Probably the very last thing you would ever be interested in is your family tree. You might know a few names. You might even know the names back to your great-grandfather. But you probably don’t know any names further back than that. My grandfather would be an exception to this general rule. He knows his relatives all the way back to the 17th century and the Mayflower. He has a computer program with over 1500 names in it. But even his interest in names is nothing compared with the interest that the ancient Jews had for names. If anyone desired to be a priest, he had to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that his ancestry came from Levi. If anyone came along claiming to be the Messiah, but his registry didn’t come from Judah, he would be laughed out of court. Matthew begins his history of Jesus by a genealogy.
Most of us probably skip over this part of Matthew when we read. We might think to ourselves, “What possible benefit does reading this genealogy give me?” We are going to see that the benefits of reading this genealogy are remarkable. Not knowing what Jesus’ ancestry was would be a real blow to our knowledge of Him.
Matthew’s book starts out by saying literally that this is the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ. There are two things that are remarkable about this. The first is that word “genesis.” It is as if Matthew is saying, “the Old Testament started with the old Genesis. The New testament era, characterized by Jesus Christ, starts with a new Genesis.” This is a translation of the formula used in Genesis, “these are the records of…” The second thing that is remarkable is that the name of Jesus Christ occurs here. Jewish genealogies always took the name of the first person on the list. So a Jew would have called this passage “the record of the genealogy of Abraham.” But Matthew, who is a Jew, knows this tradition well. Instead of putting Abraham’s name there, he puts the name of Jesus Christ. What he is saying by that is that all of the names in this list are over-shadowed by the name of Jesus Christ. All these names derive their significance from the fact that they were ancestors of Jesus Christ. The Jews thought the other way around: they thought that the last name derived its importance from the first name. But Matthew says that Abraham’s name derives its importance from Jesus Christ.
Notice also that Matthew divides Israel’s history into three periods: the time from Abraham to David; the time from David to the exile; and the time from the exile to Christ. Each section of Israel’s history has a shape to it. Abraham starts out small: Israel is not even born yet with Abraham. Yet God is with Abraham and with the people of Israel. The progress along this line is upwards, until we get to the pinnacle of the kingship: David. After that, in the second period, we see a decline. David is a “man after God’s own heart.” However, the rest of the kings decline in morality until we arrive at Jechoniah and the deportation to Babylon. So we see a big up-swing, and now a big down-swing. From the deportation to Babylon up until the time of Christ, there is another up-swing. God is faithful in preserving the line of David until Christ comes.
Now, I am not normally one to look at Bible codes, and see number combinations where there are none. But here Matthew has left us several clues as to what he means. First of all, each list has fourteen names in it. Now, if you look at the name David, it is the fourteenth in the list. In the Jewish alphabet, each letter could also stand for a number. If you look at the letters of David’s name, they are D, V, and D. D was 4, and V was 6. That gives you 4,6,4, which adds up to fourteen. I think that is too much of a coincidence. I believe that Matthew is saying by this that Jesus is the king who will sit on David’s throne.
There is another reason for this as well, and this gets us into the time-honored problem of the relationship between Matthew’s genealogy and Luke’s genealogy, which can be found in Luke 3. Previously, scholars have thought that maybe Matthew is giving us Joseph’s genealogy, while Luke gives us Mary’s line. This is not possible however, because of Luke 3:23, which says that Joseph was the son of Heli. A better explanation was given by D.G. Barnhouse in his Romans commentary. He says that Matthew gives us the royal line of those who actually sat on the throne, while Luke gives us the legal line of the eldest son. This is possible, and a better explanation than the first one. However, that still does not explain why Matthew does what he does with the genealogy. For one thing, Matthew leaves out many names. In the time between David and Christ, Matthew has 28 generations, while Luke has 43. Matthew has left out some generations so as to make the total come to fourteen in each section. It is certain that Matthew gives us the line of who was on the throne. Naturally, the listing of those who were on the throne would be a longer list than a list that gave us physical descent. The point of Luke’s genealogy is that Jesus is the new Adam, because he ends his list with “Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” That implies that the end of Luke’s genealogy is a new beginning. Therefore, the difference between Matthew and Luke is that Luke is giving us the physical line of descent of Joseph, whereas Matthew is giving us the royal line of those who sat on the throne, or those who would have sat on the throne, had there been a throne on which they could have sat. This difference also explains why Matthew goes from father to son (for that is how the kingship ran), whereas Luke goes from son to father (going back in physical lineage, this is the only way to do it).
The next thing we should see is that Matthew does not always mean physical son, when he says, “the father of.” That word is the same word God uses when he says, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” When we think of begetting, we think of strict lineage of father to son. But that is not how the ancient world thought.
Genealogies like this were always meant to say something about the people in it. For instance, in verse 7-8, Matthew has literally “Asaph.” The NIV does us no favors here by translating the name “Asa.” That is not what Matthew said. Matthew knew his OT just as well, and much better than we do. Matthew meant to include the OT Psalmist Asaph. Often genealogies would include people who were thought to be important. Asaph makes his way into the genealogy, because he was famous only for being a Psalmist. This is Matthew’s way of saying, “Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT Psalms.” A little later, Matthew makes another play on words. In verse 10, he translates “Amon” as “Amos.” Again the NIV translates this as “Amon” without so much as a note explaining why. Matthew wanted to include Amos, because Amos was the OT prophet of destruction for Israel. Notice where he comes in the line: right before the captivity. Matthew is telling us in a subtle way with these two puns that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of OT prophecy and the Psalms.
The next thing we need to notice are the four women mentioned. These are not the four women we would expect. In any self-respecting Jewish genealogy of the time, if they included any women at all, which was rare, they would have include Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. Matthew includes Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah.” Finding out what these women have in common has not seemed to be easy for scholars. The story of Tamar is that she was the wife of Er, Judah’s first-born son. Er displeased the Lord, so the Lord took his life. Then Tamar was given to Onan, the next in line. Onan was supposed to perform the duty of a younger brother. He deliberately failed in his duty, so the Lord took him as well. Tamar then was supposed to be given to Shelah, the youngest son. However, Judah did not give her to him. So Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute, and seduced Judah. When Judah was informed that Tamar was pregnant, he was ready to have her stoned until he found out that it was his own child that she was carrying. Tamar was most likely a Gentile.
Rahab was the prostitute who hid the spies during the conquest of Canaan. She was obviously a Gentile, and an immoral one at that. But she was brought into the covenant community by Joshua when they invaded the land.
Ruth was a Moabitess, who showed faithfulness to her mother-in-law Naomi.
Matthew hesitates even to mention Bathsheba’s name. He calls her “the wife of Uriah,” thus proving both that David sinned in what he did with her, and also proving that Bathsheba was a Gentile.
All four women were Gentiles, and three of the four had rather checkered histories. Matthew is probably diffusing the controversy over Jesus’ birth. The Jews have always said that Joseph was Jesus’ father. Matthew says emphatically that Joseph was NOT Jesus’ father in verse 16. Instead of saying father, father, father, father, Matthew says “husband of Mary, of whom was born Christ.”
What Matthew is saying is that even David had “questionable” women in his ancestry, including Gentiles, and including sinners. The truth is that God by the power of the Holy Spirit made Mary conceive.
This brings us to another remarkable thing about this genealogy: there are only thirteen names in the third section. Count them. I believe that is because the true Father of Jesus is God, who is here unmentioned. God is the fourteenth “name” in the genealogy.
So Jesus is the King that will sit on David’s throne. We have seen that His lineage is undoubtedly from David, despite some interesting ancestors. Joseph, of course, is Jesus’ adopted father. Jesus was Joseph’s heir. That is why this genealogy is important at all. Joseph was from the line of David. Therefore, Jesus, though not born from Joseph, was Joseph’s heir, and therefore had the right of the throne, which Joseph had, according to Matthew.
Is Jesus King in your life? Is He Lord? It doesn’t matter what your past is, God can bring you into His kingdom, and He can use you for His purposes. That will give you a sense of belonging which you cannot get anywhere else. Maybe you had a checkered past. That does not mean that God cannot forgive you. If you think that God cannot forgive your sin, then you are sinning by undervaluing Christ’s sacrifice, which has infinite worth. Do not think that you are so completely unique in the annals of history, such that your case is so completely different from anyone else’s. Your past cannot be worse than Tamar, or Bathsheba, or Rahab. And yet, God used them, and brought them in. They were all Gentiles. This fact foreshadows the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, which hangs over the Gospel like a great arrow, showing the way we must go. Matthew tells us that Jesus is king here at the beginning. At the end, Jesus says that all power and authority have been given to Him. That is why we must do the kingdom work. Because Jesus is the King who sits on David’s royal throne.