Christ’s Family Tree in Matt 1:1-6a
Posted by R. Fowler White
The family tree of Jesus Christ as Matthew presents it, and the window that it gives us into His human origins, is as intriguing as it is startling. When we review it closely, the lessons are arresting. One means that Matthew seems to use to give us clues to his lessons is when he adds phrases to the standard genealogy formula of “X was the father of Y.” Notice, for example, these three listings: “Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers,” “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,” and “Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary.” Additions such as these, and even omissions of certain names, seem to be among Matthew’s tactics to focus our attention where he wants it to go. Let’s see what we can find.
The Evangelist presents to us, first, the branches of Christ’s family tree that came from Abraham to King David (Matt 1:1-6a). Strikingly, here we see that certain natural branches (i.e., Israelite descendants) were selected and cut off from the line of the Christ, while unexpected unnatural branches (i.e., Gentile descendants) were grafted in. Check out the details.
Matthew begins with a summary of his message about Jesus’ human origins: He is the son of David and the son of Abraham. His family tree starts with His lineage from David and Abraham (notice the reversed chronology), evidently and primarily because of the covenant promises God gave to each. What makes this the more interesting is to recall the events in each man’s life that gave rise to the promises they received. One event that made David’s reputation (before his tragic fall into sin with Bathsheba) was his victory over Goliath, the enemy of God’s people. It was a victory that adumbrated his future subjugation of the foreign enemies that remained in the land after the conquest under Joshua. God rewarded David’s faith with the promise that his son would be better than he and would have the better, final victory over the enemies of God’s people. In fact, in the narratives that follow the family tree, Matthew will show us that Jesus is indeed better than David. He is, in fact, the obedient Royal Son who defeats the greatest enemies of God’s people: sin and death, the devil and the world!
But what of Abraham? Two events stand out in Abraham’s saga as preludes to God’s promises to him. At the beginning, we remember that it was by faith that Abraham left his home in Ur to go to a land of which he knew nothing other than that God would show it to him. Let that reality sink in for a moment. Later, toward the end of his story, by faith Abraham offered up his unique son Isaac in sacrifice to God, and God delivered Isaac from death. On both occasions, God rewarded Abraham’s faith with a promise to provide him a seed, a son in whom all the nations of the earth would find blessing. No wonder Matthew shows us by the end of his Gospel that Jesus launched a pan-national evangelistic campaign through His Apostles. This was the commission from none other than that Son of Abraham who, having offered Himself in sacrifice and been raised from the dead, brings the blessing of salvation from sins to all the nations!
With the summary of Jesus’ human origins before us in the headlines about David and Abraham, Matthew moves on to tell us that, from Abraham through David, God grew and trimmed Christ’s family tree. The Evangelist tells us that by grace God chose certain natural branches, but He cut off others. He included Isaac and Jacob, but cut off Ishmael and Esau. The Lord also included Judah, the natural branch who persuaded his brothers to sell their brother Joseph into slavery and was otherwise known in Scripture as a devious, conniving, promiscuous womanizer. Of course, He also included David the king, the war hero who fought God’s enemies; the king who reformed the nation and established its worship. This was David the poet, musician, and prophet in Israel; a friend to Jonathan, the firstborn son of none other than his nemesis Saul. This was David the adulterer, the accomplice to murder, the failed husband, the failed father. One message Matthew would have us get: in God’s determinations of Christ’s ancestors we do well to recognize His grace to the natural branches that He included and His severity to those that He excluded.
Matthew’s account of Christ’s family tree continues as he recites the names of those unnatural Gentile branches whom God grafted in by grace. God grafted in the sons of Tamar, the Gentile daughter-in-law of Judah. She is the woman who took the desperate step to save the coming Messiah’s lineage from extinction by posing as a prostitute to seduce negligent Judah to make her the mother of his twin sons, Perez and Zerah. God also grafted in the son of Rahab, the Gentile prostitute who believed in the God of Abraham, and was saved by Joshua and his spies from the destruction of Jericho. Further, God grafted in the son of Ruth, yes, even Ruth, the Gentile widow from the shamed line of Lot.
The family tree of Christ from Abraham up to David the king was quite an amalgamation, wasn’t it? It was a tree of natural Israelite branches and of unnatural Gentile branches. More than that, it was a tree husbanded by the singularly sovereign God who overrules sin for His own good purposes, even to bring His eternal Son into the world to save sinners.
Stay tuned for a meditation of Christ’s Family Tree in Matt 1:6b-17.