The Wrath of the Lamb—Part One

I had a bit of trouble deciding on a title for this particular post, the first in what I envision being a three-part series.  In addition to the title above on which I finally settled, others that I considered included the following

“Why Jesus Came to Die: Reason Number 51”

“The Cross and the Wrath of God”

“The Violent Christ”

“Redemptive Violence: It Is Not a Myth”

In Revelation 4:1—8:1, John narrates a scene which takes place in heaven.  Chapter 4 basically sets the context for the scene, with angels, living creatures, and the twenty-four elders gathered around the throne of God.  There are flashes of lightning and loud, rumbling peals of thunder.  In 5:1, John reports that in the right hand of the one sitting on the throne, that is, God, he saw “a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals.”  He hears an angel call out, asking who might be worthy to open the seven-sealed scroll.  No one could be found, and this causes John to weep and weep.  But then one of the elders assures John that the Lion of the Tribe of Judah will be able to open the seals and unroll the scroll.  This Lion of the Tribe of Judah, who turns out to be a “Lamb, looking as if it had been slain,” comes and takes the scroll from the hand of the one sitting on the throne.  As soon as he does, “all heaven breaks loose”!  The Lamb receives tremendous amounts of praise from the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, angels numbering 10,000 times 10,000, and then, finally, every creature in heaven, earth, and on the sea.  Then, in chapters 6-7 and into the first verse of chapter 8, the Lamb opens the seals one by one, unrolling the scroll, and, in the process, unleashing all kinds of horrible things on the earth:

removal of peace
vengeance on behalf of the martyrs
wild beasts

At one point we are told:

15 Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.  16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!  17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev 6:15-17)

In 8:1, when the Lamb opens the seventh seal, this starts a new group of seven, the trumpets, the blowing of which will continue the wrath of God being poured out on the earth.

What I want to call your attention to is one particular verse in the fifth chapter, verse 9, where the living creatures and elders sing a new song which starts off with these words:

You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.

As many times as I have read this account and read that verse over the years, for the first time just a couple of days ago, I saw something I had not seen before. To be more precise, I realized an implication of this verse I had not seen before.  But that is not correct either.  Because it is not an implication, but rather something explicitly stated in the verse.  It is stated explicitly in Rev 5:9 that the reason the Lamb is able to take the scroll and open the seals is that he was slain and purchased men for God from every tribe, language, people, and nation.  Christ is qualified to take the scroll, open the seals, and pour out its wrathful contents on the earth, precisely because of his great sacrifice on the cross and the redemption he procured by that sacrifice.  The Lamb is qualified to be a wrathful Lamb, precisely because he was a sacrificed, slain Lamb.

As soon as the weightiness of this explicit statement in the verse sunk in, I immediately turned to an excellent little book written by John Piper a few years ago, entitled, Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die (you can download a PDF of this book for free here).  Now Piper does indeed mention this passage, and it provides him with reason number 45: “To ransom people from every tribe and language and people and nation.”  And though he doesn’t actually mention the verse, he does quote it briefly when he lists reason number 49: “So that he would be crowned with glory and honor.”  But Piper does not specifically list the reason explicitly given by Rev 5:9.  So, humbly (I hope), I would like to add one more reason to Piper’s list.

Why Jesus Came to Die: Reason Number 51

So That He Might Be Found Worthy to Pour Out His Wrath on the Earth

Now, this is really quite an important concept. Over the past several decades, there has been a growing chorus of voices warning of the evils of what they refer to as the “myth of redemptive violence.”  The people behind these voices want us to know that because of his death on the cross, Christ has forever put an end to the idea that anything can ever be accomplished by violence.  Christ came to save us from those portrayals of a violent God painted by the Old Testament.  Christ came to disabuse us from the illusion that we should ever conceive of God as a violent deity.  Indeed, Christ’s death on the cross provides the model for us, as he himself refused to counter violence with violence.  Redemption can never be accomplished by acts of violence.

Now, I am a Christian pacifist.  That is, I believe that Christ has called both individual Christians, as well as the church which bears his name, the pilgrim people of God, to live non-violently, to refuse to return evil for evil, to refuse to participate in acts of vengeance and revenge.  This is what Christ has commanded as his will for the people of God who live between the two comings, who live in this time of the already-but-not-yet.

But I also believe that, for Christ himself, his refusal to return evil for evil, to counter violence with violence, is, nevertheless, a refusal that has a termination point. The age in which we live is a special age, the age of the offer of God’s grace and salvation, an offer made possible by Christ’s sacrifice of himself on the cross.  But it is also the age in which those who refuse to heed this offer and who continue to rebel against God, are, in fact, “storing up wrath” for themselves against the “day of wrath” (Rom 2:5).

This age will come to an end.  The Lamb of God himself will take the scroll, open  the seals, unroll the scroll, and pour out his wrath on all that is evil, and wicked, and ungodly.  The Lamb of God who will execute this wrath is the very same Lamb of God who was slain to procure redemption for people from every tribe, language, people, and nation.  But that redemption is not yet actually complete.  This is the reason why Paul can say that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Rom 13:11).  The completion of our salvation will take place on that day when our “redemption draws near,” when Christ unrolls the scroll, when he comes again to redeem his own to himself, when he avenges the blood of his martyred servants, and when he executes the righteous judgments of God.

And, as paradoxical as it might sound, it is precisely Christ’s sacrificial offer of himself on the cross, his refusal to counter violence with violence, which, far from precluding him from ever engaging in “redemptive violence,” actually qualifies him to be the one who pours out the wrath of God at the end of the age.

7 He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.  8 And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb.  Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

9 And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.  10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” 

11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand.  They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders.  12 In a loud voice they sang: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Rev 5:7-13)

Jerry Shepherd
September 13, 2014