(04) Triumph of the Lamb–Revelation Four and Five

[From Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987; reprint edition: Wipf and Stock, 1998.]

Triumph of the Lamb

Study Questions

(1)  Is there any significance to the order of the objects seen in chapters four and five?

(2)  What is the chief activity in this section?

(3)  To what do the “open door” and the invitation “Come up hither” (4:1) refer?  Is the phrase “in the Spirit” (4:2) significant?

(4)  What do you make of the description of God in 4:3?  What imagery is associated with the throne in this paragraph?  Why?

(5)  Who are the “elders” and “living creatures” in chapter four and what does the number of each mean?

(6)  Who is the Lamb?  What is the relevance to the scene here?

(7)  What is to be understood by the opening of the scroll (5:2-5)?  What is meant by “worthy” (5:2)?  Does the remainder of the chapter throw any light on its meaning?

 

4:1-6a—The Setting in Heaven

“Heaven” here (4:1) is likely the same as the “heavenly places” of the Book of Ephesians—not a place without evil, but the sphere of spiritual reality, where masks are off and both good and evil are seen for what they really are.

The first thing John sees in heaven is a throne (4:2), symbolizing the absolute sovereignty of God.  The picture of God on the throne is a favorite of John.  He uses it ten more times in the book.

In 4:3 John sees a rainbow.  This reference is an important reminder of the covenant of god with humanity, made after the Flood, that the waters will never again be permitted to destroy creation (Gen. 9:8-17).  The throne is surrounded with the sign of God’s mercy.  It warns us not to interpret the visions of destruction that follow as though God forgot his promise to Noah.

The 24 elders (4:4) are representatives of the people of God.  The image comes from 1 Chronicles 24 where 24 divisions of priests were each headed by a “chief” or “elder.”  These had to be present in the temple at the great festivals.  The “seven torches of fire” which are the “seven spirits of God” (4:5) picture God’s active presence in the world, something usually spoken of as the Holy Spirit.  this reference recalls Zechariah where the prophet sees seven lamps and hears that they are “the eyes of the Lord, which range through the whole earth” (4:10).

Elsewhere in Revelation, the “sea of glass” (4:6) is:  (1) the reservoir of evil out of which arises the monster (13:1), or (2) the barrier that the redeemed must cross in a new exodus if they are to win access to the promised land (15:2-3).  In the new heaven and earth there is no more sea (21:1).  The sea, whether on earth or in heaven, belongs essentially to the old order and within that order it stands for everything that opposes God’s will.  Here it serves as a reminder that God’s purpose in what follows in the rest of the book to get rid of that sea.

4:6b-11—Worship for God’s Creation

The four living creatures seen in 4:6 are meant to symbolize the entire animate creation.  In their ceaseless worship of God (4:8b) they show that nature (including humankind) worships God just by existing.

This passage counters any dualism between nature and grace.  God the Creator and God the Redeemer are one.  God’s redemptive work has to do with all creation, not just human souls.

The priase of the 24 elders in 4:11 differs from that of the living   creatures in 4:8 in that it is addressed to God and is based on God’s work in creation rather than God’s divine attributes, thus refuting the idea that God as spirit would not be involved directly in a material creation.

The vision in chapter 4 merges many Old Testament images of divine truth and presents God the Creator as worthy of universal praise (4:11).  All that exists is under God’s sovereign sway.  That is why the divine throne is the central and primary feature of the vision (4:2). 

5:1-5—The Dilemma and Its Resolution

In 5:1 John sees God’s “right hand.”  This indicates that the visions are not meant to be visualized in a literalistic way.  Rather they are to be interpreted as meaningful symbols—a visual way to present an idea.

The scroll is to be understood as a legal document relating to the destiny of humankind.  The content of the scroll is God’s redemptive plan, foreshadowed in the Old Testament, by which God asserts sovereignty over a sinful world and achieves the purpose of creation.

The exultant tone of chapter 5 supports the interpretation that the three series of plagues are three pictorial presentations of one reality: the messianic judgments that precede the kingdom of God.  The important feature of the sealed document is not the judgments that accompanied the opening of the seals, but rather the supreme event to which they lead (i.e., the coming of the new Jerusalem).

The breaking of the seven seals and the following events do not constitute the content of the scroll but are preliminary and preparatory to the actual disclosure of the scroll’s contents.  These contents include botht he establishment of the New Jerusalem and the destruction of evil.  John longed for both of these things to happen.  The big question in the light of this longing is, “who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (5:2).  That is, who can bring history to a conclusion?  Who can bring about final redemption?  This question was especially pressing in the light of the apparent failure of the history of Israel.

No one could be found to do so.  Apparently nothing could be done.  So John “wept much” (5:4).

One of the elders, however, tells him not to weep (5:5).  Someone has been found:  “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered.”

The Messiah has come.  The “Lion of the tribe of Judah” alludes to one of the first messianic prophecies in the Bible, Genesis 49:9-10.  We know from Jewish literature of New Testament times that the lion was used to indicate the conquering Messiah (e.g., see 4 Ezra [2 Esdras 11:37; 12:31]), even though the metaphor is not found elsewhere in the New Testament.  The reference in Genesis is obviously not to a humble, suffering Messiah but to one who wielded the sceptor as a ruling king.  The “Root of David” is an allusion to Isaiah 11:1.  The royal family of david, the son of Jesse, was likened to a tree which had fallen, but from whose roots had sprung a new tree to restore the kingly rule of david.  The verses that follow give a vivid prophecy of the promised triumphant messianic king.

The Messiah had come.  The scroll could be opened.  But most Jews had not recognized him.  No one would say that a conquering king like the one prophesied had come. 

The purpose of the titles in 5:5 is not only to assert the Messiah Jesus’ authority to open the scroll, but also to set up the contrast in 5:6 with the master title—“Lamb”—which is used throughout the book for Jesus.  Conquest is thus tied to sacrificial suffering and apparent defeat.  “Lion” and “Root” over against “Lamb” are a symbolic equivalent to Paul’s claim that “we preach Christ crucified…the power and wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24).

5:6-10—Revelation of the Slain, Triumphant Lamb

What John hears—the traditional Old Testament expectation of military deliverance—is reinterpreted in 5:6 by what he sees—the historical fact of a sacrificial death.  He sees a “Lamb” who bears the marks of slaughter, which are explained by the heavenly choir in 5:9-10:  With his lifeblood he has ransomed “for God people from every tribe.”  The “Lamb” is the symbol of self-sacrificing and redemptive love.

The slain lamb (which John “saw”) is interpreted by the Lion of Judah (of which he “heard”).  Its death is not weakness and defeat (as it seemed to be), but power and victory.  The Lion of Judah, the traditional messianic expectation, is reinterpreted by the slain lamb.  God’s power and victory lay in self-sacrifice (in contrast with Satan’s, whose beast looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon, 13:11).

The lamb which appears to be slain is standing.  The slain lamb is the risen lamb.  Even apart from the cut throat, this is no ordinary lamb.  It has “seven horns and…seven eyes” (5:6).  In the Old Testament horns symbolized power (e.g., Deut. 33:17) and at times royalty (e.g., Dan. 7:7).  “Seven horns,” then, signifies fullness of strength.  The Lamb of God is immensely powerful.  The “seven eyes” signify fullness of knowledge (cf. Zech. 4:10).

John is, in effect, redefining omnipotence here.  The omnipotence of the Lamb (and hence of God) is not to be understood as the power of unlimited coercion, but as the power of infinite love—the invincible power of self-negating, self-sacrificing love.  The gospel sees no other way of victory of the Messiah in overthrowing God’s enemies than the cross.  This is crucial for understanding the rest of Revelation.

Hints of this can be found in the Old Testament.  The lamb metaphor was central in the great prophecy of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53.  Isaiah saw one who was humble and despised, who would be abused and maltreated, but who would redeem his people by suffering—bearing their transgressions and their iniquities inhis own person.  His sufferings would lead him to the point of death.  The Jews did not know what to do with this prophecy of the servant of God who suffered the fate of a slaughtered lamb.  It could not be a prophecy of Messiah.  By definition Messiah was to be a victorious, conquering king who would overthrow the powers of evil (not be crushed by them).  There is no clear evidence that the suffering, lamb-like servant was ever applied to Messiah in pre-Christian times by Judaism.  The role of the conquering, reigning king and that of the meek, rejected, suffering servant seemed to be mutually exclusive.

But when Christians found Jesus fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy, they began to regard it as a messianic prophecy.  This is a dramatic change of imagery in relation to God’s work of salvation in the world—one which Christians all too often neglect.  God’s work is a work of love.  The word love seems a mockery when applied to the terrible Lamb of chapters 6–20, but his eternal purpose is the redemption of all people, andhis severity to those who side with the dragon and his cohorts is a function of that purpose.

In 5:9-10 a new song is raised in thanksgiving for the accomplishment of the promised redemption and the coming of the new age.  This song is repeated in 14:3 and 15:3-4 and anticipates the new heaven and new earth, in which all things are made new by god (21:1ff).

Jesus is praised in 5:10 for what he has achieved.  The ransomed are already “a kingdom,” sharing Christ’s pattern of kingship (1:9) in faithful “witness to the truth” (cf. John 18:37).  As “priests” they are to bring the obedient worship of the nations to God—again through their witness.  Their kingship and priesthood are yet to be fulfilled, but it is crucial for our understanding of John to recognize that he could regard it as in some sense being a present fact.

5:11-14—Worship for God’s Redemption

The Lamb is worthy to take the scroll, break the seals, and eventually open the scroll, thus bringing history to its consummation (5:12).  This symbolizes Jesus’ redemptive work and eventual destruction of evil.  Because of what he has done, all creation worships him.

Verse 13 presents a positive picture.  Every creature worships God and Jesus.  The Lamb’s work is good news for every creature, person, or animal.  Whether everyone will actually recognize this is another matter.  But the threats and images of destruction are threats of what might be, not promises of what will be.  God’s will is always that everyone repent and join in this worship (9:20,21; 16:9,11).

Summary

These chapters contain visions developing the statement of Christ in 3:21 that he has conquered and therefore shares in the throne and power of God.  This is a very important section of the book.  It provides the key to understanding the plagues that follow in chapters 6 to 20:

(1) God is the Creator and Redeemer and is in ultimate control of history.  The plagues are not outside that control and ultimately serve God’s creative and redemptive purposes.

(2) Christ the Lamb acted decisively prior to the plagues to win the crucial victory over Stan with his death and resurrection.

(3) In doing so, the Lamb set in motion the series of events that will culminate in the destruction of evil and the establishment of the New Jerusalem on earth.

The end result of all this activity is that “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein,” sing praise to God and the Lamb.  In spite of the plagues, all creation ultimately worships God for God’s work through the plagues.

Meditation

Our culture is characterized as lacking hope for the future.  No longer do people believe in the American dream of prosperity and happiness for everyone.  Our economy is disintegrating.  Bridges, roads, sewer systems, and train beds are all falling apart.  The environment is being damaged.

Overshadowing all of this is the threat of nuclear holocaust.  In a recent poll, 83 percent of a representative sample of Californians iondicated expectation of nuclear war in their lifetimes and do not expect to survive it.  This expectation cannot but effect how people think about the future.  What results for many people is nihilism: nothing really matters and we cannot do anything about it anyhow, so who cares?

Human beings, however, are not created to be hopeless.  Where there is no hope, there is no life.  To be without hope is to be dead, to be miserable motion machines.

Revelation 4 and 5 help us in understanding how we can receive the gift of hope.  Chapter four reemphasizes in symbolic imagery the common biblical theme that God is the Creator and that creation by its very existence worships the Creator.  This idea of God as Creator is very important in understanding how and why we can have hope in our lives.  To say that god is the Creator is already to say that life and history have meaning and purpose.  The universe and human life did not just randomly happen without purpose, but with a random end.

To say that our universe and life itself are created by God is to say that life has meaning and is good.  God created life for a purpose. This creation has a beginning and is moving toward a goal.  Human history is not just a mist, coming with the dew during the night and fading away with the morning sunshine.  Rather, human history began with a loving and creative God who is guiding that history toward a goal and who created each of us to play a part in that history.

However, that God is Creator (and that life has meaning in line with the purposes of this Creator) is not always obvious.  That life often seems meaningless and hopeless is an indication that something is wrong—that the original goodness of creation has in some way been marred.

Somehow evil has invaded the universe.  We are not told in the Bible exactly how this could have happened, since God is good and creation is good.  Evil remains a mystery.  The story of Adam and Eve shows us, though, that evil is related to human freedom.  God created us with an ability to choose, to grow, and to have free, loving relationships with God and with one another.  But this freedom has its risks, for we can reject God’s love and thus become separated from God.

The whole story of the Bible, however, shows God continuing to woo humankind, seeking reconciliation and restoration.  God’s intentions are revealed in the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 after the Flood.  God promised never again to destroy the earth:  “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and everyliving creature that is with you, for all future generations:  I set my [rainbow] in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Gen 9:12-13).  The Creator and Judge is ultimately the Reconciler and Redeemer.

“Round the throne was a rainbow” (4:3).  This significant reference reminds us that God remembers the covenant made with Noah, that God will not destroy the earth, that God’s will is redemption and reconciliation.

This sign of the rainbow is an interprettve key to the visions of destruction that are given in chapters 6 to 20.  In those chapters is a battle between the spiritual forces of good and evil.  Evil is ultimately destroyed.  Certainly this battle affects the material world.  For one thing, real people, like you and me, who are living faithfully to the way of the Lamb, are being warred upon in those chapters by the agents of evil (the dragon and the beast).  However, in the end the material world is not destroyed; it is preserved and renewed as the New Jerusalem comes down to earth (21:2).

The New Jerusalem is not yet fully realized, however.  There is a longing for it, as there has been for thousands of years.  In 5:1 we read that the one on the throne has in his right hand a scroll.  This scroll appears to be some sort of document relating to the destiny of humankind.  Perhaps what it contains is the message of the final reconciliation of all things to God—a final redemption.  If so, the opening of this scroll would be the fulfillment of the hopes of all those who trust in the final victory of God’s love.

Verse 3 tells us that “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or look into it, and [John] wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.”  The scroll remained closed.  The story of redemption remained untold.  The longing for wholeness remained unfulfilled as long as no one could be found to open the scroll.

Why could not one on the throne open the scroll.  The answer is tied in with the meaning of the creation of humankind as free creatures.  Evil came into the world as the result of the exercise of that freedom.  It can only be overcome by freely choosing God over evil.  But no one was found, it appears, who could do that in an ultimate sense.

“Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals’” (5:5).  Deliverance is granted and salvation is come.  Evil has been defeated and the story of redemption is told.

These two descriptive phrases—“the Lion of the tribe of Judah” and “the Root of David”—are two basic images in the Old Testament for the messianic hope held by the people of Israel.  The victor here in Revelation 5:5 is a conquering king who wins a military-like victory, thus gaining the power to open the scroll through brute strength.

Verse 6, though, turns the picture upside down.  John hears “Lion of Judah, conquering king,” but what he actually sees is shockingly different.  “Between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (5:6).

This is one of the most important visions in the whole book.  The power  of God to fulfill the hopes of humankind is seen most centrally in the slain lamb.  Ultimately, God’s power is not the kind of power that forces people to go along through brute force.  Rather, it is the power of unshakable love.  God wins people over by loving them and inviting them to choose the life that is found in God.

All the forces of evil could not conquer this love by killing Jesus, the Lamb.  He conquered evil not by retaliating in kind, but by remaining faithful to the way of noncoercive love, overcoming death in the resurrection.

The Lamb is worthy to take the scroll.  The Lamb has true power, because it was slain.  It is important for us to realize that this was not an isolated act, something the Lamb did so that none of his followers would have to.  In chapters two and three, Jesus called upon the seven churches to be overcomers, even to the point of their being slain, of being martyrs.  They were to follow the footsteps of Jesus, the faithful matryr witness.

That kind of overcoming power is avaliable only for those who have true hope.  True hope comes from a faith encounter with God—an encounter which helps us to know God as Creator, as the one who made us for a purpose: to reign on earth.  This reign, this kingdom of which the living creatures and elders sing, is founded on care and love, not on coercion and force.

The gift of hope comes when we order our lives according to the values of God’s kingdom.  When we are living lives of love and compassion—forgiving as we have been forgiven, being merciful as God is merciful—our eyes will be opened to see that the Lamb that was slain is victorious, that no earthly power can separate us from God’s love.  As we follow the way of Jesus and grow into unity with him, we see in the rainbow that God, not the nuclear bomb, is Lord of history—and we will be empowered to live our lives knowing that our hope is not in vain.

Questions for Thought and Discussion

(1) Do you believe that the rainbow covenant (cf. Gen. 9:8ff.; Rev. 4:3) is still in effect in this nuclear age?  Does the nuclear threat throw it into question?

(2) Dan you relate to the worship of God in 4:8-11?  Do you visualize God as a being on a mighty throne?  What value, if any, do you see in this imagery?

(3) If the interpretation that creation worships God is true, what implications might this have for our concern for the environment?

(4) Does it make sense to you that a slain lamb could determine the outcome of history?  How would you explain this affirmation to a non-Christian?  Does this have any implications for the style of our discipleship?

(5) Do you agree that the “Lamb” here is the symbol of self-sacrificing and redemptive love?  Why or why not?

(6) Do you agree that the true understanding of divine omnipotence here is that of infinite love and not unlimited coercion?  Does that go counter to your assumptions regarding God’s almighty power?  What are the implications of this view for how we think of God’s role in our world and in our lives?

(7) Does the idea that Jesus has made people a kingdom (5:10) seem far-fetched to you inthe light of your awareness and experience of brokenness, imperfection, and evil in the world?  What might this claim mean?

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