Uniform 03.09.2014: Family History

Psalm 89:35-37; Isaiah 9:6-7; Matthew 1:18-21

My grandfather is a genealogy junky. He has spent countless hours sifting through birth, marriage, and death records in the public library of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Through his research, he traced our family tree back some fifteen generations, when the Milligans were still in England. And when he finished his side, he went to work on my grandmother’s family.

I grew up hearing names of distant relatives and learning their stories. I know where to look for the historical plaque that marks the distant relative who helped found Murfreesboro. I’ve crossed the bridge that’s named for my great-grandfather, and I’ve been in the house where my great-great-grandparents raised their fourteen children.

My family is spread all over the country now, but we all know our Middle Tennessee roots.

Jesus’ family knew their roots, too. As a descendant of David, I imagine that Joseph grew up hearing stories of the men in his family who had ruled Israel and later Judah. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel begins with a detailed family tree that stretches all the way back to Abraham (1:1-17). Because of God’s promise in 2 Samuel 7:12-16, which we discussed last week, the line of David knew that God would do great things through their family.

My family’s interest in our history is mostly a hobby, but Jesus’ ancestry had real implications for his life and for the lives of others. Jesus became the person he was because of his connection to the past. His teaching and ministry would have been noteworthy on their own, but his link to David established him as the Messiah. Because of his connection to David, all of Jesus’ actions had added meaning. He became the embodiment of generations of hope for a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6). He was the one who would establish a kingdom and “uphold it with justice and righteousness” (v. 7).

Without the knowledge that Jesus is part of David’s line that will “continue forever” (Ps 89:36), we can’t fully understand how uniquely important Jesus was and continues to be. Matthew’s Gospel ensures that we don’t miss these connections. While reading the story of Jesus’ birth on the first Sunday in Lent might feel out of place, Matthew’s reminder that Jesus is the Messiah who “will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21) prepares us for our journey toward the cross.

We might not be able to trace our lineage to great kings, and we might not be the fulfillment of the hopes of generations, but our family histories tell important stories about who we are. What stories does your family tree tell?


1. What stories do you know about your family? How has knowledge of your ancestors shaped your sense of self?
2. What expectations do people have for you, or do you have for yourself, because of your family identity? How have those expectations affected your life?
3. How does Jesus’ family tree affect your understanding of his life, death, and resurrection? How would we understand Jesus without links to the past?
4. Why is it helpful to remember Jesus’ birth story as we approach Easter? How do stories of our beginnings help us to make sense of our adult lives?

Reference Shelf

Up to this point the hymn has
 addressed God in second person (“you 
have multiplied; you have increased; they 
rejoice before you; you have broken”).
Thus far the imagery has suggested the 
celebration of a surprising victory, specifically a victory against the Assyrians. But
 another motif is introduced in vv. 6-7: 
the birth of a royal child. With the
 opening […“for”], this birth is somehow
 connected with the victory described 
above, just as the births of children in
 7:14 and 8:3-4 had been forecast as signs 
of victory against Aram and Israel. And suddenly a first-person plural appears: “a child is born to us; a son is given to us.” Who is speaking here? It is not directly indicated, but it would make sense to see the prophet as speaking on behalf of the people who “have seen a great light,” or alternatively quoting the words of a messenger announcing a royal birth.

It is unusual in the Bible for someone to be said to be born to anyone except the child’s father. The only other instance is in Ruth 4:17, when the women announce of Obed, “a son has been born to Naomi.” There the announcement affirms that the child, who bio- logically is not related to Naomi at all and is only distant kin to her dead husband, nevertheless is by Levirite custom Naomi’s own grandson, or perhaps even son, destined to provide for her in old age. Similarly, the royal child who is not biologically born to the population as a whole is nevertheless destined to provide for the well-being of his people.

Excerpts from Patricia K. Tull, Isaiah 1–39, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2010) 197-202.

With the mention of Mary in the genealogy, as well as other women, one might have expected a focus on Mary in what follows in Matthew 1:18-25, but in fact Matthew goes on to focus almost entirely on Joseph. Here we note that only Joseph other than Jesus in this Gospel is given the title “son of David.” It is through Joseph and the naming of his son that Jesus becomes Son of David. The portrayal of Joseph is important in several ways. Joseph will be portrayed as a son of David caught between a rock and a hard place, more particularly between the Law, as he is a righteous, law-abiding Jew, and his love for Mary. The situation is not unlike the way Solomon is portrayed when it came to making wise decisions about important, and in some cases life and death, matters (see, e.g., 1 Kgs 3).

In other words, Joseph will be portrayed as a wise man before we even hear about the wise men or magi as he responds to the heavenly dreams and does the right thing repeatedly. This sets the tone and stage for the portrayal of Jesus himself as sage and indeed as the embodiment of Wisdom, Immanuel. Notice how Joseph as the wise father who is obedient to the heavenly directions initiates actions three times after being instructed by an angel in a dream (1:24; 2:13; 2:19). The reception of the dreams and the guidance should not be taken to indicate that Joseph was otherwise dense, as if without divine intervention he would have done something stupid. To the contrary, Joseph is depicted as a good Jew following the Law, who was spiritually open enough to accept correction and direction when he misunderstood what God and the Law required of him. Again, he is son of David (i.e., one like Solomon) who provides something of a pattern for his own adopted Son of David—Jesus.

Verse 18 of Matthew 1 presents us with two key phrases or concepts in the Greek. The first of these is the use of the term genesis to refer to Jesus’ origins. Here as in Matthew 1:1 the issue is Jesus’ origins, not just his birth, though that is included. “The term ‘origin’ is much broader in scope than ‘birth.’ ‘Origin’ has to do with relationships: one’s relationship to mother, to father, to lineage, to forebears, and even to one’s own people, or nation.” In fact, this double use of this language in vv. 1 and 18 even summons us to consider Jesus’ relationship to God, and this becomes apparent when the Emmanuel theme surfaces not only here at the beginning of the story but in Matthew 28 as well. Usually it is thought that Jesus is to be seen as Son of David, simply through the act of Joseph’s adopting him; however, our author sees Jesus as a Son of David, like unto Solomon, not least because he is imbued with divine Wisdom by God, and thus is royal like Solomon because of what God has granted him—not merely because of adoptive and fictive kinship.

Excerpts from Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 43-45.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


For further resources, subscribe to the Uniform Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volumes quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here for Isaiah and Here for Matthew.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email