Part III of the series “The End of the World as We Know It: The Book of Revelation.”
Recently, Jennifer and I have been working on our estate plan—you know, the plan where you generate a legal document that decides where all your assets will go when you die. So, the last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about life without us in it and who, beside our children, gets all the property and finances that may be left over after we’re gone. After all, ten bucks is ten bucks!
We’ve been working with an attorney on this, and it’s really one of the very few times I’ve ever worked with the legal profession. I’ve had to learn a new vocabulary, learn how all the documents work, who gets copies, etc. Emails fly back and forth, documents get signed, all to register what amounts to our last will and testament.
In 2015, those documents are usually done electronically and you need a password to open them. If you were doing a will in the ancient world, however, it was a much more involved and, in some ways, more elegant process. In the Roman world, for example, a deed or a will was written on papyrus or parchment and rolled up as a scroll. The scroll was then tied with string to close it and then hot wax was dribbled on to it and marked with either a signet ring or another device that put the witness’s symbol or sign on it to seals it and make it official. For really important documents there might be as many as seven seals signifying several witnesses. Only those who were authorized could break the seals and open the document. The reading of a will, then, was a big event and lot more sophisticated than just typing in a password.
A will is usually only opened in a time of crisis, when someone has passed away and it’s time to get on with the future. Old things have to be sorted out and a new reality takes hold. In Revelation 5, John’s vision takes us into the heavenly throne room where the one seated on the throne is holding a document just like this—a scroll with seven seals.
And clearly there is a crisis. Someone or something has reached its end and there in the heavenly throne room an angel cries out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” It’s time to read the will, but who can open it so that it can be read? What’s going on here?
Scholars are all over the map in interpreting this passage, trying to figure out what the scroll is all about. I must’ve read ten different books on this and I got ten different answers. So, this morning I want to give you the one explanation that I think makes the most sense contextually and theologically—what God holds in his right hand, I think, is the last will and testament of the world as we know it—instructions and images from its last days and instructions for a new world, a new creation, a new reality that will take its place.
Indeed, it’s the opening of this scroll that will set in motion the bizarre series of images that constitute Revelation 6-19—images of battles and beasts, images of dragons and lakes of fire, images of martyred saints and wrathful angels, but also images of peace and a brand new world. We look closer at some of these things over the next couple of weeks. Think of it as a will that is written in code—a code that only the rightful heirs can understand.
But before the will can be read, someone has to open it—someone who is authorized and worthy. John wept bitterly because “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (v. 3). This is a hard reality that John realizes: despite God creating humans to reflect his image in his creation, despite calling out a people called Israel to be God’s righteous representatives, none of the people God created are worthy to open the scroll. Sin prevents them from doing it. It will take one who is fully human, who is sinless, to open the scroll and reveal God’s plan for a broken world.
But there is good news. One of the elders tells John, “Do not weep, see the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Like with much of this section, the text draws on Old Testament imagery. In Genesis 49:9-10, for example, “the lion of Judah” is a prediction that Israel’s true king will come from the tribe of Judah, which later is revealed as the line of David. This is one of the reasons that the covers for Torah scrolls often had lions on them. The “Root of David” is another messianic image. The lion is a symbol used throughout history to signify power and might, often of the military variety, and thus it’s good news to many that it’s the one who comes as a conquering lion that will be the one to open the scroll.
But when John turns to look at the lion what he sees instead is a lamb—the exact opposite of a lion, really. Lambs are quiet, meek, dependent, helpless. It is the animal of sacrifice, not the raging carnivore. And the lamb that John sees is already stained with blood “as if it had been slaughtered” (v. 6). It’s a dramatic contrast—the power and victory of the lion and the helpless, bloodstained sacrifice of the lamb but in John’s vision these two disparate images suddenly become fused together. From this moment on, John and his readers are to understand that the victory won by the lion is accomplished through the sacrifice of the lamb—the lamb with seven horns to signify his own power and with seven eyes that see everything—a lamb that sees everything humans have done and dies for us anyway.
It’s the lamb that can open the will. As heaven proclaims in verse 9: “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on the earth.” Broken humanity will be restored through his blood and given a new inheritance and a new future; a new vocation to reign with him on the earth. As I said in the first sermon in this series, Revelation is not about the end of the world but rather about the end of the world as we know it. Right here in Revelation 5 we are reminded that the purpose of God is not to take us away from his world but to come and take over.
It’s important as we move through the rest of Revelation that we hold these two symbols for Jesus, the lion and the lamb, in tension. Over the course of centuries, Christians have either gravitated to one or the other. Some have taken the lion only approach—the political power approach to bringing in God’s future. One of the great Crusader kings was Richard the Lionheart of England, who believed that the kingdom of God would come by force and violence—the symbol of the lion was prevalent in his crusading army. In our own day, some Christians believe that the way to address a broken world is by forcing it to come into line, by picking up arms to fight off the encroachment of evil. Still others would like to take only the lamb approach and not deal with the world at all, but run away from the danger to a spiritualized heaven where they can commune with Jesus. But the message of Revelation is that the lion of Judah and the lamb of God are one-in-the-same – the lion that confronts the specter of evil, sin, and death head on but does so not with might but through his own lamb-like suffering. Power through weakness; life through death; the lion and the lamb together.
And it’s important that we understand this because when the lion-lamb opens the will, we begin to see that the crisis is coming to a head. Usually, the reading of the will is a good thing for family members for it means that they will, hopefully, receive something by which to remember their loved ones. If they don’t receive something good, they contest it, which can be very nasty. What we learn when this will, the last will and testament of evil and the world as we know it, is opened is that the forces of evil will not surrender their claim on the world quietly.
The cracking open of the seven seals all reveal something about the present state of the world as well as its future. In chapter 6 we read about the first four seals, each of which unleashes one of the so-called four horsemen of the apocalypse. Actually, this is an echo back to the Old Testament and the prophet Zechariah where angelic horsemen are sent by God to patrol the earth where they find peace. These four horsemen, whether they are sent by God or unleashed by God (another source of disagreement to interpreters) are released to wreak havoc.
Now, here again, these are symbols taken from the Old Testament. We are not to be looking out the window for these horsemen to ride by one day. Indeed, what they bring is already part of the world as we know it, and that was certainly the case in John’s world. The archer on a white horse would have been a terrifying image in the Roman world because it would have reminded them of the Parthians, their enemy to the east. The Parthians were the descendants of the Persian empire, Arabic peoples who nibbled away at Rome’s borders and sometimes won great victories over Roman legions.
The rider on a red horse is sent to “take peace from the earth” and may signify the bloodshed that had taken place in John’s day, particularly the year of the four emperors in 68-69AD when four claimants to the Roman throne were each slaughtered in turn by rivals. Red was the color most associate with war and bloodshed. The black horse and the rider carrying scales is a reminder of famine and the fact that the rich tend to get richer while the poor get poorer. And lastly, of course, the most famous of the four horsemen—the one bringing death and hell with him. They reminded John’s readers that the events of their own day were a sign that evil wouldn’t go quietly—indeed, in some sense, God was allowing evil to do its worst, to expose itself fully so that it could be dealt with once and for all. Not exactly a joyous inheritance, at least initially.
Which is why when the fifth seal is opened we see a different scene—the altar in the divine throne room under which were all those saints who had been killed by persecution and calamity on the earth. The cry out, “How long will it be, God, before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” In other words, God, what is taking you so long to deal with this evil? Why can’t your kingdom come now? Where is the victory of the lion of Judah? But in 6:11 we see God’s response – they are each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer until more of the saints would suffer under the same conditions in which they themselves were killed. Again, not exactly the kind of inheritance one hopes for!
But here is the key principle if we are to be people of the lion and the lamb: that the way God’s people deal with evil is not through violence but through suffering. The victory of the lion is achieved through the suffering of the lamb. Evil did its worst to Jesus and it will attempt to do the same with us. What is our response? Neither fighting nor fleeing—it is following the example of the lamb, the one who tells us to lay aside the sword and pick up the cross instead.
We see the four horsemen already roaming around our world, as they have been in every generation. Terrorism grows more menacing. We regularly see bloodshed on our own streets and in the newspaper. We see and experience economic injustice and we fear the threat of economic collapse. And death stalks every one of us. We cry out with the saints under the altar, “How long, O Lord?” And we are tempted to take matters into our own hands. Indeed, we may even fear that the wrath of God may fall on us, like those who hide in response to the opening of the sixth seal. We want victory now, but despite our best efforts we cannot achieve it on our own.
The vision of victory God offers us isn’t one that we can accomplish by the sword or by trying to make ourselves ever more secure—we can do our best to hold evil at bay, and we should, but ultimately we can never eradicate it on our own despite the promise of presidents and politicians. Indeed, and this is the paradox, the victory has already been won by the lion who is a lamb, and it is only by following him that we find our true inheritance. We “conquer” by suffering with him, for it is through his suffering that ultimate victory will come.
At the end of Revelation 7 we see it is those who have washed their robes in blood—not the blood of their enemies but the blood of the lamb—that live into God’s ultimate future. “For the lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
We might imagine that those seven churches who received John’s letter with this vivid vision received it with a mixture of fear and hope. There will be more visions to come, visions of trumpets and bowls, of battles and even more visions of heaven and hell themselves. Like them, we might be confused or even angered at the fact that, at least in our opinion, God isn’t doing enough to stem the tide of evil around us right now, so we’d better try and take care of it on our own. We may be disheartened to hear that things will probably get worse before they get better. But Revelation calls us to something better, a greater inheritance—and that is the inheritance of hope. The one of the throne has not abandoned us, indeed he is already at work. His justice will prevail. The suffering lamb does not suffer in vain and neither do his people.
One of the things I learned as we were preparing to meet with the attorney is that more than half of people in the US do not have a will. Some think it’s too expensive, some think they don’t have enough assets to worry about, but you know the most prevalent reason is that people don’t want to even think about their own mortality. The exercise of putting your will together forces you to think about life without you in it. We procrastinate about that which we fear.
Those who are in Christ, however, have no need to fear. The ultimate will has already been opened—and we know that our future has already been secured by the lion who is a lamb. Death comes to us all, but we know that our ultimate destiny is resurrection and new life in God’s new creation. And because of that good news we can take on the vocation of being good stewards of the resources of God’s creation in the time that we have.
Suffering will come. Evil will still have its way for awhile longer. But victory belongs to the one who is on the throne and to the lamb.
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.” Amen.