A Collaborative Explication of Revelation 5:4-14 by Tyler Sprouse and Griffin Lamb
I. “And I began to weep bitterly…”
“And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it” (Rev. 5:4).
At first glance, these words appear to represent a nihilistic sort of hopelessness that would make Nietzsche proud. And perhaps there is some truth to this; though of course this depends upon what one means by the word ‘hope’. For if hope is contingent upon the efficacy of oneself or one’s group for that which is hoped for to come into being, then of course we are right to see this passage as one of utter hopelessness. For no one was found worthy to open the scroll. But, if hope appears as nonhope, that is, as a renunciation of faith in oneself or one’s group so as to press deeper into faith in the One who is wholly Other (cf. Rom. 4:18); then what John of Patmos is modeling is not a weeping of utter hopelessness but of lamentation. In a state of lament, all modes of self-reliance cease, as we acknowledge our powerlessness to effect total change to the aporia that surrounds us and appeal at last outside of ourselves to the God who, as the Psalmist writes, remembers the sorrows of the forsaken and the oppressed and holds their tears in a bottle (Ps. 56:8).
The temptation of course, as a white Christian man in the United States, is to succumb to a false conception of the self, seeing my own positionality in this world as one who is forsaken and oppressed, despite my complicity in a system that allows for such forsakenness and oppression to fester. But this comes as no surprise, for one of the great lies that whiteness deludes us into believing is that the tenets undergirding a white world are innately and unquestionably good, that the kind of world whiteness is attempting to create is wholly in line with the kingdom of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. It is this delusion that empowers us to yell “All Lives Matter” at the very moment our black and brown siblings find themselves in mourning, disturbed by the emergence of yet another hashtag memorializing the existence of yet another human being who did not deserve to die, their life cut short by the defenders of a system that sees diversity and difference as a threat to the kingdom they are tasked to maintain. “All Lives Matter” does not allow for these cries to be heard, for to truly hear these cries would call into question the very legitimacy of the phrase coming out from our lips. For if all lives really do matter, why is it that the only tears we give weight to are the tears of white fragility? Where getting called racist is seen as more oppressive than the plights of actual people brutalized and terrorized by racism’s insidious effects?
To truly live into the hope of nonhope, I must renounce the simplistic narratives that have laid claims upon my body and bodies like mine—tempting us to think that the kingdom of God has been disclosed, and has indeed arrived, in the high places of power and privilege. It is only in such renunciation that the true cries of the forsaken and the oppressed can be heard; and that I, like John of Patmos, can weep bitterly alongside them—perpetually lamenting for God’s kingdom of justice and love to be opened up in our midst; and, in such an opening, for all the kingdoms of this world that stand in opposition to God to be humbled by the power of the cross.
II. “Do not weep. See…”
Having discussed John’s bitter weeping over the seemingly impassable plight of the world in which the powerful and privileged oppress and marginalize the weak and needy, we now shift our attention to v.5. One of the elders consolingly implores John of Patmos to cast his gaze upon “the Lion of Judah, the Root of David, who has conquered, so that he is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” It is upon this mysterious “Lion of Judah” that we will now focus our discussion. This second section will be divided into two subsections. First, we will investigate the paradoxical confession that Jesus Christ is simultaneously the “Lion of Judah” and “the Lamb who was slain” and what this means for our understanding of God. Second, we will explore how the triumph of God through the conquering death of the Lamb who is the Lion – and the Lion who is the Lamb – determines the embodied existence of all those who confess with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord. Ultimately, we will argue that the cruciform God’s victory over the principalities and powers of the world in and through the reconciling death and resurrection of Jesus Christ leads disciples of Christ into a peculiarly cross-shaped, or cruciform, lived existence in which we participate with Christ in bearing witness to the coming kingdom of God.
A. The Cruciform God – The Power of the Slain Lamb
“You, O Lamb, are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, for you were slaughtered…” (Rev. 5:9a).
When most people think about the word “god,” more often than not they have in mind a picture of a distant, detached, disengaged deity who is either not at all concerned with the world, or, worse yet, is hell bent upon casting whomever makes the slightest mistake into the fiery flames of hell. Many people live their lives in a paralyzed state of neurosis due to their fear that either God cannot wait to judge them or, perhaps more despairingly, that God does not care for them in the least. It has also been the case that the oppressive, corrupt regimes and empires of this world have historically used the word “god” to justify their violence, bloodshed, and their ungodly hoarding of material resources from those living under their wicked rule.
In the Middle Ages, “god” was used to validate the feudal system that subjugated the majority of people to the dire straits of serfdom; in the twentieth century, wicked tyrants such as Hitler used “god” to fuel their fascist racism and to give warrant to the ensuing horrors of which we are all too familiar. Although many American Christians popularly read Revelation as though it were a “roadmap for the end times,” it is our conviction that one of the major themes of this book is the subversion of our normative conceptions of “god.” This radical subversion of all theological discourse is centered around this mysterious “Lion of Judah” who appears to John as a “Lamb who was slain.”
In Revelation 4, the elders are caught up in unending praise to the “Lord God, the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” The elders worship God who is worthy to receive “honor, praise, and glory.” In this passage, God is on the throne, and if we were to stop with chapter four, all of this God language would seem fairly typical and not at all radical. However, when we read chapter five, we are introduced to another who is worshipped by these same elders as worthy to receive “power, honor, glory, and blessing” (Rev. 5:12). Who is the “Other?” It is none other than the Lamb who was slaughtered. This Lamb who was executed is presented to John of Patmos as One who is worthy to be worshipped as God. To put it more succinctly, this Lamb who was slain is the revelation of what it is to be God.
We cannot understand the picture of God in chapter four without first being grounded in chapter five’s presentation of this seemingly weak and helpless Lamb who was slaughtered at the hands of the tyrannical powers and principalities of this world. It is the Christian confession that the living God is a cruciform God who manifests the totality of God’s power in the apparent weakness and folly of the crucified Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18-31). God shows forth the fullness of God’s divinity in the death of the Son of God. It is only through this triumphant death that the resurrected Lord reigns as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah.” The living God is present not as a dictator, a tyrant, or a malevolent monarch, but as the suffering servant who, through the unfathomable abundance of divine love, empties himself out for the world.
How is it that the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” has the authority to open the scrolls, and what does this mean? Let it be noted that the Lamb was slaughtered for our sake. God does not will to be God without us. Christ Jesus is the incarnation of Emmanuel, God with us. However, we must also explicitly state that God’s with-ness is concrete and particular, standing first and foremost with and for the lowliest of every age. As the One who was executed unjustly by the corrupt Roman state, God stands with and for all those who suffer at the hands of unjust systems, and only in this way does God suffer for the oppressors (cf. Jürgen Moltmann’s work, Sun of Righteousness Arise). The rulers and authorities of this world are held captive by their own propensity towards domination, seen most abhorrently in their crucifixion of the Son of God—an act which, at first glance, appeared to be the victory of the “Whore of Babylon” over the living God; however, these anti-God powers and principalities were triumphed over by the Christ who, as the resurrected Lord, subverts all normative power structures and calls to repentance all those who use their authority to oppress, marginalize, and subjugate (cf. Col. 2:15). In Christ Jesus, God rules the world, not as a warmongering despot, but as the One who loves humanity in complete freedom, even to the point of death upon a cross, so as to restore the world to that which was intended for it from the beginning.
B. Following the Slain Lamb into the New Creation
“You have made the saints from every tribe, language, nation, and people to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth” (Rev. 5:9b-10)
The very differences between us that the powers and principalities once harnessed as weapons to elicit fear and perpetuate division between peoples has been taken up into Christ, whose death and resurrection has unleashed a power that has triumphed over all hostility and broken open the gates of the new creation. In Christ, these differences have become an invitation to commune with the Other, recognizing that it is the differences between us that affirm the multiplicity innate to being created in the image of God, summed up by the spirit of ubuntu: “I am because you are” (cf. Reconciliation: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu by M. J. Battle). Such communion is available in the here and now; but, for those whose bodies are marked with undeserved privilege, what is required is movement—movement to the dead places where redemption appears to be utterly impossible. For it is there that we encounter the concrete presence of the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord who is with all those who suffer and who feel the weight of death upon their bodies—precisely because in him God has absorbed the full weight of death upon the cross; and, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has emptied death of its annihilating finality, setting into motion a new order that involves us but is not wholly dependent upon us (cf. 2 Cor. 4:5).
In light of God’s salvific work in the eschatological history of Jesus Christ and through the outpoured presence of the Holy Spirit, God beckons all who swear with their lips that “Jesus Christ is Lord” to live into God’s new reality. It is a reality of peace and not violence; loving service and not coercive domination; unity and not uniformity; expectant joy and not apathetic cynicism; hopeful participation and not despairing passivity. This is not achieved on our own accord but made possible by the God who is beyond us and within us, transforming us “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18) into the image of the One through whom this radical newness is birthed.
If it is true, as Thomas Merton once wrote, that Christianity is “Christ living within us,” then this process of transformation that the Spirit effects in our lives must be understood in part as Christ’s story entering into the particularities of our own. We disciples of Christ must participate with the Lord in his death by forsaking all that is not in accordance with the way of Christ’s kingdom, joining in solidarity with all those whose “backs are up against the wall” (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited), longing together for God’s reign to break through in all its fullness: where “saints from every tribe, language, nation, and people” can come together without fear, celebrating the victory of the love of God made manifest in Christ that has bound our lives to one another in Christ's own body. As we sojourn ever closer to the horizon of God’s new creation, in the unity of the Spirit and with all creation, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).
 Let me be clear that I am not here espousing a particular position on “hell,” but rather I am simply using the term in hyperbolic fashion to attempt to encapsulate the way in which many folks think about the matter. Perhaps I will write a blog in the near future that addresses this topic in more detail.
 It should be noted that, of course, we reject any such reading of this text.
 We are indebted to Juan C. Torres, whose recent Twitter thread directed our attention to this aspect of Moltmann’s theology. (@postmoltmannian)