the shape of leadership

Worthy Is the Lamb Who Was Slain!

Celebrating the risen Christ

George P Wood on April 19, 2019


The setting of Revelation 4–5 is the throne room of heaven. But whereas Chapter 4 focused on God the Father, “who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever” (4:9), Chapter 5 focuses on God the Son, “the Lamb, who was slain” (5:12) — that is, Jesus Christ. In Chapter 5, the Lamb takes a scroll from God’s right hand because He is “worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals” (5:9).

What is the scroll? Why must its seals be broken? Why is the Lamb worthy to break them? We must answer these questions if we are to hear and heed God’s Word to us through Revelation 5.

A Double-Sided Seven-Sealed Scroll

Like the prophets before him, John is a man of sight and sound. He reports his vision of God and declares whatever word of the Lord he has heard. Having seen heaven’s throne room with an awestruck gaze, now he narrows his line of sight and focuses on God’s right hand. It is open, and a scroll lies in it (5:1).

In the ancient world, before the use of books became widespread, important documents were inscribed on scrolls made of reedy papyrus or leathery parchment. Those scrolls were often quite long, upwards of 30 feet. Only rarely was a scroll inscribed on both sides, and even then, the writing on the outer side was a simple précis of the scroll’s contents and took up little space.

John’s scroll, on the other hand was covered with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. The prophet Ezekiel saw a similar scroll in one of his visions, covered on both sides with “words of lament and mourning and woe” (Ezekiel 2:9-10). Later in Revelation, John is given “a little scroll” to eat and commissioned to “prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings” (10:11).

When the Lamb breaks the seals of John’s scroll, great and terrible events of salvation and judgment occur (6:1 through 8:5). Taking all this evidence together, it seems that the scroll is a “heavenly book containing God’s redemptive plan and the future history of God’s creation,” as Grant Osborne wrote in his commentary on Revelation. For some, the scroll’s contents are words of weal, for others, of woe.

On occasion, we wonder whether God in heaven knows what He is doing. Does He have a plan? If so, can we know it? The double-sided, seven-sealed scroll asks both questions.

Does God have a plan? Yes, He does. It is set and comprehensive, exhaustive in its detail, and it is written on the scroll lying in God’s open hand. Scripture is quite clear that God governs the course of history. Psalm 139:16 tells us as much when it says, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

In Ephesians 1:9-10, Paul writes of “the mystery of [God’s] will … which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”

God’s plan encompasses not only the happy ending but also the grievous suffering of all who believe in Him. According to Peter, Jesus’ gruesome crucifixion “with the help of wicked men” took place “by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23). We can take comfort from such knowledge, for our seemingly meaningless suffering finds meaning in God’s plan. “You have kept count of my tossings,” the Psalmist writes, and “put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56.8, ESV).

So, God has a plan. But can we know it? Before John shows us that we can, he shows us the great sorrow if we cannot. To that sorrow we now turn.

A Weeping Prophet

John’s response to the double-sided, seven-sealed scroll is curious. We might have expected him to dance with joy at the fact that God has an exhaustive plan for the ages, that the events of history and our lives find a place and meaning within that plan. But John does not. He weeps instead. Why? Read his answer for yourself in Revelation 5:2-4:

And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.

An unrevealed and therefore unknown plan is a cause for mourning. As Solomon put it: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV). We die for lack of meaning, for the inability to see the purpose of our suffering.

Some time ago, I taught a Bible study on Hebrews 2:5-18, which addresses the paradox of Christ’s lordship. Verses 8 and 9 are key:

Now in putting everything in subjection to [Jesus], [God] left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (ESV).

Christ’s lordship is paradoxical because it is actual (God left nothing outside Jesus’ control) but not apparent (“we do not yet see everything in subjection to him”).

After the Bible study, I had the opportunity to speak with a spiritual seeker. We talked about how the passage from Hebrews helps Christians face the problem of evil with a realistic optimism. (The problem of evil is the difficulty of understanding why an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God allows His creatures to suffer.)

Christians are realistic because we frankly acknowledge that evil happens, just as it happened to Christ. But we are fundamentally optimistic because we know that resurrection, the end-times’ righting of wrongs, and eternal life also happen — just as they happened to Christ.

In his vision of the heavenly throne room, John sees the power of God. And he sees the reality of evil. (After all, John is looking through heaven’s door from exile on Patmos.) What he does not see is Jesus. So he weeps.

Without Jesus, John is trying to tell us, the problem of evil is unsolvable. Christ is the interpretive key to that mystery. He is the One worthy to “take the scroll and to open its seals,” so that we can read the place of our pain in God’s plan for the ages. Specifically, it is on Christ’s cross that heaven and earth intersect, that the vertex of God’s power plunges through the horizon of human sorrow, acknowledging its reality but overcoming it with resurrection.

But John sees none of this, at least not yet. Until we understand his sorrow, we cannot understand the comfort the gospel provides.

The Lion of the Tribe of Judah

In Greek, the word for gospel is euangelion, meaning “good news.” It is an announcement of victory in battle. Although the word gospel itself is absent from Revelation 5:5, the idea is present throughout: “Then one of the elders said to me, ‘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.’”

Finally, someone has been found who is worthy and able to open the scroll and break its seals!

So, the elder commands John, “Do not weep!” As I wrote earlier, only those who have understood John’s sorrow can understand the comfort the gospel provides. But we need to understand what such comfort entails.

Imagine you are soldier in an army and seem to be losing the fight. Suddenly, a messenger arrives on the battlefield and announces that your general has broken through the enemy line and is sending them into headlong retreat. All you need to do is hold out a while longer. This message of imminent victory renews your flagging fighting spirit. It comforts you, in the Latin sense of that term: confortare, “to strengthen completely.”

John weeps because his sorrow is great. He is suffering. His churches are suffering. The enemy seems to be winning. Just as bad, he stands in the throne room of heaven and sees tremendous power but has no idea how God will deploy it. The battle plan is secret, sealed, and no one has the authority to break it.

Except for one.

John first refers to Jesus in 5:5 using the overtly political terminology of Israel’s monarchy. He describes Jesus as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” and “the Root of David.” Both are kingly terms. Judah is the tribe that produced Israel’s first dynastic monarchy. David is the first king chronologically within that dynasty. He is also the prototypical king — the one all successive kings strive to emulate.

Christ wears the crown because He bore the cross, not in spite of it.

Jesus is more than just the latest dynastic successor, however; he is the last and the greatest of the Davidic kings. He is the Root of David whom the prophet Isaiah foretold (Isaiah 11:1,10). He is the Anointed One, the Messiah, who will rescue God’s people from evil and restore justice to all creation.

No wonder, then, that when Jesus arrived in Galilee preaching the imminent inauguration of the kingdom of God, people flocked to Him (Mark 1:14-15,28). Jesus was the general whose advent strengthened all flagging soldiers. He comforted His people.

We sometimes forget the “political” side of the gospel, that is, its overtly Messianic themes. We forget how important Jesus’ Davidic genealogy was to the first generation of believers (e.g., Romans 1:3). We forget that Jesus is not a peripatetic philosopher or a democratically elected politician or even just a king. He is the King. And that is good news. But Christ is King in an unexpected way.

At this point, though, John only reports what he hears: royal titles. He still does not see Jesus. And when he does, it revolutionizes his understanding of God’s kingdom. It will do the same for us.

The Lamb Who Was Slain

So far, what John has seen and heard has prepared him to expect great things. He has seen the throne room of God. John has heard that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed” (5:5) He therefore expects to see the procession of a king, filled with pomp and circumstance.

What John sees instead is a sheep with its throat cut.

In his own words: “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (5:6).

We fail to understand both John and the entire New Testament if we fail to understand the interplay between John’s images. John does not say that he saw a sacrificial lamb instead of a regal lion. Instead, both animals represent one person, Jesus, who died for us and therefore reigns over us. Christ wears the crown because He bore the cross, not in spite of it.

This is a revolutionary understanding of kingship. Usually, given the calculus of power that prevails among those who rule, the king sends his enemies to their crosses. Christ is the one and only King who went to the cross for His enemies.

No doubt Christ’s revolutionary kingship accounts for both His popularity and His abandonment by the masses. His proclamation of the kingdom of God, accompanied by the performance of miracles, marked Jesus out as a great man, perhaps the Messiah. So the crowds flocked to Him.

But Jesus resisted their demands for a typical kingship. At one point in his ministry, the crowd rushed forward to “take him by force to make him king” (John 6:15, ESV), but He eluded them. Instead, Jesus called them to follow His example: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8.34). Why was this so hard? Because the cross was deeply shameful: “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3:13, ESV; citing Deuteronomy 21:23).

The crowds did not like Jesus’ command. They wanted a regal lion only, not a sacrificial lamb; they could not find a place for crucifixion in their religion.

But God finds a place for the Crucified One in His throne room. Notice how John lays out the floor plan of heaven. In the center is the throne. Around the throne are the four living creatures and the 24 elders (Revelation 4:4,6). Between God’s throne and the elders’ thrones is where the Lamb stands (5:6), as if to mediate the grace of the former to the needs of the latter, which He in fact does: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6).

Christ’s death is thus central to God’s plan. It should be to our lives as well. Jesus Christ is Lion and Lamb, Victor and Sacrifice. So, if we want His crown, we must bear His cross.


John wept because no one was able to open the scroll and break its seals. Then one of heaven’s 24 elders comforted him with the arrival of God’s Lion-Lamb, who approached the throne and took the seven-sealed scroll. With that action, worship breaks loose in heaven.

Look, for a moment, at what takes place (5:8-10): “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.”

I have sometimes heard an alcoholic referred to as a “stumble-down drunk.” It seems to me, based on how often the denizens of heaven fall on their knees in adoration, that we might accurately describe them as “stumble-down worshippers,” although they are of course filled with the Holy Spirit, not with wine (Ephesians 5:18).

Somehow, in spite of their prone position, they manage to sing and pray. And what a song it is!

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth (Revelation 5:9-10).

Then the angels joined in:

Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise! (verse 12).

Then “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” joined the song:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!” (verse 13).

Not only do these songs express adoration of elders, angels, and all creatures, they instruct us in the saving work of Christ.

We are informed, first of all, that Jesus Christ is worthy to reveal God’s plan for the ages because of His death on the cross. We have already pointed out the connection between cross and crown, but it is worth reiterating: The regal Lion of Judah is worthy to open the scroll precisely because He is also the sacrificial Lamb of God.

Second, we are told that Jesus Christ ransomed people by His blood. This introduces a new element. The idea of a ransom is the price given to a kidnapper to free a hostage. John is speaking metaphorically here, but what a metaphor! So greatly does God love us that He willingly pays a hefty ransom in the death of His own beloved Son that we might forever be with Him!

Third, we are told that God’s love for people is universal in scope. God’s mercy is not limited to His chosen people Israel, nor to those who have grown up in a Christian church. “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” Do we really need a children’s song to remind us of such a simple truth? No, we need the song of Israel’s patriarchs, the Church’s apostles, and the seraphim of the throne room. The universal scope of God’s love is a message too important to be left to little children.

And finally, we are told that there is a purpose in our salvation that extends beyond putting away sin. God created us to be kings and priests, to reign on earth and to enter God’s presence in heaven. It is never enough for us to escape the clutches of sin and evil. We must be prepared to be enfolded in God’s embrace and to do His work — to reign on earth in fulfillment of God’s original creation mandate (Genesis 1:28).

In Between the Times

John saw and heard all this while imprisoned on the island of Patmos. In the midst of defeat, he foresaw victory. In the midst of suffering, he foresaw glorious jubilation. John lived in between the times of the inauguration of Christ’s victory through His death and resurrection and the consummation of that victory “when [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24).

We live in between the times too. Like John, we take comfort from the fact that God’s plan is in place, that His victory is sure, that because of the Lamb He is for us, and that through the Lion He will destroy sin and death and all that would mar the eternal life God longs to give us.

So, like John, let us join our voices to the elders and angels and all creatures and loudly exclaim, no matter our current circumstances, “You are worthy,” for He is.

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