Monday, March 10, 2014


            Chapter 5 continues the content and scenery of chapter 4 without break.  So, we sense that we are in the same “room” with the same personalities.  Against this backdrop, new things are added—a book with seven seals and the Lamb. 


ABREVIATIONS:  ESVSB = English Standard Version Study Bible; NIVSB = New International Version Study Bible; ESV = English Standard Version; NIV = New International Version

Scripture quotations are from ESV except when noted otherwise.


Verse 1:  John begins by saying that he saw a “book” or a “scroll.”  It most likely was a scroll, since it had seals on it.  This book was in the right hand (possibly “on the right of” or even “on the hand”) of the One who is sitting on the throne.  One might ask:  Was this scroll there throughout the events of chapter 4 or has it just now appeared?  There is no way of knowing.  It seems to be a new development, since it created somewhat of a crisis in heaven.  I have maintained that the description in chapter 4 is of the ongoing worship in heaven.  This scroll now became a focus in heaven that needed resolution.  A book or a scroll is not of much value unless it is opened and read.  This book was sealed, so the seals had to be opened in order for it to be read. 

            The scroll had been written on both sides.  This is unusual because the texture on one side of scrolls made writing difficult (NIVSB).  Some wills and contracts were written on one side and summarized on the other side (ESVSB). 

            There are a number of understandings of the arrangement of the book and the seals.  One possibility, held by a few, is that this was not a scroll, but was a book with leaves as we know books.  The seals clamped off sections of the book.  Such books were more in use in the second century than in the first.  Ladd (79) dismisses this view, mainly because it does not conform to his theory of the seals and the scroll.  A second view (Morris, 94 and Rist, 405-406) is that the scroll has a series of seals that divide the scroll into sections.  It is difficult to envision this arrangement.  Ladd (79) maintains that all seven seals were on the outside of the scroll along the free edge of the end of the scroll.  Physically, this is the simplest explanation.  Ladd believes that the seven seals had to be broken in order for the contents of the book to be read.  From this he infers that the seals are preparatory to the actual contents of the book.  The book itself will disclose the consummation of history and the inheritance of the saints.  Thus, it is both a last will and testament bequeathing the Kingdom to the saints and a description of those events that lead up to that inheritance.  The breaking of the seventh seal will open up all of those events.  (Ladd, 79-82)

            Ladd’s theory is attractive, and, I think, helpful.  It conflicts with the Dispensationalist view, which understands the events that begin at 4:2 to be in the Tribulation period.  As I have already mentioned, I believe that chapter 4 is a depiction of ongoing worship in heaven.  When John experienced his vision of heaven, he was seeing what was going on in heaven in the late first century.  In chapter 5 and 6, the future history of the world is laid out before John as the seals are broken.  Contrary to Ladd, I think it is possible that some of the seals include the Tribulation period.

            As far as the arrangement of the seals and the scroll/book are concerned, our understanding is not critical.  There could be a book with leaves.  There could be a scroll.  Either the book or the scroll may have had the seals block off sections of the scroll/book, so that, as the seals are broken, we are able to read a section of the book.  Alternatively, the book or the scroll may have had the seals block off the contents of the entire book, so that, the breaking of the seals will get us closer to the contents of the book, but, until all the seals are broken, we cannot read the contents of the book.  As we progress through the seals in chapters 6 and 7, we will observe certain events and gain certain information.  Those events and that information will be available to us to analyze no matter how we understand the arrangement of the scroll/book and the seals.  The arrangement is somewhat helpful in our analysis, but probably it is not crucial.

            Obviously, I am getting ahead of myself.  The first issue to be settled was to open the seals.

Verse 2:  John saw a mighty angel “proclaiming.”  This is somewhat an odd choice of words, because the proclamation is a question:  who is worthy to break the seals so that the scroll may be opened?  It is possible that this is a rhetorical question.  It is setting us up to understand the immense importance of the book and its seals.  Not just anyone is going to break those seals.

Verse 3:  The rhetorical question is answered as one would expect:  no one was able to open the scroll.  The verb “was able” is in the imperfect tense, which designates a continuing state in the past.  This situation was the way things were and had been for some time.

Verse 4:  John was weeping (imperfect tense) because of this situation.  Was he weeping because his curiosity would be denied?  I think that is a trivial understanding.  This scroll is of eternal significance and importance.  And yet, all of heaven and earth is bereft of anyone who is able to open the scroll.

Verse 5:  John is encouraged to stop weeping.  A solution has been found.  A person has been found who is able to open the scroll.  This person is described as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David.”  I used Bible Gateway to search for these phrases, and I could only find one other use of one of them—“the root and offspring of David” in Revelation 22:16.  However, there are passages that these phrases “echo.”  In Genesis 49:9, Jacob called Judah a lion.  In Isaiah 11:1ff there is the prediction of a “shoot from the stump” of Jesse and a “branch” from the roots of Jesse who will be glorious leader.  In the same passage, this same leader is called the “root of Jesse.”  Paul quotes Isaiah 11:10 in Romans 15:12 (he quotes the Septuagint). From the context of Revelation 5, it is obvious that Jesus is the one who fulfills these roles as the lion of Judah and the root of David (Jesse’s son).  This person has “conquered.”  ESV and NIV word the verse in a way that implies that two separate actions have taken place:  The person has conquered and this has made Him worthy to open the scroll.  However, the literal translation is:  “…[the person] conquered to open the scroll and its seven seals.”  New American Standard Version has a similar translation:  “…has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals.”  It was the act of conquering that has broken the seals and opened the book.  This will be made more nearly clear in the remainder of the chapter.

            I should comment on the titles that are given to Jesus in this chapter.  Both of these refer to Jesus’ role as Son of David (who was of the tribe of Judah), the King of Israel.  It is important to recognize Jesus’ position with regard to the Hebrew nation.  However, how that works itself out with respect to the Gentiles and the church is the subject of great controversy.  The Dispensationalists maintain that we must sharply differentiate Jesus’ role as King of the Jews from His role as husband to the church (Pentecost, 201,212, 226, 88, 507).  That controversy cannot be resolved within the scope of this article or even by a study of the entire book of Revelation.  The Dispensationalists would maintain that the use of these titles in this chapter is proof of their thesis.  I do not agree.  I recognize the Jewish references in these titles, but I do not believe that that is proof that the events in this chapter and succeeding chapters are relevant only to the Jews and not to the church.  Making that case will have to be “put on hold” for now.

Verse 6:  Although John had just been told about the Lion of Judah and the Root of David—royal titles—his next observation is of a Lamb.  I shall discuss this Lamb, but first I have to deal with the location of the Lamb.

            There are two interpretations of the Greek.  In one, which is followed by ESV, the Lamb is pictured between the throne and the four living creatures and also among the elders.  In the other, which followed by NIV, the Lamb is pictured in the middle of the throne and the four living creatures and in the middle of the elders.  In 4:6b the four living creatures are described as being in “the center, around the throne” (NIV) or “around the throne, on each side of the throne” (ESV).  Literally, they are “in the middle of the throne and around the throne.”  That is not geometrically possible.  One possibility is that the “throne” is the central area and is surrounded by the thrones of the 24 elders (4:4).  In this central area were (a) the One who was sitting on the throne (4:2), the four living creatures (4:6b), the seven torches of fire (4:5), and the sea of glass (4:6a).  Thus, I interpret the description in chapter 4 to mean that the four living creatures were closer to the throne than the 24 elders.  The Lamb was in the center of the throne and surrounded by the four living creatures, and, in a wider circle, surrounded by the 24 elders.  I do believe that the Lamb was on the throne.  This is in accord with other passages that state that Jesus sits with the Father (Ephesians 1:20, Hebrews 8:1).

            The Lamb is standing “as though it had been slain.”  This is a peculiar expression.  It probably would be better said:  “a lamb standing, that was like one that had been slain.”  In other words, it was not the manner of its standing that made it look like it has been slain.  It just looked like a lamb that had been slain.  Possibly it had a gaping wound in its neck.  Now, note that it was standing, and as we read further, we do learn that the Lamb, though it had been slain, was alive.  All of this is obviously a picture of Jesus, who was the Lamb of God (John 1:29, 1:36, Acts 8:32, I Corinthians 5:7, I Peter 1:19, Revelation 7:14, 13:8).  His death on the cross was the perfect sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 9:11-12, 10:1-18).  But, though He died, He rose from the dead.  He still bore the marks of the crucifixion in His body (John 20:19-20), but He was victorious over the grave. 

So, the Lion of the tribe of Judah had indeed conquered (Revelation 5:5).  He had conquered sin and death and, through His victory, He won back the Kingdom of God.  The scroll in the right hand of the One on the throne can be thought of as the title deed to the Kingdom, His inheritance and the inheritance of His co-heirs.  If we think of the scroll as being the history of the future, that future ends with the coming of the Kingdom.  So, when Jesus died on the cross, he made it possible to open the seals on the scroll and open up the future for the saints.  Thus, it was not merely that He was qualified; rather it was that He conquered the barriers that held back humanity from experiencing God’s full vision for them. 

The description of the Lamb is bizarre—seven horns and seven eyes.  Obviously, this is not a picture that invites us into pastoral beauty.  Yet, the symbolism is strong.  The sevens throughout Revelation give us a picture of fullness, completeness, and perfection.  The horns throughout the Bible connote strength.  The eyes are defined for us:  they are the “seven spirits of God sent out into the world.” 

This description of the eyes creates problems for us who have the Trinity in a nice neat set of categories.  The fact that there are seven is a problem, just as it was in 1:4 and 4:5.  The fact that they are part of the body of the Lamb is a problem as well.  My suggestion begins by recognizing that the word picture of the Lamb is not a description of a Person, but rather a description of a set of ideas.  The central visual picture is of a lamb which had been slain.  This is an obvious symbolic picture of the crucifixion and resurrection (to be inferred from the fact that the Lamb is alive).   The seven horns is a picture of power and strength.  The seven eyes represent the capacity to see.  That this organ of sight should represent the Holy Spirit in His activity in the world is a powerful image.  The sevenfold ability of God to see what is going on in the world is the particular capacity chosen to represent the Holy Spirit.  Obviously the Spirit does a lot of things.  But as He performs His ministry, He does so with full knowledge of the human condition.  In Genesis 16:13-14, Hagar, the concubine of Abraham, had an encounter with God and chose to call God “the God who sees me.”  God saw Hagar in her plight as she fled from Sarah, but also saw her in her future as a mother and as a matriarch of many.  The Holy Spirit is fully aware of who we are and what we can become.  But the Holy Spirit’s ministry is not a separate ministry from what Christ is doing in the world.  The two are joined together in the project of redemption.  So, as John received a vision of the Christ, he also saw the intimate connection between the Lamb of redemption and the Holy Spirit who ministers Christ to us.  (See John 14-16.)

Verse 7:  The Lamb, who had conquered (5:5), took the scroll from the right hand of the One on the throne, who we have already decided in our minds is the Father.  This act of taking the scroll is the beginning of the rest of the book.  John was told (1:19) to write the things that are and the things that will take place.  As the Lamb began to break the seals, the things that will take place were made visible, and John wrote what he saw, beginning at chapter 6.

            However, before the seals were broken, there was a tremendous time of praise in heaven, which is recounted in 5:8-14.  The fact that so much praise took place signals to us just what a big deal this scroll was—and is.  I shall indicate our key to understanding that in the discussion of verses 5:9-10. 

Verse 8:  When the Lamb took the scroll, the angelic beings that surround the throne reacted.  They “fell down” to worship the Lamb.  I have often reflected that, in our democratic culture, it is very difficult to empathize with the worship that we read about in the Bible.  There have been a few cases that we have observed in which people are in awe of a person.  The girls who screamed and carried on over Elvis and the Beatles might be a similar situation.  In fact, it seems like, in our day, only show business personalities and big time athletes can evoke the kind of worshipful reaction that the Bible describes.  I remember reading in Tolstoy’s War and Peace how a young man in the military reacted when the Czar reviewed the troops.  He was overcome with love and devotion for his monarch.  But for many of us, it is very difficult to imagine falling down and worshiping anybody—except ourselves.  The song “I Can Only Imagine” asks the question:  what would I do if I were in the presence of the glorified Jesus?  I guess another question to ask is:  what would I do if I knew that, in times of prayer or in times of corporate worship, I am really in the presence of Jesus? 

            The angelic beings each held a harp and a bowl of incense.  The implication seems to be that they managed to keep hold of these when they fell.  The incense is the “prayers of the saints.”  That is a magnificent thought.  It tells us that our prayers are valued immensely in heaven, that they are a sweet fragrance that rises up in worship to the Lord.  Prayer is a much-neglected privilege of the saints.  Jesus promised more than once that the Father gladly hears our prayers.  In prayer we express our faith, we wrestle with our own flesh, we experience the Holy Spirit, and we meet God in the midst of our own hectic lives.  The old song says it well:  “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” 

Verse 9:  The angelic beings sang a new song.  I searched “sang” and “sing” in the NIV using Bible Gateway.  I found only one direct reference to angels singing other than this verse in all the Bible!  It is Job 38:7.  Another verse makes a reference to “heaven” singing (Isaiah 38:7).  Most us of say the angels sang at Christmas time, but they actually spoke (Luke 2:13-14).  This is also possibly the only instance of angels with harps (Revelation 14:2 is ambiguous as to who are playing the harps).  This illustrates the powerful influence that Revelation has had on our imaginations.  From a few verses, we have an image of angels singing and playing harps.  I am sure they do that, but it is instructive sometimes to trace the source of our mental images.

            The song that the angelic creatures sang was a statement of the Lamb’s worthiness to take the scroll and open the seals on it.  The first reason is that He was slain.  The book of Revelation keeps very close to the cross of Jesus.  It talks about the Lamb who was slain and about the blood that was shed.  This book was written with the understanding that Christians were being persecuted and were going to be persecuted.  It understood that the price of being a Christian was to go against the flow of an antichrist culture, to risk one’s livelihood and to be shunned from the mainstream.  The book understood that Christians would face the power of the Roman Empire, the power of worldly power structures that would come after that empire, and finally the power of the empire of the Antichrist/Beast.  With that understanding, it was important to remind Christians that their Lord and Savior had stood against the religious and cultural centers of His day, that He had faced the Jewish power structure in league with the Roman empire, that He had been whipped, mocked, spit upon, had a crown of thorns pushed onto His head, that He had been led outside the city and crucified.  He was worthy because He had been slain.

            He was also worthy because He did not just die a martyr’s death.  His death was the God-ordained means of redemption.  His blood was the purchase price of the people who were rescued from the power of sin.  He had ransomed them from many different people groups.

            The King James Version (KJV) differs from those translations that rely on the Greek text that is currently accepted.  The text reads (as in KJV) “…thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us…[emphasis added].”  The text that is now used (believed to be more reliable) omits “us.”  It literally says:  “and redeemed to God by your blood from every tribe and tongue…”  The prepositional phrase “from every tribe…” modifies an understood substantive that is to be supplied.  For example, a reading could be “those from every tribe…”  Versions supply “men,” “people,” etc.  This change from the KJV plays a role in the identity of the 24 elders (Ladd, 74-75). 

            The word “ransomed” (ESV) is better “purchased” (NIV).  The theme throughout the New Testament is that Jesus’ death was the price of our salvation.  See Matthew 20:28, Titus 2:14, I Peter 1:18-19, Romans 3:24.  The following Scriptures use the same word that is used here:  I Corinthians 6:20, II Peter 2:1, Revelation 14:3-4.

Verse 10:  The result of the redemption is that the people who have been bought from their former condition are now empowered to serve God in a positive way, in a Kingdom and as priests.  The verse is an echo of Revelation 1:6 and Exodus 19:6.  The latter was spoken to Moses as a message to the people of Israel.  God has set them free from slavery in Egypt and now was forming them into the people of God—“kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  In the same way, those who have been set free from sin have become a “kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” 

            We might reflect that this joyful statement of the victory of Jesus stood in strong contrast to the experience of first century Christians who observed the power of the Roman Empire throughout the Mediterranean world.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians:  “For consider your calling, brothers:  not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” (I Corinthians 1:26)  In the letters to the seven churches, Jesus observed the poverty of the church at Smyrna (Revelation 2:9), the Satanic power of the rulers where the church at Pergamum worshiped (2:13), the “little power” of the church at Philadelphia (3:8).  Yet, they were a Kingdom and they will reign on the earth.  Those who live in the last days, when the Antichrist/Beast boasts of his power and glory, can quietly remember that they are a Kingdom and priests unto God and they will reign on the earth.

            So, the powerful and exultant praise of the angelic beings was a declaration of the victory that the Lamb had won at the cross in redeeming people from their sins and forming them into a Kingdom and a priesthood—a reality now and a future hope.

Verse 11:  John now saw and heard not just the four living creatures and the 24 elders, but a huge number of angels surrounding the inner circle of angelic beings.  The word translated “myriad” in ESV is “ten thousand” in NIV.  It can probably be understood as an indeterminate huge number.  If we take the expression literally, it would ten thousand times ten thousand or 100 million.  Then, John strangely adds “thousands of thousands.”  Again, literally this would be millions.  To nitpick at arithmetic is counterproductive (as so often we become when dealing with images in Revelation).  The point is that there were huge numbers of angels.

Verse 12:  The angelic band gives their chorus of praise:  “Worthy is the Lamb.”  The Lion of Judah, the Root of Jesse, the Lamb of God who was slain has conquered.  The victory has been won, and He is worthy.  All that He is worthy of He already possesses, but this declaration is that what He possesses is rightfully, legitimately His—power, wealth, blessing, etc.  The angels are rational beings who have a heavenly perspective.  They understand that Christ is worthy of all praise and honor.  Poor, pathetic earth sees with blind eyes and is never sure who is a worthy recipient of honor.  Is it the movie star who says his lines with skill but goes through multiple wives?  Is it the singer who pleases our ears but is addicted to drugs?  Is it the politician who manipulates us to vote her into office so she can grab the perquisites of power?  Again and again, our idols are made of tin.  At the same time, we ourselves grab whatever glory and honor we can for ourselves and soon see it turn to dust.  But One is worthy of all “power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

Verse 13:  Now the vision gives us a bit of a twist.  John says that “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” was giving praise.  At this point we have to ask ourselves:  what is John talking about?  I think of two possibilities.  One is that John’s vision is without the restraints of ordinary time and sequence, so that he envisioned a time when this would be true.  It was not true in his day if we include humans among the “creatures.”  It is not true today.  It will not be true during the Tribulation period, if the Dispensationalists are correct in understanding this scene to take place during that time.  But, there will come a day.  Paul envisioned such a day when he wrote the hymn to the incarnate Christ in Philippians:

 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:9-11)

A second interpretation might be that all creation is a praise to God by virtue of its very existence.  So, it says in Psalm 19:1:   “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”  These creatures do not actually speak, but their presence, their glory, their hugeness—these declare God’s glory.  Even sinful humanity is a testament to the creative power and love of God.  Whatever the meaning, all creation declares praise to both the One on the throne and the Lamb.  The Lamb receives the same worship that the One on the throne receives.  In the words of theology, He is co-equal with the Father, fully God as well as fully human. 

Verse 14:  Our focus reduces back down to the inner circle at the throne.  The four living creatures say an “Amen” to the praise from all creation, and the 24 elders take the occasion to fall down in worship. 

            Fiction writers are admonished to pay heed to “point of view.”  If an account is first person narrative, then one cannot introduce material that the narrator would not know (unless other logic of the story-telling permits it).  So, we have, of course, a first-person narrative from John in this book.  But we also have a perspective that has been set for us in chapters 4 and 5.  We have been to heaven with John.  We understand that the narrative that follows will have a heavenly perspective.  We understand that the Lamb is opening for us the future as he opens the seals of the scroll.  And we understand that this narrative is ultimately about the redemption of people from around the globe through the cross of Jesus Christ.  Those people are a kingdom and priests unto God.  Whether Rome is an empire or the Antichrist/Beast is all-powerful, the Lamb has conquered and created the people of God as a Kingdom.

            Pilate had Jesus on trial.  He kept coming back to the Jewish leaders and the mob they had collected.  In John 18:39, he asked the Jews if they wanted him to release the King of the Jews.  In John 19:7-12, Pilate realized that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and he tried to release him to the Jews.  But they threw up to him that he would not be a friend to Caesar if he aided a man claiming to be a king.  In John 19:14, Pilate presented Jesus to the Jews as “your King.”  But they shouted to crucify him.  Pilate again asked:  “Shall I crucify your King?” (John 19:15b)  And the Jews said those fateful words (John 19:15c):  “We have no king but Caesar.”  In Revelation, the contrast is between the Lamb who is worthy and the antichrist powers of the earth.  We too must choose.  Is Caesar our king?  Or is the Lamb worthy to take “power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing”?


Crossway Bibles (2009-04-09). ESV Study Bible. Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Ladd, George Eldon.  A Commentary on the Revelation of John.  Grand Rapids:  William B.

            Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972.

Rist, Martin.  “The Revelation of St. John the Divine” Exegesis.  The Interpreter’s Bible.  Vol. XII.

            Nolan B. Harmon, Ed.  New York:  Abingdon Press, 1957.   

Zondervan NIV Study Bible.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publ., 2002



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