We are all familiar with these wonderful words from the pen of the Apostle Paul:
16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).2
It is when we come to texts like Matthew 1:1-17 that our belief in Paul’s words are put to the test. How many of us really find the genealogies of the Bible “useful” or “profitable”? I’ll be honest with you; when I come to a genealogy, I am tempted to pass over it. And even when I do read them (when I am reading through the Bible) I find my mind wanders, and I really don’t get much out of it.
In the light of my bias that genealogies are “boring” and “less profitable” than other Scriptures, I find Matthew’s introduction simply amazing. Think of it: The Gospel of Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, and his genealogy of Jesus Christ is found at the very beginning of this gospel. This means that we have a genealogy here which serves as the introduction to the Book of Matthew, and which also serves as the introduction to the entire New Testament.
I have agonized over the introduction of nearly every one of my sermons. I try to tell a story that somehow captures the interest of the audience and prompts them to pay attention to the Scripture text and sermon that will follow. In all of my years of preaching, it has never once occurred to me to use a genealogy as the introduction to one of my messages.
Since Matthew and I see things differently, it is surely safe to assume that it is I who have failed here, and not the inspired writer of this magnificent gospel. I must therefore give some careful thought as to why Matthew believes a genealogy makes a good introduction, while I have thought otherwise. In this lesson, I will seek to show why Matthew began his gospel with the genealogy of our Lord. I will also attempt to demonstrate the “usefulness” of this genealogy, not only for the first readers of this gospel, but also for us.
Reading the “Sermon on the Mount” or one of Matthew’s parables certainly appears to be more interesting than reading this genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17, but is it possible that what may not seem to be interesting actually proves to be profitable? In real life, most of us do believe that genealogies are profitable. When I decide that I want to pay a good price to purchase a full-blooded dog, I automatically become interested in the animal’s pedigree (or genealogy). I want to know what champions are in this dog’s bloodlines. If I were to read in the newspaper that a wealthy man named Deffinbaugh had died, and that no heirs had been found, I could get very interested in genealogies. A number of people have gone to considerable effort to trace their own genealogy because they want to know who their ancestors were. There are many reasons for people to be interested in genealogies.
Genealogies were especially important to the Jewish people. Israel’s king had to be a Jew, and not a foreigner (Deuteronomy 17:15). Later on it was revealed that he must be a descendant of David (2 Samuel 7:14). When the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity, it was important for these returned exiles to show that their roots were Jewish and could be traced through the genealogies. No one could serve as priest whose name could not be found in the genealogical records (Ezra 2:62). Bruner writes that the famous rabbi Hillel was proud that he could trace his genealogy all the way back to King David. He further indicates that Josephus began his autobiography with his own pedigree. Then there was Herod the Great, who was half-Jew and half-Edomite. Obviously his name was not in the official genealogies, and thus he ordered that the records be destroyed. If he couldn’t be found there, he did not want to be upstaged by anyone else.3
We know that there are two genealogies of our Lord in the Gospels. The first we immediately encounter in Matthew 1; the second is found later on in Luke 3:23-38. Matthew’s genealogy has three divisions. It begins with Abraham and goes forward, ending with the Lord Jesus Christ. Luke’s genealogy begins with Jesus, and then going backward takes us to Adam, the “son of God.”
The differences so far are merely matters of style. But these two Gospel genealogies also differ over some of those who are named in the genealogy:
The difficulty comes in Luke’s first section, in which the names are different from those found in Matthew. This would be all right if we were dealing with the ancestries of two entirely different people, but these are both genealogies of Jesus. What is more, while both books trace Jesus’ line through his adopted father Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom our Lord was born, Matthew says that Joseph was the son of Jacob who descended from David through David’s son and successor King Solomon (Matt. 1:16), and Luke states that Joseph was the son of Heli who had descended from David through Nathan, who was also David’s son but Solomon’s brother (Luke 3:23).4
While some have concluded that there is no solution to this problem, many have thought otherwise. James Montgomery Boice outlines the two most likely solutions. The first is that which was posed years ago by J. Gresham Machen:
Reconciliation might conceivably be effected in a number of different ways. But on the whole we are inclined to think that the true key to a solution to the problem … is to be found in the fact that Matthew, in an intentionally incomplete way, gives a list of incumbents (actual or potential) of the kingly David throne, whereas Luke traces the descent of Joseph back through Nathan to David. Thus the genealogies cannot properly be used to exhibit contradiction between the Matthean and the Lukan accounts of the birth and infancy of our Lord.5
I am inclined to follow Boice, who opts for a second solution, namely that Matthew’s genealogy is of Joseph’s family lineage, while Luke’s genealogy provides us with Mary’s ancestry.
In my judgment, a better solution involves viewing the two lines as the lines of Joseph and Mary respectively, each thereby identified as a descendant of King David… . According to this view, the distinction between the two lines of descent is not between the ‘legal’ line and the ‘paternal’ line, as Machen suggests, but between the ‘royal’ line of those who actually sat on the throne and the ‘legal’ line of descent from the one oldest son to the next, even though these did not actually rule as kings.6
It is not my intention to offer a dogmatic solution to this problem, but only to point out that there is a discrepancy in the two genealogies, and that sound, evangelical scholars have posed some reasonable solutions. My purpose is to show that Matthew’s genealogy is very carefully crafted to teach us some very important truths, truths which are foundational to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and thus to our lives.
The format for this portion of the lesson will be in the form of observations and conclusions. I will begin by making an observation from the genealogy in verses 1-17, and then I will attempt to draw some conclusions from this observation.
Observation one: Matthew begins, “This is the record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). The expression, “the record of the genealogy” in the Greek text reads, somewhat literally, “the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ.” It is nearly identical with the Greek translations of Genesis 2:4 and 5:1:7
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created—when the Lord God made the earth and heavens (Genesis 2:4).
(More literally from the Greek: “This is the book of the genesis of the heavens and the earth … .”)
This is the record of the family line of Adam. When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God (Genesis 5:1).
(More literally from the Greek: “This is the book of the genesis/generations of mankind/Adam … .”)
Conclusion: I find these similarities just a little too “coincidental.” This seems very similar to John’s introduction to his Gospel in the first verse of chapter 1: “In the beginning was the Word… .” Surely John is linking the beginning of his Gospel (and, more importantly, our Lord) with Genesis 1 and the creation. Here in our text, Matthew’s words appear to point us to the first genealogy in the Bible which is recorded in Genesis 5. In Genesis 5, Adam has just sinned. God warned Adam that if he (they) ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he (they) would die (Genesis 2:17). One purpose of the first genealogy, then, is to dramatically underscore the truthfulness of God’s Word. Everyone in Adam’s genealogy died, just as God said. Now, in almost identical words, Matthew introduces his Gospel with the first genealogy of the New Testament. Not only are we reminded that all in this genealogy died; Matthew’s words seem to hint that in Jesus there begins a whole new race of people who will never die. Genealogies almost always contain the record of those who have died. Our Lord’s genealogy is that, but it begins a new line, the line of all who are “in Christ” by faith, who thereby possess the gift of eternal life. Here is an exciting genealogy indeed! Who would not want to be included in our Lord’s lineage?
Observation two: Many of the names in this genealogy are names that we recognize. These are the names of real people, people who lived many years ago, but real people nevertheless.
Conclusion: Jesus was a human being (as well as divine), a real person, born of a line of real people. The fact of our Lord’s humanity is essential. It separates those who hold to the truth from those who are heretics:
1 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh is from God (1 John 4:1-2, emphasis mine).
Observation three: All those listed in Matthew’s Gospel were sinners, and some were just plain skunks! Here is one of the problems with genealogies – they inform us that some of our forefathers were not such fine people. You and I may find some skeletons in our genealogical closets. Even the best of those listed in this genealogy were far from perfect. We only need to remind ourselves of the lives of these folks. David and Solomon were great men, but they also failed miserably. Wittingly or not, some of these people actually worked to oppose God’s promises and purposes. Abraham first sought to convince God that the son of one of his servants must be his heir (Genesis 15:1-3). He and Sarah then sought to produce an heir through Hagar, the Egyptian slave (Genesis 16). Even after God told Abraham (technically Abram at this point in time) that the promised seed would be the offspring of both he and Sarai/Sarah (Genesis 17:19), Abraham passed off his wife as his sister, making her available for marriage. He did this not only with Pharaoh (Genesis 12:10-20), but also with Abimelech (Genesis 20). And when Abimelech rebuked Abraham for his actions, he told Abimelech that he and Sarah did this wherever they went (Genesis 20:13). Isaac, Abraham’s son, did the same thing with his wife, Rebekah (Genesis 26:7). There are many skeletons in this genealogical closet!
Conclusion: The blessings of God on His people had nothing to do with the good works of men, but can only be explained in terms of the mercy and grace of God. God’s blessings would be poured out on sinful men, in spite of their deeds, based upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The genealogy of our Lord underscores the doctrine of the depravity of man. I like the way Frederick Bruner summarizes this:
One gets the impression that Matthew pored over his Old Testament records until he could find the most questionable ancestors of Jesus available in order, in turn, to insert them into his record and so, it seems, to preach the gospel – the gospel, that is, that God can overcome and forgive sin, and can use soiled but repentant persons for his great purposes in history (for Judah’s repentance, cf. Gen 38:26; for David’s, 2 Sam 12:13 and traditionally, Ps 51).8
Observation four: Matthew includes four women in his genealogy. This is indeed a rare thing, especially for a Jewish genealogy. One would be more likely to expect women to be included in Luke’s genealogy, knowing that Luke is much more likely to put a woman in the spotlight. But it is in Matthew’s much more Jewish Gospel that we find these four women. These women would not generally be regarded as the most noble women of the Old Testament. Three of them were Gentiles by birth, and the fourth – Bathsheba – was a virtual Gentile by her marriage to Uriah the Hittite (Matthew 1:6; 2 Samuel 11:3). All of these women might not have been considered “pure as the driven snow” by some self-righteous Jews.9
Conclusion: God’s promise of salvation through the Messiah was for unworthy sinners, including Gentiles.
The four model matriarchs of Jewish history were Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, the wives, respectively, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These four women are conspicuous by their absence here. Their husbands are all here, and so there was opportunity for Matthew to include the good wives. But Matthew gives the church four new matriarchs, and all of them preach the gospel of the deep and wide mercy of God.
These four scandals in their way preach the gospel of divine mercy, which is Matthew’s whole mission to proclaim. Matthew will later teach us that Jesus came ‘not for the righteous, but for sinners’ (Matt 9:13); but already in his genealogy Matthew is teaching us that Jesus came not only for, but through, sinners. God did not begin to stoop into our sordid human story at Christmas only; he was stooping all the way through the Old Testament. The mercy of God is the deepest fact Matthew finds in his Hebrew Scriptures and in Jesus (cf. 9:13; 12:7), and so through the four women he highlights this mercy in the first line of his genealogy.
But this first genealogy in the New Testament has the surprising office of teaching us that the line that led from Abraham to Jesus, the Son of David, was intersected again and again by gentile blood. King David himself had a Canaanite great-great-great-grandmother, a Jerichoite great-great-grandmother, a Moabite great-grandmother, and a Hittite ‘wife.’ Matthew wants the church to know that from the start, and not just from the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), God’s work has been interracial, and that God is no narrow nationalist or racist.10
Observation five: Matthew is careful to show that our Lord’s lineage makes Him both a “son of David,” and a “son of Abraham”:
This is the record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1, emphasis mine).
Abraham and David are the two Old Testament men with whom God made the most important covenants of all time, so far as the coming Messiah was concerned.
1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. 2 Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, in order that you might be a prime example of divine blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name” (Genesis 12:1-3).
The Lord declares to you that he himself will build a house for you. 12 When the time comes for you to die, I will raise up your descendant, one of your own sons, to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He [Solomon] will build a house for my name, and I will make his dynasty permanent. 14 I will become his father and he will become my son. When he sins, I will correct him with the rod of men and with wounds inflicted by human beings. 15 But my loyal love will not be removed from him as I removed it from Saul, whom I removed from before you (2 Samuel 7:11b-15).
In the first of these covenants, the Abrahamic Covenant, God promises the then childless Abram a son. Through the seed of Abraham, God promised to make a great nation. And through this “seed” God covenants not only to bless Abraham, but also the nations. This promised “seed,” the source of all blessings, is ultimately our Lord Jesus Christ:
15 Brothers and sisters, I offer an example from everyday life: When a covenant has been ratified, even though it is only a human contract, no one can set it aside or add anything to it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants,” referring to many, but “and to your descendant,” referring to one, who is Christ (Galatians 3:15-16).
In the second covenant, the Davidic Covenant, God promises David that his dynasty will be eternal. It is through David’s “seed” that Messiah’s reign will be forever. And so it is that our Lord is referred to as the “son of David” (Matthew 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30, 31; 21:9, 15; see also 22:42-46).
Conclusions: (1) Jesus is both the “son of Abraham” and the “son of David.” Jesus is the fulfillment of both the Abrahamic (see Galatians 3:15-16) and the Davidic (see Matthew 22:42-46) covenants. Jesus is the legitimate heir to the throne of David; He is the king of Israel.11 (2) When we see that the covenant promises to Abraham and David were fully and finally fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, we are once again assured by God’s Word that God always keeps His promises. What He says, He will do. On the cross of Calvary our Lord cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30). God always finishes what He starts (Philippians 1:6).
1. Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, ends with a prophecy which looks ahead to the coming of Jesus Christ and His forerunner, John the Baptist:
5 Look, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6 He will encourage fathers and their children to return to me, so that I will not come and strike the earth with judgment” (Malachi 4:5-6).
2. Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, begins by looking back to the Old Testament by means of a genealogy.
3. Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus Christ.
4. Matthew’s genealogy covers the entire history of Israel, from Abraham to Christ.
5. Matthew’s Gospel, more than any other, emphasizes the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies:
Matthew contains at least forty formal quotations from the Old Testament, and the formal introductory formula ‘all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying…’ occurs no less than sixteen times.13
Conclusion: Matthew’s genealogy goes beyond the author’s claims elsewhere in this Gospel that Jesus’ incarnation and ministry fulfills individual Old Testament prophecies and even the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. This genealogy informs us that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament. No matter where we turn in the Old Testament, Christ is there.
1 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they were all drinking from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:1-4, emphasis mine).
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you with respect to food or drink, or in the matter of a feast, new moon, or Sabbath days 17 that are only the shadow of the things to come, but the reality is Christ (Colossians 2:16-17).
What an amazing way to start a Gospel – with a great long list of names! But for the Jew that was not surprising at all, as we shall see. It sets Jesus of Nazareth in the context of what God had been doing for his people from the earliest days. It ushers in the theme of fulfilment which is so prominent in this Gospel. The climax of God’s work for mankind throughout the centuries is – Jesus.14
… All such critical considerations apart, however, is it not clear as noonday that Matthew properly leads our four Gospels? As none of the others, he links the New with the Old, showing our Lord’s fulfilling of the Hebrew Scriptures. He has more Old Testament quotations and allusions than Mark and Luke together. Moreover, since Matthew (and only he) writes primarily for the Jews, is he not the true leader-in of the New, as well as the obvious link-back with the Old? – for even the New is ‘to the Jew first.’ Forgive us, therefore, if we keep Matthew first and stay out of fashion!15
It is well known that Matthew loves to show how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament; Matthew often writes: ‘this happened so that what the Lord said through the prophet might be fulfilled’ (see especially chapters 1 and 2 of the Gospel). In his genealogy, however, Matthew shows fulfillment not only of particular passages in the Old Testament but of the Old Testament as a whole. Jesus is the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament story and of all its events taken together in their totality.16
Observation seven: Matthew’s genealogy has been carefully crafted, with a very precise order and arrangement:
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to Christ, fourteen generations (Matthew 1:17).
Matthew’s genealogy is divided into three sections, each consisting of 14 names.17 In order for Matthew to achieve this order, he had to omit some of the names. This poses no problem because the Greek term (rendered “the son of”) refers to one’s descendants, who might therefore be sons, grandsons, great-grandsons, etc. The point I wish to make here is that Matthew wanted us to view his genealogy as very neat and orderly.
I find Bruner’s comments on the structure and organization of this genealogy very insightful:
We will understand this three-times-fourteen formation best if we picture a kind of leaning capital N, an N in which the first fourteen generations head upward from Father Abraham to King David like this (/), the second fourteen generations plummet downward from King Solomon to the Babylonian Exile (), and then finally the last fourteen generations move upward again from exile to the Christ (/).18
Bruner suggests that the first section, from Abraham to David, is an upwardly ascending order. Things just seem to get better and better. David, followed by his son Solomon, are as good as it gets in this genealogical sequence. And thus Bruner (p. 5) believes that this section portrays the grace and mercy of God. We see this, for example, in the inclusion of the Gentile women in the genealogy.
The second section plummets from the kingdom at its best (under David and Solomon) to the very depths – Israel’s Babylonian captivity. After Solomon the United Kingdom is divided. The northern kings are consistently evil, and the kings of Judah are a mixture of good and bad. The Babylonian captivity is the consequence of Judah’s persistent rebellion. From a human point of view it looks as if Israel’s hopes for the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament covenants have been dashed on the rocks of reality.
The third section is once again ascending. God delivers His people from Babylon and brings a remnant back to the land of Israel. There are dangers and disappointments, but Israel has good cause for hope.
Conclusions: The Sovereign God is in complete control of history, assuring that His purposes and promises will be fulfilled. When I read through the Old Testament, I find myself in awe that as messed up as men are God’s promises are always kept. Even the best of the bunch are miserable sinners, who fall far short of God’s standards. David and Solomon were great kings, but their lives were a mess. Their sins caused much trouble for Israel. If the fulfillment of God’s purposes and promises depended upon their faithfulness, we of all men would be most miserable.
When I read through the Bible, I remember those passages which remind us that the angels are watching what is going on (1 Corinthians 11:10; Ephesians 3:10; 1 Peter 1:10-12). The angels must have been breathless as they watched Abraham pass off his wife as his sister, and then give her to Pharaoh for a wife (Genesis 12:10-20), and then do the same thing with Abimelech later on, just after God had told Abraham that the promised child would be his child through Sarah (Genesis 17:15-21; 20:1-18). Judah was the one through whom the Messiah would come (Genesis 49:8-12), and yet Judah nearly had no heir, due to his own sin (Genesis 38). Over and over again the angels must have been breathless, wondering if God’s covenant promises would ever be fulfilled. From a human point of view, it was pure chaos.
By the way Matthew structures this genealogy, everything appears to be neat and tidy, precise and orderly. There are three sections, each with 14 generations. Does this not convey to the reader a picture of a calm, precise, and orderly administration? Things may have looked chaotic when viewed from a human perspective, but the outcome was certain. God is in complete control. His purposes and promises are always fulfilled.
For Matthew this three times fourteen said order, harmony, and meaning. When Matthew looks back over the history of the old people of God and sees fourteen generations between key periods in the people’s history – between Abraham, David, Exile, and the Christ – he is impressed, in a word, with the sovereignty of God. Behind, under, above, and through all the chaos, sin, and rebellion of Israel’s up-and-down history, God was working his purpose out as year succeeds to year. To the human participants in this history, things didn’t look too orderly. But when one looks back on Old Testament history through the lens that the history of Jesus Christ offers, one sees that God’s hand was steady and sure, … Three times fourteen means the sovereignty of God.19
Observation eight: Matthew’s genealogy does not always follow the normal pattern one might expect. For example, the genealogical line flows from Isaac to Jacob, and then to Judah (Matthew 1:2). Normally, the genealogical line would pass on to the next generation through the oldest son. We know that Esau was the first-born son of Isaac, and not Jacob. Nevertheless, the genealogical line was carried on through Jacob. The way that this happened is not a pretty story, but it fulfills the promise of God:
21 Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The Lord answered his prayer and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 But the children struggled inside her, and she said, “If it is going to be like this, I’m not so sure I want to be pregnant!” So she asked the Lord 23 and the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be separated from within you. One people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:21-23).
Conclusion: Matthew’s genealogy testifies to the doctrine of divine election. Even though Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob (and he gave him the double portion of the first-born through adopting his two sons – Genesis 48), it was Judah through whom the messianic line would pass. Judah was not the first-born; Reuben was, followed by Simeon. Reuben lost his place when he sought to possess the concubine of his father (Genesis 29:3-4). Simeon and Levi violently killed the people of Shechem (Genesis 34), and thus the line would not pass through Simeon (Genesis 49:5-7). As Paul points out in Romans 9, the genealogical line of promise is evidence of divine election:
6 It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel, 7 nor are all the children Abraham’s true descendants; rather “through Isaac will your descendants be traced.” 8 This means it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God; rather, the children of promise are counted as descendants. 9 For this is what the promise declared: “About a year from now I will return and Sarah will have a son.” 10 Not only that, but when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our ancestor Isaac— 11 even before they were born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose in election would stand, not by works but by his calling)— 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger,” 13 just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:6-13, emphasis mine).
Although Jacob was always striving, both with God and with men (see Genesis 32:28), he finally came to see that it was God who elevated men and put one above another. He indicates this in his dying days:
12 So Joseph moved them from Israel’s knees and bowed down with his face to the ground. 13 Joseph positioned them; he put Ephraim on his right hand across from Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh on his left hand across from Israel’s right hand. Then Joseph brought them closer to his father. 14 Israel stretched out his right hand and placed it on Ephraim’s head, although he was the younger. Crossing his hands, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, for Manasseh was the firstborn. 15 Then he blessed Joseph and said, “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked— the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day— 16 the Angel who has protected me from all harm— bless these boys. May my name be named in them, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac. May they grow into a multitude on the earth.” 17 When Joseph saw that his father placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head, it displeased him. So he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. 18 Joseph said to his father, “Not so, my father, for this is the firstborn. Put your right hand on his head.” 19 But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a nation and he too will become great. In spite of this, his younger brother will be even greater and his descendants will become a multitude of nations.” 20 So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you will Israel bless, saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” So he put Ephraim before Manasseh (Genesis 48:12-20).
Joseph was perturbed that his father was seemingly confused about which of his sons was the oldest, and thus the one to be given preeminence. He tried to place his father’s hands in such a way as to give the greater blessing to the oldest, but Jacob would have none of it. He knew exactly what he was doing, and in reversing his hands he was, I believe, giving testimony to the fact that God sovereignly chooses (elects) one above another. It is His doing, because He is a sovereign God. The genealogy of Matthew testifies to divine election.
The genealogy of verses 1-17 demonstrates the humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew shows that our Lord is the descendant of Abraham and of David, and thus the fulfillment of the covenants God made with each. Having proved the humanity of Jesus (and the right human pedigree), he must now disclose the divine origin of the Messiah. The Messiah was not only human; He must also be divine – God with us. Verses 18-25 describe the process by which Mary became pregnant, not by Joseph, but by the Holy Spirit:
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph, her husband to be, was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately. 20 When he had contemplated this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep he did what the angel of the Lord told him. He took his wife, 25 but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus (emphasis mine).
Time does not allow for a full exposition of these marvelously rich verses, but I do want to make a few observations.
First, notice how Matthew focuses the reader’s attention on Joseph, while Luke places the spotlight on Mary. The end result is a very balanced account of our Lord’s conception and birth. But why would Matthew feel it necessary to draw our attention to Joseph? For one thing, it is through Joseph that the legal line passes from David to Jesus. While Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, he was the legal father, and thus Jesus was the “Son of David” through him.
Matthew makes a point of emphasizing the fact that Joseph was a “righteous” man (1:19). He was indeed. I fear that we may fail to grasp the important role that Joseph played in the early life of our Lord. While we cannot be dogmatic about this, it seems to be generally accepted that Mary was quite young when she had Jesus – probably a teenager. It is usually thought that Joseph was somewhat older (it seems that he must have died before Jesus began His public ministry). I believe that Joseph was righteous when he purposed to divorce Mary privately, rather than to seek the full penalty of the law. Last month Governor George Ryan of Illinois pardoned four men on death row, and he commuted the death sentence of many others to a life sentence. He did this because a careful investigation had proven the innocence of some, and called into question the guilty verdict pronounced upon others. Ryan noted that while some called it “the courageous thing to do,” it was simply “the right thing to do.”
Joseph must have known Mary well; he knew her character, her purity, and her honesty. She had to have told Joseph that she was not guilty of sexual immorality, and no doubt she reported the words of the angel, and the response of Elizabeth. Mary’s story was incredible, and yet somehow Joseph could not help but wonder… . In his righteousness, he chose not to seek the death penalty of the law. Putting Mary away privately allowed for time to pass, so that perhaps the truth of her testimony could be confirmed. Is this speculative? Yes it is, but I would remind you that Matthew has been careful to inform us that Joseph was a righteous man. Because of this, I am of the opinion that Joseph’s actions in response to Mary’s pregnancy are those prompted by righteousness.
It took a righteous man, a man of faith, to believe the angel’s words to Joseph in his dream, informing him that Mary had become pregnant through the Holy Spirit. It would take a righteous man to marry this young woman even though she was already pregnant, knowing that everyone would wrongly conclude that he was the father. He knew that people would conclude that he and Mary had sinned. It took a calm and stable man to deal with the traumatic circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus (having to travel to Bethlehem, having no place to stay). Joseph was able and willing to pull up stakes, leave Israel, and take his family to safety in Egypt. He acted with wisdom, and he obeyed the guidance God gave him through a sequence of several dreams. What a gracious provision of God Joseph was to Mary, to assure and comfort her, to share her secret, and to protect her and her baby!
Second, notice how careful Matthew is to clearly declare the virginal conception of our Lord. In verses 1-17, Matthew demonstrated the human origins of our Lord, as well as His genealogical relationship to Abraham and David. Now, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is not only human, He is also divine. The deity of our Lord is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 7:14, cited in Matthew 1:23). The deity of our Lord is also declared by the angel. Mary became pregnant, the angel insisted, not by any human agency, but by the Holy Spirit (verses 20-21). We are clearly but delicately informed that there was no way that Joseph could have been the father of Jesus.
Third, in these verses, Matthew describes the person and work of our Lord by the two names He is given in this passage. In the genealogy of verses 1-17, Matthew links Jesus with two major Old Testament personalities: Abraham and David. Jesus is shown to be “the son of David” and the “son of Abraham,” and thus the fulfillment of both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. Now, in verses 18-25, Matthew describes the person and work of our Lord by means of two of the names He was given: (1) Jesus (Joshua = Yahweh saves); and, (2) Emmanuel (“God with us”).
What’s in a name? Plenty! One’s name was much more significant for a Jew than it is for us. “Abram” meant “exalted father,” while “Abraham” meant “father of a multitude.” Jesus renamed Simon “Peter,” or “Petros,” the rock. The names of our Lord depict His character and His work. Jesus comes from the Hebrew word Joshua, which means “Jehovah is salvation.” As the angel informed Joseph, the child that would be born to Mary would be named “Jesus,” “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus is God’s salvation, the One by whom God would accomplish salvation for lost sinners. He alone was qualified to accomplish salvation because He was both God and man. He was without sin, and thus the perfect “Lamb of God,” without blemish. His death on the cross of Calvary was not for His sins, but for ours. Every time we celebrate communion, we worship Jesus as our Savior, as the One who saved us from our sins.
Jesus was also to be called “Emmanuel,” based in part on the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. Time does not permit us to consider this prophecy in detail. It is likely that Isaiah did not understand his words here to refer to the Messiah who was to come in the future (see 1 Peter 1:10-12). As with other Old Testament texts that Matthew cites, there is a veiled, future reference to the work of the Messiah, which goes beyond the immediate, literal, meaning of the text. This veiled meaning was not usually made known until after its fulfillment in Christ, and that by the Holy Spirit. “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” In the incarnation, God came to earth in human flesh, to dwell among men. John says this beautifully:
14 Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father. 15 John testified about him and cried out, “This one was the one about whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’” 16 For we have all received from his fullness one gracious gift after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in the presence of the Father, has made God known (John 1:14-18).
God’s presence with us was not just for the few years that our Lord walked on this earth. The very last words of Matthew’s Gospel assure the reader that He will be present with us until the end:
18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).
The reason that our Lord is still “with us” is that He has sent His Spirit, to dwell among us and in us:
16 “Then I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, because it does not see him or know him. But you know him, because he resides with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).
How easy it is for us to lose sight of the significance of “Emmanuel!” In the past couple of weeks, I have been reading through the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. I was struck with how different it is for the New Testament saint, who can experience the joy and comfort of “God with us” in a way that no Old Testament saint could ever do. Consider how different it was for the Old Testament saint. For example, notice the “distance” those who lived in Old Testament times had to keep:
20 And the Lord came down on Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain; and the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. 21 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and solemnly warn the people, lest they force their way through to the Lord to look, and many of them perish. 22 And let the priests also, who draw near to the Lord, sanctify themselves, lest the Lord break through against them.” 23 And Moses said to the Lord, “The people are not able to come up to Mount Sinai, because you solemnly warned us, ‘Set boundaries for the mountain and set it apart.’” 24 And the Lord said to him, “Go, get down. And you will come up, and Aaron with you; but do not let the priests and the people force their way through to come up to the Lord, lest he break through against them.” 25 So Moses went down to the people and spoke to them (Exodus 19:20-25).
In Exodus 32, the Israelites sinned greatly in Moses’ absence. They convinced Aaron to make a golden calf, and then they began to worship it. God threatened to wipe out the Israelites and to start a whole new nation through Moses. When Moses interceded for the people, God consented to send an angel to lead the Israelites into the land, but indicated that He would not go along with them. Notice the reason:
2 And I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go up among you, for you are a stiff-necked people, and I might destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:2-3).
God did consent to go with His people. God would dwell in the midst of His people in the holiest place in the tabernacle. Nevertheless there were always barriers between men and God, from the veil of the tabernacle to the priests who separated the Israelite community from God’s presence:
52 “And the Israelites will camp according to their divisions, each man in his camp, and each man by his standard. 53 But the Levites must camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that divine anger will not fall on the Israelite community. The Levites are responsible for the care of the tabernacle of the testimony” (Leviticus 1:52-53).
Men could not approach God without a sacrifice, and then with very clear boundaries. How different it was after the incarnation of our Lord:
1 This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched (concerning the word of life— 2 and the life was revealed, and we have seen and testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us) (1 John 1:1-2).
We come to church, assured that He is present with us. We do not have to offer animal sacrifices. We do not have to keep our distance. And while God is with us when we meet as a church, He is always dwelling within us by His Spirit. He is with us always, even to the end of this age. The One who saved us is the One who abides with us. He promised that He will never forsake us:
5 Your conduct must be free from the love of money and you must be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you and I will never abandon you.” 6 So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, and I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6, emphasis mine)
We do not have to fear coming too close to our Lord, as the Old Testament saints did, and rightly so. In Christ, we have access to God, whom we may approach boldly:
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in the assurance that faith brings, because we have had our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. 23 And let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess, for the one who made the promise is trustworthy. 24 And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, 25 not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near.
Think of it. He who came to save men from their sins promises to dwell with us and in us. How does this happen? How can one experience God’s salvation and God’s presence? Only in Christ. We must confess our sins and trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. We must trust in Him as our righteousness. It is then that He will save us and dwell with us and in us. Is He your Savior? Does He dwell with you and in you? That is what He came to do. I pray that you will come to know Him as your Savior and constant companion.
1 Copyright 2003 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 1 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on February 16, 2003. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
3 Michael Green, Matthew For Today: Expository Study of Matthew (Dallas, Texas: Word Publishing, 1989), p. 37.
4 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2001), vol. 1, p. 16.
5 Boice, p. 16, citing J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930; reprint, London: James Clarke, 1958), p. 209.
6 Boice, p. 17.
7 My friend, Tom Wright, pointed this observation out to me after I had preached this lesson.
8 Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), vol. 1, p. 6.
9 Let us not forget, however, that Judah confessed Tamar was “more righteous than he” (Genesis 38:26), Bathsheba seems to be much more the victim than the seductress (2 Samuel 12:1-4), and Rahab is included in the “hall of faith” (Hebrews 11:31).
10 Bruner, p. 6.
11 As Nathanael further notes (and as Matthew is soon to point out), Jesus is also the “son of God,” and thus the “King of Israel” (John 1:49).
12 It will be obvious to the reader that I am “clustering” this group of observations, which together lead to my sixth conclusion.
13 James Montgomery Boice, vol. 1, p. 15.
14 Michael Green, p. 37.
15 J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960), Six volumes in one, vol. 5, p. 148.
16 Bruner, p. 13.
17 I am grateful for Bruner’s observations on this point. He also points out that in the third section there appear to be only 13 names, not 14. I would have to part ways with Bruner when he seeks to convince us that Matthew, after all, is only human, and thus he could make mistakes like the rest of us. My view of inspiration and inerrancy doesn’t leave room for his conclusion. John Maurer, a good friend, aptly commented: “Good grief! Matthew was a tax collector. Does anyone really think he couldn’t count?” I believe there are solutions to this matter which don’t include Matthew being mistaken.
18 Bruner, p. 4.
19 Bruner, p. 13.