In order to bring justice and righteousness to the earth, someone must be found worthy to execute God’s plan for final judgment. Only Jesus Christ, because of his self-sacrifice, is worthy of such a task. Join the heavenly and earthly chorus of praise to the one whose sacrifice establishes God’s priestly kingdom.
Introduction – In the King Arthur legend there is a story of the magical Sword in the Stone. Medieval England is without a king because no one yet has been found worthy of the crown. The test of worthiness is engraved on a large stone in a churchyard with a sword stuck in it. It reads, “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England.” It turned out that, although many had tried their hand, no one proved worthy to pull the sword from the stone except Arthur. As the legend goes, Arthur was worthy because he was more noble, true, and pure than other men.
There are many things that make us unworthy. Our weaknesses, our limitations, our mistakes, our character flaws, how we measure up compared to others. According to the Bible, there is one thing that, first and foremost, makes us unworthy: our guilt. The Bible teaches the only way to properly deal with guilt is through sacrifice.
That’s a pretty bold assertion. Let me try to show you how this is true in life. Take for example the recent case of Josh Duggar, the eldest son of the famous family chronicled on the TV show “19 Kids and Counting.” Last week the world learned that 12 years ago when Josh was 15 he committed some pretty awful sins against five girls, some of whom are his sisters. Josh admitted it then and now—“Guilty as charged”—and the family explained how they dealt with this guilt. How Josh sought forgiveness and help to repent and change. The world responded in typical fashion. They want him to sacrifice himself for the victims and to meet some cultural sense of merciless justice. The Christian community is divided in its response. Like the world, some lean toward justice. Others lean toward mercy, believing that Josh is forgiven by his female victims who sacrificed their right to press charges and instead paid the painful price of forgiveness. But no one is arguing it doesn’t matter, that everyone should just forget about it. You see, everyone recognizes a sacrifice must be made—either by the guilty or the victim. When any kind of guilt is accrued by you or against you, there is no way to get rid of it without a sacrifice. Someone must bear the cost of the sin to eradicate guilt. That is why the Bible’s Story of Sacrifice is so important, because we all have guilt that must be faced with a satisfactory sacrifice.
I. Starting at the End of Sacrifice
This is a strange scene for us. But the original audience would probably have identified its significance immediately. John’s vision is of a heavenly coronation according to the ancient Near East pattern: Jesus being crowned king. Exaltation (v. 5), presentation (v. 6), enthronement as bestowal of authority (v. 7), and acclamation of praise (vv. 8-14). With this insight the meaning of some details begins to emerge.
A. The Lion-Lamb alone is worthy to open God’s seven-sealed scroll (vv. 1-5)
God is on his heavenly throne holding a scroll in his right hand. It is written on front and back, sealed seven times, and contains God’s plan for the world and its destiny (Rev 6; cf. Ezek 2:9-3:3; Dan 12:1-13; Isa 29:11). At first is appears no one anywhere is worthy of the angel’s challenge to open it. John the seer understands that if the scroll cannot be opened, then final justice will never come to earth. And so he weeps loudly, since he longs for the day when God will execute his righteous judgment. But then he stops weeping because he learns the exalted Lion of Judah and Root of David is worthy to open the scroll because he has conquered.
B. The Lion-Lamb is worthy because he alone was sacrificed (vv. 6-10)
Then John sees a formerly slaughtered Lamb, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present, approach the throne and take the scroll. Music, prayer, and praise arise in heaven, declaring the Lamb worthy to open the scroll and execute God’s plan to bring justice and righteousness to earth. The Lamb is declared worthy because he was sacrificed, and by his blood he accomplished God’s plan to redeem a great people to rule the world as kings and priests. The sacrifice of the Lamb is the center and foundation of the vision. Sacrifice is the reason the Lamb is worthy to be crowned king (v. 9).
C. The Lion-Lamb is worthy to receive all praise and worship (vv. 11-14)
Once the Lamb takes the scroll from the Enthroned One, the innumerable angels erupt in a heaven-shaking chorus of song to the Lamb. Then the rest of creation joins the heavenly chorus. Disaster averted. The Lion-Lamb is worthy to execute God’s plan for justice and righteousness, and he has the scroll in his hand! Why is sacrifice in particular presented as the reason the Lion-Lamb is so praiseworthy? The answer is found in the Bible’s Story of Sacrifice.
II. What is the Story of Sacrifice?
A. Act One: Creation
In the beginning when God made the heavens and the earth, every creature was worthy to approach their Creator in worship and praise. The seas roared. The rivers clapped their hands. The hills sang for joy. The sun, moon, and stars shone with the uncorrupted glory of God. And God’s people, Adam and Eve praised him too. They walked with God in the Garden of Eden, living at one with their Creator, enjoying his presence, offering him their sacrifice of praise. God tested the worthiness of their praise by commanding them not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. For as long as people were at one with their Creator, their sacrifice of praise would be counted worthy.
B. Act Two: Fall
But Adam and Eve did not remain at one with God. They became unworthy of God’s blessing and incurred cosmic guilt for the human race (original sin) when they counted the Serpent more worthy of praise than their Creator. Discovering themselves naked, in their guilt and shame they covered themselves with fig leaves. But now that sin had entered the world, only a bloody sacrifice could adequately cover the guilty and purify sinners. Before God sent them away, he mercifully provided Adam and Eve animal skins as covering (Gen 3:21; the first sacrifice?). From then on all praise and worship had to be purified through a blood sacrifice to please God. This is one reason why God rejected Cain’s vegetable offering but was pleased with Abel’s animal offering (Gen 4:3-7; cf. Heb 11:4). After the flood judgment for the world’s guilt, Noah’s animal sacrifice was still a pleasing aroma to God (Gen 8:20-22).
C. Act Three: Israel
1. Substitution. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac his only son. But just in time God provided a lamb as a substitute for Isaac. The patriarchs built altars in the land of promise and sacrificed animals to God, honoring the principle of substitution—shedding blood to pay for guilt.
2. Protection. When the Lord rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, he commanded the Passover lamb be a substitute sacrifice for the firstborn of Israel. When God’s Destroyer brought the plague of firstborn death to Egypt, the Lord, when he saw the sign of the lamb’s blood around a door, protected and delivered that household. He covered and shielded (Hebrew: pasach) his people like a bird hovers over her nest protecting her young (cf. Isa 31:5). But God still requires death of the guilty. So the Passover lamb died instead of God’s people.
3. Satisfaction. All Israel was set apart from the rest of the world as a priestly kingdom. But as a sinful and guilty kingdom, Israel also needed priests to sacrifice for the people. So God gave detailed instructions to the priests for offering sin, guilt, peace, and burnt offerings on behalf of the people they represented (Lev 1-7). But there was a problem. Sacrifices must be continually offered because they did not satisfactorily provide atonement, purification, or sanctification (Heb 10:1-4). As a whole, Israel did not understand that the priestly sacrificial system, as instituted by God through the Mosaic Law, was supposed to be a continual reminder that God desired repentance not ritual, faith not formalism. They missed the point that sacrifices were signs pointing to their need for a greater sacrifice that would actually ransom people once and for all from their slavery to sin and guilt. Every sacrifice was a shadow of the reality to come. When Israel failed to show faith in God to make an end to the continual need for sacrifice, God sent them, like Adam and Eve, away from his presence. Without blood atonement, they could not be “at one” with him. When Israel returned from exile to their homeland, the sacrifices resumed, but their major problem remained. They were still unworthy to come into the sovereign Lord’s presence. Even though they rebuilt the temple and started offering blood sacrifices again, no sacrifice perfectly atoned, purified, and sanctified.
4. Perfection. The prophets envisioned a final perfect sacrifice—the Lamb of God who would come to take away the sin of the world. He would be Israel’s Suffering Servant who would die as an effective substitute to punish sin, avert and satisfy God’s righteous wrath against sin, and make permanent atonement for his people (Isa 53). The OT ends with hope that someday God will visit his people again to provide the perfect sacrificial lamb for our guilt and unworthiness.
D. Act Four: Jesus & the Church
Centuries later, when Jesus stepped forward into public ministry, John the Baptist, the last “OT prophet,” cried out, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29)! For the first half of his ministry, Jesus’ followers had a difficult time figuring out his identity and mission. Jesus was obviously a great teacher, healer, and miracle worker. All these roles were vital aspects of his gospel mission. But his central work was dealing with sin and guilt—that which makes people unworthy of God’s blessing. Shortly before his death Jesus described his mission in terms of ransom and sacrifice (Mk 10:45). When he bled and died on the cross, something eternally important happened. God accepted his Son’s death as the perfect sacrifice, and then glorified his Son by raising him from death. Never again would God count his people unworthy, or count their sins against them (Col 1:20; 2:14). Now God’s people, his Church, are forever “at one” with him, considered worthy on account of Christ’s substitute sacrifice, with their guilt expunged and sin forgiven. The Church’s commission is to proclaim this gospel and live a sacrificial life of praise. Jesus didn’t promise our mission would be easy. He used the language of sacrifice and worth when he commanded every Christian to sacrifice himself by taking up his cross and following him (Mt 10:38).
E. Act Five: New Creation
When Jesus Christ returns to bring justice and righteousness to the earth, those whom he ransomed by his sacrifice will rule and reign with him forever. They will forever praise and worship Jesus the Lamb of God because he is worthy of all glory. God’s people, from every tribe, language, people, and nation, will then fully experience what it means to be a priestly kingdom that is accepted, pure, holy, and worthy. And together they will fall down and worship God and the Lamb forever.
III. Why the Story of Sacrifice?
A. To magnify our condition of unworthiness (vv. 1-4)
Everyone has to deal with their guilt. The question is, what do you do with it? Do you ignore it? This will only enslave you to various coping mechanisms designed to distract: sex, money, power, pleasure. Do you suppress it? This will create all sorts of problems, like anger, shame, and depression. Do you deny it? This will only make you a judgmental person, because you’ll see everyone’s guilt except your own. Do you wallow in it? This will only crush you, driving you to despair or trapping you in a victim mentality. Do you try to pay for it? This will only make you delusional in your self-assurance. No amount of love or apologies showered on God can cancel out your guilt. Or do you admit it and give it to Jesus? Only if you see yourself as unable to fix your guilt, and thus unworthy to stand before the righteous judge of all the earth, only then will you be in a position to give it to Jesus. Because he doesn’t want your excuses why your guilt shouldn’t make you unworthy. He wants you to acknowledge you can’t deal with it, and that only he can.
B. To glorify Jesus Christ, crucified and risen (vv. 5-10)
Jesus Christ is not primarily glorified because of his teaching, or his goodness, or his attractiveness. He is worthy to receive all worship because he was slaughtered for our sins, as a substitute sacrifice that bore the penalty for our guilt. On the cross Jesus exposed our guilt and unworthiness, but he died in our place to deal with it. The Lamb literally sacrificed himself for his people. He is our Passover (1 Cor 5:7b). Christ’s self-denying sacrifice was the highest price of forgiveness that ever was or ever will be paid, and for that inestimable expression of love God raised him back to life because he was worthy of such honor. His sacrifice was the perfect substitute, the perfect protection, and the perfect satisfaction. The cross perfectly deals with our guilt because Jesus is the perfect sacrifice. But Jesus is not just the crucified Lamb of God, he is also the conquering Lion of Judah. If he stayed dead only his memory could be glorified. But Jesus Christ is alive. He can actually receive all power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing. He is both the Lion and the Lamb, crucified once and risen forever!
C. To purify and sanctify our sacrifice of praise (vv. 11-14)
How do you know his sacrifice is for you? That you are numbered among his priestly kings who will reign forever with him? That his blood atoned for you, erasing your guilt, and making you “at one” in relationship with God? Just look at your response. Does your heart leap for joy when you meditate on the Lamb’s sacrifice? Does it recalibrate your desires so that you want to worship and serve the God who sacrificed himself for the unworthy? A Christian is a person who truly sees his own profound unworthiness, but is not crippled by his guilt. Why? Because a Christian looks by faith away from himself to the Lion-Lamb who is crucified and risen. And the beauty of that sacrifice changes his heart. It purifies his heart because now he want to be like him and please him. A Christian longs to live a life of sacrifice to God and neighbor (Rom 12:1-2). Do you want more than anything else to be considered worthy of bearing the name of Christ? Through Christ’s sacrifice a Christian is made “at one” with him, and his worship is transformed from unworthy to worthy. When you glorify Jesus Christ, God purifies and sanctifies your life by setting you apart from people who don’t worship Jesus. A Christian is a person who is more and more purified and sanctified by God, a person who desires to praise and worship the Holy One, the Worthy One, Jesus Christ, the Lion-Lamb of God.
Conclusion – Do you hear the gospel in the Story of Sacrifice? Tim Keller says it this way: “We are more sinful and flawed [and I might add unworthy and guilty] than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” How can this be true? Because of the bloody cross, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God where Jesus was slaughtered to ransom people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation to make them a kingdom of priests to God so they might reign forever on the earth. And the best part is this: the Story of Sacrifice is absolutely true! Do you dare believe it?
*Note: the idea and title for this sermon, and for the sermon series “God’s Stories,” came from Michael Lawrence’s excellent book Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church.