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Praise to the Lamb

Only Christ, the Lion of Judah and the Lamb of God, can carry out God’s final purposes on earth.

And now the drama unfolds. We will follow the drama most easily if we break it down into a series of scenes.

The first scene: The scroll of God's purposes is sealed (5:1).

At this point in history, it was not common to have books like our books that are sewn or glued on one edge and can be opened from one side. It was far more common, instead, to have a scroll. To understand this text, we need to understand how scrolls were made. The symbolism depends on it.

Most scrolls were made of papyrus. Papyrus is grown in the delta of the Nile and looks like rhubarb or celery. The cross section of papyrus is shaped like a triangle and, like rhubarb, if you nick one face of this triangle you can pull off a whole strip all the way down.

Papyrus paper was made in the ancient world by tearing off strip after strip after strip of the papyrus plant. The strips were then laid out side by side vertically until they formed a square. Then other strips were laid them out horizontally on the other strips and pounded together with glue. This process made one sheet of papyrus paper. One sheet was then glued or sewn to the next papyrus sheet until eventually they formed a scroll. Sticks were connected at either end to complete the scroll.

When a book is made in this fashion, the strips go horizontally from left to right on the inside of the book. If you're writing Greek, which like English is written left to right, or Hebrew, which is written right to left, you're writing in line with the strips. But if you were writing on the back side, where the papyrus runs vertically, then your quill pen would be jumping over all of the joints. Most people in the ancient world wrote only on the inside. They didn't write on the outside, but only on the inside in the same direction of the papyrus strips. But this text says, "I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides" (v.1).

On the outside of a modern book, all you can get is a few blurbs, a title and the author's name. But in the ancient world, you could write as much on the outside as on the inside. This scroll, which is in the right hand of the Almighty, the one who sits on the throne, contains all of God's purposes for blessing and judgment. This is the book that contains God's purposes for redemption and condemnation. The fact that there is writing on the inside and on the outside is a symbolic way of saying this is the fullness of all that God wants to do in blessing and judgment. It is the whole plan right in one place.

The two sticks have been brought together, and one more papyrus sheet has been wrapped around the outside. Melted wax has been dropped on the joint. In the ancient world, the wax was sealed with a ring to show who owned the scroll. In a legal document of this sort, it was understood that the slitting of the seals enacted what was in the document. People could learn the contents of a legal document from other copies, but it was not legally enacted until the official, primary document had the seals slit.

John says that God's scroll, which contained the fullness of God's plan in judgment and in blessing, a scroll with writing on both sides, was sealed with seven seals. That meant not only that you couldn't look into it, but far more importantly, to bring God's purposes to pass meant slitting the seals.

The second scene: Who is worthy to open the scroll? (5:2).

"And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, "'Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?'" It is at this point that the setting of chapter 4 becomes so important. You've got to walk into the presence of the God of the universe, take the scroll from his hand from the hand of the God before whom even the cherubim cover their faces with their wings. And then you have to have the right to slit the seals, which means to bring God's purposes to pass.

God's challenge is, in effect, Who has rank so exalted? Who has attributes so full and marvelous? Who has a life so perfect and holy as to be able to approach the throne of a God like that and then take the book and break the seals and open it?

The third scene: No one in heaven or earth could open it (5:3).

In the third scene, we hear nothing. There is utter silence. "But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it." No one. No one in heavennone of these angelic beings introduced in the previous chapterand no one on the earth. No angel, no created being, no human being, no creature, no dead person, no spirit good or evil, no one had the requisite ability to approach God and take the scroll from his hand and slit the seals and thus bring about God's declared purposes for judgment and blessing. For that matter, there was no one able even to look inside it.

The fourth scene: John weeps because none could open it (5:4).

In the fourth scene, we see John's reactionhis tears. "I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside" (v.4). It is very important to understand why John is crying. He is not crying because he is trying to find out all the bits and pieces of the future and nobody will let him in on the information. He is not crying because of frustrated curiosity. His sorrow is much more profound than that.

If no one is found who is worthy to take the scroll and open the seals, then all of God's purposes in judgment and blessing will fall to the ground. They won't come to pass. John represents a church that has faced some persecution and is about to face a fair bit more. Is their suffering for nothing? Is their testimony to Jesus and consequent martyrdom meaningless? Is there no redemption? If this is a cursed race and God's purposes for redemption are bound up with this book which no one can open, then will anyone even be forgiven?

It is very important to understand that our generation has come pretty close to understanding these kinds of tears, if for different reasons. The famous German theologian Rudolf Bultmann argued that the question of meaning in history has itself become meaningless. Meaning is made by the decisions you make. Meaning is a launching forward of the self in a blind fatalism that he called faith. One must create your own meaning, for all other meaning is meaningless.

The British atheist, Bertrand Russell, wrote a famous book called Why I Am Not A Christian. In an interview conducted toward the end of his life, the ® BBC (®British Broadcasting Corporation) asked him what he had to hang on to when death was so close. He replied, "I have nothing to hang onto but grim, unyielding despair." Tell that to the woman in your congregation who's just lost her baby. Tell that to the old man who has just lost his wife of sixty years. My dear sister, hang on to grim, unyielding despair.

John understood the significance of the vision. He understood that if the purposes of God in redemption and judgment are not fulfilled, then all of life dissolves into a putrid mass of amoral distinctionalist meaninglessness. And he weeps.

The fifth scene: The Lamb is worthy to open the scroll (5:56).

In the fifth scene we are introduced to the Lamb. "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.'"

The symbolism here is steeped in Scripture. As early as Genesis 49 we are told that Judah is a lion's whelp. It will be from the tribe of Judah that the King comes. Judah is called a lion, and the monarch, the royal house emerges from this tribe.

The Root of David has triumphed. This language appears in Isaiah 11. In Isaiah 11:1, we are told that out of the stump of Jesse a new branch springs up. In Isaiah 11:10 we are told that this new shoot is also the root of Jesse. In the last chapter of this book, the book of Revelation, the exalted Jesus says, "I am the root and the offspring of David." This one is antecedent to David. He's before David. He has been one with God in eternity past. And yet, in the fullness of time, he is born of a virgin, and made a human being. He becomes something that he was not. He becomes the GMan, and he emerges in the fullness of time out of the cut off stump of David. He who was David's root now also becomes David's shoot. This one, then, who all of these royal plans, this Root of David is also the Lion of the tribe of David, the Davidic King.

We are told he has triumphed. The verb is a strong one. It is not as if he saunters into the presence of his Father and says, "Oh, I'll take the scroll. I'll open up the seals. No sweat." Rather, there has been a struggle, and in this struggle he has prevailed. He has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seals.

Suddenly the picture changes. The Lamb now introduced is not another figure. It's not as if the lion is on one side and on the other side there's the lamb. John is weeping because no one has arisen to take the scroll from the right hand of the Almighty and open the seals. As he weeps, the elder, the interpreting angel, touches him on the shoulder and says, "John, stop crying. Look! The Lion of the tribe of Judah has prevailed." So, John says, "So I looked, and I saw a Lamb."

This is apocalyptic writing. The metaphor is mixed. He isn't a beast that looks like half lion and half lamb. The lion is the lamb. This lamb is, in fact, an extraordinary creature. The lamb looks as if it had been slainhe is a slaughtered lamb, a lamb that has been offered up in sacrifice. We hear the Word of God coming down to us across the ages seven hundred years earlier from Isaiah the prophet: "He was led as a lamb that was slaughtered and as a sheep before its shearers isdumb. So he opens not his mouth. All our iniquities were laid on him. The chastisement of our peace was upon him."

This Lamb, although it's a slaughtered lamb, also has seven horns.

In apocalyptic writing, numbers have symbolism. Horns regularly symbolize kings or kingly power. Seven horns mean a perfection of all kingly authority. The lamb also has seven eyes. This means the lamb is omniscient.

He is an Lamb. He is an Lamb even though it's a dead Lamb that has come back to life.

This Lamb did not have to find its way into the presence of this terrifying God. This Lamb is right in the middle of the throne. He comes from the center of the throne encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. "He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the Spirits of God sent out into all the earth" (v.6). This is a picture of utmost power and utmost . Isn't that just like the Savior?

The sixth scene: The hosts of heaven worship the Lamb (5:714).

This opens up the praise of heaven. "He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne" (v.7). From here throughout the rest of the book it is very difficult to find many references to God without references to the Lamb. Again and again we read of him who sits on the throne and the Lamb.

The praise begins. "And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the elders fell down before the Lamb" (v.8). In light of all that is said about the worship of God in the previous chapter, if this Lamb is not one with God, one from the very center of the throne himself, then this is mere blasphemy. But it is the worship and praise of heaven.

The four living creatures and the highest order of angels, fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp, and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. There is joy. All of God's purposes in redemption and blessing will be fulfilled, and God's way will win. All of heaven bursts out in applause.

If none of the purposes of God in redemption and blessing are actually going to be accomplished, you can pray till the cows come home and your prayers aren't going to get answered. But if the gospel has triumphed, if Jesus has died and risen again, the Lamb slain in God's mind before the foundation of the earth has come and opened the scrolls, then pray on. God's will will be done on earth as in heaven. Pray on. The angels are seen, therefore, as wafting this incense into the very presence of God. We have an incentive to pray because God will triumph.

"They were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song" (vv.89). "A new song" is used in a variety of ways in the Scripture, but in this case it is meant to be in contrast to the song that's just been sung at the end of chapter 4. In chapter 4, God is praised because he is the author of all, the God of creation. We owe him, for he made us. That's the old song, but now there is a new song. It is the song of redemption. This song has been introduced because Christ, the one who is the Lion and the Lamb, the one who has been slaughtered but is risen again, the one who has emerged from the very center of the throne, has opened the seals. As he opens the seals in the following chapter, he brings to pass all of God's purposes. In response, all the praise of heaven comes together in mighty choruses and symphonies and orchestras of unfettered GLamb glorifying and praise for redemption accomplished and applied. They sang a new song.

What is the substance of this song? If Christ had not diedI know that's inconceivable in the larger sweep of things, but nevertheless let us project it because that is what this chapter is inviting us to think throughif Christ had not died, then all of God's purposes in redemption would have failed. There would not have been a single redeemed person. There would be none to obey from the heart, for there would have been none to pay the price of sin. There would be no forgiveness. There would be no Spirit given to transform and regenerate and renew as the down payment of the promised inheritance that will be ours in the new heaven and the new earth. There would be no church. There would be only condemnation, only rot.

This chapter tells us in glorious evocative language that all of God's purposes for final justice and glorious redemption turn absolutely and unconditionally upon the Lamb who is the Lion. They sing a song of praise to God that centers on the atonement. You are worthy, addressed to Christ, to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were slain; and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.

Donald A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. A native Canadian, Carson has pastored and done itinerant ministry in Canada and the United Kingdom. He is author of An Introduction to the New Testament and The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism.

Donald Carson

Preaching Today Tape #194


A resource of Christianity Today International

D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and author of numerous books, including Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway).

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Sermon Outline:


Revelation 4 sets up the drama of Revelation 5, showing God in his glory.

I. The first scene

The scroll of God's purposes is sealed.

II. The second scene

Who is worthy to open the scroll? (5:2).

III. The third scene

No one in heaven or earth could open it (5:3).

IV. The fourth scene

John weeps because none could open it (5:4).

V. The fifth scene

The Lamb is worthy to open the scroll (5:5-6).

VI. The sixth scene

The hosts of heaven worship the Lamb (5:7-14).


Because of Christ the Lamb, we know that God's purposes will be fulfilled.