There is nothing within human experience more true, natural, pure, and right as a creature’s obeisance and worship of its Creator/Redeemer. Jesus, during his earthly ministry, gave to man a prescriptive formula for the manner of worship God desires – “those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:24). Rev. 5 offers the reader a picture of what this command from Jesus looks like in practice. A better understanding of Rev. 5 is paramount for realizing in our own lives the pure worship found in the Lord’s hortatory words spoken to the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn. 4).
While many obstacles offer resistance to our worship here, there can be found in Rev. 5, three certain points that transcend the restrictions of worship in our fallen world and experience; they are the occasion of the worship, the Object of our worship, and the content or nature of the worship we offer. Whether here or there, these three elements are normative for the worship God desires.
I. The Occasion of the Worship
I. A. The scroll of the “right hand” -- (5:1a). Several observations in v.1, concerning the nature of the scroll, are worthy of our attention. First, the scroll is in the right hand of the One who sits on the throne – the Creator God (see: ch. 4). The scroll’s occupation of the right hand is to accentuate the importance of the scroll’s content. This has manifold connotations. The confirming indictment of the Jews at Jesus’ trial, the charge of blasphemy, arose from the Lord’s personal claim to the position of power and of the execution of divine judgment which would come from the right hand of God. This statement was sufficient for the Sanhedrin to sanction the death penalty (Mt. 26:64ff; Mk.14:62ff; and Lk. 22:69ff). Jesus’ claims to this unique position of sovereign, judicial power is also met in the Apostles preaching (Acts 2:34-35; also Ps. 110:1 is the most frequently quoted OT verse in the NT), and the Epistles (Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Heb. 1:13). Despite the awful prospect of this reality for some, our Evangelist, finds this mighty right hand an instrument of comfort (Rev. 1:17) as should all who are redeemed (1:5; cf. Rom. 8:34). Unfortunately, the proximity of the scroll being from the “right hand” receives far too little attention from many commentators. The thematic importance of it deserves more than can be offered here.
I. B. The scrolls contents – (5:1b). While there are numerous parallels between Ezekiel’s prophesy and that of Revelation, the “scroll” is the most emphatic (cf. Eze. 2). The chapters of Revelation that follow 5 reveal the same content described by Ezekiel in his book – “lamentations and mourning and woe” (Eze. 2:10 cf. Is. 29:11; Dan. 8:26). Also, stressed by both, is the totality of what was written: “written on the inside and the out...” (Eze. 2:10; cf. Rev. 5:1). However, there is a difference between them, both quantitative and qualitative. In both scrolls there is a mixture of hope; however judgment is the eminent theme. The extent of Ezekiel’s “woe” was to be realized in history only until the fall of Jerusalem, whereas the scroll in Rev. 5 has within its writings the completion and finality of all temporal history as we know it. Ezekiel’s scroll was open; this scroll has a seven count seal. Ezekiel, though a Prophet of Yahweh was nonetheless a sinner by nature and was still counted worthy to read and proclaim the scrolls contents. In Rev. 5, the “strong Angel’s” universal inquiry for someone worthy to open the sealed scroll was originally bankrupt, thus emphasizing the weightiness, gravity, and holy nature of this document’s contents.
I. C. The scroll’s seals -- The scroll’s binding is also found to elucidate the climactic intensity of its contents. The document is best understood as a sealed legal will or deed. Several back ground facts are critical for understanding it as such. While the number seven, being the number of completion or perfection (i.e. the number of seals on the scroll), is obviously an important theme in Revelation, it should be noted that the Romans would use the same number to seal the edges of their important legal documents such as wills. More importantly though was the Jewish use of seals. Judicially speaking, Jews required a minimum of three witnesses and their respective seals for a legally binding document such as a deed or will; with the number of seals increasing with the intrinsic importance of the document. Thus, in either ethnic context the seals would have conveyed the inherent weight of the scrolls contents. Because a will’s revelational disclosure depended upon the “death of the testator” (Heb. 9:16), and a deed was sealed until its redemption, it stands to reason that the sequence of the seals openings began when the risen Lord took his throne.
I. D. The shift – In ch. 4 the host around the throne are worshiping Yahweh, the One who holds the “title-deed scroll.” His holding the scroll represents his rightful power, authority, and Lordship over all creation. In ch. 5 the worship shifts to the One who is worthy to take the scroll from the right hand of God and open its seals. It needs to be recognized that this shift in no way detracts from the worship of the One on the throne (as the Lion/Lamb is not on the throne, but in the “midst” of the throne). While the worship of God on the throne does not stop (4:8 – “they do not rest day or night...”) there is a noticeable rise in the breadth and intensity of the worship when the Lion/Lamb redeems the “title-deed scroll” from the right hand of God to open it and begins to reveal its contents. Paul tells us that this shift is completely compatible and in accord with the Father’s plan for the Son’s death, resurrection, and exaltation. When Jesus receives the name above every name – Lord – and every tongue confesses him as such, the Father is glorified thereby (Phil. 2:5-11).
NOTE: It is evident in our passage that there is a degree of subordination in the Lamb’s role; who is in the midst of the throne, to the Father who sits upon the throne. It is paramount that we understand this “subordination” in relation to the Trinity’s economic “doing,” and not confuse it with the Trinity’s ontological “being.” There is no subjection of one Person of the Trinity to another in regards to the “what” of God’s eternal being, only in the operative “who” of God’s Person, and what each Person’s role is in the out working of redemption in time/space.
II. The Object of the Worship—Rev. 5:5-7
II. A. The Lion – The Evangelist’s weeping is due to the Angel’s loud proclamation not being able to find any creature worthy to redeem the scroll. However, John’s weeping is halted when one of the elders directs his attention to the “Lion of the tribe of Judah.” Here John introduces Jesus’ presence in the throne room under one of the earliest revelational titles to precede his coming (see: Gen. 49:8-12, cf. Heb. 7:14; the earliest title being the “Seed” of the proto-evangelium in Gen. 3:15). In the prophecy of Gen. 49, the scepter of rule was to find temporary station in the tribe of Judah until the One who was to come should arise – which when He would come, “to him shall be the obedience of the people” (Gen. 49:10b). The lion is representative of the fiercest beast of the animal kingdom, the one who rules.
II. B. The Root of David – John here furthers his case for Christ as rightful ruler over all. Clearly he is drawing from Is. 11. Paul, in Rom. 15:12 assigned the same OT passage to Jesus. This has a two fold effect concerning the Lion’s rule: one, he is presented as the Ultimate King, with the legal lineage, who is to rule over the people of God. Second is the contrastive purpose. John’s original readers were living in an environment of Imperial cult worship; the Roman Emperor was the god of the society they found themselves in (Asia Minor). Ironically, during the early persecutions of the Christian community, those who confessed “Jesus is Lord” (see: I Cor. 12:3), and refused to say “Caesar is Lord” were condemned as “atheist” for not believing in the god of Rome, and were often murdered for their impiety. This helps to shed light on Paul’s words that those who claim “Jesus is Lord” can only do so by “the Spirit.”
II. C. The Victor – “has prevailed to open the scroll...” (5:5). “[P]revailed” (Gk. ενιχήσεν). This verb is in the aorist tense, and critical to John’s overall theme in Revelation; presenting Christ and his church and victorious over Satan and his seed. The aorist tense points back to a single, conclusive event in time past. This is to point the reader back to Jesus’ first advent, and his Cross. It soon becomes clear that it is Christ’s work as the Lamb of God, as the Pascal Lamb sacrificed to redeem God’s fallen creation, is what warrants his right to take the scroll and open it. These last three titles: the Lion, the Root of David, and the Victor all prepare the reader for the irony that comes, when John’s gaze is finally fixed upon the “Lamb” in v.6.
II. D. The Lambkin – This title may appear strange at first, however it stresses John’s point. While in our English Bibles there is no grammatical distinction between the “Lamb” of 1:29 (and elsewhere) in John’s gospel and the Lamb of Revelation, however in the Greek the distinction is obvious. This, I believe, is not incidental, but purposely ironic. While the normal Greek word for lamb is “amnos” (αμνος. In the gospels, and also of the lamb of Is. 53; see: LXX – Is. 53:7), John, in his 29 references to the “Lamb” in Revelation, uses the word, “arnion” (αρνίον – lit. lambkin). This is a diminutive word, stressing the smallness of the Lamb. Thus, the irony begins to become lucid. Despite his smallness, he has seven horns (stressing his divine power, see: Dan.7:14), and seven eyes (stressing the divine attribute of omniscience, see: II Chron. 16:9; Zec. 3:9; 4:10).
This concept is buttressed by the following observation John makes of the Lambkin, it was “as though it had been slain.” The slain markings of sacrifice are still borne by the Lamb from his victorious conquest by the Cross at his first advent, these marks, or better badges, are perpetual in their efficacy concerning their redemptive purpose (note: “slain” is a perfect past participle). While those of Satan’s camp conquered and ruled by tyranny and the slaughter and suppression of others, the Lamb’s victory and rule is based upon his SELF- slaughter on the Cross. This all is to stress the contrary – ironic nature of Christ victory and the subsequent worship due him by his redeeming work – indeed the gospel is foolishness to the world’s system and reason (I Cor. 1 & 2).
II. E. The Lambkin Redeems the Scroll – This is the moment of shift in the direction of the worship. The Lamb, as the slain Victor, has purchased the rightful inheritance of the governance of the universe through his substitutional—mediatorial death on behalf of his creation (see: v. 9).
III. The Nature of the Worship
III. A. The Heavenly Company – Every class and order of creation is represented in the worship of the Lamb. There is the four living creatures (the Cherub order of angels; those that attend and lead the worship at the throne of God in the Heavenly sanctuary. The twenty four elders (most commentators see these as representing the redeemed of all ages). 5:13 looks forward to “every creature” in the universe fulfilling Phil. 2:10-11.
III. B. The New Song – The newness of the song speaks not to the content of the song or even the melody, but rather to the occasion. Throughout scripture the “new song” is always the result of Yahweh graciously saving his people from calamity, rescuing them...redeeming them (see: Ps. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Is. 42:10; Eph. 5:19; Rev. 5:9; 14:3; 15:3)! Surely there is no more appropriate time or place for a “new song” to be sung than the occasion offered in our text. Ps. 98:1 and Is. 42:10 should be of special interest due to the universal extent of the songs invitation. Isaiah evokes the utter “ends of the earth” (v.10) to sing. The Psalmist in 98:3 claims that “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” This could only be realized by the completed work of Christ as presented in Rev. 5. Proclaiming the Gospel of God is to see (“already”) this new song sang in all the creation; bringing with it a chorus sang by “every tongue, tribe, people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9), and points to the final victory won at the consummation of all things (“not yet”). The Lambkin’s completed work has wrought redemption and deliverance over Satan and the world, and offers it to the “ends of the earth.”
III. C. Johannine Christo-centricity – Like all of the scriptures, John’s, perhaps more than all other writings, bear a striking Christ centeredness. It is the blood of the Lamb that provides all redemption from the Lamb’s wrath (5:9; 7:14; 12:11). This is the locus of the “new song.” The Lamb’s work on the Cross is also centre in this passage. It is the faithfulness of Christ to his part in the covenant of redemption that occasions the worship in this chapter. However, this is not to eclipse his substantial Divinity in the process, as they “worshiped him who lives forever and ever” (vv.13c-14c). This chapter reveals Christ as God in no uncertain terms; if he were anything less, the devotion we find here would be nothing short of blasphemy. John’s vision provides us with a glimpse of the fullness of universal worship and homage due only to God the Son – The Creator/Redeemer.
IV. Conclusions and Contemporary Considerations
IV. A. The Occasion of Worship vs. Occasional Worship – It would be fallacious to understand the worship revealed in Rev. 5 as distinct from our immediate temporal experience of Christ in our everyday lives. These observations can help to re-center the focus and frequency of our devotions – individually and corporately. The occasion of the worship of the Lamb at the throne of God should be no less realized in the corporeal life of the Christian. The redemption exulted in this passage is the Christian experience, beginning at conversion and working its way out in a lifestyle of continuous praise and worship. Such a conclusion shatters the notion that worship is something done for an hour on the Lord’s Day, instead it is a life lived that rises out of the Lamb’s blood; resting on the certainty of his faithfulness and character.
Three points from the text gives the believer a concrete basis for their perpetual worship and a life devoted to the “Living Lamb.” One, there is no real disjunction between our earthly worship and that happening immediately at the throne of God. In Rev. 5:8, there is a bowl, which metaphorically refers to our prayers resulting in the incense of the throne room. In one very real sense, the worship offered in one’s prayer life allows a real meta-physical participation in the throne attendance so obvious and alive in our text. This is again made possible only by the Lamb’s blood, made efficacious through the intercession of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26), and perfected by the mediation of Christ our advocate (Rom.8:34). Second, we must examine what it is that “occasions” our worship; is it favorable circumstances, pay raises, good grades, etc, or is it rather based upon Christ’s divine sovereignty, in utter adoration of the one who has bought us and redeemed us from the slave market of our sin? When we, like those represented in Rev. 5, worship the one who is True, and in truth “upholds (all of history past-present-future) all things by the word of his power” to rule and govern the universe (Heb. 1:3), we have began to realize Jesus’ imperative to worship “in spirit (our prayers mentioned above) and truth (our worship is based upon, and directed to the True nature of Christ himself). How little distance there is between us and the Throne!!
Last, is the fact that all the activity of judgment and redemption in Rev. 5, mediated by the Lamb, is actualized in our spatial-temporal reality, not in the heavenly realm. God is immanent – Christ is present with his people! Our participation in heavenly worship is as real as Christ’s earthly activity, in and throughout history.
IV. B. The Object of our Worship and the Objective Nature of our Worship – In our worship of Christ Jesus, our Creator/Redeemer, we must guard our hearts and minds to insure that we are worshiping the Person of Christ, rather than a mere principle derived from one of his attributes. The worship in Rev. 5 (all of Revelation for that matter) is “occasioned” by the balance of Christ’s love in redemption, and his Holy wrath in judgment. Notice, the four living creatures sang the tri-hagion, “holy, holy, holy...” (4:8). John’s weeping over the chance of the scroll remaining undisclosed was due to his holy drive to see Christ finally and fully conquer, and thus put all his enemies under his feet (I Cor.15:25), and “stain all his garments with their blood” (Is. 63:3). The reality of Christ’s love wrought upon the Cross, is unintelligible and nonsensical when it is divorced from God’s holy wrath and justice. To deny Christ any one of his perfections is to deny him totally – he cannot be one without the other. To focus on the love of God apart from the justice of God is like looking at the stars in the noon day sun; God’s brilliant love is only visible when juxtaposed against the darkness of his righteous judgment.
In closing I would like to return to the theme of Christ’s revelation in ironic and contrary forms. To grasp this concept is to grow in worship. As our text does continually, we too should turn our attention back to the Cross as an illustration of the irony of God’s fullest revelation – his Son (Heb. 1:1-2).
The world defines the “abundant life” (Jn.10:10) as living it up, God on the Cross demonstrates this “life” through his own dying. Those who desire this life must then too “die themselves.” All of the Bible (especially Rev. 5) views the Cross of Jesus as the strength and victory won. What God calls “strength and victory,” the world calls weakness and defeat. This also translates into the Christian’s life; in II Cor. 12:9, Jesus himself says that “his strength is perfected in our weakness.”
I mention these to help elucidate the fact that any and all of our circumstances and situations in life occasion our worship of Christ. What we would often consider unfortunate or dire chance happenings in our life can be recognized through this lens as the gracious providence of the One who is unfolding our own histories. A solid handle on this generates a mind directed at the throne of grace where our Lord Jesus rules from the right hand of Power!
The immediate occasion, Object, and nature of our own worship today varies only in degree to that which is revealed in chapter 5 of the Revelation. The occasion for us in the here and now is all that flows from Jesus’ redemptive work on the Cross – any and all experience of life our in Christ. The Object of our worship, when it is the Christ of the scriptures, the Lamb who was slain, yet standing, living, and ruling, is the Self-same one as worshiped by all the heavenly hosts. The nature of our worship is in one sense the same as those in the throne room, however, the Christian hope is to set upon the full and immediate presence of Christ; it is then that we will realize finally and fully the joy of completely unfettered and unmediated worship of our Creator-Redeemer-King!
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4