(A sermon based on Revelation 4 & 5 for Sunday, July 26, 2009)
We Christians need to know that God is with us and that he is working his purposes out. Christians have always needed to know that. A beautiful affirmation of the fact that God is with us and is working his purposes out is found in Revelation 4-5. The message of those two chapters is really the basis for everything else that we find in the book. In fact, the message of those two chapters is really the basis for everything on which we base our lives as Christians. We must know what these chapters use symbolic language to teach if we are to live hopeful Christian lives.
We should keep in mind that we are in the realm of symbolism in these chapters, just as we are in the rest of the book. As one writer has put it, “it is important to recognize that the descriptions are descriptions of symbols, not of the reality conveyed by the symbols” [Bruce M. Metzger, Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), p. 14]. Reality is communicated by the symbols, but the symbol is not the reality. So, for instance, the resurrected Christ is not literally a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. We should also keep in mind that we are in the realm of vision here. John had an intense visionary experience that, because he wrote it down, we are privileged to view.
Chapter 4 shows that God is worthy of worship and praise because of who he is and because of what he does. The vision John has is one of God sitting on his throne in the heavenly throne room. The heavenly throne room is a conception that is quite common in the OT. The visionary uses precious stones to symbolize the nature of God. The jasper and carnelian perhaps signify the holiness and judgment of God. John’s vision of a rainbow like an emerald around the throne probably indicates the mercy of God, since the rainbow in Jewish thinking was a sign of God’s promised mercy.
John sees worship taking place in heaven. The twenty-four elders who sit on twenty-four thrones and who are described in priestly and royal terms represent the totality of God’s people by combining the twelve patriarchs with the twelve apostles. They are joined around the throne by four living creatures that are the angelic counterparts of all of animated creation. Now, notice the worship service that continually takes place in heaven. The four living creatures constitute the choir, the worship leaders. They continually sing “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” When they sing, the twenty-four elders bow down and also join in singing. They sing that God is worthy of honor and glory because he is the Creator.
The vision of the heavenly throne room continues in chapter 5. John sees a scroll in the hand of God. The scroll is sealed with seven seals. Later in the book, different scenes will unfold as each seal is opened. At this point, an angel’s question, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” is at first left unanswered, at which John weeps. Why is the scroll so important? What is it? Eugene Peterson has suggested that the scroll represents Scripture. He said, “One of the great excitements and glories of Christian worship was that the preaching of Christ unsealed the scrolls of scripture” [Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: the Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (HarperSanFranciso, 1988), p. 64]. More likely, I think, is that the scroll contains God’s plan of judgment for the world and victory for his people. John weeps because if no one can open it, then the plan will remain unexecuted. But then John is told by one of the twenty-four elders not to cry because “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (5:5). Now, those two titles are both drawn from the OT and both had accepted messianic connotations. So John would have been expecting to see a mighty Lion figure with great conquering powers who could take the scroll and rip it open.
Look at what he saw instead! He saw “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (5:6). Now, we should note again that we are living in the world of symbolism. The Lamb represents Jesus, but Jesus does not literally look like a lamb. The meaning is that Jesus was sacrificed for our sins. He is worthy to open the scroll because of his sacrificial death. Slain lambs don’t stand, of course. But Jesus is the resurrected Lamb, so this slain Lamb does stand. The heavenly choir, made up of the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, sings a new song, new because of the tremendous new thing that has happened. Jesus is worthy to open the scroll containing God’s redemptive purposes because he died, thereby making us saints and kings and priests. In short, he is worthy because he gave his life for us. He is worthy because his life and death and resurrection are such a vital part of God’s purpose.
The beautiful picture of chapter five shows us that God’s purposes are already being worked out. They began to unfold in new and in what would ultimately be final ways because of the sacrifice of Jesus. So we gain great encouragement from this picture. We learn that God not only will work his purposes out but also is working his purposes out. The book of God’s purposes for his people and for the world began to be opened in the saving ministry of Jesus.
The picture painted in chapters four and five teaches us something important about worship. There we see joyful worship intentionally offered up to God and to his Son Jesus Christ. The picture painted there says two things about our worship.
First, it says that our worship here on earth is a part of worship that goes on in heaven. That truth is communicated by this interesting note: each of the living creatures and each of the elders hold “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (5:8). So when we pray down here, we are participating in the heavenly worship. We worship together with those who are there now. When the heavenly hosts worship the Lord, our prayers as the Christian community on earth participate in that worship.
Second, this picture gives us something to model our worship here after. Our worship should be focused on God as the Creator and on Jesus Christ as our Savior who holds the fulfillment of history in his hands. Our worship is not a spectator sport, nor is it a mere passing of the time. No, our worship is active participation in the great redemptive plan of God. We are a part of what God is doing, and we should participate with great gusto.
Finally, the picture in chapter five teaches us something very important about the way in which God works his purposes out. We absolutely must grasp the importance of the symbolic picture of Jesus here. He is the Lion who conquers as a slaughtered Lamb. Jesus’ victory over the forces of Satan and over the oppressive evils of the world came through his resurrection, to be sure, but it also came through his sacrificial death. This is the way of God: victory through sacrifice. That means that if we are to share in the victory of God in the world then we must also be people who live sacrificial lives. It is in the willful giving of ourselves to God and in the willful participation in sacrifice that we share in what he is doing. Why? Because then we are living Christ-like lives! Make no mistake about it, though: the slain Lamb who is Jesus Christ has conquered. So will those who are his.
So you see, the message of Revelation 4 & 5 really is the basis for everything else. It is the basis for everything else that will happen in the book: the Jesus who has conquered by his sacrificial death has the authority to unfold the rest of history according to God’s will. It is the basis for everything that we do as Christians, too. Why? Because everything we are and everything that we do must derive from the fact that we serve a crucified and risen Savior who bids us live a life like his. Will you live such a life from this day forward?