Marissa Black | Contributing Writer
“Once in royal David’s city, Stood a lowly cattle shed, Where a mother laid her Baby, In a manger for His bed: Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ, her little Child.”
In the Christmas season, the songs we grew up singing refer to Jesus by His many titles: He’s the Messiah, Prince of Peace, Son of Righteousness and the begotten child of God. He is heralded as the King of kings and part of David’s line.
What does it mean to be part of the line of David? We often rattle off Jesus’ titles without realizing the deeper meanings of these phrases. So what are the implications of Christ being an heir of David?
The genealogies found in Matthew and Luke aren’t merely there to give us a peek into Jesus’ ancestors. Rather, Dr. Justin Smith, an assistant professor in the department of Biblical and Religious Studies at Azusa Pacific, explains that genealogies are vital in the New Testament for establishing Jesus’ credentials. Identity is tied to history.
“In the ancient world—for the most part painting with broad brush strokes—new is bad. Old is good. So here you have Jesus who appears to be a new person, a new voice, and Christianity would have been interpreted as a new movement. The genealogy establishes both Jesus and potentially Christianity as something with much deeper roots. So Jesus is part of Israel’s story, Christianity is part of Israel’s story.”
When Jesus is tied to Abraham, he is tied to the beginning of Israel. And when He is tied to Adam, he is associated with the first son of God. Jesus takes on the characteristics and folklore of those ancestors he is listed beneath. This need for an ancestor to establish a present person’s credibility is echoed by Jeremy Punt in his article “Politics of genealogies in the New Testament:”
According to Punt, “For the validation of the position and role of people their ancestry is traced back in linear fashion to a predecessor whose position has already been authenticated.”
The tracing of Jesus’ lineage leads Him right back to David, as both the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke tie Him to the King of Israel. Matthew 1:1 starts off saying, “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham.” So Jesus is tied to Israel and to David—one of its most famous kings.
By seeing Jesus tied to David through genealogy, Matthew and Luke’s readers could start to draw the connections between David’s kingly traits and those of Jesus who was the new king and Messiah. And yet, Jesus was a different king than readers would be expecting. His version of kingship flips around any prior assumptions of what a king should be.
“[Jesus] models kingship in a way that’s sort of diametrically opposed to the models of kingship in the world. It’s kingship through sacrifice, it’s kingship through death, it’s kingship through gentleness. The kingdom of God he envisions, especially in Matthew five, six and seven in the Sermon on the Mount is a radically reoriented view of kingdom. He is the king, but it’s not the kind of king that people expected, and it’s not the kind of king that people most thought of,” said Smith.
This non-violent, role-reversing type of king is unexpected and peculiar for early Christians. Not only is it opposed to the normal types of kingship, Smith says it’s also opposed to the violent, power-hungry leadership of ancient Rome.
To understand how counter-cultural Jesus’ version of kingship is, we must understand the violence and ruthlessness of Rome in its full force. Seneca, an ancient Roman writer and later advisor to Nero, wrote in his seventh epistle about men fighting to the death and being “torn to pieces” and “crushed by animals of monstrous bulk.” Rome was an empire wrought with death and fear, and it was an empire Jesus came to combat with a peace that surpassed his followers’ understanding.
“So here Jesus is envisioning a kingdom that is not built on violence and power in that way, but a sort of reimagining of—if you want to say—power. The first shall be last. The last shall be first. Give without expecting anything in return. So He takes the basic systems of the world and He inverts them, or He changes them or He radically reorients them,” said Smith.
Jesus’ kingship was an unusual, radical kind of kingship. Where Rome was dark and dangerous, He brought light, calming an unpredictable world. He is a fulfillment and continuation of David, ruling with joy and peace, casting out our fear with perfect love.