All in the Family

Luke 3:21–38

21So it happened that, as all the people were being baptized, Jesus too was baptized, and was praying. The heaven was opened, 22and the holy spirit descended in a bodily form, like a dove, upon him. There came a voice from heaven: ‘You are my son, my dear son! I’m delighted with you.’
23Jesus was about thirty years old at the start of his work. He was, as people thought, the son of Joseph, from whom his ancestry proceeds back in the following line: Heli, 24Matthat, Levi, Melchi, Jannai, Joseph, 25Mattathias, Amos, Nahum, Esli, Naggai, 26Maath, Mattathias, Semein, Josech, Joda, 27Johanan, Rhesa, Zerubbabel, Shealtiel, Neri, 28Melchi, Addi, Kosam, Elmadam, Er, 29Joshua, Eliezer, Jorim, Matthat, Levi, 30Simeon, Judah, Joseph, Jonam, Eliakim, 31Melea, Menna, Mattatha, Nathan, David, 32Jesse, Obed, Boaz, Sala, Nahshon, 33Amminadab, Admin, Arni, Hezron, Perez, Judah, 34Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Terah, Nahor, 35Serug, Reu, Peleg, Eber, Shela, 36Kainan, Arphachsad, Shem, Noah, Lamech, 37Methuselah, Enoch, Jared, Mahalaleel, Kainan, 38Enosh, Seth, Adam, and God.

When I visited New Zealand some years ago, I was taught how to greet an audience in the traditional Maori fashion. I much enjoyed and appreciated the welcome I was given by this ancient people, many of whom are now devout Christians, and the chance to learn something of their history and culture.

Many of the Maori people in New Zealand can tell you which of the original eight long canoes their ancestors arrived in when they first arrived in the country between 800 and 1,000 years ago. There is every reason to suppose that this memory of family trees and origins is reasonably accurate. Many peoples in today’s world, and perhaps still more in the ancient world, regularly told and still tell stories of family history, and though these may be embellished from time to time, they are often to be seen as trustworthy. Only in the modern Western world, or where there have been huge social disruptions from war and migration, have people lost touch with ancestry beyond a generation or two.

The Jews were particularly conscious of ancestry, with good reason. God had made promises to Abraham and his family for ever, and through wars, enforced exile, and attempted genocide, they clung (as they still do) to their memories and stories of ancestry as to a lifeline. The books of Chronicles in the Old Testament begin with several chapters of names, which seem very tedious to a modern reader, but were vital for people at the time. They needed to know who they were, which meant knowing which part of the people of Israel they belonged to.

So to begin with it seems surprising that we have not one but two quite different family trees for Jesus. Matthew begins his book with a list of names from Abraham to Jesus; Luke includes a list of names working back from Jesus, through Abraham, to Adam and thence to God himself. And the odd thing is that the lists don’t match. Luke has considerably more generations between Abraham and Jesus; and, though some of the stages are the same, the lists part company altogether between David (around 1000 BC) and Salathiel and his son Zerubbabel (after the exile), and then again between Zerubbabel and Joseph. Even the name of Joseph’s father is different. In any case, what is the point of a genealogy of Joseph, when both Luke and Matthew insist that he was not in fact Jesus’ physical father?

Ever since the early days of the church, learned scholars have struggled to give good answers to these questions, and most have admitted defeat. Obviously, in a small and close-knit community, there is every probability that someone could trace their descent from the same source by two or more different routes. The Maori can give several different genealogies for themselves, depending on which ancestor they want to highlight and how much intermarrying has taken place. Different tribal sub-units can trace their descent in different ways for different purposes, resulting in criss-crossing links of all sorts.

This is so even in modern Western society. After my own parents married, they discovered that they were distant cousins, with one remove of generation. Think of the little country of Israel in the period between David and Jesus; similar things could easily have happened. Many could have traced their descent to the same ancestors by at least two routes.

Luke, it seems, has come upon a family tree which he presents without comment, simply to declare that Jesus was indeed not only a true Jew but a descendant of David and Zerubbabel—part of the genuinely royal family. He was counted as Joseph’s adopted son, which served, it seems, for this purpose (we are never told whether Mary was of royal descent; since she was a cousin of Elisabeth it may be that she was from a priestly family). If there were other motives in the arrangement of names as they came to Luke (some have suggested that the 77 names should be seen as 11 groups of 7), he doesn’t draw our attention to them.

The one link between the family tree and what goes before and comes after is the final phrase: Jesus is the son of God. Of course, by that reckoning so is everyone else in the list, from Joseph right back to Adam. Luke certainly means more than this when he uses the phrase ‘son of God’ as a title for Jesus (1:35; 3:22; 4:3, 9). Perhaps it is best to see the family tree, stretching back to the creation of the world, as a way of saying that, though Jesus is indeed the Messiah of Israel (another meaning of ‘son of God’), he is so precisely for the whole world. All creation, the whole human race, will benefit from what he has come to do.

This global scope to God’s purposes is in the background as Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John. Luke adds here, as in one or two other key points, the fact that Jesus was praying when the crucial revelation occurred. Part of his constant picture of Jesus is that he was a man of prayer. It’s often suggested that the baptism was the moment when Jesus received his first inkling of a messianic calling, but this can hardly be correct; the voice from heaven comes to confirm and give direction to something that has been true all along, as Luke has already told us (2:49). The spirit and the word together give Jesus the encouragement and strength he needs to begin his short public career.

They also give an indication of where that career will take him. The heavenly voice echoes words of Isaiah the prophet (42:1), commissioning the Messiah as the Servant, the one who will suffer and die for the people and the world. Behind that again are echoes of Genesis 22:2, when Abraham was commanded to kill his beloved only son, Isaac. The voice is at the same time a wonderful affirmation of Jesus’ vocation and a clear reminder of where it is to lead.

Together the baptism story and the family tree tell us where Jesus has come from, who he is, and where he is going. As we make his story our own in our own prayers, and indeed in our own baptism, we too should expect both the fresh energy of the spirit and the quiet voice which reminds us of God’s amazing, encouraging love and of the path of vocation which lies ahead.

Tom Wright

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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