Luke 3:23–38

We mustn’t skip over the genealogies in Scripture, for they are filled with often-untapped theological riches. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke, examining how Luke’s detailed genealogy of Jesus reveals Him to be the Redeemer of Jews and gentiles alike.


We’re going to continue this morning with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We are still in the third chapter, and I will be reading from Luke 3:23–38, which is Luke’s account of the genealogy or family tree of our Lord Jesus.

Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Janna, the son of Joseph, the son of Mattathiah, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, the son of Maath, the son of Mattathiah, the son of Semei, the son of Joseph, the son of Judah, the son of Joannas, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmodam, the son of Er, the son of Jose, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonan, the son of Eliakim, the son of Melea, the son of Menan, the son of Mattathah, the son of Nathan, the son of David, the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Salmon, the son of Nahshon, the son of Amminadab, the son of Ram, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

One of the problems attending expository preaching is that we’re not at liberty to choose what texts we read or preach from, but we must follow the text, and perhaps the most disconcerting and challenging of all are the genealogies, such as you’ve just heard. However, this genealogy is there for a reason. It is inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. It is His word, and it is profitable for our instruction, reproof, and teaching in righteousness. It is all part of that deposit of truth that the Lord God has given to His people. I ask you this morning to receive this word as from the Lord. Let us pray.

Again, our Father and our God, we beseech You to help us as we look at this part of the account of the life and ministry of our Lord. We pray that the Spirit of truth, who inspired this record, would visit us this morning, not only to illumine the meaning and significance of this text but to touch our souls by it. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Preaching a Genealogy

I remember several years ago watching an episode of Sesame Street where the guest speaker was the famous actor, Richard Burton. Burton’s task on that episode was to teach the children how to count from one to ten. So, Burton stood before the camera, and the camera zoomed in on his most expressive face as the great Welshman said in hushed and sacred tones, “One.” Then, after a suitable pause to keep the children’s attention, he raised his eyebrows and said, “Two.”

He went through the rest of the ciphers until he came to the number ten, and somehow you had the feeling that you had just heard a soliloquy from Shakespeare with the tenor of this recitation. I remember also being flooded with a sense of compassion for kindergarten and first grade teachers who would have to compete with Richard Burton in teaching children how to count to ten.

I recall, several years ago, teaching a Doctor of Ministry program in the seminary where I had to teach a course in communication, and one aspect of that was the science of oral interpretation. It was my task to teach the clergy how to read the text of Scripture. I would give each of the students an assignment where they had to prepare a dramatic reading of a particular text for the next day. For example, I would assign them the text of Nathan’s confrontation of David or the text of Belshazzar’s feast.

There was one student in the class who was particularly loud, noisy, somewhat abrasive, but also dramatic and expressive. I assigned him the reading of the genealogies. It was like giving him the assignment of reading from the telephone directory. He started in by saying, “Jesus was the son of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat.” He had us on the edge of our chairs as he took us through the entire genealogy. I stood there and applauded him for successfully completing the assignment.

What do you do with a genealogy? How do you preach from a genealogy, particularly this genealogy in Luke’s gospel, which presents problems for us? Even with a cursory comparison of the genealogy provided for us by Luke with that provided by Matthew, we see that there are clear and glaring differences in the accounts.

Two Different Accounts

Not only do we see that Luke begins with Jesus and works backwards to Adam, but Matthew begins with Abraham and then works forward to Jesus. One gives us the genealogy of Jesus ascending and the other descending. While that’s not too much of a difficulty to deal with, the plot thickens when you see that the order of the names differs from gospel writer to gospel writer. For example, between the mention of Abraham and Jesus, Luke provides fifty-seven names, where Matthew gives us only forty-one. Obviously, at least one of these genealogies is by no means complete. Probably, neither one of them was complete, as the ancient custom of the Jews was to skip over personages from time to time when they kept records of their genealogies.

Some of the names that occur in Matthew’s genealogy also occur in Luke’s, but when you least expect it, the names differ. In Matthew’s genealogy, Jesus is traced through Solomon, the son of David. In Luke’s genealogy, Jesus is traced through Nathan, the son of David. Which was it, Nathan or Solomon?

Critics of the trustworthiness of sacred Scripture jump on these variations in the genealogies and argue that they are proof the Bible is not inspired. They say it’s not the Word of God because there are discrepancies and disagreements between the two gospel writers.

Others in the technical field of New Testament studies have labored to find a way to harmonize these two accounts. One of the most popular ways of harmonization is to argue that Matthew gives us the legal genealogy of Jesus, which follows the lineage of Joseph, even though Joseph is not the actual father of Jesus because of the virgin birth.

In Jewish legal terms, in the Jewish court system, Joseph would be considered the father. The lineage of Joseph would be of particular importance to the Jewish community. So, some argue that Matthew’s genealogy follows the history of the family of Joseph, and that Luke’s follows the family of Mary.

I wish I could say that the problem could be resolved that easily. However, the debate has been fierce between those who argue they are both from the lineage of Joseph and others who say one is Joseph, the other one is Mary. Frankly, I don’t know how to resolve that. I leave that in the hands of the technicians who deal with those questions as they uncover the patterns and processes used by the ancient priests to keep track of genealogical tables.

What I am concerned about most significantly is where these genealogies go. From Matthew, we see that the genealogy of Jesus is traced to Abraham. It’s clear that Matthew is trying to communicate to all who read his gospel that Jesus is the son of Abraham, which would be of extreme importance for any Jewish audience. At the same time, Luke is not satisfied to trace the genealogy of Jesus simply to Abraham. Rather, he goes before Abraham, all the way back to Adam and even beyond, where he shows that this One who is a descendent of Adam was also a descendant of God, being created by God. So, Jesus’ lineage is traced to Adam and to God. At that point, we scratch our heads and ask, “Why?”

Accuracy in Interpretation

There are some important considerations in these genealogies. In the first instance, any time we have a book of the Bible in front of us and we’re trying to interpret it, what we want more than anything else is to be accurate in our interpretation.

As you know, the world is filled with distortions and inaccurate conclusions drawn from Scripture. Just this week, I read on Facebook a comment about baptism, where a person observed, “Certainly the Bible is clear on baptism—the Bible says repent and believe,” therefore excluding any possible legitimization of infant baptism. I kept my hands away from the typing mechanism, but I wanted so hard to respond to that and say: “Are you serious? You’re going to take that verse ‘repent and be baptized’ as the final statement to settle this controversy that has gone on for five hundred years?” I almost said “two thousand years,” because it hasn’t gone on for two thousand years.

There is clear evidence that for the first one hundred and fifty years of Christian history, the universal practice of the Christian church was infant baptism, which was not seriously challenged until fifteen hundred years later. This is not because the Bible is obscure, but because of everything else the Bible teaches about the covenant and about the receiving of the sign of that covenant.

Know the Meaning of the Original Words

We must be careful of what we infer from the pages of Scripture. In the difficult task of getting an accurate understanding and interpretation of Scripture, there are certain things that help us. For example, the words that are written are very important. If we’re going to interpret the Bible accurately, we want to know what the words in the original text meant.

If you’re a New Testament student and you’re interested in the meaning of the Greek words of the text, you start by looking at a simple Greek-English dictionary. When you look up the Greek word, it might give you two or three English words by which that Greek word is properly rendered.

In our previous generation, New Testament scholarship received one of the most beneficial tools we’ve ever known: Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. This is nothing short of amazing. For example, if you look at the word pisteuō or pistos, which means “faith,” in a normal Greek-English dictionary, it will give you two or three definitions, such as, “to believe,” or, “to trust,” or, “to have faith.” If you open Kittel, the pages are massive, the print is tiny, it is filled with footnotes, and it will give you thirty-five pages defining the meaning of the Greek word pisteuō, meaning, “to believe.” How did they spend so much time doing that?

They examined every time that word occurs in the Gospels, every time that word occurs in the Epistles, every time that word occurs in the early church, in the church fathers, and in the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Beyond that, they examined every time the word occurs in classical Greek literature such as the Greek poetry of Euripides. By the time you read that thirty-five pages of explanation of the meaning of that Greek word, you have a solid understanding of what it means.

Still, even if you know the words exactly, you may notice that in the genealogy of Luke, it says, “So-and-so is the son of Joseph, the son of Mattathiah, the son of Amos.” If you’re reading in a New King James Bible, like mine, the words “son” or “son of” are italicized. Why is that? It’s because the Greek doesn’t say “son of.” It just simply says “of.” So-and-so was of so-and-so, who was of so-and-so, who was of so-and-so. It could have been the grandson, the great grandson, or the adopted son. The word “son” doesn’t occur in the original language. So, even if you know the words, you still have a lot more work to do.

Study the Original Setting

One of the most important things to study for a better and more accurate understanding of the Bible is the original setting in which the book was written. Who wrote it? To whom was it written? What was the occasion of its having been written? If I know who wrote it, to whom it was written, and why it was written, those three factors will go a long way to help us glean the exact meaning of the text.

In my preaching and teaching, whenever I cite the book of Hebrews, characteristically you will hear me say, “The author of Hebrews says,” or, “The book of Hebrews says.” Why don’t I just say the name of the author? Because we don’t know who wrote Hebrews. If we knew for sure who wrote Hebrews, it would help us to unpack some of the controversy on difficult texts, such as Hebrews 6.

To whom was Hebrews written? Was it written to simply the Palestinian Jews? Was it written to Alexandrian Jews? Most importantly, Why was it written? What occasioned the writing of the book of Hebrews? What is the discussion in Hebrews 6 about, where it mentions those who had tasted the heavenly word and that it is impossible to restore them again to repentance, which seems to suggest that Christians can fall away and lose their salvation? The early church debated this with a vengeance, and that very text made the inclusion of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament canon problematic at the beginning.

What was the issue in Hebrews 6? We don’t know. There are three or four options. What I’m saying is simply this: if we knew who wrote Hebrews, to whom it was written, and why it was written, so much of the theological dispute about the sixth and tenth chapters, for example, would go away. What does all of that have the do with the genealogy?

Differences between Gospels

New Testament scholars seek to reconstruct as reasonably as possible the order and the way the Gospels were written. We always make a distinction between the Synoptic Gospels and the gospel of John. Why? The Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—focus their attention almost totally on the life and ministry of Jesus, whereas in John’s gospel, two-thirds of the book cover the last week of Jesus’ life. The focus in John’s gospel is much more theological than it is biographical.

In the New Testament, the Gospels give us mostly narrative, and the Epistles give us didactic literature; that is, the Epistles interpret the narrative. The Gospels tell us what happened, and the Epistles tell us the meaning or significance of what happened.

Trying to reconstruct the way the Gospels were written is an important matter. There is debate as to which one was first. The vast majority say that Mark was written first and John’s gospel was written last. There was a movement in the middle of the twentieth century of some scholars arguing that John was written first rather than last, but that’s another story.

If you examine Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you will see that almost everything in the gospel of Mark is also found in Matthew and Luke. So, the scholars speculate, in all probability Matthew and Luke had Mark’s gospel in front of them when they wrote their gospels, and they used Mark’s gospel as one of their sources for composing their own gospels.

Then, if you look carefully at Matthew’s gospel and at Luke’s gospel, you will see that there is material common to Matthew and Luke that is not in Mark. So, the conjecture is that, in addition to Mark, Matthew and Luke probably had another resource in front of them that Mark didn’t use. Maybe it was another series of sayings, or a document, or an oral tradition. The abbreviation for that theory is called the “Q source,” from the German word quelle, which means “source” or “fountain.” It simply means Matthew and Luke used a source that Mark didn’t have.

So far, so good. Why go through all of this? The most important reason is this: after you go through all the material that’s common with Mark and all the material that’s common with ‘Q,’ then you’re left with the material that’s only in Matthew and only in Luke.

When you look at the isolated portion of Luke and Matthew, something jumps out at you. In the material that is unique to Matthew, almost all of it exclusively deals with the application of Old Testament prophecy to Jesus’ claims of being the Messiah. When you see that, it’s as clear as the nose on your face that Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience.

When you pick up Matthew, then, you must realize: “This was written for Jews. Even though I’m not a Jew, I can still learn from it. It’s still the Word of God, but its primary audience in the first century was the Jewish community.”

When you pick up Luke and isolate everything unique to Luke, it jumps out at you that Luke is clearly writing to and for Gentiles because his great stress is on the universality of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Jesus is not simply the Savior of the Jews, but the Savior of the Gentiles, and the kingdom of God is not limited to the geographical borders of Palestine, but it goes as far as the east is from the west, for every tongue and tribe and nation. We have this keen interest in the gospel to the Gentiles.

Here’s a little quiz. In the New Testament, who was the Apostle to the Gentiles? Who did Christ call out and specifically task to be the Apostle to the Gentiles? He was a Jew, an educated Jew. In fact, the most educated Jew in Palestine, Saul of Tarsus. The Apostle Paul was given the mission to go to the ends of the earth to take the gospel beyond Judea, Samaria, and Galilee into Asia Minor, Rome, Greece, and beyond.

One of his companions on his missionary journeys just happened to be the author of the Gospel According to St. Luke. So, we ask, Why does Luke, in his genealogy, not stop with Abraham? Why does he go to Adam, who is the representative of the whole human race? In the third chapter, before he begins the account of Jesus’ public ministry, Luke introduces Jesus, whose infancy he has recorded with all this information, as Savior of the world, of Jew and Gentile.

The Savior of All Humanity

Here is another a little pedantic point, but I don’t think it’s so insignificant: Why does Luke take the genealogy all the way to Adam? Of course, one reason is to show that the gospel is not just for the Jews, but for Gentiles as well. However, I’m going to suggest another reason, and this would get me a lot of debate in the theological world because nowhere in Luke’s gospel does Luke ever mention the role of Jesus as the new and second Adam, which is so important to the teaching of the Apostle Paul. However, Luke mentions Jesus’ descent from the first Adam, and it’s inconceivable to me that Paul wouldn’t have discussed with Luke on their missionary journeys the significance of Jesus as the new Adam to redeem us from the failure of the first Adam.

By looking at the genealogies, we get a little glimpse of Luke’s concern. I’d like to think that his version is from Mary’s side of the family, but I can’t prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt. One of the chief objections to that view is that genealogies were not kept for women because the Jews were always concerned with the males.

It has been said that the gospel of Luke is the Ladies’ Home Journal of the Bible. One thing peculiar to Luke is that he has more references to Jesus dealing with women than any of the other gospels, so that Jesus is not just the Savior of the Jews, not just the Savior of the Gentiles, not just the Savior of men, He’s also the Savior of women. All of this is implied, but not explained in the genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Finally, Luke is concerned with the historical reality of the person and work of Christ. The presence of Luke’s extended genealogy, which goes beyond the limits of what Matthew gives us, underscores Luke’s concern: the history and account he has given is not of a mythological figure who lives somewhere in the mythological realm of Mount Olympus, but One who came in space and time—indeed, in the fullness of time—to be our Savior.

When Luke finishes the genealogy, he moves quickly to the test that Jesus faces. Even as the first Adam was tempted in the garden, so now the new Adam is tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Let’s pray.

Our Father and our God, we thank You for the data that comes to us that is hard to express and hard to understand but nevertheless has value as Your Word to us. We thank You that Jesus is not simply the Savior of the Jews but also of those born out of due time, who have been added on and grafted into the original root; we thank You that He is our Savior as well. We thank You for this, in His name. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.