Each year during the Christmas season, we look for a way to approach the Christmas story from a little different angle. The story itself doesn’t change, but our desire each year is to come to it again with fresh eyes, realizing that there is still more to be learned from the entrance of Jesus into the world. This year we are taking the approach of looking at some of the prophecies about the Messiah, and in the first sermon of the series we looked at Genesis 3, and saw how from the very beginning, God promised the Messiah would come and conquer sin and Satan once and for all.
This morning we turn our attention to another passage in Genesis, but this is one that is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. We are going to look at Jacob’s prophecy about his son Judah just before he died. It is interesting to see that Jesus (who came thousands of years after this prophecy was first uttered) fulfills what was said in an amazing way.
This morning we are looking at Genesis 49, which records the final words Jacob said to his sons before he died. It was customary at that time to pronounce some sort of blessing on your children before you died. It was also customary that the oldest son would receive a greater blessing than the younger sons. Jacob had twelve sons through four different women, and he was carrying out this custom of blessing his sons before he died. The oldest son was named Reuben, but he did not receive the blessing of the firstborn. Listen to what Jacob said instead,
3 “Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength, the child of my vigorous youth. You are first in rank and first in power. 4 But you are as unruly as a flood, and you will be first no longer. For you went to bed with my wife; you defiled my marriage couch. (Genesis 49:3-4, NLT)
Earlier in Genesis, we learn that Reuben had a sexual relationship with his stepmother (one of Jacob’s four wives). As a result, Jacob declared that even though Reuben was the firstborn, he would not receive the blessing that should belong to the firstborn.
The next two oldest children were Simeon and Levi, but Jacob denied them the blessings of the firstborn as well, citing their murderous past. Earlier in the book of Genesis we read about Dinah, who was their younger sister. A man by the name of Shechem raped Dinah and then decided he wanted to marry her. When Simeon and Levi heard about this, they told the man he could marry Dinah only if he and all of his family got circumcised. The men of Shechem got circumcised and while they were recovering, Simeon and Levi went and slaughtered them all. Because of this incident, Jacob declared that though they were the next in line after Reuben, they were both disqualified from the blessings that belonged to the firstborn.
This brings us to Judah, who was the fourth oldest child. Now, for the first time Jacob actually pronounces a blessing. This is a blessing that Judah could not have fully understood at that time, but we can see how Jacob’s prophecy is about much more than Judah himself. This is the blessing Jacob gave to Judah,
8 “Judah, your brothers will praise you. You will grasp your enemies by the neck. All your relatives will bow before you. 9 Judah, my son, is a young lion that has finished eating its prey. Like a lion he crouches and lies down; like a lioness—who dares to rouse him? 10 The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants, until the coming of the one to whom it belongs, the one whom all nations will honor. 11 He ties his foal to a grapevine, the colt of his donkey to a choice vine. He washes his clothes in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes. 12 His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth are whiter than milk. (Genesis 49: 8-12, NLT)
Essentially what Jacob is promising Judah is that his family line will be a royal line. Many of his descendants will be kings, but there will be one great king, a king that has tremendous power, and a king that will have unimaginable riches. He tells Judah that his family line will produce not only kings of Israel, but One who will be the King over all nations, the One who is the King of Kings.
The Lion of Judah
Jacob’s prophecy about Judah can be broken into three parts. The first is in verses 8 and 9.
8 “Judah, your brothers will praise you. You will grasp your enemies by the neck. All your relatives will bow before you. 9 Judah, my son, is a young lion that has finished eating its prey. Like a lion he crouches and lies down; like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
He declares that Judah and his descendants will rule like a lion, and that ultimately all of his relatives will bow down before him. While this may have applied in some way to Judah himself, we can see that it is really a much more apt description of Jesus, who would come from Judah’s line much later.
Think about the way a lion rules. There is a reason the lion is called the king of the jungle—it is because for the most part, no other animal dares to challenge it. Greg Stier, the leader of Dare2Share ministries has a bit of a rebellious streak. He said one day when visiting the zoo with his family he walked by the lion cages. He noticed one of the lions sleeping, and its tail was sticking out of the cage…calling to him….So he grabbed hold of the lion’s tail, and soon regretted it. He said the lion turned to face him roared. He said the lion’s roar shook the ground, his body, and the enclosure. And even after the lion finished roaring, he was still shaking! As he stood before this lion, there was no question of its power. There was no question of who was the king. The lion was the ruler over all.
This is an accurate picture of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. One of the terms often assigned to Him was the Lion of Judah. Though He did not always assert His power while on this earth, He was and is the unquestioned ruler over all. Though many people did not recognize that fact during Jesus’ lifetime, the demons recognized his authority, and they rightly trembled before him. Look at this encounter in Matthew 8, when Jesus came across men possessed by demons. Here is what the demons said when they saw Jesus,
29 They began screaming at him, “Why are you interfering with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us before God’s appointed time?” (Matthew 8:29, NLT)
They recognized Jesus’ power, and trembled before Him, just as a man trembles before a lion. We are also told, however, that even though many do not recognize Jesus as the lion that He is, one day everyone will.
9 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11, NLT)
The promise that Jacob made to Judah about his descendants being like a lion that rules with absolute power was perfectly fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
A Great King
The second element of Jacob’s promise to Judah is found in verse 10.
10 The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants, until the coming of the one to whom it belongs, the one whom all nations will honor. (Genesis 49:10, NLT)
Once again, this prophecy is fulfilled in the short-term through Judah, as well as in the long-term through Jesus. Jacob promises Judah that his descendants will become the kings of the nation of Israel. And this proved to be true. King David was probably the greatest king in Israel’s history, and he was from the tribe of Judah. His son was King Solomon, the wisest man that ever lived, and the family line of Judah continued to rule as kings of Israel.
Eventually, due to Israel’s turning away from the Lord, God allowed them to be conquered by invading armies, and they spent the next several hundred years under the rule of one foreign government after another. But the people of Israel remembered this promise to Judah. They believed that there was still coming a great king, one that all nations would honor.
Unfortunately, many of the Jews didn’t think that Jesus met that description. At the time Jesus came to earth, the Israelites were under the rule of the Roman Empire. They believed this promise pointed to a king who was going to overthrow Rome and enable Israel to once again become a world power. But they weren’t thinking big enough!
Though Jesus did not become an earthly king that set up an earthly kingdom, He was and is the greatest king to ever live. Every other kingdom established by men has ultimately fallen. The Egyptian Empire fell, the Babylonian Empire fell, the Greek Empire fell, the Roman Empire fell, and every other kingdom ever established either has fallen or will eventually fall. Jesus rules over a kingdom that will never fall—He has established a kingdom that lasts forever. His kingdom is not some block of land somewhere on the earth; He is the King of all creation! Whether people currently recognize it or not, Jesus is the One who rules over all.
This is a good time to point out Jesus’ lineage. The beginning of Matthew and the beginning of Luke each record a genealogy of Jesus. The two genealogies are different. The genealogy in Matthew 1 gives the lineage of Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father. Joseph is of the family line of Judah, and is a direct descendant of King David, meaning that Jesus met the requirements needed to fulfill this prophecy. What is interesting is that in the genealogy in Luke 4, we see the family line of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Her lineage also traces its way back to King David and ultimately to Judah. These two passages in the gospels are passages that we often gloss over, because we don’t understand why the list of names is included, but there is actually much we can learn from these genealogies if we are well-versed in Old Testament history. And one of the things these lineages show us is that Jesus was the King who was promised to Judah all that time ago. He is the perfect fulfillment of Jacob’s prophecy!
The third element of Jacob’s promise to Judah is that this King will usher in a period of great prosperity, unlike anything that has ever been known.
11 He ties his foal to a grapevine, the colt of his donkey to a choice vine. He washes his clothes in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes. 12 His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth are whiter than milk. (Genesis 49:11-12, NLT)
Though it is not immediately apparent to our ears, this promise is saying the promised King will have great riches. One of the signs of wealth in those days was access to good wine. Vineyards were a treasured possession and wine was highly valued. This description tells us that this promised king will have such great wealth that he will not need to worry about his vineyard or about his wine—they will be insignificant compared to everything else he has.
We are told that he will wash his clothes in wine, the “blood of grapes.” He won’t have to worry about whether he will have enough wine—he will have so much that he could wash his clothes with it if he wanted to. In other words, he will have such great wealth that wine will be as common to him as water is to us. And we are told that he will tie his foal to a grapevine. What happens if you tied an animal to a grapevine? The animal would eat all the grapes! The average person would never allow a beast of burden like a donkey to freely eat the grapes in their vineyard—but we are told that this king will have such wealth that he wouldn’t need to worry about his grapes—he could let his donkey eat its fill without worry.
Does this describe Jesus? Absolutely! But not necessarily in the way the people originally thought. Jesus, when He was on earth, did not possess much earthly wealth. He didn’t own vineyards, or land, or even a donkey! But Jesus’ wealth extended far beyond earthly possessions. Jesus knew that the things of this world were temporary, and so He viewed these things as tools to be used for the greater kingdom, the Kingdom of God which lasts forever. He had access to a greater wealth than anyone could have ever imagined, but it was a different kind of wealth than they had imagined.
I do, however, find it interesting that with all of this imagery about wine Jesus’ first earthly miracle was one that involved creating an abundance of wine! Jesus took water (something that was commonplace) and turned it into the best wine the wine steward had ever had! Jesus certainly didn’t concern himself with whether he had enough wine, not because he could make wine from water, but because He knew that such earthly treasures paled in comparison to the treasures of Heaven.
Though it seems strange to think about prophecies about Jesus way back in the book of Genesis, He is a common thread that runs through the whole Bible. Jesus is the One that all of history points to. Even in Jacob’s blessings to his sons, he foretells the coming of the Messiah, the person of Jesus Christ.
The Jewish people saw this thread running through the Old Testament clearly. They knew that there was coming a day when this king who was promised would arrive. They knew that all of history was pointing toward this one event—the arrival of the Messiah! This is why we celebrate Christmas! We celebrate Jesus’ birth because the One who had been promised all those years ago had finally come into the world. Unfortunately, many of the people who were most eagerly awaiting the promised Messiah overlooked Jesus, because He was different than what they were expecting. Many of those people are still waiting and hoping for the Messiah today.
The challenge for us, thousands of years later is not to make the same mistake. We must not overlook Jesus. The challenge we face is to honor the One who is the Lion of Judah, the Great King, the One who has greater riches than we could ever know. We must not miss the greatness of Jesus Christ.
To do that we need to look carefully at our lives and ask ourselves if we are honoring Him as the King we know He is.
- Do we tremble before Jesus as the lion who has great power, or do we view Him as a genie in a bottle, a god who is subject to us? In C.S. Lewis’ series, The Chronicles of Narnia, the character who represents Jesus is a lion, named Aslan. At one point in the story, after hearing that the great Aslan is a lion, Susan asks if he is safe. The answer she receives is that of course he is not safe, after all, he is a lion; but he is good. We need to recognize Jesus in the same way. He has all the power in the world, but also welcomes us with open arms. We must ensure, however, that we do not set ourselves up in opposition to Him (either in the things we say about Him or His Word or in the choices we make in our lives), because we do not want to find ourselves up against the lion of Judah. He is loving, He is good, but He will also assert his dominance over the world as a lion does over the jungle.
- Do we honor Him as the great King, the One to whom every other kingdom must bow? Or do we imagine ourselves to be low-level kings, with Jesus simply going along for the ride? Again, it is a question of who is in control. To whom do we submit our lives and our decision-making? Are we taking our lead from Jesus, or are we trying to go our own way? If we truly recognize Jesus as King over all, we will see Him as King over us. We will follow Him, we will trust Him, and we will seek to honor Him. It means that we will do what He says even if the world around us says we are foolish. It means we will examine our lives to ensure we are being obedient to His Word, and when we find places where we are not, we will work to make changes, even if those changes are hard to make. And it means we will honor Him by refusing to allow ourselves to be distracted by the things of this world, and instead make our relationship with Him our top priority. If we truly understand that He is the King of Kings, and if we understand that we are given the opportunity to be close friends with Him, then why would we neglect to build that relationship?!
- Do we recognize the riches of Jesus as greater than anything this world can offer, or do we get caught up seeking after the treasures of this world? This is a terrible temptation for us during the American Christmas season. Our “celebration of the birth of Jesus” tends to be more about making sure we get the greatest treasures this world can offer. This prophecy reminds us that compared to the treasures of Jesus, the things of this world are mere trinkets that will rust and ultimately be forgotten. So, if we recognize Christ as we see Him in this passage, then we will seek Him more than the things of this world. We will give up our money, our time, our stuff, our popularity, our power, our leisure activities, and all sorts of other things in favor of seeking after the treasures of Heaven. In other words, we will recognize that our relationship with God, our opportunities to share the gospel with others, our friendships that cause us to grow in faith, and our opportunities to meet the needs of others are far greater treasures than anything this world can offer.
Thousands of years before Jesus arrived on the scene, Jacob had a clear picture of who He would be. His picture is one that should serve as a good reminder for us today. Christmas changes everything because Jesus came to earth. He was the One who was promised. But He was more than just a cute little baby—he was a great King who had been promised well in advance. And He would establish a Kingdom that would last forever. And here’s the best part, He gives you and me the opportunity to be a part of that Kingdom—he simply asks us to recognize Him and to follow Him as the King He truly is.