Text: Luke 3:15-17; 21-22
Theme: Jesus, the untamed, but utterly good Lion of Judah.
A few weeks ago, when I gave the reflection for the second week of advent, I spoke about the arrival of Jesus as the Prince of Peace.
This morning, we’re leaping ahead 30 years to Jesus’ baptism and the start of his ministry on Earth.
Our reading from Luke this morning contains some curious imagery that is sometimes overlooked and is best understood by delving deeper into our understanding of who Jesus was and is today.
My aim is to borrow from several passages of scripture and a character from C.S. Lewis’ stories known as the Chronicles of Narnia to help us understand something truly remarkable about Jesus.
We tend to be quite comfortable with imagery in the Bible that portrays Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
However, we’re less comfortable with passages that present him in other, more intense terms.
Today, we will visit scriptures that remind us that Jesus is more than the Lamb of God who takes aways the sins of the world.
He is also the Lion of Judah – majestic, fierce in love, and worthy to be called the king of kings – and one who will return as the perfect judge of humanity and complete his victory over sin and death.
As we unpack this image of Jesus, we will find him destined by God to be our judge, but I trust you will also find great hope and confidence that He is equally prepared to be our rescuer!
Trouble in the World
To understand the significance of the title Lion of Judah, we must first examine the origins.
For that we must turn to Genesis Chapter 49 and a descendent of Abraham by the name of Jacob, who had 12 sons.
The descendants of those 12 sons eventually become the 12 tribes of Israel, each named after one of Jacob’s sons. One of those sons was called Judah.
Genesis 49 includes a poem in which Jacob is speaking with his sons shortly before his death. In this poem he blesses them and prophesies about their future descendants.
When he gets to his son Judah, verses 8-12 tell us what he said.
Without going into all of the imagery here, Jacob is prophesying that future kings of Israel would descend from the line of Judah.
For nearly a thousand years, this proved true, even if some of those kings ruled in a limited form under various occupying forces.
Then, when Rome seized control and appointed Herod King of Judea – a man who was raised as a Jew but was not ethnically Jewish — it appeared that scripture was wrong – Judah was no longer the custodian of power among the Israelites.
But this is precisely when the Jesus, the Messiah arrives on the scene.
Notice the line in scripture that says, “until the ultimate ruler comes and the nations obey him.”
This passage paints an image of a future, ideal king from the tribe of Judah who would demand and deserve the obedience of all nations.
This king is also described like a lion.
Now, it was common in those days for kings to be described as lions with an emphasis on the male lion and threats of fierceness, cruelty and power.
But the Lion of Judah is not portrayed as just another savage lion. No, this lion is different. This passage includes three lion images – a lion cub, a lioness, and then a male lion. The imagery here is not of a single savage lion on the prowl as a predator, but rather a trinity of power at rest — but also a power that was not be trifled with.
When Jacob says that “the scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,” he was proclaiming the eventual, eternal kingdom of Jesus Christ
The OT prophets later described this future king and Lion of Judah as the Messiah who would eventually conquer evil and rescue the world.
We find another curious reference to this King and Lion of Judah in the book of Revelations. A passage of scripture that makes it clear the ideal king originally described by Jacob can only be the person of Jesus Christ.
This passage was likely written by John of Patmos, one of Jesus’s 12 apostles who was especially close to Jesus. John received a special revelation from God in the form of a vision of future events leading up to Jesus’ return and the final judgement.
In this passage, John is describing a future scene in heaven where the Lion of Judah and Lamb of God are one in the same, and the only person able to break the seals of a scroll that contains God’s final plans for restoring justice on the earth.
Notice it says, “Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals’” because he was also the Lamb who gave his life and purchased humanity’s rescue.
This makes it clear, that Jesus – born into the tribe of Judah and descended from David through the lineage of his earthly stepfather Joseph – is the only one who can break the seals and open the scroll.
In other words, judgment is coming, and it will be accomplished by Jesus, who is both the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, but also the Lion of Judah who will expose the true nature of every human being who has ever lived.
However, coming back to the days when John the Baptist was preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry, the Israelites were envisioning the kind of king and lion that was common to their neighbors – one ready to kill and devour the opposition – not the Lion and Messiah that God actually sent.
Trouble in the Text
Turning now to Luke Chapter 3 and the passages read earlier, we find John the Baptist preaching in a region known as the wilderness of Judah.
This area was seldom occupied by people because it was especially dry and mountainous. It was known as a place where criminals often hid from the authorities.
But here is John the Baptist, preaching in this wilderness and saying some very provocative things that drew a lot of attention.
He was known for preaching about the God’s final judgment, calling people to repentance or face a harsh judgment to come. He even called out the Jewish temple leaders as a corrupt family of snakes.
As a result, he began to draw crowds who went out to hear him. Some choosing to repent and be baptized by John in the River Jordan which ran along the eastern edge of this wilderness area.
However, John made it clear that he could only baptize them in water as a symbol of their repentance, but someone else was coming who could forgive their sins and baptize and purify them with the Spirit of God.
And then, one day, the people arriving to be baptized by John, included Jesus himself.
God’s Action in the Text
By this point, Jesus was approximately 30 years old and had mostly kept his purpose and mission quiet. But now he’s ready to begin a period of ministry on earth that would end with his death and resurrection just three years later.
And He begins – by asking John to baptize him.
The story of Jesus’ baptism is told in each of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – each account recalling specific details.
These witnesses tell us that John recognizes Jesus approaching, and he cries out for all to hear, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world – the one I have been telling you about.
When Jesus approaches him and asks to be baptized, John naturally objects. After all, he knows who Jesus is, and Jesus had no need to repent. So, he tells Jesus, I should be baptized by you!
Nevertheless, Jesus insists, because this was a symbol act. It showed that he had given up His will to the will of his Father God – a voluntary decision that meant he would have to descend into death, before He could then return to life.
This was also the moment when God declares and confirms who Jesus is. The Gospels tell us right after Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove – demonstrating the power and authority of God was behind Jesus’ ministry from this day forward – a ministry that would make it possible for there to be peace between humanity and God.
But there is something else in the words of John the Baptist that reminds us that Jesus is more than the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
As we read in Luke Chapter 3, John says the Messiah is the only one who can baptize us with God’s Holy Spirit – not unlike the way the Spirit descended on Jesus and stayed with him after his baptism.
But John goes on to say something curious here. He says the Messiah would baptize with the Spirit and fire.
He then paints a picture of the Messiah as one who stands on a threshing floor ready to separate the edible wheat from the inedible chaff.
Now, John’s listeners would have understood this imagery very well.
When wheat is harvested, the stalks are cut and bundled together. Livestock were used to drag heavy boards over the stalks to tear and loosen the grains of wheat. The pieces were then collected and thrown up into the air with a kind of wooden fork.
The heavier edible parts fell back to the floor, but the dried pieces of stalk and husks would blow to the side. This was the winnowing part of the process, and the useless parts were discarded and burned.
Jesus’ baptism signals the arrival of the Holy Spirit as an ongoing presence in his ministry and the ministry of His church that followed.
However, John is also telling his listeners the arrival of the Messiah signals two important facts:
- First, he announces the good news that the Lamb of God is here, and he has the power to forgive and save us, in concert with God’s Holy Spirit. And not just the Jews, but everyone everywhere.
- Second, the Messiah is also our future judge, and he will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff will be destroyed.
This was a powerful warning.
Those who are baptised with the Holy Spirit – in other words those who repent and embrace Jesus as Messiah – will be separated, purified and saved.
And those who resist the Holy Spirit and reject Jesus, will eventually be destroyed.
This is consistent with the image we find in Revelations Chapter 5 describing Jesus as both the Lamb of God and the Lion of Judah on that future day when he breaks the seals and opens the scroll of God’s final judgment.
God’s Action in the World
So, what is the takeaway from all of this?
What does this mean for us today?
The answer is more complex than we can grapple with in a few minutes, so let me focus on one important, but often overlooked implication.
We are generally quite comfortable with the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God who sacrificed himself for us.
But scripture reminds us that Jesus is also the untamed but utterly good Lion of Judah.
This is where the imagination and faith of C.S. Lewis offers us a way of engaging with Jesus as a lion.
For those who are not familiar, Lewis was a teacher of English at Oxford University in the late 1940s. He had gradually moved from atheism to Christian faith in his early thirties.
He is perhaps best known for a collection of stories known as the Chronicles of Narnia, in which four children join a central character called Aslan in liberating the inhabitants of an imaginary land called Narnia from an evil white witch.
The inhabitants of this land include animals and other creatures that speak and were living under conditions of perpetual winter but never Christmas. And Aslan, in the stories – is a massive lion.
These Narnia stories present Christian truth to us in an imaginative way, but what makes them special is how they do so.
For Lewis, these stories were not meant to be read as allegories. Instead, he insisted they are read as supposals – in other words, suppose there was another universe, and God and Jesus appeared there and did things, but in a different form.
With this in mind, the central character – Aslan – is the supposed Christ figure who arrives to liberate a land called Narnia.
He does this in cooperation with a small group of allies who put their trust in him. He goes on to save Narnia and defeat the witch by sacrificing his life and achieving resurrection.
What stands out, is the way Aslan is portrayed as a large and at times very intimidating lion, but one who is also gentle, kind and utterly good.
In the first story, four children arrive in Narnia through a secret door. Its dark and cold with deep snow on the ground. They have no idea where they are, but they are soon discovered by a talking Beaver who takes them to his home where he begins to answer their questions.
Scripture contains describes Jesus in similar terms.
And like these children who knew nothing of the real Aslan, we must occasionally test our assumptions and understanding of Jesus.
Otherwise, we risk overlooking the noble and majestic concept of God that we received from our Hebrew and Christian ancestors long ago. We may even have a tendency to try and domesticate God for our own purposes.
To test our assumptions about God, we only need to look to Jesus, who said,
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
When we do this, we see Jesus’ tenderness when he takes off his outer robe and washes the feet of his disciples.
We see Jesus’ patience in forgiving and restoring people when they fail.
We get a strong sense of His authority when the rich man asks him what he must do to enter the Kingdom, and Jesus tells him to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. Jesus does not try to negotiate with the man when he turns and walks away. He does not say, “Wait – come back – perhaps we can come to an agreement!”
Instead, Jesus is the ideal King; and he gets to dictate the terms.
He boldly called out the religious leaders of the time for not only resisting the truth, but for standing in the way of others who would have responded.
He drives out the money changers from the temple, and he boldly tells the Pharisees that they remind him of whitewashed graves – nice on the outside, but full of bones and corruption inside.
We sometimes try to tame God, but there is a wildness to God that will make all such attempts fail.
The Celtic Christians seemed to understand this. Instead of a dove, their symbol for the Holy Spirit was a wild goose, because they saw the untamed, uncontrollable, and seemingly erratic nature of the Wild Goose as similar to the movements of the Spirit.
A Wild Goose is always on the move, always doing unexpected things; it is loud, passionate, sometimes frightening, and certainly unsettling. They understood that living a life led by God was going to feel a lot like chasing after a wild goose.
This means we must not gloss over the uncomfortable imagery in scripture, such as that of Jesus on the threshing floor separating the wheat and discarding the chaff, or the imagery of fire and purification.
Imagery such as this reminds us that God is not a heavenly life coach or best mate whose primary job is to help us get our lives together so we can be successful and happy.
And John the Baptist was just one of many biblical witnesses who remind us that neither Jesus, his Father nor the Holy Spirit are tame, but they are always good.
This means, we can be thankful for the Lion of Judah as much as the Lamb of God.
We can be thankful for this untamed, but always faithful and always good God.
As we go about our daily lives, and face challenges and even suffering, let us remember this about the Lion of Judah:
- His blood and resurrection guarantee the path to salvation has been put in place for everyone who chooses it.
- His authority as the ideal king guarantees the final victory over sin and death
- His goodness guarantees perfect justice when he returns.
- His magnificence guarantees access to blessing and help.
In closing, let me suggest this to you.
We are made and meant to have personal encounters with God –
Encounters with the Lamb of God who has the authority to save us.
But also challenging and sometimes uncomfortable encounters with God’s Holy Spirit who has the power to purify and prepare us, so that we are ready to encounter Jesus, as the untamed, but always good Lion of Judah!