Introduction to Matthew
Matthew (also called Levi) was a tax collector called by Jesus to become one of His disciples. He is a Jew who writes his gospel for a Jewish audience with the intent of showing Jesus as the King of the Jews – the rightful heir to the throne of David. His gospel is organized around five major discourses:
- Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29
- Second Discourse (10:5-11:1)
- Parables (13:1-53)
- Fourth Discourse (18:1-19:2)
- Olivet Discourse (24:1-25:46)
Matthew records the events of Jesus’ life in such a way as to highlight his main point – that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Thus he doesn’t worry about exact chronology or about leaving out what isn’t important to his goal. This can be frustrating to the western reader who approaches the gospel with the expectation of reading a biography. The book of Matthew (and really, all the gospels) isn’t a biography – it’s a testimony of Jesus’ life meant to call people to Him. All the events in the book actually occurred, but the details of when and in what order shouldn’t be the concern of the reader because it isn’t of the author.
Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus traced through His earthly father – Joseph (it is difficult to reconcile Matthew’s genealogy with Luke’s [Lk 3:23-38] – most commentators think Luke records Mary’s lineage rather than Joseph’s, even though Luke begins with Joseph). How he does this goes right along with the last point of the introduction – he doesn’t worry about listing all the names or generations. He wants to make it clear that Jesus is in the line of David and is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. So he leaves out names that don’t matter to his purpose and says there were three sets of fourteen generations from Abraham to Jesus when in fact there were several more (fourteen being the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew spelling of David’s name – more on this below).
The bigger point in reading Matthew’s genealogy is to notice who he does include. The list has women, gentiles, and people with sordid lives – all in the line of the Messiah. So while Matthew’s purpose may be to point to David and Abraham, he also shows that Christ is the Messiah for all people and comes to save sinners.
In the first verse Matthew makes clear what he intends. Jesus is the son of David, the son of Abraham. He is the blessing on all the nations of the earth, a blessing that God promised would come through Abraham (Gen 12:3, 22:18). He is also the One who fulfills God’s promise to David that his throne would be established forever (II Sam 7:12-16). Jesus is the heir to and the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Everything in Israel’s history has pointed to this – the Messiah has come.
In Matthew’s list we see that the Old Testament is a funnel. It begins with the story of all men but increasingly becomes the story of the line of the Messiah. Abraham has two main sons – Ishmael and Isaac. Isaac, however, is the son of promise so the story follows him. Isaac has two sons – Esau and Jacob. Jacob is in the line of the Messiah so Genesis focuses on him. Jacob has 12 sons by four women, but since the Messianic line goes through Judah (the fourth son of Leah, Jacob’s first – and unloved – wife), the story concentrates more and more on his descendants (who eventually make up the majority of Israel after the northern tribes are scattered). It is the line of the Messiah that determines the history recounted in the Old Testament.
God never explains why Judah – among all the sons of Jacob – is chosen to be the one through whom the Messiah will come. He is somewhat of a leader of his brothers – in both good and bad ways – but his life isn’t remarkable for its righteousness or achievements. The reader of Genesis who doesn’t know the rest of the story would surely guess that Joseph will be the chosen son (the son of Rachel, the favored wife – the son who by far accomplishes the most of all the brothers – and the one who appears to be the most righteous). But for reasons only God knows (although it’s interesting that He makes sure Leah – unloved her whole life – has the preferred place in history over Rachel), He designates Judah to produce the Messianic line. That choice shows that God’s ways are not our ways (Is 55:8-9), that He chooses whom He chooses (Deut 7:7-8), and that we can’t predict His actions (Jn 3:8).
Matthew makes an unusual choice to include four women in the genealogy. The four women he chooses – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (not named, but listed as the wife of Uriah) – have baggage that wouldn’t typically recommend them to a kingly line. Tamar – likely a gentile – is the daughter-in-law of Judah who tricks him into sleeping with her so she can produce an heir (twin sons – Perez and Zerah). [To her credit, the story in Genesis 38 shows her to be more righteous than Judah, who lied to her.] Rahab is a gentile and a harlot (Josh 2). Ruth is a Moabite, the race cursed by God and not allowed in the temple (Deut 23:3). And Bathsheba – listed as the wife of Uriah because even hundreds of years later the scripture doesn’t recognize her marriage to David as legitimate – is the mother of Solomon only because of the (likely forced) adultery with David. So Matthew specifically lists four women – an odd choice on its face – and the four he chooses include three gentiles, three linked to sin, and all four with some kind of tainted past. Yet they’re all in the line of the Messiah. It shows that Jesus didn’t come for the righteous and He didn’t come only for the Jews.
Including the women may have a strategic purpose. It may be Matthew’s way of showing those who doubt the virgin birth that God has always worked in mysterious ways when He’s worked through women in the Messianic line. Mary ends up sharing with the four women a life tainted by scandal.
Notice in verse 6 that he lists David as David the king. He wants to leave no doubt that Jesus is the heir to the eternal throne of David. He truly is the King of the Jews.
It is hard to know the reasoning behind what kings Matthew includes in the list and what kings he leaves out. He skips three generations between Joram and Uzziah in verse 8. The three he leaves out are Ahaziah (II Kings 8-9), a wicked king who is the son of Joram and his wicked wife Athaliah (daughter of Ahab); Joash (II Kings 12), son of Ahaziah, who is a good king until the end of his life; and Amaziah (II Chron 25), who starts as a righteous king but doesn’t end well.
In verse 11 he says to Josiah were born Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the deportation to Babylon. Jeconiah (also called Jehoiachin) is actually the grandson of Josiah and as king surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar during the second siege of Jerusalem – 11 years before the final deportation. Because he surrenders and doesn’t fight, he lives out his life in the king’s house in Babylon and dies in peace (II Kings 24:10-17; 25:27-30). The phrase and his brothers probably refers to the three sons of Josiah who all reign in Judah up to the deportation – Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah (II Kings 23-24). They are actually Jeconiah’s father (Jehoiakim) and uncles instead of his brothers. Why Jeconiah is singled out isn’t clear (all four kings are wicked), other than perhaps he’s given credit for his decision not to fight the Lord’s judgment delivered through Babylon.
Though Matthew will say in verse 17 that each section of the genealogy contains 14 generations, this section only lists 13 – Shealtiel, Zerubbabel, Abihud, Eliakim, Azor, Zadok, Achim, Eliud, Eleazar, Matthan, Jacob, Joseph, Jesus. There really isn’t a way to explain this other than perhaps that Jeconiah is counted in both lists (before the deportation and after the deportation), because he represents more than one generation after Josiah (or perhaps that name is used to represent both Jehoiakim (first deportation) and Jehoiachin (second deportation)).
Notice that in verse 16 Matthew lists Joseph as the husband of Mary, by whom was born Jesus. He doesn’t say Jesus was born to Joseph as he does with every other generation. He specifically refers to the virgin birth by saying Jesus was born by Mary.
The virgin birth brings up an interesting point. If Jesus is not really Joseph’s son, why do we care what Joseph’s lineage is? The reason is that Jesus is Joseph’s legal son – the same as if He were adopted. And since there’s no precedent for a virgin birth, Joseph’s lineage becomes Jesus’ lineage and shows that Jesus is the heir to the Davidic promise (and if the genealogy in Luke is in fact Mary’s, then Jesus is in the Davidic line through both parents).
The conclusion of the genealogy is this – there are fourteen generations each from Abraham to David, from David to the deportation to Babylon, and from Babylon to the time of Christ (if we include the explanation above). Now since we’ve shown that this isn’t technically true because of the generations Matthew skips, what he must mean is that there are fourteen in the genealogy as he lists it. He has a purpose and the purpose is to highlight specific people and to make fourteen generations between each section.
Why go to such lengths to make all the divisions equal fourteen? There’s no way to know for sure, but in ancient Hebrew the letters in David’s name equal fourteen (‘D’ is the fourth letter of the alphabet and ‘V’ is the sixth – thus D+V+D=14 [there are only consonants in ancient Hebrew]). So perhaps Matthew intends for the genealogy of Jesus to be an acrostic that points to David (and also becomes easier to memorize). Jesus is the heir to and fulfillment of God’s promise to David of an eternal throne. And His lineage – as Matthew records it – points to David. Jesus is truly the King of the Jews.
At the end of any genealogy the same question may present itself to the reader – is there anything more to this than just information? We know it’s important to show that Jesus is in fact the heir of David and fulfills all the Messianic prophecies about the Lion of Judah and the root of Jesse. But beyond that, what do we do with this? Is there something to take with us that affects our lives?
Three takeaways seem to present themselves:
- We serve a great God who fulfills His promises regardless of how old those promises are. The first promise of a Messiah was made to Adam and Eve at the fall. The first specific promise that the Messiah would come through God’s chosen people was made to Abraham. And the first prophecy that He would come through Judah was made by Jacob on his deathbed. All three promises were hundreds and in some cases thousands of years before Christ’s birth. Yet every prophecy and every promise came true. Jesus came just as God said He would and came in the way and through the line He said He would.
- We serve a sovereign God who achieves His ends through the actions of both righteous and wicked men. The sordid lives of some in the line of the Messiah didn’t thwart God’s redemptive plan. God used both saints and sinners to accomplish His goal. Sin never derails God’s will.
- We serve a merciful Savior descended from sinners – in a human sense – to save sinners. Christ’s lineage shows why He had to come. A harlot, an adulteress, a series of ungodly kings – all show a world in need of a savior. As He says in His own words – “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt 9:12-13).