The fifth chapter of Revelation is one of my favorite chapters in this great and mysterious apocalyptic book that ends the New Testament canon. I am convinced that this fifth chapter, which concludes the beginning of John the Revelator’s vision (Rev. 4-5), may indeed be the key to understanding the entire message of the book.
The lection reading for this Sunday is the culmination of a great scene of worship that begins in in Revelation 4:1 and, unfortunately, preaching on the text itself will hardly make sense without paying attention to the entirety of chapters four and five. So, let’s explore the entire context.
The fourth chapter begins with the Revelator being called and invited to enter an open door in heaven to get a glimpse of the great throne room. Like Lucy stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, the Revelator steps into this great and holy space and discovers in the throne room of God there is a worship service going on. The entire Church – represented by the twenty-four elders (likely a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles) - and the entire creation - represented in the four living creatures (one wild, one domestic, one human, and one avian) - are bowing before the throne and giving honor to the One seated on the throne.
The fourth chapter serves as a reminder that there is a throne at the center of all things, and we are not on it. When we are tempted to make ourselves the center of the universe, this vision reorients us as people finding meaning not by placing God inside of our story, but discovering our story caught up in the great story of God. It is also fascinating, given all the trouble facing the young church and the exiled Revelator himself, that when he gets a glimpse into the control room of the universe, he discovers not a room scurrying in panic, trying to figure out how to get things in order. Rather, he finds all of creation worshiping in the deep confidence of the sovereign love of the Creator.
When the fifth chapter opens, the Revelator’s eye is captured by the scroll in the right hand of the One seated on the throne. The scroll – which is certainly a symbol of the unfolding of history itself - was sealed with seven seals.
A mighty angel steps forward and calls for someone to be found worthy to open the seals on the scroll and unroll its contents. The challenge is given to the entire creation. Someone must be found in heaven, on earth, or under the earth worthy to open the scroll, or history will unfold without purpose, direction, or hope. 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 inscribed on the scroll will come to be.
However, there is no person or creature in all of God’s creation found worthy to open it. God’s purposes, tragically, will remain sealed and therefore never enacted.
Given the futility of the search, tears are the appropriate response for the Revelator. Unless the seals are broken and the scroll of God’s purposes unrolled, the divine redemptive plan cannot take place. The Revelator’s tears are in harmony with the “groaning of creation” Paul describes in Romans 8. The world is beyond ready for redemption. If no one is found worthy to open the scroll of God’s redemptive purposes, and things will never be set right.
In verse 5, the voice of one of the elders interrupts the Revelator’s tears. The elder declares that there is one found worthy. This worthy one - the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David - can open the scroll and bring about God’s will. This statement, which merges 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.
What the Revelator heard from the voice of the elder was a lion, but when he turned to look at the lion, he instead saw a lamb (and a slaughtered one at that)! The difference between what the Revelator hears and what he sees will be a common pattern in the book. (For example, he will later hear 144,000 have been redeemed only to see a redeemed people – from every tribe, nation, and language nation - so vast he could not count them). I believe this is one of the most profound and significant mysteries of the Gospel, the Lion is the Lamb. At the center of God’s redemptive work is not an image of power, but an image of divine self-giving, sacrificial love.
I think it is significant to note that as the Revelation moves forward, the Lion is not temporarily the Lamb, but eternally the Lamb. In the final chapters of the book, when the New Jerusalem descends from heaven, it is the still (and forever) the Lamb that serves as the light of the New Creation city. This subversion of our imaginations about power and control is what makes Apocalyptic literature like Revelation necessary. I am not sure 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 mighty! But here is the inverted nature of Christ’s Kingdom. This Lion/Lamb imagery is the flipping of our imaginations. The Revelator is calling saints to believe that self-giving love is the center of God’s redemptive work, and it is the source of his (and now our) victory.
In the Revelator’s description of the worship in the throne room, perhaps some of the roots of early Christology are also revealed. In the text, the Lamb not only serves God, but the Lamb is also worshiped with God (or even as God). The instruments played in the 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 are now extended even to the Lamb.
These two great chapters (4-5) end with three hymns to the Lamb. The first (v. 9) is a “new song” (perhaps a contemporary chorus if you will). The living creatures and the elders prostrate themselves and sing about the worthiness of the Lamb to open the scroll. What is most remarkable about the first song is that its primary focus is on Christ’s work of calling into existence a community of faithful servants “from every tribe, language, people, and nation.”
Finally, we arrive at our text for today. Verses 11-14 form the great climax of the worship taking place in the throne room. As this great second hymn begins, the choir has grown from the elders and creatures to the whole angelic host of heaven joined by those still living on earth. The worship team now numbers “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands.” Christ, the Lamb, is Lord of both earth and heaven.
The massive choir of praise in this passage is steeped in the prophetic imagination of texts like Dan. 7:10; 1 Enoch 14:22; 40:1; and in Heb. 12:22. In a time when these kinds of massive displays of honor were reserved for the emperor, the Revelator subverts the Christian imagination of power and authority. And as was the case earlier, in v. 13 also, the praise offered to the One seated on the throne is offered also to the Lamb.
I have spent most of my pastoral ministry in either the Mountain or Pacific time zones in the U.S. In those churches, I have often reflected with those congregations that every Sunday we are, in a sense, closing out the worship on the globe each week. Other brothers and sisters in Christ, all around the world, awoke much earlier than we did and began to worship the One seated on the throne and the Lamb. They have, in the imagination of the Revelator, opened the door of the throne room ahead of us, and we are now responsible for the final shifts of worship around the throne. However, the text is not just about Sunday liturgies, but about how the worship of the Creator and the Lamb goes on all day, every day. It just so happens that at 10:45am Mountain Time, the people I get to love and serve with also join in the choir.
Again, these opening chapters of Revelation’s apocalyptic vision remind us that we are not the center of the universe, nor are we worthy or capable of directing history’s outcome. God is not a character in our story. We are characters in the divine narrative. All glory to the One seated on the throne and to the Lamb, whose self-giving love has, and will have, the final word in all things.