The scene of Revelation 4—5 is the heavenly throne room. After receiving the command to write to the seven churches in Asia Minor, John is “caught up in the spirit” to the throne room in heaven where he is to receive a series of visions that culminate in the ultimate victory of Christ at the end of the age. Revelation 4 shows us the endless praise that God receives from the angels and the 24 elders. Chapter 5 begins with John noticing that there is a scroll in the “right hand of him who was seated on the throne.” The scroll has writing on the inside and is sealed with seven seals.
After giving us a description of the scroll, an angel proclaims with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” John begins to despair when no one comes forth to answer the angel’s challenge. One of the 24 elders encourages John to “weep no more,” and points out that the Lion of the tribe of Judah has come to take and open the scroll. The Lion of the tribe of Judah is obviously a reference to Christ. The image of the lion is meant to convey kingship. Jesus is worthy to receive and open the scroll because he is the King of God’s people.
Back in Genesis 49:9, when Jacob was blessing his sons, Judah is referred to as a “lion’s cub,” and in verse 10 we learn that the “scepter shall not depart from Judah.” The scepter is a symbol of lordship and power. This was a prophecy that in Israel the kingly line would be descended from Judah. That prophecy was fulfilled when David succeeded to the throne after the death of King Saul (2 Samuel). David was descended from the line of Judah, and his descendants were the kings in Israel/Judah until the time of the Babylonian captivity in 586 BC.
This imagery of kingship is further enhanced when Jesus is described as the “root of David.” This harkens us back to the words of Isaiah the prophet: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. . . . In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (Isaiah 11:1, 10). As the root of David, Jesus is not only being identified as a descendant of David, but also the source or “root” of David’s kingly power.
Why is Jesus worthy to open the scroll? He is worthy because He “has conquered.” We know that, when Jesus returns, He will conquer all of God’s enemies, as graphically described in Revelation 19. However, more importantly, Jesus is worthy because He has conquered sin and death at the cross. The cross was the ultimate victory of God over the forces of sin and evil. The events that occur at the return of Christ are the “mop-up” job to finish what was started at the cross. Because Jesus secured the ultimate victory at Calvary, He is worthy to receive and open the scroll, which contains the righteous judgment of God.
Christ’s victory at the cross is symbolized by his appearance as a “Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). Prior to the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were commanded by God to take an unblemished lamb, slay it, and smear its blood on the doorposts of their homes (Exodus 12:1–7). The blood of the slain lamb would set apart the people of Israel from the people of Egypt when the death angel came during the night to slay the firstborn of the land. Those who had the blood of the lamb would be spared. Fast forward to the days of John the Baptist. When he sees Jesus approaching him, he declares to all present, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Jesus is the ultimate “Passover lamb” who saves His people from eternal death.
So when Jesus is referred to as the Lion and the Lamb, we are to see Him as not only the conquering King who will slay the enemies of God at His return, but also as the sacrificial Lamb who took away the reproach of sin from His people so they may share in His ultimate victory.
When Jesus is called the Lamb of God in John 1:29 and John 1:36, it is referring to Him as the perfect and ultimate sacrifice for sin. In order to understand who Christ was and what He did, we must begin with the Old Testament, which contains prophecies concerning the coming of Christ as a “guilt offering” (Isaiah 53:10). In fact, the whole sacrificial system established by God in the Old Testament set the stage for the coming of Jesus Christ, who is the perfect sacrifice God would provide as atonement for the sins of His people (Romans 8:3; Hebrews 10).
The sacrifice of lambs played a very important role in the Jewish religious life and sacrificial system. When John the Baptist referred to Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), the Jews who heard him might have immediately thought of any one of several important sacrifices. With the time of the Passover feast being very near, the first thought might be the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. The Passover feast was one of the main Jewish holidays and a celebration in remembrance of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. In fact, the slaying of the Passover lamb and the applying of the blood to doorposts of the houses (Exodus 12:11-13) is a beautiful picture of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Those for whom He died are covered by His blood, protecting us from the angel of (spiritual) death.
Another important sacrifice involving lambs was the daily sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem. Every morning and evening, a lamb was sacrificed in the temple for the sins of the people (Exodus 29:38-42). These daily sacrifices, like all others, were simply to point people towards the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In fact, the time of Jesus’ death on the cross corresponds to the time the evening sacrifice was being made in the temple. The Jews at that time would have also been familiar with the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, who foretold the coming of One who would be brought “like a lamb led to the slaughter” (Jeremiah 11:19; Isaiah 53:7) and whose sufferings and sacrifice would provide redemption for Israel. Of course, that person was none other than Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God.”
While the idea of a sacrificial system might seem strange to us today, the concept of payment or restitution is still one we can easily understand. We know that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) and that our sin separates us from God. We also know the Bible teaches we are all sinners and none of us is righteous before God (Romans 3:23). Because of our sin, we are separated from God, and we stand guilty before Him. Therefore, the only hope we can have is if He provides a way for us to be reconciled to Himself, and that is what He did in sending His Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross. Christ died to make atonement for sin and to pay the penalty of the sins of all who believe in Him.
It is through His death on the cross as God’s perfect sacrifice for sin and His resurrection three days later that we can now have eternal life if we believe in Him. The fact that God Himself has provided the offering that atones for our sin is part of the glorious good news of the gospel that is so clearly declared in 1 Peter 1:18-21: “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.”