One of the things we preachers like to point out about Christmas is that it was an incredible sacrifice, not only for Jesus to die on the cross, but for him to become human in the first place. One thing the New Testament emphasizes is that Jesus took our humanity upon himself. He took our sins on himself. He was true God; he became true man and the humiliation was, he took on all the shame and guilt that it means to be true man. That shame began with the human family he was born into.
Jesus Christ was born into a human family. His human ancestors were kings. You may wonder how it it was that a descendant of the ancient kings was unknown, and unrecognized as royal. Let me give you an illustration of how this could be. I am the king of Serbia. Really. Well, actually, I would be the king of Serbia, if Serbia was still a monarchy, and if several thousand people who are ahead of me in the line of succession were to die. So, although my ancestry can be traced back (on one side of the family) to a Serbian king, it doesn’t really matter because Serbia doesn’t have kings any more, and even if they did, there are other people more directly in the line of descent.
So, with Jesus, his ancestors can be traced back to King David and beyond, but that doesn’t mean he was in the direct line of inheritance for the throne, and anyway, the Jewish people had not had a king for 500 years before Jesus came into the world.
Actually, Jesus’ human ancestors include some shocking people. Matthew records the genealogy of Jesus. Luke also records a genealogy, with some slightly different names involved. Matthew is obviously tracing the physical ancestors of Joseph, who was the legal father of Jesus, though not the biological one. Many bible scholars feel that Luke, with his different genealogy, is tracing the ancestors of Mary. Though this is not explicitly stated, it is quite possible.
Matthew’s genealogy skips generations at times (so does Luke’s). We know from the records in the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles that not every generation is listed here. So where most English translations say some thing like “Azor, the father of Zadok” it would more accurate to say, “Azor, the ancestor of Zadok.” This is typical of how Jews/Hebrews recorded ancestry. One result is that those generations that Matthew lists were probably included for specific reasons. I want to to look at some of those reasons today.
Matthew starts the list with Abraham. Abraham was a man of faith. But he had his failures. He slept with his slave Hagar; in fear, he lied to kings about his wife Sarah, telling them she was his sister. Isaac, Abraham’s son, was a pretty solid guy. But Jacob, the next in line was a trickster, a con man. He had two wives, and also slept with two different slave girls.
Judah was the next ancestor of Jesus. He was one of the ten brothers who sold their own sibling Joseph as a slave. Matthew records that the line is traced through Judah’s son Perez, who was born to him by Tamar. Tamar was actually Judah’s daughter in law. After her first two husbands died, Judah would not allow her to marry his last son. So she disguised herself as a prostitute, and Judah slept with her, and so the next ancestor of Jesus – Perez – was concieved.
A few generations later came Salmon. Salmon married a prostitute named Rahab (and she wasn’t even an Israelite either) and they had Boaz. Boaz married a foreigner who had been married before, and they had the next ancestor of Jesus.
A while later came King David. David was perhaps the most noble ancestor Jesus had. Yet he had a major moral failure also. He committed adultery and murdered the husband of the woman he had sinned with. Then he married that woman, and she became the mother of the next ancestor of Jesus Christ. That’s right, one set of Jesus’ ancestors were adulterers. Matthew even remembers her, not as the Queen, nor as David’s wife, but rather “the wife of Uriah” (Uriah was her first husband, the one David had killed).
In fact, in this entire list, Matthew mentions only four mothers: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah (who was called Bathsheba). Aside from Ruth, the most significant thing about these women is that they were involved in major sins committed by both the mothers and fathers mentioned here. And even Ruth was a foreigner, an outsider to the people of Israel. In other words, it almost seems like Matthew is trying to draw attention to the checkered past of Jesus’ family.
In 1:7-11, Matthew continues with a recitation of the royal ancestors of Jesus proceeding from David until the time of Exile. There are a couple of great kings in this list. Hezekiah was a good ruler and man of faith. Josiah was too. But both of them failed to raise their children in faith. And most of this list is a remembrance of bad kings. Here are a couple of the individuals mentioned:
Manasseh did evil in the eyes of the Lord (2 Kings 21:2)
Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. (2 Kings 16:2-3)
And he [Joram] walked in the way of the kings of Israel, as the house of Ahab had done, for the daughter of Ahab was his wife. And he did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. (2 Kings 8:18)
And he [Amon] did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, as Manasseh his father had done. He walked in all the way in which his father walked and served the idols that his father served and worshiped them. (2 Kings 20:20-21).
You get the picture. Let’s put it plainly. The human ancestors of Jesus the Messiah were a bunch of lecherous, fornicating, murdering, idol-worshiping, faithless thugs. This is the heritage that Jesus was born into. You see it’s not just that Jesus was born into poverty and humility in human terms. He was also born into a heritage of spiritual poverty and spiritual shame. This is the heritage that we all share as human beings. This is what Jesus took upon himself.
When I consider all these, three things occur to me. The first is that Jesus’ humanity extended to having a dysfunctional family, and relatives that did shameful things. Although he himself committed no sins, the sin that corrupted the entire human race was a part of his human heritage. For our sake, he took that heritage upon himself.
God made him who had no sin, to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:21)
That began at the moment of Jesus’ conception. That sin-heritage was completely and inextricably bound with the humanity that Jesus inherited from Mary, and even the family he inherited from both.
Second, it seems clear that the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to deliberately include these particular people in the recounting of Jesus’ human heritage. The Lord seems to be pointing out that he can and does use even deeply flawed people. Some of these ancestors of Jesus never repented, and everything I know about the bible suggests that many of them will be in Hell, not heaven. But even so, God used them, willing or unwilling.
Third, even these deeply flawed people can be redeemed. As I just mentioned, some of them rejected God’s grace. But others – like Judah and David and Josiah – repented and received redemption. In fact, that is why Jesus came – to bring the redemption that had to come both from humanity and from God. Jesus, eternally God, but born human on a particular day in history, is the only way for that redemption to be total and effective. He bore in his nature the weakness of humanity and the strength of divinity.
Maybe you know someone who feels like they already have too many disadvantages to ever become a redeemed, holy follower of Jesus. Maybe you feel like that. Maybe you feel like you could never have anything to do with a Holy God. Well, just look at where this Holy Messiah came from. He didn’t have a better family than you. He wasn’t born in a nicer place. He took on all the disadvantages that humanity has to offer, so that HE could offer YOU every advantage of heaven. Like the gifts we give at this time of year, all you need to do is have the faith to believe the gift is truly given to you, and to reach out and receive it.