You've Got Mail - Week 5
The Message of Revelation
An interesting family tradition has been passed down to me. I’m told that my paternal grandmother, who died before I was born, would set a letter or package aside for a day or two upon receiving it, enjoying the anticipation and contemplating the potential message. Her son, my now 91-year-old dad, takes his daily mail retrieval ritual very seriously, and though his eyesight is diminishing, he pours over his email inbox as though he were a detective about to crack a case. I share the same love of messages, though instant messaging has made it more difficult to press the pause button.
Of course, the best letters come from someone who really knows us and wants the best for us, maybe even someone wise. As a young adult, I once received a letter from the principal of my former high school. Because of one small thing I had told him, he took the time to advise me to attend a local Bible college. His timely words changed the course of my life for the better in several significant ways. His wisdom and knowledge of me shaped a letter I’ll always be thankful for.
Revelation 5 offers one of the best “You’ve Got Mail” stories ever. The people were discouraged and in dire need of a good word. Whether faced with open hostility, subtle pressure to conform, or a poverty of faith, life made less sense all the time under the Empire. Like all oppressed people, they were crying out for an interpretive word when the meaning of their lives felt hidden to them. God saw what was going on and sent them a word of hope.
It didn’t arrive through Twitter, email or even snail mail. Letters in the first century came in the form of a scroll. Amid difficult circumstances, it would help make sense of their suffering and provide a way forward. It always seems like God is absent when trauma is acute, but the scroll’s message eclipsed God’s seeming absence, for it contained the mystery of God’s intention for humanity.
The Mail Room
Before the scroll is even delivered, John is summoned by a voice which said, “Come up here,” and brought to an elaborate mail room. Canada Post facilities could never match this place. John sees concentric circles, and in the very center is a majestic throne. Royal rooms like these are usually just for the elite, but this one is different, for everyone and everything is welcome. The king on the throne is also different, for his authority is centered on relationship not patriarchal power. God’s presence has a radiant, gem-like splendor, and his power comes not in lording it over others, but through sacrifice.
In front of the throne is a crystal sea. With its background flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder, you’d think you were on a Hollywood movie set. Four strange and mysterious creatures have eyes everywhere, even under their wings.
This scene could not be more different from the reality of the early Christians, or ours. We don’t usually honor the messenger quite so elaborately! The elders in the vision were laying their crowns before God, the author of the scroll, but many in John’s day were quietly ready to lay their crowns at the feet of imperial authority as they led complacent and accommodating lives. We lay down our crowns (or give our deepest authority) to our happiness projects and all the things we think are more important than God.
A Rightly-Ordered Universe
In all this build-up, John wanted us all to see that there’s another form of power. It’s not just greater than that of the Empire, but is different in kind. Here is a vision of a rightly-ordered universe with the Creator, not Caesar, at the center. Everything has splendor but nothing takes God’s place.
The stage has been set for the scroll’s delivery, and the anticipation is high, especially as there’s writing on both sides and it’s sealed with seven seals, which in John’s day meant something of importance was inside.
Where's the Letter Opener?
Have you ever had a dream where, perhaps in a scene as splendid as this, you receive “The Answer” to the meaning of life? Or perhaps the secret of life is shown to you? It feels tangibly real and just what you needed to hear and yet, when you wake up, it dribbles out your ear. You’re simultaneously filled with incredible hope and deeply let down. The big message which still feels so real, is forever out of reach and we are left bereft, not understanding the meaning of our lives or the meaning of history. If we’ve felt desperate enough, we might begin to sob.
This might help us understand the next scene for, after all this buildup the highly anticipated scroll arrives but…no one is worthy enough to open the seals and read the message. The prophet begins to weep. Not just the meaning of life, but the meaning of the universe and all of history is in that letter, yet no one can break the seals and figure it out. Nothing seems left but the silence of God. The people are at the end of themselves and all hope is lost.
Or so it seems, for in Revelation, the story never ends with the bad news. If we keep turning the page, we see a new and startling word picture, a new twist in the plot. And so it happens that an elder tells the weeping prophet that someone is worthy, and it’s a lion.
When we hear someone being compared to a lion, we think of someone at the top of the food chain who will come and crush our enemies. We fill the word with all of our unfulfilled hopes for power and vindication and vengeance. The lion of Judah, that traditional image of power, will be the conquering hero who will break the seals and finally make sense of things.
But God fulfilled the prophecy in a way that our human minds never would, for when John turns to look, he is shocked. What he sees is not a marauding lion, but a live lamb that has been slaughtered. This is probably the most important and most surprising image of Revelation. Other ancient apocryphal writings from the ancient world had animals too, but they were mighty animals like eagles, lions and bears. Revelation is the only apocalypse with a lamb as its image of power. And the word used in scripture is the most diminutive form of lamb, like a little “lamby”.
Nothing could be more opposite to a roaring lion than a little slain lamb, but John fuses the images together and subverts the meaning of lion power. This is certainly a different way of conquering! This seemingly weak animal, killed yet mysteriously still standing, is the one worthy to open the scroll. Vulnerability and sacrifice, not “might makes right,” has won the day. In our community, we’ve come to call this “Lamb Power.”
People knew that this lamb referred to Jesus Christ, the one who ruled not by domination but through sacrificing himself out of love. Like the lamb, he was slain, but also resurrected. This profoundly anti-violent hero who has the character of God is the one worthy to open the scroll.
All-Seeing and All-Knowing
Imagine a letter written by someone who knows you better than you know yourself. Someone who sacrificed everything for your well-being. Not just that but someone who knows the meaning of all of history, where life is headed, what will happen, why things go wrong, why things go right, why there’s suffering in the world…and has the power to change it all for the better.
Now imagine that the author of that letter was a weak lamb with seven eyes and seven horns. The irony and symbolism couldn’t be richer. In scripture, seven is always the number of perfection. In its slaughtered state, it looks weak, but the seven horns signify its perfect power, and like the compound eyes of insects, the seven eyes epitomize its perfect and comprehensive sight.
This is an all-powerful, all-seeing lamb who fathoms us deeply. The love of God is evident in this slain lamb because even though it was subjected to the worst of human evil, it still forgives. The Lamb warns us that power is not of this world. It’s all-seeing eyes know us and all of history at the deepest level.
This is an odd kind of power. The power we usually crave is lion-like; the type that forces our will on others, to defend ourselves and get our way. Our anger at situations we can’t control is confrontative and violent, but God’s deepest desire is always to restore us to ourselves.
This must have been a startling message for the people! To have the conquering lion depicted as a slain lamb totally redefines all our understanding of power and the nature of reality. We are witnessing the deepest truth about God.
Open the Letter Already!
What this scroll ultimately says resonates through time and still speaks today, like a poem with eternal echoes. Its message takes up the rest of Revelation and involves the battle between good and evil. That message is as rich and multi-faceted as a jewel, and like impatient kids we might ask, “What does it say?” But Revelation is written in a way that says, “Hurry up and wait”. We’re given a letter and there’s a sense of urgency, but it takes 22 chapters to get there!
The answer is that the “what” is not nearly as important as the “Who”. If we know a letter is from someone who loves us utterly and has sacrificed everything for us, then whatever our friend says will be okay. We can lean into that relationship and keep listening.
Like the letter that once changed my life, the Lamb’s message has the power to change things for the good and ultimately fix our broken world. Things only make sense when seen through the eyes of sacrificial love. The all-powerful and all-seeing Lamb sees the meaning of our lives and all of history. Though it often looks like Love is losing, we can trust that the Lamb who sacrifices itself for our good will speak just the right word and always at the right moment.
It’s as though the message of the scroll is saying, “Your life is surrounded by God’s presence: past, present and future. God is with you in each dimension and enwraps all of the cosmos with God’s presence. God sees what’s in the scroll of all of life. Your scroll’s meaning is not hidden from God, not even what others consider bad or shameful. God can use everything, even weakness, for God’s glory.”
But these words are not static, with a once and for all meaning. They are a living document, or perhaps music, and become unique when applied to each context and to each life. Like the number seven, the permutations are eternal and infinite.
Despite all appearances to the contrary, this is what is real at the center of things. What our society portrays as real and what God shows us as real are different. We don’t understand the meaning of our lives, or the meaning of history. Our only hope lies in God cracking the code for us.
John is giving an alternate version of Empire and it’s so different from how we usually think of power. The worldly powers that be like to think they’re running things through fear and threats, but the scroll reminds us of who really owns the world. At the center is not a power that lords it over others. That kind of power never actually changes anyone. Love which suffers for the sake of others is what is worthy.
That’s a message worth waiting for. It’s a relationship worth entrusting our lives to.
Questions for Engagement — Week 5
- Have you ever received a letter that changed your life?
- What does a lifestyle of Lamb Power look like in our world today?
- If self-sacrifice is the true power of God, then how does it change who we are in the various contexts of our lives?
- Describe a time when you saw and understood things with greater depth. Was there a person or a situation that helped reveal the meaning to you?
- Why is it important to see Jesus as a slain lamb instead of a devouring lion?
- Imagine your life as surrounded by God’s presence: past, present and in the future, with you in each dimension. How has God been with you? What might God say in a letter addressed to you?
In case you'd like to read more…
- Craig Koester, The Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History, Lecture 6 — "God, The Lamb, and the 7 Seals"
- Read or listen to the story of the scroll and the lamb in Revelation 5
- Check out this 6-minute video where Barbara Rossing (author of The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation) talks about John’s vision of the throne room and the lamb.