The fifth chapter of Revelation is my favorite chapter in the book and I believe it is the key to understanding the entire message of John’s Apocalypse (if not the entire message of the New Testament). I am convinced that this chapter is the heart of the gospel.
In chapter four John the Revelator was invited to enter into the open door to get a glimpse of the throne room of heaven. At the center of God’s reign John found a worship service going on. The entire church embodied in the twenty-four elders and the entire creation embodied in the four living creatures were bowing before the throne. All of creation finds its light, its life, and its purpose in the One seated on the throne.
The voice from heaven promised John that he would get to see what must take place (4:1). In chapter five the revealing of the divine plan begins.
5:1 Then I saw a scroll in the right had of the one seated on the throne. It had writing on the front and the back, and it was sealed with seven seals.
Inside the throne room John’s eye caught the scroll that was in the right hand of the One seated there. It was sealed with seven seals. In the ancient world scrolls were used by officials and dignitaries to contain their decrees. Wax seals imprinted with the ring or insignia of the ruler were used to ensure that the scroll truly declared the will of the scroll’s author and that no one had altered the text in any way.
This scroll has precedence in Scripture. Once again, Ezekiel serves as a backdrop for Revelation. In Ezekiel chapter two a book of lament was written with words printed on both sides. It was given to the prophet and he was commanded not only to share its contents, but also to eat the scroll itself.
The scroll in the hand of the One seated on the throne is almost certainly intended to be the written course of history. It is the decree of God that when opened will assure that his will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
The great theologian Jacques Ellul describes it this way, “It is the book of the secrets and of the meaning of human history, both accomplished, assured, but incomprehensible, illegible, which on the other hand is disclosed as a succession of time, which is in fact to fill all time. This book contains then the secret of the history of humanity; but this secret is inevitably the disclosure of a the profound forces of this history and, much more, of the action of God in the history of [humankind].”
5:2-3 I saw a powerful angel, who proclaimed in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or look inside it.
A mighty angel stepped forward and called for someone to be found worthy to open the seals on the scroll and unroll its contents. The challenge was given to the entire creation. Someone must be found in heaven, on earth, or under the earth worthy to open the scroll. To be worthy to open the scroll is to be worthy of mediating its contents to the world. This one who can open the scroll is the one who will be the instrument through whom the purposes of God written on the scroll will come to be.
But there is no person or creature in all of God’s creation found worthy to open the scroll. God’s purposes will remain sealed and therefore not enacted in his creation.
5:4 So I began to weep and weep, because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look inside it.
Tears are the appropriate response for the Revelator. Unless the seals are broken and the scroll of God’s purposes unrolled, the divine redemptive scheme cannot take place.
Joseph Mangina beautifully describes the significance of John’s tears when he writes, “On hearing this, John begins to weep… Here he has a representative function: he typifies the reader, the church, and all humanity; he is ‘man.’ The question raised by the angel, we might say, is the human question. John’s weeping reminds us of the tears of other biblical figures, such as Rachel, who ‘refuses to be comforted’ for her lost children; Jesus weeping over Jerusalem or at Lazarus’s tomb… Tears not only mark the loss sustained by the self as the beloved is torn from us, but can serve as a form of protest in a world where death so often has the upper hand… John’s tears are his part in that travail and ‘groaning of creation’ of which Paul writes in Romans 8.”
The world is beyond ready for redemption. And if no one is found worthy to open the scroll of God’s redemptive purposes then things will never be set right in the creation.
5:5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Don’t weep. Look! The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has emerged victorious so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
The voice of one of the elders interrupted the Revelator’s tears. There is one who is was found worthy: the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David. This statement, which merges together two familiar Messianic images, is connected to both Genesis and Isaiah. When Jacob blessed his sons from his deathbed, he compared Judah to a lion. Judah is the strong and powerful tribe, destined to rule (Gen. 49:8-10). The Root of David is likely drawn from the familiar hopes of Isaiah 11 that a root would emerge from the stump of Jesse and give new life to Israel.
5:6 Then, in between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb, standing as if it has been slain. It has seven horns and seven eyes, which are God’s seven spirits, sent out into the whole earth. He came forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one seated on the throne.
What John heard was a lion, but what he saw was a lamb! Eugene Boring calls this “the most mind-wrenching ‘rebirth of images’ in literature.” The reader is set up to see an image of power and might – a lion. But what the reader discovers instead is the Lamb that was slain.
I believe that this is the most powerful message the Scripture has to offer: the Lion is the Lamb. At the center of redemption is not an image of power, but an image of self-giving, sacrificial love.
Mangina powerfully describes it this way, “What John hears is a Lion, what he sees is a Lamb. What he hears is strength, what he sees is weakness. What he hears is a conqueror, what he sees is the quintessential victim – the Lamb. The Lamb is not just destined for sacrifice, moreover, but has actually been slaughtered. If what John hears is life, what he sees is death. And yet not so, because the Lamb is standing, so that the slaughter is the mark of his victory; he has passed through death and now stands somehow beyond it.”
I think it is important to recognize as Revelation continues that the Lion is not temporarily the Lamb. The Lion is eternally the Lamb. At the end of the book, when the New Jerusalem descends from heaven, it is the Lamb that will be the light of the city.
This is the subversion of our imaginations that makes Apocalyptic literature like Revelation necessary. I don’t think that any of us at the level of our imaginations truly believes (or is able to conceive) that the vulnerability of the Lamb can be the source of victory. Conquest always goes to the strong. It always, always, always goes to the strong! But here is the inversion of the kingdom. This is the flipping of our imaginations. Self-giving love is the center of God’s redemptive work and it is the source of his victory.
In so many ways how one not only interprets Revelation but also how one understands the Gospel depends upon how this text is interpreted. If the Lion of Judah only appears to be the Lamb, but still remains a Lion, then grace and love are merely temporary aspects of God’s self-revelation but they will be usurped in the end by the need for power to make things right. (“Might makes right.”) But if the point of the Revelation is that the Lion is eternally the Lamb, then love and grace are not virtues on the way to redemption, they are the very mode of redemption itself. Therefore, those in the early church who seemingly “lose” by living as reflections of love persecuted at the hands of those who live as instruments of power have actually “won” because they have understood and entered into the war of the Lamb.
THIS IS THE KEY: THE LION IS THE LAMB. “The ‘lion’ is really the lamb, representing the ultimate power of God. This is the meaning of John’s dramatic rebirth of images… Wherever the tradition says ‘lion,’ read ‘Lamb.’” – Eugene Boring
The Lamb is full of eyes and horns. It has been granted all wisdom and power.
5:8 When he took the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each held a harp and gold bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
The Christology of the early church affirms again and again that the Lamb not only serves God. The Lamb is God. The instruments played in worship of God in chapter four are now played for the Lamb in chapter five. The adoration paid to the One on the throne by the Church is now extended also to the Lamb. The prayers of the saints that fill the throne room with the aroma of praise now are extended even to the Lamb.
5:9-14 They took up a new song, saying, “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain, and by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation. You made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will rule on earth.”
Then I looked, and I heard the sound of many angels surrounding the throne, the living creatures, and the elders. They numbered in the millions – thousands upon thousands. They said in a loud voice, “Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, wealth, wisdom, and might, and honor, glory, and blessing.”
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea – I heard everything everywhere say, “Blessing, honor, glory, and power belong to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb forever and always.” Then the four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshipped.
This great chapter ends with three hymns to the Lamb.
The first is a “new song.” (A contemporary chorus if you will J). The living creatures and the elders prostrated themselves and sang about the worthiness of the Lamb to open the scroll. What is most remarkable about the first song is that its primary focus was on Christ’s work of calling into existence a community of faithful servants “from every tribe, language, people, and nation.” The new creation is breaking in through the Lamb and through the people that he has called, filled, and formed.
The second song was taken up by millions of angels. Christ is Lord of earth and Lord of heaven.
For one final time worship was extended out and is picked up by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea.” The honor due the Redeemer of the created world goes to the One on the throne and to the Lamb.
“Readers live during the time when the power of God and the powers opposed to God are still in conflict. Therefore, the question is whether they will join with those who sing praises to the Lamb, or whether they will refuse to do so, and later join in the laments of those who have sought their security elsewhere.” – Craig Koester