Skeletons in God’s Closet
Call them “skeletons in God’s closet.”
I am referring to that long list of hard to pronounce names with which Matthew begins his Gospel. You see Matthew dug way back into the history of Israel, and he put together the family tree of Jesus. Interesting, don’t you think, that this genealogy of Jesus is the one part of the Christmas story we never read? However, since Matthew does include this genealogy as a part of his Christmas story, I think it’s high time that we try to come to understand why in the world Matthew would place this long, involved, maybe even boring accounting of the family tree of Jesus right at the beginning of his Gospel.
Now let me be honest enough to say to you that I am not always intrigued by the study of genealogies. However, I have given myself to a study of this particular genealogy, and the study has turned out to be absolutely fascinating. You see, once you engage in a careful look at this genealogy you very quickly discover that you are not dealing with a list of “Who’s Who in purity and sainthood.” Quite the contrary, all the people on the list—all without exception—fail to measure up to God’s standard for life. As you dive into the story behind each individual name, it soon becomes clear that every single life on the list has about it some evidence of the grace of God. In fact, this listing of the skeletons in God’s closet reveals clearly just how God’s hand has orchestrated human events and circumstances to fulfill God’s purposes for His people even against the odds. God’s grace worked through the generations nurturing and protecting the family lineage from which God would bring into the world His only Son, Jesus the Messiah. As you look at the list of name after name after name, you come to understand that what Matthew is trying to say is that humankind’s worst sin and rebellion and treachery cannot stop the saving grace of God—and the family tree of Jesus is proof of that fact. I wish, oh I wish I had the time to deal with each name on the list. However, I do want to highlight four of the names primarily because it is so unusual that these names would be included. I refer to the four women Matthew includes in the genealogy. Understand please, that the typical Hebrew genealogy always excluded women. Yet here on Jesus’ family tree, four women are mentioned. Even more extraordinary is the fact that not a single one of these women epitomizes the kind of person we might rightfully expect to find in the royal heritage of the One we call “the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.” So what I would like to do now is to give you a thumbnail sketch of each of these four women, but I have to warn you that moviemakers would give these stories an “R” rating.
In Matthew 1 verse 3, we read, “Judah, the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar.” Now who was Tamar? If you wish, you can read about Tamar in Genesis 38, but I must tell you that Tamar’s story is a rather sordid one at best. In fact, it is a tale of deception, and prostitution, and even incest. Yikes! Tamar was desperate to have a child. You see, she was an outsider to the Israelites, but she believed that if she could have a child by an Israelite that that would render her respectable in the eyes of the Israelites. So what did she do? She dressed up as “a woman of the streets.” She put a veil over her face, and she proceeded to seduce her own father-in-law, Judah. That shameful, incestuous relationship resulted in the birth of twin sons—the older of whom, Perez, was the one who would carry on the Messianic line. Shocking to think that a woman as sinful as Tamar could be part of the ancestry of Jesus. But then as I stop to think about it, I realize that’s the very reason that Matthew mentions her. Matthew wanted us to understand that if God could continue the Messianic line through someone like Tamar, then God surely must be a God of grace.
She is known in Scripture as “Rahab, the harlot.” She was a Canaanite, a foreigner, a Gentile, and not only that but, to put it delicately again, she was “a woman of the streets.” You may remember her story. It is told to us in the book of Joshua. When the people of Israel, under the leadership of Joshua, sought to take occupancy of the Promised Land, it was Rahab, a citizen of Jericho, who helped the Israelites to bring down the walls of Jericho. As a reward the Israelites spared her life. Eventually Rahab turned away from the Canaanite gods and converted to faith in the one true God. As a result, she wound up becoming the great-great-grandmother of King David. She became part of the Messianic line. Think of it, Rahab, the harlot, on the family tree of Jesus. Clear proof that God indeed is a God of grace.
Just one generation later, we find another Gentile woman, another outsider on the family tree of Jesus. Ruth, at least, was not guilty of sexual sins like Rahab or Tamar, but like them, she was a foreigner. She was a Moabite. That fact is very important because the Old Testament tells us that the entire Moabite race arose out of an act of incest. Therefore, the very existence of the Moabites was repugnant to the people of Israel. All Moabites were cursed and reviled by the people of Israel. Now after a time of personal tragedy, Ruth, this Moabite woman, wound up marrying an Israelite named Boaz. Eventually like Rahab, Ruth converted to faith in the one true God, and she found grace in the eyes of that God. Ruth became the great-grandmother of King David, one of Jesus’ ancestors on the family tree.
Matthew 1 verse 6 mentions a fourth woman without actually naming her. We read these words, “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife.” And who was it who had been the wife of Uriah? Bathsheba. She and David had committed adultery. David wound up having her husband, Uriah, murdered. Then he took Bathsheba to be his own wife. Ultimately, David was confronted with his sin, paid a terrible price for it, and repented. Ultimately, Bathsheba gave birth to a son. The son was named Solomon. Solomon became the next link in the Messianic chain. Consequently Bathsheba, though guilty of sinful adultery, became part of the family line that would culminate in the birth of Jesus—yet more evidence of God’s grace.
Wow! What an incredible genealogy Matthew gives us. John MacArthur reminds us that it is certainly not a “Hall of Fame,” but instead appears rather like a “Hall of Shame.” Two harlots, one cursed Moabite, one adulteress—those are the four women mentioned in the genealogy, and when you then add in the equally sordid stories of the men in the genealogy, well you begin to feel that Jesus’ whole family tree was filled with sinners. Right! That’s the point. That’s the whole point. Matthew wants to make it plain that Jesus came from sinners for sinners. Jesus said it Himself, “I did not come for the righteous but for sinners.” He said, “I have come to seek and to save the lost.” He was born from a line of sinners. He came to live among sinners. He was tempted by sin exactly as we are, but He was able not to sin. Nevertheless, He took upon Himself the punishment for our sins. That, my beloved people, is why Jesus came. And that, my beloved people, is the grace of God. By the way, there is a fifth woman mentioned in this genealogy. In Matthew 1 verse 16, we read, “And Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” Did you catch that? Jesus is the only one on the whole list who is presented without an earthly father. Joseph is simply noted to be “the husband of Mary.” Every other name on the list is presented with an earthly father—not Jesus. Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus has come to us directly from God in order to be the Messiah, the deliverer of the human race. What I want you to understand is that by placing this genealogy at the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew is making two powerful, incredible affirmations about Jesus Christ.
One: Matthew is declaring that Jesus is divine.
Jesus has no earthly father. Jesus is the virgin-born Son of God. Let there be no doubt about that, and let there be no doubt about this: the virgin birth is central to our faith. Christianity is not some self-help program. Christianity is not a “lift yourself up by your bootstraps” religion. The virgin birth reminds us that God has come to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The virgin birth reminds us that we are saved by God coming down to us in Jesus Christ. The virgin birth reminds us that grace comes as a gift from the outside. Jesus Christ is divine.
Two: Matthew is declaring that Jesus is human.
In this genealogy, Matthew reminds us that Jesus, in the blood which flowed through the veins of His earthly body, captured not just a single bloodline, but all of the bloodlines of the Middle East. Matthew is making it clear—please don’t miss this—Matthew is making it clear that racism is smashed once, for all, and forever. The family tree tells us that Jesus was not a pure-blooded Israelite. In fact, Jesus was the mixed-race Savior of the world, not dying for one people, one race, one bloodline, one nation, but dying for all the world and all the bloodlines of the earth. Here in these verses is where Matthew uniquely ties Christmas to Easter for Matthew is reminding us that Jesus not only got His blood from the world but He shed His blood for the world. Jesus was both divine and human. That’s what these verses in the Gospel of Matthew are all about. Therefore, let me plead with you now: don’t overlook or ignore the genealogy in your celebration of Christmas anymore. For the message of this passage in Matthew is the message of grace—and grace, after all, is the heart of the Christmas story.
So let me ask you …
Is your name on the family tree of Jesus or not? You see Jesus says that all you have to do to have your name as part of His family tree is to be born—not a physical birth. No, everybody has a physical birth. But Jesus is talking here about a different birth, a second birth, a new birth. Jesus is calling us to claim His Father as our Father for then we shall be adopted onto His family tree. So is your name on His family tree or not? If your name is on the family tree of Jesus, then you don’t need to worry about the future. You don’t even need to worry about your own death. All is well. But if your name is not on the family tree of Jesus, then, for Heaven’s sake, get it there. There is no need to wait any longer . . .