A Study of Revelation - Chapter 5
Part 6 of a chapter by chapter study of the book of Revelation
Where we are in Revelation
Chapter 5 starts with 'then I saw', which marks a continuation from chapter 4. As discussed in the previous post, most commentators agree that chapters 4 and 5 go together as an introduction to both the "one seated on the throne" (4:9) and the "lamb standing as though it was slain" (5:6). We will make note of the comparisons between the two in this post.
A heavenly conundrum
'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. Revelation 5:1-4
Does God have a hand? When reading the bible, especially Revelation, we need to keep our assumptions in check. This first sentence is not making God out to be a man, in fact in chapter 4 we get no reflection on what God looks like other than a mix of precious stones, lightning and sounds of thunder. We are made in God's image, not he in ours, and we need to keep that in mind when John 'sees' a hand. Throughout the bible the right hand is the hand of blessing (Gen 48:14), strength and power (Exodus 15:6, 12) and also note it is the hand Jesus holds the stars which are the churches in Revelation 1.
While there is a bit of a discussion around what the scroll looks like along with some creative images on the internet, the above seems to be fairly accurate - except that in this case it is missing the writing on both sides of the scroll. Craig Keener1 points out that it was common practice for legal documents, especially wills, to use multiple seals, possibly the seals of multiple witnesses, to secure the contents in the way the image above portrays. This seems trivial but given the creativity with which some approach Revelation it may impact the interpretation of the next few chapters. The important aspect is the scroll cannot be opened and read the moment one seal is broken. Some argue that the scroll has layers and once you've unravelled a bit, you'll find a new seal but this defies evidence around scrolls - you wouldn't be able to 'see' seven seals for example because the inner scrolls would be hidden by the scrolls wrapped around it. Some have creatively extended out the inner scrolls so that the inner seals can be seen but then it is hardly secure which seems to be the image John wants to portray. We must remember that this is a vision and each thing John sees is a symbol for something else, it will become more clear what this scroll represents in a moment and even more clear in future chapters. As GK Beale argues, we should also be wary of trying to suggest an interpretation based on the mechanics of how a scroll works. Beale points to the fact that, as you will see in a moment, a lamb takes a scroll from God's hand and hopefully it is a given we aren't trying to work out how that happens.
There is a problem in heaven, a scroll that is full of writing is totally sealed but requires someone to open it and no one can. Several commentators suggest that this is to keep its contents secret but Tonstad points to Exekiel's scroll (Ezekiel 2:9-10), which has a lot of similarities including being written on both sides, to show that this doesn't necessarily symbolise lack of knowledge towards the contents. Ezekiel knew the scroll was full of 'lamentation and mourning and woe' (2:10), given the similarities, it is safe to assume, he argues, that this scroll contains judgement as well. Tonstad goes on to point out that this sealed scroll is not just about a lack of information regarding the contents but about a lack of understanding. He references Isaiah 29:10-11,18 and Daniel 12:9-10 to emphasise that whoever reads the words or opens the scroll is bringing understanding.
The conundrum is that no one can be found in the universe who is worthy to open the scroll. John is so startled by this that he weeps. It is a bit disconcerting that even in heaven not everything seems to be under control! While it may be, despite Tonstad's arguments above, that John is unaware of what is coming at this point, commentators seem to agree that the scroll does represent the will of God and John is either frustrated or upset that the will of God remains a mystery. Turning the page we see that breaking the seals (not necessarily the reading of the writing) on the scroll releases 'the great day of their wrath' (6:17). Judgement is coming and this should bring us hope, though often it is taught as fear. Maybe it needs to be a bit of both.
Some commentators (see John Hosier for example) point to the desire for judgement to come on the earth as the cause for weeping. This isn't stretching the text too far given that it can be argued that the scrolls content of judgement can be assumed from the allusion to Ezekiel's scroll (see chapter 2:9-10 specifically) and biblical authors are repeatedly asking 'how long o Lord?' (Psalm 6:3, 13:1) with regards to God's judgement on evil. It is one of the most common questions for the Western Christian, "why doesn't God do anything about the suffering?" In the face of great suffering we long for God to do something, anything, to end it. We are all part of a world where we can hurt others, often inadvertently through our societal systems such as how we invest our money or what we purchase. We need one who is innocent and perfect to judge the world and at this point John sees that there is no one who is worthy (Psalm 53:3, Romans 3:23). How concerning it is then, that even in heaven there doesn't seem to be anyone worthy.
You may be used to hearing Christian's claims regarding what the judgement of God will bring but there are two reasons I'd like to offer for you to continue reading. One, the scroll isn't just about judgement, the scroll is also God's will for redemption of creation. Two, I think many Christians along with those who have a cultural understanding of Christianity have misunderstood what God's judgement looks like, and this in part is why I've decided to dig into Revelation.
Why can no one open the scroll? This conundrum seems to undermine any idea that in heaven everything is calm and peaceful with no problems at all. We do seem to both promote and ignore the rebellion of Satan (see Ezekiel 28:12-19 for a possible idea of a heavenly rebellion). We promote it in that within the Christian tradition we are well aware of an enemy on earth while at the same time we ignore it and present an idea of a calm and peaceful heaven with no enemy. Revelation reminds us that there is a spiritual battle continuing and the need for a victor is emphasised. John weeps because a victor cannot be found, but it is at this moment that John is comforted.
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.” ' Revelation 5:5
I discuss who the elders are in chapter 4. While there is a debate about them, the summary is that they are representatives of God's people and not necessarily angelic beings. One of these elders tells John that there is good news, a conqueror has come. The language is of a strong king. We can trust our assumptions regarding the lion in this case, a powerful beast that often tears its prey and devours enemies. Genesis 49:9-12 promises a rescuer (or messiah which simply means 'anointed one') and connects the lion imagery to Judah:
You are a lion's cub, Judah; you return from the prey, my son. like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness - who dares to rouse him?
The passage continues in verse 10 to show that a ruler will come and "the nations shall be his". If you read on in Genesis, you might take note of the reference to a donkey and a colt which Zechariah also uses to point to a messiah and the gospels highlight in the Easter story. Also note the garments dipped in wine and the robes covered in the blood of grapes, as that will come up later in Revelation.
To emphasise the fact that we are talking about the promised Messiah, John points to Isaiah by the reference to a Root of David. If you aren't familiar with Isaiah, chapter 11 promises the people of Israel that despite their sins and the judgement coming upon them at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians, they will have a messiah (anointed one) who is in the line of David. Isaiah states he will be "from the stump of Jesse (David's father)" and that the "Spirit of the Lord will rest on him", that he will judge with righteousness and justice, the wicked will be slain, and ultimately he will bring peace to creation. This peace, according to Isaiah, looks like wolves living with lambs and children playing with vipers.
It isn't stated what the conquering Lion of Judah has conquered other than the conquering has been completed. Richard Bauckham highlights that it can be implied that
"all opposed to God's rule, we are to understand, has been defeated...".
John is aware that the audience will have an idea of what a conqueror should look like. In the context John is writing into, the cultural image would be of Roman rulership bringing about the Pax Romana through military force. We are about to be shown how God conquers.
John is being told that the messiah has come, has conquered and is worthy to open the scroll. This is an encouragement for those who receive Revelation that despite their sufferings under the pressure and persecution of the Roman Empire and tension with their fellow Jews, they are correct in their understanding that the messiah has come and is Jesus.
A slain lamb and a bowl full of prayers
'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. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. ' Revelation 5:6-8
Take a moment to read verse 5 and 6 together:
"Weep no more; behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah... and between the throne...I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain..."
The Christian faith is filled with paradoxes, the author of life was killed (Acts 3:15) and in his dying he defeats death, in the laying down of his power and status, Jesus is exalted and worthy of worship (Philippians 2:6-11). Humility is exalted, death brings life, a man is God. We see a paradox here that a slain lamb is the promised Lion. To free the people of God from the power of Rome the conqueror conquered by laying down his life.
Why a lamb? Jesus was killed during Passover which was the festival remembering the Exodus, when God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. The final plague was the death of the first born of the Egyptians and the Israelites were saved by the blood of a slain lamb placed on their door frames. This idea of a slain lamb is then seen through the Hebrew bible which is drawn on by the New Testament authors, particularly Isaiah 53 which Christians have long connected to a prophecy about Jesus:
"He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth."
This wounded victor also points back to the promise of Genesis 3 that an offspring of Eve would defeat the serpent which brought death on the world but in so doing the serpent would strike the victor's heal. Bauckham points to this image of the slain lamb conqueror as the image of the Christian life and the summation for what it means for the Christian 'to conquer' as we are called repeatedly to do in the letters of chapters 2 and 3. As Jesus taught in Matthew 16:24-25,
"Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it."
In the context John is writing in, the loss of life for the sake of following Jesus is a very possible reality. As we move into future chapters, this becomes more clear that to conquer, we need to not hold on tightly to our lives. That by dying, we somehow partake in the victory of the slain lamb.
Even in weakness there is something of both authority and strength seen in the lamb. Horns symbolise strength and there is often a connection to a strong king or rescuer as can be seen in 1 Samuel 2:10 (remember messiah simply means 'anointed one'),
‘He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed.’
and in Luke 1:69,
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David
The lamb is the promised rescuer, the messiah. As we see through the passage, the rescuer has the authority to take the scroll from the one seated on the throne.
The Trinity is a description of what is seen through the bible, that God reveals himself in three persons, a communion of divinity. All three persons (father, son and spirit) receive worship, have the attributes of God, speak and direct people and all do what God does. We will look into this in more depth in a moment but John wants you to see that the Spirit of God is with the slain lamb, emphasising what was already seen in previous chapters but particularly 4:5. The seven spirits that were with the one on the throne are now with the slain lamb and have been sent out to all the earth but collectively represent the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised to send the Spirit from the Father after he had ascended (John 15:26) and the Spirit of God is used synonymously with the Spirit of Jesus Christ in the New Testament (see Acts 16:7 and Philippians 1:19 as Ian Paul points out in his commentary). The Father is at work through Jesus by his Spirit in the world.
As the lamb takes the scroll we see the elders and living creatures, who were worshipping the one on the throne but are now worshipping the lamb. This is again a significant Trinitarian moment where the lamb receives the worship only due to God. The prayers of the saints, those who have suffered for the name of Jesus (as we will see in future chapters), are in the throne room. Prayers have not fallen on deaf ears but will be heard. Have courage, your cries for God to deal with the pain of this world are not wasted. The 24 elders are acting as priests in representing the people of God, mediating between humanity and God.
A new song
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:9-10
This new song explains what John has just seen. It is because of Jesus' death that he has the authority to take the scroll and open the seals. It is also because of Jesus' death that people have been ransomed from sin and death2 for God. The slain lamb brings freedom and life to all who receive it, at least that is the claim and it is backed up with the resurrection. This freedom is what Revelation will explore further, it is the recognition that no earthly power has power over God's people. Jesus was victorious but it doesn't look like earthly power given that he humbled himself and died for the sake of humanity. Those who follow the slain lamb are called to conquer and in many ways our conquering should look like Jesus' as we've seen in the earlier chapters and the call to take up our cross discussed above.
Two themes can be drawn out from this song. The universality of the victory of Jesus and the purpose of Jesus' followers in the world, both of which are relevant to us and will set the tone for how we read future chapters.
Jesus death and resurrection was for all people and nations. This shouldn't be too controversial given the song we've just read but some seem to think that God only loved some of the world to give his only son to (see John 3:16 for why this is incorrect). God made the world, saw that it was good and made humans in his image. Despite humanity continually trying to access life, power and wisdom on their own terms rather than God's, God continues to love and humble himself to walk with humanity. He creates covenants with his people, contracts that mean that a sovereign God enters into relationships with people who regularly mess up and break the covenant. These covenants in the early books of the bible are with individuals who will only later become the patriarchs of Israel. One covenant is being picked up on here, the Abrahamic covenant from Genesis 12:1-4:
‘I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.’
The aim has always been for the people of God to bless the world and to point them to God. The fact as we can often see too easily when looking around Christendom is we fail terribly at it! The bible doesn't pull any punches for Israel as a nation, her judges, her kings, her priests and her prophets all fail in various ways. There is a reason that the whole bible is waiting for and points to a rescuer for humanity. Humanity repeatedly fails to be faithful and when you fail to be faithful to the one who literally sustains life, there isn't anywhere but death left to go. Where Israel fails to bless the nations, Jesus reconciles all and creates a new humanity through his death and resurrection. This new humanity is reconciled to God as well as between Jew and non-Jew (Ephesians 2:11-22) but also through all class barriers, gender barriers (Galatians 3:26-29). While Jesus' death offers hope to all people, it is up to people whether they join in with the new covenant found in Jesus. The promise found in this new song is that people from all tribes, languages, peoples and nations (not necessarily all people though which is important later) will be and have been ransomed by the slain lamb.
The second theme is to point back to the fact that Jesus as seen in the first vision of chapter 1 is a priest-king. Not only is Jesus a priest-king but his people will be a kingdom of priests3. The role of the follower of Jesus is to fulfil the role given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28 to rule alongside God in having dominion over the earth (king) while also mediating God's presence to the world (priest). This dominion isn't one of the power structures seen in the world today, nor should it be the people of God seeking to rule through politics, but it should be a people seeking to serve those around them even if it means subverting or even confronting current power structures. The church as a people of God should be a blessing to all nations, not conforming cultures to one likeness but redeeming culture and celebrating the diversity of all tribes, nations and languages as we shall see more of in upcoming chapters. The role of the people of God is to mediate God's presence as a kingdom of priests who lay down their lives for others in the way Jesus laid down his life for us all.4 While we do not rule in full, we 'shall reign on the earth' in new creation.
A God worthy of worship (part 2)
'Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.' Revelation 5:11-14
It is implied here due to the sheer number of angels stating with 'a' loud voice that this is a joyful moment of celebration as they call out in unison. Where there was weeping, now there is great joy, hailing the conqueror.
Setting the doxology (expression of praise) of Revelation 4:11 against 5:11-13 highlights the Trinitarian theology hidden in plain sight. 'Trinity' was not used to describe God until the 2nd century but John clearly wants you to see that early Christians were trying to put language on Jesus' divinity.
Whereas the Lamb is worthy to take the scroll because he was slain (vs 9), he is now worthy to receive power, honour and glory (what is attributed to God in Revelation 4) but to make it complete (note the 7 attributes) the slain lamb also receives wealth, wisdom, strength and praise. Both the lamb and the one who sits on the throne are given the honour, glory and power together as a conclusion to chapter 5. John has seen that the lamb is not just the son of man that shares the dominion of God as seen in Daniel 7, but the lamb is divine and worthy of worship (verse 14). Verse 13 says that every creature in the entirety of the universe is to give this worship to the one on the throne and to the lamb. Revelation 19:10 and 22:8-9 show that worshipping a created being was unacceptable, but John is showing that Jesus is no mere created being. As Peter Carrell quoted in Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ says,
"Jesus is bound with God in such a manner that together they form a single object of worship... No encouragement is given to those inclined to believe Jesus to be a second god. Rather, there is a strict adherence to monotheism - but a monotheism which allows for Jesus to be included with God as the object of worship and which envisages Jesus sharing the divine throne room of God."5
In short, Jesus is God, worship him.
Conclusion of chapters 4 and 5
There is so much theology in the last two chapters that it is hard to summarise. The main conclusion that I would make is to highlight John's emphasise that the lamb that was slain is both the promised messiah and also worthy of worship. This is encouraging for those who face persecution and martyrdom for their faith in Jesus, their struggle is not in vain! They are following the example of their saviour, God himself, who humbled himself to the extent of laying down his life as a human for the freedom of all who believe.
As we face a more divided world, one where even the church often turns in on itself, how can we take the authority and power shown in the slain lamb into the world? In what ways do we Christians need to revisit what it really means to lay down our lives, take up our crosses and follow him? I'm certain we will find what it means in the next chapters of Revelation but for now, I’ll leave you to ponder those two questions.
Chapter 6 coming soon…
The IVP Bible Background Commentary - Second Edition - Craig S. Keener
See Romans 6:20-23 as to why the assumption regarding being ransomed from sin and death has been made.
The kingdom for all peoples, nations and languages connects significantly to Daniel 7:13-14 as well as the giving of the kingdom to the saints in verse 22.
The bible project are currently doing a podcast series on this theme of King-Priests and there will be a video series on it soon as well. Check out the podcast here: https://bibleproject.com/podcast/series/the-royal-priest or watch the video below.