Costly Witness

Revelation 5:1-14 (KGV-that’s the Kevin Gasser version)

1 Then I saw in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne a scroll written inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a great voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll by loosening its seals?” 3 And no one was able in the heavens or on the earth or under the earth to open the scroll or look into it. 4 And I wept profusely because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or look inside it. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Don’t cry! Look, the lion of the tribe of Juda, the root of David, has conquered. [He is able] to open the scroll and break its seven seals.

6 I then saw in the center of the throne and the four living creatures and in the center of the elders a Lamb, standing as if it had been executed, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God which were sent to all of the earth. 7 And he came and took [the scroll] from the right hand of the one sitting upon the throne. 8 And when he had taken the scroll the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 And they sing a new song, saying:

You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals,

for you were executed and redeemed us for God in your blood,

[ones from] every tribe and tongue and people and nation.

10 And you have made them a kingdom and priests unto our God,

and they shall reign on the earth.

11 Then I saw and I heard the sound of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders—and they numbered myriads and myriads and thousands and thousands—12 singing with a great voice,

Worthy is the Lamb who was executed

to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength

and honor and praise and blessing.

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

To the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb,

blessing and honor and praise and might forever and ever.

14 And the four living creatures sang, “Amen.” And the elders fell and worshipped.

Revelation is an intimidating book of the Bible to preach from and to read. I believe it is intimidating in part because of all of the imagery. There are beasts, a dragon, beings with horns and extra eyes, and even a scene where the blood flows as high as a horses’ bridle. Revelation is intimidating because the imagery is the very kind of thing scary movies and nightmares are made of. But it is also intimidating because these images also have a seemingly infinite number of possible interpretations.

When we read Revelation we must remember that John was writing to a particular group of Christians living in a particular place and time. John wrote Revelation to the seven Christian churches in what we call Asia Minor probably during the last three decades of the first century. This was a time of unrest in the Christian community as they found their commitment to worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God revealed to them in Jesus of Nazareth, to be risky.

According to Blount, the Romans had a way of intentionally mixing religion and politics. He writes, “Worship of Roman deities not only demonstrated a cultic devotion and communal piety; it also signaled loyalty to the Roman state…” (9). Being a “good Roman” meant not only paying your taxes, but also participating in the cultic worship practices of the empire.

These cultic worship practices were common in Asia Minor. Among these was the practice of emperor worship, where the leader of the Roman Empire was considered divine and worshipped as a god. Emperor Domitian, leader during the time when many believe John received his message and wrote it for the churches, “demanded that the populace acclaim him as ‘Lord and God’ and participate in his worship” (Schussler Fiorenza, Justice, 193, as quoted by Blount, 9).

How would you expect Christians to respond to the practice of emperor worship? Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, confess that there is one Lord. Romans 10:9 even tells us, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NRSV).

Those of us that grew up in the church have no problem making this proclamation. Jesus is Lord! See, I just did it. But we rarely take the time to think about what it even means to say that Jesus is Lord.

“Lord” is a word that we use almost exclusively in the Mennonite church to refer to Jesus. The rare exception is on the tenth day of Christmas when we offer our true love ten lords a leapin’. In the United Kingdom’s Parliament the upper house in their two-house system is called the House of Lords, the lower is called the House of Commons. This may seem sacrilegious to some of us born in the Unites States, but the word lord doesn’t imply deity. It is a reference to power and authority. We might say that lord is a way to describe who is sovereign in a system.

So I come back to that statement from Romans 10 that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead that you will be saved. Again, it is easy for us to say “Jesus is Lord” in our twenty-first century context because of what we understand the word “lord” to mean. But for Paul to tell the church in Rome to confess that Jesus is Lord meant something different. To say that Jesus is Lord means that he is above all other lords. To say that Jesus is Lord means that he is sovereign over all. To say that Jesus is Lord means that Caesar is not.

Revelation is resistance literature. John is writing to these seven churches in Asia Minor, correcting them for when they have given in to the temptations and pressures to participate in the acts of the cultic practices of Rome. John recognizes that there are social and economic advantages to worshipping the emperor. He knows that the Christians still consider themselves to be followers of Jesus Christ, but they have made a few allowances along the way. We are Christians by the grace of God, so what does it matter if we offer just a pinch of incense at the altar of Caesar, especially if it means we will find ourselves in a better situation? What’s it going to hurt to attend a little meal held in honor of some other deity if it gains us a position of authority in the market place?

No, John isn’t having any of it. The message that he has received isn’t one of assimilation and accommodation. John is inviting the churches of Asia Minor to stand firm in their witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ, even if it costs them everything.

John is looking for witnesses at the end of the first century. He is looking for witnesses to Jesus Christ, and he is looking for witnesses for Jesus Christ. Surely most of the Christians living in Asia Minor never had the opportunity to see Jesus in the flesh. But they were witnesses to his work in their lives and in the lives of others. They are witnesses to the lordship of Jesus. And as such, John is calling them to live out their witness. Don’t just be someone who has experienced Jesus, testify!

So what does any of this have to do with Revelation 5? We are almost there. In chapter four John is taken in the spirit to the throne room of God. There we find twenty-four elders and four strange creatures surrounded by beauty and majesty. Day and night, these beings praise God, declaring God’s holiness. Then in chapter five we find that the one seated on the throne has a scroll sealed with seven seals. Seven is the number of completion, so we can say that the scroll was completely sealed. Perfectly sealed.

No one on heaven or earth or even under the earth was found worthy to open the scroll, which many scholars believe holds the message of how the world will arrive at God’s intended goal. By emphasizing that no one above, below, or on the earth was found worthy of opening the scroll, John is saying that not even Caesar, the one who claims absolute authority and sovereignty as lord, could open the scroll. Even the powerful Caesar fails to possess “the kind of control over human destiny that his rule pretends to exert” (Blount 104).

Wait one second; there is one who is worthy. It is the lion of Judah, the root of David. He is worthy because he has conquered (vs. 5). These names are nothing short of messianic terms, and powerful ones at that! The lion is the king of the jungle, able to devour animals much larger than itself. David was known as a great military leader. Remember the chant of the people in 1 Samuel 18, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands!” If anyone can open the scroll and reveal the path of the future, it is the Messiah! The Messiah has the might, the strength, and the ingenuity to overcome Rome and bring God’s people back to freedom.

But who shows up? It isn’t a lion, but a lamb. And not just any lamb, the Lamb of God, looking as if it has been executed. The Lamb looks like it has already lost because it has been killed. Yet this Lamb has seven eyes, it is all knowing. This Lamb has seven horns, it is all powerful. The elders and the living beings bow down to worship the Lamb.

As the Lamb takes the scroll from the right hand of the one seated upon the throne, the elders and beings sing a new song, “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, for you were executed and redeemed us for God in your blood.”

The Lamb has conquered because the Lamb has been faithful, even to the point of death. The Lamb has been a witness to the lordship of Christ which trumps the lordship of Caesar. And of course, the Lamb is Christ. It was the witness of Jesus to his own lordship, proclaiming a kingdom and a king that was not Caesar that led to his death on the cross. Rather than a violent overthrow of the sovereignty of Rome which one might expect from a lion, Jesus the Lamb subverts the empire through nonviolent resistance, through witnessing to his own lordship. Doing so may end up getting a person killed.

But the Lamb did not stay dead. No, John tells us that he is standing, standing tall in defiance. The Lamb is saying, You may beat me, strip me naked, and kill me on the cross. But in the end my lordship will prevail.

So who is Lord? Is it Caesar or is it Jesus? After the elders and the beings in Revelation 5 offer praises to Jesus the Lamb, the circle of worshippers is expanded. Now we find thousands and thousands singing praises to the Lamb who was executed. Every creature in heaven, on earth, and under the earth sing praises! And they sing praises “To the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb” (v. 13).

This should not be taken too lightly. In the previous chapter there was praise that was given to the only one worthy of praise: the God who is seated upon the throne. Now just a few verses later we find that the praise that was once reserved for God alone is also being offered to the Lamb. This is nothing less than God affirming the witness of the Lamb, the witness of the Lamb to the lordship of the Lamb. Yes the one to whom Jesus testifies is worthy. Worthy is the Lamb, for he is Lord.

This passage seems so far removed from my world today. I really don’t know what it is like to witness to the lordship of Christ even when it may be costly. I tried to come up with some examples in my own life, and I found them to be quite sparse. About a year ago I was interviewed by our local newspaper about the potential for war between the United States and Syria and the article ran on the front page with the title, “Local Mennonite pastors against military strike in Syria” with my picture right below the title. I wasn’t opposed to that, but I felt like I got a few dirty looks the next day at the YMCA. Three years ago I helped lead an initiative that called out Americans for participating in “bi-partisan idolatry” during the presidential election season, and we got a few nasty emails and online comments. But that is the extent of my suffering on account of my witness to my understanding of the lordship of Jesus.

As I thought about my cushy lifestyle and the lack of any kind of real suffering on my part that has come about from my witness to the lordship of Christ, I realized that this was likely on account of two reasons. The first is that I live in a country where religious freedom is the norm. I believe that this is true and that it is indeed a part of the story. But the second reason is a little more convicting. Maybe I’m not experiencing any kind of marginalization or suffering because rather than being the witness that John is calling Christians to be, I look a lot more like the members of the seven churches that he is criticizing. Am I enjoying comfort and privilege because I am accommodating to the empire? No, we are not living in a traditional empire, but am I accommodating to the zeitgeist of the world around me? Am I accommodating, or even worse, entering into the practices and habits of the world? Have I too sacrificed my witness to the lordship of Christ in the search for money, power, and social standing?

I’m reminded of my deceased friend Richard. Richard was one of my earliest supporters when I was entering into pastoral ministry. I never knew him as anything but an old, semi-retired pastor. But before he was selected by the lot for ministry, Richard was employed in a factory. He worked in a metal fabrication shop on a tap and die machine. Richard said that for hour after hour, day after day, year after year he ran the same machine. He often didn’t know what it was that he was helping to make because it changed every couple of days and it all just looked like a big hunk of steel to him.

One payday Richard noticed that he had an increase in his check. And we aren’t talking about an extra nickel per hour raise. This was significant. So Richard, being the honest Christian man that he was, went to his boss to make sure that they hadn’t made a mistake. His boss assured Richard that his check was accurate and that the shop had a new contract with the U.S. government. The extra pay was a direct result of that contract.

Always the inquisitive type, Richard asked what it was that he was making for the government for hours every day. Richard was told that they were making a piece that was used on the casing of bombs. As the United States was getting ready to enter World War II, the government was trying to stockpile munitions and was willing to pay local metal shops well to make the devices.

Richard was left with a difficult decision. He could continue to run the tap and die, making more money than he had ever made in his life, or quit, not knowing where he could find work in those post-Depression days. Richard left his job and big paycheck behind because as a follower of Jesus Christ, he could not justify building bombs that could potentially take the lives of thousands of people.

We can debate whether or not World War II was justifiable, and if ever there was a justifiable war, I would say that this was one. But my point is that Richard chose to follow Jesus’ command to love our enemies over his desire to acquire the most money possible. In that decision, Richard was a witness to the lordship of Christ, and it cost him.

Revelation chapter five tells the story of a Lamb who was a faithful witness to the lordship of Christ. That faithful witness was costly for him, but he refused to be silenced because silence is accommodation. As followers of the Lamb, we are called to participate in nonviolent resistance to the lordship of anyone or anything that attempts to claim power over Jesus Christ. We must be ready, as witnesses to the lordship of Christ, to experience social rejection, financial loss, or even death. But there is good news! The Lamb has conquered and he alone is worthy. The Lamb alone is worthy of our honor and praise. The Lamb has overcome even death itself, for the Lamb is the Lord over all.

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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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