It’s just a long list of names starting with Abraham, moving on to David and ending with Jesus. In between are some names we recognize—Jacob, Solomon, Jehoshaphat—and many more we’ve never heard of—Hezron, Abiud and Azor.
The structure is simple: “So-and-so was the father of so-and-so, who was the father of so-and-so, etc.” One name after another, a listing of the generations of the Hebrew people from their father Abraham to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. As history, the list is fascinating, but for most of us, that’s about as far as it goes.
It’s like the story of the man who was asked to write a review of the phone book. His summary: “Great cast of characters. Weak plot.” That’s the way we feel when we examine Matthew 1: “Great cast of characters. Weak plot.” Unless you happen to know the Old Testament. But even that may not help you because some of the names in Matthew 1 are completely unknown to us—particularly the ones in the last few verses. Since most of these men lived in the intertestamental period, we know nothing about them except their names.
If you are familiar with the King James Version, you remember that the word “begat” is used instead of the phrase “the father of.” “Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, Jacob begat Judah,” and so on. That strange word has given rise to many strange interpretations. One day a little boy came home from Sunday School excited about his lesson. When his mother asked him what he had learned, the little boy replied, “I learned all the “forgots” of the Bible.” “What do you mean?” “You know, Abraham forgot Isaac, Isaac forgot Jacob, and Jacob forgot Judah.”
The Jews Loved Genealogies
In that spirit we may call this “the forgotten chapter of the Christmas story.” We routinely skip it in order to get to the “good stuff.” But the Jews of the first century would be quite surprised by our attitude. To them the genealogy would have been an absolutely essential setting for the story of Jesus’ birth.
The Jews routinely paid close attention to questions of genealogy. For instance, whenever land was bought or sold, the genealogical records were consulted to insure that land belonging to one tribe was not being sold to members of another tribe—and thus destroying the integrity of the ancient tribal boundaries. You couldn’t just put the money down and take the deed. You also had to prove that your ancestors came from the same tribe.
Genealogy was also crucial in determining the priesthood. The law specified that the priests must come from the tribe of Levi. Genealogy also helped determine the line of heirship to the throne. That helps explain why Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 contain lengthy listings of the various people returning from captivity. As the Jews re-established themselves in Israel, it was crucial that they know which families had historically held which positions in the nation.
But that same principle applies directly to the Christmas story. “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world … And everyone went to his own town to register.” (Luke 2:1, 3) That meant that each man must return to his ancestral hometown—the town from which his family had originally come. But the only way you could be sure about your ancestral hometown was to know your genealogy.
Which is why Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the ninth month of her pregnancy. They had to make that long and dangerous journey because Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral hometown—a fact they knew from studying their genealogy.
I. Why This Passage Is Important Today
You may readily grant all that I have said and still wonder why we should study this passage. Although it was important 2000 years ago, what relevance does it have today? Let me suggest three answers to that question.
A. It establishes Jesus as part of the royal family of David.
This is no doubt the central purpose of Matthew 1:1-16. To a skeptical Jewish reader, no question would be more central in his mind. God had said 1000 years earlier that the Messiah must come from the line of David (II Samuel 7). In the time of Christ, Jesus wasn’t the only one claiming to be the Messiah. Other men—imposters—claimed to be Israel’s Messiah. How would the people know who to believe? One answer: Check his genealogy. If he’s not from the line of David, forget it. He can’t be the Messiah.
That’s why Matthew 1 begins this way: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” David is listed first, even though chronologically Abraham came first in history. Why? Because the crucial issue was not, “Is Jesus a Jew (a son of Abraham)?” but rather, “Is he a direct descendant of David?” In order for Jesus to qualify as the Messiah, he must be a literal, physical descendant of David.
We can see the same principle at work in the recent controversy concerning Prince Charles and Princess Diana. This week Buckingham Palace announced that they were separating—a prelude to a possible divorce. Beyond the personal tragedy involved lies a much greater constitutional crisis for the royal family. Because the sovereign is also the head of the Church of England, no divorced person may sit on the throne. When Queen Elizabeth steps down, who will take her place? Prince Charles is next in line, but if he is divorced, he can’t take the throne. Who is next in line? Genealogy gives the answer. The oldest child of Charles and Diana would be second in line, their second son would be third in line. But the monarchy itself has been called into question by this crisis. The rulers of England must come from the house of Windsor, and those rulers are determined strictly by genealogy.
The same is true for Jesus Christ. His “right to the throne” is determined by his genealogy, which establishes beyond question that he is indeed a literal descendant of King David.
B. It demonstrates that Jesus Christ had historical roots.
Galatians 4:4 says, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” The italicized phrase has the idea of fruit ripening for the moment of harvest. That is, when God had perfectly prepared every detail of history, he sent his Son into the world. Historians have known for years that at the time of Christ, there was a widespread expectation that “something” was about to happen. The now-extinct religions of Greece and Rome held out hope that a deliverer would come from heaven. The Jews themselves knew that the Messiah would come according to the prophecies. The Persians studied the heavens and knew the time was at hand. There was a desire, a hope, a yearning, a deep feeling throbbing in the heart of humanity that someone must appear who would radically change the world.
No, they weren’t consciously expecting Jesus, but the yearning was undeniably there. And into that expectant world God sent his Son. At just the right time. In just the right way.
Matthew 1 is telling us that Jesus Christ had roots. He had a family tree. He didn’t just drop out of heaven, he didn’t appear magically on the scene, but at the perfect moment of history, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
Jesus had a human family. He had a mother and a father and a history. He’s not some fictional character—like the gods on Mount Olympus. No, he was a real person born into a real family. Galatians 4:4 teaches us that behind it all stood God superintending the whole process.
Do you remember the TV mini-series Roots? It was the story of how Alex Haley, a black man, set out years ago to discover his family’s history. All he knew was that his family had descended from an African slave named Kinte who landed in America at a place called “napolis.” He also remembered bits and pieces of the stories his aunts and grandmothers used to tell him when he was a child. With that meager information, he began to put the story together. Across the generations, a few syllables of the original African language had been repeated. He went from one linguist to another, repeating those few syllables, asking if they knew what language they came from. No one seemed to know, until one day he met someone who identified the words as belonging to a tribal language from the small West African country of Gambia. After more research, he discovered that “napo-lis” stood for Annapolis, Maryland, entry point for thousands of African slaves. When he went to that area, he found the name Kinte in the breeding records of a family that had owned slaves a century and a half earlier.
Eventually Alex Haley made the trip to Gambia. There he visited tribe after tribe, listening to the tribal historians tell their stories. These were old men who had memorized hundreds of years of birth, death, marriage and war. One day he sat for hours listening as a man told the story of his tribe. “So-and-so was the first. He married so-and-so. They had so-many children and lived so-many years.” On and on it went, the story of one African tribe spanning the centuries. Then it happened: “So-and-so married so-and-so. They had a son. In such-and-such a year he was taken away and never seen again.” What was the name of the son? Kunta Kinte. The year was 1752. Alex Haley said, “I had what they call a peak experience.” It was one of those moments of revelation that you have once or twice in a lifetime. He said, “I realized then that I had roots. I had history. My family came from somewhere.”
That’s what Matthew 1 is teaching us. Jesus had roots. He had a history. He had a family. He came from somewhere.
C. It’s a chronicle of the grace of God.
If you study these names in detail, it’s almost as if God has pulled together a rogue’s gallery. I’ve already said that we don’t know about every person on this list. But of the ones we know about, nearly all of them had notable moral failures on their spiritual resumes. For instance, Abraham lied about his wife Sarah. Isaac did the same thing. Jacob was a cheater, Judah a fornicator. David was an adulterer and Solomon was a polygamist. Manasseh was the most evil king Israel ever had. And on and on we could go.
This is not a list of plaster saints. Far from it. Some weren’t saints at all. The best of these men had flaws and some were so flawed that it is impossible to see their good points.
How does that show the grace of God? Simple. It shows the grace of God because people like this make up Jesus’ family tree. A murderer is on the list, a fornicator is on the list, an adulterer is on the list, a liar is on the list, a deceiver is on the list. Think about that. Most of these men were very great sinners.
II. Four Unusual Women
That brings me to my second major observation about this list: It includes four women. That in itself is unusual because when the Jews made a genealogy they normally didn’t include women on the list. They just traced the family tree from father to son. But Matthew 1 includes four women in Jesus’ family tree. They are Tamar (3), Rahab (5), Ruth (5), Bathsheba (6). All of them are very unlikely people. With the exception of Ruth, none possessed an exemplary character.
Her story—unknown to most of us—is found in Genesis 38. Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah who was the son of Jacob, grandson of Abraham. All you need to know is that Judah had a son named Er who married a Gentile woman named … Tamar. Er died and his brother Onan rose up to do his brotherly duty by marrying Tamar. But he, too, suddenly died, leaving Tamar both husbandless and childless—a kind of twin curse in those days. So because she was impatient and unwilling to wait for God to supply her need, she hatched a scheme to cause her father-in-law Judah to sleep with her. Her plan was simple: Dressing up as a shrine prostitute, she seduced Judah into sleeping with her, whereupon she became pregnant and gave birth to twin boys—Perez and Zerah. When she confronted Judah with the truth, he said (rightly), “She is more righteous than I.” Indeed, no one looks good in this story, which reeks of greed, deception, illegitimacy, prostitution, sexual lust, and even the hint of incest. Whatever you can say about Judah (and it’s not very good), you cannot by any stretch of the imagination make Tamar look good. She’s only less-bad than her father-in-law. But what she did was evil, wrong and immoral. She truly acted like a prostitute even if she wasn’t one by trade. That’s all we know about Tamar. There really isn’t a happy ending to this story. She’s just a footnote in biblical history—and an unsavory one at that. The story of her encounter with Judah is a story of human frailty and weakness—of the sinfulness of human flesh. That people like Judah and Tamar would be included in the line of the Messiah sends a strong message about the pure grace of God. Neither one deserved it, but both are on the list.
We pass now to the second woman on the list—Rahab. Most of us know more about her. In fact, she is almost always mentioned by a certain phrase in the Bible, a phrase most of us know by heart: Rahab the harlot. But that’s not all. Rahab was also a Canaanite—who were the hated enemies of Israel. Her most exemplary deed was the telling of a lie. Think about that. A Harlot, a Canaanite and a liar. You wouldn’t think she would have much chance of making the list, but there she is.
Her story is tied in with the larger story of Joshua’s conquest of the walled city of Jericho. When Joshua sent spies into the city, Rahab hid them in her house. In exchange for safe passage out of the city, they promised to spare her and her household when the invasion took place. All she had to do was to hang a scarlet cord from her window so the Israelites could identify her house. She agreed, hid the spies, and when the king of Jericho sent messengers asking her to bring out the men, she lied and said they had already left the city (they were hiding on the roof). She let them out of a window with a rope, whereupon they returned to Joshua.
It’s a great story with many lessons, but we mustn’t miss the point that Rahab was a harlot. That was her “trade.” The men hid there because people would be accustomed to seeing strangers come and go at all hours of the night. We also can’t deny the fact that Rahab told a bald-faced lie. Is there anything good we can say about her? Yes! She was a woman of faith. You don’t have to take my word for it. Hebrews 11:31 says, “By faith Rahab …” She was a believer! And her lie was motivated by her faith!
When the invasion came, she was spared and in the course of time became the great-great grandmother of King David. A harlot … a Canaanite … and a liar. Also a woman of faith. She made the list and she’s a part of Jesus’ family tree.
The most significant point about Ruth is that she, too, was not a Jew. She was in fact from the country of Moab. And that takes us back to Genesis 19 and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. On that dreadful day Lot escaped Sodom with his wife and two daughters. His wife was turned into a pillar of salt, but Lot and his daughters found refuge in a cave. His daughters evidently had been badly affected by their time in Sodom because they conspired to lure their father into sleeping with them. On successive nights they got Lot drunk and slept with him. Both sisters got pregnant and gave birth to sons – one named Moab, the other named Ammon. Those two boys—born of incest—grew up to found nations that would eventually become both incredibly evil as well as bitter enemies of Israel. The Jews hated the Moabites and Ammonites and wanted nothing to do with them.
The book which bears her name tells of the romance that blossomed between Ruth the Moabitess and Boaz the Israelite. They were a very unlikely couple but in God’s providence they were brought together in marriage. They had a son named Obed who had a son named Jesse who had a son named David, making Ruth David’s great-grandmother. And that’s how a person from the hated nation of Moab entered the line of the Messiah.
The last woman is not mentioned by name. She is however clearly identified as the woman “who had been Uriah’s wife.” The story of Bathsheba’s adultery with King David is so well-known that it need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that adultery was only the beginning. Before the scandal was over it included lying, a royal cover-up, and ultimately murder. As a result the child conceived that night died soon after birth and David’s family and his empire began to crumble.
Eventually David married Bathsheba and they had another son—Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. Quite a result for a union that began in adultery. There’s dirt all over this episode. But don’t miss the main point: Bathsheba made the list. Her name isn’t there but she is mentioned nonetheless.
Four Unlikely Women
Before going on, let’s think about these four women for a moment:
Tamar: Incest, immorality, feigned prostitution, a Gentile
Rahab: Harlotry, lying, deception, a Canaanite
Ruth: A woman from Moab—a nation born out of incest
Four unlikely women:
Three are Gentiles
Three are involved in some form of sexual immorality
Two are involved in prostitution
One is an adulteress
All four are in the line that leads to Jesus Christ!
Why would God include women like that in this list? But it’s not just the women. Think about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David. They were sinners, too. Why include people like that?
A Message to the Self-Righteous
I think there are three answers to that question:
1. He did it to send a message to self-righteous people.
Matthew was written especially to the Jews. Many of their leaders (the Pharisees in particular) were self-righteous and judgmental toward others. They truly thought they deserved eternal life. What a shock it would be to read this genealogy because it is filled with liars, murderers, thieves, adulterers and harlots. Not a pretty picture. Not a “clean” family tree. This list was a stinging rebuke to that kind of judgmental self-righteousness.
Do you know what this means? Jesus was born into a sinful family. He came from a long line of sinners.
2. He did it so that God’s grace might be richly displayed.
If you come from a family like this, you can’t exactly boast of your heritage. Sure, your ancestors were rulers and kings, but they were also great sinners.
Question: Can a prostitute go to heaven? Yes or no? Can an adulterer go to heaven? Can a murderer go to heaven? Can a liar go to heaven? You’d better say yes, because Rahab and David are both going to be in heaven—and Rahab was a prostitute and a liar and David was an adulterer and a murderer.
When you read the stories of these four women—and of the men on the list—you aren’t supposed to focus on the sin, but on the grace of God. The hero of this story is God. His grace shines through the blackest of human sin as he chooses flawed men and women and places them in Jesus’ family tree.
3. He did it so that we would focus on Jesus Christ.
Many people are intimidated by Jesus Christ. They hook him up with a lot of religious paraphernalia—big sanctuaries, stained glass, beautiful choir, pipe organs, formal prayers, and all the rest. When they look at the trappings, it’s all very intimidating to them. To many in the world today, Jesus seems too good to be true.
This genealogy is in the Bible to let us know that he had a background a lot like yours and mine. He called himself “the friend of sinners,” and he said he didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. He said, “The Son of man has come to seek and to save that which is lost.” (Luke 19:10)
Home for the Holidays
It’s almost Christmastime, and many of us will be traveling home to spend time with our families. Some of you don’t feel too good about that. You would rather not be going home this year, but you have to. You may have family members who embarrass you. Some of you are going to have to spend time soon with people who have hurt you deeply in the past. Fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts and grandparents and distant relatives. Some of them you’ll be glad to see. The others? Some of them you’d rather not ever see again.
Some of them are incestuous. Some are adulterers. Some are liars. Some are murderers. Some are filled with anger and bitterness. Some are evil in bizarre ways. And you wish you didn’t have to do what you’ve got to do—go home and face those family members at Christmastime.
Jesus understands the way you feel. He came from a disreputable family. His family tree was decorated with notable sinners. He knows what it is like to have relatives who embarrass you. He knows all about a dysfunctional family situation.
Good News From Jesus’ Family Tree
My final point should greatly encourage you: No matter what your past, Jesus can save you.
Any murderers reading these words? Any prostitutes? Any adulterers? Any liars? Any cheaters? Any angry people? Any thieves? Any hypocrites?
Good News! No matter what you’ve done in the past, Jesus can save you. If a prostitute can be saved, you can be saved. If a murderer can be transformed, you can be transformed. If an incestuous person can be saved, then there is hope for you.
No matter what your past looks like, or your present feels like, no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, God can give you a fresh start.
Hope for the Hurting
After I preached this sermon in the early service, a man who is going through a difficult divorce said these words to me: “I’m glad to know somebody else comes from a broken family.” He’s right. There’s a lot of dysfunction in Jesus’ family tree. There’s a lot of brokenness and a lot of pain.
He knows exactly what you are going through this year at Christmastime.
I hope you won’t skip Matthew 1 in your Bible reading. This unlikely list of unlikely people may be the greatest chapter on the grace of God in all the Bible. In these forgotten names from the past God turns the spotlight of his holy grace on fallen men and women, and through their lives, we see what the grace of God can do.
Good news! Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Good news! Call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins. He didn’t come to make you religious, he came to save you from your sins. He didn’t come to make you pious, he came to save you from your sins. He didn’t come for moral reformation, he came to give you eternal salvation.
As strange as it may seem, the worse you are, the better candidate you are for the grace of God. He came to do for you what you could never do for yourself. He came to save you from your sins.
The same grace that Rahab experienced is now available to you. I invite you in Jesus’ name to come and be forgiven. He’s already made the first move. The next step is up to you.