2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”
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. 9 And they sang a new song, saying, “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, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” 11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” 13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
The first church I ever pastored was Jimtown Baptist Church in Burneyville, OK, a small, country church just over the Oklahoma line coming up from Texas. I was a seminary student in Fort Worth from 1996 to 1998 and, during that time, Roni and I would drive up to Jimtown Baptist Church where I would preach, then we would spend the day, then I would preach again, then we would drive the two hours home again.
One year, the local ministerial association held a baccalaureate service for the graduate class. It was held in a local high school auditorium. On the platform was a line of metal chairs on which all of the ministers sat. So I was sitting there with the other ministers when a lady from one of the churches came up to sing a solo. She stood directly in front of me. She started to sing this powerful song of worship. About midway through she threw her head back to belt the great high note that we all knew was coming. When she did this and hit her high note it was apparently too much for her…because she fainted! In fact, she fell back and her head hit right between my feet. For a brief moment I was looking down at her and she was out cold! Immediately people moved to tend to her. I recall family members running to the stage shouting in fear. Finally, thank goodness, the dear lady came to! And I thought to myself, “This will be a story I will tell a church one day!”
It is a fascinating thing to see somebody fall to the ground in worship. The way this lady at the baccalaureate service did it was one approach, to be sure. But another approach is found all throughout Revelation 4 and 5, when we find numerous figures falling on their faces before the wonder and grandeur of God.
In verse 2 of Revelation 5, a question is asked. A “mighty angel” asks it and it is the question around which not only this chapter but all of human history hovers in anxious expectation: “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”
Put another way, the question is this: Who is at the wheel of human history? Who knows what is going on and who has ultimate authority over it. Who, indeed, can open the scroll that tells what is happening in God’s great plan for humanity? Who has the authority to break the seals?
We saw in verse 7 that the Lamb steps forward and takes the scroll. We are told that the Lamb is worthy.
What happens next is so amazing, so glorious, and so majestic, that the New Testament commentator Gordon Fee says we should find it hard to read this passage without worshiping.
These are the kinds of moments that should give any interpreter reason for pause, since these words hardly need commentary, but rather affirmation and acclamation. Readers of this passage who themselves fail to join in with the heavenly host are listening to the text only cerebrally, and not with the exhilaration intended by John, so that his readers are themselves drawn into the heavenly scene as part of the worship. Indeed the reader who fails in the present to enter into the heavenly worship, which for them is still to come, will have missed John’s purpose by several leagues. John’s original readers may indeed be excused if they held back in joining the worship noted in our chapter 4, but they will have little excuse for holding back here.
Yes, what happens next is not fodder for our curiosity, it is fire for our souls.
The Lamb steps forward to take the scroll. The Lamb is shown to be worthy. And when this happens, all Heaven breaks loose.
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.
In these verses, the Lamb’s worthiness is proclaimed and Heaven worships! It is therefore important that we grasp the reality of the Lamb’s worthiness in our effort to understand this majestic scene.
The Lamb’s Worthiness is Proven by His Cross.
The Lamb of God, Jesus, steps forward to take the scroll. All of Heaven rejoices! Consider the words of their song.
9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain…
The word “for” is a word of explanation. Jesus is “worthy…for” Jesus was slain! Jesus’ worthiness is proven by His cross. Let us be clear: Jesus was worthy before His cross. He was always God. But His cross proved to any and all that He was obedient in a way that fallen humanity could not imagine and that He is worthy!
In Philippians 2, you can positively hear Paul’s stunned amazement at the fact that Jesus would be willing to die on a cross!
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Notice the five aspects of Jesus’ obedience that Paul highlights:
- obedience to the point of death
- obedience to the point of crucifixion
That “even” at the end is telling: “even death on a cross”! Even that! Jesus did even that!
In Nikos Kazantzakis’ beautiful novel, Saint Francis, he imagines Francis thus:
Francis sat gazing mutely at his hands and feet rapt in contemplation. Finally, after a long silence, he sighed and said to me, “Brother Leo, when I think of Christ’s passion, my soles and palms ache to be pierced. But where are the nails, the blood; where is the cross? I remember going once to the courtyard of San Ruffino’s on Good Friday when the traveling players who presented the Passion during the Easter season had come to Assisi. The man who portrayed Christ gasped as he carried his cross, and they pretended to crucify him, pouring red paint over his hands and feet to simulate flowing blood. When he uttered his heartrending cry, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,’ my tears began to flow. The men groaned, the women shrieked and wailed; the performance drew to a close. Then the actor came to our house, where my mother had prepared dinner for him. He began to laugh and joke, and some lukewarm water was brought to him so that he could wash away the paint. I was small; I did not understand. ‘But you were crucified, weren’t you?’ I asked him. ‘No, no, my boy. All that was a show—understand?—a game. I only pretended to be crucified.’ I turned red with anger. ‘In other words, you’re a liar!’ I shouted at him. But my mother took me on her knee, saying, ‘Quiet, my child, you’re still too young to understand.’ But now I’ve grown older, Brother Leo, I’ve grown older, and I do understand. Instead of being crucified, I simply think about crucifixion. Is it possible, Brother Leo, that we too are actors?”
“Look at my hands, look at my feet. Where are the nails? In other words, is all this anguish just a game?”
It is a poignant scene: a young Francis struggles to understand how this actor really was not crucified after all. He is disheartened. It was, in the end, not even real.
But here is what we must realize: Jesus was not playacting. Jesus truly was slain. “Even death on a cross.” The mind boggles.
We are so accustomed to the image of the cross that we forget the shocking scandal of it. Of this we may be sure: were we to bring a Roman family from, say, the year 100 AD into our sanctuary, and were they to see the cross mounted to the wall there in the baptistry, their mouths would fall open, they would cover their children’s eyes, and they would rush from the room in terror. They would not be able to understand why an instrument of torture—an image that, to any Roman citizen from the time, was obscene, violent, inappropriate—would be up on the wall of a sacred place. And they certainly would not understand why, in our church, we would actually baptize people beneath this symbol! So they would flee.
To them, the cross was a symbol utterly inappropriate.
To us, the cross is a symbol utterly beautiful.
The Lamb was slain. That is what happened.
In going to the cross, Jesus proved His worthiness by demonstrating a degree of obedience and love that we cannot fathom!
The Lamb’s Worthiness is Demonstrated by His Payment of Ransom.
And it is not just that He went to the cross. It is also what He accomplished on the cross. The song continues:
9 And they sang a new song, saying, “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…”
In his magisterial work, The Cross of Christ, John Stott offers an extremely insightful overview of the idea of “ransom” in the New Testament. He rightly bemoans that the word is neglected today. He considers this a tragedy. I do too. Stott points out that the word ransom is from the Greek word lytron (“a ransom” or “price of release”) and that both “redeem” (lytroo) and “redemption” (apolytrosis) are derivatives of the word. “Ransom,” Stott argues, “was almost a technical term in the ancient world for the purchase or manumission of a slave.” He goes on to quote Leon Morris’ assertion that the lytron and its derivatives refer to “a process involving release by payment of a ransom price.” Tellingly, Stott writes, “We have been ‘ransomed’ by Christ, not merely ‘redeemed’ or ‘delivered’ by him.”
The Lamb slain is a ransom price paid. We need not, like the church father Origen and many other interpreters, see this as a ransom price paid to the devil. That is a notion fraught with problems, to say the least! It would be more proper to say that it was a ransom price paid by God to God Himself: a price paid to cancel a debt before an utterly holy God.
This idea of ransom is profoundly important. Consider:
In Matthew 20, Jesus explicitly says that He came to pay a ransom.
28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In 1 Timothy 2, Paul says that Jesus paid the ransom price “for all.”
5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
And in 1 Peter 1, Peter connects the payment or ransom specifically with the shed blood of Christ on the cross.
18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
Just think of this, imagine this! Think of the worst thing you have ever done: the most shameful thing, the thing that makes you cringe, the thing that you just want to go away. Think of that. Then think of all the other things you have done. Then think of the sins you have committed that you either are unaware of or that you wrongly refuse to acknowledge are, in fact, sins. Think of your individual sin-debt before God. Now think of that same sin-debt existing for every single person on planet earth right now. Now think of that sin-debt back in time to the very beginning when Adam and Eve fell into sin. Think of the sin-debt of the whole human race. Think of the collected debt of shame and guilt. Think of the massive ransom price incurred by this.
Then tremble. Tremble because there is no person on earth who could pay this ransom. You cannot pay it. I cannot pay it either. None of us can. I cannot be good enough to pay it. I cannot earn enough to pay it. I cannot save up enough to pay it. I cannot work hard enough to pay it. I cannot plot and scheme some way to pay it. I cannot borrow enough to pay this ransom for my sin!
Now, let us hear our text again:
9 And they sang a new song, saying, “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…”
He paid the ransom! He ransomed us! The Lamb did it! How? By being slain on the cross. And How could He pay it? Because He is worthy to do so!
The Lamb’s Worthiness is Heralded by His Church.
The song continues and shows us what His shed blood has purchased:
9 And they sang a new song, saying, “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, 10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
To be frank, Revelation 5:9-10 alone should have been sufficient to keep the church of Jesus from ever falling into racism! Notice the beautiful tapestry of humanity that is purchased by the blood of Christ! They came “from every tribe and language and people and nation”! Amazing!
If the Kingdom looks like this, should not the church look like this?
Ah, beware of trying to cast Christ in your own image! Luis Palau, the late Latin American evangelist, once told a story about two friends—a white man and a black man—who were prone to argue about what color Jesus was. The white man said Jesus was white. The black man said Jesus was black, They determined that they would just have to wait and see when they got to Heaven who was right! Lo and behold—of course—the next day the two friends actually drove their car off a cliff and found themselves outside of the gates of Heaven! One of the men said, “Well, at least we will finally get to see who was right about Jesus’ color!” They then turned to the gates of glory. In a moment, they opened…and Jesus stepped through the gates! Luis Palau said the two men stared in stunned amazement as Jesus looked at them and said: ¿Cómo estás, amigo?
I heard Luis Palau tell that joke years ago and I still chuckle over it! I love it! In fact, Jesus cannot be claimed exclusively by this or that race or ethnicity or nationality. No, He is the Christ of the nations and it is out of the nations that He has redeemed His people!
And note the new lives of these redeemed people.
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.
The redeemed people of God are priests who “shall reign on the earth.” We will be given authority and dominion, under God, in the millennium and over the new earth. This is why they sing! This is why they rejoice! Because Jesus has done all of this! He is worthy to do it!
The Lamb’s Worthiness Will be Sung by All Creation.
The chapter ends with a truly astounding widening of the camera on this scene of worship. Heretofore in Revelation 4 and 5 we had God on His throne, the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, John, the mighty angel, and the Lamb. But then watch what happens.
11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” 13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
My goodness! All of creation sings and heralds the worthiness of the Lamb! Everyone, everyone, everyone sings praises! And, indeed, all of creation will acknowledge in praise the worthiness of the Lamb. Paul, in Philippians 2, paints a very similar picture.
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The living creatures.
Myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of angels.
Every creature in Heaven.
Every creature on the earth.
Every creature under the earth.
Every creature in the sea.
All that is in the sea.
Every knee bowing.
Every tongue confessing.
Church: everyone, everyone, everyone, everyone will bow before the Lamb! Everyone will worship the Lamb! Make no mistake: we will either bow before Jesus our brother or Jesus our judge, but all will bow.
The atheists of the world will bow.
The religious hypocrites will bow.
The brokenhearted will bow.
The proud and haughty will bow.
The rich will bow.
The poor will bow.
The powerful will bow.
The powerless will bow.
All will bow.
And before whom will they bow? Before the Lamb, before Jesus.
Why? Why will all of creation bow?
Because He is worthy! The Lamb is worthy!
Praise and glory and laud to the Lamb who was slain and who has risen again!
 Fee, Gordon D.. Revelation (New Covenant Commentary Series Book 3) (p. 85). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
 Kazantzakis, Nikos. Saint Francis (Kindle Locations 2231-2243). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
 John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p.173.