)

5) Matt. 18 = Period of Divided Kingdom

Narrative  –  Matt 19-22 = Prophetic Ministry in the Southern Kingdom   (Israel under Jeremiah + Ezekiel)

6) Matt. 23-25 = End of Judah/Warnings of Babylonian Exile
7) Matt. 26-28 = Death + Resurrection of Israel, and the “Great Commission” of the Lord’s “Anointed” (Cyrus)

Now that the remaining narrative segments have been inserted, it should be clear that it is at least possible, if not likely from the looks of things, that Matthew has organized his gospel in a more intricate manner than many twenty-first century scholars would like to admit. Instead, Matthew has framed the story of Jesus in such a way that many of the historical events throughout his life are portrayed together as a fulfillment of Israel's story. Israel, of course, was God's firstborn "son" (Ex. 4:22; Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:13-14); but Israel was only a shadow of Christ, the true Son of God. Therefore, from a literary perspective, Matthew's design seems to be exactly what Leithart has posited. The story of Matthew's gospel is the story of Jesus as Israel. Of course, just saying so doesn't make it so. In the near future I intend on explaining the way in which each segment of Matthew's gospel highlights the sections as noted above. I have already started one post pertaining to the opening four chapters here, so enjoy for now.

Monday, December 24, 2012

G.K. Chesterton: The House of Christmas

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home. 
The crazy stable close at hand, 
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.
For men are homesick in their homes, 
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun. 
A Child in a foul stable, 
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost -- how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.
This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.
To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

-- G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Pregnant with the extraordinary

"...and Tamar ...and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of 
Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king. 
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah."
(Matt. 1:3, 5-6)

Since it's the season of Advent, I've decided to pick up where I left off a few months ago and post a few things on my mind concerning the birth narrative of Jesus. A few months ago I wrote a post called "Israel's Expectation," and it was about the opening genealogy of Matthew's gospel and how his central focus in structuring that genealogy in it's peculiar fashion was to shed light upon Jesus as the promised King after a long eclipse of rightful heirs who had not been seated on the throne of David. But after reviewing that post again I noticed that I did not mention something which most commentators do. I did not mention the peculiar oddity of inserting female names into the genealogy which, at first glance, appears to be added by Matthew without any rhyme or reason. And to be quite honest, the rhyme and reason for these female names only recently dawned on me. And I don't know why it was only recently. I suppose I just held a long-time assumption that the listing of women was of tertiary importance. I vaguely remembered a couple biblical commentators mentioning a reason or two for Matthew's insertion of these four women in his listed genealogy, but I suppose I was just tired of hearing the same old pastoral explanations about how Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba were all sinners in need of grace, mercy, forgiveness, blah, blah, blah. The reason why it finally dawned on me to reconsider the importance of these listed women is because of a recent sermon preached at Christ Covenant Church of Chicago, which is the church of which my family are currently members.  I ordinarily don't take notes in worship, but when I do, I remember them for future use. And that Lord's Day I left with a rhyme and reason for Matthew's insertion of female names. And so, here I am sharing a bit of it with you all.

As I mentioned a moment ago, I sometimes get tired of preaching and teaching that's just blah. That's right, I said blah. And when I say blah, in this context I mean boring and unsatisfactory content that every Christian knows and doesn't need to be reminded of if the author of Scripture himself is not very clear about emphasizing it first. Ordinarily, pastors and teachers preach about Matthew's genealogy with lots of blah by merely focusing upon God's grace in saving sinners. Bathsheba, after all, is mentioned, and as we all know, she was a sinner; so Matthew's point in listing her within the genealogy must be to teach that God saves sinners, blah, blah, blah. Others preach blah with a reminder of God's desire to break down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. After all, Ruth was a Moabite, and Matthew's point in listing her name must be to emphasize the breakdown of Jew/Gentile hostility, blah, blah, blah.  In case I haven't already made my point clear enough, below are a few examples of blah-messages from some popular Christians. Commenting on Matthew 1:5, which mentions Rahab and Ruth, the famous evangelist, Charles Spurgeon, wrote:
We note that two women are mentioned in this fifth verse: a Canaanite and a Moabitess. The Gentile blood mingled with the Hebrews strain. Our King has come to break down the partition wall. As Gentiles we rejoice in this.1
While it is true that both Jews and Gentiles have much to rejoice in now that our King has come, I don't think that was Matthew's point. Instead of focusing upon the Jew/Gentile distinction, John MacArthur prefers to emphasize that Matthew's purpose for including four scandalous women was to magnify God's grace. He writes:
Matthew's genealogy also shows the work of God's grace in His choosing to include four former outcasts in Messiah's pedigree. In a genealogy otherwise dominated by men, these women are exceptional illustrations of God's grace. ... [T]he genealogy of Jesus Christ is immeasurably more than a list of ancient names; it is even more than a list of Jesus' human forbears. It is a beautiful testimony of God's grace.2
This focus of interpretation is nothing new to the history of Christian commentators. Severus of Antioch, a fifth century founder of the Syriac Orthodox Church, took a similar route, only he emphasized Matthew's message as that of graciously cleansing and healing sinners. Commenting on Matthew's insertion of Tamar and Bathsheba, Severus wrote:
It is for this reason that in this genealogy the Evangelist mentioned in his list even those who had shocking carnal relations that were in appropriate and outside the law. For Matthew wrote with due deliberation. ...These were women with whom they became united by fornication and adultery. By this means the genealogy revealed that it is our very sinful nature that Christ himself came to heal. ...Christ therefore took upon himself a blood relationship to that nature which fornicated, in order to purify it. He took on that very nature that was sick, in order to heal it. He took on that nature which fell, in order to lift it up. All this occurred in a charitable, beneficial manner wholly appropriate to God.3
Most notable in its details is the lengthy commentary offered by D.A. Carson:
Inclusion of these four women in the messiah's genealogy instead of an all-male listing (which was customary) -- or at least the names of such great matriarchs as Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah -- shows that Matthew is conveying more than merely genealogical data. Tamar enticed her father-in-law into an incestuous relationship (Gen. 38). The prostitute Rahab saved the spies and joined the Israelites (Josh 2, 5); ...Ruth, Tamar, and Rahab were aliens. Bathsheba was taken in to an adulterous union with David, who committed murder to cover it up. Matthew's peculiar way of referring to her, "Uriah's wife," may be an attempt to focus on the fact that Uriah was not an Israelite but a Hittite (2 Sam. 11:3; 23:39)... 
Several reasons have been suggested to explain the inclusion of these women. Some have pointed out that three were Gentiles and the fourth probably regarded as such. ...Others have noted that three of the four were involved in gross sexual sin; but it is highly doubtful that this charge can be legitimately applied to Ruth. As a Moabitess, however she had her origins in incest (Gen. 19:30-37)... 
A third interpretation holds that all four reveal something of the strange and unexpected workings of Providence in preparation for the Messiah and that as such they point to Mary's unexpected but providential conception of Jesus.4
R.T. France seems to provide the most concise summary of Matthew's inclusion of the four women. He notes that:
But the four mothers selected for mention form a striking group. Probably all four were non-Jews (Tamar was a local girl, so presumably a Canaanite, Gen. 38:11, 13-14; Bathsheba was the wife of a Hittite), indicating Matthew's interest in the universal relevance of Jesus' coming; and in each case there were at least suspicions of some form of marital irregularity, though all four form an impressive precedent for Jesus' birth of an unmarried mother from an obscure background.5

When preachers like Spurgeon and MacArthur emphasize the grace of God in saving sinners and breaking down the partition wall between Jew and Gentile, that's all fine and dandy, but it's probably not Matthew's reason for including the four women in the narrative. And in actuality, Matthew's genealogy does not list four women anyway. It lists five women. Mary is the fifth woman listed at the very end of the genealogy, and presumably Mary is mentioned for the same reason as the other four women. "What is that reason?", one might ask. Simply put, all five female names prepare Matthew's Palestinian-Jewish audience for a shockingly scandalous event governed by the very hand of God. Surely many Jews in Judea were not familiar with Mary and her personally scandalous story before Matthew addressed his gospel to them, but they would have been familiar with the scandalous speculations and traditions surrounding Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. In other words, Matthew was ready to tell the truth about Jesus' birth from a virgin woman named Mary, as well as his miraculous conception "from the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 1:20). But in order to prepare his audience for a magnificently true story such as this, some echoes of invaluable information from Israel's history were in order.

Tamar is the first name listed in passing, and her story is undoubtedly sad and disturbing because of Judah's sinful refusal to give his son to her in marriage that she may bear the promised seed of Abraham (Gen. 38:26). Nevertheless the promised seed was passed through the line of Judah as promised regardless of her deception of Judah and taking advantage of one of his known lusts by pretending to be a prostitute. Likewise, Rahab the prostitute has always been associated with a scandalous lifestyle because of her previous "career" in the land of Canaan. But she repented and eventually married into the house of Judah. Ruth, a widow sojourning in the land of Moab who was also scandalized because of her loss of a husband, lack of children, and complete economic poverty, had no part of the seed of David until Boaz, of the house of Judah, married Ruth and redeemed her by purchasing all the debt and inheritance of her Israelite step-family. The fourth on the list is Bathsheba. But she, of course, was originally the wife of Uriah the Hittite, as Matthew points out. King David, who owed every aspect of his life and kingdom to the Lord, stole Uriah's wife and murdered her husband, and was judged by the Lord for it. Nevertheless, such an enormous scandal among men did not hinder God's promise or providence.

Finally, the list ends with an obscure woman named Mary. Who is she? And why is she listed among the other four women?

Well, apparently Mary is mentioned because she too has a story which can be viewed as providentially scandalous in the eyes of Israel. Mary, after all was a virgin (1:23), and Joseph knew that he was not the father of her child (1:18-19). But nevertheless, instead of making up a story to deceive the public -- like a claim that Joseph was Jesus' biological father, or that Mary really had an affair with another man -- Matthew simply highlights Mary's story with the shocking truth that Jesus, the promised King and Messiah, was anticipated as being providentially scandalous in the eyes of the public too. But just as the other four women are only mentioned in passing to highlight this general notion of scandalized providence, so Mary is mentioned only briefly for the same reason. In fact, the focus of the genealogy and birth narrative in Matthew's gospel has more to do with Joseph and his legal adoption of Jesus, the son of Mary, than it has to do with Mary herself. The mention of all five women in the genealogy is to intentionally associate them all together with regard to the promised Kingly seed that God began fulfilling with Abraham and then afterward through the line of Judah.

Surely God's sovereignty and God's grace in saving sinners is in the background of Matthew's mind when recording this historical narrative. But that's in the background of all Scripture, and it's not something explicitly emphasized by Matthew, so I recommend using caution with that kind of exclusive emphasis while interpreting the genealogy. The most natural interpretation of selecting five scandalously providential women together, and placing them within the grand opening of Matthew's gospel, is to prepare Matthew's Palestinian-Jewish audience for a story that is pregnant with the extraordinary.

1.  Charles Spurgeon, The King Has Come [New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1987] p. 16

2.  John MacArthur, The Genealogy of Grace, Notes from a sermon preached on Oct. 14, 2009.
3.  Thomas Oden, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 1-13 [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press 2001] p. 6
4.  D.A. Carson, The Expositor's Bible Commentary: Matthew [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984] p. 66
5.  R.T. France, Tyndale Commentary Series: Matthew [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1985] pp. 73-74