The family tree of Jesus - Matthew 1:1-17
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
There is the story of a family who hired a professional biographer to write their family history. However, the family was somewhat worried about the black sheep of the family, Uncle George who had been executed for murder by the electric chair. ‘No problem’ said the biographer, ‘what I will say is that Uncle George occupied a chair of applied electronics at an important government institution. He was attached to his position by the strongest ties and his death came as a real shock.’!
Well, I guess that every family has some skeletons in their closet they would rather keep locked away. What is so surprising about Jesus family tree, however, is that the skeletons are brought out and placed on full display for the whole world to see. So do turn with me to Matthew 1 as we look at what is really a genealogy of grace.
Now while a person today writing a biography might relate someone’s family tree as a diagram as part of an appendix at the back of the book, Matthew places Jesus hereditary history right smack bang at the beginning in full glorious Technicolor. And when you take a closer look you can see why he does so. In fact by introducing his Gospel in this way Matthew deals with three basic theological issues which would have been uppermost in the minds of any of his Jewish-Christian readers.
The first concerns certain promises under threat. Just take a look with me at how the family tree is topped and tailed- v 1 ‘A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham’ and then v 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.’
So it starts by speaking of Jesus, son (that is descendent) of King David, son of Abraham, and it ends by reversing the pattern by speaking of Abraham, David, and Jesus. The word translated genealogy is literally ‘the genesis of.’ So this is a book about beginnings. In fact it is a book about a series of new beginnings culminating in the great new beginning which is possible for everyone through the Lord Jesus Christ. Notice also the way in which the family tree is divided into three blocks of 14 generations- each beginning and ending with a key figure or event. So in v 2 we have Abraham ending in v 6 with King David. In v 6 we begin with King David and end with the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon. In v 12 we begin with the return from the exile and end in v 16 with Jesus. That such a pattern is significant is underscored by the fact that Matthew mentions it specifically in v17 ‘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.’
Now what is that all about? Well, let me explain. Abraham is the nomadic Arab God singled out some 4,000 years ago from Mesopotamia, now modern day Iraq- formerly Babylonia. And this pagan moonworshipper, who had nothing to commend him and who was as lost as everyone else, was spoken to by God and given a wonderful promise under oath, what is called a covenant. It is recorded there in Genesis 12, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. 2"I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." Up to this point in the Bible things have gone from bad to worse. The beautiful world God had made had been turned sour by human rebellion. Man attempted to dethrone God and put himself where God alone should be. The result? Disaster. In an act of divine judgement he man and the women were expelled from God’s presence in Eden and the first murder of Abel by his brother Cain and a gradual sinking further and further into the moral and spiritual mire. So the question is this: how is God going to restore a rebellious world to himself? How can the nations receive the blessing of God’s presence again? The answer is stage one of the divine rescue plan- the choosing of this nomad. It is through him and one of his descendents that God would set about reversing the effects of the fall so that the whole world will be blessed. That is the first covenant.
But God’s plan also involved having a King ruling his people- an anointed one –which is what the word ‘Christ’ means. And as with Abraham he chose a most unlikely candidate, a young shepherd boy called David. He made a promise or covenant with this person too, it is recorded there in 2 Samuel 7 – stage 2" `The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: 12When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14I will be his father, and he will be my son. 16Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.' " Do you see what God is promising? He is saying that there will be a descendant of David who will rule the world on the throne of David for ever. So you have two wonderful promises which hold out hope for a lost world. But did you notice what happens between the promise to Abraham, the promise to David and the coming of Jesus? It is there in verse 11- the exile to Babylon. What happened to Adam and Eve –the expulsion from the land of Eden is repeated again with Israel- the expulsion of the people from the land of promise. God had said through Moses that if the nation did not live as he wanted them to live and turned back to pagan idolatry, he would punish them by raising a nation to carry them off. And that is sadly what happened in 597 BC. The cruel empire of Babylon attacked and put most of the royalty to death and took the majority of the population back to Babylon, ironically the very place from which Abraham came in the first place. In 586 Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. So what becomes of God’s promises now? Where is this royal ruler to come from who will fulfil the promise to David? Where is this descendent of Abraham who will bring peace and blessing to the entire world? The answer doesn’t look very promising does it? This was nothing short of a major disaster- it appeared like the end of the world as far as the Israelites were concerned. No King, no temple, no homeland- everything which expressed the faithfulness and goodness of God was wiped out. It was the blackest and bleakest of times. The nearest we could ever have come to it had been if Hitler had invaded, killed Churchill and the Royal family, raised the Houses of Parliament to the ground and taken away the youth of Britain to work in the mines and concentration camps of Europe. So the God fearing Jew would ask the obvious question: where are God’s promises now? Well, says Matthew, they are fulfilled in Jesus. He comes in v16 as ‘the Christ’ the Messiah who will establish David’s Kingdom and reign for ever. And the fact that Jesus is the new David is brought out by the framework Matthew has used set the family tree, that of 14 generations. You see, the Jews gave each letter of the Hebrew alphabet a numerical value and then using it as a sort of code. The name David in Hebrew is made up of three letters- d,w,d: daleth-wah-daleth. d was given the numerical value 4 and w - 6. So by adding them together, 4+6+4 you come to the grand total of 14. So by arranging Jesus family tree in this way, the very pattern shouts out that this Jesus is the new David, David’s greater Son. The promise made to Abraham and to David all find their fulfilment in Jesus which is stage three in God’s plan. This is the new covenant made in Jesus. So here is an important point: when God makes a promise he will keep it and he will keep it even when all the evidence around us suggests that he won’t. If God has said, and he has, ‘Never will I leave you nor forsake you’ he means it, even when it feels he has forsaken us. Jesus is the one God has been preparing for all along and his ultimate plans for our good cannot be messed up by our sin and stupidity. I said that this is a family tree of ‘new beginnings’, of fresh starts and that is exactly what we see with Jesus reversing the fortune of the house of David and so providing the possibility of a fresh start for everyone.
And this reassuring truth is underscored by the next point made by this family tree; there is a purity under question. Remember this is the royal line Matthew is sketching out for us- the family tree of King Jesus. And yet woven into this we have reference to five women, and normally women were not mentioned in ancient family trees, and especially those of royal dynasties. So why are five mothers mentioned? It has to be admitted that they do stick out like sore thumbs in two ways. First, because as I have already mentioned women are usually not included at all, but secondly they are women who, shall we say, are morally and spiritually suspect, there is a big question mark regarding their religious purity. In other words, these are skeletons rattling around in the royal closet. First there is Tamar in verse 3. This is one of the most sordid stories in the OT found in Genesis 38. Judah was her father in law and he abused her terribly. Once he mistook her for a prostitute and by her fathered the twin boys Perez and Terah also mentioned in v3. Can you imagine having that for a scandal? And any self-respecting family would want that air brushed out of the family history wouldn’t they? The second mother is Rahab in v5. She was also a prostitute, the one who protected the Jewish spies in Jericho. That there was a prostitute in the royal family line would also have been a source of acute embarrassment. But even worse than that, she was a Canaanite, a pagan worshipper who was a sworn enemy of God’s people- the lowest of the low as far as any self-respecting Jew is concerned. And yet here she is specifically mentioned. You can already see the faces turning red as this list is perused. The third woman is Ruth. She also wasn’t a pure Jew either, she was a Moabite, some more enemies of God’s people who were the offspring of Abraham’s nephew Lot when he had sex with his two daughters- another sordid low point in Bible history. She was David’s grandmother The fourth mother is not mentioned by name. In fact the shear awfulness of her predicament is highlighted by saying in v 6 ‘David was the father of Solomon whose mother had been Uriah’s wife.’ The reader of the OT would be reminded of another dipping into the moral pits. This is Bathsheba. She was already married to Uriah a Hittite (so again the purity question is raised). David, himself married, committed adultery with her and to cover his tracks had Uriah killed. This is King David we are talking about, the man of God’s choosing! The baby born of the adultery died, but the next baby born to Bathsheba was Solomon who was to build God’s temple and in part fulfil God’s promise we looked at in 2 Samuel 7. Not exactly models for the mother’s union are they? They are the sort of skeletons we would rather have locked in the closet and then throw away the key! There were plenty of women of virtue in this line, but they are not even given a passing glance. Rather, it is the shady, the disreputable, the suspect and the spiritually impure that are deliberately mentioned in such a way as to grab our attention.
But you will have noticed that there is one other mother mentioned. Who is that? v16 ‘Mary’. And that there may be something untoward here is hinted at in the way v 16 is phrased, for instead of saying ‘Joseph the father of Jesus by Mary’ we read, ‘Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus.’ His birth is described in the passive voice. His maternity is affirmed but his paternity is left legal and formal- strangely understated. Later, some of the Jews even put about the rumour that Jesus was the product of adultery, an affair between Mary and a Roman soldier called Pantera, after all, that was much easier to believe than some way-out story about a Virgin Birth. Well, the point is Jesus has always been associated with women of dubious moral quality-so where there is a basis for it, Matthew comes clean, placing in bold type such women in the genealogy and in so doing making his claims about the Virgin Birth more credible. Yes there has been immorality associated with Jesus, but not at this point in the story-with Mary. Mary though far from perfect was nonetheless a good woman-and the great thing is that Jesus came to save good people too like his own mother as well as the more morally dubious like Tamar. The barriers we erect and think are so important he breaks down, male-female, Jew-Gentile, moral-immoral, he came to save everyone who has the humility to come to him. And it may well be that you are here this morning and to be frank there is something so painfully shameful in your past or that of your family that the very thought of it makes you die a thousand deaths. And what is more you think that God could not possibly be interested in someone like you. Then I would simply ask you on the basis of this list, to think again. He is passionately interested in you -these are individual names mentioned, real people, and there is nothing in your past which would present a barrier for him having a personal relationship with you either, for on the cross Jesus broke every barrier down by getting rid of the source of all our moral guilt, our sin, freeing us to come to him, as we repent and put our trust in him. No matter how bad, no matter how sordid, no matter how messed up your life-Jesus will take you as your are in order to make you into the person he wants you to be. Now do you believe that? Because that is the Gospel. That is what makes this Good News.
The third point this family tree makes is that often our perspective is undervalued, that is, we need to put our life and our events within the wider perspective of the Bible- God’s perspective.
Let me tell you about the time in which Matthew was writing. It had been a millennium since the golden days of King David. But it had been a millennium of decline and profound disappointment .Not one of David’s ancestors had even begun to approach the stature of David.There followed one long catalogue of political corruption and moral decay,culminating the great exile. Eventually, some came back after seventy years of penal servitude, in dribs and drabs at first. Sure, a new temple was built but it was as nothing compared to the temple they had under Solomon. This proud race had been cowered and the dynasty of David slipped further and further into obscurity .They could well have been forgiven for thinking that God had abandoned them. In fact right up to the birth of Jesus the people felt they were still in some kind of spiritual exile, they had not had a prophet in over 400 years. Sure, they had called upon God, but it seemed as if he had left the phone off the hook. And you may well be feeling like that too. ‘How long had it been?’ they asked.Since the Babylon-500 years. Since David, a 1,000 years ,since Moses 1500 years, since Abraham 2 whole millennia.. It is not so easy is it? To keep on believing in the promise of a Saviour after such a long time. Emmanuel- God with us? That was nothing but a pipe dream for many of them. After all, who were the heirs to David’s throne? Nobodies. Who was the present heir? A carpenter called Joseph. Why he didn’t even live in Jerusalem,he was stuck away in some obscure little village in Galilee of all places as far removed from the politics of power as the Scottish highlands are removed from Westminster.Joseph-royalty? You must be joking.
But not so,says Matthew, I am bringing you the astonishing news-v16, that Joseph, the husband of Mary has an heir,who is the Christ-the exile is now over, God has come to live amongst his people in a way that no one could have possibly imagined- God almighty has been reduced to a human zygote implanted into the uterus of a young Jewess.
And here we are at St John’s.How long has it been for us? 500 years since the Reformation and Elizabeth the first.1,000 years since the Norman conquest,2,000 years since the birth of Christ. And yet for all the changes that have taken place, am I right is saying that as in the days of Jesus there is the shadow of exile hanging over us, a cloud of despondency and fear,if the truth be known.Like these Jews we are tired.Tired of war.Tired of promises made by politicians which have never materialised.Tired of religion which is superficial and never satisfies.Tired of relationships broken. We are tired and weary of waiting for something to happen,looking for some good news.
That is how it was in the days of Joseph. A world very much like our torn apart by prejudice, war and pain. And yet,and yet- it was into this web of human sadness and longings that Jesus was born. You see, he belongs to the family tree of humanity. His family tree is part of our family tree and as such Jesus is our brother, our cousin as he took on our human flesh those 2000 years ago. Does that seem such a long time? Then study your family tree and you will see that it is only a handful of generations. Each one of us is connected with every one else on this planet through our family tree and Jesus is embedded there,in our humanity, with shameful pasts, under-achieving relatives,broken and lost so that by his sinless life, his sacrificial death,and his glorious resurrection, we could be healed and found,restored back to God.That is why he is called Jesus- Jehovah saves. Who will he save? Well, Matthew wants us to know and really believe that he saves people like you and me.
What for example are we to make of that final list beginning in v 12? Who on earth is Azor, Akim and Eleazor? Well, that is precisely the point, they are nobodies, there is nothing remotely notable about them at all, they appear just as names, they don’t even come into the same league as Abraham and David ,but nonetheless Jesus identifies with them too; for from these so called ‘nobodies’ was to come this great somebody.
And here we are tonight at St John’s.How long has it been for us? 500 years since the Reformation and Elizabeth the first.1,000 years since the Norman conquest,2,000 years since the birth of Christ. And yet for all the changes that have taken place, am I right is saying that as in the days of Jesus there is the shadow of exile hanging over us, a cloud of despondency and fear,if the truth be known.Like these Jews we are tired.Tired of war.Tired of promises made by politicians which have never materialised.Tired of religion which is superficial and never satisfies.Tired of relationships broken. We are tired and weary of waiting for something to happen,looking for some good news.
That is how it was in the days of Joseph.A world very much like our torn apart by prejudice,war and pain.And yet,and yet- it was into this web of human sadness and longings that Jesus was born. You see, he belongs to the family tree of humanity.His family tree is part of our family tree and as such Jesus is our brother, our cousin as he took on our human flesh those 2000 years ago. Does that seem such a long time? Then study your family tree and you will see that it is only a handful of generations.Each one of us is connected with every one else on this planet through our family tree and Jesus is embedded there,in our humanity,lost and broken as we are, with shameful pasts, undr-achieving relatives,broken and lost so that by his sinless life, his sacrificial death,and his glorious resurrection, we could be healed and found,restored back to God.That is why he is called Jesus- Jehovah saves. Who will he save? Well, Matthew wants us to know and really believe that he saves people like you and me.The question is:will you believe it?Will you act on it?
It was into a world very much like ours, a world torn apart by prejudice, war and pain, a web of human sadness and longings that Jesus was born. You see he belongs to the family tree of humanity. His family tree is part of our family tree and as such Jesus is our brother, our cousin as he took on our human flesh those 2000 years ago. Does that seem such a long time? Then study your family tree and you will see that it is but a handful of generations. Each one of us is connected with every one else on this planet through our family tree and Jesus is embedded there, in our humanity, lost and broken as we are, with shameful pasts, under-achieving relatives, broken and lost so that by his sinless life, his sacrificial death, and his glorious resurrection, we could be healed and found, restored back to God. That is why he is given the name Jesus- Jehovah saves. Who will he save? Well, Matthew wants us to know that he saves people like you and me.
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