Worthy is the Lamb
Worthy is the Lamb
by William Klock
A year after we moved into our last house we started receiving letters addressed to the previous owner. When he’d moved, he’d set up mail forwarding with the post office, but they’ll only forward your mail for a year. When the year was up, the post office stopped forwarding his mail. But the only mail we got for him was from a bank. I thought it was odd that he obviously gave everyone else his new address, but not the bank. Those monthly letters from the bank started to pile up. We didn’t have his forwarding address. His name was John Smith and he’d moved to Houston. I looked on the Internet. There are a lot of John Smiths in Houston. So the letters kept piling up. Then we got one from a collections agency. It was marked “Urgent” and “Final Notice” and even thought it also said something to the effect of “To be opened only by addressee”, I decided I’d better open it to see what was up and if there was anything I could do—or anything I needed to deal with before toughs showed up at our front door demanding money.
As it turned out, the previous owner of our home had taken out a very substantial line of credit for home renovations—only a small portion of which actually went into renovating our home—and had defaulted and neglected to update the bank of his whereabouts. I didn’t feel so bad about opening a stranger’s confidential mail once I discovered he was guilty of something far, far worse. I imagine he was relieved to stop getting those letters and I also wondered if the bank ever caught up with him. But imagine if you were the debtor, you couldn’t pay, the bank had been hounding you, so you called the bank and by some miracle of grace, the person on the other end of the phone agreed to a payment plan you could manage. Maybe the loan would be partially forgiven. The agent promised to send an official notice with the details. And so you wait anxiously for that letter with the details and when it came, you tore it open and jumped for joy at what was inside. The pressure’s off. Everything will be okay.
But imagine if that letter came and you couldn’t open it. That’s a bit like the situation John finds himself in as we begin Revelation 5. Remember that Revelation is about tribulation, about perseverance, and about kingdom. It opens with these letters to the churches exhorting them to persevere, to stand firm, to conquer. They’ve been living through tribulation. Things, for most of them, are going to get worse. But the Lord knows what he’s doing and has a plan. His kingdom is breaking into the world and he will see his people through. But what’s the plan? Well, that’s the rest of John’s vision. It’s why he’s been invited through the open door into the heavenly court—to know the counsels of the Lord.
That vision began in Chapter 4, as we saw last week, with John’s vision of the twenty-four elders and the angelic beings around God’s throne giving him praise, but now in Chapter 5 we get to the heart of it. Look at verses 1-4:
Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
The imagery seems weird and cryptic to us, but it wasn’t to those First Century Christians to whom John wrote. As we’ve seen many times already, the imagery of Revelation is drawn from the Old Testament. It’s confusing to us because we aren’t steeped in the Bible the way they were. The scene John describes here in Chapters 4 and 5 is drawn heavily from the opening to Ezekiel’s prophecy. John and Ezekiel were both in exile. Both are taken up to the heavenly court where the Lord reveals his plans. Many of the details of the heavenly throne room that John reports are similar to Ezekiel’s description. This establishes the context as John stands before God’s throne and a scroll is presented. Something similar happened to Ezekiel. He, too, was given a scroll with writing on both front and back. It contained “words of lamentation and mourning and woe” (Ezekiel 2:10). And Ezekiel was sent to deliver the message of the scroll to rebellious Israel, “to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day” (2:3). So we know—or we should know—as soon as the scroll appears here that it contains the Lord’s plans for Israel.
But the scroll calls back to two other important passages from the Old Testament prophets. The Lord spoke to Israel through Isaiah, but then Isaiah rebuked Israel saying, “All these sayings shall become for you like the words of this sealed book. If they give it to a learned man, saying, ‘Read these things,’ then he will say, ‘I cannot read it, for it is sealed.’” (Isaiah 29:11 NETS). The word of the Lord should have been easy for Israel to hear, but the nation was so far gone in rebellion that that word might as well have been on a sealed scroll. No one was worthy to open it, let alone hear it. But there’s also a powerful reference to Daniel here. Daniel was given a vision of the political events that would bring Israel to a great crisis under the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes. And yet, having been given this prophecy, Daniel is told to “shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end” (Daniel 12:4). So it may well be that the scroll John sees is this very scroll that had been sealed up by Daniel, but at the very least the imagery tells us that this scroll contains the details of a time of great trouble to come—specifically trouble for Israel, not just ethnic Jews, but for the whole people of God—and that it tells of the judgement to come on unbelieving and apostate Israel, but also the Lord’s plan to vindicate the faithful amongst the covenant people, the Church. In short, sealed in the scroll are the Lord’s plans to set Creation to rights.
So the angel proclaims to the heavenly court, “Who is worthy to open the scroll?” And there’s no one worthy. No one on the earth. That’s probably not surprising knowing our sinful lot. But even in heaven there’s no one worthy. And John bursts into tears. He weeps. He’s seen the affliction of God’s people. He’s in exile himself on account of the gospel. And he’s been given those messages of coming tribulation to deliver to the churches. But he’s also heard the Lord’s promise to those who overcome. The Lord will judge those who afflict his people. The Lord will deliver the faithful. The Lord will set all to rights. And the plan for it is all right there in the scroll, but someone’s got to open it, to unleash God’s plans in order for it to happen. And no one in earth or heaven is worthy.
This searching high and low for someone to open the scroll reminds us of the Lord’s design of Creation and, in particular, the vocation he gave to the human race. He put us in his temple to bear his image, to steward his Creation, to exercise his dominion, to mediate his presence to the world. We are the priests of his temple. And as a race we failed. And since the Lord was committed to working in his creation through us, rather than abandon us to sin and death, he began a work of re-creation. He called Abraham and through him created a people, Israel, to mediate his presence to the nations. But Israel, too, failed. Israel, too, needed redemption. John’s weeping echoes the weeping of Creation. Where is the man who do what Adam his children have not?
He goes on in verses 5 and 6:
And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
It turns out that all this searching high and low in heaven and earth to find one who was worthy, everyone in the heavenly courts looking at each other as if to say, “I thought you knew who was worthy to open the scroll,” was all for dramatic effect and for John’s sake. One of the elder comforts him. “Stop weeping, John, behold—look!—there actually is someone worthy to open the scroll: The lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David.
Here’s more Old Testament imagery. This idea of Judah as a lion goes all the way back to Jacob’s blessing of his sons back in Egypt. “Judah is a lion’s cub…he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah…until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Genesis 49:9-10). And this “root of David” idea is drawn from Isaiah 11. He’s the king from the line of David. On him the Spirit of the Lord shall rest. “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (11:4). And he’ll not only come as judge to Israel. He “will assemble the banished of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (11:12), but even more, he will be a signal for the people and the nations will come to him. Here’s the Messiah, who is not only the one true and faithful human being, but the one true and faithful Israelite—the one who bears faithfully the image of God as no one else has. The elder announces to John, “Behold the long-promised Davidic King, behold the lion of the tribe of Judah who is worthy to open the scroll and to set the world to rights.
And then suddenly everything pivots. At the announcement we think of the lion, the king of beasts, coming to fight off every contender. We see the great King riding in his chariot, swinging his sword, cutting down his enemies. That’s who the elder announces. But then John sees a lamb. The image of the powerful and noble lion, the symbol of royalty, juxtaposed against the humble vulnerability of the lamb. Of course, here too, anyone who knew the Old Testament scriptures couldn’t help but think of the lambs sacrificed in the temple. This one, oddly enough has seven horns and seven eyes, probably representing strength and, as we’ve seen before, the Holy Spirit—but a lamb nevertheless. So here we see how it works, how the Lord’s plan unfolds. He, himself, becomes one of his own rebellious people—a representative not only of humanity, but more specifically of Israel. Israel was God’s mediator-people to the nations, but they rebelled, and so God himself comes as one of them to serve as mediator to them. And he comes as the king, as the lion, he wins the great victory that will set Creation to rights, but in the lamb we see that he wins that victory be offering himself up as a sacrifice—he gave his life for the sins of his rebellious people. He is the king who comes not in a chariot ready to smash heads, but on a humble donkey, handing himself over to sin and death, allowing them to do their worst, then winning his victory three days later as he bursts alive from the grave. This is the king who is both lion and lamb and this is how he wipes away ever tear, beginning here with John’s. This is how he is worthy to open the scroll, to set God’s plans in motion, to set Creation to rights.
John continues in verses 7-10:
And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
Jesus takes the scroll from his Father and all of heaven falls before him in worship. John says that those twenty-four elders, the men who represent the people of God, the Church of both the old covenant and the new, they have harps and bowls of incense and that the incense represents the prayers of the saints. The twenty-four elders present the worship of the church to God and to the Lamb.
I can’t pass this by without making the observation that the worship we see here and throughout Revelation is a participatory worship. It’s increasingly common these days in Evangelical circles for worship to take on the form of a concert. The lights are dimmed making it hard for the congregation to see each other, while a band and singers on the stage—it’s no longer a chancel, but a stage, because it’s increasingly about performance—the stage is lit up with spotlights. And the band performs, often so loudly that it drowns out the congregation. Often the traditional songs and hymns of the church designed for easy congregation singing and four-part harmony are replaced by hard-to-sing songs meant to be performed by soloists. And, increasingly, the trend is for the congregation to listen rather than sing. A friend of mine who leads this sort of worship tells me it simply reflects the secular trends of our society. Folk music isn’t much of a thing anymore. Ordinary people don’t sing very much. Music is now something professionals do. We go to concerts and listen. Or we put on our headphones and we listen. My friend says that it’s an “immersive” model and that it’s replaced the “participatory” model. Brothers and Sisters, while this may be true—for good or ill—in the secular world, it should never be true of the Church and her worship. Worship is not immersive. The worship of the church is participatory. It’s not done by professionals alone. We may have skilled people who lead us, we may have instruments to help us carry the tune and set the tempo, but the most important thing about congregational worship is the congregation—specifically the congregation singing. Anything that discourages that or that drowns it out, whether a loud band or a loud pipe organ, is a hindrance to worship, not a help. Not one of the elders sat, holding his harp and incense in silence, immersing or soaking himself in the praise the others gave to Jesus. No, every one of them knelt before him in worship, lifting their voices and pouring out their prayers. That is the true nature of the worship of the church. And it pleases God. Heavenly harps represent our often feeble singing and our humble and often stumbling but faithful prayers rise up as sweet-smelling incense to the heavenly courts.
And we pray and we sing—we worship—because Jesus is worthy. He is worthy to take the scroll and to break the seals, he is worthy to brings God’s redemptive plans to fruit, and he is worthy because he has ransomed his people with his own blood. From every tribe and nation, the elders sing, he has called this people and has made them a kingdom of priests to reign up on the earth. Brothers and Sisters, here’s that language of vocation again. Jesus has restored to us that which we rejected in Adam. Here’s the language of the Exodus—a people purchased like slaves from the market and made into a royal priesthood. But, too, this first song echoes the prophet Daniel. In Daniel a series of monsters rampages across the earth, but the Lord takes away their dominion and delivers it to “one like a son of man”, and through him re-establishes his dominion. And yet the dominion doesn’t end with the one like a son of man. Later Daniel writes that “judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom” (7:22).
The Lord delights in exodus stories, because they display his glory. Whether it’s his deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh or in Daniel, the deliverance of his people from the raging pagan empires or here, in John’s vision, the deliverance of his suffering church by the blood of the lamb who was slain, God displays his glory and makes himself known through the merciful and gracious deliverance of his people. The Lord displays his glory by setting to rights what we have made wrong, be restoring us to our vocation as his image bearers. We threw it away and submitted outselves to sin and death, but through great cost, through the death of his Son, he has brought us back into his temple, back into his presence, and made us priests and kings to mediate his presence to the world. This is why he is worthy and this is why we worship.
And the rest of Creation joins with the church in that worship. Look at verses 11-14:
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
The first song glorifies the lamb for what he has done. Now all creation thunders in praise to give the lamb what he, because of his glory, deserves. Notice that he is worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might, honour and glory and blessing. These are all the things due to a king—to the king. The wealth and the might of creation belong to him. But I wonder how often we think of Jesus in much smaller terms. A lot of Christians see him as little more than personal savior. Maybe we sing songs that ascribe to him this sort of praise on Sunday mornings, but the rest of the week we ascribe these things to others—to kings and prime minister…even to ourselves—power and wealth and wisdom and might and glory and honour. Friends, the only one worthy of any of those things is the lamb who was slain, the world’s true Lord, the one who has come to set all to rights—you and I, prime ministers and presidents, kings and emperors, the whole human race and all of Creation
But it doesn’t stop there. The third song sung out by this mighty host joins the praise of the lamb with the praise of God himself as we saw in Chapter 4. He sits on the throne and deserve the same eternal praises as God—eternal glory and blessings—for he shares in the divinity of his Father. And that makes this all the more profound, it ought to stir our hearts to praise even more, because it’s not just that the mighty lion, the Davidic King humbled himself as a lamb to the slaughter, but that in Jesus, God himself in humility became the King in David’s line, God took on our flesh, that he might then serve as a sacrifice for our sins. He is worthy of our worship beyond anything we can ever fully express.
Consider all of this—creation thundering in praise as the Church kneels before Jesus offering her songs and prayers—all this and the scrolls revealing God’s plans hasn’t even been opened yet. All this, because what has already been accomplished by Jesus—his incarnation, his death, his resurrection, his ascension—revealed not only his own worthiness, but that in him God reveals his glory—his love, his grace, his mercy, his faithfulness to do that which he has promised. All Creation sings his praises and the entire human race is drawn to him, every knee bows, at the sight of his glory and to hear the proclamation of his mighty deeds. There is more to come. We’ve barely scratched the surface of John’s vision. But the praise begins here with the lamb and his redeemed people. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
Let’s pray: Worthy are you, O Lord. You have created all things and you sustain them. Worthy are you, for by the blood of the lamb you have redeemed us, you have made us your people, a nation of kings and priests, and you have filled us with your Spirit. Give us grace that we might be faithful in our calling to mediate your presence to the world, to proclaim your mighty deeds and your great glory, and most of all the death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus. And may we always ascribe to you the glory that is yours. Amen.