How important are credentials?
Let us say, for instance, someone is facing a serious medical issue and needs to choose a specialist. How important would it be for that physician to be qualified? How would the doctor’s medical advice, diagnosis of the medical condition, and recommended medical treatment be treated if there were doubts about their medical degree?
When a child is entrusted to a school, how important is it to know that the school is qualified to teach this child? Would not the school’s accreditation, the teachers qualifications and certifications be crucial information?
And when you and I face spiritual questions that have to do with eternity, questions about our spiritual condition and what is in store for us, would it not be important—crucial—that our savior be qualified, credentialed, accredited with a good reputation?
These, at least, would have been the Jewish questions and requirements in antiquity. Without a genealogy, no one claiming the throne of David, let alone the mantle of Messiah, would have been given serious notice. So, for the first Sunday of Advent, we will be looking at Jesus’ credentials and considering whether you and I can accept His qualifications and put our trust in Him.
For you and me today, the sight of a genealogy like the one in Matthew’s gospel is enough to make our eyes glaze over.
It is a long list of largely unfamiliar names, hard to pronounce, and with little meaning for us. The modern western reader would be inclined to skip this part so we can get to the good part, the actual story!
But Matthew was writing to a mainly Jewish audience. When it came to biographies, for the ancient Jew, most often the genealogy made or broke the whole story. Since royalty depends on heredity, Jesus’ pedigree would have instantly piqued the ancient Jew’s interest because it firmly established Jesus’ entitlement to the throne of David.
Careful records had to be kept of every Jewish family’s relationships in order to authenticate what tribe they were from, and clan they claimed. At stake was each person’s deed to their God-given inheritance in Israel, an actual plot of land. But also at stake were the royal lineage of David in anticipation of Messiah, the priestly lineage of Aaron, in order to choose high priests, and the Levitical lineage in order to serve in the temple.
All these public records were kept in the temple and were carefully protected along with the scriptures when the Jewish people went into exile.
An example of how important these genealogical records were can be found in the story of the returning exiles in the book of Ezra. Three families claimed to be descended from Levi, but no records could be found to prove it.
These looked for their entries in the genealogical records, but they were not found there, and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean.Ezra 2:62 (NRSV)
Son of David
The phrase Son of David referred to the Messiah and could only be traced through the kings of Judah. The ancient Jewish reader would have understood what Matthew wanted them to know. Jesus’ lineage proved He was legitimately from the kingly line of David, and a direct descendant of Abraham.
The presence of an unbroken record before and after the exile left no question Jesus was Who He claimed to be.
Matthew divided Jesus’ record into three sections.
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
—So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations;
—and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations;
—and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.Matthew 1:1, 17 (NRSV)
Matthew left out quite a few names in Jesus’ genealogy on purpose.
In the Hebrew language there were no vowels and no numbers. The vowels were intuited and Hebrew letters did double duty as numbers whenever needed.
Stick with me, now.
The Hebrew letters for David were DWD, which, when representing numbers, added up to fourteen.
So Matthew put fourteen names in each section, and made three sections, one for each letter in David’s name.
Jesus’s genealogy also mirrored the three great periods in Israel’s history up to that point.
In our scientific age we would have wanted an exhaustive list as proof. But to the ancient Jewish mind, this was actually very convenient. Matthew was writing in a way to help people memorize his gospel because in his day not everyone possessed their own copy of the scriptures; memorizing was the only way people could have ready access to God’s word.
Therefore, father of meant direct genetic descendant of, and if someone wanted whatever names were left out they could easily look them up in the public records kept at the temple, given the material they already had in Matthew’s record.
What is more, if they knew their history well, since it is all in the Hebrew Scriptures, many could have mentally filled in what was missing.
Break With Tradition
Contrary to common custom, five women, including Mary, are mentioned in this genealogy.
In Matthew’s day women were not highly valued in their culture. In fact, some Pharisees considered them so low in society they would thank God every morning in prayer they were not women.
And the women Matthew chose to include may have raised a few eyebrows. Not the famous and reverenced matriarchs of the faith, such as Sarah who brought forth Isaac in her old age, or Rebecca who by great faith went to Isaac to be his wife, or godly Leah who brought forth both Judah and Levi.
In fact, if Matthew had ransacked the entire Hebrew scriptures he would have been hard-pressed to find four more unlikely candidates for the Messiah’s genealogy!
We will look at three today.
“Sheep of Another Fold”
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.Jesus, John 10:16 (NRSV)
It was a cryptic remark at the time, and many have puzzled over it since. But one simple understanding can be Jesus’ reference to those of nonJewish faith and heritage who would come to saving faith. For even in His own genealogy were women who had courageously put their faith in God at all costs.
and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by TamarMatthew 1:3 (NRSV)
Tamar’s story is found clear back in the book of Genesis, a woman greatly wronged by the people of God, yet strangely drawn to the God they represented. In the end, Judah acknowledged she was more righteous than he.
and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab,Matthew 1:5 (NRSV)
Rahab’s story is found in the book of Joshua, a woman who took great risks for the people of God because she alone, of all the people in Jericho, had placed her faith in the God of the Hebrews.
and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth,Matthew 1:5 (NRSV)
Ruth’s story is found in her own book of Ruth. Despite what God had said through Moses, that no Moabite would ever be given a chance to enter the Lord’s sanctuary because of how they had treated the Jews, Ruth embraced both God and God’s people as her own
Each video is designed to offer background scholarship on the topic, including setting, culture, original language, and archaeology, as well as a theological study.
The “Broken, Searching, Trusted, Powerful” video series is a companion to the book, available on Amazon, and published by Wipf and Stock.