In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he says that the cross of Christ is a stumbling block for Jews (1:23). Due to the Law’s instruction, it is clear that law-abiding Jews would take offense at anyone hung on tree. As Moses announced in Deuteronomy 21:23, such a man was accursed by God. Understandably, the call to believe in and worship a man nailed to a tree would have been hard to accept.
Two thousand years removed from Golgotha, the cross has become a symbol of peace and hope. In the West, Christians have grown up seeing crosses on church steeples and tee shirts. More than a few devotees to Christ adorn them around their neck or ink them on their skin. Clearly, the cross is no longer a stumbling block.
What is a stumbling block today is the Bible itself. In almost a complete reversal, the word of God, which would have posed no cultural problem for the Jews of Jesus’ day, causes many professing Christians to wince and excuse its contents.
For many, the world of the Bible is foreign. Its words, warfare, and worship are hard to understand. Add to this the self-deprecating truths of total depravity and unconditional election, and you have a Bible that is not just unfamiliar, but even offensive. Yet, it is not only doctrine that trips up Bible readers; it is also genre selection.
The Genealogy of Jesus Christ
In Matthew, a certain literary genre—the genealogy—is the culprit of many stubbed toes. While many enjoy tracing their own family tree on Ancestry.com, many are less convinced that knowing Jesus’s family tree in has any relevance for them today.
Why does Matthew begin this way?
I would suggest three reasons why Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy. One is cultural, one is literary, and one is theological (or better: Christological), and if we can understand Matthew’s reasoning, then maybe this stumbling block can become a stepping stone to seeing Christ’s glory. Even more, perhaps understanding this genealogy helps us find a place in Christ’s family tree. Let’s consider.
First, Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, whose blessing depended on birthright.
Or at least, under the old covenant, their access to the promises of God depended on their relationship with Abraham. Hence, circumcision (a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham) is a big deal in the Bible. For the Jews of Matthew’s day, genealogies were common, and they were important because social standing depended on the inheritance passed down from one generation to the next.
Genealogies capture this commitment to birthright and in this genealogy we find two men and one event—Abraham, David, and the exile—organizing the history. For the Jews reading Matthew 1:1–17, these three figures shaped everything about their identity: they were a chosen people because of Abraham, a royal people because of David, and a redeemed people because of the exile (and before that the exodus). Therefore, Matthew is showing how Jesus is the promised offspring of Abraham, the royal son of David, and the messianic hope of the post-exilic people. In short order, Matthew is recounting the history of God’s people, and he is showing how Jesus Christ is the long awaited savior (see Matthew 1:23).
Second, Matthew’s use of the genealogy is akin to the book of 1-2 Chronicles.
In that Old Testament history, 1 Chronicles 1–9 were filled with genealogical records. In these post-exilic chapters, the Chronicler reestablished the royal line of Judah (3:1-4:23) and priestly line of Levi (6:1-81). In recording these lists of names, he was reminding Israel who they were—something that would have been easy to forget when they were displaced from their land. Yet, now after seventy years in Babylon, this genealogy in Chronicles functioned to remind new generations of Israelites about their heritage.
The rest of Chronicles tells the story of Israel’s rise to power, the blessing of God in David’s line, and the downward spiral of David’s kingdom. In many ways, the book is a tragedy. What began well ends with the king of Israel in Babylonian captivity. The book teaches time and again that disobedience to God’s covenant results in the corruption and eventual loss of the kingdom.
At the same time, when Israel’s kings labor to keep the covenant—like in the case of Josiah—the nation prospers. The book focuses on the kingdom and the temple, and ends with Israel’s captivity in Babylon. Its final words, however, are given by Cyrus, the servant of the Lord (Isa 45:1) who restores the kingdom and the temple to Israel (2 Chr 36:22-23):
Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up.’”
The final decree is remarkably similar to the final words of Matthew’s gospel (see G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 176-77). Or, might we say that Matthew quoted Jesus’s ‘Great Commission,’ to intentionally reflect the saying of Cyrus in 2 Chronicles 36:23? I think so.
In this verse, YHWH is said to have given authority in heaven and earth to Cyrus, so that this divinely appointed, servant-king can rebuild the temple. Add to this, the promise of YHWH’s presence that would accompany his people, and you have in Cyrus’s words a foreshadowing of what Jesus would say and do in Matthew 28:18-20:
All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples [i.e., build my temple, cf. Matt 16:18] of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And, behold, I am going with you, until the end of the ages.
These similarities are stunning, and they suggest that Matthew is writing his Gospel using the template of 1-2 Chronicles. Indeed, just as 1-2 Chronicles begins with a genealogy, focuses its attention on the kingdom of God in the line of David, spends ample time tracing the construction and destruction of the temple, and then closes with this future hope of Cyrus, the great servant-king of Isaiah 45, rebuilding of the temple; so Matthew begins with a genealogy, focuses on establishing Christ as the greater king, who will build his church (i.e., gather his people), and commission his servants to build his royal temple.
If this literary structure is close, it explains why Matthew begins with a genealogy. It also sets Matthew in comparison and contrast with 1-2 Chronicles. In the case of 1-2 Chronicles, the story has a tragic ending—even if it gives a flicker of hope that God will return his people to Jerusalem. In the case of Matthew, the story has a tragic hour—the death of Jesus Christ—but it has a happy ending. Christ will build his temple, and the kingdom of Satan will not overcome it. This leads to the last reason why Matthew begins with a genealogy.
Third, the genealogy is the first step in establishing who Jesus Christ is.
According the genealogy, he is a true Israelite, descended from Abraham. Therefore, Jesus is qualified to be a king according to the law of Moses (Deut 17:15). However, he is not just a son of Israel; he is a son of David who is thus qualified to sit on an eternal throne (see 2 Sam. 7:9–14). Truly, Jesus is the long-awaited, royal son who would come to save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21), the one who would come and fulfill all the promises about Zion’s reign over the earth.
In fact, without the keyboard features of bold, italicizes, or exclamation points (!!!), we can see how Matthew uses the Jewish literary device of gematria to emphasize the Davidic shape of Jesus life. The genealogy is broken down into three sections (Abraham to David, David to the exile, the exile to Christ). In each section, fourteen patriarchs are mentioned. Interestingly, and not without design, Matthew uses the number for David, fourteen (daled (4) + vav (6) + daled (4) = 14), to point the way to Jesus Christ. He is the greater David, the one who would fulfill all prophecy (see Matt 1:18-2:23) and all righteousness (3:15), in order to become the king of Israel who would bring shalom to Israel and salvation to the world (1:21).
A Stepping Stone
This is who Jesus is and why Matthew begins with a genealogy. The whole point of Matthew’s gospel is to reveal the king of God’s kingdom, the divine Son born of a virgin who would make a way for sinners to enter God’s holy temple. Hopefully, with a little explanation, this archaic genealogy will stop being a stumbling block, but will instead become a stepping stone to lift your eyes over the tabernacle fence to see the Son of God veiled in flesh.
Matthew’s Gospel gives the world a compelling picture of Jesus the Christ. May we read it with fascination as God prepared the way for his son—both in flesh and blood (the people of the genealogy) and in covenant and captivity (the events of the genealogy). In truth, the genealogy foreshadows the rest of Matthew’s gospel: It shows how the person and work of Jesus Christ fulfills the history of Israel, in order to bring salvation to the nations.
In this, the genealogy is not a cumbersome list of names. It is a beautifully compact retelling of Israel’s history which is now complete in Jesus Christ. In a word, the genealogy is the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria and Merry Christmas, ds