Why it Matters That the Lion IS the Lamb
Have you ever heard someone say, “In his first coming Jesus came as a lamb and in the second coming, he will return as a lion!” The implication is that Jesus has a lamb-like nature (love, gentleness, mercy) and a lion-like nature (power, judgment, wrath), and these are different aspects of who God is.
- “God is love, but he’s also holy.”
- “God is gentle, but he is also violent.”
- “Jesus forgives the paralytic, but he also used a whip in the Temple.”
The sentiment here is that “Yes, God is kind but he also don’t play. He’ll destroy you in a heartbeat if he wants. HAVEN’T YOU EVER READ THE STORY OF ANANIAS AND SAPPHIRA?“
This is one way of making sense of how Jesus is both lion and lamb, and admittedly, this is how I interpreted Scripture for many years. But is this the best way of reading Scripture? Is there a better way to think about how Jesus is both lion and lamb?
Reimagining God through the revelation of Jesus
The idea of Jesus being both lion and lamb is found in the book of Revelation. In the fourth chapter, John is given a vision of the throne room of God. He is caught up in the Spirit and is in awe of the majestic vision. He saw twenty-four elders with white clothes and golden crowns on their head. He also saw strange creatures that proclaim the Lord God, the Almighty, who was, who is, and who is to come. This vision reveals the One who alone is worthy to receive glory and honor and power.
Then in the fifth chapter, John sees one seated at the right hand of the throne (a term that signifies royalty and power), holding a scroll and an angel asks who is worthy to open the scroll. John weeps and weeps because no one is found to be worthy. Then one of the elders said to John, “Look, the Lion from the tribe of Judah. He has conquered and he is worthy.”
The Lion IS the Lamb
John is relieved and anticipates what is to come, but when we looks toward the throne, he sees “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne.” Notice that he hears about “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” but then he sees “one who looks like a slaughtered lamb standing in the midst of the throne.” What he heard and what he saw is not the same, but the point couldn’t be clearer: The Lion is the Lamb. The imagery is visceral. The identity of the one worthy is unexpected.
It is the Lamb who in fact is worthy to receive glory and honor and power due to God alone. Why? Because he has purchased a people through spilling his own blood. The Lion IS the Lamb. The power of the Lion IS a Lamb-like power. The one who receives all honor and glory and power IS the one who dies for his enemies in order to make them family.
God’s power is different than our power
God’s power cannot be understood apart from the revelation of Jesus. We tend to assume we know what power is, and then believe that:
- God has the most of it, and
- God uses it in a righteous way.
In this view, power is a “neutral” tool. The writers of the New Testament suggest another way. They believed that God’s power is now known, defined, and shaped by the cross of Jesus. Paul says the cross of Christ IS the power of God. The power of God is a cruciform power.
The nature of God’s power is revealed in the helplessness of Jesus on the cross. God’s power is not revealed by being more violent than violent empires, but through absorbing the violence of the world into Christ’s body and by transforming it into pardon and liberation. Whatever image or picture of power we once believed about God must now take a cruciform shape.
This lamb-like vision is the interpretive key to reading not only Revelation but all of scripture. The violent images that are depicted in the rest of this apocalyptic revelation reveal in vivid, narrative picture the ultimate defeat of Evil and Empire through the blood of the Lamb.
These pictures are not meant to reveal literal violence from the God who created heaven and earth. Instead, the sword of Jesus is the word of his mouth. The sovereign ruler of all creation does not need to coerce or control his way into re-creating the world. The need for absolute control strikes at the heart of violence.
Why getting this right matters
If we see Jesus as “sometimes Lion, sometimes Lamb,” we see him holding mercy and violence as arbitrary, equally-balanced virtues that he wields when necessary; determining when it is good to use one or the other. “Sure, mercy is good, but sometimes we need violence to stop violence,” the thinking goes.
This belief tries to take serious the real evil and violence in the world, but does so as if Jesus’ cross is simply a means for forgiving sin and not the means for conquering evil for all time. It denies that the cross of Jesus is the deepest and clearest revelation of who God is and what it means to be a genuine human being. It suggests that God must ultimately abandon the way of the cross to redeem, that ultimately violence is the savior of the world.
But if we see Jesus as the “Lion Who IS the Lamb,” we see that cruciform power is the power of God. It’s the only kind of power that God bears and it has always been this way. We didn’t always know this. No one imagined that the King of Israel dying on a cross would be the definitive picture of who God is. Jesus really did win the victory on the cross and the way of the cross is now being seen from creation to new creation to the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.
Resources for further study
- Podcast episode: “Why it Changes Everything if God is Just Like Jesus”
- Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb in to New Creation, by Michael J. Gorman
- Reversed Thunder: the Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, by Eugene Peterson
- The Nonviolent God, by J. Denny Weaver
- Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence, by Greg Boyd
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