The purpose of an introduction in a written work is to stimulate the reader’s interest. The most successful works of literature have introductions that grab the audience’s attention early, and give them a desire to read the rest of the book. Matthew begins writing his Gospel account with a lengthy genealogy. While today this may not be considered to be the most rousing subject-matter, genealogies were very important in the Hebrew Scripture. Thus, Matthew’s genealogy is meant to grip his Jewish audience in the most Jewish of ways, while at the same time identifying Jesus as their King Messiah.
On the surface, Matthew’s Gospel seems traditional enough; a cursory run through the names identifies Jesus as a Jew (from Abraham), from the kingly line of Judah, and a son of King David through the royal lineage, thus identifying him as qualifying for his Messianic claims. But a deeper study of the genealogy reveals many significant peculiarities. For one, Matthew breaks with the Jewish custom of naming only men in genealogies, and he lists five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Not only were four of these women likely Gentiles, but three of them were significant sinners – Rahab, a prostitute from Jericho, Bathseba (the wife of Uriah the Hittite), an adulteress, and Tamar, the Canaanite who seduced her father-in-law, Judah. And the sinners in Jesus’ human lineage do not end with the women. What about Abraham who lied? Or David, the adulterer and murderer? How can a perfect Messiah come from such an unsavory lineage? In this genealogy Matthew is highlighting the unique ways that God orchestrated the lineage of Messiah in order to prepare the way for what was the most unique event of all – the virgin birth.
What the inclusion of these names and the sinful lives associated with them, into the genealogy of Jesus demonstrates, is that the redemptive purposes of God flow through a people who are recipients of grace. God works through mankind, and all human beings are sinners. If the purposes of God depended on a deserving people, then nothing would ever be done. But God works His wondrous works through people who are what they are, by grace alone. This serves to both glorify God, by magnifying His matchless grace, and humble man, as we realize how unworthy we are. This should also encourage you who are in Christ, by grace, as you think about how God might use you in His plan, despite yourself or your past sins.