We mentioned yesterday that first century Israelites expected God to act soon to conquer Rome, redeem Israel, and establish his kingdom on earth. For most people, such hopes centered in God’s promises to send a Messiah, an anointed king who would lead the people of Israel into their glorious destiny.
Naturally, they expected this Messiah to be a warrior. After all, he would be called Son of David; just as David slew Goliath, the Messiah would defeat Israel’s giant enemies.
We can see this for ourselves in many Old Testament texts. Let’s take a look at a few: Genesis 49.8-12, 2 Samuel 7.12-13, Psalm 2; Isaiah 11
What I find interesting is that Jesus played to these expectations. Listen to how Mark summarizes his basic message, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news” (1.15). In Jesus’ day the “kingdom of God” was a token phrase of revolutionaries—if God was becoming King, then Caesar’s days were obviously numbered (see also Luke 1.52-53, 68-71).
However, Jesus radically undercut the Jews’ expectations for how the Messiah would conquer evil and establish God’s reign of justice. His would be a way, not of Maccabean-like violence and revolt, but of love and peace—the way of the cross.
No one learned this lesson more dramatically than Peter, the leader among Jesus’ twelve disciples. Here’s his story – Mark 8.27-33
In our passage today John experiences the same shock, probably not for the first time. One of the keys to understanding Revelation 5 is the contrast in verses 5-6 between what John sees and what he hears.
This is what John hears: “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
At this point things are looking great. After all, what could be better than the presence of one who can rightly be compared to a lion? Consider the strength, the power, the authority (not to mention the fulfillment of Genesis 49.8-12).
But notice what John sees: “A Lamb, looking as if had been slain, standing in the center of the throne.”
Now let’s just admit what John’s probably thinking: That’s one funny-looking lion! Or to put it another way, that’s one strange way to inaugurate the kingdom of God. That’s one odd strategy for saving the world.
Living what we learn
Yesterday we saw that Jesus was the one destined to open the scroll and unlock the meaning of history—“the Lion, the King, the one who defeated evil, the one who is worthy to make sense of human existence.” But just stop and think about this for a minute.
How did he become this One? By dying at the hands of his enemies.
How did he secure victory for the people of God? By refusing to fight.
How did he defeat evil? By letting it do its worst to him, and still arising victorious.
Here’s the honest truth: Most of us don’t yet understand how this works—maybe we never will. But we know it’s true. Jesus defeated evil and saved the world by dying on a Roman cross.
This is the central message of the book of Revelation. Jesus’ victory is cross-shaped (“cruciform”) through and through. As we work our way through the book, John will help us make sense of this profound and paradoxical truth. For now I just want you to tattoo this truth on your heart and mind.
Remember Peter’s story that we read earlier. There is more. Turn back to Mark 8 and read verses 34-38.
Perhaps one of the reasons Peter objected so strongly to Jesus’ suffering was that he recognized what it meant for his own life. If Jesus was a suffering Messiah, what did that say about his followers? If Jesus way is one of love and peace instead of power and might, how should his people go about spreading his story?
We do well to wrestle with the same questions: If Jesus is a suffering Messiah, what does that say about the path of discipleship for us? If Jesus’ way is one of love and peace instead of the other options, how should we attempt to continue his mission in the world? If Jesus refused to bow down to the world’s power games and cycles of oppression, what does it mean to live in his name?
One thing is certain: we must find a way to respond appropriately to Jesus’ challenge: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Only then will we be able to say, with our lives as well as our voices:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power forever and ever!”