Genealogies of Grace: The First Note
Read: Matthew 1:1-17
Most of us race through the Bible like a computer spell check program. When we read the Bible that way—blazing through as quickly as we can, as if a prize were given to the one who finishes first—we can miss critical messages. This remote-control style of Bible reading, in which we zap out the commercials, often skips over the hard or what we consider to be the non-sensational.
We chug on along at high speed, crunching the biblical truths, glossing over great portions of gospel until we come to a section that slows us down. Needless to say, the genealogies are among the most skipped portions in Bibles. Few of us ever slow down in those zones. Instead, when we get to one of those ‘begat’ sections, we crank up the reading speed, and we accelerate in overdrive right on past the boiled-down history of entire generations.
Unfortunately, if we hit the turbo button for the opening narrative in the first Gospel, we will miss a key road sign. Most Christians read the Advent narratives dozens of times in their lives, but only slow down to read the first genealogies in Matthew once or maybe twice. But God did not think the genealogies a waste of print. The genealogy in Matthew, which is the birth line of our Savior, has a central teaching, and it is important for us to remember that this, too, is God’s Word. One of the reasons that people leap over these verses is little more than selfishness. Because these verses don’t provide a religious “buzz” or thrill a reader with a practical key that unlocks the universe, then our evangelical Me-centricity moves us to ignore the first truth of the first Gospel.
It’s almost as if the amount of Scripture we study is dependent on whether or not it makes us feel good. Is that the standard we want to cultivate . . . that this is God’s Word if and only if it lights me up; and if not, don’t bother? If that is the standard, there will be a lot of fine messages never heard; truth will be sacrificed on the altar of Thrill.
Perhaps an observation and a warning are in order. It is not the liberal churches that have resorted to dramatics, sensationalism, and entertainment for the past thirty years. Look around you. The terminal liberal churches are not hosting contemporary Christian concerts, nor staging an outdoor drama. The liberals are not advertising Karate Crushers for the Christ, or the Dancing Disco Disciples. It is not the apostate churches which are revitalizing vaudeville in the precincts of their very own sanctuaries. Neither have the liberal churches employed worship team leaders, which sometimes appear like emcees with smooth segues from one portion of the program to the other. It is the conservative, fundamental, and evangelical churches that are doing this. Americans love to see a good show, but church should not be one of them.
In the same way, gospel genealogies such as the one at the beginning of Matthew may not lead to a rush of thrill. But they are God’s Word. And we must learn how to profit from them. These lists are not defective revelation. They are every bit as much the revelation of God as John 3:16. I admit they don’t push my buttons as much as John 3:16 or some other verse about my eternal bliss. Still they are from the mind of God and are for us. Every bit of Scripture is inspired and profitable for some purpose for us. To ignore these or other parts of the Bible is not only to deny 1 Timothy 3:16 but also to elevate our own judgment or emotions above the revealed word of God.
All scripture, even the genealogies, are given to us for purpose of doctrine, reproof, or training in righteousness. Each biblical genealogy has a central theological purpose and theme.
For example, the genealogy in Genesis 5 is designed to show the fulfillment of God’s promise that death would result from Eden’s disobedience. The message is that arising from the Fall, sin leads inevitably to death. The depressing refrain, at the end of each generation is that “ X lived Y number of years, and he died.” And he died. What God told Adam was true. That genealogy drives home that central theological point.
So what is the message of this first one in the NT which leads to the birth of our Savior? The message of this genealogy is that God uses people of grace, not of merit. Our God consistently uses the mode of grace to work his plan out in this world. He has never pre-required human ability, moral perfection, nor family inheritance. These are not what God used to lead to Jesus’ birth.
This genealogy is not generally comprised of superior people, although some had become famous by the time of Jesus; generally it is not superior people whom God uses. Instead it is sinners just like you and me that God uses. They are not from one background, but from many – some from within Israel, some from without.
The males in this genealogy are examples of grace. Abraham was far from perfect, especially when he sinned, doubted, and even tried to pass off his wife as his sister in order to save his neck. This would not be considered becoming for a patriarch of grace or a model of perfectionism—though it’s very typical for a model of grace. Abraham sinned and was imperfect.
Jacob (v. 2) was a “conniver” (Lit. “grasper of the heel”), who was assisted by a sneaky mom and who robbed his brother of a birthright. He got through life by skirting the rules, until Jacob was finally was out-Jacobbed by his own father in law, Laban
God can use people like this. Take heart.
Judah (v. 3) was not exactly pure. He was the one who wanted to profit from selling Joseph (Gen. 37:26-27). In addition, Genesis 38 reveals his shocking immorality.
While David (v. 6) was the ‘man after God’s own heart’ and the outstanding psalmist of Israel, he also was a murderer and an adulterer. And his son Solomon, the wisest man in the world, was not wise enough to understand monogamy, as the number of his wives and concubines approached 1,000.
Matthew’s genealogy could also be the Hall of Shame in the latter history of Judah. These were the kings who sold God’s people down the river into paganism and idolatry. These kings, in the line of Messiah, led to the fall of the nation.
All throughout the OT, God used those who were less than perfect. They were usable only by Grace. That is what this first genealogy is about.
The females, who are especially singled out, are also exemplars of Grace. It is striking to see the break with tradition in listing five women in Jesus’ lineage: Tamar (v. 3), Rahab (v. 5) Ruth (v. 5), Uriah’s wife- Bathsheba (v. 6), and Mary (v. 16).
All of these had one striking thing in common: a very bad reputation. None of these escaped life unscathed. Each in her own way was harshly criticized, though some were did not deserve it. Further, most were accused of a notorious sexual sin.
Tamar (v. 3) was known for her deceit, her disguise as a prostitute, her adultery with her own father in law, and would live through life as both the daughter-in-law to Judah as well as mother of his children. Rahab (v. 5) ran a small full-service hostel on the red-light “wall” of Jericho. She wanted to be available to the tourists and visiting businessmen. But she was changed by the Lord as he interrupted her life. He generated faith in her and accepted her as righteous. Later she assisted the spies as they prepared to invade Jericho. Ruth (v. 5) slept in the barn with Boaz and would hardly satisfy the courtship model as she warmed his feet. And interestingly, Bathsheba (v. 6) is not even called by name, but is only referred to as ‘Uriah’s wife.’ Mary (16-17), too, was accused of immorality because of the work of the Holy Spirit in conceiving Jesus, though of course she was entirely innocent of this charge.
If we ask “why was Mary chosen?” the answer will be the same one given to that question if asked about any of us, or of anyone else in this genealogical record. Why are any of us chosen? It is due to God’s grace. It is assuredly not because we are the best, or among the great or deserving. It is only caused by a cause within God himself, His own great mercy (Eph. 2:4-6).
God could have glossed over this and only mentioned outwardly ‘good’ people. But God wanted to show that his purposes are bigger than our frailties. His success does not depend on our perfection. He knew there would be people who needed encouragement from seeing trophies of grace like this.
The first note in the first Gospel trumpets God’s grace in choosing who he’ll use.
As J. C. Ryle wisely notes in these verses: “It is instructive to observe how many godly parents in this catalogue had wicked and ungodly sons. The names of Rehoboam, and Joram, and Amon, and Jechonias, should teach us humbling lessons. They had all pious fathers. But they were all wicked men. Grace does not run in families. It needs something more than good examples and good advice to make us children of God.”
He also helpfully reminds us that some of these names are not prominent in the rest of Scripture. Moreover, “We should always read this catalogue with thankful feelings. We see here that no one who partakes of human nature can be beyond the reach of Christ’s sympathy and compassion. Our sins may have been as black and great as those of any whom St. Matthew names. But those cannot shut us out of heaven, if we repent and believe the Gospel. If the Lord Jesus was not ashamed to be born of a woman whose pedigree contained such names as those we have read in these opening verses, we need not think that He will be ashamed to call us brethren, and to give us eternal life.”2