THE FACES AND PLACES OF CHRISTMAS: Israel And The Family Tree
Call them “skeletons in God’s closet”.
I am referring to that long list of hard-to-pronounce names Matthew sets before us in the opening verses of his Gospel. He dug back into the history of Israel and put together the family tree of Jesus. Interesting, don’t you think that the genealogy of Jesus is the one part of the Christmas story we never read. Well, this past summer, after Ted Pierce assigned me to preach on the “Faces and Places of Christmas”, I decided that it was high time that I tried to come to understand why in the world Matthew included this long, involved, maybe even boring accounting of Jesus’ family tree as part of the “Good News” of his Gospel.
Let me tell you now that the study turned out to be absolutely fascinating. I came to see that virtually every name on the list reveals some clear lesson about God’s grace, and taken altogether, the long list of names shows quite clearly how God’s grace through the generations, nurtured and protected the family lineage from which God would bring into the world His only son, Jesus, the Messiah. In fact, this listing of the skeletons in God’s closet reveals how God’s hand has orchestrated human events to fulfill His purposes for His people even against the odds. You see, humanities worst sin, rebellion and treachery cannot stop the saving grace of God, and the family tree of Jesus if proof of that fact.
Now, when we begin to examine this list of people who make up the heritage of Jesus, we soon realize that we are not studying a list of “Who’s Who in Purity and Sainthood”. All on the list, without exception, fail to measure up to God’s standard in life. I wish I had time to deal with each name on the list, but I don’t. 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. You see, the typical Hebrew genealogy 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 would expect to find in the royal heritage of the One we call the “King of Kings”. Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of each of these women, but I must warn you that the moviemakers would give these stories an “R” rating.
Tamar. In Matthew 1:3 we read: “and Judah, the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.” What kind of woman was Tamar? You can read her entire story in Genesis 38, but in short, it is a sordid tale of incest, prostitution and deception. Tamar concocted an evil scheme to become pregnant. She dressed up as a prostitute, put a veil over her face and seduced Judah, her father-in-law. That shameful act of harlotry and incest resulted in the birth of twin sons—the older of whom, Perez carried on the Messianic line. Shocking to think that a woman as sinful as Tamar could be part of the ancestry of Jesus, but then, I think that’s the very reason Matthew mentions her. After all, if God would continue the Messianic line through Tamar’s offspring, the product of incest, harlotry and deception, then God surely must be a God of grace.
Rahab. She is known in Scripture as “Rahab the harlot”. She was a Canaanite, a foreigner, a Gentile. And, she was a professional woman of the streets, to put it delicately. In the Book of Joshua, you remember how Rahab helped the Israelites to bring down the walls of Jericho, and as a reward, the Israelites spared her life. Rahab eventually abandoned the gods of the Caananites and became a convert to the one true God. Consequently, as the great-great grandmother of King David, she became part of the Messianic line. Rahab the harlot on Jesus’ family tree? Clear proof that God is a God of grace.
Ruth. Just one generation later, we find another Gentile woman in the Messianic line. Ruth was not a prostitute or a fornicator like Rahab or Tamar, but like them, she was a foreigner. She was a Moabite. The Old Testament tells us that because the entire Moabite race arose out of incest, the very existence of the Moabites was repugnant to the people of Israel. After terrible personal tragedy, Ruth wound up marrying an Israelite named Boaz. Like Rahab, she converted to faith in the one true God and she found grace in the eyes of that God. Her great-grandson was King David.
Bathsheba. Matthew 1:6 mentions a fourth woman without actually naming her: “And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” And who was it who had been the wife of Uriah? Bathsheba. She and David committed adultery. David wound up having her husband, Uriah murdered, and then he took Bathsheba to be his own wife. Ultimately David was confronted with his sin and repented and, ultimately Bathsheba bore a son, Solomon. Solomon became the next link in the Messianic chain, and thus Bathsheba, though guilty of sinful adultery, became part of the line that would culminate in the birth of Jesus.
Wow! What a genealogy Matthew gives us. It actually seems to be a “Hall of Shame”. Two harlots, one cursed Moabite and an adulteress are the four women mentioned 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. In Jesus’ genealogy the people are not exalted, God’s grace is. Matthew wants to make it plain that Jesus came for sinners. Jesus said it Himself: “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” He was born from a line of sinners. He came to live among sinners. He was tempted exactly as we are, but He was without sin. Nevertheless, He took upon Himself the punishment for our sins. That, my beloved, is why Jesus came. And that, my beloved, is the grace of God.
By the way, there is a fifth woman mentioned in this genealogy. In Matthew 1:16 we read: “And Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born who is called the Messiah.” Do you catch that? Jesus is the only one in the whole list presented without an earthly father. All the rest are presented with their father. Not Jesus. Matthew is declaring that here is One who entered the earth, not through the earth, but from another source. Here is One who comes directly to us from God in order to be the Messiah, the great deliverer of the human race.
I want you to understand that by placing this genealogy at the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew is making two powerful affirmations about Jesus.
1. Matthew is declaring that Jesus is divine.
He is the virgin-born Son of God. Let there be no doubt about that. The virgin birth is critical to our faith. Christianity is no self-help, “lift yourself up by your bootstraps” religion. The virgin birth reminds us that God does 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.
2. Matthew is declaring that Jesus is human.
He reminds us that Jesus combines in His earthly body all of the sinful bloodlines of the Middle East. In a sense, these opening verses of Matthew smash racism once and 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, dying not for one people, race or bloodline, but for all the world. Right here in these verses is where Matthew connects Christmas and Easter. Jesus not only got His blood from the world, He shed that blood for the world. Therefore, please don’t overlook the genealogy in your celebration of Christmas, for it brings us the message of grace, which after all, is the heart of the Christmas story.
Let me ask you then, is your name on Jesus’ family tree? All you have to do to have your name on His family tree is to be born—not a physical birth, everybody has a physical birth. No, Jesus is talking about a new birth. He is calling us to claim His Father as our Father, for then we shall be adopted onto His family tree. So is your name there or not? If your name is there, then you have no reason to worry about the future or even to worry about your own death. All is well. But if your name is not there on Jesus’ family tree, then for heaven’s sake, get it there. There is no need to wait any longer.