Grace in History, Grace Now
David gave this talk as a "one-off" message at Grace City Church (Sydney) in 2014. Click here to download it.
As a family of churches we have understood teaching about grace for many years; it is one of our core values. Now in the UK as in many parts of the world as we reach out to a largely post-Christian generation, our need for showing grace to society around, to people we reach who have often little background of Christian truth and morality is going to test us as churches. For that reason I want to teach a Scripture, probably unexpected in this context, that shows grace in historic perspective and has lessons for us today.
God had one plan throughout the history of the Bible: To put everything right through Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah.
Matthew was one of the well educated disciples, he was a tax collector and he wrote down the stories about Jesus particularly for Jewish Christians in the early church. He started off by showing how the Messiah came fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament and started (in a strange way to us) with a genealogy to show how the coming of the Messiah was a fulfilment of all that had been promised. What to us was a rather boring start – to the Jewish readers/hearers it was full of meaning because all these names represented a story with which they would have been familiar.
“The average modern person who thinks ‘maybe I’ll read the New Testament’ is puzzled to find, on the very first page, a long list of names he or she has never heard of. But it is important not to think that this is a waste of time. For many cultures ancient and modern, and certainly in the Jewish world of Matthew’s day, this genealogy was the equivalent of a roll of drums, a fanfare of trumpets, and a town crier calling for attention. Any first century Jew would find this family tree both impressive and compelling. Like a great procession coming down a city street… all eyes are waiting for the one who comes in the position of greatest honour, right at the end.” - Tom Wright
THE SCRIPTURE: Matthew 1:1-16
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos,[c] and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.”
THE REACTION OF THE ORIGINAL HEARERS
On the one hand – wonderful – God has fulfilled his promises to Israel – the Messiah has come. This is Matthew’s primary intention – every promise to transform the world, overcome the devil’s power, bless the nations and demonstrate God’s rule is now fulfilled in Christ. It is the theme of his gospel.
On the other hand it’s rather a strange genealogy – that makes us think. 4 women mentioned (very unusual in a genealogy) – if women were mentioned at that time – it would have been the mothers of the nation – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. But the women named here (very deliberately) were Tamar (v3), Rahab (v5), Ruth (v5) and the “wife of Uriah (v6). Why were these women picked out? – they were all foreigners and each brought to mind a rather uncomfortable story in the Old Testament – well known to the original hearers (even if slightly disgusting to them), little known to us even if Christian because they're not the stories (except Ruth) we tend to teach about. The Old Testament is full of stories – many of them quite strange, many that make us feel uncomfortable, culturally distant but not the bedtime stories you would read to your children.
THE FOUR STORIES
All are very important stories for what Matthew wanted to announce. They also help us understand the grace of God and that we must not look down on anyone but that all (even the most unlikely) can contribute to the great history of the plan of God. That’s true today too.
Judah was one of the 12 sons of Jacob, ancestor of the tribe of Judah. When still a teenager, he left his home and his brothers and married a Canaanite woman (totally contrary to what was thought right for the descendants of Abraham). Had 3 sons quite quickly. As the eldest became a teenager, Judah arranged a marriage to Tamar. Before having children, the eldest son died.
Inheritance was so important in that culture, to keep the family line – if a brother dies without children, his brother would marry the widow (often a 2nd wife) but the children would legally for purposes of inheritance be sons of the dead brother.
So Tamar was given to 2nd son, Onan – he used an unreliable but on this occasion effective method of contraception. “But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother's wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother.” Gen 38:9. Then he died too.
So as not to give her to his 3rd son (bit risky, 2 had already died!) Judah sent her away to her father’s house.
Some years later, Tamar thought "how can I have children?" So she dressed as a prostitute and waited till Judah came past, possibly drunk from sheep shearing celebrations, certainly away from home. He went into her, not recognising her because she was veiled, because he didn’t have the agreed payment with him, left his seal with her. She became pregnant. It was told to Judah, who said she must die. She came to him and said the father is the person whose seal this is. Judah declares, "She’s more righteous than me". She gave birth to twins from whom the tribe of Judah developed.
What a disgusting story! How remote from us! Why is it included in the Bible at all let alone chosen here in Matthew? By God’s grace, without Tamar, no large tribe of Judah, David came from that tribe, the royal tribe. Jesus is the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” – without Tamar that would not have happened. A woman despised, tricking her father-in-law, incest – yet God’s grace works through her.
Joshua and his army were about to attack Jericho, the great city with massive walls that was at the entrance to the Promised Land. He decided to send spies to investigate Jericho. The men went into Jericho and where could they go so as not to attract attention? Into Rahab the prostitutes house. All sorts of men would go there! However someone saw them and reported it. The King of Jericho’s messenger knocked on the door but Rahab hid them under some flax drying on the roof and said they had gone. She then demonstrated she had faith in God and believed that the people of Israel would have success. As a reward for hiding the spies, she and her family were saved when Jericho was attacked. Not just saved but married an important leader in Israel and became part of the royal line.
Why is she there? Without Rahab, the conquest story of Israel coming to their land would have been different and she, despite her background, was honoured in marriage and honoured in the history of Israel.
A woman called Naomi, her husband and 2 sons left Bethlehem because of famine and went to Moab – an enemy of Israel. “No … Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the Lord for ever.” Deut 23:2. The 2 sons married Moabite women, the father and 2 sons died (again no children). Distressed, Naomi and her daughter in law Ruth returned to Bethlehem – the other daughter in law returned to Moab but Ruth identified with the people of God. “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Ruth 1:16b.
But how to find a husband – no brother to marry her. There was a close relative of Naomi’s called Boaz, a rich farmer and Ruth used to “glean” in his fields (explain gleaning). Boaz used to leave a bit more grain for her. Naomi devised a plan, not what we would recommend in Christian dating manuals – when Boaz lies down in the threshing area after the harvest and the party, lie down at this feet. She did that (a big risk). He woke in the night and found a woman at his feet. Spread your cloak over me, because you are a close relative who can redeem me and then marry me! Boaz said we will arrange it properly in the morning! This he did. Ruth, a foreigner, daring to hurry along the process of marriage – yet again honoured in this genealogy for her determination and passion for the people of God.
THE WIFE OF URIAH
Uriah was a Hittite (again not from Israel) but was a great soldier in King David’s army. His wife was Bathsheba. The army had gone to war but David stayed at home, went onto his roof and somehow saw Bathsheba bathing. She was very beautiful and David sent for her, they had sex and then she got pregnant. David sent for Uriah and said go home to your wife (to cover up David’s sin). Uriah refused because he was a soldier on duty. David sent him back with instructions to the general to pull back and leave Uriah isolated so that he got killed. David then married Bathsheba.
An appalling story with much to teach us but in this genealogy reminded the original hearers not only of Bathsheba but the weakness of David. Even the heroes are weak and sinful but God’s grace at work turning this situation to contribute to God’s overall plan.
These were the only 4 women mentioned in the genealogy.
WHAT DO THESE STORIES TEACH US?
- God’s grace is more than equal to our failure and he can turn our failures for good. John Newton, the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace” was a slave ship captain who found the grace of God, then influenced William Wilberforce who abolished the slave trade!
- Nobody must be discounted either on racial grounds or because of their background or past wrongdoing. Grace must be shown to all. We must take that attitude as Christians, honour all, see the potential of all whilst also believing that God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit can change us so that we live as examples of godliness.
- It means that in our evangelism, we must not just reach out with truth but with grace – Jesus “full of grace and truth”. We may take a stand on moral issues but must not let clarity on that stop us accepting people in their brokenness with grace. It will be culturally different but people will come to us with similar issues to these 4 women.
- Grace does not just forgive us but enables each one to have a vital role in God’s plan to change the world through Jesus and now through His church.
- The stories that we find difficult to understand in the Bible and that we often ignore are still important and we need to understand why they are there.
- Even the heroes and heroines of faith had weaknesses, like we do. We both want to overcome temptation but also understand that God can still turn our failure to his purposes.
- Israel were not God’s people because of their virtues or because they were better than others but because of God’s grace received by faith. It is the same for us so the spirit of the Pharisees, legalism or superiority must never be allowed to influence us.
- Repentance is still important. Later in Genesis, through repentance, Judah became a strong man of God, taking responsibility for the wider family. Rahab obviously turned from prostitution to being a wife. Ruth had godly motives and no sin was actually committed despite appearances. David and Bathsheba both needed to repent, suffer consequences of their failure and receive the forgiveness of God.
God’s grace is able to turn every failure, every situation around.
We as churches are called to experience God’s grace ourselves and show it to all with whom we come into contact, believing His grace expressed in mission to our town will overcome.