In a vision in Revelation 5 John of Patmos finds himself weeping before the throne of God because nobody can be found who is worthy to break the seals of a scroll. This scroll contains the key to the fulfillment of the age and the establishment of God’s kingdom over all the earth. One of the elders who worship before God’s throne comforts John, saying, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah . . . has conquered, so that he can open the scroll” (v. 5).
The lion is a symbol of strength, of rule, of savagery. A lion-like ruler dominates his enemies, conquers and slaughters them without mercy. John must have rejoiced when he heard this description: of course the Lion of Judah, the king like David, the Anointed One with the ruler’s staff between his feet, has been found worthy to open the scroll and look inside! John turns in anticipation and sees…
…a lamb. A lamb? Yes, but no ordinary lamb; this lamb is “standing as if it had been slaughtered” (v. 6). Instead of the slaughtering predator John had expected, he sees a meek animal that appears to have already fallen prey to someone or something. And yet it is standing. This is none other than Christ the Lamb who has been killed but whom God has raised to new and imperishable life. Resurrection has brought about triumph for the Lamb, but it has not erased the evidence of the suffering he went through. The implication is that Jesus bears the scars as eternal reminders of his passion—reminders of the true cost of our redemption. It was, after all, the sinful nature of the Domination System that brought about his death, and we are all implicated in that evil order. Resurrection transfigures the wounds, but the wounds are real and consequential.
That’s why this lion-lamb switcheroo is so important. The Lion of Judah symbolizes an image of the Messiah as conquering king, as victorious warrior. This is a Messiah perfectly suited for the Domination System and its might-makes-right ethos. This is the Messiah who destroys his enemies, not one who is destroyed by them. This Messiah does not dismantle the devil’s stronghold but shores it up. This Messiah would find favor with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and dictators and revolutionaries everywhere. This is the John Wayne version of the Messiah. A Messiah we can rally around with our flags waving and bloodlust burning in our eyes.
We need to turn from our expectation of the Lion and encounter the Lamb. We need to be reminded, especially when we think about our personal, political, or international enemies, that our salvation comes not from one who wounds but from one who is wounded. Power understood as a zero-sum game of domination will lead only to a cycle of continuing violence and death. We need the paradoxical power of the Lamb—power found in sharing, in cooperation, in what appears for all the world like weakness and defeat—if we are ever going to see the fulfillment of the commonwealth of God, where justice and peace cover the world like the waters of the sea.
Seeing that victorious, slaughtered Lamb and letting him transform us into lambs like him is the key to life and redemption. We may want the Lion, but we need the Lamb, so bring on the switcheroo!
Grace and peace,