Only the Lamb is Worthy—Revelation 5:11-14

The Politics of Scripture

Christ sits on a throne, but it is not a worldly one. Christ’s throne is the true throne of God, which renders all other thrones secondary. Christ’s throne is the only throne that should be worshipped, and Christ the Lamb the only ruler that is worthy of our devotion.

11Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” 13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”14And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated 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.

Following the Easter events, we, like the first Christians, try to make sense of what just happened. Jesus died and rose again. This is never less of a mystery for Christians today than it was for the first apostles. In some ways, life seems to go on as before; in other ways life is never the same again. We may struggle to understand who Jesus really is given this new reality of his resurrection and his bodily absence. The lectionary readings this week try to help us see the true identity of the risen Christ. This includes John’s image of the victorious Lamb, enthroned with God, and praised by all creation.

The Revised Common Lectionary does not give us much of the book of Revelation. It jumps from Chapter 1 to 7, with only these few verses from Chapter 5. Yet these verses highlight Revelation’s high Christology with its vision of Christ as the universal King. In several ways, Chapter 5 parallels Chapter 4, with Chapter 4 being about God and Chapter 5 being focussed on Jesus the Lamb. Both chapters have a similar focus on glorifying God through their hymns of praise. In both chapters, the worship is due the one who done something divine – God created; the Lamb was slaughtered for our sakes. Both are worthy to be on the throne. The throne is the central focus of this passage, with earthly political importance beyond the heavenly throne.

In John’s vision the throne attracts both heavenly and earthly creatures in common praise of the Lamb. This is a more universal gathering than any earthly empire can manage. While the Roman Empire encompassed the known world, Christ’s empire includes all creatures both on Earth and in Heaven. Having all creatures together praising God evokes certain biblical imagery. Firstly of Creation, where all creatures are united peaceably in the Garden of Eden and come before Adam (Genesis 1). Then there is Noah as the God’s agent in saving all the creatures and bringing them together in the Ark (Genesis 6). Third, the peaceable Kingdom imagery of Isaiah 11:6-9 when the lion shall lie down with the lamb. Jesus does one better and is both the lion and the Lamb (5:5, 6). Revelation’s overall image of creaturely harmony provides us with hope the redemption of all creation into a harmonious community of all human and non-human creatures, a much needed hope as our climate apocalypse approaches. Humans are alongside, or are one of many other creatures here, not over them or dominating them. This is is a eco-political vision of unmediated equality of all creatures before the Lamb.

Jesus being both lion and the Lamb (5:5, 6) deserves further comment. Jesus here is represented chiefly as the Lamb, but a few verse earlier Jesus is the lion (v. 5). That Jesus is both Lion and the Lamb is obscured if one sticks to this Lectionary selection alone. The lion image indicates a predator, but also the king of the beasts who is strong and mighty, which when applied to humanity depicts a king who demands obedience and respect. One might recall here that C. S. Lewis depicts Christ as the good lion king Aslan in his Narnia Chronicles. The Lion image is the counterpoint of the sacrificial lamb and is echoed in Revelation 19:11-16 as the rider of the white horse who “makes war” and “strike down the nations.” Alternatively there is the glorification of Jesus to reign as the humble lamb. John combines two images here, the humble harmless lamb, easily sacrificed or slaughtered, and the Lamb as King on the throne.

Our reading features songs of praise to the regal Lamb and finds its way, in modified form, into our contemporary hymnals, when we sing praise to Christ and God. Similar hymns to these are found through the book of Revelation (7:10-12; 11:15-18; 12:10-12; 14:2-3; 15:3-4; 16:5-7; 19:1-8). The form of these songs can be compared to the songs directed to earthly kings such as in Daniel 2:37-38. Verse 12 is something like an enthronement song, perhaps following the receiving of the Lamb onto the throne of God. Against worldly expectations, the Lamb slaughtered by Rome is worthy. This is a radical reversal of what Rome thinks it has achieved. Jesus who was despised, condemned, paraded, tried, dispossessed, stripped, abused, whipped, beaten and crucified until death was an object of contempt to Rome and even his own people. Every effort was made to deny Jesus’s human dignity. Even calling him King of Jews was a mocking gesture (cf. Luke 23:38). Now received into heaven Jesus takes his rightful place to which he is worthy.

The worthiness of the Lamb comes from being worthy to open the scroll or book (v. 1-9). No one else could open it except the Lamb. Who could not open it? Not the most powerful, not the richest, not the wisest, or the most mighty of the most honourable or the most glorified or blessed. Certainly no political, technological nor economic power can open the scroll. The Lamb is worthy to open the scroll because it was “slaughtered” and by its blood it “ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (v. 9). Not only is the Lamb worthy of opening the scroll, the slaughtered lamb is also worthy to receive “power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! (v.12), concepts rich with political imagery.

The Lamb is worthy of “power”. This is the same word we find in the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:13), which is the political power of a Kingdom. The Lamb is worthy of wealth or riches, not earthy riches, but the riches of grace which are abundantly bestowed on the faithful. The Lamb is worthy of wisdom, even greater wisdom that the great King Solomon (Matthew 12:42) and surpasses the wisdom of the worldly (1 Corinthians 1). The Lamb is worthy of might (or strength) to do what must be done. The Lamb is worthy of honor that might be given to a King (cf. 1 Timothy 1:17). The Lamb is worthy of glory, being the kingly glory of the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:13), surpassing the glory promised by Satan in the temptation of earthly power (Matthew 4:8; Luke 4:6). The Lamb is also worthy of blessing. To receive these things is give to the Lamb those things appropriate to an earthly King. The Lamb is worthy because the Lamb died for us; earthly kings are unworthy because they expect us to die for them. Of course God and Christ had these things already. Creaturely praise comes at a time when we are praising Jesus for these things which appear to belong to our human-made idols. Following this, the praise of the creatures is given to both God and the Lamb, who is now in its rightful place.

Most of all the lamb is worthy of praise, as witnessed in the hymns of praise given all creatures. That every creature praises the Lamb(v. 13) returns us to Eden, but also makes the point that apparently evil creatures can also praise God – they are not made evil, but have fallen and will be redeemed to offer praise to God. The elders of verse 14 who worship the Lamb are those who in Chapter 4 cast their crowns before the king: “Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads” (Revelation 4:4). All bow down before the King Jesus. The crowns are symbols of rule and victory. All victory and all rule now belongs to God. This is the enduring political message of Easter. It is not only a vision of the future Kingdom it inspires us now, offering a point of reference or orientation for our communal lives today and inspiration to follow the Lamb, even unto the cross.

Exactly what the scroll is something of a mystery, but it could relate back to the “sealed document” of Isaiah 29:11 or the scroll of Isaiah 29:19, which brings sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, ends tyranny and brings justice. John’s scroll is the history of histories, describing the unfolding of God’s rule. Human rulers write their books and scrolls, but their plans do not last. They cannot read the scroll of God, which is good news to the poor, and liberty to the captives. This is what we can expect from the rule of God, which is radically different to the rule of human tyrants bot of Rome and of today.

Following the disaster of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus, the hopes of many of his followers were crushed. The resurrection restored these hopes, but the Roman Empire was left intact – at least on the surface. Their ultimate weapon – death on a cross – has been defeated and execution has lost its sting. Those who went to their deaths expected to rise in glory with Christ, the risen Lamb. It is troubling that biblical and theological imagery sometimes uses images of politics, power, slavery, and violence to represent God, Jesus, and Christians discipleship in the church. Here we see Jesus on the throne. Does this provide support to worldly thrones? Maybe, but we can see that Christ’s throne is the true throne of God, which renders all other thrones secondary. Christ’s throne is the only throne that should be worshipped, and Christ the Lamb the only ruler that is worthy of our devotion.

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