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Lesson 14: The Genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-38)

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Many people these days are turning to financial counselors for advice and help with investments. An article I read on this urges the reader carefully to check out a potential advisor’s credentials before you allow him any knowledge of or access to your money. It makes sense, if your money and future security are at stake, to have some good reasons to trust the person giving you advice.

If it makes sense to check out the credentials of a financial advisor, it makes even more sense to be sure about the credentials of one to whom you entrust your eternal destiny as your Savior from God’s judgment. While all of the Gospel accounts, and even all the Bible, serve to establish the credibility of Jesus as the promised Messiah and Savior, Luke focuses on three lines of evidence prior to introducing the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: (1) The testimony of John the Baptist and of God the Father and the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism (3:15-22); (2) the genealogy of Jesus (3:23-38), which we’re considering in this study; and, Jesus’ victory over Satan’s temptations (4:1-13). Luke’s purpose in putting the genealogy here is to show how …

The genealogy of Jesus shows Him to be God’s promised Savior for all people.

I wish I could simply dwell on that theme alone, but there are a number of difficult problems raised by this text that we need to consider. After looking at these problems, we will look at some conclusions we can be sure of. Then we will consider some practical lessons we can apply.

Problems to consider:

The main problems concern the many differences between Matthew’s genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17) and Luke’s. Matthew begins with Abraham and moves down to Jesus. Luke begins with Jesus and moves back through Abraham to Adam. Matthew deliberately arranges his genealogy into three groups of 14 generations each (Matt. 1:17), with a total of 41 names. (He may do this because the numeric value of the name “David” in Hebrew is 14.) Luke has 77 names, apparently arranged in 11 groups of seven, although he never calls attention to this. At the part where the two genealogies overlap, Matthew has 41 names and Luke has 57. Matthew traces the genealogy through David’s son, Solomon, whereas Luke goes through David’s son, Nathan.

Between Joseph and David, both genealogies come together only at Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, who lived just after the Babylonian captivity. None of the other names in this period are the same. Matthew lists Shealtiel’s father as Jeconiah (in accord with 1 Chron. 3:17), but Luke lists him as Neri (3:27). Matthew lists the father of Joseph (Mary’s husband) as Jacob; Luke lists him as Eli (or Heli). Matthew lists four women, but Luke does not list any women in spite of his emphasis on women in his gospel.

Of course some Bible critics throw out any attempt to reconcile these differences and simply assume that there are errors in the Bible. I dismiss such skeptics, since they deny the inspiration of Scripture and exalt man’s wisdom over God’s Word. Among those who believe in the authority of Scripture, there are two basic approaches to this material. Some argue that both Matthew and Luke are tracing Joseph’s genealogy. There are several variations of this approach. The other main approach is that Matthew traces Joseph’s genealogy while Luke traces Mary’s line.

The oldest attempt at resolving the problems comes from Julius Africanus (ca. A.D. 225), who claimed to have received his information from the descendants of James, the brother of Jesus. He stated that Matthan (listed in Matt. 1:15 as the grandfather of Joseph) married a woman named Estha, by whom he had a son, Jacob. When Matthan died, his widow married Melchi (Luke 3:24) and had a son Eli (Luke 3:23, the father of Joseph). Apparently, Africanus did not have the same manuscript of Luke we possess, which has the names Levi and Matthat between Melchi and Eli. Eli married but died without children. His half-brother, Jacob took his wife in levirate marriage, so that his physical son, Joseph, was regarded as the legal son of Eli.

Africanus admits that this theory is uncorroborated, but contends that it is worthy of belief. If this theory is true, then both genealogies represent the line of Joseph, but they diverge quickly due to the levirate marriage of Joseph’s mother. According to Africanus, Matthew provided the natural line, while Luke provided the royal line. It is possible theory, since levirate marriage was not completely unknown in the first century (Matt. 22:24-28). But it leaves us with the unresolved problem of the two missing names in Africanus’ list. (The preceding and following information is taken primarily from Darrell Bock, Luke [Baker], 1:919-923, and I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke [Eerdmans], 157-161.)

A more modern variation of this view is tied to the work of Lord Hervey, modified by J. Gresham Machen (The Virgin Birth of Christ [Baker], pp. 207-209). They claim that Luke gives the physical descent of Joseph, while Matthew gives the royal, legal descent through Joseph. The simplest approach argues that Jacob (Joseph’s father in Matt. 1:15) was childless and so Eli (Joseph’s father in Luke 3:23), who was Joseph’s actual father, became the heir through levirate marriage to Jacob’s widow. Machen argues that Jacob and Eli were brothers, so that when Jacob died childless, his nephew, Joseph, became the heir. There are other plausible variations of this approach, but we cannot prove any view, including the following one, since we lack the necessary information.

The other main way of harmonizing the two genealogies was first proposed by Annius of Viterbo in 1490, that Matthew gives the genealogy of Joseph, whereas Luke traces the genealogy of Mary (nicely defended by Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, [Eerdmans], pp. 151-152). This view argues that when Luke says that Jesus was “supposedly” the son of Joseph, he intends then to trace Jesus’ descent through Mary, whose father was Eli. It is argued that since Luke has already described the virgin birth of Jesus (1:26-38), it is natural for him to list Jesus’ physical descent through her, alerting his readers by the word “supposedly.” Of what value would the genealogy of a supposed father be? Mary is not named in 3:23 because women were not normally listed in either Roman or Jewish genealogies. Also, since Mary seems to be Luke’s source for much of his material on the early years of Jesus, and since the Jewish genealogical records were well preserved, especially among families of Davidic descent, it would be natural for Mary to supply these records to Luke.

Also, proponents of this view claim that Mary, not just Joseph, had to have been of Davidic origin. Otherwise, the early Jewish opponents of Christianity, who knew that Christians claimed that Jesus was born of Mary but not through Joseph, would have attacked Jesus’ right to the Davidic throne. But they never challenged Jesus on this matter.

A further support for this view is that it fits Luke’s purpose. Since he was writing for a largely Gentile audience, Luke wanted to trace Jesus’ physical descent (which had to be through Mary), showing that He was not only the son of David, but also son of Abraham (through whose descendants God promised to bless the nations), and son of Adam (which relates Jesus to the entire human race). Matthew, on the other hand, writing for primarily a Jewish readership, wanted to authenticate Jesus as the legal heir of the throne of David through Solomon, who was Joseph’s ancestor. Since Jesus was Joseph’s adopted son, Matthew traces the legal right to the throne through him.

The main criticism of the view that Luke traces Mary’s line is that she is not named here. Thus Luke’s readers would understand assume that he is tracing Jesus’ descent through Joseph, even though he gives the disclaimer that Joseph was not his natural father. Also, it is argued against this view that genealogies were not traced through the female line. But, as Leon Morris points out (Luke [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 100), Luke “is speaking of a virgin birth, and we have no information as to how a genealogy would be reckoned when there was no human father. The case is unique.” Since there are a number of reputable Bible scholars on both sides and we lack sufficient information, we cannot be dogmatic, but I am inclined to the view that Luke traces Mary’s line.

As mentioned, the two genealogies touch only once between Joseph and David, namely with the names of Shealtiel and his son Zerubbabel. The problem is that Matthew, in line with 1 Chronicles 3:17, lists Jeconiah as Shealtiel’s father, whereas Luke lists his father as Neri (3:27). There are several possible solutions, but I will offer one that fits with the view that Luke is tracing Mary’s line. In Jeremiah 22:30, the Lord curses the disobedient King Jeconiah (also called Coniah and Jehoiachin) by saying that none of his descendants will sit on David’s throne. On the surface, this curse would seem to contradict God’s covenant with David that one of his sons would rule forever. Since Jeconiah is in the line of David through Solomon that goes down to Joseph, if Jesus had been the natural descendant of Joseph through Solomon, He would have fallen under this curse. In fact, Jeconiah died in captivity in Babylon and none of his descendants ruled after him. But, Jesus was only the adopted son of Joseph, not his natural descendant. Thus He was not under the curse, but He was qualified to be heir to David’s throne legally through Joseph back through Solomon. But Jesus was David’s natural descendant through Mary back through Nathan.

There are some other problems I will skip for lack of time. All of the problems have plausible solutions, but the problem is, we lack sufficient information and thus every solution must be based on some unverifiable speculations. Thus we can’t know for sure which solution is correct. Maybe by now you’re wondering, “Is there anything we can know for sure from this passage?”

Conclusions we can be sure of:

1. There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the biblical record.

Even though there are differences between the genealogies of Matthew and Luke, there are reasonable solutions to the problems. It is a known fact of history that the Jews kept careful genealogical records (see Geldenhuys, p. 151). This was especially true of families who were in the Davidic line, since the Old Testament prophesied that Messiah would be born of the house of David. The fact that Matthew and Luke vary so greatly shows that neither writer was copying the other at this point. They each had distinct purposes in writing and thus used material appropriate to their purposes. Luke claimed to have carefully investigated the facts before he wrote (1:3). To assume, as liberal scholars do, that there are errors in the record is to assume that we know more than Matthew and Luke did, or that they were sloppy about their facts. That kind of arrogance is unwarranted. We can trust the record as written.

2. Jesus is the only person qualified to be the Messiah of Israel.

Whatever solution we adopt, we can be sure that Jesus was the Son of David, the Messiah of God’s people. Also, since as far as we know the genealogical records were completely destroyed in A.D. 70, when Titus destroyed Jerusalem, no one after Jesus could legitimately prove a claim to David’s throne. He is the only candidate for Messiah!

3. Jesus is the only person qualified to be the Savior of the world.

Both Matthew and Luke, independently of one another, make it clear that Joseph was not the physical father of Jesus, but that He was uniquely conceived in Mary through the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 1:16, 18-25; Luke 1:26-38, 3:23). The virgin birth allows for Jesus’ deity, which is clearly established in the rest of the gospels. But also both accounts show that Jesus was fully human, descended from the men listed in the genealogies. Jesus alone as God in human flesh is uniquely qualified to be both the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of those from every nation who call upon Him.

While Matthew focuses on Jesus being the Messiah and King of Israel by tracing His genealogy back through David to Abraham, Luke has a different purpose. He wants to show that Jesus is the unique Son of Man and Son of God, Savior of all people. Thus he traces Jesus’ genealogy back beyond Abraham to Adam who was directly created by God (“son of God,” 3:38). Not only does this argue for a literal Adam, it links Jesus with all humanity, showing that He is not only the Savior of the Jews, but also the Savior of any son or daughter of Adam who will turn to Him.

There is a reason why Luke waited until this point, between the baptism and temptation of Jesus, to insert this genealogy. By calling Adam the son of God, Luke does not mean for us to see Jesus as the Son of God in the same way (Luke 1:32, 35 and 4:3, 9 emphasize the uniqueness of this title for Jesus). Rather, Luke wants us to see an important contrast. The first Adam, created by God, was supposed to reflect God’s image, but he failed through yielding to Satan’s temptation, plunging the human race into sin and death. But Jesus, the second Adam, the unique Son of God, triumphed over Satan’s temptation (4:1-13). Through His sacrificial death on the cross, He alone offers salvation from the curse of sin and death brought about by the first Adam. Luke’s point is that Jesus is the only qualified Savior of the human race.

Practical lessons we can apply:

Let me offer three practical applications:

1. Since God is sovereign over history, we can trust that His purposes will be fulfilled.

When Adam and Eve sinned, God promised that the seed of the woman would bruise the serpent on the head, while the serpent would bruise him on the heel (Gen. 3:15). Depending on the date of Adam and Eve, it would be at least 4,000 years before that promise would be fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was bruised on the heel by Satan in the crucifixion, but who bruised him on the head through the resurrection. About 2,000 B.C. God made a covenant with Abraham that through one of his descendants, all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3). For two long millennia, Abraham’s descendants waited for that promise to be fulfilled, as it finally was in Jesus Christ. God made a covenant with King David that one of his descendants would rule on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:12, 13). That descendant was the Lord Jesus Christ, born 1,000 years after David, although He yet awaits His actual reign over Israel and all the nations from David’s throne.

Even though by human measurements thousands of years seem like eternity, to God a thousand years are like yesterday or like a watch in the night (Ps. 90:4). The fact that God fulfilled all of these promises to Adam, Abraham, and David, the ancestors of Jesus, shows us that He is the sovereign over human history. We are like the grass that sprouts up in the morning and withers by evening, but God is the eternal Lord of history. We can trust that He is going to bring world history to its conclusion in precisely the manner indicated in the Bible. Though the nations rage and the rulers of the earth take counsel together against the Lord and His anointed, seeking to cast off His rule, “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them” (Ps. 2:3, 4).

2. Since God’s timing is not our timing, we must learn to wait on Him.

The outworking of the sovereign purpose of God is not as efficient and quick as we often would like it to be. Why did God wait for all those thousands of years before He sent the angel Gabriel to Mary and announced that she would be the mother of the Savior? Many generations lived and died before Jesus was born. Just before His birth were the silent four centuries since the last prophet had spoken. During those long centuries there were several different oppressors of God’s chosen people. Why didn’t God act sooner? We don’t know. But we do know that God had detailed the history of those four centuries to Daniel (chapter 11) and that “when the fulness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law” (Gal. 4:4).

Even when Jesus the Savior finally came, He waited until He was about 30 (Luke 3:23) to begin His ministry. (He was probably in his early 30’s.) Surely He was qualified to begin ministering sooner. But He waited until the age when David assumed the throne, the age when priests in Israel entered into their duties (Num. 4:3, 23).

We’re all so impatient, especially when we’re going through a difficult trial or when we’re asking God for an answer to an important matter that concerns us. We want Him to work now, not later. But we must learn to wait on Him and to trust Him when He doesn’t work according to our timetable. In fact, sometimes He doesn’t even work things out in our lifetime! That leads to the third application from this genealogy:

3. Since God doesn’t always work in our lifetime, our hope must be in His promise through Christ of life after death.

Adam, Abraham, David, and all of the other men listed here died without receiving the promises. As the author of Hebrews tells us, these men were living for the life to come, counting on His promises for heaven (Heb. 11:13-16). The apostle Paul said that if he had hoped in Christ in this life only, he was of all men most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19). Have you pondered that statement? Can you honestly say that?

Modern American Christianity has become focused on how to have the good life here and now. We market the gospel as a great program to fix whatever problems you may be encountering: “Do you need to succeed at work, raise a harmonious family, develop your self-esteem, lose weight, manage your money properly, or achieve your maximum potential? Try Jesus!” Heaven is a nice bonus, thrown into the deal for good measure. But it’s not our focus.

But the clear message of the Bible is that life is terribly short and uncertain. Further, it is filled with difficult trials. While God will give you strength to endure the trials and at times He will graciously deliver you from them, the Bible also makes it clear that if you live faithfully for Christ in this hostile world, your troubles may increase, not decrease! The hope of the believer is not in a happy life here and now, although God may bless us temporally. The hope of the believer is in the return of Jesus Christ, or, if we should die before then, in the hope that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord through all eternity. That hope of heaven through faith in Jesus Christ will sustain us in our present trials. We can know that our lives, however short and trouble-filled, can have a purpose beyond the grave because we can share in the great cause of Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God and Savior of the world.


Canon Dyson Hague wrote (cited without reference in “Messiah in Both Testaments,” by Fred John Meldau, p. 3),

Centuries before Christ was born His birth and career, His sufferings and glory, were all described in outline and detail in the Old Testament. Christ is the only Person ever born into this world whose ancestry, birth-time, forerunner, birth-place, birth-manner, infancy, manhood, teaching, character, career, preaching, reception, rejection, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension were all prewritten in the most marvelous manner centuries before He was born.

Who could draw a picture of a man not yet born? Surely God, and God alone. Nobody knew 500 years ago that Shakespeare was going to be born; or 250 years ago that Napoleon was to be born. Yet here in the Bible [in the OT prophets] we have the most striking and unmistakable likeness of a Man portrayed, not by one, but by twenty or twenty-five artists, none of whom had ever seen the Man they were painting.

Luke’s genealogy is only one proof of many that Jesus Christ is God’s promised Savior. The question I want to leave you with is, “Can you say for certain that this Jesus revealed in Luke, born in fulfillment of God’s promises to Adam, to Abraham, and to David, is your Savior? If so, are you trusting in Him, obeying Him, and looking for His soon coming? Jesus, Son of Mary and Joseph, Son of God, is our only hope for this life and for the life to come!

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you answer a critic who says, “The Bible is full of contradictions and errors”?
  2. Why did God wait so long in human history to send the Savior? What about those who lived before Christ who never heard? (Consider Acts 14:16-17; 17:26-31; Matt. 11:20-27.)
  3. Discuss the statement: Modern Christians are too focused on this life and not enough on the life to come. How can a proper focus on heaven help us to live properly here and now?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Soteriology (Salvation)