Matthew and Luke provided different genealogies for Christ in their gospels — does that matter? Today, Christians think less about the past and more about eternity to come, so is Christ’s family tree important to our celebration of his birth?
If these learned men did not fully agree about Jesus’ lineage, how does this impact our view of other facts surrounding the birth of our Savior, such as the virgin birth?
Prophecies of Christmas
While Easter is the most important day in the Christian calendar, Christmas is a time to give gifts in recognition of the ultimate gift, given to the world freely by God through his Son —
salvation for all who believe in Jesus as their Savior.
If the Bible is true, then Christmas was not established around a fairy tale. Christians are commemorating a historical event, even though the date was not recorded; unsurprising, since most poor people could not read or write.
Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds were certainly poor. The record of Jesus’ birth comes from fulfilled prophecies; future facts already written down, including:
- Christ would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14).
- He would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).
- He would be descended from King David (Jeremiah 23:5; Isaiah 11:1).
The fulfillment of these detailed prophecies contributes to a believer’s confidence that Jesus was indeed the Son of God.
The second and third of this trio of prophecies are easy to believe and to prove, but the first is a different matter.
Trusting the Prophets
“The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
“Without the virgin birth, there would be no salvation for sinners. Jesus Christ would be a sinful human being. If the virgin birth did not occur, then the Bible is not true and cannot be trusted. In short, it is an essential part of salvation and of Scripture.”
If Mary was not a virgin, Christmas as “Christ’s Mass” is nothing but a fanciful story. Of all the statements in the Bible, Mary’s virginity is one of the most difficult for readers to accept and believe.
Yet, if more mainstream particulars can be corroborated, Christians can trust the prophets and, by association, the Bible as a whole.
Among the many biblical prophecies regarding the long-awaited Messiah are references to his family tree. The Savior would emerge from “the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Stephen J. Cole puts it this way: “It makes sense, if your money and future security are at stake, to have some good reasons to trust the person giving you advice. [...] It makes even more sense to be sure about the credentials of one to whom you entrust your eternal destiny as your Savior from God’s judgment.”
Establishing Jesus’ family tree confirms the prophecy that Jesus would be a direct descendent of Bible patriarchs and heroes. The gospels, which list Jesus’ family line, were written by two scholarly men: One who gave up a wealthy and privileged lifestyle as a tax collector to follow Christ; the other a Gentile who had nothing to lose and no ethnic case to prove.
He followed Jesus because he believed on the basis of what he learned. One might imagine a doctor dismissing claims of a virgin pregnancy, but something convinced him. Christ’s family tree might have played a part.
Two Trees, One Messiah
A skeptic might argue that, since Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies differ, we must throw out Jesus’ family tree as evidence of his divinity, thus undermining the reliability of biblical prophecy in every respect.
Possible answers to the problem exist, the most plausible of which is that Matthew traces Joseph’s family tree and Luke traces Mary’s. Cole alludes to other possible answers but admits “we can’t know for sure which solution is correct.”
Dr. Doug Bookman offers a plausible solution: The two gospels might have differed because one was concerned with “Christ’s legal descent,” or his legal right to be King, while the other describes “the physical genealogy of Jesus.” Matthew leaves out some names, and Luke might be following “another branch.”
“While Matthew focuses on Jesus being the Messiah and King of Israel by tracing His genealogy back through David to Abraham, Luke has a different purpose. He wants to show that Jesus is the unique Son of Man and Son of God, Savior of all people.”
One reason Bible scholars trust Jewish genealogical records is that Jews, “especially [...] families who were in the Davidic line,” were excellent record keepers “since the Old Testament prophesied that Messiah would be born of the house of David.” Matthew was a Jew.
Yet, even though Luke was a Gentile, he (like Matthew) required the ability to think in a linear, organized fashion — Luke as a physician and Matthew as a tax collector. Record-keeping was essential to both men’s professions.
And if they were lying, to what end? Matthew would have heard Jesus warn “they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake” (Luke 21:12).
Christians did not prosper for their faith in any earthly sense. Luke and Matthew conducted independent research and independently reached the conclusion that Jesus is Savior. We know for sure that Jesus is “the only candidate for Messiah” and “the only qualified Savior of the human race.”
In spite of the genealogical differences, both Matthew and Luke emphasize two important facts which are essential to the Christian faith: Joseph was not Christ’s biological father, and Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to the Son of God.
While these details seem obvious to today’s Christian audience, they inspired awe and hope for Jews longing for the Messiah to come.
A Christmas Conviction
Christians celebrate the hope symbolized by Christmas: If we can trust that God kept his promise with the birth of Christ, we can also believe in the promise of eternity with our King when Jesus returns. Israel had placed their hope of salvation in God’s prophesied Savior.
His birth was pivotal for all people of every nation — heredity no longer mattered. Thanks to the gospel, genuine believers worldwide can claim a place in Jesus’ family. Jesus pointed to all of his followers and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers” (Mark 3:34).
The names within Luke’s and Matthew’s genealogies are less important to Christians today than the faith demonstrated by Old Testament forefathers, and then by Christ’s disciples.
Likewise, the testimony of each believer today — their legacy of faith — is a gift, which comes from Immanuel himself, and that is worth celebrating each December 25.
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Brett Taylor
Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.