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Genealogies of Jesus

Two of the four gospel records -- Matthew and Luke -- record in detail the events of Christ's birth. The same two give detailed genealogies.

It is generally perceived that Matthew gives the story of the nativity from Joseph's viewpoint, while Luke does the same from Mary's. It is not surprising to find that the genealogies follow the same pattern. Matthew's genealogy concludes with:

"And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus" (Mat 1:16).
The "begat" indicates direct descent -- which makes it practically conclusive that the line that precedes Jacob is in fact Joseph's ancestry. In the last phrase Matthew very carefully refrains from saying that Joseph begat Jesus -- and with good reason, as he explains in vv 18-25.

Luke's statement, at the same crucial stage, is more difficult to be certain about:

"And Jesus... being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli..." (Luk 3:23).
The phrase "as was supposed" again indicates that direct parenthood is out of the question. Luke, as well as Matthew, clearly gives the reason elsewhere (Luk 1:35); so there is absolutely no Biblical warrant for any supposition that Jesus was literally the son of Joseph.

But the next phrase -- "which was the son of Heli" -- presents the problem. To take this phrase in the most easily-understood sense would mean that Joseph had two natural fathers (impossible) or that his natural father had two names: Jacob (Mat 1:16) and Heli (Luke 3:23). The second alternative is not necessarily impossible in itself, but further reading compounds the problem -- since Jacob's immediate ancestors were Matthan, Eleazar, and Eliud, while Heli's were Matthat, Levi, and Melchi. Clearly we are dealing, then, with two separate men and two separate lines.

Two possibilities exist to reconcile the difficulty:

Since both Joseph and Mary were David's descendants, their two lines coincide from Abraham to David. Thereafter they diverge -- Joseph's continuing with the kingly line of Solomon and Rehoboam, and Mary's proceeding from David's son Nathan. The two lines appear to join briefly with Salathiel and Zerubbabel (Mat 1:12; Luke 3:27). But if these two are the same in both records, then one of Salathiel's "fathers" -- either Jechonias (Mat 1:12) or Neri (Luke 3:27) -- must have been his adoptive and not his literal father.

Matthew's genealogy

Matthew gives the legal lineage of Jesus, through his adoptive father Joseph. Joseph's lineage, including Judah's kings, implies that if there had been a true king of the Jews when Jesus was born, that king would have been Joseph! As Joseph's legal heir, Jesus would succeed to that claim upon Joseph's death. Assuming this to be correct, then the legal claim to David's throne is still vested in the living Jesus, and has never been passed on to another.

Matthew begins his genealogy with Abraham, stressing the Jewish character of the Messiah (as he does throughout his book). His genealogy moves forward, emphasizing the progression of God's purpose through the ages, culminating in Jesus the perpetual king of Israel. By contrast, Luke's genealogy is traced backward -- all the way to Adam. This emphasizes Jesus' natural descent (it is his true, not his legal, lineage), his relationship to all men, and his purpose in fulfilling the great Edenic promise concerning "the seed of the woman" (Gen 3:15). Luke carries this story forward throughout his books (both the gospel and the Acts), in which Jesus, first by himself and then through his emissary Paul, becomes "the light of the Gentiles" (Luke 2:32).

The introductory verse of the whole New Testament is the springboard of several wonderful thoughts:

"The book (Greek 'biblos') of the generation (Greek 'genesis') of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Mat 1:1).
Both "biblos" (Bible) and "Genesis" emphasize the new beginning made by God in Christ. Adam had sinned, and now the world was filled again with "chaos" and "darkness" -- this time man-made. Into this "formless" and "void" world the Father sent a new light, the precursor of a totally new, a spiritual, creation. "Let there be light". He said again, and that light came into the world, and the people who sat under the dark shadow of death saw it and rejoiced (Mat 4:13-17).

The phrase "generation(s) of..." occurs 14 times in the whole Bible, 11 times in Genesis, twice more in the Old Testament, and finally this -- as might be expected -- the fourteenth time (surely a significant number: Mat 1:17). After Jesus the Bible offers no new "generations", for there are none of any consequence. Jesus was, and is, the beginning of his Father's "new creation" (Col 1:15-18; 2:12; 3:1,10), one which will never be spoiled nor supplanted.

True to his main purpose in writing (which is to portray Jesus as the king of the Jews and the hope of Israel), Matthew offers first an abbreviated genealogy ("son of David, son of Abraham") which stresses Jesus as the heir of David's throne and the individual "seed" of Abraham through whom all nations will be blessed. The foundation verse of the New Testament thus establishes unbreakable and essential links with the Old. Unless the reader understands the great thematic promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs and to David, he cannot hope to understand the mission of Jesus. And if the reader of Scripture is ever disposed to dismiss these genealogies as nothing more than "dull" lists of names, let him try to imagine how Abraham the "father" of believers and David the "man after God's own heart" would have thrilled to read such "dull" lists (John 8:56; Mat 22:43)!

At least four generations are skipped by Matthew. Three are between Joram and Uzziah (1:8). These (Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah) are probably passed over because they are also the seed of the wicked Athaliah, daughter of Jezebel, and because they proved true to their heritage. It is not surprising that each of these three also died a violent death: Ahaziah was slain by the avenging Jehu (2Ki 9:27), while conspirators killed Joash (12:20) and Amaziah (14:19). A fourth exclusion is Jehoiakim, who fits between Josiah and Jeconiah (Mat 1:11); perhaps he is omitted because he was appointed king by the king of Egypt and not by God.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that Matthew has been quite selective in his listing. For one thing, he obviously sought to design a genealogy that would be easily remembered -- being readily divisible into three equal sections (v 17). There are definite links between the 42 generations and the 42 "stations" in the wilderness march of Israel (Num 33:3-49), as well as the 42 months of affliction in Rev 13:5. In each case the central idea is a period of probation or persecution, which climaxes in inheritance and the kingdom. Thus Matthew, by the device of his genealogy, crystallizes Israelite history in 42 segments that terminate in the revelation of the true king, who will bring the inheritance to the faithful in Israel.

Another attractive thought is the correlation between Israel's fortunes and the 28-day Jewish month -- patterned upon the moon's cycle: The "moon" of Israel's kingdom waxes in David (the fourteenth from Abraham). Another 14 "days" brings us to the "waning", when the royal line is removed. But a final 14 steps sees the royal line restored once again with Jesus, in whom Israel is destined to enjoy her greatest prominence in the national "heavens".

Forty-two generations are mentioned by Matthew. But this figure (and the equal divisions into three cycles of 14 each) can be achieved only by counting Jeconiah twice -- as the last of cycle 2 and the first of cycle 3. To do this would then be inconsistent, since the same double-counting is not seen between the first two cycles.

What is the solution to this difficulty? The simplest answer might be to suggest that one name has dropped out of the final group, but there is no textual evidence for this. There is a better, and more satisfying, possibility: Although forty-one men are mentioned, there are forty-two names of men! Mary's son is twice named, as "Jesus" Christ -- thereby and as making up fourteen names in the last division. Does Matthew mean to imply that Jesus had two "births" -- one according to the flesh, and the second from the dead by God's Spirit, which declared him to be the Son of God (Rom 1:4)? This second "birth", thirty-three years after the first, would then finish the "generations" of Jesus Christ (Mat 1:1), and would include prospectively those "in Christ" who would be "born again", to constitute his multitudinous "body".

Matthew mentions five women in Christ's ancestry; certainly each is very important. Of the first four, three were Gentiles: Tamar a Canaanitess (Mat 1:3); Rahab of Jericho (v 5); and Ruth a Moabitess (v 5). The fourth, Bathsheba (v 6), was married to a Gentile, Uriah the Hittite. In these four, a legacy of scandal was attached to the royal family of Israel: Tamar was guilty of incest, Rahab of prostitution, and Bathsheba of adultery. Ruth, a widow, was scorned by the "nearest kinsman", possibly because he questioned her virtue (Rth 4:6). Yet these four also showed great faith: Tamar by perpetuating Judah's line, even if it meant danger for herself; Rahab and Ruth by freely associating themselves with Israel; and Bathsheba by securing for her son Solomon the rightful inheritance of David's throne (1Ki 1:11-31).

The inclusion of their names, while those of Sarah, Rebekah, and others are excluded, foreshadowed the coming Gentile heirship in the "hope of Israel". Many Gentiles will one day, along with these women, make up the Gentile "bride" of Christ (Rev 19:7). They are typified by the Samaritan woman at the well, a "sinner" of some note (John 4:17,18), yet destined despite those sins to be the "bride" of Christ!

Jesus' ancestors, as a whole, were not the sort to inspire pride in the flesh. But of course this was the purpose -- that no flesh should glory in God's presence! The open "sins" implicit in the listing of these four women prepared the way for the same sort of scandal at the end, where the lovely Mary must appear publicly as an adulteress and an unwed mother (Mat 1:18,19)! Each of the first four women had known other men (though apparently bearing no children) before they conceived sons in the royal line. By stark contrast and irony, Mary had known no man at all when she conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. But yet the implied sin was inescapably obvious, and it became a "cross" which she and Jesus had to bear ever after. In giving birth to Jesus, Mary, though sinless, appeared to be a sinner. In dying upon the cross, Jesus, though sinless, also appeared to be a sinner.

Luke's genealogy

Luke's genealogy is given at the baptism of Jesus, and not at his birth, because it reveals the reason for his baptism: his descent, shared with all men, from Adam. Jesus' baptism was the initial step of obedience by which he would deliver himself and others from the condemnation of Adam. It was necessary that the Saviour be himself subject to the same weakness and infirmity of the flesh as those whom he sought to save (Heb 2:14,15; 4:15; 5:7,8).

Jesus is shown to be the son of Adam, and the last "Adam" because the beginning of a new creation. The first Adam brought only death, but in the last Adam all who believe will have life (1Co 15:22,23).
As with Matthew's list, the numbers are again important. Counting God (Luke 3:38) and Jesus (v 23), Luke's genealogy contains 77 names, and 77 is the number of times we must forgive those who sin against us (Mat 18:22, RSV mg; contrast Gen 4:24). All those who have sinned against God and His Son may have forgiveness of sins through Christ. Beginning the genealogy with Adam, there are actually 75 generations. Seventy-five is the number of Jacob's family that went down into Egypt, and died there (Acts 7:14,15); they signify all men, who are "slaves" to their sins until Christ their passover is sacrificed that they might be set free!

The two other genealogies

It is true that Matthew and Luke have the only detailed genealogies. But Mark and John also have genealogies, shorter yet also significant.

John's is simple, yet infinitely profound. Jesus is the direct descendant of the Father, in a special begettal to which even the first Adam could not lay claim. In that sense, as well as others, Jesus can be called the "firstborn" and the "beginning of the creation of God" (Rev 3:14). Thus he is the heir of universal dominion:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God... And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth" (John 1:1,2,14).
Mark has a genealogy too:

"Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1).
But the point is not otherwise stressed in his gospel. Mark is the gospel of the servant, who has no pedigree, no meaningful ancestry. Mark portrays Jesus as the self-denying slave of God -- who, though made "in the form of God", "does not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped" (Phi 2:5,6 RSV). Instead, he humbles himself and becomes obedient even unto death. What "king" would die for his subjects? This king did! Although he is the "Son of God", he is also "bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh"; and he is not ashamed to call us his brethren.

"Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phi 2:9-11).
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