Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.
“Who is this that comes from far,
With his garments dipped in blood,
Strong, triumphant traveller–
Is he man, or is he God?”
So goes the first half of a splendid short hymn known as “Bozrah,” written by the late-18th, early-19th century Congregationalist minister, Joshua Spalding. Who is this that comes from far? Is he man or is he God? This is a question that has come up a lot lately in our readings. Just last week we had Thomas’ confession of who he understood Jesus to be. Now this Sunday we hear Paul asking Jesus who he is when he meets him on the road to Damascus, and we have the disciples afraid to ask who Jesus is because they recognize him on the shore after they go fishing. But it’s the reading from Revelation that I want to look at today. Who is Jesus here?
Revelation (the “Apocalypse of John”), it goes without saying, is a weird book, probably the weirdest book in the Bible, at least from a modern perspective. It’s not easy to read or understand; it’s a work of prophetic and apocalyptic literature that does not lend itself to modern American eyes and brains. We lack a lot of the secondary knowledge (what linguists call a secondary vocabulary) needed to know just what John is talking about. We might be able to understand some of the more sweeping narratives of the book, but much of it is cryptic, the imagery bizarre, the supposed referents of the prophecies disputed. Even its inclusion in Scripture and the authorship of the book has been disputed, though historically, the Church has believed and taught that John the Revelator is the same John as John the Gospel-writer, the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved. So what is John telling us about who Jesus is in Revelation, specifically Revelation 5?
In today’s reading from Revelation, we see John experiencing a vision of heaven in which he is standing in the midst of the heavenly court before the throne of God, surrounded by ranks of angels and strange looking creatures. I’ll read the verses preceding those we heard in our Epistle reading this morning so you have the full context:
“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4 I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits z of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.” (Rev. 5:1-7, NIV)
God holds forth a scroll and a challenge is given. Can anyone open the seals on it? Is anyone worthy to do so? That is to say, is anyone, anywhere, able to do so? There is no one, in heaven, on the earth, or under the earth who can. Not one, and if no one is worthy, then the seals will not be opened and the prophecies associated with them will not be spoken. And when he hears this, John weeps, because the prophecies will not be spoken. How can God’s word come to pass if there’s no one worthy to unseal the scroll and read the prophecies therein, and by means of reading, bring them to pass?
John’s vision of heaven here reminds us that no one, anywhere in the universe, in all of creation, is worthy to stand before God for any reason, let alone to open the seals on a scroll. And this isn’t the sort of worthiness where a person has to tick all the right boxes, as if he or she fulfilled the requirements of a job interview. There is no one who is intrinsically worthy in any regard to open the seals on this scroll–no one by reason of his or her person, power, or qualifications is worthy–and that is because these seals are fit to be opened by the ruler of all creation, the pantokrator, the “over-all-ruler.”
But what makes the rest of creation unworthy? Ignoring the angels, who serve the will of the Almighty, the rest of creation is tainted by sin. No creature is immune to sin itself or to its effects. Thus, all people are sinful, and all other creatures have been damaged or marred by it, such that creation groans and desires deliverance. Sin separates all people from God, and prevents them from being able to live according to his precepts, and it’s not just the big sins. We’ve seen some bigs sins lately in the news, most recently at Chabad Poway in Escondido, California, but also the church and hotel bombings in Sri Lanka and the campus shooting in North Carolina. We even had an armed robbery at the 7-11 up the road here from us in Fairfax the other evening. But the “little” sins also make us unworthy. Have you ever said something unkind about your neighbor? **BRRT** You’ve sinned and are unworthy. Have you ever thought about someone inappropriately? **BRRT** You are not worthy to open any such seals. Have you stolen? Have you not paid for something you ought to have, or borrowed an idea without attribution? **BRRT** You’ve sinned and are unworthy. I could go on. No human being is worthy to undo the seals on this scroll and to speak God’s prophecies into being. Sin makes that impossible.
And sin taints all of creation. Because of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3, all of creation has been fractured, damaged, broken, and so all creatures feel the pain and suffering that our first parents brought into the world. Before the fall, all of creation lived in harmony. Now the world is dog-eat-dog, and where there was once paradise, death now reigns. Indeed, the world is chaotic, and we’re so used to the idea of the world being in the constant flux of chaos and terror that we’re largely blind to thinking about it. In fact, the chaos and evil that afflict the world are so normal to us that they’ve become central to a lot of our entertainment. How many of our video games reenact war? (And I say this as someone who enjoys historical war-games, for what it’s worth.) How many games and movies glorify crime and violence and the degradation of others? Game of Thrones, anyone? How about music that does that? Our culture is fascinated by this chaos that comes from sin, and in feeding our fascination, we’ve forgotten that this isn’t how things are supposed to be. In fact a lot of us function as if this fallen world is as it is supposed to be, some kind of “best of all possible worlds.”
But it’s not. Sin still plagues the earth, and just as you cannot cure the common cold with the further application of the common cold, sin and its chaos cannot be cured by the application of the efforts of sinful people. And so something–or someone–needs to come in from the outside to cure sin’s disease.
So if there is no one above the earth, on it, or below the earth who is worthy to open the seals on the scroll that God holds forth on his throne, who is? No one is worthy— no one, save one. “How’s that,” you say–“how can one person be worthy if no one is worthy?” John receives the answer to this question from the elder who is with him. Like a good pastor, this elder who has gone on before John to the courts of heaven, points him to the One who can save him, the one who can break the seals on the scroll:
“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. 7 And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. 8 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.” (Rev. 5:5-8, ESV)
The Lion of the tribe of Judah. The Root of David. The Lamb Who Was Slain, Jesus Christ. He alone is worthy to open the seals of the scroll and to reveal its contents. He alone has the power to defeat sin, and has conquered it. He is truly man and truly God, and for this reason, sin cannot touch him; he came down from heaven and took on flesh so that he might defeat sin through the medium in which it dwells. And now ascended and exalted at God’s right hand, it is made apparent to all in the court of heaven that he alone has power and authority over all creation. His power is signified by his eyes and horns, not in the sense that he has seven physical eyes and seven physical horns— no lamb has those. But rather, the horn is the symbol of power and might, and the eye the symbol of wisdom and intelligence. All strength and wisdom belongs to him, and the number 7, the number of God (3) paired with the number of creation (4), indicates that he indeed is the pantokrator who has dominion over all things. Only he, the Messiah of all, has perfect might and perfect understanding, and because of this, he has conquered sin and destroyed its power. He has conquered sin and death. The twenty-four elders sing:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”” (Rev. 5:9–10, NIV)
Christ’s death and resurrection secured the victory. Christ’s death and resurrection ransomed all people for God, no exceptions, and his coronation here in the court of heaven (because that is what we are really seeing here with John) has sealed it. This is demonstrated to John, but it is something that has been demonstrated for our benefit as well. Christ is worthy because Christ has saved. The hosts of heaven sing:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!” (Rev. 5:12, NIV)
Christ has saved us from sin and death, too, and we see him as he is, exalted and at God’s right hand, the savior who now rules all of creation. You no longer need fear or despair when you recognize your sinfulness—Christ has rescued you. When the chaos of life seems overwhelming, and you see no end to the violence, hatred, and exploitation that seems so commonplace, you can rest assured–Christ has rescued you and all people, and he is worthy to wield all power and authority over all things. He has you in his hand. He will not abandon you. For he, whom the hosts of heaven and all the saints adore and acclaim, has ended the power of sin in your life. It may rage against you. It may try to entice you. It may even try to kill you. But when you trust in the one who is king in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, you will not be left to be destroyed by sin, because sin cannot destroy or harm those whom Christ has made his own. The One who alone, by his death and resurrection, is worthy to open the seals on the scroll will protect you, and in the fullness of time, will bring you to dwell with him in peace forever. No power in heaven, on earth, or under the earth can separate you from his love.
So who is this that comes from far? Who is this Jesus? He is your savior, exalted in heaven and given power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise. To him be praise, honor, glory, and power for ever and ever! Amen.