Why Is Jesus The Lion Of Judah?

The last book of the Bible, called Revelation, tells about the end of history and the second coming of Christ. In Revelation 5:5, we read this about Jesus: “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered.” Jesus is the Lion of Judah. And today, as we come in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, to the climax of the Joseph story (and the climax of the whole book of Genesis), we get to see why. 

Why is Jesus “the Lion of the tribe of Judah”? Why not “of the tribe of Joseph”? As we’ve seen in recent weeks, Judah and Joseph were brothers, sons of Jacob, along with ten other brothers. Judah was Jacob’s fourth son, by his wife Leah (Genesis 29:35; 35:23). But Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, by his favorite wife, Rachel.

Judah and his brothers envied Joseph because of their father’s special love for him, and because of Joseph’s dreams, in which he foresaw them all bowing down to him. They came to envy him so much that they sold him into slavery and gave Jacob the impression that Joseph was dead. 

But we saw last week how, even in slavery, God was with Joseph. He worked in the house of a man named Potiphar, and he was so able that Potiphar put him over his whole house. When Potiphar’s wife lied about Joseph, he was sent to prison, and then, even there, God’s favor was on him, and soon he was put him over the whole prison. Then, he interprets the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s servants, which eventually (after “two whole years,” Genesis 41:1) leads to him interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and being put over all of Egypt, which brings him back in contact with his brothers.

Joseph is the focus of Genesis 37–50. And yet, one of the most surprising and important things that happens in his life, and has massive implications for the history of God’s people, and for the eventual king of God’s people, is what happens to Joseph’s brother Judah. In fact, the climactic moment of the whole book of Genesis comes when Joseph and Judah stand face to face at the end of chapter 44 and beginning of chapter 45.


So, let’s come at this story, which may be familiar to many, but let’s do so from a different angle: with Judah in view.

1) Remember Judah’s glaring flaws.

Not only was he among the ten brothers who envied and plotted against Joseph, but in fact, Judah had been the one who suggested they sell Joseph into slavery (for profit):

Genesis 37:26–27: “Judah said to his brothers, ‘What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers listened to him.”

Judah does speak up to keep Joseph from being killed, but why? For profit. “What profit is it if we kill our brother . . . ? Come, let us sell him.” And Judah carries the day. He speaks the word, and the brothers sell Joseph as a slave.

Then chapter 38 chronicles Judah’s downward moral spiral, in particular in relation to his niece Tamar, ending with his admission of his wickedness and hypocrisy (38:26). Perhaps this was rock-bottom for Judah.

Genesis 38 tips us off that we need to pay careful attention to Judah. Genesis 37–50 is the Joseph story, and yet Genesis 38 comes along and turns the focus — in the middle of Joseph’s story — to Judah. There’s at least two reasons for this. 

One is the immediate contrast between Judah in Genesis 38 visiting a prostitute and Joseph in Genesis 39–41 flourishing in Potiphar’s house and, in particular, exhibiting sterling character, refusing the overtures of his master’s wife. So the lives of Joseph and Judah begin in stark contrast. But then, another reason, is to prepare us for what we see in Judah in chapters 43–44.

 So, first, remember Judah’s glaring flaws.

2)Mark Judah’s pledge of safety.

In Genesis 42, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to seek food during the famine. Joseph recognizes them, and sends them home with food, but keeps Simeon until they return with Benjamin, his full brother (the only other son of Rachel). Jacob, having already lost one of his favorite sons, does not want Benjamin to go. But Judah steps forward, and now there’s a contrast with Reuben, and this time Judah is the positive side.

In Genesis 42:37, Reuben asks Jacob to send Benjamin and says, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you.” That’s a terrible idea! If a son is lost, then kill two grandsons? No, Jacob says, I will not trust you with my son. But, then, in Genesis 43:8–9, Judah tries another approach.

“Judah said to Israel his father, ‘Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. 9 I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever.’”

Reuben’s idea was horrible. Judah’s is honorable. “I will be a pledge of his safety.” “I will bear the blame for him.” (Which might remind us of righteous Rebecca’s assuring words to her son Jacob in Genesis 27:13, “Let your curse be on me, my son.”)

Jacob agrees, and entrusts Benjamin to Judah. The brothers return to Egypt, dine in Joseph’s house (where Benjamin gets five times the portions), then are sent home with more food. But they are caught from behind by an Egyptian saying someone stole Joseph’s silver cup. The cup, planted by Joseph, is found in Benjamin’s pack.

Two important questions here: Why does Joseph give Benjamin five times the portions, and why hide a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack? For me, these have been the two most confusing details. The two questions lead toward one answer: Joseph is setting up a test. Benjamin, the only other son of Rachel, is now his father’s favorite. And gets favored treatment in Egypt. Will the brothers envy and mistreat Benjamin like they did Joseph? And since such silver cups were used for seeing the future (Genesis 44:5), would the brothers think that Benjamin was trying to be a “dreamer” like Joseph? What’s happening is Joseph setting up Benjamin as the new Joseph to see how the brothers will respond. Will they abandon Benjamin as they did Joseph more than twenty years before?

 It’s a small detail, but it’s significant in 44:14: “Judah and his brothers.” The brothers return to Joseph, and Judah steps forward to give the longest speech in the book of Genesis, and the climax of the whole book. At the end, he says, in 44:32–33,

[I] became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.’ Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers.”

Judah’s speech, and readiness to sacrifice — to put himself into slavery instead of abandon his brother — breaks the spell, so to speak:

“Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. He cried, ‘Make everyone go out from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.” (45:1)

This is one of the most dramatic, emotional moments in all the Bible. He reveals, “I am Joseph!” And the brothers are terrified. But he comforts them by pointing five times to God’s purposes in their evil. Look at 45:4–9:

“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt.’”

Joseph is amazingly God-centered. “God sent me before you to preserve life.” “God sent me.” “He made me a father to Pharaoh.” “God has made me lord of all Egypt.” “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” Which will be captured in the last chapter in the great summary line (and is, I think, the best one-verse summary of Genesis): “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

How might it change us, when victimized, to see God’s work despite (and through) others’ sin? God’s purposes in it don’t at all mean that the brothers’ actions were not evil. They were evil. “

” And yet, even in evil — often, it seems, especially in evil, as we have seen through the book of Genesis — God is in control. Human sin and evil do not stymie his purposes, but wonder upon wonder, he takes the very acts and intentions of evil man, and not just despite them but even because of them, he brings about his saving and good intensions for his people.

And Joseph comforts his distressed brothers by assuring them that he sees what God was doing for good when they intended evil, and because of his God-centeredness, he is able to genuinely forgive their evil intentions and sin against him.

And Judah stepping forward to offer himself in Benjamin’s place passes the test Joseph had set up. Judah’s pledge of safety and readiness to bear Benjamin’s blame demonstrates love (instead of envy), and shows Joseph that he, and his brothers, have changed. Given the chance to dispense with Benjamin as they did with Joseph, Judah offers himself as a substitute. This leads, then, to his legacy.

So, remember Judah’s glaring flaws, and mark his pledge of safety.

3) Marvel at Judah’s stunning legacy.

When Jacob comes to the end of his life and blesses his twelve sons in Genesis 49, he says that the kingship in Israel will belong to Judah:

   “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, 

nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, 

     until tribute comes to him; 

and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” (49:10)

As Judah became a pledge of safety for his younger brother Benjamin, so the king in Israel should be a pledge of safety for his brothers and sisters. Just as Judah came to offer himself to free his brother, rather than enslave him, so God means for his leaders to embrace the cost and inconvenience and loss of personal comfort and private joy for the greater joy of meeting other’s needs. God means for those who lead his people — whether as pastors or husbands or fathers or influential figures — to not use others or domineer over others but to lift others up and serve them. To sacrifice for others, rather than be selfish. To use their God-given strength and energy and resources and finances and influence to help others, rather than hurt others.

This is the legacy of Judah: not exploiting others but sacrificing for them. Not pushing others down, but lifting them up. Not using power to hurt others but to help. This is the kind of man God wants to be king over his people, and leaders in society, and pastors in churches, and husbands and fathers.

The legacy of Judah, of course, is not just for men, but women as well. But let me speak as a man to my fellow men. Brothers, God has put two Judahs before us this morning — the old Judah of chapter 38 whose words cannot be trusted, and whose morality is compromised, and who wields his authority to hurt others. And God gives us the new Judah of chapter 44 whose puts himself at risk to protect others, and whose word is a good as gold, and who stands ready to sacrifice himself for the good of others. Brothers, God is calling us (in our homes and neighborhoods and workplaces) to become what Judah became (no matter how pathetic your past): men who give sacrificially of ourselves for the good of others. Men who joyfully sacrifice our own time and energy and finances and comforts to do the hard work of leading, providing for, and protecting others. Men, there are few visions more pathetic than the Judah of Genesis 38. And there are few visions more glorious than the Judah of Genesis 44. Brothers, God made you for this, and you will feel so alive, as a man, when you press past your laziness and past your fear and past your selfishness and live to protect others, not yourself. To put yourself on the line to be a pledge of safety for others.

Your Pledge of Safety

But the legacy of Judah is more than simply a call for us to be pledges of safety for others. The reason we can have hope, despite our glaring flaws, and the reason we can step forward to sacrifice self for the good of others, is because we ourselves have a Pledge of Safety for us. There is only one king, and only one man, who is the perfect embodiment of Judah’s legacy: “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered” (Revelation 5:5).

Brothers and sisters, as we come to the Table, picture Jesus himself turning to his Father and saying about you, “I will be a pledge of his safety.” Father, I will not come back without him. I will bear the blame for him. And Jesus came and offered himself in your place, as your substitute. What enables us to be the kind of people who become pledges of safety for others is that first and foremost we have Jesus as our Pledge of Safety.

And when it gets hard, and when you feel weak, and when it feels like it’s more than you can bear, you have a lion to lean on: the Lion of Judah, who has conquered. He will hold you fast. He will keep you safe. He will bring you home to his Father.

David Mathis