What relevance do the genealogies of Jesus have for believers today? We’ve all done it. We open our Bible to Matthew 1 and settle down to begin our reading plan of the New Testament. We are eager to learn all we can about Jesus, the one who came and died on the cross for our sins. Our hearts are open to hear from God as we read. So we begin:
“This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac. Isaac was the father of Jacob. Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers. Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah (whose mother was Tamar)….”
Seriously! And this goes on for 16 verses! I mean, we all kind of half expected to get bored by our reading at some point, but this is ridiculous. Who cares about all these begets and begots?
Well, let’s start with the obvious. This list of ancestors includes some incredibly interesting people whose story is told in the Old Testament. It would probably make a very interesting year-long study just to look up each one and read their story. Tucked in among all the names are four women who shatter any stereotypical image of ancestors for the Son of God! A woman who seduced her father-in-law, a prostitute, a Moabite, an adulteress. Really? Who would claim them? Who would think they were worthy of such an honor? (Apparently God did, but that may be a different article.)
Still, to our Western minds, this list seems pointless. Let me suggest first that the genealogy establishes Jesus as a descendant of David and of Abraham, two important markers of the Messiah’s ancestry. Good so far, and that might be enough for most of us. However, as we learned from our guest Morgan Jackson, some people see this genealogy in a very different light.
Morgan related a story to us that explains exactly why God included the list of begets. You see, in some cultures, particularly Muslim cultures, your right to speak authoritatively, your right to teach, your right to expect a hearing depends on who your father is, who his father was, and who his father’s father was. As he explained it:
“I would ask people, ‘When did you come to faith in Christ?’ And they would say, ‘When I heard the genealogy of Jesus is when I came to faith in Christ.’ And I was never quite understanding.
“I was in San Jose, California, some years back and I was telling some stories about the genealogy and how people were coming to faith in Christ through the genealogy. And when I was done a white business guy came up to me really upset and he said, ‘I know you think it’s cute to talk about the genealogy, but the genealogy is valueless.’
Well, fortunately behind him was an African from Zimbabwe, and he began to argue on my behalf. And he said, ‘No, no, the genealogy is my most favorite part of the Bible.’ He said, ‘In Africa we don’t care what school you went to; we don’t care how wealthy you are; the only right you have to speak is based on your tribe, clan, and your genealogy—who your daddy’s daddy was.’
“He said, ‘I come from a very important tribe in Zimbabwe. I come from a chieftain clan. And I’m the first born of my father who’s the first born of his father, who’s the first born of his father. So whenever there’s a tribal event we have to go back in the community. And the Aunties of my father will teach all of the women our genealogy in song. And they’ll come out singing our genealogy. So by the time we get to the center of the village, everybody knows somebody important has come.’…
“What happens for you and I, we hear Matthew, and we go, ‘Oh, the genealogy.’ We’re like (sighs in disgust). But in a Muslim community they’re not going to listen to anything until they know by what authority this person is speaking. So in their language when it says, ‘And this is the genealogy of Isa,’ of Jesus Christ, every one of them leans forward to hear what the genealogy is. And then it says, ‘Abraham was the father of Isaac; Isaac was the father of Jacob.’ Now that sends a shockwave through the whole community because this man is claiming genealogy all the way back to Abraham.
“Then they listen as it goes 14 generations to David, who is one of their prophets. Then it goes 14 generations from David to Babylon. The village is quiet, the quiet is palpable. Then it goes 14 generations from there to Jesus. By this time nobody in the community moves, because nobody has ever heard from somebody as important as this.”
Now, back to your regularly scheduled reading: “This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham:…”