Revelation 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Seven-Sealed Scroll and the Lamb

There is a story about a mother who noticed that her six-year-old son was deeply engrossed in trying to draw and color an elaborate picture. "What are you drawing, dear?" she asked. "I'm drawing a picture of God," he answered. "That's very nice, dear," she said, "but you know, no one really knows what God looks like." "They will now," was the triumphant reply. John, as we have seen, started out with characteristically Jewish restraint in describing the one seated on the throne in his vision. Yet as the plot of his vision unfolds, the scene will end in a way that must have been truly disturbing to any Jewish reader--with the worship of an animal, a Lamb, as God!

Whether there is a pause in the ceaseless worship described in 4:8-11, or whether the scenario played out in chapter 5 is also assumed to go on "day and night" forever (4:8), we are not told. In any event, for the first time since 4:1 John uses the words I saw (5:1), indicating that a new vision, or at least a new phase of the vision in the throne room, is under way. His attention is fastened on a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals, held in the right hand of him who sat on the throne (5:1). A mighty angel, not introduced before, asks, "Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?" (v. 2), but no one was found worthy to open it or to look inside. John, caught up emotionally in the scene, wept and wept at this (v. 4). One of the elders told him not to weep because the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals (v. 5). We are not told why it was so important that someone be found to look inside the scroll. Despite his tears, even John may not have known, and if he knows, he is not telling.

The one announced by the elder's authoritative voice is the Jewish Messiah as traditionally understood, descended from the line of David, yet the one who promptly appears is the Christian Messiah, pictured here as a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes (v. 6). John intuitively knows that the seven eyes, like the seven lamps blazing before the throne (4:5), are actually the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth (v. 6; compare 1:4, "the seven spirits before his throne"). The Lamb is clearly no stranger to the heavenly throne room, but an integral part of the scene. Like the living creatures, he stands in the center of the throne, but unlike them he is not said to be "around the throne" (4:6) He is not part of the throne, as they are, but an occupant of it, as much an occupant as the divine one seated there, and every bit as much an object of worship.

The discrepancy between what is announced (the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, v. 5) and what actually appears (a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, v. 6) is not the kind of discrepancy that compels the reader to make a choice. Rather, each designation interprets and clarifies the other: the Jewish Messiah is the Christian Messiah; the triumphant Lion is the slaughtered Lamb; the mighty King is the crucified divine Savior. He has indeed triumphed (v. 5) or "conquered" (NRSV), not by the sword but by his death (compare 3:20). In this respect, Revelation is no different from Matthew's Gospel, which identifies "Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Mt 1:1) as "`Immanuel'--which means, `God with us'" (1:23), nor is it different from Paul in Romans, who identifies Jesus the "descendant of David" as one "declared with power to be Son of God by his resurrection from the dead" (Rom 1:3-4). The old Jewish messianic expectation is transformed in light of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.

As soon as the Lamb takes the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne (v. 7), he becomes the object of worship. Living creatures and elders alike fall down before him, each with a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which John (without being told) is able to identify as the prayers of the saints (v. 8; compare Ps 141:2, "May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice"). This is the first of only three references to petitionary prayers in the book of Revelation (compare 6:10; 8:3-4), and the reader cannot help but wonder whether John has in mind the routine daily prayers of God's people or specific prayers about some urgent need. The answer is not given here, but will become clear in connection with the other two references.

For the moment, the accent is on praise and worship rather than petitionary prayer, as the living creatures and elders sing a "new song":

"You are worthy to take [that is, receive] 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;

you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,and they will reign on earth" (vv. 9-10 NRSV; the NIV identifies the redeemed as "men").

The italicized words, worthy . . . to receive. . . for, serve to accent the similarity in form between this new song and the previous song of the elders before the throne in 4:11. The first was directed to "him who sits on the throne," or "our Lord and God," in praise for the work of creation. The second is now directed to the Lamb in praise for the work of redemption. The popularity of hymns to creation and redemption in first-century Asia Minor can be seen in a pair of hymns in Paul's letter to the Colossians about Christ's work both of creating all things (Col 1:15-17) and reconciling all things to God (1:18-20; compare also Jn 1:1-18).

The new song of redemption is echoed in another song of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand (v. 11):

"Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered

to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might

and honor and glory and blessing!" (v. 12 NRSV)'

Again the italicized words echo 4:11 ("worthy . . . to receive"), but this time what the Lamb "receives" is not simply the scroll, but "power and wealth and wisdom and might," corresponding generally to the "glory and honor and power" that the Lord God was worthy to receive according to 4:11. The Lamb and the One seated on the throne are worthy of the same ascriptions of praise. This is made explicit in the final hymn, emanating from beyond the immediate scene John sees in heaven, from every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them (v. 13):

"To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb

be blessing and honor and glory and might

forever and ever!" (v. 13 NRSV).

What was implicit now becomes explicit: God on the throne and the Lamb in the center of the throne are inextricably joined together as objects of Christian worship. Again and again throughout John's visions they will be seen together as equals sharing the same throne, both as objects of fear or worship and as the decisive actors in the drama of salvation. Examples include 6:16, "hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb"; 7:9, "standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb"; 7:10, "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb"; 14:4, "firstfruits to God and the Lamb"; 21:22, "the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple;" 21:23, "the glory of God gives its light, and the Lamb is its lamp;" 22:1, "flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb"; 22:3, "the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city." In John's visionary context, it appears that the whole universe is worshiping an animal, but as it turns out, the "Lamb" (like the awe-inspiring angel of chap. 1) is merely one of several disguises worn by the risen Jesus. In this, the first of John's visions of heaven, the traditional Jewish Messiah has been transformed into the divine and sovereign Christ of Christian theology. The liturgy of the heavenly throne room concludes with the "amen" of the four living creatures, as the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped (v. 14).

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