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 I saw a mighty 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. 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.”
The Apostle John was Jesus’ best earthly friend, and a member of His inner inner circle. In his old age, while imprisoned (marooned by the Roman government) on a little island, John was given a vision by God of heaven and the end of history. He was commanded to write that vision down, did so, and now we have it as the Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament.
Early on in the book, God shows John that He is going to judge the earth. Finally, all the wrongs of history will be set right by God’s white-hot righteous fury. A perfect God is about to make justice flow like a river (Amos 5:24). And to symbolize that such that John can understand it (and write it down), God shows John angels bringing out sealed scrolls which “contain” His judgment on the earth. But evidently, no one can open the scrolls.
When he sees that, John weeps. Why?
Because he desperately wants justice. He wants God to be glorified by his life and the lives of those around him (and by our lives as the church thousands of years later), but he knows that all of us are essentially one collective epic failure. NONE of us is worthy. None of us loves God the way He deserves. All have sinned and fall far short of God’s glory (Romans 3:10-12, 3:23). The world is in a sad state of affairs, and John knows that — in the moment depicted in Revelation 5 — as clearly than he’s ever known anything in his life. And as a result, he weeps … loudly! So should we.
And like John, we anticipate God’s judgment on this world, because we want all the horrible wrongs in it to be set right. But we have to be careful. We are not God. We do not have the wisdom or the authority to sit on His throne of judgment. It would be unwise to think that we know enough or are in any sense pure enough or powerful enough to reorder the universe. God is in control! The question is whether or not we’re demonstrating that we believe that God is in control. Do we act like it? Or, do we act like we need to take care of it or no one will? Do we imply in our attitudes and behavior that God had better get on my program quickly, ’cause we’re wasting valuable time not smiting people? Note that John doesn’t flip on Fox News or MSNBC, or have people who think just like him over to dinner, and then rant in anger. He weeps. And that’s an important difference.
God clearly commands us to forgive and love, and leave the repayment of wrongs to Him. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord,'” He says (Romans 12:19, quoting Deuteronomy 32:35). So, God can and will effectively repay wrongs! But we aren’t God, can’t do what He’s doing, and need to leave the things that are impossible for us and easy for Him in His capable hands.
A critical question I think we need to grapple with… What is my motive for getting all jazzed up about God’s judgment? Is it because I truly want justice, or because it’s a sanitized, spiritual form of elitism? Are we weeping before God before we rise to fight (and getting our battle strategy and marching orders from God Himself)? If we want to be like John or Jesus, then we should be!
But wait, you say, Jesus overturned the tables of the money lenders at the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). There was no weeping! Oh, but there was. When Jesus wept at Lazarus’ funeral, it wasn’t because Lazarus was dead (as if he regretted not having gotten there in time to save him), it was because of the hardened unbelief of the people who didn’t believe Jesus could do anything about it (John 11:1-44). At least that’s the way I read it (although admittedly, a little systematic interpretation beyond just reading this particular text is required). Ask yourself which interpretation makes the most sense, knowing Jesus from the rest of the gospels.
Plus, keep in mind that Jesus is the perfect and all-powerful God of the Universe, who has every right to stand in judgment over anything and anyone He chooses. You and I are not (God), and do not (have that right). I know for me, my judgmental attitude has at times been little more than a thin religious shroud of justification for allowing me to condemn others and feel generally superior to them while conveniently ignoring my own sin. Like the bully on the playground, it’s scary how easy it is to artificially feel better about myself because I’m calling some other littler kid names or taking his lunch (no matter how rotten a kid he is). Are we really sure that’s not what we’re doing as adults, while we call it “a heart for justice”?
John wept in this passage in Revelation, precisely because his initial thought was that no one was qualified to dispense judgment. He wanted the world to be set right, but he knew that he was unworthy to do so, and that he lived among a people who were unworthy to do so. Should sound familiar. Check out Isaiah 6. In fact, anyone who encounters God face-to-face generally gets that look of smug superiority wiped off their face pretty quickly on their way to being face-down in the dirt. “Unworthy!” is the cry of the one who truly sees God. It’s not at all wrong to cry “How long, O Lord?!” (Psalm 109), but that better happen after we cry, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13). Otherwise, whether we realize it or not, if we’re screaming “smite them God, cause they’re evil”, we may very well actually be saying “God, I thank you that I am not like other men” (zoom out from verse 13 to the whole story in Luke 18:9-14). And that doesn’t turn out well.
It’s not just okay, it’s a good thing, to cheer for Jesus when He runs the moneylenders out of the temple, to carefully research politicians and lobby them on important issues, to speak out against the atrocity of abortion — So, now we’re selling the body parts of babies we ripped apart, are we? Nice! I’m sure God will think that’s no big deal; just good medicine + good capitalism, right? — or to decry the 1,001 other horrors of our sick, self-soaked, sin-shattered world. BUT, if we don’t do it with a broken heart and a genuine love for people, then we’d be better off with our mouths shut and our heads bowed (Psalm 51:17). Before we write anything else on our protest signs, let’s make sure that the first thing we write (and really grapple with) is, “There, but for the grace of God, go all of us.” We are all the same. And I strongly suspect that if we connect with that appropriately — really believe it — then it would change the way we show our “outrage”. Maybe if we prayed more and screamed less… Maybe if we served more and condemned less… Maybe if we invited to dinner more and talked behind backs less… Maybe if we thought a little more about Jesus and a little less about ourselves… Maybe if we worshiped God more and we worshiped things like our “freedom” or our “rights” or our perceived infallible view of the world around us less… I wonder what would happen. I wonder how many miracles we will never see because we were too busy being hacked off and stomping our feet, instead of asking God for justice and leaving it in His hands. How do you think God wants Christians to be identified? By what character traits and behavioral qualities? That’s worth some Bible study and meditation, I think.
The Apostle John didn’t form an action committee to get the scrolls open. He recognized a God-sized problem when He saw it. And this is Jesus’ best friend … a man who spent His life, to the point of prison and death, for the gospel. He was no man of inaction. He was an Apostle and a martyr! But He was executing God’s orders, not powering up on his own sense of self-righteousness. And that’s my personal takeaway from this passage (and the emotional roller coaster it produces for me)… We are to act at the Lord’s direction. He will call some of us into politics, some into business, some into protests, some into crusades, some into forming NPO’s, some into just about anything you can name. But He calls all of us to love Him and love others FIRST. Most of us charge ahead into our daily lives doing what we want to do and what we think is right, barely even consulting God … let alone waiting on His direction and clearing our agenda for the sake of what He commands.
So, in summary…
First, our response to a sinful broken world can rightly be anger, but if anger comes before compassion, then something’s very wrong. Anger without compassion will almost certainly become sin. Better off in prayer and love and service, and to leave wrath and retribution to a perfect God. Don’t try this at home, kids!
Second, wait for the Lord. Ask, seek, knock, and you will find. (See Matthew 7:7-10, interestingly positioned in the Matthew’s gospel immediately after Jesus’ call to stay our judgment of others.) God’s plan is different for everyone. It would be better to let some perceived opportunity go by while waiting on God than to charge ahead confident in your own superior ideas and ability to run your little universe. Everyone’s been called to pray, love and serve, even their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). Beyond that, some are called to build organizations, even great movements, to fight cultural battles here on earth. But relatively few … certainly not all. And nobody is called by God to whine and gripe at the dinner table in cadence with talk radio (I write with a searing sense of personal conviction).
Make sure you aren’t using spiritual language to veil your judgmental heart. Make sure you’re not loving and protecting a culturally-respectable sin that has the power (like all sin) to consume you. Remember, the abortionist, the terrorist, the horrible boss, the lazy coworker, the abusive family member, the dishonest politician, the greedy businessman, the corrupt preacher… They are not your enemies. Satan is your enemy. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Sadly, some people are certainly satan’s standard bearers, and must be fought on earthly (cultural, political, legal) battlefields. But if you don’t feel true sadness for them, compassion, and regret for their lost souls — satan is their enemy too, remember — , then you don’t have God’s heart and for your own sake you must realize that you might have no business holding a weapon against them, let alone commanding troops. It would be better to walk with God and not fight, than to fight and not walk with God. He is not your divine backup. He’s the one issuing the orders. Make sure you aren’t actually going AWOL, all the while thinking you’re fighting for the Lord. I’m convinced that happens every day, and I’m no more immune to it than you are.
So, let’s adopt an Isaiah 6 posture together. Let’s really be the Church … the body of Christ on earth … standing out by serving plague victims and caring for widows and orphans, not by screaming the loudest or even by “being right”. We are, quite literally, the hope of the world. Make sure you’re going to feel good about answering to God when He demands an account of how you discharged that awesome and terrifying responsibility. That day will be here before you know it.
And let it start with me.
Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s. Tomorrow go down against them. Behold, they will come up [against you, but] you will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf.