Revelation chapter 5 continues John’s inside look into God’s heavenly throne room. He’s beheld the majesty of the One who sits on the throne, and he’s heard the worship that’s going on in heaven, but now we get to the heart of why John is there: God is about to roll out his plan for bringing about his kingdom “on earth as in heaven.” That’s what the sealed scroll in his hand represents — it is God’s plan for what’s about to take place. It’s the agenda for the rest of history.
In the Old Testament, there are several places where God gives his prophets a sealed scroll, and these scrolls would symbolize the messages of judgment God was about to bring to pass (Isaiah 29:11-12; Ezekiel 2:9-10; Daniel 12:4). Especially important is Daniel 12, where God gives Daniel visions of the end but tells him to seal the book he writes, because the visions have to do with the last days. Now, in Revelation, John is about to be shown the revealing of God’s plan, because Jesus has launched the last days.
The Lion of Judah has Conquered
God already has the agenda written down and in his hand, but it requires someone worthy to open it and set it in motion. There’s a dramatic moment of suspense as no one is found worthy at first, and John weeps because now God’s plan will be indefinitely postponed (Rev 5:3-4). But then comes an announcement from one of the heavenly elders… A worthy hero has arrived! The “Lion” of the tribe of Judah, the “root of David,” has conquered and can open the scroll!
The elder’s words make it sound as though John is about to behold a mighty military figure. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God promised the Israelites that he would raise up a king for them who would be descended from the tribe of Judah — and even more specifically, from the royal lineage of King David. This person would be the long-awaited Messiah, the chosen one who would rescue Israel from their enemies and usher in a golden age of God’s people ruling over the world. There were prophecies that he would come like a roaring lion, devouring his enemies (see Genesis 49:8-10; 1 Samuel 17:12; Psalm 78:65-72; Isaiah 11:1-5, 10).
So the expectation was that Messiah would be a conquering king. The Jewish people were expecting a political champion who would stomp their Gentile overlords and set up his own Jewish empire by military conquest. They thought he would beat the rest of the world at its own game. After all, the world’s way of conquering is by exercising power over other people and forcing them to submit. It’s about violence, about taking action.
So when John hears that the Lion of Judah has conquered, he’s probably expecting to see a powerful hero, a kingly lion ready to tear apart his enemies. But when he turns around and looks, what he sees is an utter shock.
The Conquering Lion Is… A Slain Lamb??
John is told to look and see the conquering hero, but what he sees instead is “one like a slaughtered lamb” (5:6). We must not miss the shock of this juxtaposition between expectation and vision. John expects a fierce beast and instead sees a sacrificed sheep. The long-awaited champion bears marks of apparent defeat; our hero is beyond humble.
Once again, the Old Testament pre-loads this symbol of the slain lamb with tons of meaning. Think of the Passover lambs from Exodus 12 — the Israelite families each killed a lamb and placed its blood on their doorposts to ward off God’s wrath as he judged Egypt. Or recall Isaiah 53’s prophecy of a Suffering Servant of the Lord, who would be “like a lamb led to the slaughter” to die on behalf of the sins of his people, so that Israel could be healed.
There can be no doubt who this figure represents, of course: Jesus of Nazareth, in whom these Old Testament symbols all coalesce, as John the Baptizer declares him “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). It was he who laid down his life on the cross as a ransom for sins and was raised after death to prove his victory over sin, death, and spiritual darkness.
Here is the upshot of all of this “slain lamb” imagery: Instead of acting like a violent warrior, Jesus defeated evil by sacrificing himself so that others could live. He didn’t dish out violence; he absorbed it.
This is what Grant Osborne calls “the great paradox of Christianity: victory comes from apparent defeat; evil is conquered through the terrible sacrificial suffering of the cross” (Revelation, BECNT [Baker: 2002], 253).
And in one of the most stunning passages of the whole book, the Lamb/Jesus is worshiped by the elders, the living creatures, and all the hosts of heaven with the same honor as God the Father (Rev 5:8-14)!
(As the book progresses, we will continue to see the One seated on the throne and the Lamb start to blur together in terms of their function and the worship they receive, revealing the divine status of Jesus that will later flourish into full-blown Trinitarian theology.)
Conquering the Lamb’s Way
Jesus conquered evil through his death and resurrection. And this is also how his followers are to “conquer.” Notice this is the same word used in the letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3, where Jesus calls all of us to be conquerors. In other words, Jesus’ victory is the basis and the pattern for ours. Jesus took up his cross to save us. And he calls us to take up our crosses and follow him.
Jesus’ way is one of conquering over by suffering under. Our enemy is spiritual evil, not flesh-and-blood people (Ephesians 6:12). We overcome evil by denying ourselves, staying faithful, and serving others — even our enemies — in love (see 1 Peter 2:19-25). We “conquer evil by doing good” (Romans 12:21 NLT).
As we read Revelation 5, it’s worthwhile to ponder in what ways we are tempted to respond to others with violence and anger — with the world’s way of conquering — and to ask ourselves, What would it look like to overcome in Jesus’ way instead?
How did the Lamb conquer? By dying for his enemies. How did he establish a kingdom for God among the nations? By redeeming them to himself. And this victory is why he is worthy of worship and worthy to wield power.
But of course the story is not over yet! If you’ve read Revelation before, you know that there is violence and conflict to come. The Lamb may have won a kingdom of priests for God through his self-sacrifice, but there remain scores of enemies who have sided against him despite his appeals. How will he deal with them? Won’t we see the Lamb dish out violent conquest later in the book as he establishes God’s kingdom on earth in all its fullness?
We’ll find out soon enough. But there is still a great deal of revelation to behold before then.