Commentary on Revelation 5:11-14
Certain questions in life we ask repeatedly.
“Who is in charge?” “What’s for dinner?” “How are you?” Revelation 5 helps us ask–and answer–a lifelong question, “Who is Jesus?”
The setting for the answer given by John the Seer is heaven. Following the letters to the seven churches (chapters 3-4), Revelation shifts in 4:1 to heaven. In the fourth chapter, John’s vision centers on God’s throne and on praise to God. While chapter five is also a vision of heaven, the chapter begins on a note that is several octaves below the high point reached at the end of chapter 4. God in 5:1 holds a scroll sealed with seven seals. An angel searches for someone who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals, but no one is found who is worthy. If the seals are never broken, God’s plan for the defeat of evil and the full coming of God’s reign will never happen.
So, John appropriately breaks into tears. At that point an elder tells him to stop weeping, because the Lion of Judah has conquered and is worthy (verses 2-5). John turns to see the lion, but what he sees instead is “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (verse 6). The Lamb goes to the throne and takes the scroll. The elders immediately fall before him and worship.
Our passage begins as the chorus of praise to the Lamb continues to grow: many angels, the four living creatures, and the elders once again sing with a loud voice. There are so many that they number “myriads of myriads” (a myriad is ten thousand) and “thousands of thousands,” that is, a number so large no one could tally it.
And what they sing is, “Worthy is the Lamb.” Worthy (the Greek axios) was a well-known political term in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire. Just as today the band plays “Hail to the Chief” when the President of the United States enters a large gathering, so in the first centuries the crowds were trained to shout, “Worthy! Worthy! Worthy is the emperor!” when the Roman emperor appeared in public. Revelation constantly engages in a struggle with the powers of evil, symbolized and centered in the Roman Empire. It is the Lamb, Jesus, who is worthy, not the emperor, no matter how much power he claims.
What about this Lamb? Why is he worthy? “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered.” Lamb is the favorite title for Jesus in the book of Revelation, and the Lamb remains always the crucified one, even when he is also the resurrected one and the Lord of the world. There is no path to worthiness–just as there is no road to Easter–that does not pass through the cross.
Because of his worthiness John assigns seven attributes to the Lamb–not six, not eight, not one hundred, but seven! Seven, of course, is the number of completion and perfection. Often when this kind of list has an odd number of items, the one in the center is the most important. Attribute number four is “might.” That attribute might seem to be at odds with the image of the slaughtered Lamb, but it signals that this Lamb is able to carry out his task. He is powerful enough not only to open the seals of the scroll, but also to engage and defeat the powers of evil.
Then, in verse 13, as if the chorus is not big enough, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” join in the song. But they expand their song to include “the one seated on the throne,” who has already been praised in chapter 4. To that one and to the Lamb “be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” This verse shows the high Christology of the author. The throne of both God and the Lamb is the same, and so the worship offered to each is also to both. Thus chapter 4 praises God. 5:1-12 praises the Lamb; and 5:13-14 praises both together. Both chapters end on a strong universal note: in 4:11 the heavenly chorus worships God as the creator of all things, and the chorus in 5:13 is composed of every creature in the whole creation.
The only thing left to do is to say, “Amen”–which is exactly what the four living creatures do in verse 14.
We need to put 5:11-14 into the context of what follows, as well as into the context of what has preceded. In what follows, the six seals are opened, and the end-time woes or sufferings begin, and the battle with evil is engaged once again. But those listening can handle the images of destruction and death, because they know that the message does not stop with the coming of the four horsemen, the plagues, and violence, but goes beyond them to the word of salvation and joy announced in our text. The glimpse of heaven also reminds us that the decisive victory has indeed already been won–which is why we are in the season of Easter. The future triumph is already present in heaven. What is left for us to do is to join in the worship.
Readers from liturgical traditions may have identified that 5:11-14 is part of communion liturgies such as that in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book, page 101. Although unfortunately the Scriptural sources of the liturgy are not listed in that book, “This is the Feast” comes straight out of Revelation.
How about a sermon on the Third Sunday of Easter that does just one thing: it praises the Lamb. No exhortation, no ethical bite, no stewardship emphasis, just praise. Praise for what Jesus has done for us. Praise for the one who is the Lamb. And praise for the one who is forever the slaughtered Lamb while still being the resurrected Lord.