Monday, 1 December 2014

Genealogies of Jesus

Some people are interested in family trees as a hobby. Others wish to research them in case they are related to a famous person, and then discover that they are also connected to an infamous person, or perhaps to more than one. Jesus, as we can see from the accounts of his birth in Matthew and Luke, had two genealogies. I have always been puzzled as to how commentators can assert with confidence which of the genealogies is that of Mary and which is that of Joseph. It looks to me to be a lot safer just to say ‘Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus’ and ‘Luke’s genealogy of Jesus’.

At this time of year it is common to think about the passages in the Gospels that are connected to the birth of Jesus. Although I have been on earth a long time I have not heard anyone preach a Christmas sermon from the genealogies. Of course, you may have heard one or more, maybe even preached one or two. So if I were going to preach one, what would I say?

To begin with, I would choose one of the genealogies because any attempt I would make at explaining the differences between the two would only be speculation on my part, no matter what important names I could link with the comments I would make. I also suspect that to do so would be somewhat distracting for the congregation and lead them away from feeding their souls on certainties. Better, I would say, to have two different sermons, one on each genealogy, if that were needed.

If I were to preach on them, I would opt for Matthew’s first, probably because it begins and finishes with a reference to Jesus. It would also, I think, take less preparation time because there are fewer individuals in his genealogy to think about. And I would have to think about them if I was going to preach about the genealogy that mentions them.

Of course, some of the things that I would say about one of the genealogies could also be said about the other. As a general point, both genealogies remind us of God’s control of history. As the generations passed, each with their own changes and developments, he remained in charge, working everything according to what he had already planned would happen when Jesus was born.

Both genealogies also remind us of God’s awareness of people. As I run my mind over each individual in the lists I realise that I know very little about most of them. In contrast, God knows everything about all of them. He knows what each of them felt when their descendants were born or what they felt when their predecessors died. There were times of happiness and times of sadness, times of anticipation and times of disappointment, and God knows them all.

I am not aware of any other genealogies in the New Testament, which is a rather striking difference from the Old Testament, because the latter has several of them. The ones in the Old Testament usually became longer the further time moved on. I wonder did anyone ever ponder if the time would come when they would cease to grow in length. But in the New Testament, they do come to an end, and the reason they come to an end is because Jesus was born. Is it too much to say that an important message of the genealogies in the Old Testament is that they say, ‘He has not come yet, but one day he will’?

Looking at Matthew’s list of names, we can see that he wants to prove that Jesus is the promised descendant of Abraham who would bring blessing to the nations as well as being the promised ruler from David’s line who would reign over God’s kingdom permanently. It is a very ambitious way to begin a book, so I suppose we should ask if Matthew still feels that this will happen as he closes his account. When we turn to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we see that he refers to Jesus claiming to have ongoing universal power (as the descendant of David) and sending out his apostles into the whole world with the gospel (as the descendant of Abraham). What may have seemed to be a small genealogical point at the commencement of his Gospel turns out by its end to be a statement of huge significance. Indeed, for those who know, it is a summary of his book as well as an introduction.

No doubt, someone will ask me why Matthew has divided his list of individuals into three sets of fourteen names each. To be frank, I don’t know. Yet if I were cajoled into making a suggestion, it would be that he was using a form of memory aid whereby it would be easy to remember the names in the list. After all, people back then had to memorise much more details than we need to do today. But I wonder how many of us can say from memory who the great-grandfathers of Jesus were?

Most people know that Matthew’s list refers to four women who had question marks about them (for some reason, those who mention this detail often fail to say that his list also includes forty or so men who had question marks about them). In fact, there is only one person in the list who does not have a question mark against him, and that is Jesus. Yet here we have in this genealogy an example of him being numbered with the transgressors.

I suppose we can ask why Matthew chose to refer to those women. Perhaps he was sensitive to the circumstances of Mary, who probably had a stigma to bear, and he felt it was appropriate to mention that others before her had gone through something similar. No one can be definite about that suggestion, of course. Nevertheless it does raise the issue as to whether or not we would want our family tree muddied by references to undesirable characters from long ago.

Still we have to acknowledge that those women were used by God in the development of his kingdom. Imagine walking past Rahab’s house in Jericho and observing her going about her business. Would we have imagined that she would have a part to play in the coming of the Saviour? Yet God had more in mind than the deliverance of Israel when he directed the two frightened spies to go to her house. He was providing the line from which his Son would be born in two thousand or so years’ time. And we can say something similar about the other women in the list as well.

It is a solemn realisation to note that everyone in the list apart from Jesus was a sinner. No doubt, reflecting on this fact will show us that his genealogy tells us why he had to be born. All his ancestors, including his mother, needed to be saved from their sins, and he was the only one who could do this for them, not by his birth alone, but also including his perfect life and his atoning death.

Yet we have also to face up to the fact that not all of Jesus’ ancestors are with him today in heaven. Some of his forebears were godly individuals, others of them were not. Some of the latter even used their God-given position and talents to try and remove the knowledge of God from the people of Israel – although they were born long before Jesus, they were his enemies. Those individuals died as they had lived – without God. They will yet be judged by their Descendant and while their names were in his genealogical tree they will not be found in his book of life. You and I, while we cannot have the privilege of belonging to his earthly genealogy, can through faith in him belong to the register of the heavenly city.

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