Ted Grimsrud—April 1, 2012
After the throne room time of praise of the one on the throne, we move to the next part of the vision of chapters four or five. If we think of this vision as a kind of worship service, at this center point we get the main content of the service that allows us to understand the significance of the worship that precedes it and follow it.
Revelation 5:1-5—Who can open the scroll?
John sees a “scroll” in the right hand of the one on the throne. That this scroll is in God’s “right hand” emphasizes its weightiness as does the fact that it is so securely secured with seven seals (“seven,” again, is the number of completeness). Though we are not told directly, we surely are to understand the contents of this scroll to be the fulfillment of God’s work with creation, a message of final and complete healing.
But the message cannot simply be given. Someone must be found to open the scroll and bring the message to its fruition. To John’s bitter frustration, given his longing that the healing come, “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or look into it” (5:3). We can only speculate as to why this is the case. One idea, though, is that everyone misunderstands the way the scroll is to be opened. Everyone looked for the power of domination as the power to bring history to its conclusion.
John’s vision may thus be making a point similar to the point Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 2 about the “wisdom” of the age that fails to see in the preserving love of Jesus the revelation of the deepest and most profound truths of the universe (1 Cor 2:7).
No one is found and John weeps bitterly (5:4). Then he is told to weep no more because one has indeed been found. He is told that a king, great and powerful enough to break open the scroll has made an appearance—at least this is the sense one gets from what John is told. It is “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” a great conqueror who can open the scroll.
This is all for dramatic effect. John of course already knows the identity of this victor. However, the drama is important. Many did expect that the deliverer would indeed be an all-powerful king of the type of King David of old. This would be the hoped for Messiah longed after for many generations, the one who would “redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21) with great force. This expectation is what John hears.
Revelation 5:6-10—Triumph of the Lamb
What John actually sees creates a theological revolution that leads to a transformation in how theo-politics is to be understood—and actually reorients the way we understand the vision of the one on the throne in chapter four.
What John actually sees makes for a dramatic re-emphasis on the claim from chapter one that Jesus, the faithful witness, actually has become ruler of the kings of the earth (1:5).
“Then I saw between the throne and the living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered [who] went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one…on the throne” (5:6-7). What John sees, though, is not different from what he hears. It is just that the mighty king who has the power to open the scroll and bring the story of humanity to its healing end is actually the gentle, compassionate, consistently loving, self-sacrificial Jesus who conquers by persevering on the path of love, all the way to the cross and beyond.
We must notice, though, just how profound the exaltation of this slain and raised Lamb is here. This vision may reflect, in a certain sense, the highest christology in the entire New Testament. The Lamb stands right next to the throne. He is not part of worshiping creation but actually himself becomes the object of worship. What follows in chapter five in relation to the Lamb almost exactly echoes what John reports in chapter four in relation to the one on the throne.
So, we have a profound affirmation of the godness of the Lamb. This affirmation precisely follows from the self-emptying of the Lamb (see Philippians 2). It is as the one whose persevering love leads to a cross who embodies God as nothing else. Hence, the most important revelation here is not that Jesus is divine. The most important revelation is what this affirmation tells us about God.
The one on the throne is seen most clearly and best understood in terms of the persevering love of the Lamb. This vision thus becomes a radical and transformative theophany. We see God here, indeed, God on the cross, God as bringing victory and transformation and healing to creation through self-giving love.
Revelation 5:11-14—Worshiping the Lamb
The worship service then culminates in an ever-widening set of affirmations: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (5:12). The worship ripples wider and wider, including praise from every tribe and nation, then from angels beyond count, and then—amazingly—from “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” (5:13).
Of course, this is confessional hyperbole. But John clearly wants to drive home the point with every bit of rhetorical force that he can muster that Jesus, the epitome of peaceable embodied convictions, shows us the character of God and the means of victory. And this revelation of what God is like and how God works gains the strongest imaginable endorsement from creation itself. So, the slain and raised Lamb not only reveals God’s character, he reveals the character of God’s created universe by the response he generates from “every creature” when he takes the scroll.
We must also note in this amazing vision the verb tenses. The Lamb’s victory is praised because it has already been won. As will be reemphasized in creative ways in the visions to follow, in the live, death, and resurrection of Jesus the end has come. The victory that determines the outcome of human history has been won. There will be no other battle. No other victory—other than actions and commitments that reinforce the victory already won, and that conquer in precisely the same way (faithful witness to the very end confirmed by God’s nonviolent vindication through resurrection).
This vision determines the meaning of the rest of Revelation. As we turn to the terrible plague visions we will be challenged to keep the basic message of Revelation four and five in mind (that God is most accurately revealed in the Lamb and that the Lamb’s victory via cross and resurrection is what determines the outcome of the story). The vision could not be clearer, however. So it challenges us to read what follows very carefully—and in light of the way of the Lamb. As we will see, such a reading is indeed possible.