The Genealogies of Jesus Christ

Cornelius Hanko is an emeritus minister in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

A reader asks:

Concerning the ancestry of Christ in Matthew’s Gospel and also in the Gospel of Luke: Is this also the covenantal line of the true people of God, or are there unbelievers in this lineage? Among these people are some prominent names; but also some folk which are not familiar names; how is it that the two lists are not the same?

The first question is whether the genealogies as recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew and in Luke trace the covenant line throughout the Old Testament, and if so, why are there unbelievers mentioned in that covenant line?

Both Matthew in chapter 1:2ff., and Luke in chapter 3:23ff. trace the covenant line, even though Matthew begins with Abraham and Luke begins (in reverse) with Adam. God’s covenant line runs in continued generations. God said to Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee, and thy seed after thee in their generations. If The seed and the generations are not the same, since the covenant seed is born in the scope of the generations. Not the natural children of Abraham are the seed, but the elect in Christ are counted for the seed. Galatians teaches us that Christ is centrally the Seed, therefore all those who are in Christ are counted for the seed (Gal. 3:16, 29). Abraham is the father of all believers; therefore the true believers both in the old and new dispensation are the seed of Abraham. That accounts for it that in the line of generations there are also wicked reprobate. Esau was born in the line of generations of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, yet Esau was a reprobate. Also many of the kings of Judah were wicked, such as Rehoboam (Roboam in Matthew), Ahaz (referred to as Achaz—the difference is the difference of spelling in the Hebrew and the Greek), and Amon, and others. It is surprising that God-fearing Hezekiah is a son of wicked Ahaz, even as the godly Josiah is a son of wicked Amon. One wonders whether they may have had God-fearing mothers. It does become evident that Christ is born from such wicked sinners as we are, and that God gathers and preserves His church purely by grace and in eternal covenant faithfulness.

The second question reads: “How is it that the two lists are not the same?”

Bible students are by no means agreed on the difference between the genealogies of Christ as recorded in Matthew 1:2ff. and in Luke 3:23ff.

Some think that both Matthew and Luke trace the lineage of Joseph as the legal father of Jesus. Others are of the opinion that both give us the lineage of Mary. Still others maintain that Matthew traces the generations of Joseph, while Luke traces the line of Mary. And there are still others who consider Matthew’s account to be the lineage of Mary, while Luke presents the lineage of Joseph.

It seems to me, that in the light of all of Scripture, particularly of the Old Testament, we are compelled to agree with the last mentioned, namely, that Matthew traces the lineage of Mary, while Luke gives us the ancestors of Joseph.

The main argument for this position is that Mary must have been of the royal line of David, which Matthew traces through Solomon and the kings of Judah to the captivity, and which continues after the captivity in Zerubbabel and his descendants. Thus the line ends in Jacob and Joseph, Joseph being mentioned as the husband of Mary, even as we read in Matthew 1:16, “And Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called the Christ.” Thus the father of Mary was Jacob, while Luke gives Heli as the father of Joseph.

The prophets spoke of the fact that Jesus would be from the royal seed of David, just as He was from the covenant seed of Abraham. When Jacob blessed his sons he said concerning Judah, “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” In II Samuel 7:12, 13 we read that God assures David, “And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” This refers to Solomon as a type of Christ, and therefore also to Christ who is the fulfillment of God’s promise to David. Therefore we read in verse 14, “I will be his father, and he shall be my son.” And again in verses 15 and 16, “But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before me. And thy house and thy kingdom shall be established forever before thee, thy throne shall be established forever.” This is confirmed in Psalm 89, particularly the verses 24, 19, and 36, and also Isaiah 9:6.

In harmony with the promise spoken by the prophets, true, spiritual Israel looked for the promised King, who as a natural son would restore the throne of David. Long before this, Abraham longed to see His day. Judah spoke of the coming of Shiloh, the bringer of peace, or Prince of Peace. Later the prophet Isaiah declared, “For unto us a child is born, unto usa son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (9:6). The prophet Zechariah aroused the people saying (9:9), “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; Behold, thy king cometh unto thee: he is just and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass” (Luke 19:38).

The angel announced to the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” See also the annunciation to Mary in Luke 1:26-33.

What is even more significant is the fact that the wisemen came to Jerusalem inquiring about the promised King. “Where is he that is born king of the Jews?” Whereupon the scribes turned to the prophecy of Micah (Micah 5:2): “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

Since Jesus was the royal Son of David the people of His day expected Him to establish an earthly kingdom. See John 6:15John 18:33, 37John 19:14, 15, 19 and other passages.

From all these passages we must conclude that Matthew gives us the royal line of Jesus ending in Mary.

The genealogy of Luke must refer to Joseph. Since the line of generations in Matthew ends in Jacob and the genealogy of Luke ends in Heli, Scripture gives us no reason to believe that these are both the line of Mary, but does give us reason to believe that in Luke we have the lineage of Christ through Joseph, Jesus’ legal father.

In Luke 1:27 Joseph is referred to as being of the house of David. In Luke 2:48 he is referred to as Jesus’ father. In Matthew 2:19-23 Joseph assumes the responsibility for both Mary and Jesus. In Matthew 1:20 God Himself addresses Joseph as the son of David and entrusts the virgin Mary and her promised son to his care. This repeated emphasis on Joseph as the legal father of Jesus and of the lineage of David must have its significance in Scripture. Therefore, since the genealogy of Luke continues the line from David through David’s son Nathan, rather than through Solomon, there is good reason to believe that this record traces the ancestry of Joseph.

The account of Luke begins with the words (Luke 3:23), “And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli.”

The question naturally arises, why did Luke insert the words in parentheses “as was supposed”? The meaning certainly cannot be that Joseph was not the father of Jesus, since this would contradict the emphasis that Joseph was indeed the legal father of our Savior. This can only be taken to stress the fact that Joseph was not the natural father, but indeed the legal father of Christ, a responsibility that he assumed when he married Mary (Matthew 1:18-25). Therefore when he and Mary went to Bethlehem to register according to the decree of Caesar Augustus, Joseph did not go merely for his own sake, but also for Mary’s sake, and to assume the responsibility of being the legal father of Jesus. In the providence of God Jesus was born in Bethlehem, according to the Scriptures (Luke 2:4, 5).

It seems to me that this is the obvious and necessary explanation for the differences between the genealogies of Matthew and of Luke.