Luke 3:23-38 “ Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melki, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, the son of Melki, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Salmon, the son of Nahshon, the son of Amminadab, the son of Ram, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel, the son of Kenan, the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God. ”
The last time I preached on the genealogy of the Lord Jesus Christ was Christmas time three years ago and I still feel the regret of having buried you with the details of those names and the challenges of Jesus’ family tree from Matthew’s gospel. The sermon degenerated into a lecture – in my own judgment – and an uninteresting one at that. Yet, even with the memory of that failure, I am returning to genealogy. I must do so because the gospel of Luke requires it. There is not simply one genealogy of Jesus in the New Testament, there are two, the one before us and the one with which the New Testament commences in Matthew one. Have you pondered that the most dynamic being in heaven and earth, the Holy Spirit, should begin the most exciting story ever told with a list of forty-one names, most of them Jewish? That is how Matthew kick-starts his gospel. We think we know about ‘exciting,’ and so we have ‘exciting’ evangelism and ‘exciting’ worship, and ‘exciting’ Bible Studies. Well, even the Gideon New Testament begins with this list of names – that Testament given to an eleven year old girl who has never been to church in her life. God decided that this was the very best way it could begin. I wonder whether even true Christian publishers aren’t tempted to put such lists in very small type as if to say, “You don’t have to read these family trees”? That must have been done – even by some illustrious publishers. How rarely this list of names is read, even in private. Few have memorized these particular Scriptures. They have never been set to music. It is said that a book reviewer was once given a telephone directory to review. He wrote, “Great cast of characters. Weak plot.”
I must return to consider the family tree of Jesus Christ, and the challenge of these 77 names listed by Luke. We honour every part of the Word of God, and we honour the Spirit which breathed it out. We will never know God’s blessing as a congregation unless we experience the power of God’s Word. Without that we will be tempted to fill the vacuum left by the absence of the Spirit with music and ritual and claims about ‘gifts.’ Enough of my struggles, and to the Word!
WHY ARE THERE THESE GENEALOGIES OF THE LORD CHRIST IN THE NEW TESTAMENT?
Genealogies are important in many nations even today and they were particularly so to the Jews. Remember Paul declaring himself thus, “I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin” (Roms. 11:1). So these two genealogies of Jesus would have been absolutely essential reading for inquiring Jews two thousand years ago; “Oh . . . this was his background, was it?” “Many of the Maori people in New Zealand can tell you which of the original eight long canoes their ancestors arrived in when they first came to that country between 800 and 1,000 years ago. There is every reason to suppose that this memory of family trees and origins is reasonably accurate” (Tom Wright, Luke For Everyone, SPCK, 2001, p.38). You will meet American patricians in Boston who will boast to you that their ancestors arrived in the USA on the Mayflower, and some of them can prove that. All over the world are communities who know their ancestors over many generations, and to the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth people come from everywhere searching for information about their family trees. A few years ago I was at an aunt’s funeral and a distant family member told me that I was related through this dead aunt to Andy John, the vicar at that time of Holy Trinity. He lived three doors away from me, and the next time I saw him I told him that we were distant cousins and explained the relationship. He was unexcited at the news, and we can all appreciate that . . . but for others to find people to whom they belong is important.
A black American named Alex Haley who wrote a book called Roots traveled to Gambia to discover where his slave ancestors had come from. He sat one day with a man who was the local historian who could recite the men of one tribe going back a few centuries. Then it happened: “So-and-so married so-and-so. They had a son. In such-and-such a year he was taken away and never seen again.” “What was the name of the boy?” “Kunta Kinte.” The year was 1752. It was one of his ancestors, the one who had been taken to America . Alex had one of those moments some people get in their lifetimes. He said, “I realized then I had roots. I had history. My family came from somewhere.” That is how we respond to Jesus Christ. He is not a man from nowhere who turns up one day in a little town in Israel , a man of mystery who does strange things and says strange words. Jesus has a biography; he has family and ancestors that go back and back. He is earthed in the history of this people with whom God chooses to have dealings. He belongs, and when we belong to him, then we belong to these people too. Adam is my father too; Abraham is my father in the faith.
Family trees in biblical times were important for practical reasons, for example, for buying and selling land. Genealogical records were consulted to insure that such land did belong to one particular tribe and it was not being sold to members of another tribe. The integrity of the divinely given tribal boundaries could not be compromised. There had to be genealogical proof that you came from the same tribe as your ancestors. Purchasing land from another tribe was frowned upon. Again, you have noticed the lengthy genealogies in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah because after seventy years in Babylon thousands of Jews were returning to live in Israel and they wanted to know what parts of the land had been allotted to their ancestors. Again, in determining the priesthood, were you from the tribe of Levi? You had to prove it! Again, in determining the right to ascend to the throne, did you have the pedigree to wear David’s crown?
Again, remember that the baby Jesus was born far from his home in Nazareth in David’s town of Bethlehem . Mary accompanied her husband there late in pregnancy because Joseph “was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4) and he had to go to his home town to register in Caesar’s census. So I am making this point that ancestral files were still being referred to at the birth of Jesus. People needed to know who they were, and that meant knowing which part of the people of Israel they belonged to.
HOW IS IT THAT THE TWO FAMILY TREES ARE SO DIFFERENT?
Matthew begins his book with a list of names from Abraham to Jesus. Luke goes the other way working back from Jesus, through Abraham to Adam and thence to God himself. The lists don’t match. Matthew’s list has 41 names divided into three groups, while Luke’s has 77 and that list of names is apparently arranged in eleven groups of seven, though Luke never calls attention to this. Matthew traces the genealogy through David’s son Solomon, whereas Luke goes through David’s son Nathan. Between Abraham and David the two genealogies basically agree, but between Joseph, Mary’s husband, and king David, both genealogies mention the same man only on two occasions. Not one of the remaining names is the same. Matthew lists the father of Joseph as a man named Jacob, while Luke calls him Eli (or Heli). Matthew lists four women, but Luke doesn’t mention one woman.
I don’t know which explanation for these differences is the most persuasive. For example there is this explanation, that Luke is giving us the physical descent of Jesus while Matthew is giving us the royal, legal descent through Joseph. Dr. J. Gresham Machen favoured that explanation. Or there is this explanation, that Matthew is giving us the genealogy of Joseph whereas Luke is tracing the genealogy of Mary. J.C.Ryle favours that view a little more than other explanations. This view interprets those words, “so it was thought” in verse twenty-three, as Luke’s attempt to trace Jesus’ ancestry through the genealogy of Mary whose father was Eli. The reason that Mary is not actually named, it is claimed, is because women were not normally listed in either Roman or Jewish genealogies.
I am not going to speak any further about this other than to say that a useful distinction is made between the absence of errors in the Bible (which we affirm), and the absence of difficulties (which we deny). This is one of the more famous difficulties in the Bible, and I suppose it is here to challenge those of us whose great insistence is on orthodoxy, and correct exegesis, that being ‘sound’ is simply everything for us. I would ask, how many of us are so preoccupied by theology that we are neglecting speaking to people about the Christian faith, and answering their common objections to trusting in Jesus Christ. I don’t think there is anyone in Wales who would say, “I am not a Christian because I cannot reconcile the two genealogies in Matthew and Luke.” But there are thousands who are not Christians, humanly speaking, because people have not spoken to them, answered their objections, prayed for them and cared for them. Such unbelievers have got other moral problems and excuses for not bowing to Jesus Christ. Do we know how to answer their objections to following the Saviour? Isn’t that as important as getting your exegesis and doctrines correct? Isn’t that as important as knowing the reason why the names of Jesus’ ancestry in Matthew is not the same in Luke’s gospel?
Let me use the old analogy of eating fish. You will find bones in every plate of fish, but you don’t throw away the entire meal because of the few bones in the fish. You set them on the side of the plate. We all need to work out some satisfying solution to the different family trees in Matthew and Luke. Please read dictionaries and reliable commentaries like J.C.Ryle’s and William Hendriksen as they give some explanation of why there are different names and come to some conclusions. Alfred Place does not have a pulpit which says, “This is our position on this question.” There are different views in the congregation. The 1689 London Confession of Faith does not help us. We are free to promote our convictions, but we are not free to make heretics out of others who have a different understanding. Was the veil of the temple that was rent in twain the one before the Holy of Holies or the one at the entrance of the temple? Most would believe that it is the one before the Holy of Holies, but others disagree.
For 1900 years these differences about the genealogies have been written about by men of God. If we were part of that small tightly-knit community twenty centuries ago relying on the Old Testament and oral tradition and if different members of our own family were working out our family trees over the past 2,000 years then we’d be taking different routes on different days and there would be different names on the lists, but you and your cousin would both be right. You would go through this branch of the family while he would go through that branch, and there’d be criss-crossing links of many kinds. I cannot get too perturbed that these names are different; they have been translated from Hebrew to the Greek to the English. We also know that a number of men in the Bible had additional names given to them. Jacob was also named Israel , and so some of these men might be given one name in Matthew and another name in Luke, but they are the same men. That could well be the explanation for some of the differences in names.
WHAT DOES THIS FAMILY TREE TELLS US ABOUT JESUS?
Do you see the context in which this family tree is found? Luke has been telling us about the greatness of Jesus Christ, that he is great because his birth was announced by angels; he is great in relation to John the Baptist; he is great in the eyes of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit as we see at his baptism. Then in the next chapter Luke tells us that Jesus is great in relation to the devil. Then this genealogy shows that Christ is greater than all the patriarchs, and kings, and prophets of Israel , the greatest men of the world, because they were simply the people who hoped he would come, and through whom, in the fulness of time, he came. They were all looking forward to his coming and preparing for him. The genealogical records of Israel were all destroyed forty years after the baptism of Jesus when Titus conquered Jerusalem . There is no one who can now claim the title to David’s throne. There is no place anywhere today for genealogical speculations. That is a mark of the cults! So Paul tells Titus to avoid “foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because they are unprofitable and useless” (Tit. 3:9). The Messiah has come and so there is no place now for ecclesiastical speculation about family trees. Let us forget the things that are past and look forward. So what does this family tree tells us about the Lord Jesus?
i] Jesus is a real man. Jesus is the son of Adam as are all of us. By his emergence from Mary’s womb, through the birth canal, he too became a living son of Adam. There is the list of 77 names; how many of them are real men? All of them. How many of them are myths? None of them; Santa Claus is not on this list. Are any of them half men and half gods? None of them. They were all human beings, flesh and blood, bone of our bones, and so was Jesus. Around the time Luke was writing this gospel a group of people influenced by Greek philosophy began to infiltrate the church teaching that Jesus wasn’t really human. He only appeared to be human. Heretics were emerging called Docetics. That comes from a Greek word which means to seem or to appear, and they taught that Christ only seemed to be human. He only appeared to be a man, but actually he was not. Luke is printing out this family tree quite laboriously, name after name, in order to impress Theophilus (to whom he is directing this gospel) that Jesus was a real man. Do not listen to the Docetics. A few years later, when the Gnostics came along, and began to teach that Jesus was not Jewish, and that Christianity had no relation to the religion of Israel , again, Luke’s genealogy clearly sets forth the pedigree of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “Theophilus, you remember that Jesus was a Jewish man.”
What does it mean for us today? Jesus’ real humanity is one of the most important truths of Christianity and it is one of the most important truths for our comfort. If Christ is not fully human, he is incapable of humanly sympathizing with our pain, of saying to us, “I know what you’re going through. I went through that too.” But he is fully human; he was veiled in our flesh. He has experienced our temptation and weakness. A. W. Tozer once said, “we know how God would act, if he were in our place.” God the Son has been in our place; he was in our place in the Lord Jesus Christ; Christ became what he was not, a human being without ceasing to be what he was, the living God. So this passage teaches that Jesus is human.
ii] Jesus is the promised Messiah. Another great purpose of Luke in setting out this genealogy is to bring home that point. Jesus is the Christ. He is the promised one. He is the one sent by God to deliver Israel from her sin and oppression. If he is the Messiah then he must be the descendant of David, and what do we see in verse thirty-one? “The son of David.” Jesus fulfils the covenant promises made by God to David. When we look at the preceding verses naming David’s descendants we can see the decline of the house of David. Who are these men? Many are utterly unknown. In fact, it is almost as if the house of David is going to become extinct. It is going to go underground. It ceases to rule in Israel . The whole genealogy is structured around that, and isn’t it the triumph of grace and the power of the promise of God that just when you think David’s line has been wiped out, then the root comes from the stump of Jesse. The branch, the righteous branch, comes, who is a greater King and a greater Lord than David or his descendants ever were. Luke is reminding you that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise that God had given to David in II Samuel chapter seven when he promised to put on David’s throne a son who would rule forever and ever. That was not fulfilled in Solomon as glorious as was his reign. And it was not fulfilled in the sum total of the kings of Israel as impressive as that dynasty was. Some claim that it was the longest human dynasty, ever to rule in the entire history of the world. But that was not the fulfillment of God’s promise. No, the fulfillment of that promise of God to David was in the coming of King Jesus.
Again, if he is the Messiah then he must be the seed of Abraham, because had promised that all the nations of the earth would be blessed by the seed of Abraham. So what do we read in verse thirty-three? “The son of Abraham.” Luke is reminding you that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises of God to Abraham. He is the fulfillment of the substitution on Mount Moriah when that ram was caught in the thicket bush and substituted for Isaac. Abraham and Sarah, in old age experienced the conception of a miraculous son Isaac. They were beyond the age of child bearing and supernaturally Isaac was brought into the world. Christ the son of Abraham was also brought into the world supernaturally, in a way that transcended Abraham. All of these themes are recorded to remind us that Jesus is the Messiah. He is the one hoped for by the people of God. Douglas Milne says, “Jesus’ family tree shows us some interesting and important connections – David the king, Abraham the man who received God’s promises, and Adam the first human. Having David as an ancestor links Jesus to God’s royal house; having Abraham for an ancestor links him to God’s covenant people, east, west, north and south; having Adam for his family links him to the whole human family. By being David’s son Jesus rules the world; by being the son of Abraham he fulfils the promises; by being Adam’s son he acts for human beings” (Douglas J.W.Milne, Let’s Study Luke, Banner of Truth, 2005, p.45).
iii] Jesus was born of a virgin. You notice the care with which Luke writes, “He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph” (v.23). You search through the list of the other 76 names in this genealogy and you do not come across any other ‘so it was thought.’ You meet 76 times simply the phrase ‘the son of,’ but for Jesus this note is struck, “the son, so it was thought of Joseph.” This is a sort of heading for the whole family tree. When Luke uses this phrase ‘it is thought’ in his gospel and also in the book of Acts he has in mind an assumption, wrongly made, that leads to people acting as if it were true. We find the phrase on the lips of Paul in Athens saying to the people, “Since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone” (Acts 17:29). Of course million of idol worshippers do think like that, and so most people in Israel did think that Jesus was the son of Joseph the carpenter, but Theophilus and ourselves and all believers know that that is untrue. Jesus was only the apparent son of Joseph, in fact his identity as the Son of Good doesn’t need to be traced back through Joseph to Adam. He was begotten miraculously, without any contribution from Joseph whatsoever. Joseph was Jesus’ legal father but not his biological father.
Yesterday the Spectator published a list of responses to a question it had asked politicians and churchmen, whether they believed in the virgin birth. Some refused to answer, the Prime Minister, the leader of the Tory party, Tony Blair and George Galloway all said nothing. Many did believe in the virgin birth. The journalist Christopher Howse said, “I gladly believe Jesus was born of a virgin. The teaching is clear. It was believed in the earliest times, and was no more likely then. What tended to repel ancient pagans was God-made-man humiliatingly spending months in the womb. But that too Christians believe: he assumes our humanity, which he derives from his mother. The same person is pre-existent God and an individual little foetus. That is the great mystery which reconciles us to God and destroys sin and death. We only know about it because we were told, and we were told because, after dying on the cross, Jesus rose again and people saw him and listened to him.”
iv] Jesus is the Saviour of sinners . This genealogy is a chronicle of the grace of God. If you study these names in detail, it’s almost as if God has pulled together a rogue’s gallery. Of the men whose names we know, nearly all of them had notable moral failures on their spiritual resumes. For instance, Abraham lied about his wife Sarah. Isaac did the same thing. Jacob was a cheater, Judah a fornicator. David was an adulterer. Manasseh was the most evil king Israel ever had. And on and on we could go. This is not a list of plaster saints. Far from it. Some weren’t saints at all. The best of these men had flaws and some were so flawed that it is impossible to see their good points.
How does that show the grace of God? Simple. It shows the grace of God because people like this made up Jesus’ family tree. A murderer is on the list, a fornicator is on the list, an adulterer is on the list, a liar is on the list, a deceiver is on the list. Think about that. Most of these men were very great sinners. Why include people like that? I think there are three answers to that question:
A. The line of Jesus sends a message to self-righteous people. Luke is saying to them, “You think you deserve eternal life because you are righteous men. Consider the family-tree of the Messiah. What a shock to your religious system to read this genealogy because of the liars, murderers, thieves, adulterers and harlots. It is not a pretty picture. It is not a cleaned up family tree. This list was a stinging rebuke to that kind of judgmental self-righteousness. Do you know what this means? Jesus was born into a sinful family. He came from a long line of sinners.
B. The line of Jesus richly displays God’s grace. If your family tree has got so many unseemly men then you can’t exactly boast of your heritage. Yes, your ancestors were rulers and kings, but they were also great sinners. The question is whether a prostitute can go to heaven? Yes or no? Can an adulterer go to heaven? Can a murderer go to heaven? Can a liar go to heaven? You’d better say yes, because Abraham and David are both going to be in heaven—and Abraham was a cowardly liar and David was an adulterer and a murderer, but they displayed repentance commensurate with their wickedness and after they turned back to God with grief they walked humbly with God for the rest of their days. The hero of this story is God. His grace shines through the blackest of human sin as he chooses flawed men and women and places them in Jesus’ family tree.
C. The line of Jesus says he is an approachable high priest. We read it and we say, “What grace that the Son of God should have identified with such a family!” Many people are intimidated by religion. They hook God up with a lot of religious paraphernalia, cathedrals, popes, archbishops, stained glass, and all the rest. When they look at the trappings, it’s all too imposing for them. This genealogy is in the Bible to let us know that he had a background that was a lot like yours and mine. He called himself the friend of sinners, and he said he didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. He said, “The Son of man has come to seek and to save that which is lost.” (Luke 19:10)
It’s almost Christmastime, and many of you will be traveling home to spend time with your families, but some of you aren’t looking forward to this. You’d rather not be going home this year, but you can’t avoid it. Perhaps there are family members who embarrass you. Some of you are having to spend time with people who’ve hurt you deeply or there are those whom you’ve hurt. A pastor called me this week and talked of one of our students and the horrific background that that student had experienced, and how the church has been praying for that student during the last three months. They are so pleased that that student has settled in the congregation. It will not be an easy Christmas for that person. Some in our families are violent, some are incestuous, some are adulterers, some are liars, some are murderers, some are evil in bizarre ways. They don’t know how it’s going to be when they meet certain folk. The Lord Jesus understands the way you feel. He came from a disreputable family. His family tree was decorated with notable sinners. He knows what it’s like to have relatives who embarrass you. He knows all about a dysfunctional family situation.
No matter what is your past, Jesus can save you. Any murderers reading these words? Any prostitutes? Any adulterers? Any liars? Any cheaters? Any angry people? Any thieves? Any hypocrites? I have good news for you. No matter what you’ve done in the past, you are not irredeemable. Jesus can save you. If a liar has been saved, you can be saved. If a murderer has been transformed, you can be transformed. If an incestuous person has been redeemed, then there is hope for you. No matter what your past looks like, or your present feels like, no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, God can give you a fresh start. Aren’t you glad to know somebody else also comes from a broken family – the most wonderful man who ever lived? There’s a lot of dysfunction in Jesus’ family tree. There’s a lot of brokenness and a lot of pain. He knows exactly what you are going through this year at Christmastime. I hope you won’t skip the family trees of Jesus in your Bible reading. These unlikely lists of unlikely people may be the greatest sections on the grace of God in all the Bible. In these forgotten names from the past God turns the spotlight of his holy grace to fallen men and women, and through their lives, we see what the grace of God can do.
Good news! Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Good news! His name was called Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins. He didn’t come to make you religious, he came to save you from trusting in religion. As strange as it may seem, the worse you are, the better a candidate you become for the grace of God. He came to do for you what you could never do for yourself. Matthew lists in his family tree of Jesus four women, four very unlikely women, three were involved in some form of sexual immorality, two were involved in prostitution and one was an adulteress. All four are in Jesus’ family tree. The same grace that they knew is now available for you to experience. They all turned from their sin to this Lord. They were not cast out. Bow before the God of grace and adore him for his pity and mercy to sinners.
16th December 2007 GEOFF THOMAS