The Lamb rules the cosmos

Adoration of the Lamb.jpg

Jan van Eyck, “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” (1432)

In the throne room of heaven, John weeps because “no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it” (Revelation 5:4). Theologian Joseph L. Mangina writes: “John’s tears hold out the profoundly Jewish hope for a Messiah who will right wrongs, execute justice for the oppressed, and overcome the slaughterhouse that is human history.” These tears are answered with the most stupendous and paradoxical image for the Messiah, “who is both victorious Lion and self-offering Lamb.”

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.” 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. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. (Rev. 5:5-7)

Here are excerpts from Magina’s commentary on the above verses:

What John hears is a Lion, what he sees is a Lamb. What he hears is strength, what he sees is weakness. What he hears is a conqueror, what he sees is the quintessential victim—the Lamb. This Lamb is not just destined for sacrifice, moreover, but has actually been slaughtered (the participle esphagmenon is in the perfect tense, suggesting an act completed in the past). If what John hears is life, what he sees is death. And yet not so, because the Lamb is standing, so that the slaughter is the mark of his victory; he has passed through death and now stands somehow beyond it. 

* * *

The scene is a kind of diptych, in which each of the two panels interprets the other, but where the priority belongs to the second panel. Christ really is and never ceases to be the Lion of the tribe of Judah. He is indeed a figure of power, but his power is realized precisely in the self-giving love he displays on the cross. In favor of this view is the Apocalypse’s consistent description of Christ as victor while at the same using “lamb” as the dominant christological image; the word arnion appears twenty-nine times in Revelation, twenty-eight times in reference to Jesus Christ (at 13:11 it refers to the beast who mimics Christ’s appearance). . .

It is well stated by Vernard Eller: “The Lamb’s very defenselessness is his lion-like strength; his suffering death is his victory; his modus operandi . . . always is that of the Lamb, but the consequences, the results, always are a victory that belongs to the character of the Lion.” The Lamb embodies the triumph of life; he is slaughtered, but stands and lives: “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore” (1:18). 

 * * *

So if we now ask “who rules the cosmos?” the correct answer can only be “the Lamb rules the cosmos,” that is, “the crucified rules it.” This spells the end of any rationalist or materialist conception in which creation is a closed system tending toward death, in which flesh corrupts and decays, and in which history consists in a never-ending struggle for dominance and power. In the world as we know it, it is empirically the case that lions win and lambs lose—and given these alternatives, who would not rather be a lion? But what the Apocalypse “apocalypses” to us is that the world is not so constituted by loss. As the Creator gives himself to his creatures out of overflowing fullness, so the Lamb gives himself to his people out of his victorious life, death, and resurrection—and these two movements of grace are one. It is the same God who pours himself out for the life of the world in creation, redemption, and consummation. In the contest between life and death, life—or rather the living one—wins.  


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