This week, we continue to peer into the throne room of heaven as the apostle John reveals that glorious scene to us in Revelation chapters four and five. As we’ve said many times, in the Revelation, John is peeling back the external layers of this seen, material world and inviting us to gaze into the deeper, unseen, spiritual world that is constantly active and is controlling what happens in this material realm. As we saw last week, John reveals to us in chapter four the enthroned Lord of the universe, God the Father, the Creator of everything.
His throne—which is the main focus of the heavenly scene, is a symbol John reveals to convey God’s supreme authority. Ruling over the events of this world—even as his church suffers sometimes severe persecution—is NOT the Roman emperor and other earthly authorities, but the enthroned God of heaven. That means that all the calamities, natural disasters, plagues, pestilence and all the other end-time judgments of God revealed in the Revelation occur ultimately for only one reason. They appear by order of the throne of God in heaven! But John also reveals in some detail the process and the heavenly powers whereby God implements his sovereign judgments on sinful humanity.
We see these 24 elders on their own thrones and these four supernatural creatures—all these angelic creatures who in some way implement, establish, and mediate God’s sovereign plans on the earth. When world events unfold, there are always human personalities involved—winning elections, declaring wars, rioting in streets, bringing pandemics, oppressing the church. But those earthly events are brought into being only as a result of the angelic beings supernaturally bringing them into being. And those beings bring them into being only as a result of orders from the throne of God.
This is not to say that God is responsible for evil or that the evil that people do is not their responsibility. It’s simply to acknowledge that God is somehow sovereign over all things, including evil, without himself being or doing evil. There is mystery here but if God is not sovereign in his control over evil, then he is not sovereign over much of what happens in this world.
This enthroned God of Revelation chapter four is revealed in his manifold glory. He is the thrice holy God—so superlative, he’s better, more powerful, and purer, more wise than any other being. He is the Creator God who has revealed himself so magnificently in his created order. And in response to his revealed glory, these angelic beings surrounding his throne, (who are so glorious themselves), can respond in no other way than to give him continuous, intense and repeated praise and worship.
So, chapter four reveals the glory of God and his sovereign control over all the events of this world. As we move into chapter five, we move a step closer to seeing HOW the end times events in the Revelation are enacted. Here, John introduces the member of the Godhead who is Lord over all and who will personally implement God’s plans through the Holy Spirit and these heavenly creatures.
On this earth, the emperors, governors, prefects, rulers, presidents, congresses, dictators carry out their political will. But John reveals in chapter five that those events in history have been predetermined in eternity past. And they are so specifically and irreversibly decreed by God, it’s as if they were written on a scroll by the God who sits on the throne. In chapter five, the enthroned God—God the Father, hands these pre-determined, irreversible plans to someone who is uniquely qualified to oversee their implementation on earth.
All of that means that the sometimes chaotic and scary events we see playing out on the evening news each night originate in the mind of God and there is One who is uniquely qualified to oversee them as he works though his angelic servants to bring them into reality through the rulers of this world at all levels. That’s how chapter four and five are tied together. Now, let’s look at chapter five as John records it here for us.
John continues to speak of this heavenly vision and says in verse one, “1 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.” As we move through this chapter, it divides into three sections. First, the heavenly scroll is revealed. Second, the Judge and Redeemer is revealed and third, the Judge and Redeemer is worshipped.
First, let’s see the heavenly scroll revealed as John describes this very important scroll that contains all that will transpire in the end times prophecies recorded in the Revelation. Scrolls of this type were made up of ancient paper bound together in some way and this one is filled with writing “within and on the back, [and is] sealed with seven seals.” These scrolls normally had writing on only one side, so the point is that this scroll is comprehensive. It lacks no important detail of what God is going to bring about. Its jam-packed with his plans for this world.
The seals are wax seals made with globs of melted wax that are then pressed with a metal seal to place a lasting seal on the paper. The reason for the seal is to keep someone from opening up the section of paper sealed off unless he/she breaks the wax seal and exposes what is written. They keep the sections of the scroll closed off from one another until the seals are broken. The seven seals are like chapter markers that separate each successive series of God’s acts of judgment and redemption from the next. Before each new series of God’s end-time judgments are carried out on earth, the seal in heaven containing those recorded events must first be broken. Only as they are systematically revealed in heaven can the contents of this next “chapter” of history be carried out on the earth. The breaking of these particular seals in chapter five fulfills a prophecy made 600 years earlier back in Daniel chapter eight.
Like John, God revealed to Daniel his own vision filled with these same kinds of symbolic or apocalyptic images. This vision reveals what would happen over the next several hundred years before Jesus was born in this part of the world. Many wondrous and terrifying things are revealed to Daniel and he is overcome by it all. After the vision is revealed, there are even more events that God could reveal to Daniel, but the angel Gabriel tells Daniel in verse 26, “26 The vision of the evenings and the mornings that has been told is true, but seal up the vision, for it refers to many days from now.” Though there are more events much further into the future that could be revealed to Daniel, Gabriel stops the vision at this point and had Daniel seal it because the events pertain to what we call “the end times.” These events sealed by Daniel are some of those written on this scroll revealed in Revelation five.
Can you imagine the impact all of this would have on persecuted Christians as they suffered through the chaos, cruelty, and persecution both within the Roman Empire and all subsequent persecutions of the church? When you’re fleeing to escape being beaten or imprisoned or having your possessions confiscated or being separated from your loved ones, it surely feels like your world is spinning completely out of control. You can’t imagine what the next hardship you will have to hear, the next loved one who will be martyred, the next friend who will betray you to save his own scalp. Your experience is utter bedlam and the temptation is to feel hopeless and in despair.
But chapter five here calls those persecuted Christians to remember that the cruelty they experience is not being made up on the spot—even though it feels exactly like that. No, what they are experiencing is in fact, carefully and precisely scripted by the sovereign God who loves them. It’s been measured and filtered and limited and specifically contoured by God himself to do in them what is best for them, eternally.
Psalm 139:16 has been a comfort to so many believers. David writes, “
16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” This is teaching that each of us has our own individual “scrolls” (if you will) with God’s plan for us written on it. This scroll in Revelation five is like a compilation of all our individual scrolls that also includes all the other world and local events that will play out on earth. These may be acts of God’s judgment on those who stand against him, or works of his gracious redeeming acts for those who follow Christ.
But a potentially devastating problem emerges in chapter five-a huge problem and in verse four John reveals that it was so troubling to him when he witnessed it, that it caused him to wail loudly in grief. That problem is introduced when a strong angel puts the call out for someone to come and open the scroll. Now, we must remember this apocalyptic imagery is not intended to be taken literally. This is not about God recruiting someone to come up and take a literal scroll from his hand. Remember what the scroll represents. It represents God’s predetermined plans for history that must, and most definitely will be, fulfilled on earth during these end times.
To open the scroll is John’s symbolic way of expressing that God is seeking someone who is qualified to oversee or rule over all the events of the end times. Someone must oversee what and when happens in these times to make sure that they correspond to God’s pre-ordained plans. Who will bring into being these final chapters of salvation history? Who will oversee this process of translating God’s written decrees to our material reality?
The reason there is a delay in filling this role is to emphasize that the qualifications required to take on this responsibility are unimaginably, infinitely steep. Think about it. The end-time events recorded on this scroll fall into two major categories. Much of it is the judgment or, God’s wrath poured out on the wicked. God has waited millennia for the world to repent and come to him in faith and the lost world has refused. So, it’s now judgment time. In the Revelation, we read of the earthquakes and natural disasters and pestilence and all the other calamities that are dispensed on the earth as God’s judgment on the wicked. And that includes both the human evil AND the underlying demonic or satanic evil that always underlies it. The punishment for all those opposed to God is now at hand and it’s all written on the scroll.
In order for a person to legally pronounce and carry out those kinds of judgments on the guilty, that Person would first have needed to have conquered these enemies. Remember that these evil forces have been at war with God. And you can’t convene the Nuremberg trials for the war crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany unless and until you have defeated Nazi Germany. You can’t stand in judgment and render a sentence on someone unless you have first prevailed over them in some way. So, the only one qualified to dispense this judgment on the wicked, the Judge, is the One who defeated these enemies of God.
In addition to the judgments that must be dispensed on the wicked are also the gracious works of redemption and reward for the saints of God—those who have placed their trust savingly in Jesus Christ. This would include the heavenly vindication and exaltation and glorification of those who, by his grace, trust in Christ. And the only Person qualified to bring these redemptive events into being is the One who has saved these former enemies of God out of their sin, chosen them, called them, cleansed them and qualified them to live with God forever in glory. Only that Person—that Redeemer of these former rebels will be able to perform these redemptive acts written on the scroll. Those necessary qualifications narrows the list of eligible candidates for this role down to… one.
So, now, let’s spend some time looking as we see the Judge and Redeemer is revealed. That’s what verse five is about. “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.” This series of seven seals or “chapters” or series of judgments and redemption written on the scroll can be ruled over only by the Judge and Redeemer who has conquered. He has conquered over the enemies of God, human and demonic, and he has conquered over the sin of the saints who now follow him and worship him.
The two titles used here for Jesus, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” and “the Root of David” are only found in these exact words here in the bible, but any good Jew would have identified these as ways of referring to their Promised Messiah. “The Lion of Judah” goes all the way back to Genesis 49 when Jacob is blessing his 12 sons and he says of Judah in verse nine, “9 Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?” The Jews knew their Messiah would come through the tribe of Judah and over time, they came to identify him as the Lion of Judah—the one who they knew would, with the fierceness of a Lion, destroy their enemies.
“The Root of David” was another title that, to the Jew screamed, “Messiah!” The Jews knew their Messianic King would come from the family line of King David. But David’s line of kings ended when Judah was exiled to Babylon. That royal “tree” was cut down. But in chapter 11 of Isaiah, the prophet reveals that, out of the stump from that royal tree will grow one more, ultimate Messiah King. He prophesies in verse one, “1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Later in verse 10 he says, “10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”
John’s symbolic language in chapter five simply says that Jesus, because he is the Messianic King who conquered sin and death for his believers and has defeated Satan and all his minions, HE ALONE is able to bring his judgment upon those he has already conquered. Because Jesus alone was qualified to rule over all of this, in verse seven “he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.”
Verse six continues, “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.” This reveals the very heart of the central message of the Bible, the gospel. John was told to look at “the Lion of the tribe of Judah,” but when he looked, he saw a lamb. And not just any lamb, but a Lamb “as thought it had been slain.” This Lamb bore the marks of a sacrificial death–a throat that had been cut from which its blood was let. But because this symbolic imagery we mustn’t be too literal because this sacrificial Lamb is very much alive! The point of the imagery is to say that, as the Lion of Judah, King Jesus conquered his enemies, but the Lamb reveals HOW he conquered them.
You may be surprised to know that John is the only New Testament author that refers to Jesus as the Lamb. He does it a few times in his gospel but in the Revelation, the MAIN representation of Jesus is this designation, “the Lamb.” In Revelation chapters four through 22, John uses this designation for Jesus 27 times. When you see a unique pattern like that, you had better ask, “Why?” There are surely many reasons. His repeated uses of this term is mostly to emphasize—to remind us over and over again– that Jesus conquered the sins of his own people as well his main enemy, Satan, at the cross. Jesus conquered his enemies by dying a sacrificial death.
Paul says in Colossians 2:15 that on the cross Jesus, “15 …disarmed the [satanic] rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” At the cross, Jesus stripped Satan of his one lethal weapon—the unforgiven sins of God’s people. He has nothing with which to condemn believers now because our sins are forgiven in Jesus. But think about another reason why Jesus’ main designation in the Revelation is the Lamb. This book, as we’ve established, was primarily written to encourage and strengthen believers either being persecuted or who were on the road to persecution. If Jesus conquered through what he suffered and THAT is the pattern he established for his followers, do you hear what that speaks to his persecuted people?
Jesus, as the Lamb of God tells his people who are suffering for their faith that they are NOT fundamentally victims of their cruel oppressors. Fundamentally, they are following in the footsteps of their Master. They are sharing in his suffering, identifying with him in this very profound and precious way—showing their comprehensive, sacrificial love for him. For people who are suffering for Jesus, that truth is SO encouraging. You are following in the footsteps of the Lamb. AND, just as it was with Jesus, your victory will come—your conquest over the enemy comes as you endure the suffering and remain faithful as he did!
In verse eight, as we did in chapter four, we again see these two elements of God’s ruling council, the 24 elders and the four creatures worshipping. John records, “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.” The prayers of the saints are portrayed here and other places as incense. The Psalmist also speaks of the prayers of God’s people as incense ascending to the throne of God. The word used for “bowls” here speaks of shallow little bowls you could hold in the palm of your hand that would hold incense. These aren’t big glass orbs or anything like that. John portrays them as golden to show how precious to God are the prayers of his saints. Do we see your prayers as sweet-smelling incense to God that he regards as precious and valuable to him? That’s the way he sees them. That ought to encourage us in our prayer lives and in our attendance at corporate prayer events and meetings.
We see more clearly later on in the Revelation; these bowls of incense are petitions from the saints for God to work his justice and judgment on their enemies. It’s important to notice that these prayers are being presented to God by incredibly powerful elders and creatures. That tells us how important our prayers are to God—that these exalted and high authorities in heaven would be charged with personally delivering these precious prayers to God.
Next, we turn to the crescendo of worship offered to Jesus by these heavenly beings. It’s a growing crescendo because there are three separate scenes of heavenly worship and each one is bigger and more impressive in scope. In the first worship scene in verses nine and ten, it’s only this ruling council worshipping that we saw in chapter four. Next, in verses 10-11, those are joined by “the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands…” Those words simply mean that there are more worshipping angels than you could possibly number. Finally, in verse 13, those two groups are joined in the third sequence of worship to include, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them…”
This is the scene that Paul depicts in Philippians chapter two. “9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” That means that all creatures will be worshipping God saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.”
Because this is ALL creatures, it includes those billions and billions of unredeemed sinners and fallen angels who are warring against God but have no choice—they are not capable of doing anything but–crying out in worship of Christ. The radiant glory of Christ is so overpowering, that those who now hate and despise Jesus, human or demonic, will one day bow before him in praise and honor and worship him.
The first scene of worship, though the least impressive in number, is actually the most detailed in the content of its worship. The others are abbreviated echoes of this one. Verse nine says, “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.”
We know that this is a worship scene because it’s a “new song” they sing and because they begin with the word “worthy” which implies worship. What qualifies Jesus to open the scroll is also the reason these heavenly beings are worshipping him. There is only one reason why Jesus is qualified to take the scroll, but there three parts to it. What he did was—he was “slain.” The interpretation of what he did is—he “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” and finally, the result of what he did was, he made them “a kingdom and priests to our God” that shall reign on the earth.
There is so much theology in those three parts of what Jesus did and we have little time left. The fact that the Lamb was slain is most important. This element alone is either mentioned or implied in each of these three expressions of worship in chapter. This image of a slain lamb begins back in Exodus when the children of Israel were to slay the Passover Lambs and place their blood over and around their outside entrances.
In this way, the blood of the Lamb would cause the angel of death to pass over them and spare their firstborn from God’s judgment. BOTH the Egyptians and the Jews deserved this death sentence from a holy God. But because the Jews were covered by the blood of the Lamb, they were rescued from the punishment they deserved. It’s no mere coincidence that Jesus was slain on the cross at about the same time the Passover Lambs for that Passover were slaughtered. He is THE Passover Lamb to which all others point.
He was slain to “ransom people for God” from every possible people group in the world. This word “ransom” means to redeem a person and the word literally refers to slaves being purchased out of the slave market and in this case the price of redemption for these slaves was the blood of the Lamb. People are born enslaved to sin, Satan, and death. They are held hostage to all three–under the oppressive thumb of them. And they are so blind to it, they don’t even realize it apart from God’s grace. The angelic beings reveal that God didn’t just liberate people from their slavery for the sake of their freedom. No, he liberates them so that from them he could create “a kingdom and priests for God.”
We have been purchased and are now owned by God. He bought us so that HE could own us, not so that we would own ourselves. And God’s purpose for us is to serve him as our King and represent him to others as his priests. Finally, these creatures say of God’s ransomed people, “…they shall reign on the earth.” We must understand that Jesus saved humanity in part to fulfill God’s original purpose for Adam and Eve, to reign over this earth. Now that we have been redeemed, we can serve our original creation purpose.
There is so much in this scene from the heavenly throne room. So, how does all this apply to us? There are many things like what we just said—that we must always see ourselves as those who exist to serve our King and represent him to others as his priests. Is that the way we see ourselves? I trust we are also impacted by other truths like the value and preciousness of our prayers to God. We should experience great comfort at the truth that, in spite of how crazy and sometimes painful our lives can be, God is in complete control—even over the evil things that happen to us.
All that is clearly intended, but the main thrust of the passage is the amazing Savior and his act of redemption accomplished for us by the Lamb of God that is worthy of worship of such an unimaginable scope. When the most powerful, influential created beings in the universe, members of God’s ruling council…when billions upon billions and trillions upon trillions of angelic beings who are so glorious that, if we met them, they would scare us half to death—when those kinds and those numbers of supernatural beings are falling on their faces in intense expressions of praise to God for something he did, you begin to get the idea that what Jesus, the second Person of the divine Trinity did in coming to earth and dying for our sins—you begin to get the idea that this was a a big deal!
These beings, many of whom did not personally experience this salvation themselves because they have no sin, are completely, absolutely blown away by what God has done for us in Christ. The point is—if we do not live with a profound awareness and appreciation for what Jesus did for us, we are horribly out of step with the rest of the created order on an absolutely cosmic scale. And we are the ones who Jesus did this for! If you are not moved like this in response to what Jesus did for you, spend as much time as you need and get hold of God and find out what on earth is wrong with you! We must repent of our ingratitude and ask that God would fill us with this same level of awe and worship for what Jesus did for us.
May God give us the grace to live in praise and worship for what he has done for us in Jesus for his glory and our joy.
 This three in one designation is from Robert Mounce’s commentary on the Revelation, p. 148.