The Lion and The Lamb:

The Messiah of Israel in Revelation

By David Maas

20 March 2011

218 Main Street, Unit 133

Kirkland, Washington, 98033, USA



REVELATION 5:1-5, “And I saw a scroll upon the right hand of him that was sitting upon the throne, written within and on the back, sealed up with seven seals.  And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and unloose its seals?’ And no one was able in heaven or on earth or under the earth to open the scroll or to look thereon.  And I began to weep much because no one worthy was found to open the scroll or to look thereon.  And one of the elders says to me, ‘Do not weep! Lo, the lion that is of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has overcome to open the scroll and its seven seals.’”


~ Introduction ~


The central figure of the Book of Revelation is unquestionably Jesus.  He is identified in the very first clause of the Book:  “the revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to him.” But this is only one of a variety of names, titles and designations given to him in Revelation and not even the dominant one.


The name Jesus appears fourteen times or 7 times 2 (1:2, 1:2, 1:5, 1:9 [twice], 12:17, 14:12, 17:6, 19:10 [twice], 20:4, 22:16, 22:20, 22:21).  The title Christ or Christos, the Greek equivalent to “messiah,” is used seven times (1:1, 1:2, 1:5, 11:15, 12:10, 20:4, 20:6). ‘Son of Man’ occurs twice (1:13, 14:14) and ‘Son of God’ once (2:18).  Several designations are used only once or twice (e.g., ‘Faithful Witness,’ the ‘Amen,’ the ‘Beginning of the Creation of God,’ ‘Firstborn of the Dead’).


The term most frequently used for Jesus by Revelation is “Lamb” (Greek - arnion).  This is applied to him twenty-eight times or 7 times 4 (the twenty-ninth occurrence in 13:11 is applied to the Second Beast who had “two horns like a lamb,” a cheap imitation of the true Lamb).



~ Revelation’s Exalted Christ is the Earthly Jesus ~


Revelation is packed with supernatural visions, scenes of a heavenly throne room, exalted beings, bizarre images and malevolent figures.  Yet from the get-go the Book stresses that the Jesus of its visions is the same individual as the historic Jesus.  The real events of his Death and Resurrection are never far from sight.  Revelation knows of no true Messiah apart from the Jesus who died on Calvary and was subsequently raised from the dead.


In the first chapter Jesus is called “the Faithful Witness, the Firstborn of the Dead and the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth” (verse 5).  The terms are derived from Psalm 89, a psalm with strong messianic overtones.  The label “witness” is borrowed from Psalm 89:37 (“a witness in the heavens has been made sure”) and “firstborn” along with “ruler of the kings of the earth” from 89:27 (“I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth”). 


“Firstborn” designates the heir, the one destined to rule.  But Revelation expands the term from Psalm 89 to “firstborn of the dead.”  Jesus is indeed “firstborn” and royal heir, but he holds this position because of his Death and Resurrection.  His appointment as “ruler over the kings of the earth” is based on his “faithful witness” even when it meant a self-sacrificial death. That such imagery is intended is confirmed by the last clause of REVELATION 1:6:  “to him who loves us and loosed us out of our sins by his blood.”


Jesus is similarly identified in Revelation’s inaugural vision in 1:10-20.  John’s visions have both visual and auditory aspects; he both “sees” and “hears.”


In verses 10-16 John hears a great voice behind him that commands him to write all that he sees in a scroll.  As he turns around he sees seven golden lampstands and in the midst of them an exalted “son of man” figure.  John is overwhelmed by the glory of this figure and falls prostrate before him. But when Jesus speaks directly to John he tells him to “fear not” and identifies himself as “the Living One who became dead, and behold I am living unto the ages of ages!”  The exalted figure John sees is none other than the Jesus of the gospel accounts, the Messiah who “poured himself out and took a slave’s form, humbling himself and becoming obedient as far as death, yea, death upon a cross.”  Consequently God raised him from the dead and “gave him a name above every name” (PHILIPPIANS 2:6-11). There is no need to fear even death because this same Jesus now holds “the keys of death and of Hades.”



~ The Lion of the Tribe of Judah ~


In chapters 4-5 John sees a vision of the heavenly Throne Room.  Initially the dominant figure is the unnamed “One Who Sits on the Throne.”  In painting its portrait chapter 4 combines a variety of Old Testament images.  This includes royal and divine symbols as well as items reminiscent of the ancient Temple of Israel.  For example, what or whoever the “elders” are, the number twenty-four is based on the twenty-four divisions of priests and Levitical singers described in 1 Chronicles chapters 24-25 (cp. LUKE 1:5).  The “sea of glass” is derived from the giant bronze basin of water or “sea” used in the Jerusalem Temple (1 KINGS 7:23-26, 2 CHRONICLES 4:4-6).  The glorious place John now sees is both a heavenly Temple and Throne Room.[1]


The “One Who Sits on the Throne” is identified as the Creator.  In REVELATION 4:11 the twenty-four elders prostrate themselves and proclaim, “You are worthy, O Lord and our God, to receive the glory and the honor and the power, because you created all things and by reason of your will they were and were created!”  This identification is integral to the message of Revelation.  God by means of Jesus will not only redeem mankind but also the entire creation.  The climax of Revelation is new creation, the establishment of a New Heaven and New Earth (21:1, I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away and the sea was no more”).


In chapter 5 John sees a scroll in the right hand of the “One Who Sits on the Throne.” It is sealed shut with seven seals.  A mighty angel asks, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and to unloose its seals? Though a search is made throughout the created order, no one is found who can open it (5:3, “no one was able in heaven or on earth or under the earth to open the scroll”).  An inference drawn from this search is that the agent who is able to open the scroll must be of the created order.


John weeps profusely because no one worthy is found.  Then one of the elders assures him, “Behold, the lion from the tribe of Judah, the root of David, overcame to open the scroll and its seven seals.”  This language is derived from two messianic passages from the Old Testament:


Genesis 49:9-10:  Judah is a lion's whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down, he couched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him up? The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor the ruler's staff from between his feet until he comes to whom it belongs; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.”


Isaiah 11:1, 10:  “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots....In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek and his dwellings shall be glorious” (cp. Jeremiah 23:5).


Both prophecies indicate a role for this messianic figure involving the “nations,” though “people” (Hebrew, ‘am) in GENESIS 49:10 may originally have had only the people of Israel in mind. However, Isaiah 11:10 uses both “people” or ‘am and the term for “Gentiles” (Hebrew - goyim.  Greek - ethnōn).  The Lion of Judah is a traditional symbol for the Jewish Messiah, one who is both a royal and warrior figure.  But his destiny and heritage also include the other nations.


After Revelation chapter 5 the designation, “Lion from the Tribe of Judah,” is never mentioned again.  Instead Jesus is identified as the Lamb throughout the remainder of the Book.



~ The Lamb, the True Messiah of Israel ~


In REVELATION 5:5-6 John hears the proclamation, “Behold, lion from the tribe of Judah, the root of David.”  However, when he looks what he actually sees is “a Lamb having stood as slain.”  This is an interpretive technique used several times by Revelation whereby what John sees interprets what he first hears. The Lamb is indeed a messianic figure.  He is the “Lion from Judah” and descendant of King David, but he conquers and has taken his stand as a slain Lamb. Israel’s Messiah overcomes not through violence or coercive political power, but by his sacrificial death.  It is the Messiah identified as the slain Lamb who is worthy and able to open the sealed scroll. 


To gain a fuller picture it is necessary to delve into the Greek clause in verse 6. “Lamb” translates the Greek word arnion, a diminutive of the noun arnén.  Arnion refers to a young lamb whereas arnén can refer to a lamb or an adult sheep.  The Greek noun for “lamb” used elsewhere in the New Testament is amnos (e.g. JOHN 1:29, 36), which never occurs in Revelation.  Anion points to the “Lamb” as an innocent and vulnerable sacrificial victim.  Further, arnion is used to contrast the Lamb to Revelation’s “Beast,” the thérion (REVELATION 13:1ff). Thérion is also a diminutive like arnion (from the Greek noun for “beast,” thér) and the “Beast” frequently attempts to imitate the Lamb.


John sees the Lamb “as slain,” using the Greek verb sphazō, which more accurately means to “slaughter.”  It is a sacrificial term used in the Old Testament for the killing of sacrificial animals.  This is most appropriate since the Heavenly Throne Room in Revelation chapter 5 is also the Heavenly Temple.


Sphazō is used in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament to translate the Hebrew equivalent shachat.  Thus in Genesis 22:10 Abraham took a knife to “slaughter his son.”  In Exodus 12:6 the congregation of Israel was commanded to “slaughter” their Passover lambs. Shachat or its Greek equivalent sphazō is used for slaying animal sacrifices in Leviticus (e.g., 1:5, 3:2, 4:15).  And in the “Suffering Servant” song of Isaiah 53 Yahweh’s Servant is “like a lamb is led to the slaughter” (ISAIAH 53:7-8). Here the Septuagint uses the Greek noun for “slaughter” (sphagé) that is related to the verb sphazō.


In REVELATION 5:6 John sees the Lamb as one “having stood,” using a Greek participle in the perfect tense.  The perfect tense signifies action completed in the past with results continuing into the present.  It is in the active voice.  This means the subject performs or initiates the action, in this case the Lamb. It is the Lamb who has taken his stand.


“Slaughtered” is also in the perfect tense but it is in the passive voice, which signifies that the subject is acted upon.  That is, the Lamb has initiated action on behalf of his people by taking his stand, but he does so by submitting to a sacrificial death. Others carry out the execution, not the Lamb. The Lamb, the true “Lion from Judah, the Root of David,” overcomes not through political or military might, but by willing submission to an unjust death.


That this interpretation is correct is confirmed by verse 9.  There the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders sing a new song:  “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slaughtered and purchased by your blood men out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation for God.”  Likewise in verse 12 a voice proclaims:  Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered.”  The true Messiah of Israel is worthy to open the scroll because of his self-sacrificial death, not some preexisting royal status, innate divine attributes or supernatural powers he previously possessed.  He overcomes as a human being who dies a real and unjust death.


Though the Lamb is the true Messiah of Israel he has not come just to redeem national Israel or give it dominance over its Gentile neighbors.  He did not come to overthrow Rome on behalf of the Jewish nation.  Instead he redeemed men and women from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”  This description includes terms traditionally used for national Israel (“tribes” [phulé] and “people” [glōssa]), but also ones for Gentiles (“nations” [ethnos]).  The Lamb as Israel’s Messiah purchases for God both Jews and Gentiles. He is the redeemer of all mankind.  Traditional boundaries that divide people will have no place in God’s new creation.


“But at every point we must remember that only the earthly life and death of Jesus provides the key to the divine purpose.  The Old Testament leads John to expect a Messiah who will be the Lion of Judah, but the facts of the gospel present him with a Lamb bearing the marks of slaughter (v. 5-6).  The Old Testament predicts the smashing of the nations with an iron bar, but the only weapon the Lamb wields is his own Cross and the martyrdom of his followers (ii. 27; xii. 5; xix. 15).”[2]


Following the slaughtered Lamb’s victory he takes the scroll and begins to open its seals in chapter 6.  It is fully opened by chapter 10.  As the contents of the scroll are disclosed the plan of God to bring about the redemption of the entire Cosmos unfolds.  All that follows chapter 5 in Revelation results from the slaughtered Lamb’s victory.  The coming transformation of the entire Universe is dependent on the self-sacrificial death of Jesus on the Cross.



~ Those Who Follow the Lamb ~


In Revelation the redeemed are closely linked to the Lamb.  Thus in 7:9-17 John sees a multitude no one can number composed of men and women from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”  This group consists of those “who came out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”


In Revelation 12:11 believers who overcome do so in the same manner as the Lamb.  Victorious Christians are those who “conquer by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they love not their lives even unto death.”  They emulate the Lamb by bearing faithful witness for him “even unto death;” by the willingness to suffer martyrdom for the Lamb if called to do so. 


In Revelation 14:4 the righteous company of 144,000 consist of those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.”  If led they follow the Lamb to certain death at the hands of the Beast (13:7).  Like the Lamb they are not defeated by death but overcome through it. Death is not the final answer for those who belong to the Lamb.


The “Beast” and its allies “make war with the Lamb” by slaughtering those who belong to him (17:14).  The Lamb is closely identified with his people and they with him.  They follow his example of self-sacrifice and emulate his lamb-like attributes.  The One who defeats the Beast and its allies is identified as “Lord of lords and King of Kings,” but also as “the Lamb who conquers them.”  Those who belong to this lamb-like “King of Kings” are as he was and is, “called and chosen and faithful.”  Just as the Lion of the tribe of Judah fulfilled his messianic calling as the slaughtered Lamb, thus also the same Lamb becomes God’s designated king who overcomes His enemies.


Even in New Jerusalem the Lamb from the Heavenly Temple is still present as the Lamb.  Thus in REVELATION 21:14 the twelve foundation stones of the City display the names of “the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”  In the heavenly City has “no temple for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb (21:22).  Further, the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, “for the glory of God is its light and its lamp is the Lamb.”  Those able to enter New Jerusalem are only those whose names are “written in the Lamb’s book of life” (21:27). And in this City the “river of life” flows freely “from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (22:1). 



~ Summary ~


From beginning to end the Jesus of Revelation is the same person as the Jesus of History.  The one who is now exalted and worthy to open God’s scroll is none other than the same Jesus who willing submitted to an unjust death on Calvary, he who was consequently raised from the dead by God.  From start to finish the messianic figure of Revelation’s heavenly visions is firmly grounded in the Christ of History.  “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and unto the ages” (HEBREWS 13:8).


Revelation’s imagery deconstructs and transforms traditional expectations about the Jewish Messiah.  He remains a royal and victorious figure but he overcomes and rules by means of self-sacrificial death, not through military conquest, political machinations or despotism. 


Rather than a strictly Jewish Messiah, in Revelation the anointed one of Israel becomes the savior of men and women from every nation, the redeemer of all creation and its universal Lord.  His reign and reach transcend all national, ethnic, cultural and geographic boundaries.  He rules not from the ancient city of Jerusalem but from the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven.   Jesus, the Lamb of God, is not the exclusive possession of any nation.  The Messiah of Israel is the Savior of the World.


Those redeemed by the Lamb follow him wherever he goes, especially by emulating his obedient submission to God and self-sacrificial death.  Though his death was a one time and unrepeatable event, he remains forever identified as the “slaughtered Lamb.” 


In Revelation Jesus does not cease to be the Lamb who redeemed by means of his blood.  He is not at some point transformed into a violent and tyrannical overlord who rules the nations with an iron fist.  John’s language and imagery can be jarring, even self-contradictory and subversive.  Often overlooked in a clause from Revelation 2:27 (“he shall rule them with a rod of iron”) is the use of the Greek verb poimainō, which means, “to shepherd,” not to “rule” or “domineer.”   The Lamb may have a “rod of iron” but he uses it to “shepherd” the nations. The incongruity of a shepherd who gently tends his flock but who also wields an “iron rod,” probably explains why some later copyists and translators changed the verb to “rule.” The concept of God conquering evil by means of a crucified Messiah has always troubled minds more in tune with this Age.


The Messiah of Israel redeems mankind, rules creation and defeats all powers opposed to God as the “Slaughtered Lamb.” Those who follow and belong to the Lamb do the same, above all by bearing faithful witness.  They in turn conquer “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, because they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:11).




[1] J. Ramsey Michaels, Revelation (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1997), pp. 92-36.

[2] G.B. Caird, The Revelation of John (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 1999 ), pp. 292-293.