When we open the pages of the New Testament in the Bible and read the opening line of Matthew’s Gospel, it reads like this: “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” And then we keep reading and it’s a list of names. It’s a family tree. It’s a family photo album. And if we keep reading through this list of names in Jesus’ family tree, we find some interesting characters. People with sorted and illicit pasts… liars and cheats… adulterers and murderers. And this is the family tree of Jesus, the Messiah… the long-awaited, long-anticipated One who would come to bring His people home. And as Matthew, the guy who opens his story of Jesus with a list of names, knows very well… this list of names doesn’t just tell us about the kind of people that Jesus came from… it tells us about the kind of people that Jesus came for.
Perhaps Matthew knew this better than others… because he has his own story to tell. You see, if Matthew told us his story, he’d tell us that he was a massive disappointment to his parents. He’d tell us that most of his family had taken him off of their Hanukkah card lists. We know some things about Matthew’s story. One of the things we know is that Matthew has another given name that’s found in Scripture—it’s the name Levi.
Levi was a name that parents gave their children when they expected them to grow up to be spiritual giants and spiritual leaders. Matthew was from the tribe of Levi, the tribe that provided the priests for Israel. Matthew likely came from a family that had generations of religious leaders and priests. Matthew’s parents expected that he’d follow in their footsteps… that he’d be like his father, his grandfather… maybe even his great grandfather. But as the way life has this tendency to go, our idyllic storied lives often take some difficult twists and turns along the way. There are ups, and there are downs. There are good things, and there are bad things.
We don’t know exactly how Matthew’s story goes before we meet him in the Bible. Perhaps Matthew was on the right track as a kid. Perhaps he went to Jewish junior high and high school. Then he applied to become a priest. But for some reason, his application wasn’t accepted. You can picture the moment he goes to the mailbox and opens the rejection letter. “Dear Levi, after an extensive review of your application to become a priest, we regret to inform you that you did not make the cut.” You can imagine the absolute sense of failure and disappointment, not only in his own heart, but especially with his parents. This Matthew… this Levi. Such high hopes, but such failure. Again, we don’t know much of the story, but we do know that when we finally meet him in the Bible, he’s a tax collector. And just so you know, tax collectors on the other end of the spectrum priests. Tax collectors were hated. They were despised. They worked for the Roman authorities, and they exacted taxes and oftentimes extorted their own people more than the prescribed amount to line their own pockets. They were outcasts. The were called “sinners.”
And then we read this. “As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’ And he got up and followed Him” (Matthew 9:9). READ Two words that change everything—“Follow Me!” Jesus didn’t give Matthew an application to follow Him. He gave Him an invitation to relationship… an invitation to a completely different way to live life. And the Bible tells us that Matthew left everything and began to follow Jesus. And Matthew is so excited that this Jesus, the One that people have been whispering about… the One who could be the long-awaited Messiah, the One who would deliver God’s people, that he throws a party. Remember, at this point in Matthew’s life, he doesn’t have any prim and proper friends in his social circle. The only people he knows are other down and outers. People on the far, far margins of life… tax collectors, prostitutes, and other disreputable people. And Jesus shows up to that party, and He just loves on these people. He’s completely comfortable with them as He pursues them with His unconditional love.
At this point in the story, some of the religious leaders, the highbrow types, show up and ask why Jesus is hanging out with these “tax collectors and sinners.” One of the more earthy translations of the Bible calls this group of people “scum.” Jesus’ response, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician but those who are sick.” And then here’s how Jesus puts the finishing flourishes on this conversation with these religious leaders and teachers, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” I’m not sure if those highbrow religious leaders learned anything that day. But Matthew did. He learned that Jesus loves you when no one else does. He learned that Jesus pursues you when everyone else gives up on you. He learned that Jesus has enough grace and hope for you no matter what you’ve done. That’s what Matthew learned that day.
You see, Jesus came into Matthew’s life and put flesh on love. And in response to that love, Matthew followed Jesus for the rest of his days. Matthew saw Jesus pursue and love the least, the last, and the lost. He saw that love lead Jesus to the cross where Jesus was put to death as He paid the price for our sin, guilt, and shame. He heard Jesus’ love exhaled in the words “It is finished.” As Matthew followed Jesus… as he left everything behind for a new kind of life, he learned that Jesus loves you when no one else does.
That’s why Matthew opens his Gospel with a list of names… a list of names that tells us so much more than just the kind of people that Jesus came from. Matthew’s list of prostitutes and outsiders and adulterers and murderers really tells us about the kind of people that Jesus came for.
And so right after Matthew finishes penning the last of those names, he tells us about the birth of Jesus. And this isn’t a mere recounting of history. It truly is a historical account, but it’s so much more. The birth of Jesus, the coming of God’s love, hope, and grace, the coming of God with skin on, is what changed everything in Matthew’s life… and it’s what can change everything in your life as well. So let’s listen to what Matthew wrote.
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” 24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.
Jesus… the One who loves you when no one else does. Jesus… the One who pursues you when everyone else has given up on you. Jesus… the One who has enough grace and hope for you no matter who you are or what you’ve done. Jesus, the One and only One who will save His people from their sins.