The apostle John is writing to a nervous church. A mad man sits on the throne in Rome, demanding to be acknowledged as Dominus et Deus — Lord and God. At least one church member, Antipas, has already been killed for standing up for his faith (Revelation 2:13). John himself has been arrested and exiled to the island of Patmos. Church members need to know how to react.
They could fight. I hear people say that the church didn’t stand up to the Roman Empire because it would have been impossible to defeat them militarily. Seriously? Might I recommend some time spent reading in the Old Testament? If God had wanted His people to fight, He would have enabled another Gideon, another Deborah, or another Samson. Just as He allowed Jonathan and his shield bearer to take on an entire army, God could have driven out the entire Roman army with the twelve apostles alone. If fighting had been the answer, it was a viable option.
They could flee. There doesn’t appear to be any condemnation for the disciples who fled Jerusalem when facing persecution. In Acts 9, Paul twice leaves a place after his preaching puts his life in danger. There are times when it is appropriate for Christians to flee.
What did God want them to do?
God sends a message to John, a message for the churches of the Roman province of Asia (part of what is today Turkey). It’s what we know as the book of Revelation.
The key to understanding Revelation is the throne room scene in chapters 4 and 5. It’s one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture.
John is transported to the foot of God’s throne in chapter 4. He describes the scene in wondrous terms. Don’t get lost in the details; just let it all make you say “Wow!”. John sees God sitting on His throne. Then in chapter 5, John notices that God holds a scroll in His right hand.
The scroll is bursting with information, “written within and on the back” (Revelation 5:1). It’s sealed with seven seals. Seven is a special number in Revelation, used over and over throughout the book. We see seven churches, seven spirits, seven lampstands, seven stars, seven seals, etc. “Christ” is mentioned seven times, “Jesus” fourteen times and “Lord” twenty-one times. In the ancient world, seven was considered the number of perfection or completeness; we should understand it in that way in Revelation.
In ancient times, an important person would seal a scroll with wax; the scroll could only be read if the seal was broken. This kept prying eyes from sneaking a peek at the contents. More important messages would have more seals; only a person of great authority could read a message like that.
This scroll is perfectly sealed and only one with perfect authority can open it.
“And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it,” (Revelation 5:2–3)
If a command is given yet no one receives it, that command will never be carried out. If God’s scroll isn’t read, the instructions it contains won’t reach His people. So someone must be found who can read what God has in His hand.
They looked high. They looked low. They looked every possible place. And no one had enough authority to open the scroll. Except for One.
“And one of the elders said to me, “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.”” (Revelation 5:5)
The lion is a symbol of strength. It’s also a symbol related to the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:8-10). Judah was the tribe of kings. David’s family was the specific line from which God had said the Eternal King, the Messiah, would come. This is highly symbolic language, full of meaning for people who know the Old Testament.
The image of a conquering lion is clear enough for everyone. This is victory through power. This is the triumph of the strongest. It was what everyone expected a king to be.
But it’s here that we see one of the interesting characteristics of Revelation. John often sees a vision and hears the explanation of that vision, or he hears something and later sees the reality of the something he has heard. John has heard that he is going to see the Lion of Judah. But he then sees the real conquering One:
“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.” (Revelation 5:6)
The Lion is a Lamb. A slain Lamb. Sacrificed. Murdered. The Lamb of God who died on a cross.
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”” (Revelation 5:9–10)
This is big. This is really important. Don’t miss it!
Jesus conquered by dying on a cross.
The Lion is a slain Lamb. The Lion of Judah conquered by giving up His life. He is worth, not in spite of being slain, but because He was sacrificed.
Never again is Jesus called the Lion. The reality is the Lion is a Lamb. And we only need speak of what is real.
What does that mean for His people? That they are to walk to the same path. They aren’t to fight the Romans like lions; they are to triumph through sacrifice, like lambs. Yet the Lamb has perfect vision (seven eyes) and perfect strength (seven horns); this is not a weak Lamb! He is as strong as a Lion but has chosen the path of the Lamb.
The first century church was called to follow the path of the Lamb, to triumph through voluntary sacrifice. Their bravery would be shown through unwavering faith, not ruthless fighting. (Christians have long used the Latin slogan: Vicit agnus noster eum sequamur — Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow Him)
Their victory was assured because the Lamb had already triumphed:
“Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” (Revelation 12:10–11)
The Lion is a Lamb. Now and forever. He has marked the path to victory. Faithfulness. Even to the point of death. Triumph through sacrifice.
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:35)