Beyond the Lectionary Text: Revelation 5:1-10
by Kory Plockmeyer
If one searches Google Images for the phrase “Jesus’ second coming,” the top results all have a few things in common: 1) there’s a lot of light, 2) there’s a lot of horses, and 3) Jesus is white, both in clothing and skin color. One of my personal favorites even has what I’m fairly certain is a bald eagle accompanying Jesus as his literal wingman – and I’m not positive that it’s supposed to be the woe-crying eagle of Revelation 8:13.
This imagery largely has in common a strong “warrior” theme – Jesus returns as the conquering king, glory on full display, ready to ride out with a vengeance against the enemies of God. Jesus is the knight in shining armor, leading his army of angels to victory. We long for that powerful, victorious Jesus and wait eagerly for that day when our king returns victorious and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is like.
Of course, we are on good solid footing with much of this. Revelation 1 describes the one seated on the throne who is so powerful, so majestic, so glorious that words cannot even describe what John is seeing. All John can say is, “He’s like this. He’s like that. He’s like this.” Words can’t even comprehend the power and the glory and the majesty of this God whom we worship who is so far above us that we can’t even begin to understand. It’s a picture of one who is absolutely powerful.
When we think about the power and glory and majesty of God’s kingdom, we like the picture of glory in Revelation 1. Even though we can’t comprehend him or approach him, we like this Jesus. We like this Jesus because he finally lives up to our expectations of what the Messiah should look like. If we think back to Jesus’ life, we know that many of the Jews were expecting a powerful Messiah who was going to come and drive out the Romans, who was going to put Israel in its rightful Kingdom and who was going to usher in God’s kingdom – and so, on Palm Sunday, they wave palm branches and shout their political rallying cry, “Hosanna!” They’ve been waiting for a warrior, not the one who allows himself to be arrested and killed.
On more than one occasion I have heard a sharp contrast between the two comings of Jesus. We say, “The first time Jesus came, he had to suffer and die. The first time, he came in weakness. The first time, he came to serve. The first time, the Jews got it wrong because they were expecting somebody powerful and majestic – a warrior – and they didn’t get it when he wasn’t what they expected. But the second time, when he comes again, this time he’s going to be the warrior. This time he’s going to be the king. Everybody will know him. Everybody will seem him. He’s going to be the powerful one we’ve been waiting for.”
The first time, he came as the suffering servant, but next time he will be the one on the throne with fire and swords.
Now, of course, this is not to say that Jesus is not all-powerful or that God is not all-powerful. This is not to say that God is not far above us and so much more majestic than we can ever comprehend. I start here because it is in light of this vision of the throne room of heaven that we encounter the picture in Revelation 5.
In Revelation 5 we see a glimpse of the throne room of heaven where there is a scroll with seals. No one is able to open the seals. In subsequent chapters we learn that the seals unleash God’s judgment. As John weeps that no one is worthy to open the scroll, one of the elders tells him, “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” (5:5).
We can easily miss the transition from verse 5 to verse 6. We are used to the multiple images that Scripture uses to describe Jesus. The elder tells John the Lion is coming. When John looks, he sees a Lamb, and one who died at that. Not only a Lamb who died, but a Lamb who was killed. A Lamb who gave himself up. A Lamb who sacrificed his life.
This is the exact opposite of what verse 5 made me expect. Lest we be confused that John has got it wrong, this sacrificial Lamb has seven horns and seven eyes – the seven spirits of God according to John. Before we get dragged into a theological dispute over how best to understand what in the world John means by seven spirits, we can at least agree that these seven spirits clearly mark the Lamb as one with Divine authority. The Lamb is “encircled by the four living creatures and the elders” (v. 6) – the Lamb rules.
Upon the arrival of this Lamb, what happens? The elders and the living creatures – who, we are told, hold the prayers of God’s people – sing a new song: “You are worthy!”
There is no doubt that the picture in verses 6-10 paint a picture of the power and glory of the Lamb, but it is a picture of power and glory that defies our expectations. This is a picture of glory that is in the Lamb’s self-sacrifice. It is a picture like that which we see in Philippians 2 where we read that “Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8).
The picture we see in Revelation 5 is that God’s power and glory and the one who receives power and glory is the one who emptied himself, gave up everything that he deserved, and sacrificed himself. We see here a picture of God’s glory akin to what the risen Lord Jesus tells the apostle Paul when he begs to have the thorn in his flesh removed: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
This is a picture of the powerful King of Revelation that defies our expectations. We look for the Lion, the one riding on the white horse with a sword at his side and light streaming all around him; instead, we meet a risen Lamb, the one who is worthy because he was slain, because he “purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (verse 9). The Lamb makes these people to be a kingdom and priests to serve God.
The Lamb who was slain is the glory of God.
If we fast-forward to the end of the book of Revelation, we see the bride of the Lamb, the eternal city. The Lamb is the temple and lamp of this city. “The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it” (Revelation 21:26). This should evoke for us the imagery of a Roman military triumph, where the glory and honor of the nations are brought into the city in honor of the triumphant general. In a display of military power, captive kings were executed in the city and the spoils of war were marched through the city. Around the time of the writing of Revelation the city of Jerusalem has been destroyed and the spoils of Jerusalem have been brought to Rome, known even then as “the Eternal city.”
We see a very different city here at the end of Revelation. We see kings and nations bringing the honor and splendor of their nations into this eternal city, not in a show of military power, not to celebrate the strength and victory through battle and war, but to bring their honor and splendor to the city of the Lamb – the Lamb who gave his own life, who emptied himself and became a servant to all.
The worthiness of the Lamb who was slain reminds us that God’s eternal power and glory are found not only in the splendor and majesty that are beyond description, but also in the Lamb who made himself nothing. Although we certainly cry out for justice in a world that needs to be set to right, we are reminded that God’s way of setting things to right is by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Lion is the Lamb.
The contrast in expectations between verses 5 and 6 is made even stronger in the Greek. The word order literally translates something as follows: “Don’t weep, behold he has conquered – the lion from the tribe of Judah, the root of David, able to open the scroll and its seven seals. And I saw in the middle of the throne and the four living creatures and in the middle of the elders a lamb standing as though slain…” John delays the word “Lamb” until late in the sentence, allowing the reader to envision a Lion in the midst of the throne, the creatures, and the elders, catching us by surprise with the identity of the conqueror.
The enduring popularity of the Left Behind series underscores our culture’s obsession with the image of the God who returns with a vengeance. While the most recent version starring Nicolas Cage opened with poor numbers, the marketing among faith communities suggests the assumption that Christians would be drawn to wrath and destruction at the hand of God.
The conquest of Jerusalem is captured in the Arch of Titus, still standing in Rome. Visible in some of the reliefs are the instruments of the temple brought into the city of Rome.
Rev. Kory Plockmeyer is the pastor of Westend Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI.