Matthew’s gospel starts telling the Christmas story in a strange place.
Before the miraculous conception, angel visits and trip to Bethlehem, Matthew begins with a genealogy. It’s the part of the Christmas story that most people skip over because it’s a list of names that are difficult to read and pronounce. It’s also skipped over because most people want to get to the exciting parts of the story — the miraculous, surprise and even dangerous parts.
But, there are a couple of things we miss when we skip the introduction.
Why would Matthew begin to tell Jesus’ story with a genealogy? First, since Matthew wrote this gospel specifically for a Jewish audience, he links Jesus’ birth to the family tree of David and Abraham. Why? Because God made promises to both men that one day one of their “offspring” would be the everlasting King. Matthew is clearly saying that Jesus is that promised King.
This genealogy weaves the present circumstances to a winding overarching story throughout the whole Old Testament. God is a promise-maker and a promise-keeper. God promised a Satan-crushing, compassion-driven, suffering servant, eternal King over and over, and now, with the birth of Jesus, God is keeping His promise.
Second, Matthew links Jesus' birth to some interesting family members. As you might expect in Jesus' family tree, there are people of faith listed. Besides Abraham and David, there’s Isaac, Boaz and a few described as doing “what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (Asaph, Uzziah, Hezekiah, and Josiah).
However, there is a much longer list of those that “did evil.” Jacob struggled with honesty. Tamar became pregnant when she seduced her ex-father-in-law. Rahab was a prostitute. David committed adultery then had her husband murdered to cover up the affair. Jehoram killed members of his own family. Ahaziah and Manasseh both worshiped idols and sacrificed their own children in worship to those false gods.
Some speculate that Matthew included these scandalous stories to set the stage for the scandalous story of Jesus’ birth — an unplanned pregnancy of a virgin. Others believe that Matthew is again referring to another overarching theme throughout scripture — change is possible.
Hezekiah followed God even though his father was an idol-worshiping child-murderer. Josiah followed God even though his father and grandfather “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”
Your family tree may explain where you came from, but it doesn’t have to predict who you are or where you are going.
I hope knowing the introduction of the Christmas story will help you understand the significance of Jesus' birth and the message He later proclaimed.
Jeremy Walden is pastor of Mosaic Family Church, a nondenominational church in Auburn, and teaches Family Communication at Auburn University.