The lineage of our Savior Jesus Christ is two-fold, both divine and human. One, Jesus Christ is “the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages…begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father” (Nicene Creed). Two, Jesus Christ “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man” (Nicene Creed).
The generation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, from God the Father is beyond explanation, eternal, and before the creation of everything, including time itself. Saint John the Evangelist writes: “In the beginning was the Word (Gk., Logos; also meaning ‘reason, rationale,’ etc.), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God”; also, “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (Jn. 1:1-2, 18). King David sings of the Lord (the Father) speaking of the Lord (the Son): “I have begotten You from the womb before the morning star” (Ps. 109:4). This describes Jesus Christ’s divine nature.
The generation of Jesus Christ according to the flesh, that is, His human nature, can be traced from His human ancestors whom we commemorate this Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity (Birth) of Christ. Saint John writes: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). From the Epistle reading on Christmas morning we read, “But when the fulness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4). Jesus Christ is both God and Man, eternally begotten and equal in divinity to the Father according to His divine nature, and born of the Virgin Mary and equal in humanity to His human ancestors according to His human nature.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both present genealogies of Jesus Christ according to the flesh. Saint Luke goes backward from Christ Himself of Joseph (the son) of Heli in 70 generations through David’s son Nathan to Adam and God (Lk. 3:23-38). Saint Matthew begins with the patriarch Abraham who begot Isaac going forward 42 (3 times 14) generations through David’s son Solomon to Joseph begotten of Jacob (Matt. 1:1-17). Neither of these Gospels say that Jesus was a biological son begotten of Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary; rather, Joseph was the legal father and guardian of Jesus confirming His heritage from the tribe of Judah. As St. Theophylact of Ochrid notes, Joseph’s Judahite lineage bespoke the same for the Virgin Mary as the Law stipulated that a woman was to marry within the same tribe (see Num. 36:8-9).
The fact that Joseph is said to two fathers, both Heli and Jacob, is explained by the law of the brother-in-law. “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband’s brother shall go in to her…the firstborn son she bears shall be named by the name of his dead brother” (Deut. 25:5, 6). Heli was married to Joseph’s mother; he died before having children, and Heli’s brother Jacob married Joseph’s mother who then gave birth to Joseph in Heli’s name. Likewise with both David’s sons Solomon and Nathan, we see the line to Christ diverging and re-converging by direct descent, marriage, and adoption.
Saint Gregory Palamas concludes: “Do you see that the family and kin of Christ are not engendered according to nature, but according to grace and the law that comes from grace? This law is so far superior to the law given through Moses that, whereas those called sons according to the law of Moses are neither born of God nor do they transcend human nature, those styled sons by the law of grace are born of God, brought to perfection above nature and made sons of Abraham through Christ, more closely associated with Him than sons according to blood” (Homily 57.15).
The holy ancestors of Christ certainly understood and maintained the biological and genetic heritage given them by God. More than that, though, these ancestors understood their keeping of the Law, or covenant, from God to be the essence of their inheritance from God, and God maintained the line of succession to Christ despite the failings of those involved in the process. This inheritance was promised to them as a gift of God’s grace to be fulfilled in the Person of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, the coming Savior and King of the universe.
By leading to the Christ who is the Savior of the world, the holy ancestors show what it truly means to be in the family of God as His children. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:12-13).