The Genealogy of Jesus Christ
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is Professor of N.T. Literature and Exegesis at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas. This is the second of his expository studies in the Gospel of Matthew, a study which will enrich your appreciation and understanding of Matthew’s genealogy of our Lord.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 1:1-17
“To begin a Gospel with a genealogy,” Maclaren comments, “strikes us modern Westerns as singular, to say the least of it. To preface the Life of Jesus with an elaborate table of descents through forty-one generations, and then to show that the forty-second had no real connection with the forty-first, strikes us as irrelevant.”1 Why, then, if the author knew that Jesus was not Joseph’s son, was he at such pains to draw up this elaborate genealogy? Why did he think it was so important that he must open his story with it? Two things may be said in answer to this. First, the ruling idea of Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah, Son of David and Seed of Abraham. And, second, he knew that full rights to sonship were given by legal adoption just as surely as by actual descent. When Joseph took Mary and her Son into his home, he took her Son as his own, giving Him his own legal status and position.
It is also true that the Jews were very interested in genealogies. The very expression with which Matthew opens his gospel, “the book of the generation,” was a common expression to them. It meant the record of a man’s lineage, and in the Old Testament we find frequent lists of the generations of well-known men (cf. Genesis 5:1; 10:1; 11:10, 27). The Hebrews set the greatest possible store on the purity of a man’s family tree, and it would be a fact of great significance if the pedigree of Jesus Christ could be traced back through David the great king to Abraham, their father.2
What did the evangelist desire to placard in this introduction to his work? The answer is surely found in the very first statement, “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the SON OF DAVID, the SON OF ABRAHAM” (1:1). He is the true Messianic King, and He is the genuine Seed of Abraham, through whom the whole human race is to be blessed. Therefore, He is, as Stonehouse has beautifully expressed it, “no isolated figure, no mere innovator, but one who can be adequately measured only in terms of what has gone before.”3
To catch the full force of the Matthaean approach, it is helpful to compare it with the other gospels. In Mark there is no genealogy, for in that gospel the Lord Jesus is presented as the Servant, plunging vigorously into the work of obedience to the will of God in giving His life a ransom for many. Who would be interested in the genealogy of a servant?
In Luke there is a genealogy, traced as far back as the first man, Adam, for Luke has a universalist tone. In fact, the evangelist adds to the description of Adam the words, “the son of God” (3:38). They are to be taken in the sense of a created son of God. In this sense alone are all men the sons of God (cf. Acts 17:28-29).
John, who writes of the Eternal Son who has no beginning, has no genealogy, as one would expect. Can one construct a genealogy of One whose existence has no beginning? As John says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). He entered history, but He had no beginning. If Luke sets Him forth as the Son of Man, John sets Him forth as the Son of God, the unique Second Person of the Eternal Trinity.
Thus, putting all the gospels together, we conclude that they are not contradictory. They are complementary, and it is the peculiar province of Matthew to give us the Royal Gospel.
The Caption Above The Genealogy (1:1)
The opening verse, which is probably a title for the genealogical table which follows in vv. 2-16, strikes the note that is to be followed through-out the entire gospel: It has its origin in prophecy in which there is the promise of the coming of the Davidic Messiah. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, THY KING COMETH UNTO THEE; he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass” (Zechariah 9:9; cf. Matthew 21: 4-5). It reaches its climax in the superscription over His cross, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37).
There are three expressions that bear emphasis in the verse.
The term, Jesus Christ.” Jesus, which probably means O Lord, save, is the personal name of the Lord. It links Him with history. He is one of us, although the Eternal Son. The term Christ, meaning the Anointed One, refers to His office. In Old Testament times the prophets were anointed, the priests were anointed, and the kings were anointed. He is the anointed Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15), the antitype of Moses. He is the anointed High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, a royal priest (Psalm 110:4). And He is the anointed Messianic King who shall subdue the nations and bear universal rule (Psalm 2:6).
The term, “Son of David.” The Davidic Covenant, described in 2 Samuel 7:1-17, is one Of the three greatest covenants made by God with men. With the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant, it is the foundation of the biblical hope that God intends to establish an earthly kingdom in the future, in which all the ancient promises are that David shall have a royal Seed (cf. Genesis 49:10). He shall have a throne that shall endure, as well as a kingdom that shall include a world-wide realm. This great covenant is confirmed in the gospels (cf. Luke 1:2.6-33), in the Acts (cf. Acts 15:13-18), and the epistles (cf. Romans 15:7-13). In fact, the final description that our Lord gives of Himself links Him with David, of whom He is both root and offspring (cf. Revelation 22:16). The term is a reminder that His people should never forget their destiny.
The term, “Son of Abraham.” The Abrahamic Covenant is the fundamental historical covenant, unconditional in character and broad in its sweep, touching “all the families of the earth.” Genesis 12:1-3 (cf. 15:7-21) gives its terms. To Abraham and to his seed were given personal promises, national promises, and universal promises. Through them Abraham, Israel, and the Gentiles were to be blessed. These promises find their fulfillment in Christ, Abraham’s Seed (cf. Galatians 3:16). In Him by virtue of His cross and second coming Israel and the Gentiles shall have their kingdom blessings. Thus, the two terms, “Son of David” and “Son of Abraham,” mean that His connection with the Hebrew race is both royal and racial, and the ultimate reach of His ministry is universal.
The Contents Of The Genealogy (1:2-16)
The contents of the genealogy are arranged in three sections, and the three sections are related to the three great stages of Jewish history. Matthew must have had a tidy mind. He loves to set forth his teaching in groups of threes and sevens. He divides the genealogy into three groups of fourteen names, the purpose of which may be to facilitate memorization. Further, it may be remembered that the Hebrews did not possess separate signs for numbers. The letters of the alphabet did duty for numbers, so that A was used for 1, B for 2, and so on. Quite interesting is the fact that the consonants for the name David in Hebrew are D W D. Since D stands for 4 and W for 6, the name David adds up to 14. Perhaps Barclay is right in saying, “This genealogy is meant to prove that Jesus was the son of David, and it is so arranged as to make it easy for people to memorize it, and to carry it in their memories.”4
The first group of names: the origin of David’s house (1:2-6a). In the first section of the genealogy we are shown the origin of David’s house. Beginning with Abraham’s family it attained royalty in the Shepherd King.
There is an interesting addition to Judah in verse 2. The words, “and his brethren,” are added. Why? Was not Rueben the first-born of Jacob? Were there not three brothers older than Judah? With several other possible ancestors, still Judah was chosen. Of course, prophecy had already indicated the line of which Messiah would come. Jacob had prophesied, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be” (Genesis 49:10). But why the precise character of the prophecy? An important lesson lies here. It is plain that the inclusion in the line is not determined by age, nor by human merit (cf. vv. 8-10). The sole cause of His choice is always His sovereign, distinguishing, electing gracious will. As the apostle puts it, “So, then, it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy” (Romans 9:16).
The second group of names: the rise and decline of David’s house (1:6b-11). The second section takes the story of the history of the nation down to the exile to Babylon. It is the story of decline, not only of spiritual decline, but also of political and material decline. This sad new stage in Israel’s life is full of significance for Western nations today, particularly those who have had a strong Christian witness, such as our own.
The depths of the degradation is reached in Jeconiah, or Coniah, upon whom a curse of Immense proportions and importance is pronounced (cf. Jeremiah 22:24-30). None of his seed are to prosper, sitting upon David’s throne. Had our Lord been the natural son of Joseph, who was a descendant of Joconiah, He could never reign upon David’s throne. But, since He was of David’s seed physically only through Mary, our Lord did not come under the curse. And being the legal son of Joseph, He could inherit the throne. Thus, only by the virgin birth could the Messianic promises find their prophesied fulfillment. O the amazing precision of the purposes of God and the Scriptures that record them!
The third group of names: the eclipse of David’s house (1:12-16). The third section, which takes the story to our Lord, is the history of eclipse, but not extinction. The “tabernacle of David” (cf. Acts 15:16) falls into ruins. The tree of the Messianic program has been cut down, but, like a sturdy oak, life may spring from the roots and sprout in the future. As Isaiah has put it, “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (11:1; cf. 6:13). It is the task of the Davidic King to return and rebuild the tabernacle of David. While the foundation of this rebuilding is laid in the cross, the completion is reserved for the second advent.
There are two expressions that deserve attention in the 16th verse. The first is, “Joseph, the husband of Mary.” The change in the style and language should be noted. The author does not write, ‘and Joseph begat Jesus’! There is no male act of begetting in the birth of the Son of God. This change in style marks a separation in the account between the foregoing births and the following one, explained in vv. 18-25. Campbell Morgan puts it tellingly, “Thus on the first page of the gospel Jesus is presented as connected with a race which nevertheless could not produce Him. He came into it, was of it; and yet was distinct from it.”
The second expression is this, “of whom was born Jesus.” The relative pronoun “whom” is feminine in gender, the reference being to Mary, the mother of our Lord’s human nature. The virgin birth, here only implied, will be spelled out in precise detail in the following section. Thus, our Lord is legally of Joseph and, therefore, the heir to the throne of David. That fact was never disputed by the Jews when our Lord was in their midst. If His claim were not valid, it would have been a simple matter to overthrow His Messianic claims. This they never attempted, for they were not able to dispute it.
Physically He was of Mary, yet without sin (cf. Luke 1:35).
There are several variant readings in the manuscript tradition of verse 16, which are of interest. In the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript there is a reading which created quite a stir when it was discovered in 1892. The text reads, “Joseph, to whom was betrothed Mary the virgin, was the father of Jesus called the Messiah.” Aside from the relatively inferior character of this manuscript, it is evident that the Syriac translator misunderstood the force of the word “begot,” used throughout the section. It means primarily legal descent, for Matthew is giving the line of the throne. Of course, such a reading contradicts the context of the chapter. In the immediately following section our Lord is presented as born of a virgin. Further, if Joseph had really been our Lord’s father, then why would he wish to divorce Mary (cf. v. 19)?
Another interesting variant, found in an important group of Greek manuscripts and reflected in some manuscripts of the Old Latin versions, is, “Jacob begat Joseph to whom Mary the virgin, having been betrothed, gave birth to Jesus who is called Christ.” This reading is an attempt to bring out even more strongly than the ordinary text the virginity of Mary at the time Jesus was born.
The ordinary text, represented in our English versions, is much to be preferred.
The Conclusion Of The Section (1:17)
In the final verse of the section the record of ancestry of our Lord is summarized. It is well known that there are some omissions in the list of names in our Lord’s genealogy, but such omissions were common in the Old Testament genealogies (cf. 2 Chronicles 22:9). A direct line of descent is all that it is the purpose of Matthew to express. The word “all,” therefore, is to be interpreted in the light of the context. It refers to all the generations covered in this line of descent.5
There are some very interesting features of this record of ancestry that bear mention and emphasis.
First, the universal thrust of the genealogy calls for discussion. It must not be forgotten that, while Matthew has been called by some the Jewish gospel, it describes a ministry that reaches to all the nations. This is suggested by the relation of the Messiah to Abraham (1:1). It is not surprising, then, to find the gospel ending on this note with its concluding words, “Go ye, therefore, and teach ALL NATIONS, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age. Amen” (28:19-20).
Second, one of the most surprising and significant features of the ancestry is the inclusion of five women within it. And what a collection of women they are! Barclay points out, “It is not normal to find the names of women in Jewish pedigrees at all. The woman had no legal rights; she was regarded, not as a person, but as a thing.”6 In the regular morning prayer the Jew prayed, “O God, I thank Thee that Thou has not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman!” And, when we see who these women were, their inclusion is amazing. There is Thamar, the deliberate seducer and adulteress, considered a Gentile (cf. Genesis 38:1-30), Rahab, the Gentile harlot of Jericho (cf. Joshua 2:1-7), Ruth, the Moabitess (cf. Ruth 1:4; Deuteronomy 23:3), and Bathsheba, the woman David seduced treating her husband with unforgettable cruelty (cf. 2 Samuel 11:1 - 12:31). The fifth is the virgin Mary.
Why do we have the inclusion of these incredible ancestors of our Lord? It has been suggested that their inclusion is meant to disarm Jewish criticism of our Lord’s birth, for it showed that irregular unions were characteristic of the Messianic line.7 Or, it has been suggested that the reference to them would put Jewish pride in its place for having falsely accused Mary.8 Or, does their inclusion simply indicate that divine providence works in unexpected ways, and therefore, one should not be surprised at God’s unusual working in the birth of Christ through Mary?9 One thing is certain: A Jew would never have used such a genealogy unless tradition compelled him to do so. The inclusion of the women is a tribute to the genuineness of the ancestry. And, further, it is a testimony to the true humanity of our Lord, for these are His ancestors. He is truly one of us, apart from sin.
Finally, the genealogy beautifully underscores the evangelist’s conviction that our Lord’s coming was “NO UNPREMEDITATED ACCIDENT.”10 In the providence of God, in the fulness of time, by the determinate counsel of a sovereign God, who does according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, “What doest Thou?,” He came! Prophecy and history converge in the coming of the Messiah, Son of David and Son of Abraham, in whom alone there is salvation from sin.
1 Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scriptures, Gospel of St. Matthew (Cincinnati and New York, n.d.), I, 1.
2 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia, 1958), I, 2.
3 N.B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ (Philadelphia, 1944), p. 124.
4 Barclay, I, 3.
5 William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel according to Matthew.
6 Barclay, I, 7.
7 R.V.G. Tasker, The Gospel according to St. Matthew, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, 1961), p. 32.
8 John F. Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come (Chicago 1974), p. 19.
9 Floyd V. Filson, A Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York, 1960), pp. 52-53.
10 David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, New Century Bible (London, 1972). p.74.