January 13/14, 2018
Jason Meyer | Revelation 5:1-10
Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”—Revelation 5:1–10
One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speeches was his final speech, often called the Mountaintop Speech. The speech took place in Memphis, Tennessee, almost 50 years ago (April 3, 1968). The very next day, he was assassinated by James Earl Ray. I listened to the speech this week on Monday. I was moved in all kinds of fresh ways.
Toward the end, he tells about being stabbed while in New York and how close the blade came to his aorta, and if it had pierced there he would have drown in his own blood. It came out in the New York Times the next day that if he would have sneezed, he would have died. Finally they removed the blade and he was able to move around and read telegrams that he had received. He shared a letter that a little white girl wrote him:
Dear Dr. King,
I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School. While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I'm a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze.
Then he began to say if he had sneezed and that he would have missed the sit-ins of 1960, the freedom rides of 1961, and the Civil Rights Bill of 1963, his own “I Have a Dream Speech,” and the great movement he witnessed in Selma, Alabama.
And now at the climax of the speech, he was hearing about all the threats on him and his life, and he said this:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
(“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”; speech delivered April 3, 1968, Church of God in Christ Headquarters; Memphis, TN).
Martin Luther King was able to see some of the changes that were coming, and he used the imagery of Moses. Moses was not able to lead the Israelites into the promised land of Canaan, but he was able to get on the mountaintop and see it from a distance. It is true that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray before he got to see where the civil rights movement would go in the days without him.
As moving as that speech was, something has captured my heart far more in the last few days: The picture of Revelation 5. We see and savor the point that Jesus the Redeemer is worthy of worship for ransoming a multi-ethnic people for God. This is where all history and all racial reconciliation is headed. It is not just a dream. It is a promise—a guarantee from the God who cannot lie. It is the mountaintop of mountaintops. We have seen it together. I want to look at it in more detail in the time that we have together.
The vision of heavenly worship in Revelation 5 has three consecutive scenes: (1) the question (5:1–4), the (2) answer (5:5–7), and the (3) response (5:8–14). The response runs from verses 8–14, but we only have time here for verses 8–10.
Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
The question is raised: Who is worthy to take the scroll and break its seals? This is a momentous question. The scroll represents the unfolding of God’s plan for all of history. It contains God’s decrees of judgment and redemption. Whoever has control of the scroll will carry out God’s perfect plan. What a question this is! Who is worthy to have control of history? Who is worthy to bring all things to completion in perfect judgment?
No one was found. They did an extensive search process—in heaven, earth, under the earth—and everywhere they looked they found no one. John began to weep. Why is he weeping? Think of all that the scroll represents! Is there no one to carry out God’s plan? Will what was promised in Revelation 4:1 (“Come up here and I will show you the things that must take place”) fail to be seen? William Hendrickson says it well. No one to open the scroll means that there is “no protection for God’s children in the hours of bitter trial; no judgments upon a persecuting world; no ultimate triumph for believers; no new heaven and earth; no future inheritance!” (William Hendrickson, More than Conquerors, p. 109). Feel the sting of silence before rushing to the next verse where the long-awaited answer finally comes.
And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.
Jesus is worthy to open the scroll and the seven seals because Jesus has conquered. He is the victor. We will see together the full scope of this victory in a moment. For now, don’t miss the fact that what we are seeing together in Jesus is the explicit fulfillment of many past promises of God. Consider four of them.
Judah is a lion’s cub;
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He stooped down; he crouched as a lion
and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
— Genesis 49:9–10
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.—Isaiah 11:1–2
I did not just read verse 1 because verse 2 adds something significant. This root of David has the Spirit of the Lord resting on him. Revelation 5:6 says the same thing: “With seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Revelation 5:6). These are the seven eyes of Zechariah 3:9 (cf. 4:10) and the seven lamps of Zechariah 4:2.This is a joint image because the figure in Zechariah 3 is also called the branch. He is the promised priest from Zechariah’s vision with seven eyes.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
This Lion and the Lamb and the Root of David is the resurrected King. As a perfect royal ruler, he has seven horns of power. I say “horns of power” because in biblical symbolism horns are an expression of power to destroy. Think of a bull or a rhino. Listen for example to Deuteronomy 33:17:
A firstborn bull—he has majesty,
and his horns are the horns of a wild ox;
with them he shall gore the peoples,
all of them, to the ends of the earth;
they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
and they are the thousands of Manasseh.
It changes the image to see a lamb with seven horns for goring doesn’t it?!
“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
It may cause a shock to your system to consider what this conquering king does with his great kingdom and authority?
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
Remember what we said earlier about that phrase from verse five? “He conquered.” Now we see in a little more detail the full scope of Jesus’ victory by his coming and death and resurrection and what it all means. He conquered over sin and death with his death and resurrection. And his blood was the purchase price for the family of God—a people for God’s own possession. He died and defeated death for his people as their representative and substitute. He did this all for them! He didn’t die for his own sin, but as a substitute for this multi-ethnic people from every tribe and language and people and nation.
They will not just serve this great king. They will reign with him on the earth. He made them a kingdom. It is beautiful how this fulfills Daniel’s prophesy as well. They are a kingdom and priests to our God like Daniel 7.
As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them, until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom.—Daniel 7:21–22
And the kingdom and the dominion
and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High;
his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’—Daniel 7:27
These blood-bought people of God will reign with him on the earth. This multi-ethnic bride for Jesus has been bought by the blood of Jesus. They lift their voice in worship of the One who sits on the throne and the Lamb for endless days. That is the vision of the future. It is not a dream. It is a promise that finds its blood-bought “Yes” in Jesus, the victorious servant King—the Lion and the Lamb. See them live in joyous, glorious harmony together. No racial prejudices and pride and animosity—perfect unity caught up in the glory of worshipping King Jesus in heavenly paradise together.
We have been to the Mountaintop. My heart is singing right along with heaven’s refrain: Jesus the Redeemer is worthy of worship for ransoming a multi-ethnic people for God. Since we have been on the Mountaintop and seen the future, let’s come back down and let it speak into the reality that we see before us today in our context.
First, we see some people arrogantly boasting of racial supremacy. One needs only mention what happened last summer in Charlottesville. What does what we have seen on the Mountaintop have to say to the idea of white supremacy or any racial supremacy? Is there anything else that the Mountaintop so quickly and absolutely condemns as the heresy of racial supremacy? Christ is supreme. He alone is worthy.
The only reason every tribe and tongue and people—every ethnicity is present—is that Jesus died for every ethnicity. His blood brings them their, not the color of their skin. Their sins were all like scarlet, his blood washes them white as snow.
Listen to Romans 3:23–24 again!
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Second, here below we hear about something called racial tolerance and racial homogeny. Racial homogeny is sometimes called the “birds of a feather flock together” principle. Each ethnicity can have their own gathering or group and then all the different groups can look at each other with a healthy sense of tolerance (no one group claiming to be better than the other). Now we can all agree that we definitely don’t want our society to promote racial intolerance. But racial tolerance and racial homogeny (exclusive gatherings) pale in comparison with the glory we have seen on the Mountaintop. We don’t see homogeny. We see them gathered together—in one place, for one reason—with one heart and mind glorifying the Lamb that was slain!
We don’t see racial tolerance; we see racial reconciliation. Everyone knows reconciliation is bigger, deeper, richer, and sweeter than tolerance. What we see on the Mountaintop is family, the unified family of God. They enjoy peace with God and peace with one another. Everyone knows that it means far more to say “I love you,” than “I tolerate you.” Only Christ could have done this work. His work on the cross created one new man by tearing down the wall of hostility.
What does all of this mean for us at Bethlehem? What we saw on the Mountaintop has been accomplished. It is coming someday and the goal is to apply it in greater measure today. Jesus himself taught us to pray your kingdom come and will be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We want our church gathered here below to look more like that church gathered above. We need to apply the reconciliation that Christ accomplished in the peace of ethnic harmony. Ethnic harmony means the ability to enjoy diverse relationships in the body of Christ as family despite obvious differences in culture and background and preferences.
So I want to spend the rest of our time addressing what I believe currently poses the greatest threat to ethnic harmony here at Bethlehem. This has been deeply convicting to me over the last few days.
Bethlehem theologically trumpets ethnic harmony, but Bethlehem can culturally create ethnic exhaustion for people of color who want to call Bethlehem home. Here is what I mean …
Raymond Chang is an Asian-American Christian scholar. He wrote a helpful piece in Christianity Today in which he addressed the issue of white evangelicalism. He started with a far-reaching historical definition of evangelicalism that I love.
Evangelicalism: 1) a movement of gospel centrality, focused on the primacy of Scripture and justification by faith that emerged from the Reformation …
He then defined “white evangelicalism”:
White Evangelicalism: A segment of modern evangelicalism that is led and shaped by a cultural agenda defined by whiteness (Raymond Chang, “Open Letter to John Piper on White Evangelicalism and Multiethnic Relations,” Christianity Today).
At first, I scratched my head and wondered what he meant. It raises all kinds of questions that need to be unpacked. What particular things does he have in mind? Rather than define them all specifically, he gives a general analysis as to why it is often hard for white people to understand white evangelicalism.
The reason people struggle to distinguish between evangelicalism and white evangelicalism is because evangelicalism was historically and consistently shaped by whiteness. It was because of this dominance and exclusion within evangelicalism that non-white populations formed their own evangelical organizations (National Black Evangelical Association, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, etc.). Essentially, blacks and Latinos found that their issues and needs weren’t being addressed by their white counterparts, so they started their own movements. It was because white evangelicals didn’t make room for non-white evangelicals that black evangelicalism and Latino American evangelicalism emerged. If they had, we wouldn’t have the need for adjectives before the term “evangelical.” (Ibid.)
By the way, you can do your own historical homework at this point. This is just flat out, straight up true. Look it up and you will find that St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia, 1789, insisted on segregating its congregation. This was sin! Richard Allen rightfully refused to endure this false doctrine of white supremacy. He left that segregated assembly and started the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1789). That is the tragic way that African-American churches had to get their start.
Or you could listen to Lecrae’s new album (All Things Come Together) on the second track (“FACTS”) where he addresses this point in poetic fashion:
They say,“’Crae, you so divisive, shouldn’t be a black church,”
I say,“Do the math, segregation started that first.”
Lecrae has felt the need to distance himself from white evangelicalism because he just could not find a home there. Instead of the impulse to throw stones at that, I wonder if we are willing to have compassion on his ethnic exhaustion. I get the phrase “ethnic exhaustion” from Raymond Chang. Here is what he says in that same Christianity Today article:
This should be of grave concern to us all as this represents the exhaustion Christians of color are no longer willing and/or able to endure. For all of evangelicalism’s existence, a disproportionate burden has been placed on communities of color to adapt, adjust, assimilate, and acquiesce to the white expressions of Christianity. This is why evangelicals of color broadly understand the adjective “white” being added to evangelicalism, while white evangelicals have a hard time seeing how their evangelicalism is white (Ibid.)
I have heard similar sentiments from people of color at Bethlehem as a steady consistent chorus in the five years that I have been pastor here. I have heard it for years and have not really known how to address it winsomely and wisely.
So I still do not know if this will be winsome or wise, but I will try. Let us start with the facts. We are very white at Bethlehem. Can we just acknowledge it? We are a majority culture church and we are not as far down the mighty long journey of ethnic harmony as we had hoped to be at this point.
Now hear me clearly. I am not saying if you are white you should feel bad or embarrassed about being white. We are an ethnicity, created by God, just like every other ethnicity, and we will be represented around the throne.
What I am saying is that our “whiteness” has a profound impact on everything that we do. A majority culture church can often struggle with self-awareness because the majority culture often needs to work harder just to see what is obvious to minority culture. When white cultural expressions are the norm of a place, they can just fade into the background of our consciousness and get taken for granted. They become invisible to us. We can call our own cultural expressions “normal” because they are so assumed. So ethnic harmony becomes a topic for us that we focus on once and awhile—like something you pick up off the shelf and then put it back again. Ethic harmony cannot be one of 14 priorities if it is to flourish. It has to be part of the gospel air we breathe.
Minority culture has ethnic issues in their face almost all of the time. They simply can’t fade into the background. They feel like ethnic issues may them stick out from the majority culture.
I will give a silly example of how assumed ethnic issues can become. We can start with ourselves and our own experience and then assume everything else is ethnic. I remember one year for Ethnic Harmony Weekend Mike Tong put together an ethnic meal for our Saturday Ethnic Harmony Seminar: sloppy joes. Did you know that was an ethnic meal with a particular ethnic flavor? Don’t just think about injera, shero, and tibs as an ethnic meal (Ethiopian for example). Everything is ethnic. We can see things that don’t fit our normal pattern and call them “ethnic,” but can we see our own?
What do we need to do as a majority culture church? Listen to Chang again:
It is a wake up call for white evangelicals to consider the ways they have wielded the power, the platform, the positions, and the preferences that have perpetuated this immense difficulty for people of color to simply be with their own family in Christ. (Ibid.)
Bethlehem as a majority culture church has not often been self-conscious of how hard we make it for people of color to flourish here. Look, I am part of the problem. Here is another indicator of whiteness that I have been reflecting on. I have looked through a couple of years worth of sermons and noticed that I have only quoted from two people who are non-white. (One of them is Martin Luther King Jr. in Ethnic Harmony Weekend sermons). That is a reflection of what has been called white evangelicalism. Now I don’t apologize for quoting from the theological movement of the Reformation, the Puritans, and the Great Awakening (along with quotations of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, C.S. Lewis, J. I. Packer, and John Piper). The point is the same one we have been dealing with—diversify the people you quote.
Our Lead Campus Pastor North, Steven Lee, gave me a great word picture of how white preferences can feel for people of color.
One example of this if I might try to illuminate the struggle many minorities feel in "white evangelicalism." It would be like if you only ate Chinese food in China for two weeks straight for every meal. The first day would be adventurous, and even enjoyable. But after two weeks straight of a very foreign food, you might begin to long for Cara's cooking, a simple steak, salad, or even be tempted by the local McDonalds. Those foods are familiar. It's a taste of home. Food is more than nutrition—it's one of the ways we express our cultural preferences. The constant adjusting/assimilating of minority culture folks is like eating a different and unusual food all the time, never comfort food. But it’s not just food, but everything: friendships, interactions, structures, conversations, and so forth. (Steven Lee, personal correspondence)
The Bible calls the church to be in full accord and of one mind (Philippians 2:2). How do we do that? The command from King Jesus through his apostle Paul is to … “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Humility! Pride is what poisons ethnic harmony. We just assume ourselves. We can easily assume that our ways are normal or standard. We may not think in terms of racial supremacy, but sometimes we just have racial apathy.
It will take intentionality and humility here for the majority culture to consider people of color as “more important than ourselves” and give preference to others in our decision-making at Bethlehem.
I will give you an example from the area of music. We should not take a self-centered approach to the songs we sing by simply judging every song according to one question: Do I like it? Many people say that being a true multi-ethnic church means that the dominant culture may be singing in their heart language up to 75 percent of the time. But that means 25 percent of the time, the songs are not in your heart language or comfort zone. If 25 percent is not in your heart language, you should rejoice that someone else is rejoicing that it is their heart language!
This lesson came home to me in a very odd way as I was thinking about Dora the Explorer. My kids loved Dora the Explorer and Diego, Animal Rescuer. I did not enjoy it when I would ask them what they wanted to watch and they would choose Dora. I don’t know how many times baby Jaguar can get lost. The pace was so painstakingly slow. Do you see baby Jaguar? Yep, right there. Do you see baby Jaguar. Yes, everyone has to see him by now. Do you see Baby Jaguar? Yes, for the love of all that is good and right, can we move on now?!
But then I stopped for a moment and stopped thinking about myself and really started watching my kids. They were mesmerized. Do you see Baby Jaguar? They were saying, “yeah, yeah” and pointing excitedly. Suddenly, I started enjoying it. What changed? I enjoyed my kids’ enjoyment of Dora. That is what families do. I enjoyed giving them their preference. Dora was certainly not mine.
None of this will be easy, but it is worth it. And the vision we have from the mountaintop provides one very powerful weapon for us as we fight for it: hope. We know where this is going. The future is not uncertain. We can be somewhat uncertain about the immediate, but have profound certainty about the ultimate.
We are going to go on this journey together. And it will be hard. We will step on each other’s toes. But it is worth it. Why? Worthy is the Lamb! With his blood he purchased a multi-ethnic Bride from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. We will reign together and worship together. The church is a witness that these things are true—not just what will someday be. We are a witness to what is and what will be in greater, fuller, deeper, richer ways. But we pray, on earth—as it is already in heaven. Worthy is the Lamb that was slain. His blood bought this.
Remember that our text says that the Lamb standing in heaven looked like he was slain. Yes, he was. He died. But in dying, he defeated death. Death did not defeat Jesus. Sometimes when you see somebody that looks beat up, you ask, “What happened to you?” Sometimes the answer is, “I got into a fight, but you should see the other guy!” That is so true in this case. Yes, Jesus is standing looking slain, but you should see death! O death is the one that was slain. The grave was torn open with a big everlasting gaping blow. Death was dealt the death blow. Death was really slaughtered. Christ paid the price for our sin. He paid to redeem a multi-ethnic Bride. And death would not separate her from him because the slain Lamb slaughtered death on the third day at break of dawn. Can you hear the angels roar for Christ the King? Can you hear them sing: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing”?
This is not just a dream, dear friends. This is a promise from Almighty God who cannot lie. A bullet cannot kill the dream. Christ died and rose from the dead in fulfillment of the promise so that the promise can’t be killed. It can’t. Death no longer has any power over him.
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him (Romans 6:9).
Main Point: Jesus the Redeemer is worthy of worship for ransoming a multi-ethnic people for God.
Pray for a grace to put the future vision of ethnic harmony on the heavenly mountaintop into practice at Bethlehem today.