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A book ...
What is the meaning of this scroll? From its being "in" or "on" the right hand of God, the exceedingly great importance of it must be deduced, but what is it? Many different answers are given: "It contained the whole of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven." F4 "It is God's redemptive plan for the denouement of human history, the overthrow of evil, and the gathering of a redeemed people." F5 "It is the New Covenant, since the New Covenant tells how God will save the church, Israel, the world, and the universe." F6 "This is a book of the future of the world and of mankind." F7 "It is some kind of legal document relating to the destiny of mankind." F8 "The book is surely that which contains the world's destiny." F9 There is perhaps a measure of truth in all these answers. Certainly, there is some bearing which the book had upon the mystery of redemption, and the long-secret device by which God would achieve it in the death of his Son. Human salvation, together with God's purpose of achieving it and the mystery of how it would be done, is included in it because we cannot agree with the notion that John's weeping in Rev. 5:4 was due merely to disappointment at not seeing the future revealed. See comment on Rev. 5:4.
Sealed close with seven seals ...
Especially important documents were sealed with multiple seals; and the appearance of seven seals here indicates the inviolate nature of the document. The thought that as each seal was broken a portion of the scroll could be read is not correct. In fact, the scroll was not read at all in this prophecy! Only as the seals were broken, the visions conveyed part of the information to John. As Lenski pointed out:
The seals sealed the entire roll; all would have had to be broken to ready any of it. The opening of each seal is not undertaken to reveal seven successive lengths of the roll, each length then to be read. Nothing whatever is read. When each seal is opened, it releases the revealing symbolism of what the book contains. F10
Who is worthy ...
The key for unlocking the mystery written in the scroll was not power only, but morality, righteousness, holiness, and justice - in a word, worthiness. The great problem to be solved in human redemption was simply this: how could God injustice do it? Paul stated it thus: "That he might be just and the justifier of him that is of the faith of Jesus" (Romans 3:26).
Inherent in this interpretation is the fact that the vision at this point is retrospective in time, looking to the period when the salvation of Adam's race appeared to be absolutely impossible. As Caird said, "Some of the contents (of the scroll) are already past." F11
The situation in this verse appears to be almost identical with that described in Psa. 40:6-8, in which Christ, in his pre-existent state before the Incarnation, responded to the challenge of redeeming mankind in the words:
Then said I, Lo, I come (In the roll of the book it is written of me) To do thy will, O God.
This is the remarkable passage in which the preexistent Christ spoke of "the body" God had prepared for him. For fuller comment on that remarkable passage, see my Commentary on Hebrews, p. 213.
The apostle John, at this juncture in his experience "in the Spirit," was permitted to share in the perplexity, dreadful uncertainty, and helplessness that encompassed the heavenly host in their contemplation of the seemingly impossible solution of human redemption. Of course, this uncertainty did not pertain either to the Father or to the Son; but the helplessness, even of the supernatural creation, in matters pertaining to human salvation is clearly evident here. This was the same mystery pondered by the angels gazing intently into the mercy seat of which Peter spoke (1 Peter 1:12).
Heaven ... earth ... under the earth ...
Even some of the great scholars are unbelievably naive in their reference to what they call the concept of a three-story universe. No such concept ever existed, except in the minds of some of the critics. The New Testament clearly speaks of three different heavens, the second and lower heaven being that of the stars and constellations, and the third being the presence of God himself, as in this vision. Paul used this same expression (Philippians 2:9,10), evidently meaning "beings" in heaven (angelic), earth (human), or under the earth (demonic). Adam Clarke commented, "Neither angels, men, nor devils can fathom the decrees of God." F12 Hinds pointed out another important meaning in this:
Men and women yet claim to reveal secrets in the book of the future by some mysterious power or by communicating with the dead, but this vision is proof that the future belongs to God. All the revelations he wants us to have are now recorded in the Bible. F13
Many scholars accept the interpretation of the apostle's weeping as being due to his disappointment over not getting to see the visions he expected.
Barclay's comment is typical:
The voice had made the promise to him, "I will show these things which must be hereafter." It now looked as if the promise could not be kept, and as if he had been frustrated. The seer weeps because the promised vision, as he thinks, is not to be. F14
This interpretation is rejected here, because frustration is a totally inadequate grounds for such overwhelming grief as that manifested by the apostle in this verse. Excessive weeping for such a reason would hardly appear commendable in such a character as John. No! Something far more important is in view. Newell caught a glimpse of it thus:
It was as if sin and Satan were to go on forever in the usurped control of affairs in this world. It was as if it still must be written:
Right forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne.
The apostle was broken-hearted about this. The Greek word is the same as that for Christ weeping over Jerusalem. F15
This clarifies the retrospective throw-back in the vision to a period before redemption was achieved by Christ. But John's grief was quickly assuaged. God has already progressed far beyond the hopeless condition apparent at first. Indeed, the victory had already been won, and the victorious Lamb of God was already seated on the throne. The time was then far later than the heart-breaking glimpse of the past had indicated.
Weep not ...
Many commentators have quoted the beautiful words of John Wesley in this connection: "The Revelation was not written without tears; neither without tears will it be understood." F16
One of the elders saith unto me ...
We agree with Mounce that, "The fact of an elder's addressing John is of no particular significance." F17 It appears to be an inert factor in the vision.
The Lion that is of the tribe of Judah ...
This expression occurs nowhere else in the Bible." F18 Despite this, the conception is nevertheless found in the patriarchal blessing of Judah (Genesis 49:10), who earned the right to have his name stand in a title of the Messiah when he unselfishly offered himself as a ransom for his brother Benjamin (Genesis 44:18-34).
John's application of this glorious title to Christ, or rather its being so done in heaven, confirms Jesus Christ as the true occupant of the throne of David. Jesus Christ is now the true and only King of the true Israel, "the seed of David" who sits upon David's throne exalted in the heavens. David was the first "lion of the tribe of Judah," although not so-called in Scripture; but Christ, David's greater Son, became the true Lion. David, as ruler of the temporal kingdom of Israel, was the type or forerunner of Christ the ruler of spiritual Israel forever. As Wallace pointed out, the adoption of this title by Christ is but a continuation of the New Testament pattern of ascribing to him all of those glorious things of David, such as "the tabernacle, the throne, the mercies, the blessings, the key of David, etc." F19 For a further discussion of these things see under Rev. 3:7b.
The Root of David ...
This title goes back to Isa. 11:1ff, in which it was prophesied that, "A rod out of the stem of Jesse ... there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people ... his rest shall be glorious." As Barclay noted, "This means that Jesus Christ, the son of David, was the promised Messiah." F20
A Lamb standing ...
Beyond all controversy, the Lamb is Jesus Christ the Son of God, and significantly he is in the midst of the throne, sharing eternal and omnipotent authority with the Father himself. This is the grand truth of this chapter and of the whole book. Everything depends upon this. Some young students may be aware that unbelieving critics have tried to eliminate this passage; but as Beckwith said:
The Lamb once slain forms the very heart of the whole scene. The attempt of Vischer and his followers to expunge the idea destroys the entire paragraph; it is criticism run riot. F21
"Only in the Johannine writings is Jesus called `The Lamb.'" F22 This, of course, affords strong evidence of the same author for all of them, the expression being used "twenty-eight times in Revelation." F23
As though it had been slain ...
Scholars point out that this actually means, "as though it had been newly slain." F24 or that the Lamb was standing in heaven "with its throat cut." F25 Thus, the vision proves that the death of Christ was a historical fact, as was also his resurrection from the dead.
Having seven horns, and seven eyes ...
Horns were familiar symbols of honor, power, authority, and glory in the Biblical and other Hebrew literature. Caird said of the horns, "By this symbol, John undoubtedly invests Christ with the attributes of deity." F26 But not merely this symbol does so; they all do. A Lamb standing in heaven with its throat cut undoubtedly does the same thing! In such symbols the character of the vision is evident. Things accounted to be totally impossible in reality are present everywhere in Revelation.
The presentation of Jesus Christ as the Lamb, while being stressed particularly in John's writings, is nevertheless a thoroughly Biblical representation. There was the entire institution of the Passover built around the sacrifice of the lamb; there was the identification of Jesus as "the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world" by John the Baptist. Paul's reference to "Christ our passover," and the great Suffering Passage of Isa. 53, wherein Jesus was compared to the "lamb dumb before its shearers," - all of these references show the Biblical foundation of the words here.
Some scholars have made quite a point of a different word for "lamb" in this passage; but Lenski discounted this as having no significance at all. "It is merely a linguistic matter in the Greek." F27
Seven eyes ...
These are interpreted for us as "the seven Spirits of God, sent forth into all the earth," another symbol of the omniscience and divinity of the Son of God. There is nothing in this whole passage that does not proclaim this same essential fact. For example, who but God could be in "the midst of the throne" and "in the midst of' the elders and the living creatures also? It is childish to draw diagrams and propose to locate any of these symbols as unalterably in one place or another. By Christ's having "the seven spirits of God," the quibbles of Jeremias and Windisch, etc., to the effect that in part of the New Testament it is God who sends the Holy Spirit and that in others it is Christ who does so, are refuted. What is done in this respect is done by either or by both.
The scene here is still in the past tense from the standpoint of the apostle John. "The moment is that of his appearance in heaven, fresh from the suffering and triumph of the cross." F28 This was, of course, some decades prior to the writing of Revelation. The tense of the verbs here, as noted by Carpenter, bears this out: "He came, and he has taken the roll out of the hand of him that sat on the throne." F29 Mounce and many other interpreters of the same school do not apply this to a past event but "to an event yet to take place at the end of time." F30 This we consider to be incorrect. Hendriksen's correct view of this is:
The Lamb has taken the scroll out of the hand of him who was seated on the Throne. This very clearly refers to the fact that Christ, as Mediator, at his ascension received authority to rule the universe. F31
Any doubt that this is the proper view of this passage is forever removed by reading Matt. 28:18-20. It is impossible properly to interpret Revelation without a thorough knowledge of what the rest of the New Testament teaches. People who expect Christ to be enthroned at some future time have forgotten that he is already enthroned. "Psa. 110 indicates the date (when this occurred); it was the moment when Christ sat down on the Throne at God's right hand." F32 See also Heb. 1:3,6,8,9; 2:9.
As Morris said, "Worship is reserved only for God (Revelation 22:9); that the Lamb is worshipped is evidence of his full divinity." F33 This verse has a very important bearing upon the mediatorial office of Christ, as revealed in the New Testament. Bruce was of the opinion that "the elders perform priestly functions in heaven"; F34 but such a view must be rejected. That view became popular early in post-apostolic times; and from it, in time, developed the conception of the Virgin Mary as a heavenly mediator; but nothing like this is known to the New Testament. Barclay traced this superstition back to the Testament of Dan (6:2), which reads, "Draw near unto God and to the angel that intercedeth for you, for he is a mediator between God and man." F35 However, as Barclay proceeded to point out:
That is exactly the feeling that Jesus Christ came to take away, for He came to tell us that God is closer to us than breathing, nearer than hands and feet. He came to be the living way by which for every man, however humble, the door to God is open. F36
That such is indeed true is not possible of any contradiction, because, as Paul expressed it:
There is one God, one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all; the testimony to be borne in its own times (1 Timothy 2:5,6).
Thus, we must not look for any priestly service, nor any mediatorial function whatever, being performed by those four and twenty elders in heaven. As a matter of fact, they were not offering any prayers at all in the vision. As Barnes pointed out, "It is not said that they offered prayers, but incense representing the prayers of the saints." F37 The incense they offered in this vision stands for the prayers of actual living saints on earth at the time, which is further proof that these twenty-four elders are to be understood as representing the universal church on earth. What the elders were doing in heaven only portrays symbolically the true significance of the prayers of Christians on earth.
Having each one a harp ...
This also is grossly misunderstood as some kind of support for the proponents of instrumental music in the worship of Christ; but the harp here is purely symbolical, not of mechanical instruments of music, but of singing, an action in which the heavenly host immediately engaged. As Hinds expressed it, "From any viewpoint, the pas sage absolutely excludes the mechanical instrument." F38
The triumphal enthronement of the Son of God in this chapter no sooner takes place, Christ having accepted the office of King of the Universe, "than there is a great burst of triumph and exuberant joy in three doxologies." F39 See next verses.
The glorious outburst in heaven extolled the triumphant death of Christ on the cross, that being where the purchase of a people from all classes and kindreds was actually paid. Very clearly, it is not some far-off millennial morning which is in view here but the scenes of Calvary, the garden of Gethsemane, and the post-resurrection meeting with the apostles in the upper room.
They sing a new song ...
This is the new song of redemption in Jesus' blessed name, the "new song" prophesied by Isa. 42:10. In this connection, it is proper to note that "forgiveness of sins" is the newest thing on the planet earth, being never before possible until the death of Jesus on the cross. See extensive discussion of this in my book entitled "The Mystery of Redemption." Christianity is the truly new thing. In it are the new creation, the new name, the new song, the new heaven and the new earth, the new birth, the new life in Christ, etc.
Strangely enough, the widespread references in sermonic literature to the "song" which the angels sang the night Jesus was born find their only corroboration in what is written here. This passage says "they sang a new song," introducing it by "saying." It is plain that this verb is consistent with song as well as speech? F40
Purchase with thy blood ...
The conception of the church as a possession, bought by the blood of Christ, is everywhere in the New Testament. "Ye are not your own; ye are bought with a price" (1 Corinthians 6:19,20). "The church which he purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28), etc.
Of every tribe ... tongue ... people ... nation ...
The universal characteristic of the church is stressed by this. It is the church of our Lord Jesus Christ that actually concerns every man ever born on earth.
This is a disputed text, there being even some question of the translation; but despite this, the meaning comes through with absolute clarity. The saints of Jesus Christ, the Christians of all tribes and nations, are now reigning upon the earth with Jesus Christ. Some people do not wish to believe this, but the dogmatic power of this verse refutes the unbelievers. The Christians in this current dispensation reign with Christ. Their reign is exactly in the same sense as that of the apostles "reigning with Christ" (Matthew 19:28), a reign which Jesus Christ himself affirmed would occur during "the times of the regeneration"; that is, the "times of the new birth," meaning the current gospel age. Now, for some of the problems.
The KJV renders this passage: "And hast made us unto our God kings and priests; and we shall reign on the earth." There are two significant changes in the ASV. "Us" is changed to "they," and "we shall reign" is changed to "they reign." We shall take the first change first.
That the "us" here means Christians of the present times is obvious, and since that is the true meaning of the passage, no matter how it is translated, the KJV should be retained. We do not suppose that modern scholarship is any better qualified to solve this than the KJV translators. Furthermore, their translation (1611) is further corroborated and confirmed by the Sinaiticus manuscript, discovered in 1859. Bruce and Seiss both confirm this; F41 and Seiss elaborated his opinion thus:
Some critics and expositors have rejected this (us), for the reason that it is omitted in Codex Alexandrinus and from the Ethiopic version; though the latter is not much more than a loose paraphrase. The Codex Sinaiticus is of equal value and authority with the Alexandrinus, and it has it. So also do the Codex Basilanus (in the Vatican), the Latin, Coptic (Memphitic), and Armenian, and all other manuscripts and versions. We regard it (the "us") as indubitably genuine. F42
This writer does not pretend to be able to resolve this question, but certainly there must be some basis for the supposition that the KJV may indeed be correct in this instance.
The other problem regards the tense: "We shall reign" (KJV) vs. "they reign." Here the later translations are obviously correct, because that is what the passage means. Even if "shall reign" is read here, it means, "they shall continue to reign, as at the present time." "The context seems to demand the present tense"; F43 but even if the future tense is what John wrote, "it would refer to the future immediately subsequent to the appointment of each king and priest." F44 Wallace also agreed to this thus, "We shall reign, literally rendered is are reigning, referring in the Revelation context to their continuing conquests in the trials that were present." F45 As Caird summed it up:
Any suggestion that the reign of the Christians belongs to an ultimate future is beside the point, since we have now been twice told that they are already kings and priests. F46
The apostle Peter spoke convincingly of this in the first epistle (1 Peter 2:9), where he called Christians a "royal priesthood," which is exactly what is affirmed here, adding that they are now offering up "spiritual sacrifices" to God, thus also "reigning" with Christ.
THE EARTHLY KINGDOM VIRUS
The first and greatest mistake ancient Israel ever made was rejecting the theocratic government of God and demanding a king like the nations around them (1 Sam. 8); and this mistake was likewise their last, for it blinded them against the coming of their hoped-for Messiah. At the time of the First Advent, the Jewish nation, especially its leaders, wanted nothing either in heaven or upon earth as ardently as they wanted the restoration of their earthly monarchy, obliviously ignorant of the fact that a secular kingdom was contrary to God's will from the first. By the times of Jesus, their hopes of a Messiah had degenerated into a carnal malignant patriotism; and when they knew that Christ had no intention of organizing an army and chasing the Romans, they crucified him!
People of our own times who long for some earthly, secular appearance of Christ to establish some kind of a literal kingdom on this earth are guilty of the same mistake as that of ancient Israel. Christ's kingdom is not of this world. It is a reign over the passions and appetites of the body, a reign over the lusts and vanities of the flesh, a spiritual reign of a people who, in a sense, are "called out" of the world with its secular value judgments. The very word "church" means "called out." Every line of the New Testament denies that Christ ever intended or that he ever plans to rule in any temporal sense on this earth. The church age is not to be followed by any so-called "kingdom age." The church is the kingdom; and the thousand years reign refers to the whole time between the First Advent and the Second Advent of Christ. Many people are not satisfied by the type of kingdom established by Christ, resulting in the projection of all kinds of bizarre and unscriptural notions regarding some "future" kingdom. If people can bear to hear it, the "kingdom" has already been in existence since the first Pentecost following the resurrection of Christ. The saints of the New Testament were baptized into that kingdom; and there is none other.
These words introduce the great doxology which follows. Significantly, none are silent in the hosts of heaven, the praise and adoration of the Father and of the Son being unanimous, full, spontaneous, and overwhelmingly joyous. "Needless to say, the numbers are not to be taken literally; they are simply employed to express the countless throng of that innumerable company." F47 See Heb. 12:22.
It is hardly profitable to dwell upon each one of the seven "receivables" in this overwhelming doxology; because even they do not exhaust the worthiness of the Lamb; but rather, in there being seven of them (the number of perfection), they stand for the infinite perfection and worthiness of Jesus Christ our Lord. Practically all of the qualities mentioned in this doxology are ascribed to Jesus elsewhere in the New Testament.
Saying with a great voice ...
This passage being introduced with "saying" and a very similar passage being introduced as "singing" (Revelation 5:9) suggest that the angels' "saying," "Glory to God in the highest, etc.," (Luke 2:13,14) may also be understood as a song.
In these great doxologies Rev. 5:9,12,13, the first two are addressed to the Lamb, but in the last, the Father is also included. This linking of the Father and the Lamb continues throughout Revelation, in their aggregate, providing overwhelming evidence that in the early church Christ was honored in every way as fully God, co-reigning with the Father in heaven and upon earth. These magnificent passages show that there could not possibly be any subsequent honors or glories that Christ could be conceived of as possessing, which he does not already possess. This is one of the great facts of this marvelous prophecy.
Many scholars have a tendency to tie in what is said here with the passage in Romans where Paul said, "the whole creation travaileth" (Romans 8:19-21), but that passage refers to people, not to animals. A different meaning is here; namely, that the lower creations, in their proper way, honor and praise God through their continuity as he directed them. Foy E. Wallace expressed the thought here thus:
The whole creation in antiphonal response joined the symphony of praise "unto him that sitteth on the throne" - God, the Creator, and "unto the Lamb" - Christ the Saviour. As the host is enlarged to "every creature," the praise is expanded to include both the One on the throne, and the One in the midst of the throne - God and the Lamb. F48
This writer has attempted to express the idea of this verse poetically; and it is included in this series of commentaries, in Commentary on Galatians, p. 14.
"This word confirms the preceding doxology, and is one of three ways in which the word 'Amen' is used in Revelation." F49 These are: a final "Amen" is used with no change of speaker (Revelation 1:6,7); the "Amen" as a name of God (Revelation 3:14); and the detached "Amen," as here. It is also used as both the beginning and the ending of a passage (Revelation 7:12).
Moffatt's comment on this chapter is:
By prefacing the struggle on earth (Revelation 6:1; 6:1 ) with a vision of the brilliant authority and awe of heaven, the prophet suggests that all the movements of men on earth, as well as the physical catastrophes which overtake them, are first foreshadowed in heaven and consequently have a providential meaning. F50
The apostle Paul fully agreed with the things the apostle John indicated here; namely, that:
God made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation (Acts 17:26).
From the beginning to the end, all things are foreknown and foredetermined by the Father; and yet, mystery of mysteries, this does not conflict with the principle of the freedom of the human will.
Before concluding the exciting and most profitable study of this magnificent chapter, it is not amiss to note that:
In the antiphonal singing, in the Amen, and in the silent worship at the end, we not improbably have some reflection of the usages in the public worship of the Church at that time. F51
MERCY ON THE THRONE
We cannot leave this great chapter without stressing the fact of the Son of God's enthronement with the Father and the implications of it regarding the mercy it symbolizes. Weak and sinful mortals may contemplate the eternal righteousness and justice of the Almighty God and find but little comfort in the thought until the vast significance of what is revealed in this chapter is realized. Jesus Christ who walked on earth, hungered, grew weary, suffered, struggled with earth's problems, and at last died on the cross, that One, like ourselves, with the scarred hands and the pierced side, HE is on the Throne! He stands there, represented in this vision not in resplendent robes of glory but as a sacrifice for our sins. Mercy and forgiveness are in the control center of the universe. The God-man is reigning, but still a man, still loving those for whom he died. This incredible truth overshadows everything else in the Bible, being the unique fact that endows human life with cosmic meaning, sheds the light of hope in darkness, dispels the terror of the tomb, and supplies the only strength men have in their struggles with temptation.
The Old Testament exhibited the Mercy Seat above the covenant and the Law, but the New Testament reveals Mercy on the Throne. The Old Testament worshipper remembered his sins, but the New Testament worshipper remembers Him whose blood cleanses us from all sin. The law of sin and death has been replaced by the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.
For the suffering and persecuted church of John's day, nothing could have provided for them anything more necessary and helpful than this precious vision of the Lamb on the Throne.
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.