In Part 1, I introduced the central theme of Revelation and gave a little background. The book “reveals” to us the life-changing truth of Jesus; that is, it reorients us toward viewing history from the perspective of the innocent, those slain by the powers that be. Further, it claims that this is G-d’s perspective. Revelation accomplishes this task using language from 1st c. apocalyptic literature, the Hebrew Bible, and Greek astrological images. Before I continue, I think it would be prudent to offer you a useful analogy in order to better explain how all these images in the book operate.
For us, the most common form of media comes in movies. I brainstormed which movies best reflect Revelation’s story-telling style. There are many candidates: The Matrix, Dawn of the Dead, or the newly released Avatar. However, none seemed quite so fitting as Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I do not know if you have seen Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, but it is a an incredible movie. The American Film Institute named it the 2nd greatest comedy of all time. Dr. Strangelove is relevant to our discussion in this. The movie portrays the U.S.’s leaders in the midst of the Cold War. They appear to have complete control: a massive war room, B-52’s ready to strike with tactical nuclear weapons at a moment’s notice, the leading ex-Nazi scientist, and the most advanced technology. As the movie progresses, we see that the Pentagon leaders are completely out of touch, totally irresponsible, and, in the case of the rogue general who orders a nuclear strike on the USSR, entirely insane. We know for good fact that politicians and military leaders are most likely very responsible, sane people; nevertheless, Dr. Strangelove presents them involved in a situation where their activities are crazy. This is identical to the behavior of the leaders in Revelation. We know rightly that the Roman emperors had very good intentions. They wanted to bring prosperity and well-being to the world, yet the cost of their pride in believing they were the ones who could bring peace and tranquility was a massive disparity between the rich and the poor; oppression of people who refused their imperial cult; a massive military which consumed tax dollars, land, and manpower (sound familiar); and a global hegemony not amenable to those who are different.
Thus, in the same way Dr. Strangelove presents admirable leaders as completely insane, Revelation shows them to us as beasts: hideous and evil. It should be of no surprise to us, then, to see the same logic working in reverse. If the “practical”, “good” leaders are monstrous beasts because of their involvement with such an insane system, then the actual leaders, the ones who rule with justice and without compromise must do so in a manner entirely opposite to the beast. Therefore, the one who is worthy to rule is not a destructive predator but an innocent, slaughtered Lamb. It is to this Lamb I now turn.
The chapter of Revelation we read today, ch. 5, is our introduction to the Lamb. Structurally, this chapter is incredibly important as it follows ch. 4 which is our introduction to the one who sits on the throne. In ch. 4, we find G-d sitting on the throne of heaven surrounded by 24 other thrones and the 4 living creatures. G-d reigns supreme in this heavenly court. The chapter describes a normal scene of political power. Just like today, with the president constantly guarded by secret service agents and surrounded by advisers and cabinet members, the Roman emperor hosted entourages of people. Similarly, G-d in G-d’s throne room has an entourage. This entourage is fully subservient to G-d and G-d alone. Those subservient to G-d are significant in their number and symbolic representation. The 24 elders signify the 12 tribes of Israel plus the 12 apostles. The four living creatures signify all of creation. Four was a number representing the earth; thus the four living creatures represent the earth and everything on it. They are a lion, considered the greatest wild animal; the ox, considered the greatest domestic animal; a human, considered the greatest living thing; and the eagle, considered the greatest living bird. G-d is established here as the only one worthy of praise from both the people of G-d and all creation. This praise is rooted in G-d’s separate or holy nature (v. 8), G-d’s eternalness (v. 10), and G-d’s creation activity (v. 11). Furthermore, John joins in the respect paid to G-d by not describing the one on the throne; rather, John tells only what the one on the throne is like: jasper and carnelian with an emerald rainbow around the throne. In ch. 4 we can only know G-d by what John describes as occurring around G-d. Lightning, thunder, and seven flaming torches which are the seven spirits of G-d surround and emanate from the throne. Thunder and lightning conjure many Hebrew Bible texts in our minds, especially Sinai and the receiving of Torah. Seven is a number which always means wholeness or completion. That there are seven spirits of G-d implies the fullness of G-d’s spirit(s). All these things are important as they will resurface again in ch. 5. Ch. 4 ends with the 24 elders claiming G-d’s worthiness to receive “glory, honor, and power” (v. 11) since G-d created all things. Keep this last part in mind as we proceed to ch. 5.
When ch. 5 begins, we are still in G-d’s throne room. Held out in G-d’s hand is a “scroll”. The word for “scroll” here is biblios, the same word from which we derive Bible. It means “book”. The common translation “scroll” is misleading. Held by the one on the throne in this scene is a fan-folded book. These books commonly held imperial decrees. The way in which they were folded made it possible to read only part of it by breaking one seal. Again, seven seals implies completeness or wholeness. This decree from G-d is the completeness of G-d’s decrees or G-d’s rule in the world.
Now, pay close attention to the language, a mighty booming angel asks who is worthy to open the book. “Worthiness” does not have to do with moral worth but with social prestige. For example, if the emperor handed out an imperial decree, an ordinary Joe-schmoe on the street would not be the one to read it, and certainly, only someone of high government status would be able to execute the decrees. Hence, when no one is worthy to open the book, John cries. G-d’s kingdom decrees, it appears, will go unrealized. This is a full frontal assault on imperial Rome and emperor. Even though Caesar rules the whole “world” not even he is worthy to execute the plans of G-d by breaking the seals. Nor is a mighty angel worthy, so who is?
V. 5 answers the question. Caesar is not worthy to open the book, but the king of Israel, the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, is worthy. This worthiness derives from the Lion’s conquering. The whole verse is odd though. The elder explains that David’s Root has conquered, but who, how, when, and where this conquering happened is unanswered. Thus, we only know why: to open the book. The word “conquer” is the quintessential activity of the Lamb in Revelation. Since our introduction to the Lamb’s conquest is left open-ended, we cannot take this to mean violent takeover. By implication, the conquering done late by the Lamb over the beasts must be read in light of the symbolic conquest mentioned here with no direct object.
Revelation 5.5-6 should stand out in our minds as two of the most important verses in the entire Bible. We cannot overstate the power of these verses. Moreover, their magnitude lies in the questions they create, questions whose answers are both obvious and striking.
First, we must ask, where did this Lamb come from? In v. 4, John is crying because no one and nothing in heaven, on earth, and under the earth could be found. Suddenly, this Lamb appears among the elders and living creatures. In ch. 4, John spent calculated efforts toward describing the throne room of G-d. No Lamb was there. Ch. 4 established G-d as ruler of all creation, yet nothing in G-d’s creation was worthy to open the seal. Where did this Lamb come from? V. 13 gives us an idea: “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” The one on the throne, G-d, and the Lamb, Jesus, are worshiped in the same breath with the same words used to worship G-d in ch. 4. Where did the Lamb come from? G-d. However, unlike creation which also came from G-d, the Lamb receives the same treatment as G-d. By implication, Revelation shows us how early on Christians considered Jesus to be divine.
Second, why did the elder lie to John? In v. 5, the elder has John (and us) anticipating either a lion or a king. Neither would be surprising since there already was a lion and lots of royal-type people sitting on thrones in ch. 4. Lions are vicious predators and David was an extremely violent king; to add onto this, the elder says the one coming to open the seals “conquered”. The dramatic effect, the intense juxtaposition should not be lost. When we most expect a conquering, predatory warrior, we see, instead, a Lamb standing as though it has been slaughtered. This is the Messiah’s grand entrance! This is how the one worthy to open the seals enters G-d’s throne room: in a humiliated, defeated form. The Lamb appearing where, according to even the people surrounding G-d day and night, a lion or king should be must absolutely blow us away. It should make us double-take every time. Here Jesus is revealed. Moreover, Jesus reorients. No longer should we look at G-d’s decrees from the perspective of those who conquer like lions and kings. Instead, we should be palpably realigned onto the side of those who stand before G-d as though slaughtered.
The following phrase locates the sevenfold spirit of G-d lodged within the Lamb reflecting a very early Trinitarianism. The final verses contain the elders, the living creatures, and countless angels praising the Lamb climaxing with all creation praising both the Lamb and the one on the throne. Yes, all creation, Revelation anticipates, will one day worship G-d. What a joy it is to have a head start!
Now, we move to the question of what this teaches us. First, the powerful and mighty are unworthy to execute G-d’s decrees. Instead, G-d’s commands are realized in the hands of a dead, baby sheep who lives. This means that we cannot hope for the deliverance of those who suffer to come at the hands of the powerful. The salvation of humanity is packaged, not in good legislation and practical, rational leaders, but in the communities who choose to follow the Lamb as it carries out G-d’s kingdom edicts. Following the Lamb necessitates self-sacrifice, for this is the way the Lamb reigns and conquers evil. Since v. 10 states we are to reign on earth with the Lamb, we can only assume that being slaughtered as means of conquering makes sense for us as well as the Lamb.
Finally, I would like to draw us back to my original analogy. Dr. Strangelove ends with (spoiler alert) nuclear disaster. The whole world is destroyed. This is the logic of the beasts: death. Revelation commits us to a hope. When G-d rules through the self-sacrificial love of the Lamb, the beasts cannot win. The oppressed will cry out for justice and they shall be vindicated. The very nature of those who wish to rule in a way different from the Lamb, in a way which kills the Lamb, whether they be fascist, democratic, or monarchic, is the logic of the beasts: death. The power of the Lamb delivers life. So Revelation does not end in nuclear holocaust. Instead it ends with new heaven and new earth. In the end, G-d’s kingdom brings life.