How Judah’s Scepter Connects to Christmas—& Jesus’ Return

Scepter of Judah excerpt from Tidings bookToo often meaning can be lost in the busyness of the Christmas season. That’s why Mark Yarbrough wrote the advent devotional Tidings of Comfort and Joy: 25 Devotions Leading to Christmas—to remind us what Christmas is all about and why we celebrate.

Yarbrough is the president of Dallas Theological Seminary and author of How to Read the Bible Like a Seminary Professor and Paul’s Utilization of Preformed Traditions in 1 Timothy. In Tidings, he combines Scripture reflections, winsome stories, Advent applications, and guided prayers, making it the resource you and your family may turn to each year to prepare your heart for the wonder and meaning of Christmas.

In this excerpt from Tidings, Yarbrough explores the significance of Judah’s scepter in Genesis 49:10—and the scepter Jesus held for his first advent that he sacrificially wielded for us.

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The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.
—Genesis 49:10

Of our four children, Kayla is the oldest. Growing up with three younger siblings, she wielded her rank sometimes in amusing ways.

Once at the age of seven, with the three others in tow at ages five, three, and one, she called a “kid-only” meeting to discuss a matter where someone had done something out of line that brought trouble to the tribe. Like good parents, my wife Jennifer and I eavesdropped on the comical courtroom to hear the exchange.

After calling the meeting to order, she asked her brother if he had done a particular deed and the manner and reason he had done so. Challenging her authority, he bellowed out, “You’re not in charge. I don’t have to tell you anything.” To which she replied, “I’m more in charge than you. But Mom and Dad are really in charge—that’s what it means to be a kid!”

As I recall, Jennifer and I high-fived each other after hearing the rousing endorsement. We’ve laughed about that episode for years. But there is also a subtle sorrow in it. For in that moment, we see the human predicament: fallen human beings clamoring for power and control and fleeing from accountability. Young or old, we’ve all been there, and we’ve all participated. We jockey for position and prestige, and our hearts are not always pure in our appointed or assumed positions. Who can rule rightly?

Enter baby Jesus and his promised scepter of Judah.

Judah’s scepter

Well over 1,500 years before the miraculous moment in Bethlehem, the children of Israel made a journey to Egypt. God providentially sent Joseph on ahead under Pharaoh’s rule to save the lives of many, including Abraham’s promised lineage. Joseph had been placed in command to prepare and provide during a great famine. As Joseph’s brothers traveled to Egypt for food, they subsequently came into contact with their long thought-for-dead sibling. Eventually they told Jacob—and good ol’ Dad was in shock to find out Joe was alive and well, and in a position to help.

Upon Jacob’s arrival in Egypt, and after seeing Joseph alive, he said to him, “Now I am ready to die, since I have seen for myself that you are still alive” (Gen 46:30). Several years later, nearing death, and as was common in the patriarchal ancient Near East, Jacob blessed his sons (Gen 49). It is a powerful moment of personal and prophetic words. And none are more pointed than what was spoken to Judah, child number four to Jacob and Leah.

Judah’s early years were anything but stellar. He was involved in the scheme to sell off Joseph to the Ishmaelites (Gen 37), and the events of Genesis 38 are just scandalous! However, Judah’s responses in his later years were sacrificial, vowing to protect his younger brother (Gen 43:8–10) and even offering to sacrifice himself in his place (44:33). But even with such admirable growth in character, the blessing he receives at Jacob’s death is shocking. In that moment of prophetic blessing, Jacob states that the “scepter” will not depart from the line of Judah.

A scepter—an interesting word reflecting something we generally do not think of today. In ancient times it was a highly decorated staff or rod that represented a ruler’s absolute authority. It is clear that a scepter is synonymous with authority due to the follow-up statement that says, “Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet” (Gen 49:10, emphasis added). Certainly, Jacob’s blessing was given to remind Judah that God often works through us in spite of us!

An eternal throne

This prophetic declaration about Judah became reality when, centuries later, the children of Israel became a nation and the royal line of kings was to come through the tribe of Judah. Israel’s first king, Saul, a Benjamite, was the people’s choice. But God’s appointment of that kingly line was through David . . . .of the tribe of Judah. Through earthly, fallen kings (Solomon, Rehoboam, Abijah, etc.) the line continued throughout the descendants of David. Yet don’t miss the final pronouncement from Jacob pertaining to Judah’s scepter of authority. This line would continue “until . . .”

Until. That’s a pregnant word. It will continue “until he comes to whom it belongs” (Gen 49:10, emphasis added). Who is this one? It is none other than the Messiah. The scepter belongs to him. That is why some Bible versions (such as KJV and NASB) translate the prophecy as “until Shiloh comes,” Shiloh being a title for the Messiah.

Years later, God would tell David, of the line of Judah, that his throne would be established forever and would never end (2 Sam 7:8–16). The Gospel writers, and all believers in Jesus, identify Jesus as the Messiah, the son of David, whose kingdom is eternal (2 Pet 1:11).

While the Babe in Bethlehem didn’t receive a physical scepter upon his arrival at the first advent, he held one nonetheless. His first scepter for his first advent was sacrificially wielded for us. It was the scepter of his death. Do you remember? Nearing Jesus’s time of sacrifice, the soldiers “stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff [scepter] in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him” (Matt 27:28–29). You see, he came to yield his life as an atonement for sin.

But be comforted: he will wield another and better scepter. That is why we await his return. This time, he will arrive not as a Lamb, but as the Lion of the tribe of Judah (Rev 5:5). He will reign on the throne of his father David given him by the Lord God (Luke 1:32–33). The scepter belongs to him and he shall reign forever and forever. Hallelujah!

Advent application

Memorize Hebrews 1:8. With fallen humanity, worldly authority is temporary. Eventually, earthly scepters slip through the grasp of the one who holds it. It’s only a kid court, looking for power. But not with our Messiah. One day he will reign on planet earth, wielding righteous and just authority. As Hebrews 1:8 says of the Messiah, “Your throne, O God will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.” That conviction is worth committing to heart.

Prayer

Dear Father, I trust you. You are in charge. I believe that in the first advent, your Son, Jesus, came to pay the price for my sin because he loves me. I give you thanks. Now I anticipate his return as King of kings and Lord of lords. Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.1

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Scepter of Judah excerpt from Tidings bookThis excerpt about Judah’s scepter is adapted from the advent devotional Tidings of Comfort and Joy: 25 Devotions Leading to Christmas by Mark Yarbrough, available now from Lexham Press.


Related articles

  1. Yarbrough, Mark M. 2021. Tidings of Comfort and Joy: 25 Devotions Leading to Christmas. Bellingham, WA: Kirkdale Press.
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