Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Revelation 5 Explanatory Notes

Ghent Altar piece
Jan van Eyck
The Lamb of God
5:1 And I saw in the right hand of the One seated on the throne a scroll having been written on the inside and outside, having been sealed with seven seals.
Revelation 4 is the worship of God (the Father). Chapter 5 proceeds then to the worship and adoration of the Lamb of God as well, Jesus. The primary focus is on Jesus as the Lamb slain for the world.

The drama starts with a scroll in God's hand. Sometimes the word biblion here is translated with the word, "book," but this is misleading. The book form was not widely used at this time. It is a scroll that God holds in his right hand, the favored hand.

The scroll is sealed. In fact it has seven seals. Wax seals not only kept a scroll from unraveling. They could be used to authenticate the sender of a message if an impression was made in the wax by a signet ring giving the seal of the sender.

The majority of scrolls were only written on the inside. An "opisthograph" was less common, with writing on both sides. Perhaps it suggests that the judgments that are to come are complete, thorough, and costly.

2. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a great voice, "Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?"
We learn that this special scroll cannot be opened by just anyone. It has to be opened by the right person, someone who is worthy. We do not yet know exactly who that person is as the drama unfolds. Nor do we know yet what the qualifications are for a person who is worthy.

3. And no one was able in the sky nor on the land nor under the land to open the scroll nor to look at it.
At first, no one is found in three of the four domains of the universe of John's day. First, the sky or heaven is mentioned. No angel is worthy to open the scroll. On the land or earth, no one is found. No human, no animal, no tree is worthy. Under the earth is the realm of the dead. No one there is worthy either. The only other possibility would be the sea, but either it is included with the land or it is assumed that no one would be worthy in that chaotic domain.

4. And I cried much because no one was found worthy to open the scroll nor to look at it.
It makes John very sad that no one is found worthy to open the scroll or to look at its contents. Perhaps John knows that this scroll entails justice on evil. When this scroll is opened, evil will come to an end. Justice will be served. All will be made right with God.

5. And one of the elders says to me, "Do not cry. The lion from the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has conquered to open the scroll and its seven seals.
Now for the turning point of the plot. Someone is worthy after all. Someone has overcome. It is the root of David--the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ. The "root of David" is the branch of David (Jer. 33:15), a shoot from the stem of Jesse (Isa. 11:1). The lion of the tribe of Judah (cf. Gen. 49:9-10) is another metaphor for the king of God's people.

Jesus is worthy because he as conquered. We do not yet know what he has conquered, but we know he has been victorious. Accordingly, he is qualified to take the throne of David.

6. And I saw in the middle of the throne and the four beasts and in the middle of the elders a Lamb having stood as having been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God having been sent into all the land.
The paradox of the revelation is that this king who has conquered has conquered by his death. He is not only a lion and a root. He is a Lamb, a slaughtered lamb. His sacrifice makes him worthy, as we will soon see.

The Lamb is the center of attention. He stands between God (the Father) on the throne and the elders representing victorious humanity and the beasts representing the creation. He has seven horns and seven eyes--the perfect number of completion. They represent the seven spirits of God which are the angels sent out into all the earth and especially to guard all the churches.

7. And he went and has taken from the right hand of the One sitting on the throne.
The Lamb is worthy. No one else can take the scroll, only him. For those who are looking for a sermon illustration, you might consider the comic book hero Thor. Only Thor is worthy to lift his hammer. Others, no matter how strong, cannot lift it.

So only Jesus is worthy to take the scroll from God the Father's hands.

8. And when he took the scroll, the four beasts and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each having a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Unlike later in Revelation when the angel will tell John to get up, no one is told to get up when they bow before Jesus. Jesus is worthy of their worship. The creation recognizes it. Victorious humanity recognizes it.

The harps of the elders reflect the beauty, peace, and harmony that the Lamb brings to all things. The incense shows that what is about to happen is an answer to the prayers of all the saints, all the "holy ones" who trust in God and Christ. They have been waiting and longing for this moment.

9. And they sang a new song, saying, "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals because you were slain and you purchased for God with your blood from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
We now find out why the Lamb is worthy to open the seals on the scroll. The basis is the sacrificial death of Jesus. He is a sacrificial lamb. His sacrifice has made possible the redemption of the world. The price to purchase them was his blood.

From what is said we cannot go much further to explain exactly how this works. Christians in later centuries have tried to expand on the logic of redemption. Is the blood paid to the Devil? Certainly nothing like that is said here. Is this some mathematical substitution of punishment? Such an idea goes well beyond anything said here.

What we can say is that a sacrificial metaphor is used. Jesus' death was like a sacrifice. It was like a payment in blood. There is a sense of satisfying the order of things. God's wrath is not mentioned in this verse. Justice is not mentioned. There is simply a sense that humanity owes something, and the only way to pay that debt is with Jesus' blood.

The redemption is universal in scope. It's value extends to every tribe, language, people, and nation. We should not think of nations at this time like modern nation-states. They are more like realms run by a particular people. So the Romans were Italians who subjugated other people-groups. The people groups (laos) are within the "nations" (ethnē).

10. ... and you made them for our God a kingdom and priests and they will rule on the land.
Those from all these different places have become part of a kingdom, the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of priests and kings. As priests, they administer the worship of God. They bring sacrifices of praise. They mediate the worship of God to those who have not yet believed.

They are kings too, for they will prevail over all the forces that resist God on the earth. Everyone in God's kingdom, both small and great is a king. It does not matter whether you were born a Jew or a Greek. It does not matter if you are a man or a woman. It does not matter if you were born rich or poor. It doesn't matter if you're black or white. Everyone in this kingdom is a king, and everyone in this kingdom is a priest. And we will all rule the earth.

11. And I saw and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the beasts and the elders and the number of them was ten thousands of ten thousands and thousands of thousands. 12. saying with a great voice, "Worthy is the Lamb who has been slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!"
Now we see how the story will end. We have seventeen more chapters to see it finally, but this is how the story ends, with the celebration of heaven and earth about the final redemption of the cosmos. This is the consummation of the creation, everything in the world as it is supposed to be, as it was created to become.

In the chapters that come, we will argue that the key to Revelation is to discern three moments in the story of history that is becoming. First is the moment of the Lamb that is slain. This is the moment when salvation is accomplished. The rest of the story is simply playing out its consequences.

Another moment is the final judgment/salvation/consummation of history. All will be set right in the cosmos. Those who reject God will no longer be present. Those who are victorious will be saved and will reign. A new creation will commence.

Then there is the in between time, the time in which we currently live. From one standpoint, this is a time of tribulation. From another standpoint, this is the millennial reign of Christ. These three moments are the key that unlocks the imagery of the book.

So in the consummation of all things all creation will praise the Lamb. First, in heaven there are the angels. Ten thousands of ten thousands and thousands of thousands. This is the highest number John could imagine. Then there are the elders and beasts, perhaps signifying the victorious of humanity and the creation.

And what they sing is the worthiness and praise of the Lamb, just as they have sung the praise of God the Father in chapter 4. The chapter divisions were of course not part of the original book. These two chapters go together as a sub-unit of Revelation. They sing those words so familiar from Handel's Messiah: "Worthy is the Lamb who has been slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing."

The Lamb that was slain is the King of kings with all power and strength. Whatever wealth the world might have had is nothing next to he who will now own it all. To the Lamb belongs all wisdom--he is the wisdom and word of God. To the Lamb belongs all honor, glory, and blessing. As we have previously mentioned, these are the currency of an honor-shame culture, the very stuff of praise.

13. And every creation that is in the sky and on the land and under the land and in the sea and all the things in them I heard saying to the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb, "Blessing and honor and glory and power forever and ever."
Now the praise of heaven extends to the earth. All four domains of the creation praise both God the Father and the Lamb--the sky, the earth, the sea, and the domain of the dead below the earth. [1] This is how it will all end, with the cosmos in harmony in unanimous worship of God the Father and Christ.

Their praise is of the glory of them, their supreme worthiness as the objects of worship. Their praise is of their supreme power over all things. Nothing can oppose them. And this worthiness will extend to eternity future. Of this kingdom there will be no end.

14. And the four beasts were saying, "Amen," and the twenty-four elders fell and worshiped.
The beasts and elders concur. "Amen." They are in agreement with the now unison praise of all that is. They fall down and worship both God the Father and the Lamb. They will not be told to get up. The worship of God and Jesus is the way it must be and will be.

[1] Of course this is an example of God meeting the biblical authors within their view of the world. We would not now think of the dead--or hell for that matter--as being at the center of the earth or below a flat earth. This is a picture we have to translate into our sense of the universe, which time may also modify. Having grown up on Star Trek, I always thought of heaven and hell being in another dimension.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for this series.