Our generation has witnessed a new and compelling interest in the study of genealogy. Perhaps this is because every five years more than twenty percent of us move. Now you can go to a department store and get a kit where everyone can become his own Alex Haley and trace his roots. In last month's issue of the Smithsonian magazine there was a lengthy article about that mountain in Utah where the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, are attempting to deposit the genealogy of the entire earth. Now their purposes are not what ours might be. They're doing that in order that they might by proxy be baptized for their ancestors and so assure them a place in the celestial heaven. If you want to join the Daughters of the American Revolution you must prove that somewhere up your family tree there was a Yankee who shot at a Redcoat. The Boston Social Register, the list by which invitations to social events are made is still based on the study of genealogy.
When we come to biblical genealogies it is for many a boring and redundant enterprise.
Beginning the 'begets'
We Baptists have a habit of making people commit themselves to read the Bible through at the beginning of the year, and then we often start them with Matthew 1. It's a trial at the very beginning. Some have found humor in biblical genealogies. In the musical Finian's Rainbow, you will recall that there is a chorus that says "Eve gave the apple to Adam and that began the begets." However, in the biblical world genealogies had a significance and a status, and a meaning beyond any we attach to them.
In the biblical world a man had to know his tribe in order to survive, for survival was as part of the tribe. A man's status was proved by his genealogy. When the exiles returned from Babylon those who had been from priestly families had to have preserved their genealogy or they were not permitted to take up again the responsibilities of priests in Jerusalem. A man's property, his heritage, his patrimony was tied up with his genealogy. For a man in biblical days not to have a genealogy was the equivalent of a man today being caught abroad without a passport or losing his social security card and number. Genealogies were fraught with significance.
One of my favorite studies at Christmastime has come to be the genealogies of Jesus. Several years ago a scholar, Raymond Brown, published a book studying in detail the infancy narratives of the Bible about the birth of the Messiah, and that caught my interest as he gave detailed interest to the genealogies of Jesus. I want you to open your New Testament to the first page of the first Gospel, I want us to meditate together reverently and meaningfully as we look at the genealogies of our Lord Jesus.
Jesus' genealogy, you'll remember, was called into question perhaps from the very beginning. Do you recall that statement recorded in John's Gospel "We have Abraham for our father," as if to raise some backstreet gossip from years ago in Nazareth about the paternity of Jesus. There must have always been a question mark. There must have always been some mystery about the paternity of Jesus for them to have made that statement "We have Abraham for our father" as if to say Who? Who is yours?
So Matthew, writing years after that with an apologetic purpose, begins his Gospel with this genealogy, emphasizing that Jesus is Son of David and Son of Abraham. He'll write, after a while, about Herod the Great. Herod the Great had his genealogy destroyed, for he called himself the king of the Jews, but he was an Idumean, an interloper, a pretender, and he had his genealogy destroyed, for he was no real heir to the throne of David. Not so for Jesus. His story begins Son of David, Son of Abraham.
Matthew recalls the genealogy in forty-two generations, three periods of fourteen names each. As a Hebrew writing probably to Hebrews he wants us to know this is the Son of David and the Son of Abraham. When you find the genealogy of Jesus in Luke's Gospel, it's not on the first page of the Gospel. It's at the time of Jesus' baptism when that voice from heaven said, "Thou art my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased." Luke takes that occasion to trace the ancestry of the incarnate Son of God through seventy-seven generations all the way back to Adam. The Son of God. For this is the last Adam. "Thou art my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased."
When you look at the Greek text of Matthew it begins "The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ." I believe that was written purposefully. When you look back at Genesis in the Old Testament in the fifth chapter when God would destroy the earth with a flood and create a new humanity there is a genealogy. And now that God is about to create a new humanity by what he does in the advent of the Christ at Bethlehem there is a genealogy. I want us to look at this, though, meaningfully in two ways. First of all, it tells us of a Savior who meets the needs of all persons. Matthew stresses that this is the genealogy of Jesus, the Son of David and the Son of Abraham. As if we missed that, he concludes it in verse 17. "There were fourteen generations from Abraham to David," to underscore the significance that Christ was a descendant legally from David and from Abraham. Why? Why was that significant? Why was it significant that he was a descendant of David?
The promise of the ages
When you turn back to a word in 2 Samuel 7:13, God speaks to that king of one coming after him, "He is the one who will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father and he will be my son." That was a categorical promise of God to the great king of his people.
It was a purposeful promise. "He will build a house for my name."
It was a perpetual promise. "I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever."
And it was a parental promise, for he says "He will be my son," in a unique filial relationship.
There was no greater promise made in the Old Testament than this. This genealogy has a very practical application to our own Christian faith. It reminds us that throughout history even though God does not keep his promises immediately he keeps them certainly and surely. That promise to David fulfilled in the Christ.
What of Abraham? Further back from David, before Moses, before the Law of God was promulgated, in the twenty-second chapter of Genesis and verse eighteen, God spoke to Abraham and said that through you "In your seed all of the nations of the earth" I like the translation "shall bless themselves," a promise made to that Mesopotamian, wandering Aramean. In your descendants, universally, all the peoples of the earth, will bless themselves. How can that be? He was a slave who never owned a square foot of the Promised Land except where he bought the place to bury his wife Sarah. His descendants were slaves, and refugees.
Their tiny Vermont-sized nation finally split asunder by a civil war, surrounded by super powers that swallowed them up. And still that promise hung in the air. "Through you all the peoples of the earth will bless themselves." I don't have to look to the commentators; don't have to speculate. I don't have to guess about how that promise was fulfilled. Paul said it emphatically in Galatians 3:16. "The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed." The Scripture does not say and to seeds, meaning many people but, "and to your seed," meaning one person, who is Christ. Why was it significant that Matthew show in the genealogy of Christmas that he was born Son of Abraham? It means that God keeps his promises. He may not keep them immediately, but he keeps them certainly.
The immediate offspring of both Abraham and David were unmitigated disappointments. Isaac was weak, presented in Scripture mostly feeble and senile. The immediate offspring of the promise was a disappointment. The immediate offspring of David, Solomon, was marked by compromise. A man whose life showed promise but yet at the end said, "Vanity, vanity, all is vanities." When you look at the immediate descendants of Abraham and of David both of them call for a greater son of Abraham and a greater son of David. And with the unwinding of the centuries that greater Son was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. The Word of God and the work of God may not be fulfilled immediately, but the genealogy suggests that it is fulfilled certainly.
Some of you are waiting for God to do something in your life. I know you are. You are saying "When will God do something in my life?" He's promised us in his word. A word for Christmas from this genealogy is that God may not work quickly but he works certainly.
I want you to look as all humanity marches through this genealogy. It is often noted from the time of the church fathers right up till today that the distinguishing characteristic of this genealogy is the presence in it of the names or the mention of five women. In ancient genealogies in the East women had no place, but in verse 3 you find Tamar. In verse 5, Rahab and Ruth. In verse 6, she's not mentioned but she's suggested, "David was the father of Solomon whose mother had been Uriah's wife" as if Matthew could scarcely bring himself to write the name Bathsheba. And then "Mary, of whom was born Jesus." From the earliest period of the church men have said these women must have been included because of some common significance.
Every one of them were those into whose lives there had come questionable shadow, failure, some crimson immorality, and yet they find their place in the ancestry of Jesus. Tamar's story records one of the vilest episodes in the Bible—betrayal, prostitution, and deception. It's a terrible story but there in the ancestry of Jesus we find Tamar. Rahab was a prostitute of great beauty who God chose to bring into his redemptive purposes. Ruth's ancestry traces back to the life of Lot. She was born under a curse because of the activity of her ancestors, yet she is used by God to be part of the ancestry of Jesus. In Bathesheba we are reminded of the failure of a man after God's own heart. There's encouragement to my heart from this. If God could catch up people like this and make them part of the ancestry of our Lord Jesus, he can take people like you and me and make us part of his family, too.
This theme of women being important to the history of the genealogy continues in the New Testament. There is Elizabeth singing her song while Zachariah is tongue-tied in silence. There is Anna, the aged prophetess, singing her song, and there's Mary catching up the strains of the music of the Old Testament while Joseph is in the background. And there in that New Testament a Rahab becomes a Mary Magdalene cleansed of the foulness of her life. A Tamar becomes a woman at the well redeemed from the unmentionable background of her life. A Bathsheba is transformed into a Mary of Bethany sitting at the feet of Jesus. And when the crowning moment of New Testament revelation comes on that Easter morning at the empty tomb, it is the women that run forth from it saying, "He is risen!" God's purposes crowned for womanhood.
Christ meets the needs of the ages
But that is not all. This genealogy, if we had time to expound it fully, has in it the hopes, the fears, the frustrations, the anxieties, and the aspirations of all the ages.
In verse four we read "Ram the father of Amminadab …" Amminadab was a slave, his hands manacled, his feet fettered. Amminadab is in the genealogy as a sign of all those whom Christ would come to free. In verse 12 we see "Zerubbabel the father of Abihud." Zerubbabel the rebuilder of the temple. Zerubbabel the one who said "Let's build up again from the desolation of the exile." There he is in the ancestry of the One who would later come and cleanse that temple, then replace it when he said "you destroy that temple, three days I'll raise it up" and "I'll become a new place where man and God meet." In verse 13, "Eliakim, the father of Azor," a prophet in the ancestry of the One of whom prophets spoke. Look again in verse 14, Zadok and Eliud both of them priests in the ancestry of the great High Priest. There you have the hopes, the fears, and the aspirations of the ages. As Phillips Brook said in his beautiful hymn "O little town of Bethlehem … the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."
But finally, he's not only the Savior who meets the needs of all persons. He's the Savior who meets the need of every age. Matthew divides this genealogy into three sections of fourteen verses each, fourteen generations each. He doesn't want us to miss that, for he says in verse 17, just in case you didn't count them up, which of course I'm sure you've all done, he said there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile, and fourteen from the exile to Christ. Why fourteen and fourteen and fourteen? There's a mystery about the numbers in Scripture. And one of those mysterious numbers if the number seven and its multiples.
When you look to the Old Testament Book of Daniel you are greeted again and again with seven—seven visions, seventy weeks. It means God is sovereign over history. He divided a week into seven days and that whole week is God's doing. The ancient Hebrew watched the moon wax for fourteen days and then he watched it wane for fourteen days, and that waxing and that waning were the lunar month, so that that fourteen came to have about it the significance and the sense of God's control over history. I wonder if Matthew did not divide this into three series of double sevens, to suggest that in this all there's the hand and the sovereignty of God.
Campbell Morgan identifies these three sets of fourteen. The first is an age of faith. Abraham begins it, the father of the faithful. And yet it represents the failure of faith. When you read through those fourteen generations you read of faith's failures. The second set of fourteen begins with David, God's royalty, and yet when you trace down through those names—Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Manasseh, Amon—you see the disintegration of God's royalty. And then finally fourteen names from a generation of failure after the exile to Babylon. And he observes that each of these series of fourteen began with promise and ended with failure. There was failure of faith in the generations of Abraham. There was failure of God's kings in the generations of David. Then finally failure—in the exile and the return of God's people.
At the end of all of those episodes of failure there comes God's final decisive victory in the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the reality of that to my own heart is that whatever this last year's had in it for you, for me, whatever failure, whatever shortcoming, whatever frustration, whatever promise of January first, will be in the dust on New Year's Eve. For those who await the coming of the Christ, failure need never be final. There's always a new year with him.
Finally I'd like to end with this note. When you come down to verse 17 you find that the Savior cannot be explained by this genealogy. You read over and over again, "Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah" and so forth and so forth until you come to verse 16, and "Jacob, the father of Joseph the husband of Mary …" Ah, there's a difference. "Jacob, the father of Joseph but the husband of Mary, of whom Mary was born Jesus, who is called the Christ." The bottom line of this genealogy is that in it Jesus is identified with us but in it he is separate from us. Forty-two generations identify him with us, but Matthew says clearly Joseph is the husband of Mary but not the father of the Christ. And that's why we celebrate Christmas. If the only thing that could be said is that he was born like the other forty-two generations in these genealogies were born we could admire him as a humanitarian, venerate him as a teacher, follow him as a leader, but we could not worship him as God incarnate at Christmas, because it can be said "Joseph was the husband of Mary of whom as born Jesus." We can say he is one of us, identified with us, but he's not one of us, separate from us.
Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Director of the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching, holder of the George W. Truett Endowed Chair of Preaching and Evangelism at Baylor's Truett Seminary, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.