Everyone has a Past

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Matthew 1:1-17 (Jesus’ genealogy)

INTRODUCTION: Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and so we begin a season of preparation for Christmas as we spend some time reflecting on the birth of Christ. This year we are going to focus on the Christmas story as shared in the first two chapters of Matthew.

God gave us four gospels in the New Testament, and each gospel has its own particular focus. Mark’s gospel presents Jesus as a humble servant. Luke’s gospel presents Jesus as the son of man. John’s gospel presents Jesus as the Son of God. And Matthew’s gospel presents Jesus as Messiah and King. Throughout his gospel Matthew digs into the Old Testament Scriptures to show how Jesus truly is the promised Messiah. And he uses the word “king” more than any other writer in the New Testament (22x). He emphasizes this even in the very first verse of the gospel which identifies Jesus as the Christ, that is the Messiah, and descended from David, which puts him in the royal line of kings.

So let’s begin by reading Matthew 1:1-17, the genealogy of Christ. (Read and pray.)


You might be wondering, why did we just read all those names? Actually most people when they begin reading the New Testament wonder the same thing. Why did Matthew begin with all these names?

Verse one reads: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham …” (Matthew 1:1) The gospel of Matthew was written in Greek, and in the original language the opening words are actually a pun. The opening words in Greek are literally “the book of genesis of Jesus Christ.” Now these words can mean a record of genealogy in introducing the genealogy to follow, but they also serve as an introduction to the whole gospel of Matthew and in God’s providence to the whole New Testament itself. Just as the Old Testament begins with the book of Genesis, so the New Testament begins with “the book of genesis of Jesus Christ.” Here then begins the story of Jesus, and Matthew’s genealogy provides the perfect bridge from the Old Testament to the New.

There are four ways to view this genealogy. You could just see it as a long list of names. Or you could look a little bit closer and see that the names are divided into three sets of fourteen. Or if you look at the beginning of each of those sections, you will see that they are headed up by three major persons or divisions in Israel’s history – Abraham, David and the exile. And then if you looked real carefully you would notice that there are four women named in the course of the genealogy.

There are four ways of looking at the genealogy, and four things we can learn by looking at each of them. We learn that Jesus’ birth is rooted in history, Jesus’ birth is rooted in God’s sovereignty, Jesus’ birth is rooted in God’s promises, and Jesus’ birth is rooted in God’s grace. Everyone has a past, and Jesus is no exception. So, let’s take a closer look at his genealogy.

I. Jesus’ birth is rooted in history

First of all, Jesus’ birth is rooted in history. If there’s anything this long list of names teaches us, it’s that Jesus had a past. He didn’t just come out of nowhere. Jesus’ birth is rooted in history.

   A. The importance of genealogies (1 Chronicles 1-9)

Genealogies are extremely important in many cultures. Even in our culture more people are interested in researching their family history, and internet tools are available to help you trace your family line. Learning your family history gives you a new sense of identity. We often call it roots, and it is fascinating to find your place in history. Some of us even record our family trees in our Bibles, which is interesting because Matthew recorded Jesus’ family tree in all of our Bibles!

Genealogies were especially important to the Jewish people. They were maintained by the Sanhedrin, and until the records were destroyed in 70 A.D., every Jew could tell you their lineage and which tribe they came from.

It was not unusual to begin a book with a genealogy. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus began his autobiography with his genealogy. If you have ever read the book of 1 Chronicles, the first nine chapters are all one long genealogy! Genealogies are important, because people are important, and each person is important to God.

   B. Establishes Jesus’ true humanity (Matthew 1:1-16)

By beginning his gospel with Jesus’ genealogy, Matthew establishes Jesus’ true humanity. As G.B. Caird puts it, Jesus “is no demigod from pagan mythology but a real man with a family tree.” (G.B. Caird, Luke, p. 77) He is a real person with parents, and grandparents, and brothers and sisters and cousins. There are forty-six names from the past listed in Matthew’s genealogy.

It’s interesting, the genealogy runs all the way up to Joseph, and then switches tracks at the last minute to Mary! Look at verse 16 with me: “… and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” (Matthew 1:16) Over and over again in the genealogy, we read “this person was the father of that person. That person was the father of this person.” But when we come to Joseph, the father language is conspicuously missing. That’s because Jesus was born of Mary, but merely adopted by Mary’s husband, Joseph.

So why even have this long genealogy leading up to Joseph if Joseph was not Jesus’ birth father? Because “by Palestinian law, the head of a family was no less the father of his adopted children than of those children that he had procreated.” (Pierre Bonnard, Matthieu, p. 17) And so Jesus’ adoptive relationship with Joseph places him in a real relationship with all the people who came before him. Jesus’ birth is rooted in history.

II. Jesus’ birth is rooted in God’s sovereignty

Secondly, Jesus’ birth is rooted in God’s sovereignty. And Matthew demonstrates this by dividing Jesus’ genealogy into three sections of fourteen names each.

   A. The use of selective genealogies (cf. Genesis 5 & 11; Matthew 1:1,8,11)

Before we look at the meaning of Matthew’s divisions, we must first look at the use of selective genealogies in the Bible. The Bible often uses selective genealogies to condense historical accounts and to highlight the most important names. For example the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 are both broken into groups of ten names each.

We need to remember that the ancient world used the word “father” not only to mean father, but it could also mean grandfather or great-grandfather or even ancestor. We see an example of this in Matthew in verse one where Jesus is called “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1) Now we know that this is not just three generations. Abraham was not David’s father, and David was not Jesus’ father. But in verse one Matthew highlights the most important names in the sequence. There’s nothing sneaky about this. That’s just the way genealogies worked in the culture, and that’s just what the word father meant in the culture. Everyone knew what Matthew meant. Matthew was simply showing that Jesus was descended from David who was descended from Abraham.

There are other examples of selective names in Jesus’ genealogy as well. Verse 8 says, “Jehoram the father of Uzziah.” (Matthew 1:8) Jehoram was actually the great-great-grandfather of Uzziah. Matthew skips over three generations here, leaving out Ahaziah, Joash and Amaziah. Matthew does it again in verse 11 where we read: “Josiah the father of Jeconiah.” (Matthew 1:11) Josiah was actually the grandfather of Jeconiah and Matthew skips over King Jehoiakim.

This can seem confusing to us because we think of genealogies as inclusive; we want to make sure we list every single name. But for the Jews it was okay to highlight the most important names and to list grandfathers or ancestors instead of just fathers. Perhaps the closest parallel we have in our own culture is when we call George Washington “the father of our country.” We don’t mean that George was a particularly prolific Dad, but that he was the founder of our country, and so we use the word “father” in a different way.

   B. Three groups of fourteen generations (Matthew 1:17)

So why then does Matthew divide his genealogy into three groups of fourteen generations? Look at verse 17: “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.” (Matthew 1:17) Matthew is speaking theologically here. He is showing that God is sovereign over the stages of Israel’s history.

The time from Abraham to David was a time of rising power as God’s people multiplied and came to the Promised Land and the kingdom was established. The time from David to the exile was a time of declining power as the nation of Israel was divided and rebelled against God and was eventually dispersed in the exile. The time from the exile to Christ was a time of rebuilding as a remnant returned to the land and the sacrifices at the temple were reinstated and the people waited for the coming Messiah.

Matthew is speaking theologically. He has selectively highlighted various names in the genealogy to balance the sections out to fourteen names each. (Note: Jeconiah’s name is counted twice, as he spans the time of both the kings and the exile. He is counted both at the end of the second section and then again at the beginning of the third section.) The number fourteen was very significant in Judaism. Hebrew letters were assigned numerical values, and every good Jew would know that fourteen was the numerical value of King David’s name. (D = 4, V[W] = 6, D = 4). Fourteen is also double the number seven which is the number of completeness in Scripture. So three groups of fourteen equals six groups of seven, which would mean Jesus was born at the beginning of the seventh seven, a fitting and climactic place for the Messiah’s birth.

In other words, for Matthew three times fourteen equals God’s sovereignty. Matthew is showing that God was sovereign over all the persons and events leading up to Jesus’ birth, and that Jesus is the climax of Israel’s history. It all leads to Jesus. Jesus’ birth is rooted in God’s sovereignty.

III. Jesus’ birth is rooted in God’s promises

Thirdly, Jesus’ birth is rooted in God’s promises. Matthew has not only divided his genealogy into three sections, but each section has to do with a specific person or event in Israel’s history. And what is significant about each person or event is that God made specific promises to all three. And all three of those promises had to do with the birth of a son. Sounds a little like Christmas, doesn’t it?

   A. God’s promise to Abraham:
      – all nations will be blessed (Genesis 22:18; Galatians 3:16)

First of all, God’s promise to Abraham is found in Genesis 22:18: “Through your offspring [seed] all nations on earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 22:18) God promised Abraham that he would have a son and that through his son all nations would be blessed.

Now in one sense that son was Isaac. Isaac was a miracle child. His mother was barren, and both his parents were in their nineties when he was born. And yet Paul in the New Testament shows us that this promise was really fulfilled in Christ. We read in Galatians 3:16: “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.” (Galatians 3:16)

The miraculous birth of Isaac in the Old Testament foreshadows the miraculous birth of Jesus in the New Testament. And so Matthew’s genealogy both begins and ends with the miraculous birth of a child in fulfillment of God’s promises.

   B. God’s promise to David:
      – a king will rule forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16)

The second section begins with David, and sure enough, God also made a promise to David about a son. God’s promise to David is found in 2 Samuel 7: “When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom … Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7:12-16) In one sense this promised son was Solomon, but Solomon turned away from God and did not sit on the throne forever. And so this promise also awaited future fulfillment in Christ.

Remember how Matthew began his gospel in verse one: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David.” Matthew not only uses the word “king” more than any other writer in the New Testament. He also speaks of the “son of David” more than any other writer in the New Testament.

Now take a look at all of verse one in light of these two promises. “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Jesus is both the promised son of Abraham and the promised son of David.

   C. God’s promise to the exiles:
      – a child will be born (Isaiah 7:14, 9:6-9)

But there is one more section in the genealogy – the third section on the exile. And just as God made promises to Abraham and David about a son, he also made promises to the exiles about a son. We read in Isaiah 9: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders … Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom … forever.” (Isaiah 9:6-9)

The book of Isaiah was written to warn God’s people about the coming exile and to give them comfort during the exile. The exile was the lowest moment in Israel’s history. They suffered the loss of Jerusalem, the loss of the temple, and the loss of their freedom. It seemed like all God’s promises had been lost. But Isaiah prophesied about this child to be born whose government and peace would never end.

Earlier he spoke about a virgin giving birth to a child: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) And although Matthew will speak more specifically about the virgin birth in the second half of the chapter, he has already hinted at it in the genealogy in verse 16 where Joseph was named, not as the father of Jesus, but as “the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” (Matthew 1:16)

Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that all nations will be blessed through him. He is the fulfillment of God’s promise to David that a king will rule forever on his throne. And he is the fulfillment of God’s promise to the exiles that a child will be born who will reign over all. Jesus’ birth is rooted in God’s promises.

IV. Jesus’ birth is rooted in God’s grace

And then finally, Jesus’ birth is rooted in God’s grace. We learn this from the women Matthew includes in the genealogy. It was highly unusual for any woman to be included in a Jewish genealogy. And yet Matthew includes four.

Now if you asked any good Jewish person what four women would most likely be included in an Old Testament genealogy, the answer would easily be Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. They were the wives of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But instead of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, we get Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, four women with questionable backgrounds.

Everyone has a few nuts in their family tree. Well, Jesus had some skeletons in his family closet. Let’s take a brief look at each of these women and their questionable backgrounds.

   A. Tamar: incest (Genesis 38:1-30)

Tamar had incest in her background. Judah was her father-in-law. When Judah lost his wife, Tamar slept with Judah and gave birth to twins. Those twins were Perez and Zerah, and through Perez the messianic line continued. So Jesus had incest in his family line.

   B. Rahab: prostitution (Joshua 2:1-24, 6:22-25)

Next there was Rahab. Rahab was a prostitute who lived in the city of Jericho. She became the mother of Boaz, the great-grandfather of King David. So Jesus had a prostitute in his family line.

   C. Ruth: from Moab (Deuteronomy 23:3-6; Ruth 1:1-7)

And then there was Ruth. Ruth was from Moab. Deuteronomy 23:3 said, “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation.” (Deuteronomy 23:3) And yet God had mercy on Ruth. She not only came to Israel, she married Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David. And so Jesus had foreign blood in his family line.

   D. Bathsheba: adultery and murder (1 Samuel 11:1-27)

And then finally we come to Bathsheba. Although notice Matthew doesn’t actually name her but instead calls her “Uriah’s wife.” (Matthew 1:6) This reminds us not only of David’s adultery with Bathsheba but his murder of Uriah to cover up the sin. And so Jesus had adultery and murder in his family line.

What are to make of these four women in Jesus’ genealogy? I believe they are meant to show us that Jesus’ birth was rooted in God’s grace. Jesus’ family line was populated not with righteous Jews but with sinners like you and me. Not only that, but all four women were non-Jews: Tamar was a Canaanite; Rahab was from Jericho; Ruth was from Moab; Bathsheba was married to a Hittite. This teaches us that Jesus came for all people from all nations – just as God promised Abraham so many years before.

Frederick Bruner writes: “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.” (Bruner, Matthew Vol 1, p. 6) Romans 8 says that God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful man.” (Romans 8:3) And Hebrews 2:11 tells us that Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers. As Martin Luther comments: “Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners – in fact, He even puts them in His family tree!”

Jesus came not for the righteous but for sinners. Jesus’ birth was rooted in history. Jesus’ birth was rooted in God’s sovereignty. Jesus’ birth was rooted in God’s promises. Jesus’ birth was rooted in God’s grace.

CONCLUSION: As we said earlier, everyone has a past. And it’s important for you to realize that your life also is rooted in history, in God’s sovereignty, in God’s promises, and in God’s grace.

   – Your life is rooted in history (Psalm 51:5; Romans 5:12)

First of all, your life is rooted in history. You too have a genealogy. You are descended from Adam. As C.S. Lewis liked to say, we are all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. Unfortunately, that’s not a good thing. Because when you trace your lineage back to Adam, your history includes Adam’s sin, the original sin which affects everyone in his line, including you.

David wrote in Psalm 51: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5) You might wonder why would David consider himself sinful at birth, even before he was old enough to commit a sin. The answer is because he was descended from Adam. Paul writes in Romans 5:12: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) We are all descended from Adam, and so we all share in Adam’s sin. Your life is rooted in history.

   – Your life is rooted in God’s sovereignty (Psalm 139:16; Acts 17:26)

Your life is also rooted in God’s sovereignty. God is sovereign over all the minute details of your life. We read in Psalm 139:16: “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:16) And then Acts 17:26: “From one man [God} made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.” (Acts 17:26) Your life is in God’s hands. Your life is rooted in God’s sovereignty.

   – Your life is rooted in God’s promises (John 6:37; Acts 2:38-39)

Your life is also rooted in God’s promises. Yes, we are all sinners by birth, but God’s promises are greater than your sin. Jesus promised, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37) Later on Peter preached to the crowd on Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children.” (Acts 2:38-39) The promise is for you and for all who will believe. Your life is rooted in God’s promises.

   – Your life is rooted in God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:4-5)

And then finally, your life is rooted in God’s grace. The Bible says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) And again in Titus 3: “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” (Titus 3:4-5)

God’s message for you through Jesus’ genealogy is a message of hope and peace. Jesus Christ has come. He is the son of David, the son of Abraham. He is the fulfillment of all God’s promises. And he extends the promise of salvation to all who believe in him. Your life is rooted in history, in God’s sovereignty, in God’s promises and in God’s grace. Will you trust in Jesus this Christmas season?

© Ray Fowler

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