George Booker
To Us A Child Is Born

(11) The Genealogies

Two of the four Gospel records, Matthew and Luke, record in detail the events of Christ’s birth. The same two give detailed genealogies.

Much of the foregoing has established 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 the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus” (1:16).

The “father of” 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 was the father of Jesus; and with good reason, as he explains in verses 18-25.

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

“Now Jesus...was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli...” (3:23).

The phrase “so it was thought” again indicates that direct parenthood is out of the question. Luke, as well as Matthew, clearly explains why elsewhere (Luke 1:35); so there is absolutely no Biblical warrant for any supposition that Jesus was literally the son of Joseph. However, the next phrase, “the son of Heli”, presents the problem. To take this phrase in the most easily understood sense would mean that Joseph’s natural father had two names: Jacob (Matt. 1:16) and Heli (Luke 3:23). This 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:

(1) Luke 3:23 could be read: “And Jesus (being, so it was thought, the son of Joseph) was actually the ‘son’ (i.e., grandson) of Heli”. Under this alternative, “the son of Heli” would refer further back to Jesus, and not to Joseph. Heli then would be the father of Mary and the grandfather of Jesus.

(2) Or, Luke 3:23 could be read: “Joseph, the son-in-law of Heli”. Again, Heli would be the father of Mary, and the genealogy of Luke would be Mary’s genealogy, through her father. Joseph’s inclusion at that point is easily explained in that the woman’s identity is often submerged in that of her husband.

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 Shealtiel and Zerubbabel (Matt. 1:12; Luke 3:27). If, however, these two are the same in both records, then one of Shealtiel’s “fathers” — either Jechoniah (Matt. 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 at least 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’s 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:

“A record (Greek biblos) of the genealogy (Greek genesis) of Jesus Christ the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matt. 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, 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 (Matt. 4:13-17).

The phrase “genealogy” or “generation(s) of...” occurs fourteen times in the whole Bible: eleven times in Genesis, twice more in the Old Testament, and finally this, as might be expected, the fourteenth time (surely a significant number: Matt. 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 (to portray Jesus as the king of the Jews and the hope of Israel), Matthew offers first an abbreviated genealogy (“the son of David, the 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; Matt. 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 (2 Kings 9:27), while conspirators killed Joash (12:20) and Amaziah (14:19). A fourth exclusion is Jehoiakim, who fits between Josiah and Jeconiah (Matt. 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, impelled by the Spirit, has been quite selective in his listing. The genealogy is 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 Revelation 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 Israel’s history in 42 segments that terminate in the revelation of the true king, who will bring the inheritance to the faithful in Israel.

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, first as “Jesus” and then as “Christ” — thereby 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 “genealogy” or “generations” of Jesus Christ (Matt. 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. Women are usually not named in scriptural genealogies. Certainly each is very important. Of the first four, three were Gentiles: Tamar, a Canaanitess (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 (Ruth 4:6). Yet these four also showed great faith: Tamar by perpetuating Judah’s line, even if it meant danger to herself; Rahab and Ruth by freely associating themselves with Israel and Israel’s God; and Bathsheba by securing for her son Solomon the rightful inheritance of David’s throne (1 Kings 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 part of the bride of Christ.

Jesus’ ancestors, as a whole, were not the sort to inspire pride in the flesh. Of course this was the purpose — that no flesh should glory in God’s presence (1 Cor. 1:29). 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 (Matt. 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. 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 in that respect 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 after the record of the baptism of Jesus, and not as part of the record of his birth, because it reveals the reason for his baptism: his descent, shared with all men, from Adam. Jesus’s 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 Savior be himself subject to the same weaknesses and infirmities 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 he is the last “Adam” because he is the beginning of a new creation. The first Adam brought only death, but in the last Adam all who believe will have life (1 Cor. 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 (Matt. 18:22; contrast Gen. 4:24). All those who have sinned against God and His Son may hope, in faith, to 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 “dead in 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 still very significant.

John’s is simple, yet infinitely profound. Jesus is the direct and “first generation” 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 God’s universal dominion:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning with God... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the Only Begotten who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,2,14).

Mark has a genealogy too:

“Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1).

This point is not otherwise stressed in his Gospel. Mark is the Gospel of the servant, and the servant has no pedigree, no meaningful ancestry. Mark portrays Jesus as the self-denying slave of God, who, though made “in the form of God”, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:5,6, NIV mg.). Instead, he humbled himself and became 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.

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).

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