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The King's Family Tree

Today's Gospel lectionary reading contains what some people think is one of the most boring parts of Scripture, a genealogy. This particular genealogy is that of Jesus, what I am calling the King's family tree. And you may be wondering, "Why should I read about somebody's family tree?" The answer is: because family trees can actually be very interesting, especially this one.

Why did Matthew begin his gospel with a family tree? First, he did so because genealogies were not uninteresting to the Jews. Without a properly researched family tree the Jews could not prove their tribal membership or right to inheritance. The Jews to whom Matthew was writing would be very impressed that Jesus could trace his lineage all the way back to Abraham. Secondly, Matthew begins with a genealogy because it summarizes Old Testament history in a memorable way and serves as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments. Thirdly, Matthew's genealogy establishes Jesus' real humanity. As one Bible commentator put it: "Jesus is no demigod from pagan mythology, but a real man with a family tree." (Caird) Fourthly, Matthew's genealogy establishes Jesus' kingship, tracing his ancestry, as it does, right back to King David. And finally, Matthew turns what could be a boring family tree into an exciting statement of God's love for all people. But to see how he does this we really must read Matthew 1:1-17. . . .
A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:
[2] Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
[3] Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram,
[4] Ram the father of Amminadab,
Amminadab the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
[5] Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,
Obed the father of Jesse,
[6] and Jesse the father of King David. 
David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife,
[7] Solomon the father of Rehoboam,
Rehoboam the father of Abijah,
Abijah the father of Asa,
[8] Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,
Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram,
Jehoram the father of Uzziah,
[9] Uzziah the father of Jotham,
Jotham the father of Ahaz,
Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,
[10] Hezekiah the father of Manasseh,
Manasseh the father of Amon,
Amon the father of Josiah,
[11] and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon. 
[12] After the exile to Babylon:
Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel,
Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,
[13] Zerubbabel the father of Abiud,
Abiud the father of Eliakim,
Eliakim the father of Azor,
[14] Azor the father of Zadok,
Zadok the father of Akim,
Akim the father of Eliud,
[15] Eliud the father of Eleazar,
Eleazar the father of Matthan,
Matthan the father of Jacob,
[16] and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. 
[17] Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.
What can we learn from the King's family tree? Jesus' family tree teaches us five things about our faith.

First of all, it teaches us that we have a faith rooted in history. Myron Augsburger tells the following story:

During a preaching mission in India in 1969, I learned of a young Hindu man who came to Christ by reading the first chapter of Matthew. When asked what there was about the genealogy which led to his conversion, he stated that for the first time he had found a religion which is actually rooted in history in contrast to the mythology of Hinduism and Buddhism. Matthew roots his Gospel in history, beginning with the lineage of the King.
However, it is precisely at this point, with Matthew's genealogy, that many people question the historical accuracy of the Bible. Many people ask: How do we account for the differences between the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke? Both trace Jesus' lineage from Abraham, though Luke goes even further back-to Adam. But the rub comes in when both authors trace Jesus' lineage from David. Matthew traces Jesus' lineage from David's son Solomon, whereas Luke traces Jesus' lineage from David's son Nathan. How can both of these accounts be correct?

What many Bible commentators believe is going on here is that Matthew traces Jesus' lineage through Joseph, while Luke traces Jesus' lineage through Mary. Notice what Luke says in his gospel, chapter 3, verse 21: "Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph." In other words, Luke suggests that he is not going to trace Jesus' lineage through Joseph, because Joseph is not the physical father of Jesus. Rather he traces the family line through Mary.

A second thing we can learn about our faith from Matthew's genealogy is that we have a faith which rejoices in the King.

Matthew's genealogy begins: "A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham." Christ means "anointed one". And there were three types of people who were anointed with oil in the Old Testament before assuming their respective offices: prophets, priests and kings. Jesus fulfills all of these offices. That is why he is called the Christ, or the Messiah. He can rightly be called: King Jesus.

Matthew's whole point is to prove that Jesus is the son of David and the rightful heir to the throne. It is interesting to note that in numerology the number 14 is the equivalent of the name David. Matthew is telling us in the structure of this genealogy, with its three segments of 14 generations each, that Jesus is another David, the Messiah par excellence - Jesus is the King of kings. Or another way of looking at this genealogy is to say that there are six segments of seven generations each and Jesus is at the beginning of the seventh segment of seven generations. The number seven in numerology is a number representing God and God's holiness and perfection. So the person occupying the place of the seventh seven in a family tree is a very special person indeed.

A third thing we can learn from this genealogy is that we have a faith which recognizes divine providence. The three stages of this genealogy form, as it were, a slanted N, moving upward to Jesus. First you have the upward movement from Abraham to David. You have the great time of the patriarchs moving to the golden age of David's kingship in Israel. But then you have a downward trend, following David's sin with Bathsheba, and Solomon's apostasy, which leads to many wicked kings who follow in Solomon's footsteps, until those footsteps lead all the way into exile. But then the Lord shows his faithfulness to his people by bringing them out of exile and back into the Promised Land in time for the Messiah to be born in just the right place according to the prophecies of the Old Testament.

Some people question Matthew's mathematical accuracy at this point. But it is important to recognize that Matthew purposely does not record every generation. He does this in order to fulfill his own didactic and mnemonic purpose. Matthew is trying to provide a genealogy that can be remembered by those to whom he is writing, people who wouldn't have copies of his gospel to carry around with them. They must carry the message in their heads and in their hearts. So Matthew is also writing to make a theological point-namely that God can bring good out of evil; God can bring the Messiah out of the wicked kings of the past and thus bring his people out of exile.

Fourthly, we see in this genealogy that we have a faith which revels in God's power. Matthew's genealogy begins with a supernatural birth--Isaac born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. And Matthew's genealogy ends with another supernatural birth--Jesus born to the virgin Mary. Notice that Matthew says, "Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ." In strong contrast to the rest of the genealogy, Matthew never says that Joseph begat Jesus, because he didn't.

Finally, we see in this genealogy that we have a faith which relies on God's grace. It is highly unusual to find women's names in a genealogy of this time period. And yet we find the mention of 5 women here: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary.

All of these women, except for Mary, were Gentiles, alien to the people of God. Judah got a wife for his son Er, presumably from among the Canaanite people, and her name was Tamar. Rahab was a Canaanite. Ruth was a Moabite, a descendant of the incestuous Lot, the nephew of Abraham. There was a curse on the Moabite people. Bathsheba had been married to Uriah who was a Hittite. This shows us that our God is no narrow nationalist or racist. If even Gentiles could be included in the family tree of the Messiah, then all types of people can be included in God's family.

4 out of 5 of these women were suspected of, or actually committed adultery. Judah and Tamar committed adultery with one another, resulting in the births of Perez and Zerah. Rahab had been a prostitute in Jericho before Joshua and his men took the city. Bathsheba and David committed adultery with one another. Ruth was not an adulteress. But then there was Mary who was suspected of adultery. I think that Matthew is trying to tell us that God works in some mysterious ways and through some surprising people.

Jesus' genealogy also includes some of the most evil kings of the Old Testament: Joram, Ahaz, Amon. What are we to make of this? We may conclude that God did not stoop into our sordid human story at Christmas only; he was stooping all the way through the Old Testament.

When I was in high school I acted in a play by Oliver Goldsmith entitled: She Stoops to Conquer. I played one of the lead characters, a young, single man who was very shy around high society women, but was very forward with women of the lower class. One of the high society women whom young Marlowe met actually fell in love with him. However, she couldn't seem to connect with him because he was always so nervous when he was around her. Her solution was to dress up as one of the servants. Thus the title of the play: She Stoops to Conquer.

Stooping to conquer is exactly what our Lord did throughout the entire Old Testament, and that is supremely what he did in his incarnation which we celebrate at Christmas. In order to conquer sin, God stooped down to become a human being. He became part of sinful humanity. The reason why he stooped in this way was in order to conquer sin, by paying sin's penalty for people like you and me. He had to be fully human to pay that price, but he also had to be fully divine, and sinless, in order to pay for the sins of humanity. Matthew's genealogy of Jesus reveals to us a God who stoops in love to conquer sin.

What application is there for us in all of this? 

First: Be patient in waiting for God's answers; God always keeps his word. God promised in the Old Testament times that he would send a Messiah, a king, to save his people from their sins, and he did. God will keep his promises to you as well.
Second: Matthew's genealogy helps us to recognize that all Scripture has value. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful . . ."

When we lived in Ireland I taught a Bible study in the home of Doug and Merrie Gresham. Doug Gresham has been a friend of mine for a long time and he is the step-son of C. S. Lewis, so I have great respect for his opinion on different matters. I told Doug that I wanted to teach on the Gospel of Matthew in their home Bible study. He said, "Fine, but why don't you skip over the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew." I said, "No, I think we should start from the very beginning of the Gospel and not skip over anything." Doug agreed, reluctantly. Interestingly enough, when I taught on Matthew 1 and the genealogy of Jesus it led to a very emotional time of sharing amongst the people of the group as I talked about how God includes the outcasts in his family. In fact, there was a woman attending the Bible study that night who gave her life to Christ as a result.

So you see, all Scripture can be used by God to bring people to himself and to make us more like Christ. God can even use a seemingly boring genealogy to transform our lives and touch us with his grace.

I wonder: Have you come to the God of grace who stoops to conquer sin? Have you come to the one who reveals himself as king through this wonderful genealogy? You may feel like an outcast today, but God wants to include you in his family through Christ if you will just receive his love and forgiveness.


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