“A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram…” (Matthew 1:1–3 NIV)
Matthew goes on for 17 verses giving us Jesus’ genealogy. So when we set out to read the New Testament or the Christmas story, most of us skip the first 17 verses of the book. That’s understandable. It’s a boring list of names.
But wait…Matthew didn’t have a required word count when writing this book. He considered this information very important, so important that he makes it the introduction to the rest of the story, the life of Jesus, the Messiah. What do we learn from Jesus’ family tree?
The Danger of Royal Ancestors
First century Jews would have found this family tree fascinating. It’s a parade of great people from their nation’s history and, like all the best parades, the person who comes at the end is always the most important, the one we’ve been waiting to see.
After the chaos of the exiles there were few who could still trace their lineage back to the ancient kings of Israel and Judah. But to make that information public would get you in big trouble with the nation’s rulers. King Herod was known for his ruthlessness. He killed his own wives and sons because he thought they were going to assassinate him and take his throne. You certainly didn’t want his spies hearing you talk about your royal ancestry.
Yet that’s exactly what Matthew is doing for Jesus. But he’s going a step beyond telling us Jesus is simply a descendant of royalty. Matthew tells us that Jesus is the culmination, the goal, of the entire family tree. Matthew has arranged the list into 3 groups of 14 and thus, 6 groups of 7. The number 7 is important because of the creation story. It’s the culmination, the climax, of creation. It’s the day when God’s work was complete and He rested. So by listing Jesus at the beginning of the seventh 7 in the list, Matthew is making clear beyond any doubt that Jesus is what Israel has been waiting for for the 2,000 years since his father, Abraham.
A New Beginning
In verse 18, Matthew begins telling the story of Jesus’ birth. He recognized that this story was going to be hard for some people to swallow. A virgin conceiving and giving birth through the Holy Spirit is not something you heard about, ever. So in Jesus’ family tree Matthew includes some unexpected people to remind his audience of the crazy circumstances through which God has already worked to bring about His purposes: Tamar pretended to be a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law, Judah; Boaz was the son of Rahab, the prostitute who hid the Hebrew spies in Jericho; David stole away the wife of one of his mighty men, Uriah the Hittite, and had him killed on the battlefield to cover it up. Matthew is also hinting to his audience that they should prepare for circumstances even more surprising than these in the story he’s about to tell.
This family tree introduces the New Testament because with it Matthew makes it clear that the birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of 2,000 years waiting and hoping for God’s promises, and it was the beginning of something new and world-altering-ly exciting. Coincidentally, the word translated as “genealogy” in Matthew 1:1 is the word genesis in the original Greek of the New Testament. The Book of Genesis told the story of one beginning, God’s creation and covenant relationship with Israel. Matthew is beginning the story of a new genesis, the arrival of Jesus the Messiah and the kingdom of God.
Remember that God always perfectly fulfills His covenant promises. Whether He takes a day or 2,000 years to do so He is always 100% trustworthy, working to redeem His creation and calling us to join with Him in this work.
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Grace and peace.