Sermon preparation requires attention to both macro and micro, the universals and the particulars. Sometimes we need to present the full sweep of salvation's plan, painting with a big brush. At other times we must zero in on the particulars.
Let's use Revelation 5 as a model for building a sermon. It gives us the big picture the full backdrop. The setting is a celestial stage on which the drama of the ages, the whole plan, is enacted. Verses 1-5 form our text and should be read as clearly as possible as the preacher gets into the message.
I use OTTO. 1 The acronym describes a step-by-step procedure to get into the passage.
1. Observation. Read the passage again and again, in every version available, and in Greek or Hebrew if you have the facility. As a preacher, ruminate on it, turn it over in your mind, write it out longhand, brain storm. What words seem significant? Do your word study. Sentence structure may give you a hint. What genre of literature do we have here? The passage conjures up all kinds of imagery. Imagine, imagine. Envision, envision.
One word really catches my attention---"throne." What does it signify? What associations come to mind? Dominion, sovereignty, the rule of God, Satan's challenge to that throne.
2. Truths. In a sweeping passage such as Revelation 5 there are certain great truths of the gospel, truths about Jesus Christ that stand out. Make a list. Truths are not just facts, but realities that take their place in the framework of the gospel. God, His authority and power. Jesus, His relationship to the Father, the Godhead. The Holy Spirit "sent forth in all the earth." The ministry of angels. The plan of salvation. Extracting the list of truths is one of the toughest steps for me in preparing a sermon. It will take some doing to get the hang of it.
3. Theme. See what the prophet is trying to say. Look for the essence of his thesis, the central thought. In our passage the theme is salvation, of course. But can we narrow it down? How about the office and ministry the mission of Christ as Lamb? If so, then dwell for a while on His role as substitute and surety.
4. Outline. The sermon is not a literary production. Put down key words and phrases, headings, any thing to pull it together, to help the preacher get a handle on the message.
We are developing a sermon, not writing an article. This is the Word spoken, and we must keep people in mind at every step and how we can get the Word across to them. "I'd like to talk to you today about . . ." We are thinking about these dear people; they are on our mind and in our heart. We want to share; we want to be helpful; we want to talk to them about Jesus, our best friend. This kind of thinking keeps the preacher in focus and in touch with real people. It saves the sermon from being a lecture, a cold presentation of facts. "When feasting upon God's Word, because of the precious light you gather therefrom, present it to others that they may feast with you. But let your communications be free and heartfelt."2
"And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof? And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon. And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon. And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof (Rev. 5:1-5).
Imagine the setting: paneled room, large mahogany desk, credenza, book case, several leather chairs. A serious looking gentleman sits at the desk with some documents in hand. Three other people are in the room, all middle-aged a man and two women. They seem nervous and anxious. The women finger their handkerchiefs; the man keeps adjusting his tie. They all keep looking at the door. Then as if on cue, they say to each other, voices full of intensity yet subdued, "Where in the world is Bill? He knows the terms of Dad's will. Nobody can open it except Bill. What's keeping him?" You begin to realize that this is a lawyer's office. That document the man behind the desk holds in his hand is a will. It's time to open it, but Dad has made it clear: only the eldest son, Bill, can do that. The strain is getting to them; they can hardly take it. They are all thinking the same thing (what else could they think?): "What if Bill doesn't come?" "If Bill doesn't show up, we wind up with nothing!"
There is another scene---a heavenly one. John has already been ushered in through a door "opened in heaven" (Rev. 4:1). He reports it. This is what the authentic prophet is: a seer, a privileged reporter. From time to time he is admitted to the cabinet meeting. He sees and hears and reports to us. "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7). Of course, there are limitations. No human being is privy to all that transpires in those councils. But what he is allowed to see and hear is vital information sufficient to open a window on God's plans and purposes. "He that hath an ear, let him hear" (Rev. 3:22).
The mysterious book
This is the throne room central control of the universe. "And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals" (Rev. 5:1). A throne, symbol of do minion and sovereignty. This is where the real decisions are made. From that throne the Awesome One rules by decree administrative fiat, if you please. John sees the Awesome One seated on the throne. The prophet is all eyes and ears and anticipation. He senses something decisive is happening. He is right! A cosmic drama of the first magnitude is about to unfold before his eyes. His attention is riveted on the mysterious book that the Almighty holds in His powerful right hand a "book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals."
In the Roman Empire of John's day a seven-sealed document like this would most likely be a will or a testament, a binding legal instrument, a deed of trust. Ancient books were really scrolls. In the heavenly setting it is a book of destiny, the most vital document in all of creation. It contains the secret of God, His plan that Paul speaks of as being shrouded in secrecy for ages and generations. The book is written inside and outside, back and front a divine database. It contains every intelligence necessary to the accomplishment of the plan to redeem us. It is all there. John senses that the opening of this book means salvation. If it remains closed, all is lost. But the book is in the hand of the Awesome One, and it is closed.
The challenge. Then a mighty angel, as if he had read John's mind, raises the challenge, "Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?" (verse 2). We can see now that the prophet is moved by more than curiosity. Everything is at stake: humanity's future, the future of the planet, the security of the universe. He expects someone to step forward, but there is nothing, no movement, only a deathly silence. No one volunteers for the assignment. "No man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book neither to look thereon" (verse 3). The prophet weeps bitterly. Uncontrollable sobs contort his body. His tears are for God and humanity. For God because the Creator has suffered unmitigated pain since sin invaded the cosmos. For humanity because it is helpless against the ruthless foe. The situation demands radical intervention by a strong deliverer, a mediator. Is there anyone who can help us, who can step into the breach?
Someone has been found
The plan cannot be executed with out an agent who has authority and dignity. This agent must represent humanity. "Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor. 15:21). Here is the dilemma the scroll is in the hands of Him who sits upon the throne, the Almighty. Who then ever could qualify? Who could possibly take the book from His hand? But there is hope. One of the elders in the heavenly tribunal tells the prophet not to weep, for "behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof (verse 5). Jesus is God's ambassador plenipotentiary. All power is in His hands. He shares the universal throne with His Father. But it is in His capacity as a human being Son of Man that He takes the book.
It is not necessary for Him to wrest it from the Father's hand. The Father has prepared Him for this assignment. By His appointment the Mediator be fore the throne is clothed with our humanity. With Him the Father is well pleased. The drama is enacted for our benefit. Heaven is already acquainted with the divine scenario. It is our privilege to be caught up on the scene, to feel the fear and dread and apprehension. Yes, to weep with the prophet until we find Him who purchased our salvation at great cost, through suffering and death and blood poured out. We have learned nothing from the drama until we come to know the cost.
Salvation history is all about a lost estate. We lost the property. An elderly gentleman called me to his bedside. "Please," he said, "help me save my property from my irresponsible children. I know that after my death they will lose every thing I have worked so hard to obtain and my widow will be left penniless." It was heartrending, but I could do nothing. Like those children were wont to do, our first parents gave the estate away.
A Las Vegas character came to hear an evangelist. The preacher talked about how Adam fell. It was all so strange and new to him. But when his cronies asked him what the preacher talked about, he put it well in his own colorful, earthy language: "God gave that guy Adam a bundle, and he blew it!" Precisely! Life, do minion over nature, the beautiful garden home, a perfect relationship with his Creator. All was gone lost. The creation itself was subjected to death and decay. Darkness like a funeral pall settled down on the planet. Our lostness is one of life's inescapable realities. It is hard fact. Billy Graham once said, "Either man began nowhere and is looking for somewhere to go, or he began somewhere and has lost his way."
Now comes the great question. Who is able to buy it back? Who has the resources to repossess the estate? The answer: "The Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof (verse 5). In His person He is a perfect unity of power and love. He is the Lion---regal, powerful, commanding respect. He is also the Lamb---God's suffering servant, who gives Himself for the sins of the world. Jesus qualifies on every account.
We see it clearly now. The book is primarily about redemption, the divine strategy for the recovery of the lost estate. All that Adam lost is to be regained by our heavenly Kinsman. Very early in Old Testament times the figure of the goel, or kinsman-redeemer, emerged. The idea includes avengement as well as salvation. In the book of Ruth it is Boaz, the near est of kin, who restores the fortune of Elimelech's family. In those days redemption meant to tear away from, to deliver. The goel had to be a person of strength and ability in order to restore a lost estate. Under the ancient law the goel had rights and responsibility. Whenever an Israelite fell into bond age, the goel became responsible for that Israelite's ransom. So Abraham was compelled to rescue Lot from the five kings who had kidnapped him. It was a point of honor. It took determination and strength to do it.
Jesus, our elder brother, a near of kin (He assumed our humanity), takes up our case as if it were His very own. How incredible is God's secret plan. He sends His Son into the enemy's camp as an apparently helpless babe. But this Child is God in the flesh. He is divinity clothed with humanity. The planet He comes to visit is His creation. He is willing and powerful enough to effect our salvation. He wrests the prey from the grasp of the enemy. "And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col. 2:15, NIV). It is His intention to restore to us our Eden home. His credentials are impeccable. He is equal in dignity, power, and authority to the One who sits on the throne. What is more, He is the life-giver. In every respect, He is worthy!
"And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth" (verse 6). It is as the slain Lamb that Jesus be comes executer of His Father's will---perfect in power (seven horns), perfect in wisdom (seven eyes). We must not think of His omnipotence as the power of unlimited force. It is the unconquerable power of love.
It is appropriate that the Father should give special honor and recognition to the Son. In the councils of eternity it was agreed that the second person of the Godhead would come in human form and work out the plan. Earth was given over to Him as His assignment, His special project. It is as if the Deity covenanted that the Son should buy it back, whatever the cost. By taking the book it is clear that He fully accepts His kinsman-redeemer responsibility. Christ does not ascend to the right hand of God and, as one preacher put it, retire to write His memoirs. He is still active in salvation matters. "He ever liveth to make intercession for" us (Heb. 7:25). The desired outcome is a universe at peace His people a reconciled community. He has begun the good work, and He will perform it.
It is all still in His hands. It is His work from beginning to end. He did not go slumming when He assumed humanity only to disassociate Him self from His blood kin upon His ascension. He is ours forever. I say again that it is most appropriate that the Father should make Him judge also. "For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son. . . . And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man" (John 5:22-27). The One who holds my destiny is the One who took my flesh, who pitched His tent next to mine. He walked in my moccasins. He experienced the human situation to the full est extent. He alone can fully judge us. The Father did not put us in the hands of an alien who knows nothing about our struggles. Let preachers and teachers and mothers and fathers and all who have tasted of His salvation, yes, let all the redeemed say so, "Christ is our judge. Our case is in His hands."
Ellen White spoke well when she said, "Because he has tasted the very dregs of human affliction and temptation, and understands the frailties and sins of men; because in our behalf he has victoriously withstood the temptations of Satan, and will deal justly and tenderly with the souls that His own blood has been poured out to save because of this, the Son of man is appointed to execute judgment." 3
President Clinton would extend universal health care to every citizen of the United States of America, coverage that can never be voided or taken away. Laudable and ambitious. Opponents to the plan say it is unrealistic. Even some in his own party say, "Too expensive." But he has this dream, and he is sticking to it. There is rough sledding ahead. The whole matter is extremely complex. An impossible dream? We do not know. But this we do know: heaven has offered the human race a general amnesty. Christ died to extend coverage to every child of Adam. The enemy would like to thwart the plan. In spite of opposition, demonic and human, the desired outcome is assured. Salvation is accomplished. As they say in the business world, it's a done deal. With Him, word and deed are the same.
The drama still unfolds. The Lamb still stands in the midst as having been slain. He is the God between. He takes up His position between God and man, always seeking to bridge the gap, to reconcile the world unto God. He is hard at work in the heavenly sanctuary as our merciful high priest. He never sleeps or slumbers. He in tends to close the drama. His mission is not fully achieved until He makes an end of sin. He is not satisfied to merely pardon and give amnesty. Sin, the accursed thing, must be totally eradicated.
Not only does He take the book, but He breaks the seals one after an other, until the last seal is broken. When the seventh seal is removed, a deep hush comes over the throne room, indeed, over all creation. Now there will be full disclosure. The great book will be thrown open. The drama is over. In heaven's scheme of things there is prophecy, fulfillment, and consummation. There comes a day when all prophecies will cease. Jesus declared: "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled" (Matt. 5:18). That is consummation.
Salvation history is not a continuing soap opera repeating itself for ever. There can be no eternal coexistence between good and evil. The slain Lamb is Lord of time and history, Lord of the spheres. His arms are not short that He cannot save. His reach and His grasp are equal. He is strong enough to take hold of the throne and at the same time encircle the globe. Mission accomplished: He delivers the lost paradise back to the Father who commissioned Him. That is consummation.
The supreme victory of Christ, the slain Lamb, is the ultimate goal of history. No wonder that all heaven joins in songs of praise and adoration to "him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb" (Rev. 5:13).
Yes, God the Father has put all things in the strong hands of His Son. He has turned all things over to Him. Now here is the great question: Have you turned your life over to Him? Have you put your life, your all, in His hands? You can trust Him. Jesus is worthy.
1. For fuller treatment of OTTO, see my book Preaching to the Times (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1975).
2. Ellen G. White, Counsels to Writers and Editors (Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Pub. Assn., 1946), p. 87.
3. ____, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), p. 210.