By Thomas R. Schreiner —
One of the greatest texts in all of the scriptures is found in Revelation chapter 5. The course of history is found in the seven sealed book, and God holds history in the palm of his hand. He is sovereign over every event that occurs. But what will happen to the human race? Will God’s promise of universal blessing given to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) be fulfilled? Will the promise that the offspring of the woman will triumph over the serpent (Gen. 3:15) become a reality? Let’s read Revelation 5:1-14.
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. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 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.” 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. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. 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. 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, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
Apart from Christ there is No Hope
The first truth we see in these verses is that apart from Christ there is no hope. Why does John weep in this passage? Is it because if the book is not opened life would be without meaning? Modern people often ask whether life has any meaning. Is it just sound and fury signifying nothing? Do we come into the world by chance, live by chance, and die by chance? Is love just an illusion? Do we live for a short while and then just return to the dust? John does not weep because he thinks life will be without meaning if the sealed book remains unopened. He weeps for a different reason as we shall see shortly.
In order to understand Revelation 5 we must return to Revelation 4. In chapter 4 we see worship of God as creator. And this sovereign God who is the ruler of the world has a scroll in his hand that has writing on both sides. He controls the course of all of history. A powerful angel cries out with a loud voice, asking “Who is worthy to open the scroll and its seals?” The response to the query is silence. No one is worthy “in heaven or on earth or under the earth to open the scroll and to look into it” (v. 3). No angel or human being. No person, alive or dead, can open the book. John weeps loudly because no one can open the book or look into it. No human being is worthy because all human beings have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). We have all worshiped and served the creature rather than the creator. We have all lived for ourselves instead of living to bring glory and honor and praise to God.
I take it angels can’t open the sealed book because only human beings can do so. In other words, angels can’t atone for our sins. Angels can’t wipe away the great evil perpetrated by the human race. Only a human being can do that. And no human being can open the book because only a perfect human being can open it. So why does John weep? He weeps because if the book isn’t opened there is no hope for the human race. It isn’t that life would have no meaning if the book isn’t opened. No, John is convinced that God exists and he reigns over all. Life would still have meaning, but if the book isn’t opened, there is no hope for the human race. In other words, if the book isn’t opened all without exception will go to hell.
Do you have hope in your life? I am not talking about a feeling of hope. Many unbelievers have a feeling of hope when there is no objective ground for hope. And as a believer you may not feel hope, when objectively there is hope because Christ is your Savior. Someone may have a terminal illness but feel hope because they have a quack doctor. A friend of ours was dying of cancer and she had a quack doctor. When she was bleeding profusely at the end, her doctor said her body was cleansing itself. She had hope, but her hope was bogus.
On the other hand, sometimes we think that as Christians we only have hope if we feel hope. But our hope is first and foremost objective. If Christ is ours, we have hope whether we feel it or not. Let me use the doctor illustration. It is possible that a person feels like he is dying, when he is actually getting better. Subjectively, he has no hope. Objectively, he is getting better. Let’s not think that hope is fundamentally about our feelings. Our feelings of hope are rooted in the objective reality of our hope: in the work of Jesus Christ crucified and risen.
We Have Hope Because Christ is Worthy
Note again the drama of Revelation 5. The angel asks who is worthy to open the book. The answer given is that no one is worthy. So, John weeps and weeps. John repeats that no one is worthy, to emphasize that no one is good, not even one. John highlights the significance of what follows in v. 5. One of the elders stops John in his weeping, informing him that one has been found who is worthy. There is a human being who has pleased God and done his will. He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. This fulfills the prophecy of Gen. 49:10. “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” Who can open the sealed book? The one who is as strong and noble as a lion. The one from the tribe of Judah whom the scriptures prophesied would rule over all. But he is not only the Lion from Judah. He is also the root of David. We read in Isa. 11:1, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Who is worthy? The one the ancient prophecies said would be worthy. The son of Jesse, the son of David. The Lion of Judah. The hope of history is found in him. The book can only be opened by one who has sovereign and almighty power, by one who is a king, by one who rules over the universe.
In v. 5 John is told that the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David has conquered. But now in v. 6 John sees what is happening on the throne. He isn’t told what is happening but sees it. And he sees the four living creatures and the elders, but when he looks he doesn’t see a Lion but a Lamb. He was told that the Lion conquered, but the Lion who conquered is also the Lamb. And the Lamb whom he sees is standing as if slain. In other words, the Lamb he sees is now standing. He is risen from the dead. He has conquered death. Still John sees a slain lamb. What is John teaching us here? How does Jesus as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, as the root of David conquer? Does he conquer as a ferocious Lion who attacks and destroys his enemies? No, he conquers by being slain as the Lamb. He wins by losing. He lives by dying. He conquers by becoming a victim. The victory over sin comes through one who died in our place to atone for our sins. The Lamb took upon himself the punishment we deserved.
What is the message for us? I see two implications. First, unbeliever: Your only hope for life is if you put your hope in this slain lamb. Only he can wash away your sins. If you rely on your own works, you are like a person trusting in a quack doctor. There is no hope for you. The only doctor who can heal you is the lamb who takes your sins. Put your trust in him. Second, believer: Remember that life comes in an unexpected way. Our lives have many setbacks, sufferings, and pains. What we long for is often not realized. What we hope for is often frustrated. But we learn from the cross that God likes to triumph through adversity and pain. He uses our sufferings to show forth his glory. And he reminds us of our inadequacy, so that we will look to him for strength. He impresses upon us our weakness, so that we will look to him instead of to ourselves. So, the frustrations of life keep us from worshiping ourselves. We are reminded of the gospel. We are reminded that the sealed book, the course of human history, is opened by the Lion who is a Lamb.
The Exalted Christ Sends Forth His Spirit
This Lamb has seven horns and seven eyes. The horns symbolize his infinite strength and the seven eyes his omniscience. But these seven horns and seven eyes also symbolize the seven spirits of God sent into all the earth.
In my previous article on Revelation 1, we saw that the seven spirits of God represent the perfection of the Holy Spirit. So, Jesus exercises his sovereignty over the world through his Spirit. What we see here fits with what we have seen elsewhere in the NT. When Jesus as the Lamb is slain and exalted, then he sends his Spirit into the world. The symbolism is colorful but the truth is the same as we find in the rest of the NT. The Spirit is the Spirit of the Son. When Jesus is exalted on high, then he pours his Spirit out on his people. Too often today people separate the work of the Spirit from the Son, but the Spirit came to glorify Jesus (John 16:14). The Spirit came to shine the spotlight on Jesus. The Spirit has come to glorify the slain Lamb! And he is poured out on the world because the Lamb of God is crucified, risen, and exalted.
Our Redemption is an Answer to Our Prayers
John slows down the narrative again for us. We see in v. 7 that the slain Lamb takes the scroll from the hand of the God seated on the throne. When he takes the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty four elders fall down before the Lamb, and they are holding harps and incense, which represent the prayers of the saints. So, here is the point for us. The work of the slain Lamb is an answer to the prayer of every person who ever lived for redemption. The deepest and most profound longings uttered in prayer have been fulfilled, and they have been fulfilled in the work of the slain Lamb. Yes, God takes the initiative in saving us. It is his work from first to last. Even our prayers are the result of his work. But at the same time. It is also true that our salvation is in response to our prayers. We cry out to him to save us, and he does. No one who has ever cried out to the Lord for deliverance has ever been forsaken. He is a kind and loving Father. He is tender and compassionate.
We learn from this that our prayers matter. They make a difference. They are not mere words going into the air. Our sovereign God sees and saves. He delivers those who cry out to him. His kingdom will come in its fullness and his will shall be done. His purposes will be accomplished. May we pray boldly and confidently, knowing that God hears our requests.
Jesus has Purchased Some from Every Tribe
We read in Revelation 5:9-10, “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.” In v. 9 we return to the theme of worthiness. Jesus is worthy to open the sealed book because he was slain. And what did he accomplish by his death? He ransomed some from every tribe, tongue, language, people and nation. This verse doesn’t say that he potentially ransomed some from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. It says that he actually purchased some from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. God honors the blood of his Son that it has actually won redemption for some from every people group.
This verse gives us great encouragement to preach the gospel in hard places, for we know that Jesus has purchased some from every tribe, etc. He hasn’t promised us that he will save everyone in a people group. But he has promised that some are purchased by his death from every people group.
We receive two encouragements from this truth. First, Jesus’ death is not in vain. It accomplishes what the Father wills. God’s saving purposes cannot be frustrated and hindered. We serve a victorious God. The Father elects his own. The Son purchases them by his death. And the Spirit applies God’s saving work to his own. Second, in the midst of opposition to the gospel, we know that his word will not return void. The Lord has secured the salvation of some and our preaching is the means by which they will be won.
The result of this purchase is that those who are redeemed are a kingdom and priests. When Israel was first constituted as a nation, the Lord said he would make them a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:6), but now this same blessing is given to people of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. So, here we see good evidence that those purchased are the true Israel—the true people of God, which is none other than the church of Jesus Christ. And they will also enjoy the blessing promised to Abraham. They will reign on the earth. This promise is fulfilled in the new heavens and new earth that is coming. Believers may be persecuted now, but there is a new world coming. We will have new bodies untouched by sin and corruption and a new universe to enjoy.
Jesus is Worshiped as God
What is the result of this great redemption? We see in v. 11 that the angels explode with praise over what the slain lamb has accomplished. Revelation 5:11 reads, “Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands.” And what do they sing? “Worthy is the lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Just as they sang that God was worthy as creator in chapter 4, now they sing that the Lamb is worthy as redeemer in chapter 5. In other words, it is very clear that Jesus shares the same status as God, for he is worshiped, just as God is worshiped. And the divinity of Jesus Christ is driven home in v. 13. “And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ Note that the Lamb is given the same blessing, honor, and glory and might that is given to God. He is equal to God. And so, we are not surprised that chapter 5 ends the same way that chapter 4 ends. Just as God is worshiped as creator in chapter 4, so Christ is worshiped as redeemer in chapter 5. “And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped” (Rev. 5:14). May we bow down and worship as these early Christians did. May we bow before God as our creator and Christ our redeemer!
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a weekly blogger for Credo Magazine. Dr. Schreiner, a Pauline scholar, is the author or editor of several books including, Romans, in the Baker Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament; Interpreting the Pauline Epistles; The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law; The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance; Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives of Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, co-edited with Bruce A. Ware; Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of I Timothy 2:9-15; Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.
Read blog posts by Thomas Schreiner here.