By Christopher VanDusen
Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ live in an evil, dangerous world. Most of us experienced more of this evil last year, and this year intends to bring even more suffering and trouble. Since we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in the future, but we know that suffering is to be expected, how do we stay focused on what matters the most for our lives, and have confidence that everything that happens to us is for our good, and will serve God’s good plan for history? What the apostle John describes in Revelation 5 gives us the reason for our lives on earth, and our hope for the future.
Thus far in Revelation, John has done four main things. First, he’s introduced this book to his original audience, which are seven churches in modern-day Turkey, then known as Asia Minor. In the first few verses, he describes how he got the contents of this book from God, what they’re about, and how they’ll bless Christ’s church. Then, he greets these churches with God’s grace and peace, emphasizing the identity of Jesus Christ as a faithful witness, resurrected One, and Ruler of earthly kings. He finishes this greeting by reminding the churches of Christ’s return, which is confirmed by Christ, who describes Himself as the Controller of history.
Second, John describes his first vision of the Lord Jesus at the end of chapter 1, whom he sees as the church’s High Priest and Judge, standing among them. This vision scares him into passing out, but Jesus revives him, and speaks comforting words to him. Finally, Jesus commands John to write what He’s about to hear and see to the seven churches.
Third, John records the words of the Lord to the seven churches in seven separate messages in chapters 2-3. Each message is specifically tailored to the situation of each church, providing necessary encouragement, correction, or rebuke.
In chapter 4, John describes his second vision, this time of heaven’s throne room. He sees God the Father as the King of the universe, seated on His throne, with the appearance of precious gems, a rainbow around Him, and a floor of glass around the throne. Around Him are four spirit-beings. One looks like a lion, one like an ox, one like a man, and the other like a flying eagle. But each also has six wings. They constantly proclaim the supreme holiness of God. Further, around God’s throne are 24 other thrones, on which are mature, male counselors. These “elders” fall down before the throne whenever the four creatures praise God, and describe His worthiness to be glorified because of His creation and control of the universe.
Following this vision of heaven’s throne room, John sees the next events there in chapter 5, which will prepare the seven churches to learn about the future events that they’ll experience:
“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. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, 4 and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5 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.”
6 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. 7 And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. 8 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. 9 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,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
11 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, 12 saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
13 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 honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.” (ESV)
In this chapter, John experiences six things that teach the seven churches why Jesus sent Revelation to them through John, and what history, and the future, is all about:
- He Sees a Locked Scroll (vss. 1-4)
- He’s Solaced by the Lion who Succeeded (v. 5)
- He Sees a Lamb Secure the Scroll (vss. 6-7)
- He Sees the Living Creatures and Elders Sacrifice to the Lamb (v. 8)
- He Sees them hLaud and Sing to the Lamb (vss. 9-10)
- He Sees a Large Service for the Sovereigns (vss. 11-14)
John Sees a Locked Scroll
The first thing that John sees is a sealed scroll, which must be opened:
“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.”
First, John sees the scroll itself. It’s held by the enthroned figure representing God the Father, who holds it in His right hand. In the ancient world, the right hand was the hand of authority and honor, as opposed to the left hand, which was the hand of dishonor. So, whatever the scroll is, the one who has it is honored by the Father. John also says that it’s “written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals”. Since it’s “sealed”, we know it’s rolled up, but somehow John can tell that both sides of the scroll are covered with writing. This tells us that, whatever the contents are, they are many. Finally, it’s “sealed with seven seals”, so it contains a secret message from God, which can only be known after removing the “seals”, which would have been made of wax at that time. The number “seven” represents completion, or perfection, just as the seven days of creation show that God’s creation was absolutely perfect. Hence, the fact that there are seven seals means that it’s completely sealed by God, and will not release any of its information without being unsealed.
Second, John sees “a mighty angel”, who “proclaims”, or “heralds”, with “a loud voice”. He asks presumably the entire world, “who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals”? It seems that the reason John calls him a mighty, or strong, angel, is to show that not even a supernaturally powerful being can break the seals of the scroll. John somehow learns that “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it”, probably because no one steps forward to do so.
In response to his realization that there’s no one “worthy to open the scroll or to look into it”, John weeps loudly. Why? Because the scroll contains the message that he, as one of God’s prophets, needs to learn, so he can preach it to others.
John is Solaced by the Lion who Succeeded
In verse 5, one of the elders enthroned around God’s throne commands John to stop weeping, and explains why:
“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.’”
After commanding him to stop weeping, the elder calls John to “behold”, or “take notice”, of good news. The good news is that Someone has “conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals”.
The elder first describes this Conqueror as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah”. This is a reference to at least one of the prophecies about the Jewish tribe of Judah. In this prophecy, Israel’s son, Judah, is described as “a lion’s cub” who has just killed its prey (Genesis 49:9 ESV). In the Old Testament, calling someone a lion meant that person was a strong victor, and to be feared and respected. In the same way, Jesus is like a fearsome lion, who conquers His enemies, including sin, Satan, and death.
Second, Jesus is called “the Root of David”. This is an allusion to Isaiah 11:1-10, which promises that from David’s family tree will come a branch that produces a root. This “root” is said to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be the perfect Man, who will give peace to God’s people. Isaiah 11:10 says that He will “stand as a signal for the peoples — of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (ESV). As the ultimate Descendant of David, He is the rightful heir of the throne of God’s kingdom, and as a “root”, He produces the tree of God’s kingdom, which bears fruit that pleases Him.
So, it is as the conquering Lion of Judah, and the kingdom-ruling Root of David, that Jesus conquered the enemies that stood in the way of Him receiving God’s revelation in the scroll. These enemies were the fallen world, Satan, sin, and death. Having conquered them through His death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven as the Ruler of the universe, He can now learn God’s plan for the future, and disclose it to His church.
John Sees a Lamb Secure the Scroll
In verses 6-7, John sees the Lion of the tribe of Judah and the Root of David as a Lamb, who takes the scroll that He has conquered for:
“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.”
First, he describes the location of the Lamb. He’s “between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders”. Since the throne represents God the Father’s manifested presence, the fact that the Lamb is right next to it shows that He has immediate access to God. Further, since the “elders” — who are literally “mature men”, and number 24, the number representing the government of God’s people — symbolize God’s people in their participation in His rule of the earth, the Lamb’s presence “among” them shows that He is one of them in His humanity.
But why does John see “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain”? This is clearly a reference to the sacrificial lambs of the Old Testament, which were sacrificed to God to atone for the sins of Israel “committed in ignorance”, as the writer of Hebrews says. More specifically, the lamb that most clearly shows what this Lamb did is the Passover lamb, which was sacrificed once a year to commemorate the “passing over” of Israel by the Angel of the Lord, sparing their firstborn children. As the fulfillment of these sacrificial Lambs, Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross to God, in order to take the punishment due to sinners, and to satisfy God’s wrath and justice for them. The choice of a lamb to represent Him not only points to the fact that He was like the Passover lamb, but also that He was an innocent person, who never sinned. For this reason, He was able to atone for the sins of others, since He didn’t need to do so for Himself.
Further, this Lamb has “seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth”. It’s best to see John as saying that both the horns and the eyes “are the seven spirits of God”, since both of them number seven, and they both make sense when connected to “the seven spirits”. Revelation has mentioned “the seven spirits of God” a couple of times before this chapter. In chapter one, they’re spoken of in the context of the Father and Jesus Christ. Then, in one the letters to the seven churches, it’s said that Jesus “has the seven spirits of God”. From the first chapter, we see that these “seven spirits” are representations of God the Holy Spirit, since the same grace and peace that comes from the Father and Jesus Christ are also said to come from Them. Therefore, when John says that Jesus has “the seven spirits of God”, he means that He has the Holy Spirit of God. John refers to Him as seven Spirits to refer to the perfection of the Spirit’s presence “into all the earth”. But more specifically, he says that the Spirit is symbolized by “seven horns and seven eyes” on the Lamb. In the Bible, horns represent power, while eyes represent the perception, or knowledge, of information. Thus, the Lamb’s possession of “seven horns and seven eyes” symbolizes His exercise of perfect power, and perfect knowledge, which He has through the Spirit on the earth.
Although the Lamb has perfect knowledge of what’s going on on earth in the present, He still needs the Father to give Him the knowledge of “the things that must soon take place”, as John puts it in chapter 1. So, he goes and takes “the scroll from the right hand of him who [is] seated on the throne”. This is Him receiving the revelation of the future of the universe from the One who has control of the universe.
John Sees the Living Creatures and Elders Sacrifice to the Lamb
In verse 8, John describes the response of God’s heavenly servants:
“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and 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.”
The first response of God’s most honored angels, and His people, is worship. They fall down in front of the Lamb in reverence, awe, and adoration. Falling down before someone in the Bible shows one’s humility, and submission to the one in front of him.
But these worshipers don’t simply fall down. They also carry instruments of worship. First, each one has “a harp”, which is a large, stringed, instrument used to accompany the praise of God. Second, they all have “golden bowls full of incense”. This is an allusion to the offering of incense, or burned spices, to God in the worship of Israel’s sacrificial system. When done according to His commandments, it pleased Him. However, this incense represents “the prayers of the saints”, or “holy ones”, which God’s servants here offer to the Lamb in worship of Him.
John Sees them Laud and Sing to the Lamb
In verses 9-10, John records the song that the angels and elders sing to the Lamb in response to His taking the scroll from God:
“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.’”
First, John calls this praise of the Lamb a “new song”. It’s new, since earlier they were praising God the Father for His holiness, His creation of the universe, and His control of the universe, in chapter 4.
The first reason God’s servants praise the Lamb is that He’s “worthy”, or deserving, of taking the scroll, and breaking its seals. The main reason He’s worthy to do this is that He was “slain, and by [His] blood [He] ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation”. In the original Greek, the word translated “ransomed” is the verb agorazo, which literally means “go to market”, or “buy”. So, the Lamb literally bought people for God by His “blood”. By blood, the singers don’t simply mean “blood”, but what His blood represents. It represents His painful death on the cross, during which He suffered God’s wrath, hatred, and punishment. Since He paid the price for people’s sins, He redeemed them from enslavement to condemnation, judgment, and eternal punishment. And He did this for God the Father. What type of people did He purchase? Every type, since they come from every people group, every dialect, every ethnic identity, and every political body.
Secondly, the Lamb is worthy to take the scroll of God’s revelation because He made His redeemed people “a kingdom and priests to . . . God, and they shall reign on the earth”. This is the purpose of Christ’s redemption of His people. First, to turn them into a “kingdom”, or governing body that rules the new earth. Furthermore, He made them “priests” to the God of heaven’s servants. A priest is someone who serves God by sacrificing to Him, and by mediating between Him and other people. The redeemed serve as priests by sacrificing themselves to Him, and by representing Him to the world, and representing others before Him. As priests, the singers say, the redeemed will “reign on the earth”.
To sum up these worshipers’ argument, the Lamb is worthy to receive the revelation of God’s plan for the future, since He bought God’s people through His bloody death, so that they would be a kingdom of priests to reign on the earth. In other words, since He now owns them, and rules them as their King, it’s only right that He’s the One to tell them what their future is.
John Sees a Large Service for the Sovereigns
The last scene of this vision is every single creature praising both God the Father and Jesus for the redemption that they’ve accomplished, and the revelation that they’ve shared:
“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 honor 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 honor and glory and might forever and ever!’
And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped.”
First, John hears “around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands”. The word “myriads” literally means tens of thousands, but is also used in the Bible to mean a countless number of things, which is what it means here. So, John hears an innumerable group of angels praising the Lamb. They’re “around the throne”, since that’s where the Lamb is now.
The content of these angels’ praise is that the Lamb “who was slain” is “worthy” to receive several things. Obviously, the reason He’s worthy is again because He was “slain”, or killed on the cross to redeem a people for God’s own possession (Titus 2). The first thing Jesus is worthy of getting is “power”, or authority, over the entire universe. Second, He’s worthy of wealth, or the best of what the universe has to offer. Third, He’s worthy of wisdom, or the knowledge that God has to offer from Himself, and through His creation. Fourth, He’s worthy of “might”, or the exercise of His power and authority over the universe. Fifth, He’s worthy of “honor”, or high esteem, and value. Sixth, He’s worthy of “glory”, or recognition and praise. And seventh, He’s worthy of “blessing”, or literally “happiness”, and things that make Him happy.
The second thing that John hears is “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” praising both the Lamb and God the Father. They do so by saying that They deserve and possess “blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever”. Why? Primarily because They both redeemed sinners for themselves, to be their kingdom of priests to reign on the new earth. And They could only do these things because They created and control the universe for this purpose.
In response to this praise of God and the Lamb, the “four living creatures” say “amen”, or “so be it”, in hearty approval and confirmation of earthly creatures’ praise. Finally, the elders fall down and worship God, and the Lamb, showing their reverent awe at Them, and their submission to Their will.
Trust the Lamb, Worship the Lamb, and Praise God
So if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus, how does this passage apply to you?
First, this passage shows us that the only One who is worthy to know God’s will for the future is Jesus, since He conquered Satan, sin, and death through His sacrifice on the cross. Thus, the only One we can trust to guide us into the future, and to tell us the future, is Jesus, through Scripture, and particularly through the Book of Revelation. No one but Jesus is worthy to know exactly what’s going to happen in the future, and He’s the only Person who has already given reliable information about what’s most important about it.
Second, we ought to worship the Lord, since He sacrificed Himself on the cross in order to purchase us for God, and to turn us into a kingdom of priests to reign on the earth. And that’s our purpose — to serve as His servants on the earth by representing Him to creation and others, and representing others to God. In so doing, we participate in His reign, and will perfectly reign on the new earth.
Finally, we ought to praise Jesus and God the Father for redeeming us from sinful humanity, and bless, honor, glorify, and submit to Them. When we do this, we recognize that all these things belong to Them forever.
If you don’t serve King Jesus, and sacrifice yourself to God, then you’re still a slave of your sins, and of God’s condemnation, judgment, and punishment. If you aren’t reconciled to God, then you will suffer God’s wrath forever for your rebellion against Him. The good news that I’ve already described is that God sent His eternal and divine Son to earth to become the man, Jesus of Nazareth, to live the perfect life, and to suffer and die on a Roman cross to take God’s punishment for our rebellion. Then, God raised Him from the dead, and took Him into heaven as the Ruler of the universe. He commands everyone to change their minds, and to trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior to receive His forgiveness, since He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and punish all His enemies in a place of eternal torment. Please make sure you’ve repented of your rebellion against God, and are trusting only in Jesus as your Ruler and Savior from sin and hell. If you’ve done so, then He requires all His people to be baptized under water as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and a profession of faith.