Theme: The Ancestry and Birth of Jesus
Let it be candidly admitted that few, if any, books had such an inauspicious beginning as did the Gospel of Matthew. No modern author would even think of presenting a manuscript to a publisher, if his book began with a list of over forty uninteresting names reaching back into antiquity. Let it be further admitted that although this chapter is the introduction to the New Testament, few Christians read the Old Testament names, and of those who do, very few discover anything of interest. If the New Testament were any other book being lifted from a shelf in a book shop, the casual reader would take one look at the introduction, and then hurriedly return the volume to its place. To an ordinary person there is nothing but boredom forthcoming from such uninteresting material. It is necessary therefore to ask why Matthew chose this strange way of beginning his Gospel.
All British citizens find interest in Americans who, every year, visit Britain to trace their lineage. Apparently, the travelers desire details of their origin, and visit places where information may be found. There is, of course, a great building known as Somerset House where records are preserved, and in the course of every year, thousands of visitors are courteously received by the officials. Questions are asked and answered; records are studied, but when the documents fall to supply what is needed, the anxious Americans often proceed to old churches throughout Britain in the hope that sextons or librarians may be able to trace the ancestry even further back in time. British people laugh when some of these Americans become shocked when they discover their ancestors were pirates, cut-throats and horse thieves! Nevertheless, this indicates many people are anxious to trace their beginnings.
This fact was very obvious in ancient Israel. If we may be permitted to quote another example, it is only necessary to draw attention to Hitler's Nazi Germany, and remember how constant emphasis was placed on the necessity of having a pure bloodline. When the authorities discovered a person's ancestor had been a Jew, he was considered unclean, and alas, millions of these people were exterminated in the infamous gas ovens of the country. There is reason to believe that ancient Israel was even more insistent on a pure line. From various ancient writers we learn the reason for this interest in pedigrees. The Jews set the greatest possible value on purity of lineage. If in any man there was the slightest admixture of foreign blood, he lost his right to be called a Jew and a member of the people of God. A priest, for instance, was bound to produce an unbroken record of his pedigree stretching back to Aaron; and, if he married, his wife-to-be had to produce her pedigree for at least five generations. Herod the Great was always despised by the pure-blooded Jews because he was half an Edomite. We learn that even Herod attached such importance to these genealogies that he had the official registers destroyed, so that no one could prove a purer pedigree than his own.
When Matthew, in an effort to introduce his Messiah to Jewish readers, began his Gospel, he recognized the importance of proving the purity of the lineage of his Master. If there were the slightest doubt about this detail, orthodox Jews would never exhibit any interest in what was being said or written. It was therefore necessary for the author, at the beginning of his book, to stress the ancestry of Jesus. That would be the first thing for which Jews would look. Whereas modern readers of the Gospel might be repelled by an apparently boring introduction, all Hebrew readers would be fascinated by the details supplied from sacred records. Matthew was a very shrewd man; he knew exactly what he was doing!
The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Pharez begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram; and Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naason; and Naason begat Salmon; And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; And Jesse begat David the King (vv. 1-6).
"The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." That first introductory statement of Matthew represented genius; indisputably, he was led of the Holy Spirit even in his choice of words. There were many outstanding names in Jewish history, but the two greatest were Abraham and David. Abraham was the father of the nation, and David its king. The patriarch represented the earliest beginnings, when Israel was but an idea in the mind of God. On the other hand, David the king provided the evidence needed to prove the reliability of Jehovah's promise to make Israel a great nation. All Jews looked back to Abraham with profound reverence; when they remembered David, they were filled with pride.
Matthew knew the prophet Nathan had spoken to David, saying, "I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of [thine own body], and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.... And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established forever before thee: thy throne shall be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:12-16). Matthew was aware that Jews considered this to be a Messianic prediction. Solomon, David's son, had built a temple, but his kingdom had been divided and ultimately destroyed by Babylonian armies. Jews firmly believed that from David's descendants would arise a new king, and even the Pharisees and scribes taught this truth. When Herod the king asked for information about the coming Messiah, they said that He would be born "in Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall role my people Israel" (Matthew 2:4-6).
Matthew was absolutely sure that the anticipated Messiah had arrived. His Master, Jesus of Nazareth, fulfilled all the requirements, but before his readers would accept his views, they had to be persuaded of their accuracy. Therefore, the apostle went to great lengths to discover from ancient records, important evidence; and when his tables of genealogy were completed, he wrote the details to support his claims for Jesus.
And David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias; And Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abia... and Manasses begat Amon; and Amon begat Josias; and Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon. And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Shealtiel... Matthan begat Jacob; And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ (vv. 6-16).
"So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations" (v. 17). Momentarily, we are jumping ahead of ourselves! Matthew mentions many other names, but we shall appreciate their importance when we have considered his summary of them all. Matthew divides the generations into three categories, each with fourteen. Some names represent greatness; others are dismal. This resembles a rollercoaster when the nation was lifted to unprecedented heights of glory, only to be plunged back into the horrifying depths of defeat and shame. Let us consider these three periods of fourteen generations. Beginning with Abraham, when the nation was nothing, Matthew traces Israel's history to unprecedented greatness when David reigned triumphantly. Alas, our rollercoaster now begins to plunge into the depths of ignomy and shame. The path of history descends to the time when the Babylonian armies ravaged the nation, destroyed the temple, and carried many thousands of people to a living death in a foreign land. Then Matthew, with the skill of a Spirit-filled genius, proceeds to show that all was not lost. Israel had failed, but God had not forgotten His covenant. He traces the lineage down to Christ, the fulfillment of every Messianic promise, the hope of Israel, the One whose kingdom would never end.
It might be to our advantage if we now analyze Matthew's summation. (1) Resplendent Glory. From a tribe of wandering nomads, God had built a tremendous nation. Tents had been replaced by palaces, poverty by unsurpassed wealth, insignificance by undying fame. (2) Recurring Guilt. The chosen people had rebelled; they who had received much blessing from Jehovah had been unfaithful. They had made idols, and violated every covenant made with God. The prophets had been stoned; the entreaties of God had been spurned, and their inexcusable conduct led to disaster. (3) Redeeming Grace. Matthew was thrilled to be able to announce that God had found a remedy for the ills of the nation. He who had sent Moses, Samuel, David and many others, had now sent His Son. After the darkness of the night of gloom, Matthew was thrilled to announce "The Sun of Righteousness is arising with healing in his wings."
The time has now come to examine carefully the names mentioned in this long list of ancestors. The lineage as supplied in this chapter, resembles a line of trees in the autumn. Some are very drab and colorless, but here and there along the row a few trees are resplendent with beauty. They command attention. "And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab" (v. 5). I think again of the Americans who dislike discovering their ancestors to have been cut-throats, pirates and horse thieves! Who would expect to find a harlot among the forebears of Jesus? "And Joshua the son of Nun sent out of Shittim two men to spy secretly, saying, Go view the land, even Jericho. And they went, and came into an harlot's house, named Rahab, and lodged there." The rest of the story, as told in Joshua, chapter six, tells of the courage and obedience of this woman. When Jericho fell, Rahab was delivered, and ultimately became one of the most distinguished ladies in Israel. When she married Salmon, who was in all probability one of the spies she had sheltered, Rahab forsook her questionable practices and began a new life. Soon she gave birth to a son, and with her husband decided to name him Booz or Boaz (Ruth 2:1). (See the special Homily at the end of this chapter.)
"And Booz begat Obed of Ruth" (v. 5). Matthew's list of names might resemble a main highway through a country, a highway leading to a desired destination. Yet, here and there, our guide momentarily stops to indicate a beautiful scene close to the road. Rahab was one; Ruth was another. These women were both Gentiles! Naomi had gone with her husband to the land of Moab, where increasing sorrow devastated her soul. There had been two weddings and three funerals, and Naomi was heartbroken. When she indicated a desire to return to her homeland, Ruth, the daughter-in-law, refused to be left behind, and so into the city of Bethlehem came this young woman from a far country. The account of her marriage to Rahab's son, Boaz, is one of the loveliest stories in history, but who would have thought that such a woman would be found among the ancestors of the Lord? Surely God, through Matthew, was trying to teach the world that Jesus would be the Savior of Gentiles as well as Jews; He would welcome sinners as well as saints!
It is worthy of note that Matthew was very careful in his choice of words concerning the birth of Jesus. Constantly throughout the writing of the genealogy he had written the word "begat." "... Matthan begat Jacob; And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ" (vv. 15b, 16). One mistake from Matthew's pen could have caused endless controversy. It could not be truthfully said, "Joseph begat Jesus." The Lord was brought into the world with the aid of a Jewish mother, but He was begotten of God through the Holy Spirit.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily (vv. 18-19).
Throughout the history of the Christian church, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Christ has been consistently challenged. Today, there are many clergymen who reject its implications and some denominations which condone the actions of their representatives. For example, one representative clergyman in the denomination wrote, "The virgin birth is a doctrine which presents us with many difficulties, and it is one of the doctrines on which the church says that we have full liberty to come to our own belief and our own conclusion." Furthermore, writing in the Pulpit Commentary, the Rev. A. Lukyn Williams, states: "It may, however, be justly said that the words are in themselves rather a record of the feelings of Joseph and Mary about the Incarnation." The explanation infers that, as people attribute to God credit for any personal pleasure, so the parents of Jesus described the birth of Jesus as a direct answer to their prayers; that His coming was through the kindness of God who had graciously answered their prayers. Hence, "... she was found with child of the Holy Ghost." There exists many ministers who ridicule the account of the miraculous conception, and there are theological seminaries where the entire story is rejected. In all honesty, it must be said, the time has arrived when every preacher should know what he believes, and every church should be aware of its pastor's theological views.
It is extremely difficult to harmonize the above interpretation with Matthew's statement "Joseph, [Mary's] husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily [privately]." If, as has been suggested, these parents were celebrating a magnificent answer to their prayers, they should have been proclaiming their joy from the housetop! Some churches do not compel their representatives to accept and preach this disputed doctrine; ministers are free to interpret the Scriptures as they desire. It is necessary to ask a very direct question. Are the Scriptures reliable or not? The Bible teaches that Joseph was NOT the father of Jesus. We are therefore entitled to ask who was the father? However distasteful it might appear to be, the fact remains that unless Mary's child was conceived of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was an illegitimate child, born out of wedlock. Furthermore, His mother had enjoyed illicit associations with an unknown man, even when she was betrothed to Joseph.
"Nevertheless, to bring this debatable issue to a very decisive head, the question must be asked, What is the alternative to this old story? If Christ were not born as Luke describes, then how was He born? Mary was engaged to Joseph, and in Jewish law an engagement was as binding as a wedding ceremony. Either party guilty of breaking that contract was liable to severe punishment (death by stoning). The New English Bible translates Matthew 1:18-21 as follows, 'This is the story of the birth of the Messiah. Mary, his mother, was betrothed to Joseph; before the marriage, she found that she was with child by the Holy Spirit. Being a man of principle, and at the same time wanting to save her from exposure, Joseph desired to have the marriage contract set aside quietly. He had resolved on this when an angel appeared unto him... ' It is very evident that Joseph was not the father of Mary's child. If the miraculous element be denied, then who was the father? These are not pleasant thoughts, but the time has come when students must decide what they intend to believe and preach. There are no illegitimate children on earth; there are only illegitimate parents, and if modern interpretations are to be accepted, then we must go the whole way and admit once for all, that Mary was an unfortunate young woman whose moral lapse initiated her into the ranks of unmarried mothers. Somewhere along the line, unknown to her sweetheart, she had associations with another man, but her unwanted child ultimately overcame this social handicap to become the most famous figure in Jewish history. Maybe some of the critics who reject the story of the virgin birth would like to explain to a waiting world how the second miracle was even greater than the one they rejected as impossible" (Condensed from "A Necessary Introduction to the Study of the Virgin Birth of Jesus," in the author's commentary on Luke's Thrilling Gospel, pp. 39-41).
But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us (vv. 20-23).
It should never be forgotten that this story has an Eastern setting. Even today, wedding arrangements are vastly different from those found in Western nations. During my years in Africa, I was often amazed to find among the native people, weddings were an economic adventure; wives were bought! The price varied according to the status of the bride's family, but generally the bridegroom, in order to obtain the consent of his in-laws to-be, had to give ten cows for his bride and one extra fat cow to the mother-in-law! A baby boy was �