Well, wasn't that reading boring?!
Some bits of the Bible leave you wondering why they're there. And this is one of them.
In fact, it's worse than that! This is how Matthew chose to open his gospel. It's even how the New Testament begins. Plenty of people attempt to read the whole Old Testament, and give up when they get bogged down in long lists of names and obscure laws. But surely you should be able to read the New Testament without getting stuck on page one!
Well, we have to assume that Matthew knew what he was doing. Jesus also taught us that the whole Bible is God's word to us today, and that includes Matthew chapter 1.
So, let me show us briefly how this passage is structured. I'll then explain how this is the opposite of boring. It is, in fact, really rather exciting!
What we have here is Jesus’ family tree. The way our Bible lays it out on the page, it's divided into three sections. First, we have Jesus ancestors from Abraham to King David. Next, we have the period from David to the exile to Babylon. Lastly, Matthew records from Babylon to the arrival of Jesus. Verse 17 tells us that our Bible editors did not make this up; Matthew himself sees the genealogy broken down into three groups of 14 generations.
Matthew is making a quite deliberate point by dividing things up in this way. We know that, because he’s had to work quite hard to squeeze the facts into three lots of 14. In fact, he had to leave quite a few people out to make it work. Matthew is not saying, "Ooh look! I've just totted up the generations, and guess what I found!" Rather, he's saying, "To help you see the background to Jesus clearly, let me show you how history can be divided up."
They say you can make statistics say anything you want. Matthew would agree. He makes history fit into three lots of 14, because he’s teaching us about Jesus, and not about numbers.
So then, here is Jesus family tree, divided into three sections. At the head of each section is an important individual or event, and Matthew wants us to see each of these as key markers in Jesus’ history.
We have the patriarch Abraham. King David. The exile to Babylon.
Before we leave the structure of this, there is one more thing that we need to notice. It's actually quite unusual. And that is the presence of the women.
Ancient genealogies would almost always only include the male ancestors. There are some that included women, but they would always be the prominent and important women in the family history. I'm not saying that's a good thing, or that it's a bad thing, just that it's a thing. It's how they did family trees back then.
So we would expect Matthew either only to list men, or to include some of the really famous women from Old Testament history. Women like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Abigail - David's wife, or Queen Esther. But Matthew breaks from the custom. He mentions 4 women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah's wife.
Why This is Here
So then, why does Matthew begin his book in this way?
Matthew is about to tell the story of Jesus in 28 chapters. Before he does that, he wants to anchor the story of Jesus into a much bigger, ongoing story - the story of the Old Testament.
Now, Matthew’s readers knew their Old Testament really well. So, as Matthew starts referring to characters and episodes from Old Testament history, they know exactly what he’s talking about. He says, “Do you remember that promise? Well that’s going to come true in Jesus! And that one! And the other!” And as he sets all these things up, his readers would be going “Ooh! Aah!”, like children watching fireworks for the very first time.
Now, our trouble is that we don't know our Old Testaments quite as well. So we look around at Matthew’s first readers, and we see that there utterly spell bound by what Matthew writes. Meanwhile, we are left puzzled why they are so enraptured at something as dull as a list of names.
Think of it this way. You're at a party next week. In comes a figure. He's rotund, slightly overweight, but not unhealthily so. He's wearing a bright red coat with a white fur lining. He has a long white beard, a black belt, and black boots. Over his shoulder he carries a large sack bulging with its overflowing contents.
Immediately, the room goes very quiet. But not for long. The children begin to get very excited. They know what this means. Amongst other things, it means presents!
How do they know this? Answer: they know the story. They know exactly who this man is. All he has to do is turn up in the right outfit. That tells them everything they need to know.
But just imagine for one moment, if you didn't know the story. If you had never heard of Santa Claus. A man in a red costume turns up. Everyone is visibly excited. You would want to know what all the fuss was about. So you start to ask people: Who is this? Why is this so exciting? Tell me the story of this man in the red coat, because it's obviously really good news that he's here.
That's us with the story of Jesus. Matthew does not write a book in which Jesus turns up wearing a red coat. Obviously. Instead, he shows Jesus turning up wearing Old Testament clothes. The people of Matthew's day were soaked in the Old Testament. When Matthew sets Jesus up like this, that's enough to make everyone in his day really excited. Starting his book like this turns it into a page-turner.
For us, it starts us asking: Who is this? Tell us the story of this Jesus. Who is Abraham? And David? Where's Babylon? What's this exile story? Who are Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth? And who's Uriah? And what did his wife do? Because this is obviously quite some story – if the mention of it has got everyone jumping up and down with excitement at the thought that the final chapter is coming true.
Because the final chapter is what this is. The people have been living inside the story, as God's plan to bless the world has unfolded around them. It's been going on for 1500 years. God's also told them what he's been doing; he's not left them in the dark. 39 books, written on God’s says-so, which we call the Old Testament, recording the story as it unfolds, and explaining what God's been up to.
But then they've had to wait. The last book to be written was Malachi, and that was 400 years ago. Since then, God's done nothing and said nothing. The earlier books told them how God was going to wrap everything up. They just had to wait for the final chapter.
It's a bit like How To Train Your Dragon. Not the film - the books. The author Cressida Cowell wrote 11 books, roughly one a year. She had always planned for there to be 12, and book 12 was when everything would be wrapped up and brought to a good ending. But then she needed to have an eye operation. Writing books had to be paused. Children all over the country had to wait. When will book 12 come out? Then finally, in September this year, it was published. “How to fight a dragon’s fury”. At last, we get to see how it all ends.
Only with Jesus it is far, far better than just "see how it ends". The story that he wraps up is the story that we ourselves live in. It's the best story ever told. And we’re about to get to live in the ending.
That's why Matthew begins his Gospel in this way. These opening verses are designed to make us say: Please, tell us about Santa. Actually, please don't. Tell us about Jesus. Tell us how he fits into the Old Testament story, so we can start to capture the excitement. Tell us what happened in books 1 to 11. Actually, make that books 1 to 39. Help us to see why it's so thrilling to live in the period set in the final chapter of God's great story.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
So Matthew anchors the story of Jesus in the greatest story ever told, the dealings of God with his people throughout the years of the Old Testament.
There is only time this morning to sketch in the briefest of outlines. So on the back of the service sheet, I’ve mapped out the family tree that Matthew records, and put in the Old Testament references. If Matthew’s introduction to the life of Jesus gives you a hunger to know the story of the Old Testament better, and to see more clearly how Jesus fits in to that – if this morning’s outline is too brief – than those Old Testament passages would be a great place to start.
Four markers, then, in Jesus family tree.
First, Jesus is descended from Abraham. The history of the world goes back a long way before Abraham. For centuries, we human beings have been rebelling against God's right to rule our lives. As a result, we as a race, and the whole planet with us, are under God's judgement.
But then, God broke that cycle. He appeared to a man named Abraham. He promised that he would bless Abraham and his family. And by blessing Abraham’s offspring, God's blessing would come to all nations of the world.
And then Matthew opens his gospel by telling us that Jesus is the offspring of Abraham. Jesus is the one through whom blessing will come not just to a few people, but to the whole earth.
We might note in passing that Matthew's gospel ends on exactly this same theme. The final verses of Matthew's gospel are the risen Jesus telling his followers to make disciples of all nations.
The world is still a dark place. We are still under God's curse because of our disobedience. But the Jesus Matthew writes about is the one who will reverse all that, and bring us God's blessing instead.
That's Abraham. Second, King David.
The world suffers from bad leadership, but God rules his people, and he is the perfect leader.
To teach his people how good it is when he is in charge, he gave them kings. Some were good; some were bad; none were perfect. But the model king was King David. God promised him that his throne would never end. He would always have someone in his family as king. And one day would come the perfect king. He would be God's own son; he would rule for ever; he would be king over the whole world.
God told this much to David. And as the Old Testament unfolded, the promises concerning this future king grew and grew. A few weeks ago, for example, we were heard in Isaiah how the arrival of this king would herald the end even of death.
We still suffer today at the hands of bad leaders. But the Jesus that Matthew writes about is descended from King David. He is the Messiah.
Third, Jesus is descended from the exile. Verse 12: the exile to Babylon.
Things did not go well for God's people or for their Kings. People and rulers alike turned their backs on God. After many warnings, God took away the privileges and blessings they had enjoyed. They were invaded by the Babylonian army, and deported to a foreign country. It seemed that God's purposes had run into the sand.
But not so fast. The people kept track of King David's family tree, until one day a man called Joseph found himself heir to the throne. If he had a son, that son would inherit the right to David's throne.
Well, Jesus was not Joseph's son biologically. But he was by adoption, which means that in law Jesus was the son of Joseph. And so Jesus is descended from the exile.
The exile shows how powerless we are to help ourselves. If God's blessings rely on us obeying him, the plan would never work. But the exile was not the end of the story; Jesus came next. Our disobedience does not have the last word.
Descended from exile.
And fourth, Jesus is descended from 4 women. 4 women.
We've already noticed these four women in Matthew's list. They are Tamar in verse 3, Rahab and Ruth in verse 5, and the wife of Uriah in verse 6.
Each of these women has a somewhat colourful story! There isn't time to tell them now; the references are on the sheet. But these women have a number of things in common.
They're all Gentiles. Included in God's plan and yet coming from outside the race of ethnic Jews. We've said that Jesus came for all nations; these women underline that most colourfully.
They're all scandalous. The each had a very chequered moral past. They certainly weren't Snow White! Now, the details differ: Uriah's wife failings were not her fault; the story of Ruth hides her misdemeanours behind euphemistic language, painting her as a hero. But each of these women is a most unlikely person to feature in the edited highlights of Jesus's background. Until you remember that Jesus himself was born to an unmarried woman, the result of an unexplained pregnancy. And until you remember that his name means "God saves" because he came to save his people from their sins. Perhaps these women make a perfect backdrop after all.
They were Gentiles. They were scandalous. Third, these women were fascinating. Their stories are a great read, full of twists and turns. It's nothing less than a miracle that God can take the lives of people like this, and use them to bring his Messiah into the world in precisely the way he chooses.
Matthew includes these women quite deliberately. They highlight Jesus mission to all nations; they highlight God's grace to save people from sin; and they highlight God's providence, wonderfully working all things to achieve his plans.
Jesus - descended from 4 women.
This chapter is not boring! It's thrilling!
Hopefully it makes you want to discover more about the Jesus that Matthew is going to write about.
Read on into Matthew’s gospel – and meet Jesus as Matthew makes him walk off the page.
Read back into the Old Testament – and discover the story in which Jesus is located.
The arrival of Jesus is such good news! And the more you know the story, the more you see just how exciting that is.