The Genealogy of Jesus
Matthew’s Gospel starts out with a genealogy. Genealogies tend to be the parts of the Bible that are easy to skip over. For many of us, genealogies are nothing more than a long list of names. If we do read them, we usually just skim through them. We may recognize a few names, but most of the names don’t mean anything to us.
I want to take some time to walk through the genealogy together. In this post, I’ll give you guys a quick overview of genealogies in general and we’ll take a look at the first sentence of the genealogy. In the next four posts, we’ll go through each of the other sections of the genealogy.
The Importance of Genealogies
Genealogies were important in Jewish culture. The primary purpose of a genealogy was to trace the family lineage of a specific person. In that culture, your identity was wrapped up in your family lineage. The names listed in your genealogy said a lot about who you were.
Genealogies were also often used to make theological or symbolic points about a particular person. Names were selected to help tell readers about somebody. This will be important to keep in mind as we read Matthew’s genealogy.
Matthew designed his genealogy to teach his readers about Jesus. There is a lot of depth in this genealogy and it was all very well thought out. A lot of what Matthew is trying to teach us is easy to see. But there are other things that are easy for modern readers to miss. There are a lot of hints that Matthew uses to tell his audience who Jesus is.* But these hints may be hard to see unless you’re a 1st century Jew.
Five Sections of Matthew’s Genealogy
Let’s start by looking at how Matthew structured his genealogy. I find it helpful to divide Matthew’s genealogy into 5 parts:
The first part is the first sentence: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” We’ll treat this sentence as the “topic” sentence of the genealogy. It sets the stage for the names Matthew will include in the following paragraphs. It presents the main argument Matthew wants to support in the rest of the genealogy and the Gospel as a whole.
Then the genealogy moves into what I want to call “supporting paragraphs.” These three paragraphs contain the names Matthew has included in his genealogy. Each paragraph covers a different period in the history of Israel. The first paragraph goes from God’s covenant with Abraham to the beginning of King David’s reign. The second paragraph covers the period between David’s reign and the deportation to Babylon. And finally, the third list of names covers the time period after the deportation to Babylon to the birth of Jesus.
Finally, the genealogy ends with this concluding sentence:
“So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.”
Matthew’s genealogy is an important part of his gospel. It serves as a sort of introduction to the rest of the Gospel. So, it’s important to understand the point he is trying to make in these opening verses.
Matthew makes the point of his genealogy with the first sentence. Jesus is the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. This sentence is the point of both the genealogy and the whole Gospel.
The Jews were waiting for the coming Messiah, the Christ. This Christ was a promise from God they hadn’t seen fulfilled yet. And in this first statement, Matthew makes a bold statement. He claims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. The genealogy is where he will start to make his case for Jesus being the Christ. This first sentence sets the stage for the genealogy and the rest of the Gospel.
What Did Matthew Believe About Jesus?
When I sit down to study any part of the Bible deeper, the main thing I do is ask questions about what I’m reading. If you’re studying this with me, you can try to answer the questions I have here yourself, but also ask your own. For the genealogy, the question I ask is: what is Matthew saying about Jesus in what I’m reading?
If Matthew is making the case that Jesus is the Christ, then the whole point of the genealogy is to tell us about Jesus. As we see in this first sentence, his main point is to show that Jesus is the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
I also want to be asking myself “What does that mean?” If I come to something I don’t understand, of course, it’s a helpful question. But I actually have a different purpose for that question. I ask it when God is trying to push me to think about what I’m reading, even if it’s something I’ve already read before.
My professors in college talked a lot about not taking Scripture for granted. It’s easy when you’ve been in church for a while to get used to certain passages and stories. We often assume we know everything about a passage or a certain phrase in the Bible and miss out on the depth of it. So, when you come to a story or passage you know well, or an idea you’ve heard your whole life, take a moment to ask yourself, what does that mean?
What does it mean for Jesus to be the son of David? Why is that significant? Why did Matthew open his genealogy with that statement? Why does it matter that Jesus is the son of Abraham? What does that have to do with Jesus being the Christ?
Again, I encourage you to answer those questions for yourself. But I will give some of my thoughts from what I have studied here.
The Son of David
We have already talked about how the line of David was important to the Jews. In 2 Samuel 7, God makes an important promise to David. God promises that he will build a “house” for David. God will establish David’s kingdom forever. God promises that one day from David’s line, a king will come and his kingdom will never end. Here is how God describes this king “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” You will find a similar prophecy in 1 Chronicles 17.
Later in the prophetic books (like Isaiah and Jeremiah), God’s promise gets deeper. We can look at two places where God builds on His promise to David together. Take some time to summarize these in your own words and think about how they connect to Matthew’s genealogy and the gospel. Keep asking yourself, what does it mean for Jesus to be the Christ? What does it mean for Him to be the son of David?
The Branch of Jesse: Isaiah 11:1-16
The first one we’ll look at is Isaiah 11:1-16. Isaiah focuses on the judgment of God’s people. At the beginning of Isaiah, God calls out the idolatry and sin of His people through the prophet Isaiah. God’s people turn to foreign gods and choose to trust other nations for help instead of trusting God. God warns them and waits for them to return, but they continue to rebel.
So, God pronounces judgment on them. This judgment will take the form of exile and an attack from the nations they sought for protection. But in the midst of this judgment, we also see amazing examples of God’s grace and love for His people. In chapter 10, God promises that a remnant will return from exile. He promises to have mercy on His people. Then, in chapter 11 He says this:
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
And a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and might,
The Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
And His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
Or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
But with righteousness, he shall judge the poor,
And decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
And he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
And with the breath of his lips, he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waits,
And faithfulness the belt of his loins.”
If you keep reading, you’ll see more about this “root of Jesse.” We see this king will be a righteous judge. He will fear the LORD. He will be the king the other kings of Israel and Judah could not be.
If you read through 1 and 2 Kings, as well as 1 and 2 Chronicles, you’ll see over and over kings who fail to fear the LORD. I won’t go into that too much now, because we’ll talk about that in a few posts. I want to show the contrast between this promised son of David and the sons of David God’s people had already seen. They had failed. And here, God promises them a king, a son of David who would not fail.
The Righteous Branch: Jeremiah 23
The other prophecy I want to look at is in Jeremiah 23. Jeremiah is like Isaiah in its content. It is a book about God warning His people through His prophet about coming judgment.
At the beginning of Jeremiah, God pronounced judgment on Jehoiakim for his treatment of the people and encouragement of their idolatry. God even contrasted him with his father, Josiah, who was Judah’s last good king. After calling out Jehoiakim’s wicked ways, God pronounced judgment on anyone who leads His people astray and who scatter His flock. Then, God promised to bring His people back from exile:
“Behold, the days are coming declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute judgment and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’”
Again, here we see the promise of a king who would be the king Judah had not yet seen. This king would be righteous and just. And he would save God’s people. Even amid judgment, God promises salvation.
The Son of Abraham
The most important person to the Jews other than David was Abraham. To understand why we need to go back to the beginning of the Bible.
In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham, at the time Abram, to leave his home to go settle in a new land. God promises that Abraham’s descendants would inherit this land. God also promises to bless the whole world through Abraham. God tells Abraham this blessing would come through his son Isaac.
A lot of God’s promises in the Old Testament were two-fold. They had an immediate application, but there would also be a future fulfillment. This promise to Abraham was no different. Through Isaac, God formed the nation of Israel. Israel was meant to be a light for God in the world. He created them to show the world what it looked like to be in a relationship with Him. But, as we see when we read through the Old Testament, they failed. They turned to other gods and rebelled against the one who had saved them.
God’s promise to Abraham also looked into the future. By linking Jesus to Abraham, Matthew shows that He belongs to the people of Israel. But he also shows that Jesus is the son of Abraham from whom blessings will come.
When Matthew said Jesus is the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham, his fellow Jews knew what he was talking about. They understood completely the point he was trying to make. Jesus is the Christ. He is the king God had promised. He is the one from whom blessing will finally come. These were the promises the Jews were waiting eagerly for. So, when Matthew makes the statement that Jesus is the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham it was a big deal.
As Matthew starts the Gospel, you can almost hear the chorus of Jews saying, “You say He’s the Christ, son of David, son of Abraham? You say Jesus is who we’ve been waiting for? Ok, prove it.”
And in the rest of the genealogy and the Gospel, that’s exactly what Matthew sets out to do. He not only proves that Jesus is the Christ, but he also shows his readers what it means for Jesus to be the Christ.
Next week we will look at verses 2-6. And I want to encourage you to engage with the genealogy on your own. Take some time to read through it every day. It’s ok if you can’t say all the names right. Pray through it. If you have the time start writing down each of the names and look them up in the Old Testament (it’s ok if you have to Google them).
Write down their story and think about what you can learn about Jesus from them. Ask yourself why they’re included in the genealogy. I did this myself as I was studying, and it was pretty cool. I won’t share every single name that I studied personally, because then we’d be here forever. But I will highlight some of the names that stood out the most to me. If there’s a name that God highlighted for you that I don’t talk about, feel free to talk about that in the comments.
*For more on the “clues” Matthew leaves us in his genealogy, check out this article from Overview Bible.