Jesus looked at this family of cheats, liars, adulterers; broken by sin, riddled with failures, and said “these are my people.”
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Matthew #1 . Introduction, and Chapter 1:1
We are going to begin a study of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament. In order to understand it better, I want us to begin with some historical and cultural background.
There are roughly four-hundred years between the last historical events recorded in the Old Testament, and the time of Jesus’ birth. A lot happened during that time. I can’t go over it all in detail, but I’ll try to sketch out a rough outline of it, highlighting the things that are important for us to keep in mind as we read the New Testament, and the book of Matthew in particular. This background will come up several different times as we go through Matthew, so keep a copy of this handy, or bookmark this page on the internet.
The last thing recorded in the Old Testament is the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon/Persia. Ezra, Nehemiah and a few of the prophets speak about this time, when the Jews were granted special privileges in the Persian empire, and allowed to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians. During the time of the exile, and afterwards, Jews began building and using synagogues. even after a new temple was built, there were now Jews living all over the world. So they used synagogues – kind of like a “local church” as a place to gather and worship and teach about God.
The Jews living in their homeland were not independent, exactly. They were under the authority of Persian governors. But communication was slow, and the vast Persian empire was fairly inefficient, so they had a measure of autonomy. The language used through the Persian empire was Aramaic. That was the language used in government communications and business transactions. All around the Jews were communities of other groups of people, also under the Persian empire. They had to use Aramaic to communicate with these people. As generations passed, Aramaic became the main language spoken by the Jews. Hebrew was still used in the synagogues for the most part, and some people still spoke it. It wasn’t a dead language, exactly, but Aramaic was usually the primary language spoken by the Jews. However, by 200 years before Jesus, so few of the Jews who lived in Egypt spoke Hebrew that they translated the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) into Greek.
Even before Alexander the Great, the Persian empire had begun to crumble, as Greek civilization flourished and grew in strength. Eventually, the Jewish homeland came under the control of Greek rulers. The Greeks deliberately tried to spread their values, language and way of life to the areas they had conquered. This practice of spreading Greek culture is called “Hellenization.” Certainly by the time of Jesus, the language that everyone used for business and government was Greek.
About 160 years before Jesus, one of the Greek rulers of the Jewish homeland became very aggressive in Hellenizing the Jews. He got personally involved in appointing the Jewish high priest. Some Jews embraced the Greek way of life, and were willing to compromise their faith in accepting it. Others remained staunchly committed to the true faith. Eventually the Greek ruler, sick of all the unrest, decided to stamp out the entire Jewish religion. He entered the temple and desecrated it, offering a blasphemous sacrifice on the altar. But he had gone too far. The whole country revolted, led by a Jewish priest named Judas Maccabaeus. The Greek ruler eventually relented, and on December 25, 165 BC, the temple was cleansed and rededicated. Even today, the Jewish people – including non-religious ones – celebrate this event. It is called Hanukkah.
Judas Maccabaeus, however wanted more than just religious freedom. He continued to lead the rebellion to get political freedom also. He died before that goal was achieved, but the fight was carried on by his family, who are called Hasmoneans. One of his brothers eventually won independence for the Jews. The Hasmoneans were a priestly family, descended from Aaron. The office of priest was supposed to be hereditary, from the tribe of Levi. The High Priest was supposed to be descended from Aaron, brother of Moses. Therefore the first Hasmonean ruler, and all those after him, functioned as both King, and High Priest.
The Jews had independence for about seventy years. They even expanded their kingdom somewhat, dominating the territory formerly known as Edom, now Idumea. The Idumeans were historic rivals of the Jews, dating back the time they descended from Jacob’s brother, Esau.
Outside of their homeland, the Greek empires fell to the power of Rome, although the Romans embraced Greek culture, and approved of Hellenization, continuing to spread it in their conquests. Meanwhile, the Hasmoneans began fighting each other for power. In this power struggle, one of the Hasmonean contenders fled to Idumea, and sought help from the governor there, Antipater.
Seeing the turmoil in the area, the Roman General Pompey led an army into the Jewish homeland, put an end to all the fighting, and himself entered the temple, and stood personally in the Holy of Holies, to show his dominance. This was another desecration, though not as bad as the last. It embittered the Jews against the Romans, however.
The Roman empire went through some internal struggles (between Pompey and Julius Caesar). The Idumean governor, Antipater, threw his support behind Caesar. Caesar was victorious. It is unlikely that Caesar knew much about the Jewish religion. He probably viewed Antipater as a Jew. He rewarded Antipater by granting Jews everywhere special privileges, and making him governor of Judea. The Jews, however, saw Antipater as a pretender, and indeed, the new governor was not a Jew either by birth (he was an Idumean/Edomite) or by practice of religion. They poisoned him.
More fighting and rebellion broke out. One of Antipater’s sons, Herod, escaped the turmoil and made his way to Rome, where he had an audience with Caesar’s successor, Antony. Antony appointed Herod King of Judea in 40 BC. Three years later, with the help of the Romans, Herod conquered the kingdom that had been given to him. This is the Herod who was king (by the support, and under the authority, of Rome) when Jesus was born. He is known as “Herod the Great.”
Herod tried to please his Jewish subjects by building them a new and magnificent temple. But remembering that the Hasmoneans had been both priests and kings, he was afraid to let them continue as high priests. Instead of allowing the Jewish practice of the High Priesthood being passed along through family, Herod took upon himself the authority of appointing the Jewish high priests. Thus, he exerted control over the Jewish religion, though he himself was not a Jew and did not practice it. Not surprisingly, the Jews hated him.
Herod taxed the people in order to administer his kingdom, and frankly, to increase his own wealth. The Romans taxed the province to cover their own expenses also. The tax collectors at every level took extra for themselves. So the people were oppressed by foreign powers, and kept in crushing poverty by unjust, overwhelming taxation. Not so long ago, their ancestors had been free. It is no wonder that they were looking for a Messiah to deliver them.
As I mentioned, the Greeks succeeded in making Greek the language used in business, government, and interactions between people with different primary languages. Therefore, Matthew, and all of the New Testament writers, wrote in Greek.
Matthew begins the book like this: The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of Abraham, son of David. Considering that a genealogy follows this verse, that’s probably right. But there is a nuance here. The Greek word for genealogy is “genesis.” At its basic level, it means, beginning, or origin. The word that Matthew uses is also the title of the first book of the Old Testament in Greek – the book of Genesis. It is possible that Matthew used this word to imply that in Jesus Christ, there is a new beginning. We’ve had the genesis of the creation of the world, and now, Matthew is bringing us the genesis of the redemption of the world.
As we go through the book of Matthew, we’ll find that he often points out things that are of particular concern to Jewish people (as opposed to Gentiles). No place is more true of that than this genealogy. He begins by pointing out that Jesus is a son of Abraham – that is a true Jew, unlike king Herod. He then calls Jesus the son of David – that is, he has the true lineage of a king, unlike Judas Maccabaeus and the Hasmoneans, who were descended from the wrong tribe to be kings.
Matthew list three “sets” of fourteen generations. These should not be taken as only father-to-son generations. In one place, we know from the books of Kings and Chronicles that Matthew skips from one man to his great-great grandson. So when it says “Uzziah, the father of Jotham” it would more accurate to say, “Uzziah, the ancestor of Jotham.” Most likely, Most likely simply wants to highlight the main people in the line of Jesus. In the Jewish thinking of that day, it is entirely legitimate to skip a few generations when listing a family history. Doing that allows Matthew to make his point, without being overly technical.
Now, some of you may say, “This is Joseph’s family. Jesus was not blood-related to Joseph.” That’s true, of course. But Jesus was adopted by Joseph. The adopted child is just as much an heir as the child by blood. Through adoption, these are the legitimate ancestors of Jesus Christ; just as, through spiritual adoption, we are the legitimate heirs of God’s kingdom through Jesus.
Jesus Christ was born into a human family. His human ancestors included kings. You may wonder how 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, including my own mother and sister and nephew. 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.
This list of Jesus’ human ancestors includes some shocking people, and some seemingly insignificant ones too. 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 (which, by law, he was supposed to do). So she disguised herself as a prostitute, and Judah, not recognizing her, slept with her, and so the next ancestor of Jesus – Perez – was conceived.
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 major moral failures 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, at least 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 from his adopted family in Joseph.
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.
I want you to think about it like this: alone, out of every human that has ever been born, Jesus got to choose his own birth family. And this is the one he chose. These are his people. These liars, cheats, and thugs, these rejected outsiders and failures are his people – by choice!
You and I are his people. One of the greatest tragedies that I ever see is people thinking that they are not “good enough” for Jesus. If you are a cheat, an adulterer, a murderer, an outsider, come join the family. You’ll fit right in with Jesus’ family. I know the church sometimes makes it hard, because we do try to behave better than that, and we know the standard is better than that. But the starting place for everyone in relationship to Jesus is right where you are, at this very moment. Jesus didn’t wait for his family to get cleaned up before he joined them. Instead, he joined them; then he cleaned them up himself.
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. 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.
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