Worthy is the Lamb

Revelation 5:1-14

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4 I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5 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.”

6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8 And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. 9 And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.

10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”

14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

 

Much of today’s message is based on this teaching from Greg Boyd: http://whchurch.org/sermons-media/sermon/the-lion-and-the-lamb, and this book by Preston Sprinkle: Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence.

This past week I had an encounter with a visitor at the church. He came by on Friday afternoon, walked right in the front door, and asked, “What version of the Bible do you all use here?” Usually I start a conversation by saying, Hello, my name is Kevin, but this man meant business.

I informed him that we do not use one specific version of the Bible, but that everyone is allowed to use whatever they are comfortable with. He then asked what the pastor uses, as if I couldn’t be the pastor. I told him that I often preached from the NIV (and the 2011 version at that!). He then told me that my version of the Bible was “satanic.” Our conversation lasted about 45 minutes, and the man averaged at least an insult a minute during our time together. But it was okay, because it wasn’t him that was being insulting, it was the Bible. [Just a note: I really think that it is time for some people to stop being jerks and claiming that the pushback that they receive is simply the Christian persecution one should expect from being faithful.]

During our conversation this man decided he wanted to check my understanding of the book of Revelation, so he said to me, and this is a direct quote, “I know you Mennonites don’t study the book of Revelation, but I was wondering if you are pre-millennial, post-millennial, or amillennial?”

I glanced at the table where three scholarly books on the book of Revelation sat next to my laptop and said, “I’m not sure why you think that we Mennonites don’t study the book of Revelation, but my recent research, much of which is done out historical-critical methodology, has affirmed by hermeneutical lens of reading Revelation from a semi-preterist perspective.”

He then told me that the Pope is the antichrist.

But this man was right that we Mennonites often avoid Revelation. And I think one reason is because of the way this book has been understood in the last two centuries. Friedrich Nietzsche called this book “the most rabid outburst of vindictiveness in all recorded history,” and John Dominic Crossan called Revelation the book that transforms the “nonviolent resistance of the slaughtered Jesus into the violent warfare of the slaughtering Jesus.” As a people dedicated to making peace, this is indeed troubling.

The good news is that more and more people are coming around to a different way of reading Revelation, a way with a Jesus that is consistent with the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.

I want to start today with some simple, basic doctrinal questions about Jesus. These are not trick questions, but I want to ask these questions to bring our focus to Jesus.

Do you believe that Jesus shows us who God is?

Do you believe that Jesus changes over the years, centuries, and millennia?

Do you believe that Jesus was taught the way of peace in the New Testament?

Do you believe that we are called to live as Jesus lived?

Why do we see a violent Jesus in the book of Revelation?

Let’s answer those with some Bible verses. Does Jesus show us who God is? In John 14 Jesus himself says, “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well” (v. 7), and “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (v. 9). Colossians 1:19, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” The “him” is Jesus.

Does Jesus change? Hebrews 13:8 simply says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” This means that the Jesus that we find in the New Testament is going to be the same today and we can expect that he is going to be the same at the end of time. And since Jesus is the fullness of God, we can assume that God never changes as well.

Regardless of where you are on the spectrum between being an absolute pacifist and militaristic warlord (hopefully closer to the former, not the latter), it is hard to deny that Jesus taught the way of peace and nonviolence. We can have conversations about certain situations and issues, but Jesus clearly taught us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt. 5).

Are we called to live like Jesus? 1 John 2:6, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” And there would be plenty others as well.

So if Jesus, the full manifestation of God in human flesh, does not change and taught the way of peace and nonviolence, why do we so often see a different picture of Jesus in the book of Revelation? Or have we been misreading this text for far too long?

I have avoided using this quote, which got a lot of attention several years back, but it seems very appropriate for our message this morning. This is a quote from a mega church pastor who has a much bigger following than I do with a much bigger church than is assembled today at Staunton Mennonite. But since I am not going to say nice things about this pastor, I will withhold his name.

In a popular magazine this pastor said:

There is a strong drift toward the hard theological left. Some emergent types want to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelations, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.

For some reason the concept that Jesus is coming back and man is he ticked off is appealing to people. What do you mean, you can’t worship a guy you can beat up? We already crucified him, for crying out loud! Do we really think that Jesus is coming back angry and with a chip on his shoulder, looking for revenge? If so, evidently that whole “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” stuff was just for what, for fun?

No, obviously this pastor is misspeaking. Yes, Jesus is said to have a sword in Revelation, but where is that sword? It is in his mouth. This is imagery that was used to speak of the Holy Scriptures, sharper than a two-edged sword, the author of Hebrews tells us. And Paul describes the word of God as the sword of the Spirit in Ephesians 6, the passage that refers to the armor of God. The word of God, the scriptures, the teachings of Jesus are to be our defense, not a literal sword, which Jesus told Peter to put away.

This is not to say that there is no judgment in Revelation. We will look at that next week. But we must remember that even in judgment, Jesus is still going to act like Jesus. He doesn’t remove his loving Jesus mask to reveal this prize fighting Jesus with a tattoo down his leg and a sword in his hand. No, the real Jesus is revealed in Revelation: the Jesus who is willing to lay down his life for us.

Over the last couple of weeks we have looked at what I called a counter-narrative in the book of Revelation. We find in Revelation 13 the worship of the beast, which seems to represent the Roman Empire and the practice of Emperor Worship, though it can really be anything that we treat as an idol and place before our relationship with God. Running counter to that story is the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Revelation 4 is that “symphony of Old Testament theophanies” where we find all sorts of images that call us back to the times in the Old Testament when God revealed himself to his people. There are two stories, and we are invited to choose between them.

Last week we left off with the elders and the cherubim worshipping God in the throne room, calling out, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord almighty!” We pick up in chapter five, still in the throne room, with the one seated on the throne holding a scroll sealed with seven seals. Seven is one of those important numbers that we find throughout Revelation; it is the number of completion or fullness. For instance, God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The cycle was not complete until the 7th day.

So the one on the throne, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is holding a scroll sealed with seven seals. These are not sea lions, and they are not Navy SEALS. These are the kinds of seals used by people in positions of power when they want to send a letter to another person and don’t wish for others to open the letter.

The common practice was for a leader, let’s say a king, to have a ring that he wore with a special symbol on it. When that king wrote a letter, perhaps to the leader of another nation, he would roll up the scroll, heat a stick of wax, rub some melted wax on the edge of the scroll, and then press his ring into it. When the recipient opened the letter, the seal would break off one side of the paper and it would be nearly impossible to reattach it. If you tried to heat up the wax again, the symbol would also melt away. This was a tamper-resistant way of sending a certified letter in the 1st century.

God holds this scroll and an angel calls out “‘Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?’ But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it.” This isn’t a question of strength as if having seven seals on this document made it impossible to open. It is a question of worthiness. It is a question of character. Unfortunately, nobody is found to be worthy of opening this scroll, so John weeps.

How strange is that? John just starts to cry. You have to assume that this document has something very important on it. And some commentators (like NT Wright and Preston Sprinkle) have said that this scroll contains God’s plan to make things right again, to bring creation back to what God had intended for it to be when he created the heavens and the earth and called them good.

But fear not! There is one who is worthy. Verse 5b: “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.”

This response is so full of messianic language that we immediately recognize it as such. As early as Genesis chapter 49, the tribe of Judah is told that they will produce the powerful king that will lead the people and the metaphor of a lion is used to describe him. And a lion seems like a great way to describe a powerful king: strong, noble, and absolutely vicious if he needs to be. The lion is the king of the jungle, and he will take down anyone that stands in his way! David is mentioned, and he is often considered one of the greatest kings in the entire history of the Hebrew people. He was said to have killed his “tens of thousands” even before he became king. This was the kind of messiah-king the people were looking for! They needed a lion to overthrow the Romans and give them back the Promised Land!

So here we go! The lion, the messiah, the powerful leader who is coming back to make someone bleed is here and is about to open up God’s plan. But who walks on stage? Verse 6, “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne.”

The word translated as “lamb” here isn’t even a reference to those large mountain sheep that we see in National Geographic, butting heads and knocking one another off the ledge. No, it is a word used to refer to baby lambs, sheepy-sheep, my children like to call them. What could be less intimidating than a sheepy-sheep? Maybe one that has already been slaughtered.

This lamb has seven eyes and seven horns; these are all images that we have seen before. Multiple eyes represent wisdom and knowledge, like when I say that I have eyes on the back of my head. Multiple horns represent power and leadership, like the horns on the beast in Daniel 7 and Revelation 13. Seven is the number of fullness or completion. So this little, slain lamb possesses all power and all wisdom.

They are expecting a powerful lion, and instead they receive a slain lamb. This is silly, foolish even. There are Romans persecuting the church, putting Christians to death. If ever they needed a lion, this was the time. They expect a lion, they want a lion, but what they get is a lamb. This contrast of images is consistent with what we read about God’s power in the New Testament, such as in 1 Corinthians 1:23, “But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

Even more interesting, the battle has already been won, and it was won with the self-sacrificial blood of the lamb. Jesus doesn’t come back as a prize fighter with a sword in his hand and a commitment to make someone bleed. Jesus comes back as a slain sheepy-sheep, a little lamb who has laid down his life for others.

When you start talking about Jesus being nonviolent in the book of Revelation, the Bible scholar will then ask about two different scenes: the winepress of chapter 14 and the bloody robe of chapter 19. I’m going to save the winepress for next week because that will take a bit more time to unpack. But if you look at chapter 19 where we find Jesus, the Lamb of God, ready to do battle with the beast. And Jesus is wearing a robe dipped in blood.

That blood is not the blood of his enemies. He hasn’t even begun battle yet, so where did that blood come from? That is his own blood, the blood he shed for a sinner such as me. And if your read on, he defeats evil with the sword, the sword in his mouth, which is the word of God.

Let’s keep this understanding of the power of the messiah in the 1st century context and remember the situation that the Christians found themselves in. They were persecuted, they were hunted down like animals, burned at the stake, and crucified for all to see. What options did the Christians have? They could try to run, but where could they find refuge from the Roman Empire? It stretched across most of the known world. They could try to fight, but what would be the point of a movement of a couple thousand trying to stand up against the largest super-power of the day? They would get squashed like a bug.

The book of Revelation is an encouragement to the persecuted church to continue to be faithful to Jesus even during this persecution, knowing very well that if they did, they would likely die. And they were not to try to fight Rome, but like Jesus, to offer their lives as a witness to the world that there is another king, another lord, and indeed, another savior.

In the first week of this sermon series I listed a number of words that people often think of when they hear the word “Revelation.” And I noted that some of those words are not in this book. But there was one word that was not on that list and it is one of the most common words found in Revelation. That word is “martyr.”

We tend to use the word martyr to describe someone that dies because of their faith. The Greek word that we get the word martyr from can also be translated as “witness” or “testimony.” When someone dies for their faith, it is a great witness to the rest of us.

We know from history that the early church chose to follow Jesus to death rather than fighting back against their oppressors. And to many of us today this just doesn’t sound like a good tactic. Where will this self-sacrificial suffering get us?

It gets us a lot closer to Jesus, that’s where.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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