(Please read Matthew 1:1-17 in your favorite Bible. I have used the NIV for my remarks.)
Matthew, author of the first of the four Gospels, lived and wrote in a time when it was an important question who your ancestors were. His purpose in starting with the genealogy of Jesus is cultural; it answered the question of who His kin were. On the historical side, it establishes Jesus’ place in history and His descent from Abraham and David.
Theologically, Jesus’ connection to David is important for the fulfillment of prophecy: God had promised that the dynasty of David would be unending. Of course, there would be no one man who could keep that promise himself as we all must die. But Jesus, who lives forever, reigns forever. In Him the line of David and the rule of his descendants continued into eternity!
The first two-thirds of Matthew’s genealogy come from various OT sources. The remaining one-third is information not included in the Bible, but there is good extra-biblical evidence that public records of ancestry were kept at least throughout the first century, AD. People like Matthew could have researched these sources for this information.
There are 42 men mentioned and four women mentioned. Usually genealogies were exclusively male; Matthew including women implies that he had a point to make. The explanation I prefer is that Matthew wanted to show in some of these women and men is the family tree of Jesus included some grafted-in branches and some twisted limbs. He is showing how the King of King’s kin included a few foreigners and some notorious sinners. The implication is that God is so powerful He uses whom He chooses; a sparkling-white pedigree is not necessary for us to be used by God.
The passage is organized according to Matthew’s three eras of Jewish history, from Abraham to Christ.
- Set #1 = From one family to one nation (1:2-6).
- Set #2 = From nationality to captivity (7-11).
- Set #3 = From captivity to Christ (12-16).
BACKGROUND = The BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY.
Warning & Fulfillment. Through the prophets, God had repeatedly warned His people Judah that their sin would land them in grave difficulty. In fact, He specifically said that they would be conquered and carried off by a pagan nation for 70 years. (See Jeremiah 25:8-14 and Jeremiah 29:10-14.) In 597 B.C., the Babylonians invaded Judah, sacked the city of Jerusalem, and destroyed the temple. They carried off to Babylon the wealth of the city and the temple as plunder, along with the strongest and best of the survivors. The biblical accounts of Daniel, Esther, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego all come out of this period of the history of the people of Israel.
Promise & Fulfillment. With the warning, God promised them that their captivity would be for a limited time (70 years) and at the end of that time, He would restore them to the land. In the interim, they were to remain faithful. During the course of their captivity, the Babylonian empire was absorbed by the Persians. In 538 B.C., the Persian Emperor Cyrus named Zerubbabel, a prince of Judah, as governor of Judah, which they considered a “colony.”
CHARACTER STUDY = ZERUBBABEL
Why bother to look at this man’s life? Both Matthew and Luke list him as one of the ancestors of Jesus. That alone makes him important. But more to the point, God promised to use him in a great way in Haggai 2:20-23:
20 The word of the Lord came to Haggai a second time on the twenty-fourth day of the month: 21 “Tell Zerubbabel governor of Judah that I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. 22 I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.
23 “‘On that day,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”
The person bearing the signet ring carried the authority of the person who normally wore it. It was pressed into a lump of hot wax to seal a scroll or at the bottom of such a document to serve as a signature. This designates Zerubbabel as an important biblical figure, someone who directly represented God’s will to the people.
Who is he? His name means “descendant of Babylon” and is probably the Hebrew version of a Babylonian name. It seems strange to me to name one’s child after the nation that conquered you. But the people of God were living in captivity in Babylon at the time and his name may simply indicate this.
Without getting into the complicated particulars, his parentage is not as simple as it appears in Matthew’s genealogy. (The Bible cites two different men as his father: Shealtiel is the usual name given (i.e., Ezra 3:2+8; MTW 1:12), but in 1CL 3:19 the name Pedaiah is set forth.) This is one of many examples in this list where God uses someone whose family history is less than squeaky-clean.
What did he do? Most of what we know about Zerubbabel we read in Ezra and Haggai. He was named governor of what was left of Judah; he returned to Jerusalem to lead the Jewish refugees in building the second temple. This was no easy task. In addition to all the logistical challenges, Zerubbabel faced active and even violent opposition from neighboring nations. The enemies of Judah did not want to see Jerusalem’s walls or the temple reconstructed. They were so successful in convincing the Persians, construction was stopped and building suspended during the reigns of several Persian emperors. In 520 B.C., Emperor Darius allowed construction to recommence. This time, it would not be interrupted until the second temple was dedicated in 515 B.C.
After the second temple was built and dedicated, Zerubbabel was not mentioned again in the Bible. However, among the Jews of Matthew’s day, he took on a heroic kind of image, a man who stood against seemingly insurmountable challenges to do what God asked him to do. One explanation of this admiration is that Zerubbabel was singularly devoted to accomplishing the rebuilding of the temple. He did not use that responsibility or achievement as a springboard to fame, but quietly receded to the background once his objective was accomplished. Zerubbabel showed a dedication to the house of God and more importantly, to the will of God, that caused him to persevere and complete the work God had set before him to do.
Zerubbabel did not do this work alone; he was supported by the prophets Ezra, Haggai, and Zechariah. Nehemiah brought support from the king and the people labored to construct the building themselves. His name is often mentioned with Joshua the high priest, so they were partners.
Over the years, Zerubbabel came to be identified with the Messiah the Jews were awaiting. They believed that the promised redeemer would be a man like Zerubbabel. This makes him an important but lesser-known biblical figure and connects him with Jesus in ways other than mere ancestry.
Zechariah 4:6-10 give us some appreciation of the importance of Zerubbabel.
6 So he said to me, “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.
7 “What are you, mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘God bless it! God bless it!’”
8 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 9 “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you.
10 “Who dares despise the day of small things, since the seven eyes of the Lord that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen capstone in the hand of Zerubbabel?”
In this brief passage we read very familiar words and very comforting promises. This shows us how important Zerubbabel is in the history of God’s people and what a potent example he sets for us today. God’s message to us through Zerubbabel is one of encouragement: DON’T GIVE UP! In God’s time God’s plan will be enacted. Stay faithful.
This is especially important when trials or periods of stagnancy or feelings of inadequacy arise, as they inevitably do. Drive through Atlanta, Georgia today, and it’s nearly impossible to picture the aftermath of the Civil War, when the city smoldered after a relentless, 36-day shelling from Sherman’s Union troops.
The shelling finally stopped on Aug. 9, 1864, and a handful of people sorted through the burned-out embers, wondering how in the world they might possibly rebuild the city. In the early days, it must have been impossible to think that within a century, Atlanta would be one of the largest cities in America, and on its way to becoming one of the best-known cities in the world.
No, the heady days of the 21st century were far beyond the imagination of those living in the lean times of Civil War Reconstruction. For them, finding enough food, and finding good shelter, took all their work, all their time, and all their emotional energy. In those days, imagining a mega city in its steel and glass glory was simply not possible. And yet Atlanta would rise from the ashes, bigger and more fantastic than ever.
I am going to ask you to take some time this week to ask yourself where does God want you to be in 12 months? What will be different about your situation by Thanksgiving Day, 2017? What steps will it take to get you there? How can you start today? Between now and then, remain true to your vision by following the example of Zerubbabel.
(If you’d like to see this message delivered, the video is available on YouTube at “EBCSF.”)