Matthew 1:1-17, Royal Heredity
For you and me today, the sight of a genealogy like this one is enough to make our eyes glaze over. It’s a long list of unfamiliar names that are hard to pronounce, and don’t hold much meaning for us. The modern western reader would be inclined to skip this part, so we can get to the good part, the actual story.
But Matthew was writing to mainly Jews. When it came to biographies, for the ancient Jew, most often the genealogy made or broke the whole story. Since royalty depends on heredity, Jesus’ pedigree would have instantly piqued the ancient Jew’s interest because it definitively established Jesus’ right to the throne of David.
Careful records had to be kept of every Jew’s family relationships in order to authenticate they were from the tribe and clan they claimed. At stake was each person’s claim to God's inheritance in Israel, an actual plot of land.
But also at stake were the royal lineage of David in anticipation of Messiah, the priestly lineage of Aaron, in order to choose high priests, and the Levitical lineage in order to serve in the temple. All these public records were kept in the temple and were carefully protected along with the scriptures when the Jews went into exile.
You can read about how important the genealogical records were when the Jewish people returned from exile to Jerusalem, in the book of Ezra. Three families claimed to be descended from Levi, but because no records could be found to prove it, they were barred from returning with the rest of the Levites (Ezra 2:62).
The phrase “Son of David” referred to the Messiah, and could only be traced through the kings of Judah. The ancient Jewish reader would have understood Matthew wanted them to know Jesus' lineage proved He was legitimately from the kingly line of David, and a direct descendant of Abraham. The presence of an unbroken record before and after the exile left no question Jesus was Who He claimed to be.
Matthew divided Jesus’ record into three sections. He left out names in Jesus’ genealogy on purpose. In the Hebrew language there were no vowels and no numbers. The vowels were intuited and Hebrew letters did double duty as numbers whenever needed. The Hebrew letters for “David” were “DWD,” which, when representing numbers, added up to 14. So, Matthew put fourteen names in each section, and made three sections, one for each letter in David’s name. Jesus’s genealogy also mirrored the three great periods in Israel’s history up to that point.
In our scientific age we would have wanted an exhaustive list as proof. But to the ancient Jewish mind, this was actually very convenient. Matthew was writing in a way to help people memorize his gospel because in his day not everyone possessed their own copy of the scriptures; memorizing was the only way people could have ready access to God’s word.
“Father of” meant direct genetic descendant of, and if they wanted whatever names were left out they could easily look them up given the material they already had in Matthew’s record. What’s more, if they knew their history well, since it’s all in the Old Testament, they could have mentally filled in what was missing.
Contrary to common custom, five women, including Mary, are mentioned in this genealogy. In Matthew’s day women were not valued too highly. In fact, they were so low in society, Pharisees would thank God every morning in prayer that they were not women. Were you amazed at the women Matthew chose to include? I might have chosen Sarah, the wife of Abraham, maybe, or Rebekah, or maybe godly Leah, all godly matriarchs, standing by the patriarchs.
But, if Matthew had ransacked the whole Old Testament, he’d have been hard pressed to find four more unlikely candidates for the Messiah’s genealogy than the following women.
Verse 3, Tamar – Was a schemer who posed as a prostitute to lure her father-in-law into bed with her and bore his twin sons out of wedlock.
Verse 5, Rahab - Was running a robust trade as a high dollar hooker in her own wayside inn, when she lied and betrayed her own country’s interests to help out two enemy Hebrew spies.
Also in verse 5, Ruth - Was a Moabitess whose husband had been a Jew even though God had said through Moses that no Moabite would ever be given a chance to enter the Lord’s sanctuary because of how they had treated the Jews.
Verse 6, Wife of Uriah - She is more well-known by the name of Bathsheba. Given to public nakedness on her roof, she committed adultery with her nation’s leader and her firstborn child died under God’s judgement
Finally, down in verse 16, Mary - only Mary had a squeaky clean record. If you look in Luke’s gospel, you’ll see she was also descended from King David, just through a different son. Joseph’s is the legal royal line, that gave Jesus His qualification to claim the throne of Judah. Mary gave Jesus the bloodline to King David, Abraham, and all the way back to Adam, the first man.
I hope you were able to pick out how each of these women expressed their faith, wanting to participate in God’s promises. Some acted unwisely, but even through their error, God blessed each of these women.
Tamar - despite how awful her first two husbands were, she was willing to do whatever it took to be linked with God and His people. In the end, Judah publicly confessed she was the righteous one, and he was dead wrong.
Rahab - had such a reverence for God, and awe of His power, she believed completely in His victory. She wanted to be saved along with His people.
Ruth - has a beautiful story of sacrificial love and redemption, well worth the reading
Bathsheba - the Bible isn’t clear about her faith, but of all the sons of David it seems only one reverenced God and desired God’s wisdom – her son Solomon.
Mary - in spite of the enormous hurdles and heartaches God’s will in her life would bring, she saw herself as God’s handmaiden, and willingly submitted to His command.
Though Matthew named some godly men, the patriarchs and good kings, many of the men in this list were not what we would call good men. They sinned, they were selfish, even cruel, wicked, rebellious against God, idolaters. But through them Messiah was born. I wonder if Matthew, ex-tax collector and publican that he was, identified with these women and men at some level.
Through this record God is displaying His grace to sinners. Even in this genealogy Matthew was already giving us a clue there is something unique and earth-shaking about Jesus. Expect the unexpected. Carried along in the Spirit, the apostle Matthew was showing how God in Christ was taking down the barriers of sin and its curse.
As you look at this list of names you realize God chooses unlikely people for His purposes. I think about how God spoke through a North Carolina farm boy from a small community who never in the world would have thought he would become the most famous evangelist of the 20th century, bringing the gospel to millions and millions of people all over the world.
I think about how God worked through a little known nun from eastern Europe, whose heart was so deeply moved by God’s love for the discarded and downtrodden in Calcutta, India. She brought God’s grace and compassion to them in such a way that it continues to humble all the rest of us in this world.
I think of a north African playboy named Augustine, who made this prayer to God 1,700 years ago, “O Lord, give me the grace to do as You command, and command me to do as You will.” He has since become known as one of the most important teachers and leaders in the church of all time.
Ordinary people who offered their lives to Jesus to serve Him in whatever way He commanded.
God chooses unlikely people for His purposes when they are willing to put their faith in Him.
What about you? Do you see yourself as an unlikely choice for God to speak through, and work through? Maybe you think you don’t have much natural ability, or you’re in difficult circumstances, the kind that hem you in to the point you couldn’t possibly serve God in any meaningful way.
Maybe, like some of the women in Jesus’ genealogy, you have a history of poor decisions, and wrongdoing, or there’s something in your background you feel might disqualify you from being worthy of God's employ. But God chooses unlikely people for His purposes.
How willing are you to trust God to make your life valuable in His kingdom, just as He did for these people? Where is God pushing you to use your little bit for Him? What would it take, in your heart, for you to be able to pray Augustine’s prayer,
“O Lord, give me the grace to do as You command, and command me to do as You will.”?
All passages taken from the New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
(Thoughts taken from “Adventuring through Matthew, Mark and Luke” by Ray Stedman)