The Book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1-17)
Of all the ways to start a book, this isn’t one of them. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” I mean, come on. At the start of a book, you have to grab the reader.
Here’s how you start a book. Here’s the first line from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” See? Only ten words, and you’re hooked. Another famous book begins with the author’s daring escape from the brutal prison Devil’s Island. Right away you’re in the middle of the action. You can’t wait to see what happens next.
So why does Matthew begin the Christmas story with a genealogy? I bet that many of you are tempted to skip verses 1 to 17 and go right to verses 18, which says, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” But that would be a mistake. The beginning of the Christmas story in Matthew has an important lesson for us. Three of them, actually. Here they are, and then I’ll take you through each one.
- The birth of Jesus is a new beginning.
- The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.
- The birth of Jesus includes all of us.
I got all of that from a genealogy? I did. And I hope you’ll see how I did soon as well. So here it goes.
First: The birth of Jesus is a new beginning.
Matthew is a skilled author, and he knows exactly what he’s doing in verse 1 when he begins, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” We’re supposed to read that and think, “This sounds familiar somehow.” In the Greek, the first two words are biblos geneseos which we translate “the book of the genealogy” - but they are also the Greek title for Genesis. Genesis is the Old Testament book that refers to the creation and beginning of all things. So Matthew plants these words here because he wants us to do a double-take.
What does this mean? Matthew wants us to begin reading his book with a sense of déjà vu. He wants to take us all the way back to the beginning and see his book, beginning with the birth of Jesus Christ, as a fresh start and a new beginning.
I went to the mall the other day. Part way through my trip I realized that I had dropped something. What I’d dropped is worth about $100. I began to retrace my steps. I went to mall security and all the stores I’d been in to see if I could find it. But it was gone. I went home feeling good about what I’d bought, but also wishing that I could rewind back to the beginning and be more careful and not lose something that was pretty valuable to me.
Have you ever wished that you could hit the pause button on your life and rewind and go back to the beginning? Have you ever wished you could have a do-over?
Matthew is saying in this verse that this world has two beginnings. The first one took place a long time ago in Genesis 1 when God created the heavens and the earth, and everything was good. But we know how that story ended up. In Genesis 1 and 2, everything is really good. But in Genesis 3, sin enters the world, and then there’s nothing but trouble from Genesis 4 to 11 and beyond.
Do you ever wish that we could pause history and rewind back to Genesis 3 and undo all the damage that sin has brought in the world? There’s good news, Matthew says. That is exactly what the birth of Jesus does. It’s a new beginning. In Matthew 1 the world begins anew. We get to start all over again. We had creation; now in Jesus, we have re-creation. The original creation, which is damaged, flawed, and broken, is now being restored and transformed in the person of Jesus Christ.
That’s the really great news Matthew is telling us. The birth of Jesus is a new beginning. It means that the slate is wiped clean.
And so for all of us who are longing to start again, who are longing for a fresh start, and who are longing for everything in this world to be put right, the birth of Jesus is what makes this possible. I don’t know what has happened in your past, but the birth of Jesus marks a new creation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The birth of Jesus is a new beginning for all of us, and for the whole world.
Second: The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.
So picture this. You get an envelope in the mail. You open up that envelope, and you find a single piece of paper printed on really nice paper. It has someone’s name and contact information, followed by headings that say “Employment History,” “Education,” and “References.” What do you have? You’d recognize it as a résumé. It’s what we write when we’re trying to give a potential employer some basic information about ourselves.
Picture someone two thousand years ago getting that same piece of paper. They would probably look at it strangely as they tried to figure out what in the world it’s all about.
That’s really what’s happening as we read the genealogy. Matthew’s readers would have been very familiar with this form, and they would have understood its purpose. They would have been captivated by what Matthew wrote. In the ancient world, genealogies did a couple of things.
First, they grounded you in history. I was in England one time when I came across a monument for where the missionary Augustine of Canterbury met King Ethelbert of Kent in 597. It’s one thing to read about it in the history books; it’s another thing to realize that it happened right here. That’s what Matthew is doing as he gives us the genealogy. He’s saying that the story of Jesus is grounded in history. He’s descended from particular people who really lived. It’s not a made-up story. It really happened in time and space.
But the genealogy also served another purpose. Back then it functioned as a kind of résumé. It would tell you who a person is and where they came from. It established your heritage, your inheritance, your legitimacy, and rights. It would establish your legal claim to certain rights and properties that had been passed down through the generations to you. The closest thing I’ve experienced is when I sat with someone at a seminary breakfast in Boston. I asked the person how long they’d lived in Boston; he replied that King George had granted them the land back in the eighteenth century. It was important for him to be able to trace things back. It established who he was and what he was entitled to.
In this genealogy, Matthew traces Jesus’ bloodline to two specific people. What’s interesting is that promises were made to both of them. What Matthew is doing here is showing that Jesus is the legitimate heir and fulfillment of the promises made to these two particular people, promises that looked like they had been lost forever. Not only does Matthew include them in the genealogy, but he underlines them in verse 1 so that we don’t miss them. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
What does it mean that Jesus was the son of David? David was the greatest king in Israel’s history. God had promised David, “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). God had told David that his descendants would reign forever. That seemed like madness. Israel had no king. Herod was king when Matthew wrote this, and he sure didn’t like the thought of anyone else claiming to be king. You sure didn’t go around bragging about being part of a royal family. But that’s what Matthew does here. He says that Jesus is a son of David. That’s a claim to royalty. Matthew is saying that Jesus is qualified to be the king promised to David, the king whose throne is established forever.
But there’s more. He’s also the son of Abraham. God had promised Abraham:
And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)
Here, Matthew is saying that Jesus is qualified to be the fulfillment of this promise to Abraham. Jesus is the one who fulfills the promise to be a blessing to the whole world. Matthew is making sure that Jesus’ résumé states clearly who he is qualified to be: the promised king, the one who will bless the whole earth.
Matthew is saying that Jesus is the fulfillment of two thousand years of God’s promises. All the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
You thought that this was a boring genealogy? It’s nothing of the sort. It’s already told us that the birth of Jesus is a new beginning, and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. But there’s more.
Third, the birth of Jesus includes all of us.
My grandfather used to talk about being descended from pirates. I have no way to know whether this is true or not, but I kind of hope so. The truth is that all of our family trees have some shady characters. But Matthew goes out of his way to include shady characters in this list.
On one hand, you have kings on this list. That’s pretty cool. Matthew is saying that the story of Jesus includes those who have power and prestige and position.
But Matthew gives us the other side as well. It’s clear in reading this list that Matthew has been selective in terms of the people he includes. He leaves some in, and he leaves some out as well. So it’s striking that he included some people that most would have left out. Most ancient genealogies didn’t include women, unless they were famous great women. But Matthew lists four women who are prominent and anything but great:
- Tamar in verse 3 - In Genesis 38 we read that Tamar acted as a prostitute and tricked her father-in-law into making her pregnant so that she could continue the line of her husband.
- Rahab in verse 5 - She was a prostitute and a foreigner who courageously rescued the Hebrew spies.
- Ruth in verse 5 - She was another foreigner, a Moabite under the Old Testament curse against Moabites found in Deuteronomy 23: “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever” (Deuteronomy 23:3). She was a descendent of the incestuous Lot.
- Uriah’s wife in verse 6 - She was the woman involved in David’s scandalous affair and cover-up.
So in this list you have great people, but you also have people with a past. You have men, women, adulterers, prostitutes, heroes, and Gentiles. Jesus is Savior of them all. Right from the start, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is immersed in the gritty and seamy side of fallen humanity. No matter who you are, people like you are already part of Jesus’ story. Right from the start, God chooses the most sinful, broken, and unlikely people - people like you and me.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther preached a sermon and said:
Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners—in fact, he even puts them in his family tree! Now if the Lord does that here, so ought we to despise no one … but put ourselves right in the middle of the fight for sinners and help them.
That’s great news. Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners.
The genealogy tell us that the birth of Jesus is a new beginning and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. It also tells us that Jesus is not ashamed of sinners.
Friends, don’t let this genealogy fool you. Don’t think it’s the boring prelude to the exciting stuff that’s going to come later. This is story-telling at its best. Right from the beginning, Matthew wants us to understand that the birth of Jesus marks a new beginning. The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. The birth of Jesus is good news for all kinds of people, people like you and people like me.
Two responses this morning. First, be amazed. It’s amazing to think that God would give us a fresh start, that he would begin to undo all that’s wrong in the world. It’s amazing that he would choose to do this by sending his Son as a baby to be born in Bethlehem. It’s amazing that he would choose to fulfill all the promises he’s made through Jesus. And it’s amazing that he would choose to include messed-up people in all of this. Yet that’s what he’s chosen to do. Worship him this morning. Marvel again that God would choose to do something this amazing.
Second, join the story. I hope you’ve put your faith in Christ. I pray that you’ve had that fresh start through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I really pray that you’ve seen all of God’s promises reach their fulfillment in Christ. And I pray that you’ll realize that this story includes you, no matter how unlikely a person you may be.
In his commentary on this passage, Matt Woodley writes:
One day in a hole in the Milky Way called planet Earth, among an odd group of people, Jesus the Messiah came to his people. It’s a true story that reads like fiction. What adventures, dangers and delights will Jesus encounter? And if we follow him, what adventures shall befall us? Where will this Gospel of mercy lead us? Hold on, we’re in for the tale — and the adventure — of our life.