The scene recorded in chapters 4 and 5 is the theological center of Revelation and sets the stage for all that follows. Through paradoxical victory, the sacrificial Lamb is crowned sovereign over the Cosmos. The declaration of the Lamb’s victory leads into the opening of the seven seals, which continues into chapter 8. It is the Lamb who takes the scroll and begins to break open each of its seals.
This next scene is connected to the seven letters of the first vision by verbal links. The final verse of the letter to Laodicea transitions the letters-section to the vision of the Throne, which marks the start of a new literary unit that will continue through the end of the series of Seven Bowls of Fury (Revelation 16:17-21).
The Throne vision unveils the true nature of the conflict in which the churches finds themselves, as well as the Lamb’s sovereignty over history and creation. The Throne is the central feature of the first half of this next section, with the Lamb the focus of its last half.
The characters and features of the vision are oriented toward the Throne. Judgments issue from it and events on the earth occur in response to the will of the “One Who Sits on the Throne.” His sovereignty is absolute.
The vision begins as John “comes to be in spirit.” The same clause occurs at the start of the four main divisions of the book (1:9-10; 4:1-2; 17:1-3; 21:10). John now hears the same voice “like a trumpet” heard previously when commanded to write down “what things are going to come to pass after these things.” The voice now pronounces it is about to reveal “what things must come to pass after these things” (1:10-12).
In the opening vision John “came to be in spirit” and received a vision while on the Isle of Patmos, one concerning seven churches in Asia (1:9-3:21). Now he “comes to be in spirit” before the heavenly throne to receive a vision of events on a cosmic level.
Chapter 4 stresses God as Creator whose sovereignty extends over the entire universe. His Throne is not detached from creation; He reigns from its center. The “One Who Sits on the Throne” is praised by every created thing.
In chapter 5, the stress moves from creation to redemption, which is accomplished by the Lamb. The Lamb is praised by a myriad of voices for his act of redemption, especially by a company of redeemed men and women from every nation.
The vision employs language from the books of Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel, but is structured around a passage from Daniel 7:9-27. Note the following chart:
- [4:2] – Throne set in heaven, Divine being (Daniel 7:9)
- [4:4] – Angels around the Throne (Daniel 7:10)
- [4:5] – Fire around the Throne (Daniel 7:9)
- [5:4] – Seer distressed by vision (Daniel 7:15)
- [5:5] – Angel interprets vision (Daniel 7:16)
- [5:9] – Books opened before the Throne (Daniel 7:10)
- [5:7-9] – Messiah authorized to reign (Daniel 7:13)
- [5:9] – Books opened (Daniel 7:10)
- [5:9] – Kingdom includes all nations & peoples (Daniel 7:14)
- [5:10] – Saints reign over the kingdom (Daniel 7:18-22)
- [5:13] – God’s everlasting reign declared (Daniel 7:27)
(Preceding chart based on G.K. Beale, Book of Revelation [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999], pp. 314-315).
These themes emphasize God’s sovereignty over creation, the political systems of the earth, a messianic figure in whom divine sovereignty is projected, and the participation of God’s saints in that reign.
Transition (Revelation 3:21-22)
The first vision ended with Christ’s promise to grant all who overcome to sit on his throne (“as I also overcame and took my seat with my Father on his throne”). The passage is a transition to the next vision in which the Lamb is elevated to the Throne (5:6-14).
The promise of fellowship with anyone who “opens the door” anticipates the image of an “opened door” in heaven (4:1-2). The declaration that Jesus “overcame” (nikaō) and received sovereignty is echoed in 5:5-6. There the Lamb who “overcame” (nikaō) assumes sovereignty as a result of his sacrificial death.
Christ’s exaltation results from his death and he calls his followers to “overcome” in the same paradoxical manner (3:21; 5:5-6). The past tense verbs in verse 21 demonstrate his victory and enthronement occurred at a point before John began to receive his visions.
The description of John “coming to be in spirit” is the second of four references to his coming to be “in the spirit.” They are transition points that mark major literary divisions of the book.
The Throne Room – (4:1-11)
“What Things Must Come to Pass” (4:1)
John saw the opened door “after these things,” which refers to the things seen in the previous vision. He records his visions in the order in which they were received; this is a literary, not chronological sequence (cp. 7:1; 7:9; 15:5; 18:1; 19:1).
The same trumpet-like voice announces the “what things must come to pass” (ha dei genesthai meta tauta), an echo of Daniel 2:28 (“God has shown the king what things must come to pass in later days”).
The Throne (4:2-8a)
John describes the Throne with language from Exodus, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. The Throne’s splendor is likened to jasper, sardius and emerald-hued rainbow. The same precious stones were embedded in the breastplate of the high-priest (Exodus 28:17-20, 29:13); here they anticipate the twelve stones in New Jerusalem (21:11-19).
A “rainbow” encircles the Throne. This echoes the story of Noah when God signified by a rainbow that He would not again destroy all humanity by floodwaters (Genesis 9:11-16). But the main source of the rainbow imagery is Ezekiel 1:28 where God’s glory had “the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain.”
The multiple “thrones” in the heavenly throne-room indicate the participation of the twenty-four “elders” in the government of the Cosmos. Each “elder” wears a golden “victor’s wreath” or stephanos (cp. 2:10; 3:11). Elsewhere these elders praise God, adore the Lamb, interpret visions, and offer up prayers represented by incense (4:11; 5:5; 5:9-10; 5:14; 7:13; 11:16-18; 19:4).
They are arrayed in “white garments” to signify victory and purity (3:4-5; 3:18; 6:11; 7:9; 19:14). While angels are seen arrayed in white robes, more often victorious saints who overcome on the earth wear them. The activities and dress of the elders reflect priestly functions.
The number twenty-four is the total of the “names of the twelve tribes of Israel…and the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” in New Jerusalem. The twenty-four elders represent the covenant community from both old and new covenants, now collectively arrayed in priestly apparel before the throne (21:11-14).
The “seven torches of fire burn before the throne” are the seven spirits of God. The imagery draws on Ezekiel 1:13 (“the likeness of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches”) and Zechariah 4:2-3, 10 (“Behold, a golden lampstand…and its seven lamps…these seven are the eyes of Yahweh running to and fro throughout all the earth”).
The meaning of the seven torches is not explained until the next chapter (5:6). Their presence before the Throne indicates a temple setting. In the wilderness Tabernacle and in the Temple in Jerusalem, a gold-plated seven-branched lampstand stood lit in the sanctuary (Exodus 25:31-37; 26:35; 27:20).
No “lampstands” on which the “seven torches” sit are mentioned. “Torch” translates lampas, the actual light or flame that sat on a lampstand, the torches burn continuously before the Throne.
No mention was made in the first vision of burning torches on the seven golden lampstands (1:12-20). The seven torches may symbolize the seven lights that illuminate from the lampstands. The seven messengers of Asia were represented by stars not torches.
The “flashes of lightning and voices and crashes of thunder” echo Exodus 19 when God descended on Sinai in fire and smoke, accompanied by thunder and flashes of lightning (Exodus 19:16; 20:18). The same God who delivered Israel from Egyptian bondage is now delivering His people from another “Egypt.
The loud noises, thunder, and lightning occur three more times in Revelation, each time at the end of a series of seven judgments that issue from the Throne (8:5; 11:19; 16:18).
The “glassy sea like crystal” is based on Ezekiel 1:22 where the Prophet saw “over the head of the living creature the likeness of a firmament, like the terrible crystal to look upon, stretched forth over their heads.” Its significance does not become apparent until chapter 15 when John sees “a sea of glass mingled with fire” and victorious saints “sing the song of Moses the servant of God” (15:2-4; Exodus 14:26-30; 15:1-21).
The sea appears “glassy” and clear, just like “crystal.” God has calmed the chaotic waters of evil. Its location before the Throne demonstrates His sovereignty over even the domain of Satan.
The “four living creatures” are based on passages from Ezekiel and Isaiah. They appear “in the likeness of man”. Each has four faces like a man, lion, ox and eagle; each has four wings; the sole of each creature’s foot is “like the sole of a calf’s foot”; each has the hands of a man under its four wings (Ezekiel 1:5-11). Each has six wings; one pair to cover its face, another to cover its feet, and a third pair to fly (Isaiah 6:1-4).
Each living creature is “full of eyes, before and behind” to signify omniscience; they are God’s eyes throughout the creation. The number four symbolizes the entire earth, the “four corners of the earth” (7:1; 20:8). Their features may represent humanity (“a man’s face”), wild animals (“lion”), domesticated animals (“ox”) and beasts of the air (“flying eagle”). Together they portray all animate life of the creation in worship before the Throne.
The four living creatures stand “around” the throne at its four corners. Though they are not called cherubim, in Israel’s Tabernacle images of cherubim hovered above the mercy-seat and were embroidered on the sanctuary’s curtains. The mercy-seat was God’s “throne” in the inner sanctuary, the place where His glory manifested “between the cherubim” (1 Samuel 4:4). This scriptural background further reinforces the sanctuary setting of the throne-room.
The Throne Scene Interpreted (4:8-11)
The worship activity interprets the symbolism of the vision up to this point (4:8-11). God is the holy Creator and reigns supreme over the Cosmos, including the sources and locations of chaos. Nothing is hidden from His sight; God is praised and glorified throughout creation. All things were made to glorify Him.
The four “living creatures” represent all animate life and as such cry ceaselessly, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God, the Almighty.” The first stanza echoes Isaiah 6:1-4, the second expands on Exodus 3:14 (“I Am That I Am” – cp. Revelation 1:4).
The central figure on the Throne is the “Lord God the Almighty,” pantokratōr (cp. 1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 16:14; 19:6; 19:15; 21:22). God, not Caesar, the Beast, Babylon or Satan, reigns supreme. To Him alone all things in heaven, on the earth and under the earth are subject.
The one “Who Sits on the Throne” is none other than the one “Who lives unto the ages of the ages,” a verbal allusion to Daniel 4:34 where Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged God’s dominion over all creation: “I lifted up my eyes to heaven and my understanding returned to me, and I blessed the most High, and I praised and honored him who lives unto the ages, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation.”
This language acknowledges God’s sovereignty. Unlike human kings, His dominion knows no boundaries. Persecuted Christians belong to Him; therefore, they need not fear any earthly ruler whose reign is limited in time and reach. Earthly claims of absolute power are little more than noise, “smoke and mirrors” in contrast to the sovereignty of God.
On cue, the twenty-four elders worship God. They represent the redeemed community offering prayer and praise. Casting crowns before the Throne demonstrates that their authority is derived from God. They declare why God is worthy: He “created all things and by reason of His will they were created.”
The worshippers around the throne declare God’s holiness (“holy, holy, holy”), omnipotence (“Lord God, the Almighty”), everlasting nature (“who was and is and is coming”) and ownership, since He created all things (“because You created all things”).
The presence of the “glassy sea” before the Throne shows that evil is still present in the Creation, at least for the time being. Nonetheless, it is contained and calmed, unable to exert influence without the consent of the “One Who Sits on the Throne.”
How can God maintain His holiness, complete His creative purposes and assert His sovereignty over a world still infested with evil and disorder? The second half of the vision answers the question.
The Sealed Scroll – (5:1-14)
“Who is Worthy?” (5:1-4)
John next sees “a scroll, written within and behind, sealed shut with seven seals.” It is held in the right hand of the “One Who Sits on the Throne.” An angel makes a call throughout the Cosmos for the one “who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals.”
For the moment, no one is found anywhere in the creation. This means the one who is worthy must come from the created order. John weeps profusely when no one worthy steps forward. If the scroll remains sealed, God’s redemptive plans cannot go forward.
There are four primary interpretations of the identity of the Sealed Scroll:
- The “Lamb’s book of life” (3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12-15; 21:27).
- The book of Revelation.
- The Old Testament.
- The Scroll reveals and implements God’s redemptive purposes.
The first option does not fit what occurs when the Scroll is opened. The breaking of its seals unleashes judgments. It is not identical with the book of Revelation. The Lamb achieved the authority to open the Scroll by his death some decades before John came to be on Patmos (1:4-5; 3:21). The Scroll cannot be identical with the Old Testament. Revelation uses Old Testament passages in innovative and unexpected ways, often combining language from different passages to make a point. As will become clear, the fourth option best fits the text.
The phrase, “written within and without” is from Ezekiel 2:9-10 but with a key difference (“behold, a scroll was in it, and he spread it before me. And it was written within and without; lamentations, and mourning and woe”). Ezekiel’s scroll was opened, Revelation’s is sealed.
The main background for the Sealed Scroll is Daniel 12:4-9 when Daniel was commanded by an angel “to shut up the words and seal the book, even to the time of the end…for the words are shut up and sealed till the season of the end.” This is confirmed in Revelation’s epilogue where an angel commands John “not to seal the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the season is at hand.” What Daniel sealed is now unsealed.
Daniel saw a scroll with information about judgments on pagan nations and the vindication of God’s people. It was sealed until the time of the end, the season of fulfillment. When the Lamb opens the seven seals a series of judgments are unleashed on the unrighteous (6:1-8:4) and the saints are vindicated (6:9-11; 7:9-14). The Sealed Scroll contains God’s redemptive plan ready to be put into action by the Lamb.
Numbers in Revelation are figurative, with seven signifying completion. The number seven is not the actual number of seals about to be opened but represents the completeness of the process that is put into motion when they are opened.
“Sealed shut” translates a Greek compound verb (katesphragismenon), meaning, “to seal down.” This signifies something sealed tightly shut; the contents have been hermetically-sealed, so to speak, so no one can view them until they are disclosed by the one worthy to do so. The opening of the Scroll puts God’s redemptive plan into action. The time of fulfillment has arrived due to the Lamb’s victory.
The Worthy One (5:5-7)
John is told not to weep, then hears a proclamation, “the lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, overcame,” and like is “worthy” to open the scroll (5:5). “Lion of Judah” and “root of David” are traditional messianic designations (Genesis 49:9-10; Isaiah 11:1-10). They identify the figure as Israel’s promised Messiah.
In Genesis 49:9-10 “Judah is a lion‘s whelp” who holds the scepter until the arrival of the one to whom it belongs. “To him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” And in Isaiah 11:1, 10 at the time “the root of Jesse will stand as an ensign to the peoples.” Both prophecies link the Messiah to “peoples,” plural.
The root of David “overcame.” This represents the Greek verb, nikaō, the same one for “overcome” in the letters to the churches of Asia (“to the one who overcomes…”). Particularly relevant is Revelation 3:21: “The one who overcomes will be seated with me in my throne, as I also overcame”.
John next looks and “sees” a Lamb rather than a lion, and one who has been “slain.” He sees neither lion nor kingly figure, but a Lamb led to the slaughter. What he sees interprets what he hears.
The Lamb is Israel’s Messiah that “overcame,” but he fulfills this messianic calling in a paradoxical manner, not as a royal figure but as a sacrificial victim. This image anchors the vision in the historical event of the Crucifixion. Jesus is the Lion of Judah and the root of David, but he fulfills his messianic role as the slain Lamb.
“Lamb” renders the Greek word arnion, a diminutive form for the more common arnén for “lamb.” It signifies a juvenile lamb. The term becomes the primary designation for Jesus for the remainder of the book of Revelation. It is applied to him a total of twenty-eight times (4 x 7); in contrast, ‘Jesus’ occurs only fourteen times and ‘Christ’ only seven.
In the passage, “slain” translates sphazō, a Greek verb common in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament for the Hebrew shachat, a verb used for the slaying of sacrificial animals (Genesis 22:10, Exodus 12:6). This may reflect Isaiah 53:7 where Yahweh’s suffering servant is “a lamb led to the slaughter” (sphagé, from sphazō).
The Lamb has seven horns. Horns symbolize power and seven signifies completeness. The horns portray the completeness of the Lamb’s power and authority to reign.
He has “seven eyes” identified as “the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth,” an allusion to Zechariah 3:9, a stone set before Joshua with seven eyes to achieve the removal of sin from the land “in one day,” as well as to Zechariah 4:10 where seven lamps are called “the eyes of Yahweh, which run to and fro through the whole earth.” They symbolize Yahweh’s spirit (“not by might but by My Spirit, says Yahweh”). In the Lamb the seven eyes represent the Holy Spirit (1:4; 3:1; 4:5).
The seven horns and seven eyes become the possessions of the Lamb. Previously they were observed before the Throne, but with the Lamb’s death they now serve him throughout the earth.
The Lamb immediately approaches the Throne to take the Scroll from the right hand of the one sitting on it. This parallels Daniel 7:13 where one “like a son of man” approached the throne of the Ancient of Days to receive authorization to reign: “behold, one like a Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.”
The Lamb Declared Worthy (5:8-14)
The Lamb’s authority to control unfolding of events is now proclaimed, and it is a result of his sacrificial death. His submission to violent death made him “worthy,” now well-qualified to take the Scroll, disclose its contents and rule over the Cosmos and History.
Each “elder” holds a bowl of “incense” to symbolize the “prayers of saints.” This reinforces the idea that the twenty-four elders perform priestly functions and represent God’s redeemed people before the throne.
The understanding that the Lamb’s authority results from his death is confirmed by verse 9. The living creatures and elders sing a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slaughtered and purchased by your blood men out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation for God.” Similarly, a voice declares in verse 12, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered.”
The enthronement and sovereignty of the Lamb were accomplished in the historical events of Christ’s death and resurrection. The victorious scene before the reader portrays not a future event but celebrates a victory already achieved.
They sing a “new song” to the Lamb. In chapter 4 all creatures throughout the creation sang praise to the “One Who Sits on the Throne” for His creative acts (4:8-11). Now a “new song” rings out in praise of the Lamb for his redemptive act. The song is “new” because the Lamb’s death inaugurates the long-awaited fulfillment of the promise.
The Lamb is the true Messiah of Israel. However, his victory achieves not just the redemption of national Israel, but that of men and women from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” Both Jews and Gentiles are purchased for God by the Lamb’s sacrifice. Traditional boundaries that divide peoples have no place in God’s new creation, which has been inaugurated by the Lamb’s death.
The Lamb by his death constitutes men and women from every nation a “kingdom of priests.” Corporately they are a kingdom; individually they perform priestly acts. The calling given to Israel at Sinai is fulfilled by the people purchased by the Lamb (Exodus 19:5-6; Revelation 1:6, 20:6).
The redeemed participate in the Lamb’s reign as a kingdom of priests. Jesus promised the one who overcame authority over nations (2:26-27). However, this reign is implemented through priestly acts of witness, martyrdom, prayer, and worship, not military conquest and coercion.
There is a textual variant in Revelation 5:10. Some manuscripts read “they will reign on the earth,” others “they are reigning on the earth” (present tense). The manuscript evidence is divided evenly; whichever reading is correct the sense remains the same. If the redeemed reign now, it is because of the Lamb’s death. If their reign is future, it likewise is a result of his death.
Previously John presented the saint’s participation in the priestly kingdom as a present reality (1:6; 1:9), and Jesus already installed as “ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). The larger context of Revelation favors the present tense.
John does not actually see the company of the redeemed standing before the Throne at this point; that does not occur until the innumerable multitude seen before the Throne on the other side of the “Great Tribulation” (Revelation 7:9-17).
The entire heavenly choir breaks out into adoration of the Lamb for his act of redemption, proclaiming him “worthy” to receive “power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” This is followed by praise for God and the Lamb by “every created thing that is in the heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea” (verses 11-14).
The Lamb’s redemptive act includes the entire created order, not just humanity. How that redemption is brought to completion begins to unfold as the enthroned Lamb opens the Scroll’s seals.
This vision portrays Jesus as worthy to take the Scroll and reveal its contents. By his willing submission to a sacrificial death, he fulfilled the role of Israel’s Messiah and qualified to rule over the Cosmos. As the Lamb with seven horns, he has full authority; as the one who possesses Yahweh’s “seven eyes,” he has the wisdom and knowledge necessary to do so. The extent of his authority is universal and nothing is hidden from his eyes.
All that follows for the remainder of the book is the result of the past death of the Lamb, Jesus Christ.
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