A Genealogy of Grace
6 Jun 2009, Dr Barry Wright
(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)
A GENEALOGY OF GRACE
Today, genealogy and family history rank high among the popular pastimes of our age. The searching out of our ancestors or relatives as well as the places where they lived and worked is seen by many as a wonderful voyage of discovery. These explorations have the possibility of unearthing the full range of human experiences involving love, simple joys, sadness, triumph and loss, prosperity and hardships (Cuffley, 1999: viii).
It would seem that a desire to reach back into history, and pride in one's forebears, was to become the primary motivation for generations of family historians (Ibid: ix).
However, the listing of genealogies is nothing new and we find evidence of this feature in many historical works. It is also interesting to note that when we turn to the Scriptures we find many records attempting to trace the linage of individual people, but no more so than in the book of Matthew. He calls his book 'the book of the generation of Jesus Christ'. 'The book of the generation' was a common phrase and was well understood by any good Jew as a record of a man's linage. This documentation, when put together, was often to be accompanied by a short commentary whenever explanations were necessary (Barclay, 1975: 11, 12).
For today's readers, it may seem a strange way to begin a story when faced with a long list of names to wander through. However, at the time these books were written it was seen as the most natural, the most interesting, and the most essential way to begin (Ibid).
The Jews were particularly interested in genealogies. When Josephus, the well-known Jewish historian wrote his autobiography, he was to begin with his own origins that he was to find in the public records of the day (Ibid: 12).
The reason for the Jew's obsessive interest in their family history was that they '…set the greatest possible store on purity of linage' (Ibid). If they were to find evidence of any mixture of foreign blood, they were to forfeit their right to be called a Jew and a true member of the tribe of Israel. In other words, they were no longer to be seen as one of God's people (Ibid).
This significant issue could be seen in the life of Herod the Great. You may remember that when he became king of Judea he was despised by the pure blooded Jews because he had Edomite blood in him. The importance of Herod's attachment to his genealogies can be seen in the move he made to cover up his past by destroying all the official registers that made reference to his family line (ibid).
Traditionally, the Sanhedrin kept most of these records. This was a council primarily made up of two groups of people found in the Jewish society of the day. Headed by the High Priest of Israel, this privileged body was divided between the Sadducees or chief Priests and the Pharisees or scribes. It was found to be the highest ruling body and court of justice among the Jewish people during the time of Jesus. Because the Romans left most of the business of governing the Jews to this powerful assembly, it was allowed to keep its own police force or temple police, so it could make arrests under its own authority. This was the force that eventually arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Lockyer, 1986: 949, 950).
Every Jew wanted to trace their genealogical roots to prove they were genuine descendants of Abraham. In their minds, they believed incorrectly that this would assure them of salvation because Abraham was the father of the people and through him came the promise and the covenant. This belief was to leave no room for grace and no room for the death of Jesus on the cross of Calvary and His subsequent resurrection.
Matthew, in his genealogy of Jesus, set out to impress the Jews with the fact that he could trace this linage right back through David to Abraham. Under the inspiration of God he was able to link Abraham through this legal line to Joseph, Jesus' earthly 'father'.
The information was also arranged in such a way to make it easy for people to memorise. As such, it was divided into three sections representing three great stages in Jewish history. The first section spanned the period from Abraham to David with the second from David to the exile to Babylon and then from the exile to Jesus Christ. Remember, that this was to be hundreds of years before the printed page was able to make information accessible to the common man (Barclay, 1975: 12,13).
By connecting the linage to David and Abraham, Matthew was effectively establishing Jesus' credentials and this was important for his Jewish audience.
Abraham was the spiritual father of Israel. David was the founder and progenitor of the royal line that would never pass away. Through Abraham all the nations of the world would be blessed. Through David Israel would reign forever.
The fact that Jesus is from that line provides the legitimacy for the claim that He was to be the Messiah and heir to the promises made to Abraham.
It is also important to recognise that the New Testament stresses over and over again the fact that Jesus was called the 'Son of David' and it is by this name that the crowds greet Jesus for the last time as He entered Jerusalem. It is significant that it was the common people, ordinary men and women, who were to recognise Him as such.
However, while Matthew establishes this bloodline, he had something else in mind. At the same time he was establishing a blood relationship and royalty, he was also establishing a genealogy of grace. This line of grace was never entertained by the official Jewish theology of the time, but was certainly emphasised by Jesus himself (Gane 1995: 105).
Matthew was reminding us that the ancestors of Jesus were sinners who needed grace. Their stories reveal God's grace at work in restoring their broken lives and their history reminds us that Jesus is the Saviour of all.
Their lives were to put a spotlight on the concept of God's grace (Ibid: 102).
Author, John MacArthur Jn., reminds us that 'The same grace that was evident in the genealogy [of Jesus] is active today, and the same Jesus [spoken about in these genealogies] is [still] saving His people from their sins. No sin, no matter how heinous, puts sinners beyond His reach' (MacArthur Jn., 1989: 35).
After reading Matthew's genealogy, it becomes obvious that there are many names listed that would raise many an eyebrow at their inclusion. Especially such names as Judah and Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and David and Bathsheba.
The Scriptures plainly show that Tamar and Bathsheba were both involved in sexual sins initiated by some very ill behaved men. Rahab and Ruth were both born Gentiles and yet they also find their way into the bloodline of Jesus.
All four of these names are illustrations of the depth and beauty of God's amazing grace. The very fact that Matthew chose these women over such prominent names as Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel tells us that something very special was being designed for his readers.
Why would God list these women in the Messianic genealogy of His son?
It would seem that what God really wanted on display was His grace more so than the people involved. Their inclusion is the ultimate proof that Jesus is a friend to sinners. As pointed out by Matthew in Matt 9: 13 'He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners [to repentance]'
The lives of these women were on display to provide an example of God's strong desire to break down the long held prejudice of the times. This was a prejudice that had viewed God as a Saviour to only those who were thought to deserve His grace.
It is in the stories about these women that we see God's willingness to be all inclusive of even the most broken of outcasts to be found in the society of any given age.
With the exception of Ruth, scandals were attached to the names of all these women. Most historians of any worth may have chosen to pass over their names in silence for fear that the honour of the Messiah may be tarnished.
However, as we already have noted, Matthew in Matt 9: 13 quotes Jesus words to the Pharisees of His day making it clear that He came not '…to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.'
It is even more amazing that the names of these women appear in these lists at all. It was not normal to find the names of women in the records of Jewish ancestry. A woman had no legal rights. She was regarded more as a thing than a person of any worth. She was merely the possession of her father or husband, both of whom could dispose of her any way they wished. Most Jews in their morning prayers thanked God He had not made him a Gentile, a slave or a woman (Barclay, 1975: 16,17).
Let's take a closer look at the story of Judah and Tamar found in Gen 38: 6-26. In these verses we see how the God of heaven was to take the flawed plans of men and women and weave them into his master plan involving the salvation of all mankind.
This story, as it unfolds, tells us that Judah, after selling his brother Joseph to the Midianites, left his brothers and went to stay with a man of Adullam by the name of Hirah. It was in this place away from his home that he made his first mistake by marrying the daughter of a Canaanite man by the name of Shua. Three boys were to be born to this union and were named Er, Onan, and Shelah.
Not wanting to repeat his own mistake, Judah chooses a young girl for his wayward first-born son thinking she would be a good influence on him and his children. While Tamar was also a Canaanite, it would seem that she had accepted Judah's God and, as such, fulfilled Judah's desire for the right person to tame the weak and sinful nature of his first born son. Judah wanted this young girl as his choice so that a son might be produced to carry on the Judaic line. We must also assume that in the long view, God must have participated in this choice because we know from the Scriptures that Tamar becomes the mother of the messianic line from Judah (Morris, 1979: 548, 549).
Er, as a rebellious young man in his late teens, was to bitterly resent this arrangement. It would seem that he was not interested in exercising spiritual leadership in the family and showed every intention to follow his mother's Canaanite religion rather than the worship of Jehovah (Ibid).
Tamar was not the kind of wife he wanted and he rebelled against the idea of having a wife and child who he believed would follow his father's God. Consequently he refused to consummate the marriage. While the Scripture does not go into detail it says that Er was wicked in the sight of the Lord and for this rebellion against God's purpose, the Lord slew him.
This was now to bring the Levirate or 'brother-in-law' marriage custom into play. This law stated that if a man died without children, his next younger brother should marry his widow. The first son from that marriage would then be recognised legally as the son and heir of the dead brother (Deut 25: 5-10; Matt 24: 24). Following this procedure, Tamar was now to marry Judah's second son, Onan.
Possibly encouraged by his mother, Onan took the same position as his elder brother in this matter and once again the marriage was not consummated. Gen 38: 9 also tells us that he disliked the idea of fathering a son who, according to this type of marriage, would not be his.
Gen 38: 10 tells us that the Lord was displeased because of Onan's rebellion and he was put to death.
With two of his sons dead while still in their teens, Judah was reluctant to have his third son die so he defers his decision of Shelah by telling Tamar to wait until the boy is older. In the meantime she is told to return to her father's house with the hope that she would forget the whole matter (Morris, 1979: 550). However, another tragedy strikes the household with the premature death of Judah's wife. His marriage had not been a happy one and it is possible that this event could have been seen as a judgement from the Lord as a result of her part in the training of her sons and their resulting attitudes of rebellion against God (Ibid: 551). After a suitable period of mourning, Judah quickly resumed the routine of his business life.
Tamar was still willing to fulfil her contracted responsibilities as wife and mother and, as such, had not forgotten Judah and Shelah.
An opportunity was to present itself when she heard that Judah had gone to join his shearers at Timnah. Still longing to play a part in Gods plan originally promised to her by Judah, Tamar, in her desperation sat herself by the wayside at a spot where she knew she would encounter him.
She took off her widow's clothing and put on the attire of a temple prostitute that included a veil to prevent her from being recognised. By employing her services as a prostitute she hoped that this might give her the long awaited opportunity to become the mother of his successors in the Judaic line (Ibid: 552).
Judah, who later acknowledges that he sinned, strikes a bargain with her by agreeing that he would send payment for her services in the form of a kid from his flock. In the meantime he leaves her with a pledge in the form of his signet, his seal, his bracelets and his staff. He then came in unto her and she conceived by him.
When it came time to make the promised payment the so-called prostitute was not to be found. Tamar had returned home and again dressed herself in her widow's garments.
Three months later Judah hears that his daughter-in-law is pregnant and with righteous indignation denounces her as playing the harlot with some nameless lover. Judah now judges Tamar to be guilty of a capital crime and orders her to be burned to death (Gen 38: 24).
His shock comes when she produces his seal, cord and staff making him the adulterer responsible for her condition. While he could no longer give her to Shelah or live with her as husband and wife, he would at least acknowledge her son as his heir.
As it turned out Tamar was to be the mother of twin sons and like Rebekah's twin boys there seemed to be a contest between them as to who would have the honour of being first. The first-born was to be named Pharaz and he becomes the ancestor of King David and eventually of Jesus Christ.
Tamar, of Canaanite heritage, now has the distinction of being one of the few women listed in the official genealogy of Jesus.
Rahab, also a Canaanite, a professional prostitute and a native of Jericho, was at first frightened of God, but then is miraculously saved by Him and eventually marries an Israelite of the royal line by the name of Salmon.
Ruth was not even a Jewess, but a Moabitess from a race of alien and hated people.
Yet, in spite of their past circumstances, each one becomes a strong and faithful believer in God; and, regardless of their past mistakes, God honours them by placing them in the genealogy of the messiah. What a marvellous testimony to God's amazing grace, and to the truth that God forgives past sins and brings new life (Ibid: 557).
Matthew in Matt 1: 6 reminds us again of the wonders of God's grace when he states in his genealogy that '…to David was born Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah.
Matthew could have easily overlooked David's sin with Bathsheba, but he gave it such a prominent mention so as to enable us again to understand God's mercy towards sinners.
We need to remember that when Bathsheba sent word to King David that their adulterous relationship had resulted in the conception of a child, David did not immediately turn to God in repentance and sorrow for his sin. Instead we discover that he engaged in reckless behaviour that he hoped would keep his activities a secret.
David, at this time, needed to acknowledge what he had done and return to the God of grace who would willingly forgive him and cleanse him.
As time passed, David's sin to Bathsheba became widely known and he was under suspicion for planning the death of Uriah. God was not only being dishonoured, but was misrepresented, with reproach being brought on His name. It is only as a result of the prophet Nathan's intervention that David realises the seriousness of his sin.
Psalm 51 shows the depth of his repentance where he cries out to God for mercy and compassion to wash him whiter than snow and to create in him a pure heart.
If Matthew had scoured the pages of the Old Testament for improbable candidates he could not have discovered more incredible ones than were found.
Matthew, in the genealogy, shows us in symbol the very essence of the gospel of God in Jesus by showing how the barriers go down.
The first is the barrier between Jew and Gentile. With these women we see the great truth that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. Here at the very beginning of his book there is the universality of the gospel and of the love of God (Barclay, 1975: 17).
The second barrier between male and female was also dismantled. We have already noted that the names of women would not be found in any other genealogy of the times. As a result of Matthew's list, the old contempt is gone showing that men and women stand equally dear to God and equally important to his purposes (Ibid).
Additionally, the third barrier between saint and sinner is down. We are shown that somehow God can use for his purposes, and fit into His scheme of things, those who have sinned greatly.
In his genealogy Matthew has opened the door for a new understanding of what it means to be God's people. Through the lives of those included in his list like Rahab the Canaanite and Ruth the Moabitess who turned from idolatry to the worship of the true God, we see a God who looks upon the heart, not upon outward appearances.
We can be confident today, that just as God showed His grace to these erring humans, He will reveal His grace to us.
This is indeed a genealogy of grace.
Barclay, W. (1975) The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 1. The Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press.
Cuffley, P. (1999) Family History comes to Life. Port Melbourne, Victoria: Lothian Books.
Gane, E. R. (1995) Incarnation of Grace - Christ has Come. Warburton, Victoria: Signs Publishing Co.
Lockyer Snr. H. (1986) Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
MacArthur Jr., J. F. (1989) God With Us. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Morris, H. M. (1979) The Genesis Record. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.
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