Uniform 03.23.2014: One of the Flock

Revelation 5:6-13

I must confess that the book of Revelation intimidates me. I can read about the flood in Genesis, Egypt’s ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus, the dry bones in Ezekiel, and the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels without feeling overwhelmed by God’s mysterious power. In these stories, I find helpful images about God’s love and protection for the people and am challenged to wrestle with the parts of God that seem frightening or unrealistic. But when I read Revelation, I am so thrown by the apocalyptic language that I often stop reading before I have a chance to learn anything.

Studying this passage has shown me how badly I’ve misjudged Revelation. What I have seen as fantastical, confusing, and violent actually contains a powerful message of hope. John’s words were intended to comfort the persecuted Christians of the Roman Empire by demonstrating that God is in control of all things. For people facing tumultuous times in their personal lives or shaky political realities, this message continues to be important.

The primary image of hope in Revelation 5:6-13 is the Lamb. In his vision, John expects to see a powerful figure representing “the Root of David” (v. 5), maybe a lion. Instead, standing beside the throne of God is “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (v. 6).

The image of Christ as Lamb appears many times in Revelation, but it is only used four times in the rest of the New Testament (Jn 1:29, 36; Acts 8:32; 1 Pet 1:19). Perhaps we are more comfortable with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd (Jn 10) who will go to great lengths to find even one lost sheep and is willing to die for his flock. In this model, we recognize Jesus as our leader who tenderly cares for us and guides us to safety and abundance.

But John presents Christ as the Lamb whose death ransomed God’s people. As a lamb, Jesus becomes like us, one of the flock who relies on the shepherd’s care and guidance. He is innocent and vulnerable, which highlights the tragedy of his death and the unexpected humility of the Messiah. In John’s vision, these are the qualities that make the Lamb worthy to open God’s scroll, to discover and enact God’s plan. These qualities also cause “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” (v. 13) to sing praises to the Lamb.

When I look beyond the images that confuse me—the Lamb’s “seven horns and seven eyes” (v. 6), the elders holding bowls of incense (v. 8), the “myriads and myriads and thousands and thousands” of angels (v. 11)—I see a helpful reminder of Jesus’ humanity and a hopeful picture of God’s plan for Christ’s sacrifice. Through his willingness to be an innocent lamb, slaughtered for the sins of others, Jesus establishes God’s kingdom. He takes his place beside God’s throne, proving that God’s purposes are gloriously fulfilled. The God who takes Jesus from humble lamb to magnificent Lamb who is worshiped by all creation has plans for us, too. Even if we can’t see it now, God has a wonderful future in store for us.

Discussion

1. How have you approached Revelation? What about this book has drawn you in or scared you away?
2. How can Revelation’s encouragement for first-century Christians who faced persecution encourage us today?
3. Is it easier for you to think about Jesus as a shepherd or as a lamb? Why? What can we learn about God and about Christ by focusing on the less comfortable metaphor?
4. Are innocence and vulnerability characteristics that come to mind when you think about Jesus? Why or why not? How does our culture view these traits?
5. How does God use difficult situations in our lives to help us achieve God’s plan? How might knowing how Jesus’ sacrifice will be fulfilled give us hope?

Reference Shelf

Through the image of the sealed scroll that contains God’s plan for the world and through the picture of God and Christ seated on the throne, ruling over the world, this heavenly throne room scene asserts that God is in control of the universe. The theological term for this belief is providence. This affirmation is a source of deep 
comfort. It assures us that in spite of all
 the chaos, confusion, and misdirection of 
the world, God is still in control. The God 
who created the world sustains, guides, 
 and ultimately brings it to completion.
 This is a major theme of the book of 
Revelation, indeed of all apocalyptic writings. This theme is probably the most
 important reason for the continued popularity of apocalyptic theology. Even when people might not be able to formulate in precise words why apocalyptic texts are so appealing, deep down they are attracted by the unyielding certitude that ultimately everything is going to be all right.
But is that still a viable belief today? Can the modern reader claim with integrity that God is in control of the universe? Those are questions with which any interpreter of this text must be willing to grapple, not because such questions are an interesting intellectual exercise, but because those are the questions that people in the pews and the classrooms are already asking—the parents who have recently buried their teenage daughter who was killed by a drunk driver, the family that has been torn apart by charges of sexual abuse, the wife who must learn to cope with a husband who is progressively debilitated by Alzheimer’s. These are but a few examples of the people to whom we must be accountable if we assert with John that God sits on the throne and is in control of the universe.
The doctrine of providence is difficult, particularly for an age that has witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust and the slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda. Easy, glib answers are an insult to our congregations and to God. We must be willing to struggle with the seeming absence at times of God in our world and in our own lives. One approach to dealing with the question of providence is to state clearly which views on providence are unacceptable. One such example would be the belief, heard quite often, that everything that happens has been determined in advance by God. This view is more correctly labeled fatalism, for it allows no role for human freedom and ultimately absolves people of any responsibility for their choices and actions. A deterministic, mechanical understanding of God’s providential care of the world robs human life of any real meaning or significance, for then human thoughts and actions are merely acted-out roles in a cosmic script.
The view of providence that is implicit in the book of Revelation respects human freedom—the freedom to do evil or to do good. The consequences of human evil are sometimes overwhelming. John does not paint a rosy picture of a world in which God’s people are spared all pain and suffering. Rather, John sees a world that persecutes and kills the people of God, a world that is enamored with power and wealth, a world that sells humans like merchandise (18:13). Yet in spite of what he sees, John is still confident that God’s purposes are being worked out in the world. John sees beyond the present situation to the ultimate goal of God—a universe that recognizes the sovereignty of God, a universe in which all evil has been eradicated. John does not reach this conclusion on the basis of evidence that he sees. In fact, as people throughout the centuries have pointed out, an observation of how the world operates would lead one to argue that there is no divine providence at work in the world. Yet John sees the world through eyes of faith. John bases his belief in the providence of God more on eschatological vision than on present perceptions. Because of John’s belief that God is Alpha and Omega, the one who stands at the end as well as at the beginning of history, he is confident that God will draw the world to its appointed end.
The theologian Paul Tillich described providence as God’s “directing creativity.” God is continually creating the universe to conform it to God’s designs. God does not override human freedom or remove all difficulties and obstacles in life. God does not coerce. God works through humanity’s failures and resistance, as well as through the horrors and calamities of the natural world. God, the creator of the universe, is still at work creating as God directs and drives the entire universe to its appointed end. Tillich wrote:

Providence is not interference; it is creation. . . . Providence is a quality of every constellation of conditions, a quality which “drives” or “lures” toward fulfillment. . . . The man who believes in providence does not believe that a special divine activity will alter the conditions of finitude and estrangement. He believes, and asserts with the courage of faith, that no situation whatsoever can frustrate the fulfillment of his ultimate destiny, that nothing can separate him from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus (Rom 8).

An unswerving belief in the sovereignty of God is what provides John with the resounding hope that sustains the Apocalypse. Over and over again, the assurance of hope reverberates throughout the book of Revelation. Here in the throne room scene in chapters 4 and 5, heaven and earth break forth in anthems of praise because all of creation has seen who sits on the heavenly throne. The occupier of the throne is not the Roman emperor or any other earthly ruler. The one who sits on the throne is God. For that reason, John is certain that ultimately everything will be all right—certainly not now, but one day.
Is John correct? Or is he whistling in the dark, trying to calm his own fears and convince himself as well as others? Speaking to this issue, Eugene Boring has written:

From the midst of my cool, jaded affluence, I can give you twenty reasons why John is a fool. And in the midst of the loneliness and absurdity of his unjust situation, he paints a picture larger than the world that says, “Go ahead and celebrate. Everything is going to be all right.” Heaven already joins in the song of celebration. Finally all creation will. We are given permission not only not to cry, but to join in the singing. And we can say to each other, not as a banal nonstatement but as life-giving word: everything is going to be all right.

Resource

Excerpts from Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001) 115-118.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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