For thirty-three years Jesus walked the earth as a sinless man who was the living Word of God. The women in his family tree, however, were anything but perfect. From their stories, we see the roots of our own struggles and recognize that we are all sinners in need of a Savior. The lives of Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary reveal messy and complicated circumstances. And yet, through the women in Jesus’ family tree, we see God’s redemptive hand at work. With each new branch, he prepared the way for Jesus, the Messiah who would ultimately die on a cross and rise from death to graft all people into his family tree.
Despite their flaws, these women were like the nearly indestructible oak tree: symbols of strength and endurance that survived even the most difficult circumstances. Most experienced the pain of a broken heart at least once in their stories—whether it was Sarah and Rebekah who longed for children that wouldn’t come, Leah and Tamar who were unloved by their husbands or Bathsheba who had one loss layered on top of another. Some like Rahab and Ruth had been captives to false religions while others like Eve fell captive to sin. A few, like Ruth and Mary, were poor. These women mourned over lost husbands, children, homelands and dreams. And yet, from them, the bloodline of the Messiah passed from one generation to the next. Reading a familiar passage written by the prophet Isaiah makes me think of them:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” (Isaiah 61:1-3)
Despite their hardships, their pain, their poor choices and ugly circumstances, the women in Jesus’ family line ultimately displayed God’s splendor. They played key roles in fulfilling his covenant promise to Abraham, who was blessed to be a blessing to the entire world. (See Genesis 12:2-3)
Generations after Isaiah made his prophecy, that blessing was fulfilled in the person of Jesus, the Messiah that had been foretold since the creation of the world. (See Genesis 3:14-15) Jesus astonished everyone in his hometown synagogue by standing up and reading this same passage from Isaiah and boldly proclaiming that it was fulfilled in Him:
“He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:16-21, NIV)
Jesus shocked the crowd with this statement just as he was beginning his earthly ministry. After teaching, healing and making disciples for three subsequent years, he was crucified despite committing no crime. After Jesus resurrected from death and ascended into heaven, his disciples continued to proclaim the good news about him. And despite intense persecution and hardship, their numbers continued to multiply. Each time something threatened to wipe out the burgeoning church, it only grew stronger and spread further.
The disciples’ tenacity and continued multiplication reminds me of an unusual type of oak that grows in the Jurupa Valley in Southern California. Known as the Palmer’s Oak, it looks like an unimpressive little thigh-high shrub. From a distance, it appears to be a grouping of small trees spread out in a wide oval, but it is actually one tree that shares an ever-expanding root system. Periodically, a fire will rage across the hill where it lives, reducing it to ashes. The pressure placed on the roots by the fire causes the normally slow-growing tree to send up new sprouts. With each fire, the sprouts spread further and further.
It sounds a lot like the disciples who endured incredible hardships in order to spread their faith in Jesus. With each persecution they faced, they traveled to farther flung destinations, expanding their roots as they continued to share the gospel and watch their numbers grow. That endurance is what allowed the good news of Jesus to spread to different regions and to be passed through the generations, ultimately making it possible for us to know Jesus today.
And to think, it all started with those flawed women and their messy, complicated lives. God still brings beauty from ashes today. We have the privilege of being counted among those who display God’s splendor just like the oaks of righteousness Isaiah described so long ago.
The image of the tree has been a significant part of the Women of the Word study, both because of the family tree of Jesus and because of the oaks of righteousness. I couldn’t pass up including a song that weaves together these images and themes with a stunning visual representation. Click on the link and enjoy “Worn” by Tenth Avenue North.