If someone were to ask you to write a short book about Jesus, who he was and what he did, what would you write? If paper and ink were very expensive, so that you had to choose your words carefully, would you begin with a long list of Hebrew names? Probably not. And yet that is presicely what Matthew did when he wrote his gospel. In Matthew 1:1-17, he asks our attention first of all for a list of names. Why? Because it places Jesus Christ squarely in the history of Israel. His genealogy underscores that he is truly the Savior that Israel had been anticipating for so many generations.
God Makes a New Beginning
In the genealogy there are some familiar names: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah; Boaz, Jesse, and David; Solomon, Jehoshaphath, Hezekiah, and Josiah. Some may recognize Zerubbabel, who was the leader of Israel when they returned from exile in Babylon. But notice the last twelve names are unfamiliar; in fact, they are not found elsewhere in the Bible. These people were not influential in Israel. They were not kings, nor prestigious leaders; rather, they were Jews subject to Roman oppressors, and their greatest claim to fame was likely as respected elders in the local synagogue.
Jesus’ family tree, which begins with a rich landowner, Abraham, and contains kings like David and Solomon, fizzes out in osbcurity. When the Christ, the Messiah, is born, he is a shining star in a dark sky, bright hope in a world of hopelessness. And so Matthew tells his fellow Jews that it is time; time for renewal and restoration; time to break out of the downward spiral, out of obscurity, out of despair. The Lord, once again, is doing a great work.
In a way, this message was not completely new for the people of God. After all, they were looking forward. Their hopes were directed to the coming of the Servant of God, the Messiah. He would redeem Israel; he would set them free; he would bring peace; he would renew all things. Matthew’s challenge is not so much to convince his readers that the Christ will come; but rather, to convince them that Jesus is this Anointed One of God. What reason is there to believe that the prophecies are fulfilled now? that they have come true in this man, in Jesus of Nazareth?
There are, of course, many things that prove Jesus is indeed the Messiah. But Matthew’s first argument is based on a pattern he finds in history. The genealogy of Jesus consists of three parts, of fourteen generations each, three periods in which God made a new beginning with his people, a new order.
First God joined himself to Abraham and his family. The patriarchs served the Lord, and settled in the promised land. But there was also much decay and in the time of the judges the Lord was almost forgotten.
But after fourteen generations, God brought renewal and a new order. He made David king over his people, and Jerusalem became a glorious center of worship. King after king ruled in the name of the Lord. Yet they too forgot their God, and so eventually came a time of judgment.
Again, fourteen generations later, the Lord brought a new order through captivity and rebuilding. Again, the glory faded quickly. Israel became subject to Greek and Roman rulers, and was in great need of spiritual revival.
And now fourteen more generations have passed. If God continues working as he did before, it is time once again. It is time for a new revival, a new powerful leader in the family tree of Abraham and David. Don’t be surprised, says Matthew, that the Messiah has come now. It fits perfectly with the pattern of God’s history with his people.
This is a new time of restoration. A new order has begun. Because a new name can be added to the genealogy, a name greater yet than the names of Abraham and David. His name is Jesus; and he redeems his people from all their sins.
The Savior Redeems a People Steeped in Sin
Alright, a pious Jew may say, you have made your point. This is the time of the Messiah. But are you sure it is this man, this Jesus? Does he even qualify? Jesus could claim to be a descendant of David. But he was born from a lowly family, in poor circumstances. Not only that, there were plenty of rumors surrounding his birth. It was a public secret that Joseph was not the father. Jesus was a gifted teacher; but he was also born on the wrong side of the sheets. Should the Messiah not have a purer family line?
But before even talking about the virgin birth, Matthew shows that God is not impressed by what people consider pure. The Lord works his salvation through the brokenness of human life, through people of low reputation, even through a poor young girl like Mary.
That, I believe, is the main reason why Matthew includes four women in his genealogy: to show that God often works with what people despise. Tamar, a pagan girl who became the ancestor of Jesus by pretending to be a prostitute and sleeping with her father-in-law. Rahab, a Canaanite woman of ill reputation, saved only because she showed unexpected loyalty to the Lord. Ruth, the Moabitess. Bathsheba, wife of a pagan husband Uriah, who was raped by king David in the darkest chapter of his life. God continued his plan of salvation through these mothers. Who, then, could reject Jesus because of his poor mother or the strange circumstances of his birth?
There is comfort here: the Lord worked salvation through a long line of sinners. The names of Tamar and Bathsheba are but the tip of the iceberg. Our God delights in taking what is poor and sinful, and turning it into something beautiful and good. Out of a broken family line came the Savior; out of our broken lives God builds a people that knows, loves and glorifies him.
Jesus is the Endpoint of God’s Covenants
The “hinges” in the genealogy are the names of Abraham and David. Jesus, says Matthew, is the “son of Abraham” and the “son of David” (1:1). This means more than being just a descendant of these men, Jesus Christ is the endpoint of God’s great work that he started with these two believers.
Long ago, God had chosen Abraham to be his friend, with whom he made a gracious covenant: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” This relationship of blessing and worship continued from generation to generation. Often the Bible tells us that God remembered his covenant with Abraham, and that he rescued his people for the sake of Abraham. The greatest promise of this covenant was that Abraham’s offspring would become a blessing to all nations. This promise becomes true when Jesus is born. This descendant of Abraham extends the blessing throughout the world. Billions of people, from thousands of different ethnicities, are now blessed with Abraham’s blessing, through faith in Jesus Christ.
In the same way, God had chosen David to be his beloved king, “a man after his own heart.” The blessings promised to Abraham—of blessing, land, and offspring—were given to David and his family in a most intimate way: “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my son.” David’s family line had become the leaders of the descendants of Abraham. David’s throne would be glorious, established forever, and rule the whole world. This promise is fulfilled when Jesus is born. The great Son of David has come, and he is now sitting on the throne, the Son in intimate fellowship with the Father, and he rules over all.
Matthew teaches us to see in Jesus the fulfilment of the great Old Testament covenants. Abraham’s line of blessing and David’s line of kingship meet in the Anointed One. The endpoint of the genealogy marks the fulfillment of the work that God began.
Jesus Ushers in a New Creation
A final observation about the beginning of Matthew. Note that Matthew imitates the language and style of Genesis. Genesis repeatedly says: “These are the generations [toledoth] of so and so,” beginning with the “generations of heaven and earth” and ending with the “generations of Jacob.” In particular, Genesis 5 is a genealogy starting with Adam, and it begins with the comment: “This is the book of the generations of Adam.”
It is no accident that Matthew uses the very same expression. His gospel tells a story just as important as that of Genesis. His genealogy is just as important as that of the first human being. While Genesis tells us about God’s work of creation through Adam and all that came after him, Matthew tells about God’s work of salvation beginning with Abraham. Adam was first in the list of people on earth; Abraham is first in the list of the people of the covenant.
It is no exaggeration to think of Matthew as a New Testament version of Genesis. He even uses the word genesis in 1:18: “The genesis (Gk. γένεσις; “birth”) of Jesus happened as follows…” Instead of Adam and Eve we have Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Instead of the patriarchs there will be disciples. And the gracious activity of Yahweh, creator and ruler of all, morphs into the teachings and healings of Jesus Christ the King.
Allow me some speculation. When Matthew 1:17 emphasizes that there are three times fourteen generations, he challenges us to do some math. Fourteen is two sevens—and three fourteens is six sevens. Is this an invitation to compare the six days of creation (in Genesis) to the six periods of seven generations (in Matthew)? After six days of preparation, God created mankind and rested gloriously from his work. But now, after six times seven generations of preparation, the Lord brought into the world his Anointed, to bring glorious rest and peace.
One thing is clear. The coming of Jesus Christ is no less glorious, no less significant, than the very work of creation itself. The gospel of Matthew outshines the old book of Genesis. In Jesus Christ we see a new creation, of gracious activity and kingdom teaching, and of a church, of people worldwide chosen unto eternal life, in the way of faith.
Matthew makes his point with a list of names. In our situation, this may not be our first choice as a tool for evangelism and gospel proclamation. But let us at least take this cue from Matthew: we must speak of Jesus Christ in the highest possible terms, as the fulfillment of all God’s promises, as the king of the whole world, as the beginning of a new creation.