I have spent most of the last couple of days ill with a headache, fever and stomach ache (and I don't think it's just 'man-flu'!) It's been pretty miserable, but in my more lucid moments I've enjoyed continuing to work my way again through Matthew's Gospel.
As it happens, Dave Bish has also been blogging on Jesus' genealogy. My most recent study in Matthew caused me to read through an old sermon I gave last summer. Matthew certainly believed that Jesus was the Christ, and both the son of Abraham and the son of David. I'd appreciate your comments....
‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’
‘When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.’
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife …’
As you’ve probably worked out, these are the famous opening lines of three novels, one by JK Rowling, one by JRR Tolkien, and the other by Jane Austen. And all three demonstrate how important an arresting start is if you want to hook your readers. A BBC competition recently asked people to send in the opening line that they would have if they were to write a novel. The winner was this: ‘I cannot write, not even letters to friends, but I want to write my story as much for you to read it as for me to understand it.’
We know a riveting opening is important if we want our readers to read on. And then we come to the opening salvo from Matthew’s Gospel that we just read. It hardly seems like a gripping start! And we perhaps give Matthew half an excuse as he’s not writing a novel, but a historical account of Jesus’ life. But it’s only half an excuse, because his dusty introduction just seems to reinforce our suspicions about the Bible. We read something like this, and it just seems so old-fashioned and archaic, so out of date and out of touch, so odd. And we know that historical detail is sometimes appropriate for a biography but, we ask, what popular biography would begin this way, with a family tree? Couldn’t Matthew have just dived straight in with the account of Jesus’ birth, and tucked this away in the small print at the end, perhaps in an appendix?
But, what we’re going to see this morning is that Matthew’s genealogy would have been such an arresting start to his first-Century Jewish readership that it would have completely knocked the stuffing out of them.
In Jewish culture, like many cultures around the world today, genealogies played a more important role than they do in Western European culture. In British culture, the only time that your ‘family tree’ comes into play at all really is if you’ve traced yours, itself just is a popular and light hobby. Ancestors can sometimes be a bit embarrassing, but that’s all really. There’s a story about an American family who were keen to trace the story of their family tree, and they hired a genealogist to do the research. Unfortunately he uncovered the truth about Great Uncle Zachary. Zachary had been convicted of murder, held on Death Row, and in the end executed by electric chair. The family were a bit snooty and ‘over-respectable’. So they asked the genealogist to tweak that bit of the entry to conceal the truth. This is what he came up with: ‘Great Uncle Zachary worked for the department of justice for a number of years, after which he was given a chair in applied electronics at a well-known government institution. He became quite attached to it, held there by very strong ties until eventually he died. His death came as quite a shock.’
But in Jewish culture, genealogies were far more important than here; as your ancestors were thought to say something about where you had come from. And if you look, you can see that Matthew has carefully arranged Jesus’ genealogy, as we see in verse 17: ‘Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.’ It echoes verse 1, at the beginning of the genealogy: ‘A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ So Matthew has arranged Jesus’ family tree carefully, and put it into three sections; a drama in three acts, if you like. And we’ll see that actually Matthew was right not to dive straight in with Jesus’ birth, as Jesus’ birth isn’t the beginning of the story, and his arrival didn’t come as a surprise. And as we begin to understand the point Matthew is making here, we’ll begin to understand why Matthew was so excited about Jesus.
Act 1: Jesus: The Son of Abraham
The first act covers verses 2-6, and corresponds to Jesus’ claims that Jesus is the ‘son of Abraham’, as we read in verse 1. Now if you were a 1st Century Jew, you’d know who Abraham was. Abraham was considered the founding father of Judaism. But here Matthew calls Jesus the ‘son of Abraham’ - drawing explicit attention to the fact that Jesus is a descendent of Abraham - as he reflects on one of the promises made by God to Abraham that we can read about in the Old Testament of the Bible.
Abraham lived some two thousand years before Jesus. In fact, as many of you will know, Abraham wasn’t always called Abraham. He was originally called ‘Abram’, which meant ‘exalted father’ – but had his name changed by God to ‘Abraham’ – which means ‘father of many people’. Do you remember the amazing promise that God made to him? God said this, ‘I will bless surely you and make your descendents as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendents will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’
Did you notice the promises there? For a start, God told Abraham that he would have many descendents. That may not sound particularly amazing to you, but we read that when the promise was made, Abraham was 90 and his wife Sarah, couldn’t have children and was also a pensioner – far too old!
But did you notice that there’s still more to God’s promise? ‘Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.’ Somehow, through Abraham’s offspring, God would bless the whole world. The one true God, the Creator, the God of the Universe, will bless the world through Abraham’s offspring. Every single person. I guess that Abraham wouldn’t have quite known how that promise would work out. After all, it’s no easy thing to do something of bless just one person, or one family, let alone the whole world! Think about it: if you wandered down to Southend sea-front and just wanted to bless all of the people there, you’d have to make a lot of effort. Let alone blessing the whole town, or the whole country. Yet God promises Abraham that somehow he will bless the whole world through his offspring.
Back in Matthew 1, verses 2-6 show how this promise to Abraham began to get worked out in Israelite history. As you’ll know, supernaturally, Abraham’s old wife Sarah gave birth in old age to a son called Isaac, and we read about him next in the genealogy: ‘Abraham was the father of Isaac’. And we can read on as Abraham’s descendents grew in number: ‘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, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.’
Several hundred years pass between the time that the promise is made to Abraham and the time that David is born. By this time, Abraham has thousands of descendents and they were all living together in a country, Israel. So far, God has kept his promises. But can we really say that the promise of blessing has occurred through Abraham’s offspring? We see hints of it in the genealogy – from nowhere Matthew includes Tamar, Rahab and Ruth; three women, none of whom were Jewish, they weren’t descended of Abraham – but there’s certainly no sign of Abraham’s offspring blessing the whole world.
As the Old Testament story progresses, we see this promise become sharper: it will be one of Abraham’s descendents – a particular person – who will benefit the world. And so when we read in Matthew’s account that Jesus Christ is the son of Abraham, we should begin to get a tinge of excitement, because Matthew is saying this: we’ve been waiting for this descendent of Abraham through whom God is going to bless the world – and guess what, he’s arrived!
Act 2: The Son of David
The second of our three acts is covered by the second half of verse 6 to verse 11. All of the people mentioned in this part of genealogy are kings. All of their reigns are recorded in the Old Testament. Of these the greatest King was a man named David. David ruled over the ‘Golden Age’ of Israel’s history: it was a period when the country was prosperous, there were military victories and the people generally lived in a way respectful that God was their ultimate ruler. David himself was a wise king, and a good king.
In 2 Samuel 7, of the key chapters in the Old Testament, which I’ve put down on your handout, God made a promise with his king, David. In some ways this promise is similar to the promise that God made with Abraham. However, this time the promise is seen to be even bigger and even better than before. Let’s read these verses together: ‘When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. 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. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’
Now there’s two levels of meaning to this here. On the one hand it’s referring to David’s son Solomon - he is the one going to build the temple [verse 13], and he is the one who will be punished when he messes up. But the promises also seem to point even beyond Solomon, don’t they? We see God promising that the kingdom he has established will be established forever. And this promise became associated with a particular person, a particular king. It was an incredible promise.
See, one of the problems with leaders is that they change so often. So often you have a good leader – but then they die or are voted out. British history, like the history of so many other countries in the world, is peppered with occasions when a good king reigns, only to be followed by a really bad one. So for instance, the relatively a good king, Richard I, Richard the Lionheart, was followed by a bad king, called King John.
And so it’s amazing, isn’t it, when God promises David that somehow there’s going to be this good King, whose kingdom will last forever. More than that, from elsewhere in the Old Testament, we read that this King’s reign will have positive consequences for all of the people in his kingdom. And God promises that this special king will win a victory that will bring peace. I don’t know, but I guess that none of us has ever lived in a war-zone – it must be terrifying. We see the horror of war on our television screens all too often. But this king will bring peace, once and for all. Peace in the world seems impossible to us. We’ve seen this week that top diplomats and the United Nations can’t seem to bring peace across the world, not even in the Middle East alone. But God promises that there will be one King who will reign perfectly, and who will have a fantastic victory that will bring peace.
The closest that Israel got to this King was David, but the genealogy records that even David slipped up. Back in Matthew 1, we read in verse 6: “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife.” You may know the story: King David was up on the top of the roof of his palace, and saw a married woman called Bathsheba showering naked. Well, as King what did David do? He ordered the married woman to come up to his palace, where he slept with her. And then in order to avoid having her husband Uriah around, David sent him away to fight on the front line of a battle, where he knew Uriah would be killed. David conveniently arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle. Even good King David fell well short. Adultery, murder and lies – all from King David.
Sadly, that sets the tone for what follows, in verse 7: ‘Solomon, the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.’
As we go through the names of the kings, as each name comes up we’re supposed to be asking: Is this person really going to be the great King, the Son of David? And if you know your Israelite history, you’ll know that will each one, they are far from perfect. There are one or two bright points along the way: Solomon started well, and there are sometimes better kings than some like Hezekiah or Josiah. But each of them in some way is flawed. They’re not the great King, the amazing descendent of David that has been promised. There are also some awful kings. Manasseh, son of Hezekiah the good king, could have taught Stalin and Hitler a thing or two about shedding innocent blood. And yet, there he is in the genealogy, the ancestry of Jesus Christ. And so as we read through, we have to say with each King, “No, no, this one’s a dud.” Solomon - no, Rehoboam - no, Abijah - no, Asa – no, no, no, no! They all failed in one way or another – some spectacularly.
So after each line, we’re still left looking for someone, somewhere. A King, a descendent of David who won’t fail. And he hasn’t come by the end of Act 2. As the Old Testament progressed, we learn more and more about this mysterious figure, this amazing King whose rule will last forever. We learn so much about this person, that he became known as ‘the Messiah’; this means ‘the Special One’ – a person who has been set apart to rule on God’s behalf. But he still hasn’t arrived.
Act 3: Hope in a situation of desperation
And so we enter Act 3, which is recorded in verses 12-16. And as this Act opens, the situation is grim. In fact the block of names starts with Israel’s ‘Golden Age’ over: the country is past its best, it is in decline. In fact, the nation is in exile in Babylon, in modern day Iraq. See in 587BC, the armies of Babylon dragged the Jews in chains back to their capital having destroyed Jerusalem. This event, known as ‘the exile’, is of massive importance to the Bible writers. And Matthew here definitely agrees with that – we can see that in his structure, he emphasises the exile. Why is it so important to him? The answer is: because effectively the exile was the point at which any hope of a future earthly kingdom got snuffed out.
I wonder if you like making models. I remember when I was a child I was quite enthusiastic about making models – actually my enthusiasm outweighed my ability. I went through a phase of making all sorts of models – aeroplanes, houses, cars. And you need to know that in the Old Testament, God used the people of Israel as a kind of model. The people of Israel acted as a kind of model to represent reality: the Kingdom of Israel was a small scale representation of what it is to live as God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. The Kingdom of Israel was a group of people who God’s model of what living in God’s Kingdom looked like.
But that wasn’t the full thing. God’s plan was always so much bigger. The model wasn’t the genuine article – and so it comes as little surprise when in judgment (in the exile) God effectively scrapped the model. That is what the people would have concluded whilst in exile – the model is done: the country no longer exists, the capital city has been trashed, including the religious buildings. There was no King, no country, no earthly future. And whilst it’s true that a handful of Israelites like Ezra and Nehemiah trickled back to Jerusalem to do some rebuilding, it didn’t really amount to very much. And from this point on the country of Israel got squeezed on all sides by successive empires: Persia, Greece, Rome. The model had been scrapped.
And we see this in the genealogy in verses 12 onwards, because whilst Jesus’ ancestors from David to Jeconiah were all kings, then the line of kings stopped. The promises made to Abraham and David became increasingly foreign to the situation – they looked increasingly less likely to be fulfilled. And so in verse 12 we read that ‘Jeconiah the king was the father of Shealtiel’ who was … king? No – he was just a man who returned from the exile. Then we read ‘Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel’ - and he became king, right? No again: he ruled as a puppet governor of Judah under the authority of Darius the Mede. Zerubbabel is the father of Abiud, and of course we all know who he was, don’t we…? Well, erm, actually nobody knows who Abiud was, or anything about him. And all of the rest are nobodies. We don’t know anything about them. Matthew can’t have got anything about them from the history books, he can only have dug them out of the back issues of the birth and death columns of at a library – every single name gives is unknown, and gives the impression that the hope is fading. God’s promises look less likely to be worked out with each generation. And we’re meant to feel the weight of those names one after another – each one as unpronounceable and unheard of as the next: ‘Abiud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Eliud, Eliud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob.’ None of them were significant. None of them were kings. The situation looks hopeless.
But also if you’ve understood Matthew’s structure to Jesus’ genealogy, what should also happen as we read this names is our anticipation should build as we sense another section ending; which we find when we finally get to verse 16: ‘… and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.’
We can easily miss the point here. Matthew is saying that Jesus is the Christ! Sometimes we get so used to hearing the name ‘Jesus Christ’ we miss the shock here. But Matthew isn’t saying that Christ was Jesus’ surname. No: he’s making a much bigger point! Do you remember I said that the Special King became known as the ‘Messiah’ in the Hebrew language? And what is the translation of Messiah into Greek, the language Matthew was writing in? Christ. Matthew is saying this: Jesus is legally Joseph’s adopted son, and he is the child of Mary … but he’s the Christ, the Messiah, the Special King God had promised. And so Matthew is making a massive claim: remember how God said he’d always come and provide the perfect King who’d win a victory and bring peace? Remember that? We’ll now he’s come: Jesus is the Christ!
And so when Matthew says in verse 1: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham”, he’s making a massive claim. Jesus is the Christ. Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the great King who will bring a victory for his people that will bring peace. Above all, Matthew is saying this: we’ve been waiting for this descendent of David, a King who is going to win a victory and bring peace forever – and guess what, he’s arrived!
I guess to a Jewish audience, this genealogy must have been incredible - certainly not the dusty thing it looks at a first glance. And we should realise the significance here too as we draw out the implications of this genealogy. Matthew is saying that Jesus is the climax of the whole of the Old Testament. The whole of it points forward to him. In fact, in 5:17 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to say that he has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets - it all points to him. For me, as a Christian, this is an amazing thing when I catch myself thinking: is Jesus really God? Can his death on the cross really save me? And I then start thinking about the ways in which Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament in an incredible way, not just in terms of the prophesies made about him, but also in terms of the whole storyline, of the one true God drawing together a people for himself into his kingdom. It’s through King Jesus, and through his life, death and resurrection that the Old Testament makes sense. So a genealogy like this should give us confidence that Jesus really is the Christ, he really is God’s king, and he really is fulfilling all that God is doing in the world.
I think a second implication of this genealogy is one that speaks about God: it shows that he is not aloof, as we perhaps sometimes think, but that incredibly he has intervened in the world. God has not remained distant to us, but has intervened to act. He has helped us in a way that we could not help ourselves. I read earlier in the week of another time when the situation in the Middle East was dangerously unstable, and Henry Kissinger, then US Foreign Secretary was flying round and round from country to country to try to sort out the problems. But he had to shrug his shoulders in despair. And this is what he said at that point: “There can’t be an international crisis next week. My diary is already full.”
It was one of those rare acknowledgements by a politician of their own limitations. Because, of course, human leaders are never ultimately able to resolve the intractable human situation. When the chips really are down, we can’t look to other people – they are themselves part of the problem. And this genealogy reminds us we cannot secure our planet’s salvation, or even our personal salvation [I wonder if that’s something that somebody here needs to be reminded of today: there’s no way I, personally, can mend my situation before God by trying hard to please Him]. But the genealogy does provide an answer in the person of Jesus Christ. You see, as we read on in Matthew’s Gospel, we see that, through Jesus, a wonderful new start is open to us all, not because of anything we can do ourselves, but because of what God did when he intervened and busted into history in the person of Jesus Christ. God hasn’t stayed far off, but has given us King Jesus, who has won the victory over sin and death and allowed us to enter his incredible kingdom.
Finally, before I close, let’s notice just one final thing. Notice the kind of person that Matthew includes in Jesus’ family tree. I spoke earlier of how some people try to edit their family trees in order to keep unsavoury-type people out of their families. But one quick look at Jesus’ family tree is that it is obvious that this is something Matthew doesn’t do: in fact, if anything he tries to include these people. And so we see mentioned people like: Tamar (verse 3) – a woman so desperate for children she conned her father-in-law to have sex with her; Rahab (verse 5) – a prostitute, and Manasseh (verse 10) – a mass murderer.
The point is this: God worked his plans out deliberately so that even unsavoury characters like this might be part of his great King’s family; perhaps even people like you. There might be people here today who feel beyond the pale – just too bad for God – if that’s you, then know this: God wants you to be part of his plans too. In fact whoever you are – man or woman, whatever you’re like, good or bad – God wants you to know that Jesus is for all of you. It’s something his genealogy hints at. It’s a reminder that Jesus’ message is for people like you and me. And this is why, although Matthew’s genealogy might not at first seem to match the opening sentences of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings, it does in fact tell us of the greatest story ever told.