The Life of Jesus: Before His Birth

All of the analogies break down. Consider the author of an epic novel. He exists outside of the book and the characters he creates. But what if he wrote himself, as he truly is, into the story? This picture approaches the eternal Son of God becoming human in time and space, but there are important elements missing. Nothing fits the truth perfectly, except the truth, that is.

As we begin a teaching series through the four gospels on the life of Jesus, we must begin in eternity past. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Yahweh, the eternal God, has existed always. There was never a time when He was not. He exists in community, Father, Son and Spirit. “Trinity” may be a word invented in church history, but the truth of God’s triune nature is revealed in every corner of our Scripture. Here is a list of several relevant biblical and theological truths, a crash-course in Theology Proper and Trinitarianism.

  • God is eternal.
  • There was not a time before God. 
  • God is triune. 
  • He exists eternally in community with Himself.
  • God is one. He exists in three persons, with one essence. 
  • God is Father, Son and Spirit.
  • God is not called “Father” and “Son” because the Son was born of the Father. 
  • Father and Son are titles meant to describe relationship, not order or creation.
  • The Father is eternal - The Son is eternal - The Spirit is eternal
  • Each member of the Trinity is separate and distinct, yet united in one nature. 
  • The Bible does not reveal three gods, but one God in three persons.
  • The Son became incarnate, “in-fleshed,” at a certain point in human history.
  • The incarnate Son “emptied Himself” of certain Divine prerogatives. (Phil 2:6-7)
  • Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human at the same time. (Col 1:19; 2:9)
  • He was more than a demi-god or divine-man.
  • As God, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to cover sin. (Heb 2:9-18)

So, as we talk about the Life of Jesus Christ, it is critical to remember and realize that the Life of Jesus, the Son of God, had no beginning. There was a beginning to Jesus’ humanity, but His life is eternal. 

After Matthew’s opening heading/title, he dives directly into a list of ancestral bloodlines in three sections: Abraham to David to the exile to Jesus. It is unusual but not unprecedented that Matthew includes four women in his list, perhaps all Gentile and some of questionable morality.  (Mary, Jesus’ mother, may be considered a fifth, but of noble morality.) But not only controversial women, Matthew also includes Rehoboam, Ahaz and Manasseh, some of the most foul, idolatrous and destructive Kings in Judah’s history. It quite simply and clearly displays that the “history of the people of God is one of grace rather than glory.” (Morris)

“In his genealogy Matthew shows us the royalty of kingship gained; the tragedy of freedom lost; the glory of liberty restored. And that, in the mercy of God, is the story of mankind, and each individual man.” W. Barclay

“Already here in the genealogy, Jesus is presented as the one who will ignore human labels of legitimacy and illegitimacy to offer his gospel of salvation to all, including the most despised and outcast of society. A question for the church to ask itself in any age is how well it is visibly representing this commitment to reach out to the oppressed and marginalized of society with the good news of salvation in Christ.” C. Blomberg

Matthew arranges his genealogy in three series of fourteen. He eludes to the pattern as significant but does not explain the significance. Many ideas have been put forth, but all include some layer of conjecture. For example, the numerical total of David’s name is 14 (the Hebrew tradition of adding up the number of each consonant -David is DVD in Hebrew - 4+6+4=14). His name is also the fourteenth in the list. This is perhaps a clue to Matthews reasoning. But there are other theories.

“L. Finkelstein [claims] that the number fourteen was regarded as significant in contemporary Judaism. He says, “The number, ‘fourteen’, is not accidental. It corresponds to the number of high priests from Aaron to the establishment of Solomon’s Temple; the number of high priests from the establishment of the Temple until Jaddua, the last high priest mentioned in Scripture. It is clear that a mystic significance attached to this number, in both the Sadducean and the Pharisaic traditions.” Matthew would have been aware of this and may be producing an argument that would impress Jews.”  As quoted by Leon Morris

In the end, we must humbly admit that we are not sure as to Matthew’s exact purpose. He also was forced to omit some names in each series to arrive at the number 14. This does not disqualify him as an ancient near eastern historian, as this practice was seen often in literature. The arrangement is not altered, but the total number included is contrived for a symbolic purpose hereto unknown.

The genealogy of Luke 3:23-28 traces Jesus’ bloodline all the way back to Adam, son of God. There are noteworthy differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s list, primarily in the second and third series of Matthew. In the first series of Matthew, Abraham to David, Matthew follows Luke exactly with two exceptions. He omits one name (Admin the son of Ram) and adds that Judah had brothers and was the father of both Perez and Zerah by Tamar. With the Greek given in the text, “begot” or “fathered” was often used of anyone in a bloodline. Thus it was perfectly acceptable to write a great-grandfather “fathered” his great-grandson.

In Matthew’s second series, he chooses to trace Jesus’ line through Solomon, the son of David by Bathsheba and the following typical kingly line. He skips at least six names in this list as well, but otherwise does not depart from the Kingly line expressed in the Old Testament. Luke chooses to follow Jesus’ bloodline through Nathan, another son of Solomon by Bathsheba, rejoining Matthew’s line at Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, both noteworthy figures in that part of Jewish history.

Ancestral records from Shealtiel, Zerubbabel and the exile to Jesus are not found anywhere in the Old Testament, and Luke and Matthew’s versions are almost entirely different - only beginning and ending with the same names. These names were likely researched in public records after the death of Jesus, although in both lists there are obviously many names missing. Matthew’s list at this point covers more than 500 years in only 14 generations. Luke’s has 20. These differences between Matthew and Luke are hard to reconcile although many theories have been presented. Perhaps it is best to accept, with ample precedent in Jewish marriage traditions of marrying within extended families and tribes, that both bloodlines of Jesus are accurate. They are perfectly aligned in the most ancient and important of historical figures (Abraham, David, etc.) but then depart, intersect, depart and rejoin again.

Mark, which is the gospel record based on the eyewitness account of Simon Peter, gives only a passing nod to any historical preamble. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” From this point, Mark’s account jumps off into Old Testament prophecy about John the Baptist as a way of setting up Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of His public ministry. However, in just a simple phrase Mark does manage to plant several critical seeds. He mentions “beginning,” “gospel,” “Jesus Christ” and “Son of God.” All of these are important and complement what we see in Matthew, Luke and John.

Speaking of John, his “birth story” is wildly different than the synoptics (Matthew Mark and Luke are called “synoptic” gospels because they “see the same way,” which is what “synoptic” means in Greek). John’s introduction is deeply poetic, illustrative and symbolic. But what John reveals perfectly aligns with Matthew, Mark and Luke in one striking fact: the life of the Son of God, the Messiah, is eternal, even though the humanity of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, had a specific beginning in time and space.

John intentionally mimics the beginning of Genesis in his opening line, rushing to describe the eternal life of the Son and His central role in creation.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” John 1:1-5

All of the Gospel accounts of the Son’s eternality are complemented by scattered statements and passages from the rest of the New Testament. The hymn of Colossians 1 stands out first, but the “kenosis” or “emptying” passage in Philippians 2 has much to offer. 1 Peter 1:20, Ephesians 1:4 and Revelation 13:8 add clarity and confirmation.

In addition, an entire related but independent study could be made of the many Old Testament prophecies that predicted and foretold the nature of the Son of God, His yet future ministry and His sacrifice. Beginning in Genesis 3:15 through the dense first half of the rest of Genesis, on into the pictures of the Passover, the sacrificial system, the tabernacle and temple, the kingdom of David and finally the many specific messianic prophecies such as Micah 5:2, Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Daniel 9:24-27; Zechariah 9:9, 12:10 and 14:4. There are dozens of others.

All remind and suggest that any study of the Life of Jesus Christ must begin in eternity past, with great appreciation for the Son’s eternality, His position in creation and the manifold prophecies that lead to His birth into human time and space. Christmas is not the beginning.

Family Discussion Questions: 
  1. Try to draw a family tree with both your mother and father’s side - naming the first names of each generation’s parents as far back as you can go. How far did you get? 
  2. Why is it important to link Jesus to King David? 
  3. Why is it important to link Jesus to Abraham? 
  4. Discuss the statement “There was never a time with the Son of God was not” with your family. Share your thoughts and questions. 
  5. If you could go back in time and actually live and walk with Jesus, what are three things you would like to do? 

Small Group Discussion Questions: 
  1. We often talk about the death of Jesus Christ, but what do you think about His life? What is the most important aspect of Jesus’ life in your opinion? Share with your group.
  2. What about Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:2-17 stands out to you? Why?
  3. Why do you think Matthew mentions women in Jesus’ lineage? 
  4. What advantage would an ancient biography like Matthew or Luke gain by including a family tree? 
  5. Read Philippians 2:5-8. Discuss what it reveals about Jesus’ eternal nature and incarnation. 
  6. Read Romans 5:10. Discuss its meaning with your group. Be sure to clarify the context. 
  7. Read Colossians 1:15-20. What does Paul, in this ancient creedal hymn, reveal about Jesus the eternal Son of God? How does it help you understand Jesus’ divine power and eternal nature? Discuss with your group. 
  8. What Old Testament prophecies are you aware of that foretold the ministry, humanity and sacrifice of Jesus Christ? Discuss with your group. (See a partial list in notes above)

Reading Plan for the Life of Jesus: Week 1
Sunday John 1:1-18
Monday Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 1:1-4; 3:23-38
Tuesday Mark 1:1; Colossians 1:13-20
Wednesday Psalm 2; Daniel 7:9-14
Thursday Ephesians 1:3-14
FridayPhilippians 2:1-11
SaturdayJohn 8:31-58
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