Today’s text continues the vivid description of John’s glimpse behind the scenes into the heavenly throne room. Last week our focus was on how John was describing what was going on in heaven at the moment. It’s a scene of worship surrounding the one who is seated on the throne. We dwelled on what it means to be people created for worship, both in this sanctuary and, just as importantly, with every breath we take.
Revelation 5 takes place in the same vivid scene—with the 24 elders on their thrones, four living creatures, the glassy sea, the emerald rainbow, and the lightning, thunder, and praise. John’s attention zooms in on the right hand of God. There is a scroll in God’s right hand, sealed with seven seals. This scroll contains the words of everything that will unfold going forward in this book, so it’s an understatement to say that what will happen in this chapter is important.
Let’s talk about scrolls for a minute. In that day, a last will and testament would have been sealed with seven seals. So, not only is seven a sign of completion, but John is sharing with us that what is written on the front and back of this scroll is God’s will to be executed upon opening.
Part of maturing is recognizing that at some point your life will come to an end. Jess and I had been kicking the can down the road on getting our affairs in order, but one positive outcome of the pandemic is that we finally did so. Our wishes in that document will not be enacted until our end comes, but we know that our desires will be done when it does. Without us going to back to a lawyer, no one else can change what we’ve planned in there.
This scroll is like that. It’s God’s plan for the end. We can view it like a last will and testament, although that’s not totally accurate because God is eternal, so maybe we could look at it like a general with a battle plan that will lead to the final defeat of the enemy. Or another way to look at it is that a scroll, to the first-century Christian would mean Scripture. It’s like God is holding a copy of the Holy Scripture and saying that the plan to defeat sin and death is contained right there, and it’s always been there.
But, here’s the really interesting thing. God is holding this sealed scroll, and the cry goes out from an angel, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” John begins weeping because it seems that no one is worthy to execute God’s plan. Not the elders. Not the angels. Not the four living creatures. Not John. It’s an excruciating moment. We all have those moments where life is awful, where brokenness or disease or death make life a slog. Things are not as they should be, and we cry out, “How long? God, why don’t you fix this?” That’s where John is, exiled and watching his beloved churches suffering.
Then one of the elders comes to John and comforts him. “Do not weep,” the elder says. The elder points out that the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah,” “the Root of David,” has conquered. These are both titles for the expected Messiah. “The Lion of Judah,” comes from Genesis 49, where Jacob gives blessings over his 12 sons, the ones who will become the 12 tribes of Israel. To Judah, Jacob describes how he will rule, and then Jacob calls Judah a “lion’s cub”—that is, the Lion of Judah will be a leader. The “root of David” comes from Isaiah 11, where God promises a shoot to come from the stump of Jesse, who was David’s father. So, both of these titles convey a sense of leadership and strength. There is a Messiah coming who will put things right.
So, an elder draws John’s attention to a part of this busy scene that has escaped his notice up to this point. We would think that there would be a roaring lion standing there or at the very least a general armed for battle. But, we would be wrong. Instead, John sees a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered. I mean, this has already been a strange enough scene, but now, standing among the four living creatures and the elders is a sacrificed lamb.
This lamb has seven horns and seven eyes. Again, we need to remember that this is figurative language, so while it’s wild to imagine it literally, we need to ask what the significance of this description is. The number seven reflects wholeness or totality. Horns are a sign of strength or power. We see this throughout the psalms, including this one from Psalm 18:2:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
We’ve seen this with the eyes before, particularly on the four living creatures. The seven eyes are John’s way of saying that this lamb that was slain sees and knows all. You might recall in the letters to the seven churches, this intimate knowledge is reflected. “I know” this or that about your present circumstances. I know how you’ve been faithful. I know how you stand firm in the faith. Nothing escapes the notice of the one who is worthy to open the scroll.
Now, we, of course, know that this is Jesus, but this coded language makes it harder for the opponents of Christianity to understand what’s going on. This also gives us a different theological footing on which to understand what is to come in Revelation.
So, basically what this scene is telling us is that only Jesus is able of truly unfolding the plan that is in Scripture. That’s been the case from the first page of Genesis, and it is the case to the last page of Revelation. From the beginning, God had a plan to rescue the creation through Jesus, the only one worthy to do this. No leader. No pastor. No guru can do this. Only Jesus. God designed the world so that God would work through obedient humanity, but we haven’t been obedient. Still, “God has…determined to run the world through humans, and to rescue the world through Israel. Both have let him down. What will he now do? ‘Does anybody deserve to open the scroll?’” The answer is yes. It is Jesus. The Lion of Judah. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The one who is both fully God and fully human.
So, the lamb takes the scroll from God’s hand, and the praise focuses on Jesus. This is quite a major moment. Judaism and Christianity are monotheistic religions. There is only one God, so the fact that all of heaven is worshipping Jesus reveals the oneness between God and Jesus. They are distinct but not separate. They are worthy of our praise. They will unfold salvation for the whole world. This chapter ends with all of heaven—the elders, the four living creatures, billions of angels, and every creature “in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” praising Jesus. From butterflies to hawks, from deer to wallabies to humans, from worms to grubs, from moray eels to mantis shrimp, all worship Jesus. All of creation is groaning in the anticipation of what Jesus will do. It’s quite the scene, isn’t it?
As I wrap up today, I want to go back to the unexpected switch from the lion to the lamb. The one we expected to be the roaring, conquering Lion of Judah turns out to be the vulnerable, innocent, young animal of the pasture. Not only that, but this a lamb that has experienced death, the worst of the brokenness of creation. John “looked to see power and force, by which the enemies of his faith would be destroyed, and he sees sacrificial love and meek obedience to God as the way to win the victory.”
I cannot stress enough that this reality informs all the hard things that are to come in Revelation. A message for the whole of Revelation—particularly as we get distracted by the violent images to come—is that victory has come through the sacrificial death of the Lamb of God, not through powerful overthrow. Always view Revelation and Scripture through the lens of God’s gracious love in Jesus.
Sadly, the followers of Jesus don’t always follow in his pattern of sacrificial love. There are times we want to take the offensive and triumph, in the manner of a lion. N. T. Wright puts this so well, “There have been, down the years, plenty of lion-Christians. Yes, they think. Jesus died for us; but now God’s will is to be done in the lion-like fashion, through brute force and violence, to make the world come into line, to enforce God’s will. No, replies John; think of the lion, yes, but gaze at the lamb.”
So, when we are tempted to fix the world by our own strength and brute force, we would do well to remember Jesus is the one winning the victory, not us. We’re not worthy. Our motivations are never pure. To enforce our ideas or will on others flies in the face of Jesus, who persuades through sacrificial love. Christianity is the way of the cross, not the way of conquest.
But there’s a flip side to this that is also a mistake. Wright continues, “And there have been plenty of lamb-Christians. Yes, they think, Jesus may have been the ‘lion of Judah,’ but that’s a political idea which we should reject because salvation consists in having our sins wiped away so that we can get out of this compromised world and go off to heaven instead. No, replies John; gaze at the lamb, but remember that it is the lion’s victory that he has won.”
Salvation is not solely about you and whether or not you are going to heaven, although it is that in part. No, the entire creation—everything in the heavens and on earth and under the earth and in the seas—is a part of salvation. Christianity is not merely spiritual. Through Jesus—the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God—the entire creation is being liberated from the burden of sin. We followers of Jesus are to be engaged in that project of salvation right here and now—not through power or coercion, but through love, gentleness, and faithfulness. Let us not be so heavenly-minded that we are no good on earth. Let us not be so earthly-minded that we ignore the glories of what God is up to now and forever.
There is only one worthy to open the scroll. That’s Jesus, and he’s worthy of our praise. He’s worthy of our following. He’s worthy of us giving our lives to this project of salvation, that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.