Saturday 22 October 2011

Worthy is the Lamb (Revelation 5)

What did Jesus accomplish on the cross?

Or put it this way: What difference does it make whether or not Jesus died on the cross?

Some say it makes no difference at all. Jesus was a good moral teacher who taught us how to live good upright lives. It was tragic that he died, but that is no different from any other human political assassinated for his political beliefs, such as Martin Luther King.

Others might say, as Muslims do, that Jesus did not really die. Now, the Qur’an does mention Jesus as a prophet sent from God. But to say that God would allow his prophet to be stripped naked and executed on a cross is going to far. That would be blasphemous and insulting towards God. So much so, that Muslims believe that Jesus will one day return to earth to destroy the symbol of the cross.

Yet Christians believe that Jesus did die. The bible even insists that Jesus had to die on the cross.

In case you are new to Christianity; or perhaps you are not convinced by Christianity and are skeptical about any claim from the bible about God or Jesus Christ, today’s passage might still interest you. Because either this passage from Revelation 5 is going to be the strangest, most unbelievable, outrageous piece of science fiction you are ever going to encounter; or, it is going to be the clearest, most convincing and most convicting explanation Scripture has to offer, as to what Jesus accomplished when he died on the cross two-thousand years ago.

The scroll

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals.
Revelation 5:1

John picks up from his vision in Chapter 4 of God as King ruling from heaven. God is the one seated on the throne. Meaning: God is always powerfully working out his purposes in all of creation, even in the face of opposition, rejection and evil. God is always in charge and in control of his creation.

And what we see here is God holding a scroll symbolising his full and final plan for creation. Yet this scroll is sealed with seven seals. It is locked up.

John tells us that the scroll has writing on both sides. This was unusual in John’s day as only one side of a scroll would be used for writing. The reason has to do with the way scrolls were made. You may remember learning in school about the papyrus plant. Strips of papyrus would first be laid vertically side by side, and then a second layer would be overlaid horizontally across and glued to together to form the papyrus scroll. Usually you only wrote on one side of the scroll - the side with the horizontal strips. If you had more to say, you would write on a second scroll. The only reason why you would write on both sides of one scroll instead of using two separate scrolls, is to avoid the possibility of the two scrolls being separated from one another.

This scroll in God’s right hand is written on both sides. This indicates the fullness of God’s purposes written in this one scroll, but also signifies that its contents must not be separated. The scroll contains God’s plan for salvation as well as judgement. Both are part of the same plan. Salvation and judgement must not be separated.

Yet the scroll is sealed. Until the seals are broken, God’s plans cannot be known or carried out.

Who is worthy?

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.
Revelation 5:2-3

Notice that the angel does not ask, “Who is strong enough to break the seals?” The issue is not strength or ability, but rather, suitability. “Who is worthy?”

Last week we saw the four living creatures and twenty-four elders bow down before God saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and God...for you created all things.” God is worthy to be worshipped. Creation was made to worship its creator.

But now the angel asks who is worthy to carry out God’s purposes for salvation and judgement by breaking the seals and opening the scroll. And the answer is: no-one. Not in heaven, nor on earth; meaning: none of the angelic beings can do this and no human being or creature can do this. Nor under the earth; meaning: not even a someone from past history who is now dead and buried can do this.

In all of creation, no one is worthy. In all of history, no one is worthy.

I wept and wept

I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.
Revelation 5:4

The news of a hit-and-run accident involving two-year old Wang Yue sparked outrage and sadness amongst the online community in China this week. Surveillance footage showed the toddler being run over by two vans and ignored by eighteen passers-by as she lay on the street bleeding and unconscious. Wang Yue finally succumbed to her injuries and died on Friday after spending a week in hospital in a coma. Millions of comments have since flooded the Internet expressing anger, disbelief and sorrow at the tragedy. Many were outraged at the apathy of the passers-by who did nothing to help the little girl, even questioning the moral compass and apathy of the Chinese people in general. One commenter wrote, “We are all passers-by”.

Are these responses are simply emotional or psychological? Granted, the death of any child is reason enough to be sorrowful. Some have suggested the passers-by were afraid of being scammed. Others have proposed laws mandating bystanders to help accident victims.

Yet suppose you were one of passers-by that Friday. And suppose you saw Yue Yue lying unconscious on the street. Should it be a law - and the fear of prosecution under that law - that ultimately motivates you to help her? Should we not be moved to action by our conscience, our compassion or justice - our sense of right and wrong? Or are these merely emotional responses?

The bible says God is the ultimate objective measure of truth and goodness. Without God, it would be meaningless to discuss the problem of evil because by definition there would be no measure of what is evil outside the objective goodness of God. Similarly, there would be no meaning to our suffering, pain and sorrow without God. Commenting on tragedies like the death of Wang Yue would, at best, be academic or utilitarian, like fixing the economy.

You see, when we read in Revelation of John weeping and weeping because no one was found worthy to open the scroll and look inside, his is both an emotional response and a right response. Contained within the scroll are God’s final resolution to all the injustices in the world and all the suffering in the world. This is God’s plan to put right a world gone wrong.

Yet John’s tears are not simply an expression of sadness and grief, but ultimately, of despair. The locked scroll implies that evil will get away with evil. That is the world we live in, isn’t it? We see unfairness, exploitation, selfishness, apathy and cruelty everyday that goes unresolved and unpunished. Evil gets away with evil.

But if there is a God who is all good and all powerful, then he will punish evil. God is angry when he see a two-year old being run over again and again and God will do something about it. If there is a God who is all loving, then God is saddened when he sees our apathy. God will do something about that to.

It means when we look at a tragedy - a death of a loved one, the suffering of the cancer patient, the death of an unborn child - our response of grief is not just natural. It is right. Do you hear what I’m saying? There is meaning in your sadness. And the bible says we find that meaning in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Because right after this, one of the twenty-four elders tells John to stop his crying and to look to Jesus, “He has triumphed.”

I saw a Lamb

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.” Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
Revelation 5:5-6

Notice that the elder tells John to see the lion, but when John does look he sees a lamb instead. What is going on? Did the lion transform into a lamb? No. Rather, the first is a description of who he is, and the second, what he has done.

Firstly, who he is. He is the Lion of Judah and the Root of David, both titles referring to Messiah or Christ. This is God’s chosen King. The term “Lion of Judah” comes from Genesis 49 at the scene of Jacob blessing his son Judah with the promise of authority - even, kingly authority - as symbolised here by the mention of the “scepter” and “ruler’s staff”.

Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.
Genesis 49:9-10

From this tribe would descend, eleven generations later, the great King David. Additionally, it was to David that God promised one of his descendants would always be on the throne - very similar to the prophecy giving to Judah by his father Jacob, God was pointing forward to a greater king who would rule over a greater kingdom. Even though most of David’s descendants turned out to be sinful and idolatrous kings who disobeyed God and led the entire nation astray, this promise remained one of the most powerful symbols of hope for Israel in the Old Testament. The prophets kept pointing forward, saying one day, one of David’s descendants would inherit the throne and establish God’s kingdom in righteousness here on earth.

Such was the prophet Isaiah, who wrote these words over 700 years before Jesus was born:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD—
and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
Isaiah 11:1-3

Notice how Isaiah talks about the stump and roots of Jesse (Jesse being David’s father). This is picture language of a remnant - leftovers, if you like - of the kingdom that is left long after David’s reign. It is in tatters. It is just a stump - like what you get when you cut down a tall tree. It is a humble shadow of its former glory. Yet, Isaiah says that out this stump will come a shoot, symbolising another king. Upon this king would rest God’s spirit of power, wisdom and love.

Who is this root of David and Lion of Judah? It is God’s chosen king, also known as the Christ. This is why Matthew, the gospel writer, goes to great pains in the opening chapter of his gospel to show how Jesus was the true descendant of King David and the fulfilment of all the expectations of the Old Testament for the Messiah. In fact, the title “Son of God” in gospels like Mark was another way of referring to the Christ or God’s chosen king.

So back to Revelation, the elder taps John on the shoulder and says to him, “John, stop your crying. Look! The King of Kings; the heir to the throne of David is coming. He is worthy to open the scroll.” You would expect at this point to see an image of great power - he is the Lion of Judah; of great strength - he is able to break open the seals on the scroll; of glory and triumphant victory after a great battle - he has overcome, the elder says.

But instead John sees a lamb that was slain. It is not that John sees two animals - a lion and then a lamb. Rather the point is, the lion is the lamb. He is the king who offers his life in sacrifice. Jesus is the Lamb of God, slain for our sins.

And because he was slain, Jesus is worthy to approach God’s throne and take the scroll from God’s right hand. More than that, Jesus is worthy to be worshipped.

Because you were slain

He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, 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 the saints.
Revelation 5:7-8

All of four living creatures and the twenty-four elders - all of the angelic servants before God’s throne - bow down and worship Jesus, the Lamb of God. Remember what happened last week in Chapter 4. They were worshipping God. God was worthy of worship. God created the universe. But now, these same heavenly angels give their praise and worship to Jesus.

Each one of the elders are said to be holding a harp. I have heard this used as illustration for why we should have electric guitars in church; why it is important to have music in the church - and I think there is great truth in this picture of heaven itself praising God in music and song, and even with instruments of song.

Yet the purpose of the harps is symbolic of joy. Today we hear “harp” and think foyer at the Marriott hotel. But in Jewish culture, the harp was a happy instrument. Think mariachi band - big hats, loud trumpets and Speedy Gonzales.

Which is why “by the rivers of Babylon”, the Israelites hung up their harps, in Psalm 137. They were evicted from their country and oppressed by a foreign enemy. They could no longer sing songs that were happy and joyful.

And moments earlier, John was weeping in sorrow and despair. But now Jesus turns up and heaven is rejoicing. That is the symbolism of the harp. Mourning has turned to joy and praise.

And singing:

And they sang a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
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

Go back to the image John saw standing in the centre of the throne: a lamb that was slain. It is repeated here in this “new song” sung by the angels - “You were slain and with your blood you purchased for God”.

It is a gruesome picture. John uses a word borrowed from the abattoir where animals are slaughtered. That is what “slain” means - animals were cut open. That is what the priests did as they sacrificed animals at the temple. The lamb was symbolic of God’s judgement for the sins of the people. It was killed to take our punishment so that we could be forgiven of our wrong-doing.

Also, this reminds us of the Passover lamb recorded in the book of Exodus. Blood from this sacrificial lamb was sprinkled on the door posts of the Israelite homes. That night, the Destroyer sent from God would see the blood and “pass over” that house, therefore sparing the life of the first born in that family.

Back in Singapore and Malaysia, the loan-sharks scare people into paying up their overdue debts by splashing red paint on their front door or even blood, and sometimes placing a severed pig’s head at the entrance of their homes. It was a vivid way of saying, “Pay up, or else!”

But here, the blood of the lamb means the debt has been settled. It has been paid in full. “With your blood you purchased - that is, you paid the price for - men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” That includes us Chinese. We don’t deserve this, by the way, but God has decided that he would sacrifice the life of his own Son, so that there would be such a strange thing as a Chinese Church smack in the middle of an English city like Cambridge. Every people. Every nation.

But then again, it also means we cannot just be Chinese here at the Chinese Church. If we truly understand what this verse is saying, we should not just invite Chinese friends, Asian friends, BBC’s to this church. In fact, I wonder if we ought to even be more intentional about telling people who are not Chinese the gospel. How well we understand the death of Jesus Christ and preciousness of his blood, is not just seen in how fervent our prayers are or how sincere you live your life for God. It is seen in who you intentionally go out of your way to love and tell the message of Jesus’ death of the cross. To walk up to someone who is totally unlike you - who has different values from you, who has an entirely different background from you, who speaks a different language from you, whose culture and heritage might even be offensive to your own - and so passionately desire to communicate to that person, “Jesus Christ died for you to make you a kingdom and a priest before God” - that’s how you show you understand the this verse in the bible.

Who would that be for us? You know, International Ministry seems to be a popular focus for churches in Cambridge today. Everyone wants to evangelise the Chinese. Everyone wants to reach the Muslims. In a way, it is almost be a sensible thing to do here in Cambridge where there are so many Chinese and so many Muslims living in this city. Yet, when Jesus approached the Samaritan woman at the well, it was a gesture so shocking and so scandalous, that woman was surprised Jesus was even talking to her. What kind of person would be totally caught off guard if you starting talking to him or her about the gospel? Who would that be for us here in the Chinese Church? Would it be inconceivable for us to have an African ministry here in the Chinese Church? Would it be surprising to have a service entirely in Japanese, or even a bible study with more English locals than internationals?

Why not?

If this verse is true, Jesus died for the Chinese Church, but not just for the Chinese Church. His blood paid for men and women from every tribe, every nation, every tongue, every people group.

Do we understand this verse? It will show in the way we preach the gospel and who we go out of our way to love and bring into the Kingdom of God.

And it will be motivated by the worship of the Lamb.

Worthy is the Lamb

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honour and glory and praise!”
Revelation 5:11-12

Now look again at who is praising the lamb. It’s the angels. But not just the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders around the throne. Now John sees the entire host of heaven joining in worship and praise of Jesus - “thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand” - meaning: all of God’s angelic servants in heaven.

But he also says he hears this innumerably number of angelic beings singing in one single voice and this is John’s way of saying there is just one reason why they praise Jesus in heaven. He was slain. “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain.”

Why should you worship God? Well, last week we saw, because he made you. You owe him. Every moment you exist, every breath you have, that comes from God. It is his gift of grace for you - in sustaining you - so that you would recognise him as your creator. All creation was made to worship God. Fundamentally, that should be all the reason we need. But here, the bible gives us another reason. In fact, it is a better reason.

Jesus is worthy because he was slain. When he went to the cross, most people abandoned him. Many rejected him. Some pitied him. One guy even asks him to remember him in heaven - the thief on the cross.

But one thing most people don’t realise is that Jesus went to the cross to be crowned. He went to the cross to be glorified. That is what the angels are praising Jesus for. His majesty seen on the cross. He is worthy to be praised. He is the crucified king.

Even as Christians, I wonder if we need to be reminded of this truth. It seems to be a popular these days to have Good Friday meditations where we reflect on the events leading up to the cross. Often times, this becomes a good opportunity to reflect on our sin and Jesus’ suffering for our sin. But it does worry me when we miss the point entirely and only ever feel sorry for Jesus on the cross. That is entirely the wrong idea. In fact, that is precisely with Muslims hate the cross, and rightly so, if all it represents is weakness and pity and shame.

The cross is the coronation of the Son of God. Jesus defeated Satan on the cross. “Look!” the elder tells John in verse 5, “The Lion of Jesus has triumphed!” It is a word that means “conquered” or “overcome”, and it is in the past tense. Jesus has won a battle!

That is why all of heaven praises - not just God on the throne - but Jesus, the lamb who was slain. He is worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!

All creation sings

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshipped.
Revelation 5:13-14

So initially it was just the angels who were praising God. But now all of creation join in - heaven, earth, under the earth and the sea. All in praise of God seated on the throne and the lamb that was slain.

Just before we look at the implications of this, I wanted to quickly recap what we have learned and answer the question we asked right in the beginning: What did Jesus accomplish on the cross? Very quickly I would like to make five observations from this text:

1.    Jesus carries out God’s final plan for salvation and judgement
There will be an end to this universe. There is a purpose to our existence. There will be punishment of all evil. There will be salvation of God’s people. What makes it all possible - salvation, judgement, the new heavens and the earth, the eternal kingdom of God - is Jesus’ death on the cross.

2.    Jesus ascends to the throne
Through his resurrection, God raised Jesus up as the true Messiah and chosen King. Jesus now rules all of creation under God’s authority from God’s throne.

3.    Jesus is worthy of worship
In Chapter 4, God alone is worthy of worship for he created all things, but now in Chapter 5, the angels now say that Jesus is worthy because he was slain. Our greatest praise of God is through Jesus and through his sacrifice on the cross. Therefore, the songs that we sing, the prayers that we speak, the gospel that we preach must always centre on the cross as the focal point of true worship of the true God.

4.    Jesus defeated Satan and death
On the cross, Jesus defeated all his enemies, including Satan, the accuser of men and women before God. He defeated death by taking the punishment of our sin upon himself and was raised to indestructable and everlasting life. The cross also means God has given all judgement over to Jesus who will one day return to judge the living and the dead.

5.    Jesus purchased men and women from every tribe and nation for God
He paid for us with his blood. Our salvation comes through the death of God’s own Son. Forgiveness and reconciliation is offered to every nation under heaven. God created the world and all its vast cultures and peoples. God’s plan is to redeem men and women from all cultures and all peoples to display his grace and his glory in Jesus.


Finally I just wanted to end by looking at the last verse of Chapter 5. The four living creatures say, “Amen.” Now why do they say that? Well, it’s the end of a prayer, that’s why. Amen is what you say when you agree with the content of that prayer. It is saying, “Yes, I agree with that. I want that. That is true.” Amen.

But I wanted to point out a very curious thing I’ve noticed in this verse, in that, when the four living creatures and the elders bow down and say, “Amen”, it is very different from when you or I say, “Amen.” Let me explain why.

If you look back to verses 11 and 12, the angels sang a “new song” praising Jesus as the lamb who was slain. But they also say that Jesus is worthy for dying on the cross because he paid for a kingdom of priests to serve God. That is, he saved men and women. Yet curiously, verse 10 reminds us that this salvation excludes the angels themselves. “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God and they will reign on the earth.”

You see, I hope that when we sing this song we will sing it rather differently. We will sing, “You are worthy, Jesus because you purchased us for God with your blood. You have made us to be kingdom and priests to serve our God forever and ever.” Or as Paul writes in Colossians, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13) Or as Peter writes, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

So when we say “Amen”, I pray that what we mean is “Jesus, you have done this for us because you loved us. You saved me through your death with your blood. You have made me your own. You were slain for my sins and through your cross I receive forgiveness, hope and the promise of everlasting life. I worship you as my God and my Saviour.”


You laid aside Your majesty, gave up everything for me.
Suffered at the hands of those You had created.
You took away my guilt and shame,
When You died and rose again.
Now today You reign,
And heaven and earth exalt You.

I really want to worship You my Lord,
You have won my heart and I am Yours.
Forever and ever, I will love You.
You are the only one who died for me,
Gave Your life to set me free.
So I lift my voice to You in adoration.
("You laid aside your majesty", Noel Richards)

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