The tribes of Israel, such as the Levites, Benjamites, and Reubenites, have a fascinating history that readers love to trace throughout the pages of the Bible. The history of Israel also contains the story of Jesus Christ’s ancestry, which the genealogies in Matthew and Luke make clear. One question many people ask about Jesus’ ancestral line is what tribe he came from.
Jesus Christ was from the tribe of Judah, according to the Gospels and the books of Hebrews and Revelation. The Gospels refer to Jesus’ ancestors from Judah. Hebrews explicitly states that he is a descendant from the tribe, and John refers to him as “the lion of the tribe of Judah” in Revelation.
What do the Gospels say about Jesus being from Judah? Why is it important that Jesus isn’t from the tribe of Levi? What does the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” mean? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
What do the Gospels say about Jesus being from Judah?
The tribes of Israel each descended from one of Jacob’s sons, for whom they are also named (cf. Gen. 49:1-27). For example, the Levites are descendants of Levi, the Benjamites are descendants of Benjamin, and the Reubities are descendants of Reuben. Jesus, being from the tribe of Judah, is a descendant of Jacob’s son, Judah.
Two of the four New Testament Gospels include genealogies of Jesus — Matthew and Luke. These genealogies make clear that he was a descendant of Judah, Jacob’s son.
- Matthew’s genealogy reads, “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram” (Matt. 1:2-3).
- Luke’s genealogy reads, “the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor” (Luke 3:33-34).
Matthew’s birth story of Jesus includes another reference to his tribe: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matt. 2:6, ESV). As readers will discover below, Matthew and Luke aren’t the only New Testament writers to note that Jesus was from the tribe of Judah.
Why is it important that Jesus isn’t from the tribe of Levi?
The New Testament teaches that Jesus is a priest. For example, Hebrews 4:14 reads, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.”
Yet, in the Old Testament, priests came from the tribe of Levi (e.g. Exod. 28:1). One point that the writer of Hebrews strives to make is that Jesus’ priesthood is better than the Levitical priesthood (Heb. 4:14-10:18). What the old priesthood pointed to, Jesus fulfilled.
The writer explains that Jesus’ priesthood is better because he is a priest like Melchizedek. Melchizedek is superior to Levi, the ancestor of all Old Testament priests (Heb. 7:1-10).
If the Levitical priesthood were sufficient, there would be no need for another. Hebrews 7:11 reads, “Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron?”
The writer of Hebrews also makes clear that Jesus isn’t from the priestly tribe of Levi but from Judah. “For the one of whom these things are spoken belonged to another tribe, from which no one has ever served at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, and in connection with that tribe Moses said nothing about priests” (Heb. 7:13-14).
New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner explains, “The reference to Judah brings to mind the kingly nature of Jesus’ priesthood. He is a Davidic priest-king, a Messianic priest-king. There is likely an echo here from Balaam’s prophecy, for he predicted that ‘a star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise in Israel. He will smash the forehead of Moab'” (Num. 24:17). 
What does the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” mean?
At the beginning of Revelation 5, John sees a scroll and hears an angel ask who is worthy to open it. He grows upset because no one can be found: “And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it” (Rev. 5:3-4).
Then, one of the elders gives John good news: “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Rev. 5:5).
In the prophecy about Judah’s descendants recorded in Genesis 49, Jacob says, “Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? 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” (v. 9-10).
New Testament scholar Grant Osborne explains that Judah is “compared to a young lion growing in his strength, capturing his prey, and then returning to rest in his lair… It is the Messiah’s military prowess and victory over his enemies that are celebrated.” 
 Hebrews by Thomas Schreiner. EPTC. p. 219.
 Revelation by Grant Osborne. BECNT. p. 253.
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