Last week Dave introduced our current four week series leading up to Easter we’re calling ‘At Last,’ a series focusing on 4 of the amazing, revolutionary changes that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought to the world. And can I say right up front that this is really heady stuff? The subjects that we will be talking about over these four weeks are important, powerful and I would also say, essential for fully understanding why Easter is the most important day of the year! Dave talked to us last week about the first great change that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought about: Jesus’ death and resurrection ransomed all of humanity; all of mankind was rescued from the power of sin and death and now everyone has been given the freedom and the power to live as God intended us to live. If you missed Dave’s sermon last week I highly recommend that you go on line and listen to his message. Our hope is that the four messages in this series will make it clear that when Jesus died and rose again tremendous power was released into the world; and it is a power that did far more than simply save us from our sins so that we could be with God after we die. As important and wonderful as an eternity with God is, we want you to know that it wasn’t the whole of what happened that first Easter. No, so much power was released that day that everything about life has changed. I know that can sound hyperbolic, but it’s true: literally everything in my life and your life, everything has been… or rather, everything can be changed by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. What we will be talking about today fits into this category of everything changing. Besides ransoming humanity when Jesus died and rose again, he also unleashed into the world the Kingdom of God and that too, as we’ll see, has the power to change everything.
To see the truth of this we are going to be doing something I can’t remember ever doing here at Grace. We are going to look at the exact same passage we looked at last week: Revelation 5:1-10. I know this seems odd, but there is a reason behind this so let’s all turn to this passage together. (Page ???) As you are turning I want to give you some added background. The Revelation is an interesting book. I suppose that is an understatement. Most of the time it is read either for its wild imagery or as a means for trying to tell the future. I know that there are multiple ideas about what this book means BUT when it was originally written in the middle of the 1st Century the first people to receive this book and read it wouldn’t have thought about almost any of the things we hear people saying about The Revelation these days. First off, they would have already been familiar with other books that are almost exactly like this book and they would have known that the purpose of a book like this was to encourage them in the midst of difficult times. As odd as that might seem to us, this book was originally written to tell a very specific group of 1st Century Christians that even though they were going through some really tough times, they were going to eventually see victory. And we even know from history what these tough times were. You see, the Christians living in the seven cities that this letter was originally sent to were being treated terribly by their local Roman officials. These local officials thought that the Christians were traitors to the Roman Empire. First, the Christians wouldn’t call Caesar by the title ‘Lord and Savior,’ a title that was reserved for Caesar alone. But the Christians openly called Jesus their Lord and Savior and this sounded like treason to the Romans. Along with this, the Christians were unwilling to worship Caesar as a god… or even a demi-god. Plus, Christians wouldn’t participate in local festivals that celebrated and honored Caesar as being the source of their community’s good fortune. These refusals by Christians got them into all kinds of trouble… trouble like not being able to buy goods in the market, not being able to be a part of the trade guilds that controlled all commerce and being shunned by their neighbors for being bad citizens. And so, when John, the man who wrote this book, set out to encourage his fellow suffering Christian brothers and sisters, encouraging them to hold on to their faith in the face of this kind of oppression, he had to be really careful that he didn’t write anything that would make things worse if Roman officials happened to read it. He had to carefully say things in a way that the Christians would understand what he was saying without offending Rome. And boy, did John go to great lengths to pull this off! First off, and this may sound weird, but it’s true, he wrote the whole book using terrible Greek. So bad, that any literate, first century person that just happened to pick up this book would most likely have quit reading after a few lines simply because the writing and the grammar seemed so sub-standard. I know that sounds whacky, but it’s true. Secondly, John never once directly quotes the Old Testament, anywhere. He was trying to keep the Romans from making a connection between the Old Testament, which was the Bible of the early church, and his letter because he didn’t want the Romans thinking the Old Testament was a treasonous book. But, at the same time, John very skillfully made certain that almost every sentence in his letter has some hidden reference to an Old Testament scripture. And finally, John was really vigilant not to use any language that would in any way offend Roman sensibilities. And today’s important passage is loaded with this sort of ‘carefully-worded’ stuff. And when I say ‘today’s important passage’ I actually believe that this passage is one of the most important passages in the whole of the book of the Revelation. Let’s read it and I’ll show you why I feel this way. Oh, and one more thing, and I know that Dave mentioned some of this last week, we are going to be looking at the first 10 verses of chapter 5 today, but all of what we are going to look at is set up in chapter 4. It’s in Chapter 4 where we are first introduced to the throne room of heaven. And boy, does chapter 4 give us an amazing picture of what that place is like! It’s a description that immediately dwarfs all other throne rooms… including Caesar’s throne room! I can sense John winking as he describes this amazing scene and saying, ‘Try and top this, Mr. Caesar.’ And then in the midst of this overwhelming scene in the throne room of heaven we read this: (I’m going to comment as we read this) Then I saw a scroll in the right hand of the one who was sitting on the throne. By the way, John never once says who is sitting on this throne. He always says ‘the one’ or ‘someone.’ If he’d have said directly that it was the Christian’s God who was sitting on this amazing throne, rather than Caesar, it could have caused trouble. There was writing on the inside and the outside of the scroll, and it was sealed with seven seals. Interestingly, any great document in the Roman world, documents like a treaty between two great powers or Caesar’s will, had to be sealed with 7 seals to be official. And each one of these 7 seals would have been stamped by a different, very important dignitary. So, this is a really important scroll. Also, the fact that someone had worked at getting a lot of writing on both sides of the scroll also screams out, ‘Important!’ And I saw a strong angel, who shouted with a loud voice: “Who is worthy to break the seals on this scroll and open it?”The assumption in the ancient world was that the only person who could open a seal had to be someone of equal status to the person who had put the seal on the document in the first place. But John tells us, But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll and read it.Then I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll and read it. But one of the twenty-four elders said to me, “Stop weeping! Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David’s throne has won the victory. He is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Now, the Christians would have known who this Lion of Judah is and they would have been thinking, ‘It only makes sense that Jesus would be the only one worthy enough to open a scroll that came from the throne of God.’ But all of this ‘Lion of Judah’ and ‘David’s throne’ business would have been completely lost on most Romans. But then something changes. Then I saw a Lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered.’ The word translated slaughtered here is actually the word for ‘butchered.’ As Dave said last week, this image sends us right back to the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament where Isaiah described the Messiah as being like a lamb led to the slaughter… I am confident that John says ‘a lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered’ because if he’d said, a lamb that looked like it had been crucified it would have caught the Roman’s attention. You see, Crucifixion was the Roman way of getting rid of criminals. If John had said that a criminal that the Romans assumed they’d killed, was worthy enough to open up a scroll with 7 seals that would have made John’s whole book look suspicious to the Romans. But it (the lamb) was now standing between the throne and the four living beings and among the twenty-four elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which represent the sevenfold Spirit of God that is sent out into every part of the earth. (Seven is the number of God, by the way. Any time you run into 7 of anything in the Bible you need to stop and think about it) He stepped forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one sitting on the throne. And when he took the scroll, the four living beings and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp, and they held gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song with these words: You are worthy to take the scroll and break its seals and open it. For you were slaughtered, and your blood has ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. And you have caused them to become a Kingdom of priests for our God. And they will reign on the earth.” Did you notice that the scroll hasn’t even been opened yet and the whole of heaven bursts out singing praises to the Lamb? And did you notice that they are praising the Lamb, someone that we all know is Jesus, for two reasons? First, that his blood ransomed people for God from every tribe, language, people and nation. This is exactly what Dave talked about last week. And secondly, they were singing Jesus’ praises because Jesus, by being slaughtered… in other words, crucified, and now being alive… rising from the dead… had made it possible for all of these ransomed people to become a Kingdom of Priests for God! Heaven was alive with praise because the death and resurrection of Jesus had unleashed the power and presence of the Kingdom of God into the world and everything had changed!
We talk a lot about the Kingdom of God here at Grace. We believe with all of our hearts that it is present today and that it is infinitely more powerful than any earthly Kingdom… political, spiritual, or social... you name it, the Kingdom of God is more powerful than anything. This is exactly what John was saying to the oppressed Christians who were first reading his Revelation; He was hoping to encourage them by reminding them that God’s Kingdom is greater than the oppressive kingdom of Caesar… John was telling them to hold on and that someday they would see God’s kingdom win a total and final victory… be it over Caesar’s Kingdom or any other kingdom. And we believe that John’s message is absolutely still true today. God’s Kingdom has already won a total and final victory over everything!
Did you notice the odd way that John described the Kingdom of God here: ‘a Kingdom of Priests?’ Now, this phrase comes straight out of the book of Exodus in the Old Testament. It was the way God himself had described what he originally wanted the Jewish people to become: a kingdom that served him and brought others to Him. God had said that if the Jewish people obeyed his commandments, they would become a kingdom of priests. Sadly though, they didn’t obey. But the good news that set heaven alive with praise is that now, following Jesus’ death and resurrection, what God longed for has finally happened. Again, this is why heaven broke out in song of praise to Jesus: his death and resurrection had made it possible for God’s Kingdom to break into the world in the exact way God had always longed to see it happen: as a Kingdom made up of people that served him and brought others to him: a Kingdom of Priests!
We have a notion of what a priest is… usually we think of a priest as someone who has set his life aside to serve the church and it is a title that involves special ordination and often a special kind of clothing. But our modern notions about priests isn’t at all what John was talking about here. John was referring to Jewish priests and being a priests in the Jewish world was very different from what we think of when we hear the word priest today. First off, being a priest was not a calling; you didn’t have to be ordained. You became a priest, a ‘kohen’ by the way, simply by being born into a specific family. If you were born into the family of Levi you were a priest. And there wasn’t any special process that you had to go through to start doing the work of a priest, either. You simply started doing the work of a priest and that made you holy, sacred, and set apart for God’s service. In fact, once you’d started doing the work of a priest, it was said that ‘Your hands had been filled’ with the things of God. And the work that priests did then was pretty specific: They oversaw sacred services that brought people into the presence of God… they would speak to the people about God and they then they would speak to God for the people… in other words, they prayed for people. Priests taught people the difference between right and wrong. They comforted people when they were sick and helped them find healing. They spoke words of encouragement and helped people make decisions. Essentially, priests represented God’s heart and mind to people and at the same time they also represented the people to God. Priests were simply people who led other people to God. This is the kind of ‘work’ that ancient people expected of priests. But these verses are telling us that the world has a new group of priests now. And who are these new priests in God’s kingdom? Well, if you are a follower of Jesus; if you have placed your faith in Jesus as the one who has ransomed your soul through his death and resurrection, then you have been, as is often said, ‘born again’ or more specifically ‘reborn into the family of God.’ And just like ancient Jewish priests, simply by virtue of being born into the family of God, you are a priest. And when you are doing the work of God, praying for others, comforting others, advising and teaching and healing and encouraging others, God sees you as set aside, as holy and sacred; you too ‘have your hands full,’ of the things of God. You can, simply, by being in the family of God, lead others to God. Those are the facts! WE are God’s kingdom of priests!
Now, here at Grace we do not shy away from talking more specifically about what we believe the work of God’s kingdom of priests should look like in our context: it is leading lost people who, because of sin are separated from God, back into a relationship with him. It is bringing lonely people into meaningful community; it is working to bring an end to all of the terrible consequences of hatred and injustice; it is bringing healing to people’s bodies, minds and spirits. It is finding ways to heal our broken planet. These are the priestly duties that God has unleashed into his world through the presence and power of his Kingdom. And you, if you have surrendered your life to Jesus, are a priest in this Kingdom… a priest who is free to fulfill the destiny God has always intended for you… a destiny that we are certain was purposed to change the world!
The world is full of kingdoms: political kingdoms… social kingdoms… all sorts of kingdoms… and just as Caesar’s kingdom eventually ended, every other kind of kingdom will also someday end: and they will all end in brokenness and futility. But, at last, we can be certain that there is one everlasting kingdom with an eternal king who is unmatched in power and majesty and wisdom and strength and honor… a king who is truly worthy of being worshiped. We can also be certain that at last there is a kingdom with one primary purpose: repairing all that has been broken by sin and death. At last, there is a Kingdom filled with priests, priests who can lead others directly to the one that offers the reconciliation and healing this broken world so desperately needs. At last, we can know that our lives can be filled with meaning, purpose, destiny and the power of the Kingdom of God… At last. At last. At last.