If we searched online about our ancestors and happened to discover that we're connected in some way to some really dodgy characters, many of us would keep what we have found out hidden. However, in presenting the world with details about Jesus Christ's ancestors the gospel writer Matthew includes not only the good, but also the bad and the ugly.
Most Bibles give Matthew 1 the title “the Genealogy of Jesus Christ”, in other words “this is Jesus' family tree”. In 2016 the Telegraph did an article on an ugly Christmas tree in Montreal, Canada, a tree so ugly one Twitter user joked it “looked like it had just been released from Christmas tree rehab.” However, the very first Christmas tree, the family tree of Jesus in Matthew 1, is in places much uglier.
There are of course some good branches in Jesus' family tree, people we would be happy to be associated with. For example in v1 we're told Jesus was “the son of David and the son of Abraham”. David and Abraham are two Biblical characters any Jew would have been happy to see in their family tree, so we are off to a good start. Other branches in Jesus' family tree also are not too bad to look at: in v2 Jesus is connected to “Isaac and Jacob”, two important and prominent characters of the Old Testament.
However, as we go further down the list we see some names, some branches, we would think Matthew ought to have chopped off. For example: v7 mentions Rehoboam; v9 mentions Ahaz; v10 mentions Manasseh, all of whom were wicked Old Testament kings.
In verses 3-6 four women are mentioned: Tamar, v3; Rahab, v5; Ruth, v5; and one described in v6 as “a mother who had been Uriah's wife”. One commentator notes these “four mothers of Jesus form a striking group, not only because three were Gentiles (non Jews) and the fourth probably regarded as such, but three of the four were involved in gross sexual sin”.
Two of these women, Tamar and Rahab, were prostitutes; v6's “mother who had been Uriah's wife” we know to be Bathsheba, who committed adultery with king David.
Imagine reading this about your ancestors, that you are connected to wicked kings, prostitutes, adulterers and adulteresses. The temptation would be to get a bottle of tipex and erase them out of the picture. But Matthew keeps them in.
The question we need to ask is why Matthew does this?
Simple put, through this dodgy family tree at the start of his gospel Matthew is beginning to teach two purposes for the Son of God coming into the world:
1. the Son of God entered the world to identify with sinners, the ultimate expression of which is not Matthew 1 and the genealogy of Jesus, but Matthew 27 and the cross of Jesus, where we read of Jesus taking upon Himself His people's sin. By identifying Jesus with wicked sins & sinners like Ahaz, Manasseh, Tamar and Rahab, Matthew gives readers of his gospel a foretaste of Jesus' greatest identification with sinners, which took place on a cross;
2. Matthew would have us see that the purpose of the Son of God entering the world that first Christmas wasn't merely to identify with sinners. You see sinners like Ahaz, Tamar and Rahab – sinners like us – need more than a nice person to identify or spend time with us. Sinners need someone to save them from our sin!
By putting Jesus alongside serious sins and sinners Matthew wants us to see that Jesus' own people, His own family (including His mother Mary), all needed Him to save them from their sin. And we too need Jesus to save us from our sin.
We all have different backgrounds and different family trees, but one thing we have in common is we are sinners who need forgiven and saved from sin, which separates us from a God who is holy. Matthew 1:21 tells us this was why Jesus was to be given the name Jesus: “you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins”.
The name Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means “the LORD saves”. God the Lord saves us through Jesus Christ.
The family record of Jesus reminds us of the fallen state of human nature. However, the family record of Jesus reminds us also of the redeeming activity of God, who in love brings back sinners to Himself through His Son, Jesus Christ.