‘The future in my lifetime has never been less certain.’ That’s what one commentator wrote recently. But even before COVID-19, the future was still uncertain, wasn’t it? There were loads of questions about our health, work, hopes for a relationship, school or uni results and a hundred and one other things that we didn’t know the answer to. But this virus has made the future more uncertain – and threatening. Because even if we’re in the age or health category where average outcomes are good if we get it, seemingly unlikely people are still dying. And there are lesser things to lose as well – like jobs and money and education. And that’s why, these Sunday evenings, we’re looking at the vision of the future that God has given us in the book of Revelation. It was first given to Christians facing an uncertain and threatening future under persecution. But it speaks to us in any time when the future is uncertain and threatening.
So let’s pray that God speaks to us through it now:
Father, thank you for the vision of the future, and your control of it, that you’ve given us in this part of your word. Please speak through it now into the situations of each one of us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
So last week, in Revelation 4, we saw a vision of God on the throne of the universe, in control of everything. And this week, in Revelation 5, the risen Jesus is painted in to the picture. So in verse 1 the apostle John, who was given this vision, says:
"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 that scroll is…
1. The Script of the Future (verses 1 to 4)
It’s everything God plans to happen throughout history, and up to Jesus’ second coming and beyond.
But you might be thinking, ‘How do you know that? How do we make sense of the details of Revelation?’ Well, one answer is: context. So in chapter 6, we’ll see the risen Jesus opening the scroll and putting it into action in history.
But the other answer is: the Old Testament helps us to ‘de-code’ the details in Revelation. Because when God gave John this vision, he used symbols he’d already used – in the Old Testament. For example, he’d already used a scroll as a picture of his plan for the future.
So imagine an alien arriving from outer space. And he lands on a road near you and sees a red circle with a white bar across it. There’s no way he’ll work out that it means ‘No entry’. You need the Highway Code to ‘de-code’ it. And the Old Testament is the Code for ‘de-coding’ the details of Revelation. So the scroll is the script of God’s plan for the future.
And one lesson straight away is that we need to make our specific plans in the light of his general plan, revealed to us in the Bible. And even then we need to sit loose to our specific plans – because events often show that they weren’t in his script. Like Proverbs says:
"In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps." (Proverbs 16.19, NIV)
And many of us have experienced that in the last few weeks. And it’s reminded us that God is control of the future, and we’re not.
So back to Revelation 5.2:
"And I saw a strong 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."
So the question is: ‘Who has the right to open the script and make it happen?’ If history and beyond is a movie who has the right to be Director? So next we see…
2. The Director of the Future (verses 5 to 6)
"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.'"
So ‘de-coding’ Revelation is a bit like understanding political cartoons. For example, a brown bear with a Putin face stands for Russia. And a bald eagle with a Trump head stands for America. And back in our Old Testament reading, Genesis 49, God pictured his Son as a lion. Because, as Disney has taught us, the lion is King. And in Isaiah 11, the Old Testament also pictured God’s Son as the Root of David because after David’s royal line looked finished – cut down like a tree – the promise was that from the root would spring a greater king than any who had come before – Jesus.
So verse 5 again:
"… 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."
So that’s saying: Jesus has the right to open the script and direct the future because he has conquered. Because, that first Easter, he won the decisive spiritual battle which the rest of history is just the outworking of. So Jesus’ death for our forgiveness was like D-day. It was the decisive win that meant we could be liberated from siding with Satan and evil, and be on the right side of God – both now and when Jesus’ victory becomes complete at the end.
And although his victory isn’t yet complete – Satan and evil are still here – it is guaranteed, because that victory is the unstoppable outworking of that decisive Easter win, just like VE-day was the unstoppable outworking of D-day.
So John was told, verse 5, ‘Look…
"… the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals."
So he looked, verse 6,
"And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain"
And you can imagine his double-take. ‘Hold on, you said to look for a lion but there’s only a lamb. I was expecting something powerful but there’s only something weak – so weak, it could be slain. In fact it has been slain.’
And the point is that the most powerful thing that’s ever happened, that’s forgiven and changed the lives and eternal futures of countless people was something as seemingly weak as Jesus dying on the cross.
But now he’s risen and back in heaven, he has the right to direct the rest of history.
And John’s persecuted first readers would certainly have taken comfort from knowing that Jesus is the Lion – who controls everything from persecutors to coronaviruses, and will get rid of them completely one day.
But they'd have taken equal comfort from knowing that Jesus is the Lamb – who understands our weakness and suffering from the inside, because he’s been here all the way from crib to cross.
And that’s what comforted Edward Shilitto in World War One. He wrote a poem called Jesus of the scars. It’s a prayer to Jesus and goes like this:
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.
If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
So if we pray to the Lord Jesus in fear, in physical pain, in mental turmoil, in loneliness, in rejection, in loss, in having everything seemingly taken away from us, even in having life taken away from us we’re speaking to someone who understands it all from the inside. Because he didn’t just stay on the Director’s chair in heaven. He stepped into the movie himself, and played the hardest part of all.
So we’ve seen the script and Director of the future. Finally we see…
3. The Shape of the Future (verses 7 to 14)
Onto verse 7:
"And he [the risen Jesus] 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.'"
Which says that one side of the future is that Jesus will be working to save those he died for. Because verse 9 says that on Good Friday, Jesus ransomed people from every tribe and language and nation (most of whom were yet to be born), to bring them back into relationship with God as King.
And there’s no way Jesus would have done that, only to fail in the outworking of it – namely getting the gospel to those he died for, bringing them to trust in him, and keeping them through thick and thin. So one side of the future is that Jesus will be working to save those he died for.
So, as I’ve said, we do need to sit loose to our specific plans – because they may turn out not to be God’s. But this is saying we can know that any plan we have to share the gospel, or help fellow-Christians grow, or make our church more what the Bible says it should be are definitely in line with God’s plan.
Whether the person we share the gospel with does come to faith, or the Christians we try to help do grow, or the church we try to make better does change is another matter and out of our control. But this is saying: those are things we should be doing – because they’re definitely in line with God’s plan. And that’s true right now, in the middle of this crisis. So let’s not be saying to ourselves, ‘Well, we can’t really share the gospel right now, or help fellow-Christians right now, or make our church better right now.’ Because right now is a new and unique opportunity to do those things. And we each need to be asking, ‘How do I play my part in that?’
So one side of the future is that Jesus will be working to save those he died for. But the other side, which is harder to hear, is that Jesus will bring judgement.
Onto verse 11:
"Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, 'Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!' And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, 'To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!' And the four living creatures said, 'Amen!' and the elders fell down and worshipped."
So that’s a picture of the risen Jesus being recognised as God and King, as the one we should all honour by saying, ‘Your will be done.’
But what if we won’t? Or if others won’t?
Well, in his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes this about the final separation of people:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Your will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Your will be done." Because all that are in Hell choose it, and without that self-choice there could be no Hell. Whereas no soul that seriously and constantly desires the joy of God will ever miss it.
In other words if, for the rest of my life, I were to say, ‘My will be done,’ then Jesus would bring the judgement at the end of giving me what I wanted –
life without him, and therefore without any of the good things which depend on him.
But next week we’ll see that Jesus also brings judgement within time. Because he allows humanity now to suffer some consequences of trying to live without him as a warning, to those who can see it, of greater judgement to come.
But the message this week is that when the future is uncertain and even threatening there is a plan being worked out; there is a Director who rules over what we’re going through and understands it from the inside; and the greatest thing we can do is to work with him as he works to save and keep the people he died for.
Lord Jesus, we bring to you our uncertainties and anxieties and fears.
Thank you for the comfort of knowing that you, the Lion, are in control of it all, even if we don’t have the comfort of understanding all you’re doing. And thank you for the comfort of knowing that you, the Lamb, understand us because you have been here as one of us. Strengthen us, keep us and use us to work for you. In your name we pray. Amen.