Chapter 1. The Book of the Birth of Jesus Christ
1. The book of the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
The first words said in Matthew are “The book of the birth of Jesus Christ.” 1
In the original Greek, the very first word of the New Testament is Βίβλος (Biblos). meaning “Book.” Let us pause to ask, “What is meant by the term ‘book’? What is the universal or “internal sense” of this word?”
In the literal sense, a book is a collection of printed pages, bound together, and enclosed between covers that serve to protect the contents. More figuratively, we sometimes speak about our “book of life”; it is the record of our lives, containing everything we have ever done, thought, felt, loved and intended. In brief, it is really our essential self, our fundamental nature. So the term book in scripture represents much more than a physical book; it stands for every moment of our lives, what we have thought, what we have felt, and especially what our true motives have been — in short, the entire, interior content of our life. In other words, “the book of our life” is our true nature. 2
So, we are about to read a book — not just any book — but a book about the inmost states of a person’s life; it’s a book about motives and intentions; it’s about someone’s true character. And in this case, as the first verse clearly states, it’s a book about Jesus Christ.
Taken literally, this book will tell us about the external facts of Jesus’ life: His ancestry, His birth, His life, His death, and His resurrection. And as we read at a more spiritual level, we come to see that this book is about Jesus’ inner life — the revelation of His true character. This is the internal sense; it is the sense beyond and within the letter of scripture. It’s not just about external words and deeds; it’s about the thoughts and feelings within those words and deeds — the loving intentions that gave rise to everything that Jesus said and did.
As we study the internal sense of the events surrounding the life of Jesus, we begin to realize that the story of Jesus’ life parallels our own. We come to see that the gospel is not only a story about God’s coming to earth in the name and form of Jesus Christ; it is also a story about how God is “born” in each of us, “crucified” in each of us, and “rises again” in each of us. In other words, the gospels are not just about Jesus — although His story is crucially important; it’s about how God incarnates within each of us, how love and wisdom can take on flesh and blood within each of us, and how each of us can experience a new birth into spiritual life. It’s a wonderful, complex story not only about the temptations we must face, but also about the possibility of resurrections to new life in every moment.
In other words, the wonderful story about how God came to earth as Jesus Christ, was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, performed miracles in Galilee, was crucified in Jerusalem and rose again is our story as well. It discloses the way God secretly fashions a new nature within each of us according to our willingness to live according to His will.
It should be noted, however, that spiritual development does not take place suddenly. It is a gradual process which takes place within every individual to the extent that a person strives to overcome tendencies towards self-will and self-absorption. Rather than being “reborn” in a moment, people who are regenerating are being born again and again as they enter ever higher levels of spiritual consciousness. These successive “births” are wondrously illustrated in the opening verses of Matthew where we read about the the “birth” or, as it is also translated, about the “generation” of Jesus Christ.
The term “generation,” spiritually seen, refers to the successive births of all things that are of love and faith. As we grow in our ability to receive God’s love, “Jesus” is being successively born in us; as we grow in our ability to receive God’s wisdom, “Christ” is being successively born in us. In brief, “the book of the generation of Jesus Christ,” refers to the miraculous way in which God generates new spiritual life in each of us. It is a book not only about Jesus and His gradual growth, but also about us. It’s a book about our gradual, sequential, perfectly ordered spiritual growth — a process called regeneration. 3
At first glance, the opening phrase, “The book of the birth of Jesus Christ,” seems to be nothing more than an introduction to a rather uneventful listing of Jesus’ ancestors in time. But seen more deeply, it is a summation of the spiritual history of humanity — the spiritual history of the human race up to the time of Jesus’ advent into the world. And at a deeper, more personal level, it is our own story, the story of our spiritual development. It is especially the story of our gradual opening to the advent of divine love and divine wisdom in our life, beginning with Jesus’ birth in us, and how His true nature gradually becomes our true nature until it can truly be said that we are “made in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:26).
Son of David, Son of Abraham
At first, Jesus Christ is not seen as God Incarnate. He is seen as any other person born on earth — a man among men, descended from human beings, and having a specific ancestry. We read that He is descended from David, who in turn is descended from Abraham (υἱοῦ Δαυὶδ υἱοῦ Ἀβραάμ). But, as we shall see, a deeper look at this genealogy reveals that it is a record of how the human soul is gradually prepared for the birth of the Lord.
The genealogical table in Matthew includes fourteen generations from Abraham to David. This represents a succession of spiritual births in which we grow from early states of simple trust and obedient love (Abraham) into more developed states of understanding and truth (King David). But along with understanding and truth comes a forgetting of our earlier, simpler, more childlike states of trust and obedience. And so, there are fourteen more generations from David to the captivity in Babylon — a succession of births recording our gradual spiritual decline as the accumulation of hereditary evils increasingly overtake us and hold us captive.
This is spiritual “Babylon,” a state in which our primary concern is for ourselves, with little thought of loving others or serving God. At its worst, Babylon represents the desire to rule over others, and to control them. In brief, it is to deny others the right to make their own choices or to enjoy their own freedom. Instead, believing we know what is right for others, we make ourselves (either through direct rule, or more subtly through clever manipulation) their lord and master. Though it would be difficult to admit, whenever we do this, we have put ourselves in the place of God. 4
Our descent into total bondage to evil does not happen overnight; rather it comes about gradually as we rely more and more on ourselves and less and less on God. Finally, there are recorded fourteen more generations, during which time we fall into utter spiritual darkness. We begin to believe that we alone know the truth, and in doing so, we forget about God; we might even believe that God does not exist at all.
All would be lost if it were not for one thing. At first, we may hardly notice it at all, for it happens as inconspicuously as the birth of a child in a stable. It is a quiet occurrence without any particular grandeur, and yet it is the greatest, most significant moment in our lives. It is the birth of God in us; it begins as only a dim awareness that there is something holy, pure, and righteous in life, something that is both within us and beyond us. It is a dawning in the darkness; the one who called Himself “the light of the world” is about to be born in us. It is as if God is saying, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3).
2. Abraham begot Isaac; and Isaac begot Jacob; and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers;
3. And Judah begot Perez and Zara of Tamar; and Perez begot Hesrom; and Hesrom begot Aram;
4. And Aram begot Aminadab; and Aminadab begot Naasson; and Naasson begot Salmon;
5. And Salmon begot Boaz of Rahab; and Boaz begot Obed of Ruth; and Obed begot Jesse;
6. And Jesse begot David the king; and David the king begot Solomon of her [who had been the wife] of Uriah;
7. And Solomon begot Rehoboam; and Rehoboam begot Abijah; and Abijah begot Asa;
8. And Asa begot Jehoshaphat; and Jehoshaphat begot Joram; and Joram begot Uzziah;
9. And Uzziah begot Jotham; and Jotham begot Ahaz; and Ahaz begot Hezekiah;
10. And Hezekiah begot Manasseh; and Manasseh begot Amon; and Amon begot Josiah;
11. And Josiah begot Jechoniah and his brothers, at [the time] of the carrying away into Babylon;
12. And after the carrying away into Babylon, Jechoniah begot Salathiel; and Salathiel begot Zerubbabel;
13. And Zerubbabel begot Abiud; and Abiud begot Eliakim; and Eliakim begot Azor;
14. And Azor begot Zadok; and Zadok begot Achim; and Achim begot Eliud;
15. And Eliud begot Eleazar; and Eleazar begot Matthan; and Matthan begot Jacob;
16. And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
17. Therefore all the generations from Abraham until David [are] fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon [are] fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon until the Christ [are] fourteen generations.
The first seventeen verses of Matthew record a succession of spiritual births. From one point of view, these spiritual births chronicle the development of the human race from first conception — creation itself — to the first coming of the Lord.
But from another point of view, these first seventeen verses reveal the descent of the Divine through the heavens — the Infinite God of the universe taking on a finite human form. This “finition” of the Divine was absolutely necessary, for if God were indeed to come to earth, He would have to do so in a way that we could grasp and understand. If He were to manifest Himself in all His glory, no one could possibly bear His presence any more than one could bear the heat and light of the sun touching the earth. His Glory and divinity would have to be clothed in humility and humanity. The burning fire of the divine love and the blinding glory of the divine truth must be accommodated to our ability to receive. 5
The greatest example of this is how the literal stories of scripture — although they are accommodated to finite, human understanding — contain infinite levels of truth. In this way the Word of God serves as an external container of inner truth, just as the body functions as a container for the soul. The same can be said of Jesus Christ who was born of Mary. His human body, conceived in Mary’s womb, served as an external covering for the Infinite Love and Wisdom that were His very essence — His Divine Soul.
This was the only way that Jehovah God could come to earth and be with us. It was necessary that He take on a human body, along with its corrupted heredity — the heredity He received in Mary’s womb. This is quite different from the idea that Jesus was born “without sin,” or that His mother, Mary, was “exempt from original sin.” 6
The case is very much the opposite. In fact, God needed to be born in the womb of an ordinary woman — a woman with ordinary faults and failings. And He had to do so in an ordinary way — just as He is born in each of us when we are ready to receive Him. In fact it was absolutely necessary that Mary be a normal person, inclined to evils of every kind, just like anyone else. In this way Jesus could take on, through Mary, a corrupted human heredity. Through this external covering, He could be like one of us, making Himself both approachable and accessible.
But making Himself accessible to human beings was only part of the plan. By taking on human fallibility through Mary, He also made Himself accessible to evil spirits. Clothed in a human body, with all of its limitations and inherited corruptions, He could be approached and attacked by hellish influences — evil spirits from hell who desired nothing more than to destroy Him, both soul and body. 7
This process might be compared to a “sting operation” in which Jesus made Himself potentially susceptible to evil — something altogether impossible if He had remained fully Divine. In taking on a body from Mary, along with its inclinations to evil, Jesus was able to “draw out” the evil spirits who openly attacked Him. Through successive combats of this nature, He gradually subjugated the hells and glorified His humanity.
When we read of Jesus’ life on earth in the literal narrative, we see little of this inner struggle, or what Swedenborg calls His “combats against the hells.” But a careful reading of the internal sense will show us in what way, and to what degree, God fought for us (in Jesus) — not just on the cross, but throughout His entire life on earth.
The Power of Adoption
18. And the birth of Jesus Christ was in this way: His mother Mary, being betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, was found with child from the Holy Spirit.
19. And Joseph her husband, being just, and not willing to expose her to public infamy, intended to send her away privately.
20. And while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, fear not to take to thee Mary thy wife, for that which is begotten in her is from the Holy Spirit.
21. And she shall bring forth a Son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus; for He shall save His people from their sins.”
22. And all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was declared by the Lord through the prophet, saying,
23. “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is, being translated, God with us.”
24. And Joseph, being awakened from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord had directed him, and took to him his wife,
25. And knew her not, until she brought forth her firstborn Son; and he called His name Jesus.
As we have seen, verses one through seventeen record the developmental process by which the human soul is prepared for the birth of Jesus Christ. Next, in verses eighteen through twenty-five, the birth process itself is recorded, from conception to delivery. The language of the letter could not be more specific: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows.” Then comes this key statement: “After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit” (1:18)
It is marvelous how clearly this is stated in the literal sense of the Word. That which is born of Mary has no mortal father; rather, this Child is born of the Holy Spirit. Initially, Joseph is “minded to put her away secretly.” This is because Joseph knows that he is not the father of this child. In other words, Jesus does not have a human father — nor does He need one. That’s because the Father is in Him as His very soul. 8
It is quite clear, then, that Jesus is not the son of Joseph.” Jesus is born of “the Holy Spirit” — the Spirit of God descending to earth to take on human form. 9
The child conceived within Mary’s womb is not Joseph’s child, and Joseph knows it. And yet, even while Joseph struggles within himself, he is comforted by an angel who says “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to yourself Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (1:20-21).
Like all human beings, Joseph is naturally inclined to love his own offspring best, just as we tend to love our own ideas more than the ideas that are generated by others. In the corporate world, the phrase “not invented here” refers to the idea that we prefer to buy the products that our own company produces, rather than the products of a competitor. Similarly, the ego tends to be proud of its own ideas, even as parents take more pride in the accomplishments of their own offspring than in the achievements of other children.
But Joseph “being a just man” realizes that there is more going on than his own ego concerns. At this point, he represents a quality in us that can awaken to spiritual reality: “Being awakened from sleep,” Joseph does exactly what the angel of the Lord commands (1:24). This is a picture of how we gradually come to see that our highest thoughts and most tender feelings are not from us (“not invented here”), that they are not the result of our clever understanding, nor are they the product of our sympathetic nature. In other words, our highest thoughts and tenderest feelings are not our offspring; rather, they are gifts and blessings that come to us, and are given to us, so that we may adopt them as our own. This is sometimes referred to as “grace,” a gift that is freely bestowed upon us without our doing anything to earn it or deserve it.
Whenever we are “awakened from sleep,” like Joseph, we begin to see that the truth we have been given and the compassion we feel are always miraculous births — and that God is the true Father. The “Holy Spirit” has come upon us; all we have to do is adopt these noble thoughts and benevolent emotions — as Joseph did — as if they are our own. 10