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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Matthew 1



Verses 1-25

Chapter 1

THE LINEAGE OF THE KING (Matthew 1:1-17)

1:1-17 This is the record of the lineage of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob. Jacob begat Judah and his brothers. Judah begat Phares and Zara, whose mother was Thamar. Phares begat Esrom. Esrom begat Aram. Aram begat Aminadab. Aminadab begat Naasson. Naasson begat Salmon. Salmon begat Booz, whose mother was Rachab. Booz begat Obed, whose mother was Ruth. Obed begat Jesse. Jesse begat David, the king.

David begat Solomon, whose mother was Uriah's wife. Solomon begat Roboam. Roboam begat Abia. Abia begat Asaph. Asaph begat Josaphat. Josaphat begat Joram. Joram begat Ozias. Ozias begat Joatham. Joatham begat Achaz. Achaz begat Ezekias. Ezekias begat Manasses. Manasses begat Amos. Amos begat Josias. Josias begat Jechonias, and his brothers, in the days when the exile to Babylon took place.

After the exile to Babylon Jechonias begat Salathiel. Salathiel begat Zorobabel. Zorobabel begat Abioud. Abioud begat Eliakim. Eliakim begat Azor. Azor begat Zadok. Zadok begat Acheim. Acheim begat Elioud. Elioud begat Eleazar. Eleazar begat Matthan. Matthan begat Jacob. Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, who was the mother of Jesus, who is called Christ.

From Abraham to David there were in all fourteen generations. From David to the exile to Babylon there were also fourteen generations. From the exile to Babylon to the coming of Christ there were also fourteen generations.

It might seem to a modern reader that Matthew chose an extraordinary way in which to begin his gospel; and it might seem daunting to present right at the beginning a long list of names to wade through. But to a Jew this was the most natural, and the most interesting, and indeed the most essential way to begin the story of any man's life.

The Jews were exceedingly interested in genealogies. Matthew calls this the book of the generation (biblos - Greek #976; geneseos - Greek #1078) of Jesus Christ. That to the Jews was a common phrase; and it means the record of a man's lineage, with a few explanatory sentences, where such comment was necessary. In the Old Testament we frequently find lists of the generations of famous men (Genesis 5:1; Genesis 10:1; Genesis 11:10; Genesis 11:27). When Josephus, the great Jewish historian, wrote his own autobiography, he began it with his own pedigree, which, he tells us, he found in the public records.

The reason for this interest in pedigrees was that the Jews set the greatest possible store on purity of lineage. If in any man there was the slightest admixture of foreign blood, he lost his right to be called a Jew, and a member of the people of God. A priest, for instance, was bound to produce an unbroken record of his pedigree stretching back to Aaron; and, if he married, the woman he married must produce her pedigree for at least five generations back. When Ezra was reorganizing the worship of God, after the people returned from exile, and was setting the priesthood to function again, the children of Habaiah, the children of Koz, and the children of Barzillai were debarred from office, and were labelled as polluted because "These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but they were not found there" (Ezra 2:62).

These genealogical records were actually kept by the Sanhedrin. Herod the Great was always despised by the pure-blooded Jews because he was half an Edomite; and we can see the importance that even Herod attached to these genealogies from the fact that he had the official registers destroyed, so that no one could prove a purer pedigree than his own. This may seem to us an uninteresting passage, but to the Jew it would be a most impressive matter that the pedigree of Jesus could be traced back to Abraham.

It is further to be noted that this pedigree is most carefully arranged. It is arranged in three groups of fourteen people each. It is in fact what is technically known as a mnemonic, that is to say a thing so arranged that it is easy to memorize. It is always to be remembered that the gospels were written hundreds of years before there was any such thing as a printed book. Very few people would be able to own actual copies of them; and so, if they wished to possess them, they would be compelled to memorize them. This pedigree, therefore, is arranged in such a way that it is easy to memorize. It is meant to prove that Jesus was the son of David, and is so arranged as to make it easy for people to carry it in their memories.

THE THREE STAGES (Matthew 1:1-17 continued)

There is something symbolic of the whole of human life in the way in which this pedigree is arranged. It is arranged in three sections, and the three sections are based on three great stages in Jewish history.

The first section takes the history down to David. David was the man who welded Israel into a nation, and made the Jews a power in the world. The first section takes the story down to the rise of Israel's greatest king.

The second section takes the story down to the exile to Babylon. It is the section which tells of the nation's shame, and tragedy, and disaster.

The third section takes the story down to Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was the person who liberated men from their slavery, who rescued them from their disaster, and in whom the tragedy was turned into triumph.

These three sections stand for three stages in the spiritual history of mankind.

(i) Man was born for greatness. "God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him" (Genesis 1:27). God said: "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26). Man was created in the image of God. God's dream for man was a dream of greatness. Man was designed for fellowship with God. He was created that he might be nothing less than kin to God. As Cicero, the Roman thinker, saw it, "The only difference between man and God is in point of time." Man was essentially man born to be king.

(ii) Man lost his greatness. Instead of being the servant of God, man became the slave of sin. As G. K. Chesterton said, 6. whatever else is true of man, man is not what he was meant to be." He used his free-will to defy and to disobey God, rather than to enter into friendship and fellowship with him. Left to himself man had frustrated the design and plan of God in His creation.

(iii) Man can regain his greatness. Even then God did not abandon man to himself and to his own devices. God did not allow man to be destroyed by his own folly. The end of the story was not left to be tragedy. Into this world God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, that he might rescue man from the morass of sin in which he had lost himself, and liberate him from the chains of sin with which he had bound himself so that through him man might regain the fellowship with God which he had lost.

In his genealogy Matthew shows us the royalty of kingship gained; the tragedy of freedom lost; the glory of liberty restored. And that, in the mercy of God, is the story of mankind, and of each individual man.

THE REALIZATION OF MEN'S DREAMS (Matthew 1:1-17 continued)

This passage stresses two special things about Jesus.

(i) It stresses the fact that he was the son of David. It was, indeed, mainly to prove this that the genealogy was composed. The New Testament stresses this again and again.

Peter states it in the first recorded sermon of the Christian Church (Acts 2:29-36). Paul speaks of Jesus Christ descended from David according to the flesh (Romans 1:3). The writer of the Pastoral Epistles urges men to remember that Jesus Christ, descended from David, was raised from the dead (2 Timothy 2:8). The writer of the Revelation hears the Risen Christ say: "I am the root and the offspring of David" (Revelation 22:16).

Repeatedly Jesus is so addressed in the gospel story. After the healing of the blind and dumb man, the people exclaim, "Can this be the son of David?" (Matthew 12:23). The woman of Tyre and Sidon, who wished for Jesus' help for her daughter, calls him: "Son of David" (Matthew 15:22). The blind men cry out to Jesus as son of David (Matthew 20:30-31). It is as son of David that the crowds greet Jesus when he enters Jerusalem for the last time (Matthew 21:9; Matthew 21:15).

There is something of great significance here. It is clear that it was the crowd, the common people, the ordinary folk, who addressed Jesus as son of David. The Jews were a waiting people. They never forgot, and never could forget, that they were the chosen people of God. Although their history was one long series of disasters, although at this very time they were a subject people, they never forgot their destiny. And it was the dream of the common people that into this world would come a descendant of David who would lead them to the glory which they believed to be theirs by right.

That is to say, Jesus is the answer to the dreams of men. It is true that so often men do not see it so. They see the answer to their dreams in power, in wealth, in material plenty, and in the realization of the ambitions which they cherish. But if ever men's dreams of peace and loveliness, and greatness and satisfaction, are to be realized, they can find their realization only in Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ and the life he offers is the answer to the dreams of men. In the old Joseph story there is a text which goes far beyond the story itself. When Joseph was in prison, Pharaoh's chief butler and chief baker were prisoners along with him. They had their dreams, and their dreams troubled them, and their bewildered cry is, "We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them" (Genesis 40:8). Because man is man, because he is a child of eternity, man is always haunted by his dream; and the only way to the realization of it lies in Jesus Christ.

(ii) This passage also stresses that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy. In him the message of the prophets came true. We tend nowadays to make very little of prophecy. We are not really interested, for the most part, in searching for sayings in the Old Testament which are fulfilled in the New Testament. But prophecy does contain this great and eternal truth, that in this universe there is purpose and design and that God is meaning and willing certain things to happen.

J. H. Withers quotes a saying from Gerald Healy's play, The Black Stranger. The scene is in Ireland, in the terrible days of famine in the mid-nineteenth century. For want of something better to do, and for lack of some other solution, the government had set men to digging roads to no purpose and to no destination. Michael finds out about this and comes home one day, and says in poignant wonder to his father, "They're makin' roads that lead to nowhere."

If we believe in prophecy that is what we can never say. History can never be a road that leads to nowhere. We may not use prophecy in the same way as our fathers did, but at the back of the fact of prophecy lies the eternal fact that life and the world are not on the way to nowhere, but on the way to the goal of God.

NOT THE RIGHTEOUS, BUT SINNERS (Matthew 1:1-17 continued)

By far the most amazing thing about this pedigree is the names of the women who appear in it.

It is not normal to find the names of women in Jewish pedigrees at all. The woman had no legal rights; she was regarded, not as a person, but as a thing. She was merely the possession of her father or of her husband, and in his disposal to do with as he liked. In the regular form of morning prayer the Jew thanked God that he had not made him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. The very existence of these names in any pedigree at all is a most surprising and extraordinary phenomenon.

But when we look at who these women were, and at what they did, the matter becomes even more amazing. Rachab, or as the Old Testament calls her, Rahab, was a harlot of Jericho (Joshua 2:1-7). Ruth was not even a Jewess; she was a Moabitess (Ruth 1:4), and does not the law itself lay it down, "No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none belonging to them shall enter the assembly of the Lord for ever" (Deuteronomy 23:3)? Ruth belonged to an alien and a hated people. Tamar was a deliberate seducer and an adulteress (Genesis 38:1-30 ). Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon, was the woman whom David seduced from Uriah, her husband, with an unforgivable cruelty (2 Samuel 11:1-27; 2 Samuel 12:1-31). If Matthew had ransacked the pages of the Old Testament for improbable candidates he could not have discovered four more incredible ancestors for Jesus Christ. But, surely, there is something very lovely in this. Here, at the very beginning, Matthew shows us in symbol the essence of the gospel of God in Jesus Christ, for here he shows us the barriers going down.

(i) The barrier between Jew and Gentile is down. Rahab, the woman of Jericho, and Ruth, the woman of Moab, find their place within the pedigree of Jesus Christ. Already the great truth is there that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. Here, at the very beginning, there is the universalism of the gospel and of the love of God.

(ii) The barriers between male and female are down. In no ordinary pedigree would the name of any woman be found; but such names are found in Jesus' pedigree. The old contempt is gone; and men and women stand equally dear to God, and equally important to his purposes.

(iii) The barrier between saint and sinner is down. Somehow God can use for his purposes, and fit into his scheme of things, those who have sinned greatly. "I came" said Jesus, "not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:13).

Here at the very beginning of the gospel we are given a hint of the all-embracing width of the love of God. God can find his servants amongst those from whom the respectable orthodox would shudder away in horror.


1:18-25 The birth of Jesus Christ happened in this way. Mary, His mother, was betrothed to Joseph, and, before they became man and wife, it was discovered that she was carrying a child in her womb through the action of the Holy Spirit. Although Joseph, her husband, was a man who kept the law, he did not wish publicly to humiliate her, so he wished to divorce her secretly. When he was planning this, behold, an angel of the Lord came to him in a dream. "Joseph, son of David" said the angel, "do not hesitate to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been begotten within her has come from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you must call his name Jesus, for it is he who will save his people from their sins. All this has happened that there might be fulfilled that which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, 'Behold, the maiden will conceive and bear a son, and you must call his name Emmanuel, which is translated: God with us'." So Joseph woke from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him; and he accepted his wife: and he did not know her until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.

To our western ways of thinking the relationships in this passage are very bewildering. First, Joseph is said to be betrothed to Mary; then he is said to be planning quietly to divorce her; and then she is called his wife. But the relationships represent normal Jewish marriage procedure, in which there were three steps.

(i) There was the engagement. The engagement was often made when the couple were only children. It was usually made through the parents, or through a professional match-maker. And it was often made without the couple involved ever having seen each other. Marriage was held to be far too serious a step to be left to the dictates of the human heart.

(ii) There was the betrothal. The betrothal was what we might call the ratification of the engagement into which the couple had previously entered. At this point the engagement, entered into by the parents or the match-maker, could be broken if the girl was unwilling to go on with it. But once the betrothal was entered into, it was absolutely binding. It lasted for one year. During that year the couple were known as man and wife, although they had not the rights of man and wife. It could not be terminated in any other way than by divorce. In the Jewish law we frequently find what is to us a curious phrase. A girl whose fiance had died during the year of betrothal is called "a virgin who is a widow". It was at this stage that Joseph and Mary were. They were betrothed, and if Joseph wished to end the betrothal, he could do so in no other way than by divorce; and in that year of betrothal Mary was legally known as his wife.

(iii) The third stage was the marriage proper, which took place at the end of the year of betrothal.

If we remember the normal Jewish wedding customs, then the relationships in this passage are perfectly usual and perfectly clear.

So at this stage it was told to Joseph that Mary was to bear a child, that that child had been begotten by the Holy Spirit, and that he must call the child by the name Jesus. Jesus is the Greek form of the Jewish name Joshua, and Joshua means Jehovah is salvation. Long ago the Psalmist had heard God say, "He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities'" (Psalms 130:8). And Joseph was told that the child to be born would grow into the Saviour who would save God's people from their sins. Jesus was not so much The Man born to be King as The Man born to be Saviour. He came to this world, not for his own sake, but for men and for our salvation.

BORN OF THE HOLY SPIRIT (Matthew 1:18-25 continued)

This passage tells us how Jesus was born by the action of the Holy Spirit. It tells us of what we call the Virgin Birth. This is a doctrine which presents us with many difficulties; and our Church does not compel us to accept it in the literal and the physical sense. This is one of the doctrines on which the Church says that we have full liberty to come to our own conclusion. At the moment we are concerned only to find out what this means for us.

If we come to this passage with fresh eyes, and read it as if we were reading it for the first time, we will find that what it stresses is not so much that Jesus was born of a woman who was a virgin, as that the birth of Jesus is the work of the Holy Spirit. "Mary was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit." "That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." It is as if these sentences were underlined, and printed large. That is what Matthew wishes to say to us in this passage. What then does it mean to say that in the birth of Jesus the Holy Spirit of God was specially operative? Let us leave aside all the doubtful and debatable things, and concentrate on that great truth, as Matthew would wish us to do.

In Jewish thought the Holy Spirit had certain very definite functions. We cannot bring to this passage the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit in all its fullness, because Joseph would know nothing about that. We must interpret it in the light of the Jewish idea of the Holy Spirit, for it is that idea that Joseph would inevitably bring to this message, for that was all he knew.

(i) According to the Jewish idea, the Holy Spirit was the person who brought God's truth to men. It was the Holy Spirit who taught the prophets what to say; it was the Holy Spirit who taught men of God what to do; it was the Holy Spirit who, throughout the ages and the generations, brought God's truth to men. So then, Jesus is the one person who brings God's truth to men.

Let us put it in another way. Jesus is the one person who can tell us what God is like, add what God means us to be. In him alone we see what God is and what man ought to be. Before Jesus came men had only vague and shadowy, and often quite wrong, ideas about God; they could only at best guess and grope; but Jesus could say, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). In Jesus we see the love, the compassion, the mercy, the seeking heart, the purity of God as nowhere else in all this world. With the coming of Jesus the time of guessing is gone, and the time of certainty is come. Before Jesus came men did not really know what goodness was. In Jesus alone we see true manhood, true goodness, true obedience to the will of God. Jesus came to tell us the truth about God and the truth about ourselves.

(ii) The Jews believed that the Holy Spirit not only brought God's truth to men, but also enabled men to recognize that truth when they saw it. So then Jesus opens men's eyes to the truth. Men are blinded by their own ignorance; they are led astray by their own prejudices; their minds and eyes are darkened by their own sins and their own passions. Jesus can open our eyes until we are able to see the truth.

In one of William J. Locke's novels there is a picture of a woman who has any amount of money, and who has spent half a lifetime on a tour of the sights and picture galleries of the world. She is weary and bored. Then she meets a Frenchman who has little of this world's goods, but who has a wide knowledge and a great love of beauty. He comes with her, and in his company things are completely different. "I never knew what things were like," she said to him, "until you taught me how to look at them."

Life is quite different when Jesus teaches us how to look at things. When Jesus comes into our hearts, he opens our eyes to see things truly.

CREATION AND RE-CREATION (Matthew 1:18-25 continued)

(iii) The Jews specially connected the Spirit of God with the work of creation. It was through his Spirit that God performed his creating work. In the beginning the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters and chaos became a world (Genesis 1:2). "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made," said the Psalmist, "and all their host by the breath of his mouth" (Psalms 33:6). (Both in Hebrew: ruwach (Hebrew #7307), and in Greek: pneuma (Greek #4151), the word for breath and spirit is the same word.) "When thou sendest forth thy Spirit, they are created" (Psalms 104:30). "The Spirit of God has made me," said Job, "and the breath of the Almighty gives me life" (Job 33:4).

The Spirit is the Creator of the World and the Giver of Life. So, then, in Jesus there came into the world God's life-giving and creating power. That power, which reduced the primal chaos to order, is come to bring order to our disordered life. That power, which breathed life into that in which there was no life, is come to breathe life into our weaknesses and frustrations. We could put it this way--we are not really alive until Jesus enters into our lives.

(iv) The Jews specially connected the Spirit, not only with the work of creation, but with the work of re-creation. Ezekiel draws his grim picture of the valley of dry bones. He goes on to tell how the dry bones came alive; and then he hears God say, "I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live" (Ezekiel 37:1-14). The Rabbis had a saying, "God said to Israel: 'In this world my Spirit has put wisdom in you, but in the future my Spirit will make you to live again'." When men are dead in sin and in lethargy, it is the Spirit of God which can waken them to life anew.

So then, in Jesus there came to this world the power which can re-create life. He can bring to life again the soul which is dead in sin; he can revive again the ideals which have died; he can make strong again the will to goodness which has perished. He can renew life, when men have lost all that life means.

There is much more in this chapter than the crude fact that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin mother. The essence of Matthew's story is that in the birth of Jesus the Spirit of God was operative as never before in this world. It is the Spirit who brings God's truth to men; it is the Spirit who enables men to recognize that truth when they see it; it is the Spirit who was God's agent in the creation of the world; it is the Spirit who alone can re-create the human soul when it has lost the life it ought to have.

Jesus enables us to see what God is and what man ought to be; Jesus opens the eyes of our minds so that we can see the truth of God for us; Jesus is the creating power come amongst men; Jesus is the re-creating power which can release the souls of men from the death of sin.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 1:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.

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