Opening the New Testament

Stephen Witmer

I confess I’ve often found genealogies pretty boring. They’re for people who enjoy family reunions, and I’m not particularly interested in hearing how Aunt Mabel’s second cousin Joyce was the oldest daughter of the third child of Larry’s brother-in-law’s niece. So the biblical genealogies have tended to be the red-headed stepchild of my Bible reading: dutifully tolerated, largely ignored, and never enjoyed. But reading Matthew’s genealogy in light of its historical and literary context has helped me overcome this aversion. I now realize that the connections it makes to history are vital for understanding the person and work of Christ. At the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew manages to establish three ideas about who Jesus is and why He came.

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Jesus Is God.

When reading closely, we see that Matthew’s genealogy doesn’t actually work. It’s patrilineal, tracing just the father’s line all the way to Joseph in Matthew 1:16 and using the repeated phrase “x was the father of y.” But halfway through 1:16, that pattern is broken. Matthew says: “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called the Christ.” The pronoun “whom” refers grammatically to Mary, not to Mary and Joseph. Why the change? Because, as we’ll learn in the rest of Matthew 1, Jesus is “from the Holy Spirit” (1:20). While the genealogy places Jesus in human history, we are told He is special, and only adopted into Joseph’s line.

Jesus Is the True King of Israel.

In Matthew 1:1, Matthew identifies Jesus as the “Christ” (the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Meshiach, meaning “the Anointed One”). “Anointed one” has both prophetic and kingly elements, as people could be anointed to either kingship or prophetic ministries. The passage also refers to Jesus as the “son of David.” The genealogy in Matthew 1:2–17 underlines the truth and importance of this claim in two ways.

Back in 2 Samuel 7:11–16, God promised David that He would establish His royal house through one of David’s descendants. By tracing Jesus’ lineage through the line of His earthly father by adoption, Joseph (a descendant of David), Matthew shows that Jesus is in David’s royal line. Matthew’s structure reinforces this. If we compare the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, it’s clear that Matthew has omitted several names. Matthew 1:17 explains why: Matthew wants to present the key events of Israel’s history as being 14 generations apart. He likely does this because the numerical values of the Hebrew consonants in David’s name (D-V-D) add up to 14 (4 + 6 + 4). 1 Matthew’s organization points to the central importance of David, and thus emphasizes Jesus’ role as the true king of Israel.

Jesus Is the Savior of the World.

By stating in Matthew 1:1 that Jesus is “the son of Abraham,” we are shown that Jesus is also the savior of the world. He fulfills God’s promise to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (see Gen 12:1–3).

This theme is unpacked in the genealogy. In Jewish genealogies, it is unusual to mention women. Yet Matthew says Boaz was the father of Obed “by Ruth” (Matt 1:5). It’s possible that Matthew references her because she was a Gentile (a non-Jewish person) from Moab. Throughout his Gospel, Matthew emphasizes that Jesus’ authority extends to all nations—from the Gentile magi at the beginning of the Gospel to the Great Commission at the end. God has a plan to bring salvation through His Messiah to all the nations of the world.

Matthew’s genealogy also shows that Jesus comes for the most marginalized and despised. Matthew mentions three other women—Tamar, Rahab and the wife of Uriah—with dubious sexual pasts. That’s not a coincidence. The final woman mentioned in the genealogy, Jesus’ mother Mary, also had rumors of an illegitimate birth swirling around her. That Jesus came from questionable people helps us to see that He came for questionable people. He comes to reach the despised and the outcast.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 1


1. See Craig Blomberg, Matthew, page 53.