Understanding Revelation Chapter Five

This post is a direct continuation of the previous post, on Revelation Chapter Four.  For introductory comments on the general nature of Revelation and how to understand it, please see that post.

Revelation 5

5Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; 2and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ 3And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. 4And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’

6 Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. 8When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9They sing a new song:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.’

11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12singing with full voice,
‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!’
13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honour and glory and might
for ever and ever!’
14And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.

 

Verse 1:  “In the right hand of the one seated on the throne…” The right hand of God, drawing on texts in Exodus and the Psalms, is the hand of power and might, and of righteousness and salvation.  We know what the scroll is about, just by knowing whose right hand holds it.

The scroll is a symbolic way of showing the full account, the full plan for creation, for rectifying what is wrong and establishing God’s reign.  Therefore, it holds the meaning of all human history and endeavour, whether each part is to be judged and destroyed or incorporated into the new creation.  The way one commentator put it is that “inside the scroll are not just writings, but the pent-up powers and forces and energies that will shape the course of” creation “till the end of time.”

That the scroll is written on the inside and the back – unusual at the time – says something about the fullness, the magnitude, of what is written.  It suggests that what is written has significance both for material reality – what we see and hear and so forth – and spiritual reality, the deeper truth to which John’s vision attests.

Seven seals – again, seven is the number of completeness.  This scroll and its contents are utterly secure.

That the scroll is in the right hand of the one on the throne emphasizes again that the living God is in control.  And more than that, he has a plan, which is secure in his keeping.  The surface chaos of life is not the ultimate truth.

Verse 3:  “No one…was able to open the scroll or to look into it.”  Created beings, even the best or most powerful, are not up to the task.  We cannot take on the plan of the creator and make it reality in our own strength or wisdom.

Verse 4: “No one was found worthy,” a realization of the sinfulness and injustice of human society.  Yet those unworthy are gathered around the lamb  and participate in his worthy, just reign.  (See verse 10 – “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests…they will reign on earth.”)

Verse 5: “Lion of Judah,” “Root of David,” these are images of Jewish messianic expectation.  A Jewish apocalyptic work from a bit before the time Revelation was written wrote about the Messiah confronting Rome as a lion reproving the eagle.  Isaiah wrote about the one who will come from the stump of Jesse, from his roots, as the one who will begin an age in which the wolf will live with the lamb, and all the world will know God.  This grounds Jesus firmly in Jewish understanding of God, and of messianic expectation.  Again we see that, for John, Christianity is not a negation or rejection of Judaism, but its unfolding to a greater depth.

The lion has conquered.  This references the crucifixion and resurrection.  It is finished; accomplished; a done deal.  Christ can open the scroll in John’s vision, because that shows us in symbolic terms what he has already accomplished in his time on earth.

So, the elder tells John that the lion has conquered, and what John actually sees is…

Verse 6:  …the lamb.  The lion who has conquered is a slain lamb.  He is both at once.  He conquers by being slaughtered; his triumph is the cross.

Seven horns and seven eyes; again, seven for completeness.  Seven eyes (for wisdom) the lamb has/is all wisdom.  Seven horns (for strength) the lamb has all strength, is all-powerful.

The translation above (the NRSV) says he is “between the throne…” but that’s not a very good rendering of the Greek.  The lamb is “in the middle” of the throne, at the centre of all that is going on.  At the centre of creation, at the centre of redeemed humanity, at the centre of authority and power.  The throne seems to be a dual-occupancy set up; the Father (although John doesn’t use that term) is on the throne, and the lamb is somehow also at the centre of the throne, at the centre of God’s being.

This whole picture; the location of the lamb, and his being described as having all wisdom and power, is making an extremely high claim for Christ’s identity as God.  This is why he, and he alone, can open the scroll.

It also tells us that at the centre of reality is One who suffers.  The lamb has been slain in order to accomplish his purpose.  We are not alone in our suffering, but the one who is at the centre of all being suffers along with us.  This also suggests why those who worship the lamb cannot avoid suffering; the closer we get to the heart of the lamb, the closer we get to a heart which aches for and with a suffering world.  More than that, it points us to the costliness of grace.  The lion is a lamb, suffered, was slain, because of us, and pays that price out of love.  At the centre of the throne is not only one who suffers, but who does so willingly and out of love for us.

The point of all this is to say that this is a safe place for us.  Before the awesome throne, the control centre of the universe, we are safe because we face a God who willingly suffers for and with us, who freely gives his very self to make things right for us. Here is grace; here we are known, and loved, and safe.

Verse 7:  That Christ can take the scroll from the one on the throne (identified as the Father), reflects the Father’s giving Jesus all power, both in heaven and on earth.  This is a comfort to us, because Christ is trustworthy to hold that power.

Verse 8:  “twenty-four elders…each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Harps were traditional instruments used by Levites in the liturgy of the Jerusalem temple, as leaders and representative worshippers.  Here also the elders function as leaders, and what they do represents what should be part of the life of all believers.  Note their presentation of prayers (represented symbolically by incense).  So all of us should offer to God prayer and praise, confident that they reach even to the throne at the deepest centre of all reality.

Verse 9: A new song as response to new revelation, new understanding of the one on the throne.  Christ is worthy because he was slain; his actions and self-sacrifice in the service of the divine plan allow him to open the scroll for all.  The proof is the resurrection; Jesus took everything evil could throw at him, even to death, but even that was not able to destroy or corrupt or entangle Jesus.  He has overcome.

Verse 10:  “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth…” Christ is reigning now.  The throne is a present reality.  Our sharing in his reign is not merely an image for the future, but one for now, if we choose to align ourselves completely with his reign.  This is why we are already a kingdom and priests, serving our God; we already participate in his reign, in bringing about his will, in the world.  (As a side note, this is not a reference to the particular work of ordained priests, for those denominations which have them, but references the priestly nature of the whole redeemed people of God, of whom ordained priests are authorised servants and representatives).  The powers of righteousness, justice, peace, truth, goodness, joy, love, faith, and so forth, which up until now have been consciously claimed only by the Jews, are poured out into all the nations on earth.  God’s kingdom is a body of people each of whom makes present God’s freedom and power in triumphing with Christ over sin and evil.  As one kid in a confirmation class put it, “Heaven is wherever God is acknowledged.”

This participation in Christ’s reign involves us in faithful witness, orienting ourselves to the throne at the centre and letting our lives show his reign.  It involves intercession; we have already seen in verse 8 the prayers of the saints offered to the throne, in the image of incense.  We bring the world and its brokenness and its evil before the throne, into the presence of the triumphant suffering of the lamb, for healing.  And it involves martyrdom; taking whatever comes as a result of doing as the lamb does.  Evil is only overcome by the power of sacrificial goodness; it is not overcome by being answered in kind.  This is the paradox of a slain lamb on the throne.  This is not passivity or weakness; this is a refusal to let evil set the agenda or be in control.  The lamb who was slain is on the throne, and he has ultimate control and triumph.

“…on earth.”  Ultimate hope is for the renewal of creation, not existence in some transcendent disembodied realm.

Verse 11:  Just as the one on the throne was praised for creation, now the lamb is praised for redemption.  Creation and redemption, though, are inseparable; the one on the throne redeems by creating anew.  The creator and the redeemer both occupy the throne; they are one.  Again, a very high claims for Jesus’ divine nature.

Verse 12:  “Worthy is the lamb to receive power…wealth…wisdom…might…honour…glory…blessing.”  Sevenfold praise; complete praise.  The lamb is worthy of all.

Verse 13:  The song of all creation: “Blessing and honour and glory and might.”  The word here translated might is kratos.  It shares roots with the -cracy suffix for different types of government, and is again a reference to the kind of power expressed in reigning.  Note the very common liturgical use of this text in Eucharistic prayers, and the extraordinarily high claim it makes for the relationship between what we do in our gathering for worship, and worship at the deepest level of spiritual reality.

Verse 14:  Notice that the living creatures who began the heavenly liturgy in chapter four by crying, “Holy, holy, holy…” here bring this worship scene to a close by saying Amen to all the worship of all the heavenly beings, all the redeemed people of the earth, and all creation.  Again, this has parallels with the Amen at the end of the great thanksgiving in Eucharistic liturgies, and the way we use these words says much (again) about their relationship to this scene of heavenly, human and cosmic worship; how we participate in this underlying reality at the most profound level.

Unfortunately, I don’t expect to be able to work my way through the entirety of Revelation this year.  I plan to do one more study next week, on Chapter 12, which I hope to post here as well.

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