Studies in Revelation—Lesson 11
By Reta Halteman Finger
Be careful when you read this lesson. In chapter 5, we are dealing with a text that responsible scholars consider to be the key to understanding the entire book of Revelation! If we get this wrong, we’re in trouble.
In the last lesson, we left John weeping in despair because no one was found worthy to open the seven-sealed scroll in the right hand of the One seated on the throne. If the scroll does indeed contain the meaning of world history, it’s highly important for John and his fellow believers to know. Otherwise, as J. Nelson Kraybill puts it in Apocalypse and Allegiance, they “have no way of being certain that the love and justice of God will prevail” (p. 98).
“Do not weep,” one of the elders says. John can stop crying because “the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so he can break the seals and open the scroll” (Rev. 5:5). The nation of Judah was called both a lion and lioness in the dying words of Jacob spoken to his sons in Genesis 49:9-10. “The scepter shall not depart from Judah,” predicted Jacob, referring to the Davidic line of Israelite kings. The “Root of David” takes us to Isaiah 11: 1, 10, where a new “shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse [King David’s father]” and “shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”
Hearing and seeing
This is what John hears, expecting a ferocious roaring carnivore to emerge. Instead, in one of the most gut-wrenching reversals in scripture, what John sees is a slaughtered Lamb—a defenseless animal with its throat cut (Rev. 5:6). Kraybill comments that “the Greek word John uses for ‘slaughtered’ carries more the meaning of murder than of sacrifice. It is the same word John uses to describe both saints in heaven ‘who had been slaughtered for the word of God’ (6:9) and all kinds of people ‘who have been slaughtered on earth’ by Babylon/Rome (18:24). The Lamb worthy to reveal God’s future for the world is himself a victim of violence” (p. 98).
Nevertheless, this Lamb also has seven horns (representing power) and seven eyes (representing wisdom). Like the burning torches in front of the throne (4:5), the Lamb’s horns and eyes are also “the seven spirits of God, sent out into all the earth” (5:6).
An experience of pure worship
The rest of Revelation 5 portrays what a momentous event this is. The Lamb takes the scroll from the One seated on the throne, and as he does this, the four living creatures and the 24 elders fall down before the Lamb in worship. Each of the elders has a harp and a golden bowl filled with incense. (In Roman religious ceremonies a shallow bowl was often used for pouring out libations—wine or other drinks in honor of a deity.) John calls the incense “the prayers of the saints” (5:8).
What follows next is pure worship. Imagine Handel’s “Messiah,” sung first by the four living creatures and the 24 elders (vv. 8-10), then by thousands upon thousands of angels (vv. 11-12), then by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea”! (v. 13). But instead of the Hallelujah Chorus, this is a “new song” (5:9). In Jewish tradition, a new song is what the people of God sing at a time of victory or deliverance, such as after Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea after escaping Egypt (Exodus 15:11-13). This “new song” includes people from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev 5:9).
What does it all mean?
What is the meaning of the slaughtered Lamb as victor and worthy of praise from all created beings? Is it substitutionary atonement, whereby dying for others takes away their sin? Though this theology harks from the Hebrew system of animal sacrifice, this is not Revelation’s main emphasis. Rather, it is closer to the Christus victor understanding of Jesus’s life and death. Jesus confronts the powers of evil (represented by Rome in Revelation) who eventually torture and execute him. But by his submission to death rather than retaliating, Jesus triumphs over evil through his resurrection.
In Lamb Christology, Loren Johns comments: “The Lamb overcame evil by refusing to adopt its methods and its rules and bearing its brunt.” In Revelation, the Lamb is “a consistent and trustworthy model for believers facing . . . civic pressures to conform to the expectations of Greco-Roman society” (p. 198). No wonder such a singular event calls forth “a new song” from every creature in heaven and earth! “The entire scenario,” asserts Michael Gorman, “is a vivid enactment of . . . Philippians 2:6-11, where the one who was obedient to death is acknowledged as Lord, worthy of the acclamation due God alone” (Reading Revelation, p. 110).
Although John never names him in this chapter, the Lamb is clearly Jesus, who, because of his actions, shares in the very identity of God. We have already seen he has God’s white hair (Rev. 1:14), his name (1:17), and the sharing of the throne with his Father (3:21). But he participates in God’s identity only as the slaughtered Lamb. Revelation agrees with the whole New Testament that “the exalted Lord remains the crucified Jesus” (Gorman, p. 111).
Questions for discussion and reflection
- In what ways does our understanding of Jesus as the slaughtered Lamb affect our understanding of God? Does it have implications for our discipleship?
- How are Jesus and/or God associated with secular power in our culture?
- What are the implications if we do not see these chapters, Revelation 4 and 5, as the key to understanding the whole narrative?
- How might the music and liturgy in this vision affect us spiritually and theologically?
Gorman, Michael J. Reading Revelation Responsibly. Cascade Books, 2011.
Johns, Loren L. The Lamb Christology and the Apocalypse of John. Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
Kraybill, J. Nelson. Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation. Brazos Press, 2010.