Updated post from Nov. 2018
Read time: 7 minutes
The holidays are upon us and for many, that means gathering with family near and far. This can create a range of emotions and expectations that often leads to stress, irritation and even disappointment. In a time when we are focused on celebrating, we can find ourselves lamenting over relationships gone wrong, time passed too quickly and memories left unmade.
How do we set a table of grace when hearts have been broken and homes have been wrecked? How do we show brotherly love to the very people who know us best but may have hurt us the worst?
In Matthew 1:1-17, the first gospel, you can read about the lineage of Christ. It’s 42 generations of names who represent every commandment broken and just about every family scandal imaginable. But it’s only a list of names. If you don’t have the back story, it’s easy to label it a boring genealogy.
Overlooking these names robs us of a deeper understanding of God's providence and faithfulness. We miss the reminder that God's redemption is personal, always involving real people with real problems.
The flawed family of Christ will compel you to rethink how you relate to your own motley crew. The people included in His line will both shock and console you. My prayer is that this God-breathed text will enable both you and me to emotionally make space for the imperfect people in our lives, which of course would be everyone - including us.
Let Matthew 1 soften our hearts toward our family members, that we would see them as God does, recognizing that God placed us in our families on purpose, for His eternal purposes (Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8).
Why God's family tree is important to us
Reading genealogies can seem laborious and irrelevant. It’s a bunch of dead people with hard-to-pronounce names, after all. But it's also family history - the people God chose to be the branches on the Jesse tree that brought Jesus into the world. God chose these ancestors, not because of their excellence but because of His most excellent grace. God knew there were no perfect people to use, which is why He sent His Son.
Jesus is the very real Redeemer.
He's showing us that He can bring victory from defeat. He didn't need to sanitize His family by filling it with the moral elite, because He knew that they'd all fallen pitifully short of His glory (Romans 3:23). In their shortcomings and weaknesses, God's glory could actually be magnified as He worked through them.
The same is true for our own family today.
Like it or not, God chose the people who brought you into the world. He chose who would birth you, raise you, teach you and shape you into the person you are. For some, that is a comforting thought. For others, it is deeply unsettling.
Let’s consider a statistic that supports how Bible genealogy, and specifically the relatives of Jesus, has powerful application to our lives today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, America's divorce rate over the last decade was more than 40%. This is a crude and conservative estimate, but it illustrates that many of us have been affected by divorce. We all know someone who has endured the pain of severing ties with a spouse. Maybe you have personally experienced this.
I grew up in a divorced home, with just about every branch on my family tree broken. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and siblings have all been through at least one divorce. Family holidays were (and still are) complicated at best. I do not have an impressive marriage pedigree, if such a thing exists.
I suspect many of you do not either. If you do have parents who are celebrating their silver or golden anniversaries, surely you know it’s not a flawless commitment and it certainly doesn’t guarantee your marriage will go off without a hitch. My husband and I have been married for 17 years, in spite of our sinful selves and only by the grace of God. We know we aren’t building a perfect marriage or home for our children, although we earnestly seek to feed them the Word and bathe them in prayer. We know that we are a family in progress, fragile and infinitely needy.
But that’s where Jesus comes in: Rescuer, Defender and Faithful Lover to the busted and baggage-carrying. We find our story in His Story, in His lineage of misfits, where He uses sin and sorrow to turn our upside down lives into unfathomable, white-as-snow righteousness. Like a freshly-pressed tablecloth, His grace covers our deepest dents and scars and the rings left from sin sitting too long.
"Out of His fullness we are fulfilled! And from Him we receive grace heaped upon more grace!" (John 1:16).
You see, when we believe God's providence scripturally, we can begin to believe it personally.
We will believe that God can work through the most broken of situations like He did in Matthew 1, even within our own dysfunctional family. Because sometimes, let's be honest, our family history can try to trump our faith. We just can't imagine how God could use it for good.
But our lineage does not limit or leverage the Lord. He is mighty to save (Zephaniah 3:17)!
The power of your Christ-given identity
So how does a genealogy that originated more than 4,000 years ago relate to you? How can it help you love the ones you're with a little better this holiday season and all the days in between?
Consider this startling truth:
Whether you come from generations of Bible-loving, grace clinging Christians, or are the first in your family to follow the Lord, it is of no consequence to God. If your mama is a Sunday school teacher or your daddy a deacon, or your family never dawned the doorstep of a church, your heritage - if in Christ - is from the Lord. This is not based on genetics or culture or religion but on grace heaped upon more grace.
"For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Because once the blood of Jesus has covered you, you are His. You are immediately welcomed to His table, to the inside of His throne room, and His banner over you is love. Not condemnation or shame or unworthiness. Just love, acceptance and blessing. Once a believer in Jesus, you are adopted into His family and are part of His royal ministry. You are now a co-heir with Christ, written into the glorious and abundant inheritance of God’s riches (Romans 8:17). Does that seem unthinkable? Too easy and good to be true?
This is what redemption in and relationship with Jesus looks like. It’s not an exclusive, country club type of covenant that you buy or earn or inherit. It’s wild, egalitarian grace.
"As God's co-worker, I urge you not to waste this grace or receive it in vain. Don't accept this marvelous gift of God's kindness and then ignore it by storing it up for yourself and not heaping upon the heads of others" (2 Corinthians 6:1).
Knowing your Christ-given identity will free you up to love others as Jesus did.
Unusual suspects in the Savior's family tree
You see, the phrase in Matthew 1:1 that reads, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus Christ” is significant. In Jewish culture, the person considered to be the most important, usually the eldest, would have been listed first. In this case it should have been Abraham, the patriarch. But Matthew is clearly stating that Jesus, the begotten not the created, the beginning and the end, is the better Abraham.
Jesus is God the Son come to bind our broken branches.
More so, to give us new seeds, new roots and new life. Jesus is the true vine come to connect us to Him, so that we can be reconciled to God and become living shoots that bloom the fruit of His Spirit (John 15:1, Galatians 5:22-23).
Knowing this enables us to expect less from others and more from Jesus.
In this relationship with Christ, we can become image bearers of life and not death, of resurrection not defeat, and of restoration not destruction – irrespective of family history. We can become ministers of reconciliation with others, replacing anger with kindness, apathy with love, resentment for understanding, and unforgiveness for mercy (2 Corinthians 5:18).
The genealogy of Jesus continues with listing His relatives, including five women. Each name embodies what Jesus came to save. Each person illustrates a life lived fallen. Yet many appear in the "hall of faith" in Hebrews 11, for it was by grace - not works or morals - they were saved through faith in God.
Perhaps you’ll recognize some familiar traits in these historical accounts and heap grace upon grace these holidays to those in your own family tree.
Abraham fathered Isaac: Similar to Jesus, Isaac was a miracle baby. He was born to 90-year-old, childless Sarah, who laughed in God’s face when told she was expecting. His father, 100-year-old Abraham, lied twice about his stunning wife being his sister in an effort to save himself from being killed by lustful onlookers. Even the father to the nations struggled with narcissism, fear and an inability to fully trust God (Gen. 20, 21:1-7).
Isaac fathered Jacob: Jacob, the deceiver and thief, appears in Jesus’ lineage instead of his eldest brother Esau. Sibling rivalry, parents playing favorites, infertility and jealousy battered this family. Jacob stole firstborn son Esau’s birth right, a mysterious plan God allowed to show His favor on the nation of Israel and to possibly symbolize the second birth essential to entering the kingdom of heaven. Jacob was later re-named Israel by God to show his heart change, yet the name Jacob appears in the lineage as evidence that Jesus came and died for us while we were still sinners (Genesis 25:19-34, Romans 5:8).
Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar: Judah, the son of Jacob, co-conspirator in selling his baby brother Joseph into slavery, and the tribe leader from which Jesus came, sought companionship from a harlot and was seduced by his daughter-in-law, Tamar. In desperation after the death of her husband and to secure her place in the family, Tamar played the whore and tricked her father-in-law into having sex with her. She is the first woman and Gentile (non-Jew) included in the lineage of Jesus (Genesis 38).
Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab: Rahab was a street-smart prostitute from Jericho who protected Israeli spies during their reconnaissance of the city. She is the second Gentile listed, essentially another despised outsider. Rahab struck a deal with the Hebrews to save herself and hung a scarlet cord down the outside wall to escape the destruction of Jericho. At the cross, Jesus let His blood run down, rescued us from the damnation of sin, and abolished the dividing wall between us and God forever (Joshua 2, Ruth 4:21).
Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth: Ruth was a widow, an exile and another foreigner. She faithfully followed her mother-in-law to Bethlehem where a millennia later Jesus stepped down from heaven to ransom His beloved. Destined to a life of begging, Ruth threw herself at the mercy of Boaz, a distant and wealthy relative of her deceased husband’s. Boaz chose and redeemed Ruth through marriage, reflecting Jesus as the eternal Protector, Provider and Husband to His bride, the Church (Ruth 2-4:21).
David fathered Solomon by Uriah’s wife: In six short words, adultery and murder make their way into the genealogy of Jesus. David, the chosen King of Israel, slept with Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba) and then attempted to cover it up by putting him on the frontlines of battle to die. Described as a man after God’s own heart, David was as sin ridden as the rest of us. His repentance, not his rule following, set him apart. His illegitimate son, Solomon - obsessed with power, money and women - turned away from God and contributed to the division of the United Kingdom of Israel that is still being felt today. Yet, Jesus is the King of kings and Savior to the sorrowful (2 Samuel 11, I Kings 11:4).
Jacob fathered Joseph, the husband of Mary: Joseph is described as Mary’s husband, not the father of Jesus, a "step dad" of sorts. The incarnation required that Jesus be conceived not by immoral man but by the immortal Holy Spirit. God begotten from God. Two Messianic prophesies were fulfilled through this young, blue collar couple: a virgin birth and Jesus coming from the tribe of Judah. Mary, the fifth and final woman in the ancestry, is the only Jewish female listed. God used an ordinary, small-town girl to accomplish an extraordinary and completely sufficient redemption plan for all mankind (Isaiah 7:14, Luke 2:1-7).
What does this lineage say about Jesus and about us?
First, it shows that all – even the relatives of Jesus - have fallen short of God’s glory. Let's be honest - they were a mess! But God chose to use them anyway, grafted them right into His family and called them beloved. Not a single one of us comes close to the holiness of God; therefore, we are called to forgive as we have been forgiven, accept as we've been accepted, and let mercy abound to those around us.
This is obviously not easy and will require an immense amount of humility, prayer and dependence on God's grace!
But let's remember: Jesus came, while we were eating forbidden fruit, breaking family branches and playing god. Jesus came for all: man and woman, rich and poor, the prostitute and the patriarch, the priest and the prisoner. He uses the weak, outcast and dysfunctional to accomplish His purposes. We should never underestimate His grace or withhold it from others.
Second, Jesus came to fulfill the law for us. We cannot keep it on our own. While faithful, praying parents and relatives are certainly something to be desired, they are not an insurance policy against offspring’s future legalism or licentiousness. As Paul said, we should put no confidence in the flesh - or our earthly heritage - but only in knowing Jesus (Philippians 3:3).
Conversely, pagan parents aren’t a spiritual death sentence for their children either. Our relationship with Jesus is personal and is set by His plans and our free will, not solely by our upbringing. So we can love our family freely through Christ, even when they've failed us.
Third, we inherit our spiritual DNA and, therefore, our identity, from Jesus. His Spirit is the One who gives birth to us spiritually and sanctifies us daily, so that we will live eternally. Once saved, your family or bank account or accomplishments or disasters don’t define you.
The family line in Matthew 1 shows that Jesus offers Himself to every one of us. Not just once, but over and over again. He is our life source. He is our true and better father, brother, mother and sister. He is the vine who wraps Himself around our lifeless branches, holds us, keeps us and restores us to Him.
“Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God’s people. Once you received no mercy; now you have received God’s mercy” (I Peter 2:10).
Know that your family line, good or bad, doesn’t define you. But the genealogy of Jesus does. It says come one, come all. Abide. His grace is enough.