So far, what John has seen and heard has prepared him to expect great things. He has seen the throne room of God. He has heard that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (Rev. 5:5) He therefore expects to see the procession of a king, filled with pomp and circumstance.
What he sees instead is a sheep with its throat cut.
In his own words: “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” (Rev. 5:6).
We fail to understand both John and the entire New Testament if we fail to understand the interplay between John’s images. John does not say that he saw a sacrificial lamb instead of a regal lion. Instead, both animals represent one person, Jesus, who died for us and therefore reigns over us. Christ wears the crown because he bore the cross, not in spite of it.
This is a revolutionary understanding of kingship. Usually, given the calculus of power that prevails among those who rule, the king sends his enemies to their crosses. Christ is the one and only king who went to the cross for his enemies.
No doubt Christ’s revolutionary kingship accounts for both his popularity and his abandonment by the masses. His proclamation of the kingdom of God, accompanied by the performance of miracles, marked him out as great man, perhaps the Messiah. So the crowds flocked to him.
But he resisted their demands for a typical kingship. At one point in his ministry, the crowd rushed forward to “take him by force to make him king” (John 6.15), but he eluded them. Instead, he called them to follow his example: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 8.34). Why was this so hard? Because the cross was deeply shameful; “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3.13, citing Deut. 21.23). The crowds did not like Jesus’ command. They wanted a regal lion only, not a sacrificial lamb; they could not find a place for crucifixion in their religion.
But God finds a place for the Crucified One in his throne room. Notice how John lays out the floor plan of heaven. In the center is the throne. Around the throne are the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders (Rev. 4.4, 6). Between God’s throne and the elders’ thrones is where the Lamb stands (5.6), as if to mediate the grace of the former to the needs of the latter, which he in fact does: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim. 2.5, 6).
Christ’s death is thus central to God’s plan. It should be to our lives as well. Jesus Christ is Lion and Lamb, victor and sacrifice. So, if we want his crown, we must bear his cross.