[I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It’s the seventh in an ongoing series looking at passages in Scripture which summarise the biblical story. In part, the series has been designed to help publicise the book, Whole Life, Whole Bible: 50 Readings on Living in the Light of Scripture, written with LICC colleagues.]
This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham... Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah. Matthew 1:1, 17
The growth industry in genealogy magazines and books designed to help people trace their family tree, along with the popularity of TV programmes like Who Do You Think You Are?, demonstrate our fascination with roots. In some cases it’s little more than a curiosity about family background, but in many cultures it reflects a desire, even necessity, to show connectedness and belonging. This was certainly the case for Matthew, as he lays out Jesus’ ancestry at the start of his gospel.
Crucially, he begins and ends the genealogy with David and Abraham. Jesus is not only the fulfilment of the hopes of a new king on David’s throne, but also the one who will extend God’s blessings to Gentiles in fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham. But more than this, Matthew’s very first words – about the ‘genesis’ of Jesus Christ – are reminiscent of Genesis 2:4 and 5:1. He is setting the account he is about to tell in the larger story of God’s dealings not just with Israel, but with creation, marking a new beginning in that story – a new beginning in Jesus.
Why Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba are included in the genealogy remains something of a puzzle. Perhaps Matthew wanted us to note they were all ‘foreigners’ to Israel, brought within the orbit of the people of God. More significantly, perhaps, is that their unions and childrearing could be seen as outside the ‘norm’, some even carrying the stigma of sexual scandal. Matthew reminds us – as Joseph will learn in the passage that follows – that God doesn’t always work out his purpose within expected boundaries.
On the first page of the New Testament, then, the significance of Jesus is seen in the shape of the history of Israel, with all its ups and downs, which goes back through David to Abraham, and has its origins in God’s purposes for the whole of creation.
And this history becomes our history too, as we are adopted into the family of faith whose roots go back to the very beginning, carefully worked out by God, culminating in Jesus. Here is great encouragement, as the gospel story reminds me of my incredible significance in God’s grand design – that I find my identity and purpose, with others, in the one who stands at the heart of God’s plan for the universe.