A train ride
Imagine you’re on a two-hour train ride. In your compartment are just you and one other person, and after a while you strike up a conversation. Your fellow traveler casually mentions being part of a church. A Christian church. This intrigues you, because she’s young, apparently educated, and gives an overall impression of being a normal person. She is not what pops into your head when you think “Christian.”
So you ask a few questions, she asks you some, and the conversation is surprisingly normal. About halfway into the train ride, your seatmate reaches her stop. She says “It was nice talking to you. This is kind of weird, but I have this copy of the New Testament, and I’d like to give it to you. Just read it and see what you think.” That’s it. No hard sell, nothing creepy. She gets off the train.
After a few minutes, you decide to take a look at the book she gave you. It’s a fairly thin paperback. You open it up to the very beginning. The Gospel According to Matthew. You start reading.
The first half of Chapter 1 is basically a list of names. Kind of boring. Then there’s a story about Jesus’ parents, and finally his birth. You close your eyes for a minute, then doze off. You wake up when you hear the name of your stop, and in the rush to pack up and leave, you forget the Bible. You leave it there in the train compartment.
All you read was Matthew 1. The first chapter of the first book of the New Testament.
If you never read another word of the Bible for the rest of your life, what would you know?
After one chapter…
You would know that this is a book about Jesus. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).
You would know that the Bible at least claims to be real history. The genealogy anchors the birth of Jesus not only in his own day, but in a long history of a certain people group in a certain time.
You would know that the Bible teaches that God is active in human history. Again, the genealogy, and also the way God intervenes supernaturally around the birth of Christ.
You would know that Jesus is the Christ. Matthew 1:16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ… Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows” (Matthew 1:16, 18).
You would know that the Bible teaches the virgin birth. Matthew 1:18 When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” This is further emphasized in the quotation from Isaiah (1:23) and in the statement that Joseph “knew [Mary] not until she had given birth to a son” (1:25).
You would know that the New Testament writers believed the Old Testament talks about Jesus. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet…” (Matthew 1:22).
You would know that the Bible says Jesus is divine. “ ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:23).
You would know that the Bible says Jesus came to save sinners. “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
On further reflection
If you had very good reading comprehension, the words might stick in your head, and you might keep thinking about them. Upon further reflection, you might have a few more thoughts:
The Christ was born from a family of human beings. This means that, at least according to Matthew, he is somehow both human and divine.
Jesus was descended from a royal family. Maybe that foreshadows something important about him.
Godly people can defend their rights without humiliating others. That might seem to come out of left field, but it’s exactly what happened with Joseph. His plan, before the angel visit, was neither to marry an adulterous woman nor to shame her publicly. He found a way to defend his own honor without destroying the person who (he thought) had wronged him.
Several women are mentioned in this list of Jesus’ family tree. That might surprise you if you previously thought the Bible treated women like property.
If, by chance, the New Testament you were handed had some simple study notes, you might have learned some helpful background information.
The women included in the genealogy point to some scandal. Not that the women themselves are scandalous. At worst they’re making the best of a bad situation; in some cases they’re great examples of faithfulness.
The fact that there’s literary crafting in the narrative doesn’t mean it’s not historically reliable. Skipping generations in a genealogy, for example, was a common way of giving structure and drawing attention to specific details.
What’s the point?
The Bible is a long and complicated book (which is a collection of a variety of smaller books). People spend their whole lives studying it, without getting at everything that’s in there. But the Bible is also refreshingly simple. You can get what you really need to get, without a master’s degree or a particular skill in understanding ancient texts.
Lots of us wish we knew the Bible better. There are great resources to help you do this. But for many of us, the best thing to do is pretty simple: Sit down and read. Take notes. Ask questions. Sit and think about things you don’t understand. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you wisdom and insight. Do all this in community with others.
When we open our Bible and read, God is speaking to us. One of the best ways for us to know him better, experience him more deeply, and protect ourselves against false ideas is simply to listen to his voice. For most of us, if we leave that first New Testament on the train, it’s not that hard to get our hands on another. Maybe even spring for the whole Bible. If we do that, once we reread Matthew 1, there are 928 more chapters waiting to teach us even more of who God is.