Author John Ortberg tells of a woman he knows who locked her keys in her car in a rough neighborhood. With her cellphone locked inside also, she was at a loss. “God,” she prayed, “send somebody to help me.”
A minute later, a rusty old car pulled up, and a tattooed, bearded man wearing a biker’s skull rag stepped out. She thought, “Really, God? This is who you send?” But she was desperate, so when the man asked if he could help, she asked, “Can you break into my car?” He said, “Not a problem.”
He got a coat hanger from his car, and in just a few seconds, he had her vehicle open. Ortberg’s friend was overjoyed. “You’re a very nice man,” she blurted out and gave him a hug.
“No, ma’am,” came the reply. “I’m not a nice man. I just got out of prison today. I served two years for auto theft, and I’ve only been out a couple of hours.”
She hugged him again, looked to heaven, and exclaimed, “Thank you, Lord! You sent me a professional!”
Could God use messy people for his purpose?
Matthew 1:1-17 holds the answer.
Jesus’ Family Photo Album
For many Christians, the Christmas story starts at Matthew 1:18. We tend to skip the genealogy in 1:1-17, finding the forty-some generations of Jesus’ ancestors either boring or unimportant. But are we missing something? Could there be gospel in this beginning to the Gospel?
One of my favorite Christmas pastimes is sitting with my kids to look at family photo albums. Almost every picture sparks a story: “There’s your Great-grandpa Weede. Oh, he loved to joke. One time, he painted faces on his two big farm fuel tanks. One had a smiley face that said, ‘I’ve got diesel.’ The other had a frowning face that said, ‘I’ve got gas!’ The whole county knew his laugh…and his faith. He prayed every day for every grandkid by name.”
“And there’s your Granny Ruth. A strong lady, and the glue that held the big Bunton farming clan together. For twenty years on her tax forms, she wrote ‘matriarch’ on the occupation blank! But always a servant. She was still teaching the special needs adult Sunday School class at 84 years old.”
The pages turn, the stories flow, my kids learn what kind of people they come from, and they discover God’s hand has been writing our family story for generations.
That’s how Matthew’s Jewish audience feels reading 1:1-17. It is not simply an ancient record of unknown dead guys; it’s their personal lineage. Almost every name triggers stories, emotions, warm memories, and it feels like sitting on the couch with the family photo album.
As Matthew opens the album, he says, “By the way, this isn’t just Israel’s story. It’s the story of Messiah.” Suddenly, his audience leans forward, anticipating, pointing at the pictures:
- “Look! There’s Abraham.” They know Messiah will be Abraham’s seed (Gen 22:18).
- “And there’s Judah!” They know Genesis 49:10, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah…until he to whom it belongs shall come.” Their excitement is palpable now.
- “And here’s David!” Messiah, of course, would be descended from Israel’s greatest king (2 Sam 7:12).
By the time Matthew flips to the last page—with the photo of baby Jesus in Mary’s arms—his readers know: this child is indeed the Christ, the Promised One of God.
They can also see: though history may seem hodge-podge, random, an endless cycle of births and deaths, it is actually under the careful guiding hand of God. Matthew shows them there is order in the midst of the chaos, a divine master plan at work over the millennia, quietly but relentlessly moving toward a single moment—the arrival of the Savior.
God has been writing a master story all along.
TBN vs. TMZ
But Matthew’s readers notice something else. This story has some unlikely heroes—the women Matthew mentions.
Female names were highly unusual in a Jewish genealogy. Who are these ladies, and how did their pictures get in here? Matthew’s readers might have expected to see Mary’s photo on the last page, but the other four ladies? Completely unexpected. And the women he chose! If Matthew just wanted female representation in his album, he could’ve included the honored Hebrew matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah.
Instead, it’s as if Matthew has rifled through all the old boxes in Israel’s attic until he dug out the four most shocking family photos he could find. These women are all tainted, and his readers can hardly contain their dismay:
- “Why is there a picture of Tamar?” In Genesis 38, when Judah fails to provide her a husband as promised, Tamar seduces her former father-in-law. She ends up pregnant with twin boys, making Judah both their father and (legally) their grandfather!
- “I can’t believe he included Rahab!” Yes, she acted courageously to hide the Israelite spies in Joshua 2, but that doesn’t change her occupation. She was a prostitute, a common hooker.
- “Ruth? Okay, but…” No, Ruth wasn’t like the two women just mentioned, but sexual sin still stained her family history. As a Moabite, she was the product of Lot’s incest with his daughter, prompting God to command that “no Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation” (Deut. 23:3).
- “Not Bathsheba, too!” This picture seems completely unnecessary, a gratuitous reminder of King David’s greatest failure. Why would Matthew insert a photo of the infamous adulteress—a pre-modern Monica Lewinsky?
These women are not squeaky clean evangelical role models. If they were alive today, you wouldn’t see them on TBN—you’d see them on TMZ! They’re scandal-plagued, notorious. What is Matthew up to here?
Messy People in the Master Plan
Matthew includes these four women—each with a sullied backstory—to communicate a message: God chose messes to bring his Messiah.
For my friend Juliet, that’s good news.
Juliet was born into addiction—her mom an alcoholic, her dad a drug addict. Her stepdad began molesting her when she was four. Juliet desperately wanted out, so she quit school and, at age sixteen, fled to Las Vegas where she survived as a prostitute. That chapter of her life ended with her beaten-up, used-up, robbed at gunpoint, and left for dead on the street.
Then things got bad.
By age thirty-two, Juliet had been married three times, had two children, and was using and manufacturing methamphetamine. When the Jasper County Drug Task Force kicked down her door and arrested her—for the ninth time—prison seemed a sure bet. But the worst thing: her boys, ages four and eight, were taken from her. For Juliet, that was rock bottom. “I was broken. I fell on my face before God, and I said, ‘I’m sorry, God. I want my babies back. Whatever it takes!’”
Over the next eight months, Juliet surrendered her life to Christ, turned her back on drugs and alcohol, and welcomed her boys back home. Though prison seemed likely, miraculously all charges were dropped. Then she heard God say, “Now I can use you, Juliet. You’re going to serve other women like you.”
She enrolled at Ozark Christian College, graduated with a counseling degree, and today Juliet leads Guiding Light Ministries, a faith-based residential treatment program for women with addictions. God has used her to free dozens of women from sin’s grip and introduce them to Jesus.
God has a long history of using all kinds of people: the A students and the D students, the eloquent and the slow of speech, the respectable and the scandalous, the dressed-up and the messed-up. Matthew chose these four ladies for his album—stains visible in each photo—to preach good news: God loves using imperfect people to accomplish his perfect plan.
People like tattooed, bearded car thieves. People like Rahab and Bathsheba. People like Juliet. And people like me.
So this Christmas, don’t skip Matthew’s genealogy. There is gospel in the beginning of this Gospel.
And who knows? Someday, when a future generation is flipping through a photo album of God’s children doing his work in the world, maybe they’ll find your picture, too.