Behold the Lamb of God

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” (Revelation 5: 6-10)

A lamb, bound and ready for sacrifice, is a popular image in early Christian art, and it remained so throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods. It’s often seen in scenes of the shepherds worshipping the infant Christ, as an allusion to the act of self-sacrifice which the baby would one day make. The image of Christ the Lamb is perhaps most famously used by John the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). But we need to be careful how we use it; the idea conjured up by a lamb is one of meekness, helplessness, innocence and vulnerability. Some of this is, of course, relevant and true, but it perhaps doesn’t reflect well the way in which the New Testament writers use the image. In these verses of Revelation, the Lamb is far from meek and helpless – rather, he’s a glorious victor, celebrated and worshipped by the living creatures and the elders and by the multitude of the redeemed.

The Lamb is central to this whole vision, and central to the priesthood of the saints, the holy ones, who are mentioned in the ‘New Song’. But there’s something rather odd here; the Lamb is usually the victim of sacrifice, and although John’s language comes more from the slaughter house than the altar, the sacrificial imagery is unmistakable. But how can it be that the sacrificial victim is the one who makes us priests, as the song claims? It may be that what we have here is a sacrifice to consecrate the priests, but if the Lamb is the offering, who’s the priest? Of course, new beginnings need new measures; Deuteronomy tells us of the very first Israelite priests, Aaron and his sons. They had to be consecrated by a sacrifice carried out by Moses, who was not strictly speaking a priest, because no one was strictly speaking a priest! Maybe the saints are also being consecrated into an entirely new kind of priesthood by a sacrifice in which Christ is both priest and victim.

Or maybe – and I think it’s perfectly possible to hold both understandings together – we’re looking at a sacrifice of redemption. The Lamb ‘ransomed’ the saints for God, calling to mind another offering. All firstborn males – human and many animals – belonged to God, but you could ‘buy back’ a valuable animal from God by offering another one instead, and firstborn sons were automatically ransomed by the service of the Levites, who were given to God instead, freeing the son up for involvement in secular life. The Lamb’s sacrifice reverses that process, and buys back the saints (including you and me) for the worship of God. We’re ‘re-ransomed’ and recommitted to God.

And for what sort of priestly service are we ransomed? Prayer is offered for us by the elders, with their ‘bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.’ Altar service is performed by the angel who burns the incense (8:3-5). So, although we’re free to offer our prayers to God, I don’t think this is what the vision of priesthood is about. Neither does it concern mission, important as this is; unlike 1 Peter, which we looked at last time, Revelation responds to persecution not by telling its readers how to live in the world, but by reminding them of the future which awaits them in another world.

Revelation’s priesthood is about two things. It’s about praise and worship, and it’s about our status in God’s eyes. We have been bought at great price and given a glorious position in the kingdom – indeed, we are the kingdom. And we are priests, with a priest’s privileged access to God. We’re welcome at the great act of worship described in this vision (7:9). And there we exercise our priesthood of pure praise and adoration of God and the Lamb. We are special in God’s eyes; privileged to come, each one of us a priest, joined together in the great corporate Worship, with all the saints on earth and in heaven; bought at great cost by the Lamb, victim and priest at the sacrifice of our redemption and consecration.

Worth giving praise for, I’m sure you’ll agree!

An exercise for re-energising a tired faith in a God you think you’ve got the measure of:

  • Set aside a good period of time for prayer and reflection, preparing yourself to worship however comes most naturally, whether you like to meditate quietly, or to make a joyful noise to the Lord.
  • Then praise God. Don’t focus on bringing him your concerns or confession; set them aside for another time. Just stand in awe of your Lord – of his greatness and all he’s done. Consider God the Creator, God the Infinite, God who is Love. Try to focus on God, not on your response to God – it’s surprising how hard that can be!
  • If you respond creatively, you could write or draw your praise. Or you may be able to find a hymn, song, poem or picture that expresses your adoration.
  • Don’t worry if you can’t get your mind around God – he’s bigger than our imagination or understanding ever will be.
  • Now you’ve begun to appreciate the amazing greatness of God, re-read the passage and dwell for a while on the words of the ‘New Song’. Isn’t it amazing that the God you’ve been worshipping should care that much about you? What a price to pay, and what a gift to give! And all for you, to make you a priest to love and be loved by God!
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