Tuesday, January 8, 2019

A Divine Interruption-Revelation 5:1-5

One of my biggest pet peeves is being interrupted. Whether while in a conversation, lecturing, or watching a movie, interruptions are often a source of great frustration as they take my focus away from what is in front of me to something that, more often than not, is of little interest. The only time interruptions are not a nuisance is when whatever interrupts me is greater than whatever may be receiving my full attention in that moment. Rare though this may be, when this occurs, a presumed annoyance is transformed into a cause for joy and excitement.

But what of divine interruptions? As we continue in our study of the book of Revelation, the worship scene we witnessed in chapter 4 is interrupted by something that, at first glance, poses a real problem. However, when all is revealed in Revelation 5:1-5, our frustration and grief is overwhelmed by great delight and expectation as a powerful introduction of a most prominent character in the book of Revelation is introduced. Turn with me there and let us examine four elements of this unfolding divine interruption.

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1. ELEMENT #1: A Sealed Scroll-5:1

In the middle of the worship service that John stumbled upon in chapter four, the apostle notices something that temporarily interrupts the stanzas of praise coming from the four living creatures and the twenty four elders. There in the center of the throne space John says “I saw (something) in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne” (5:1a). While John found it difficult earlier (see chapter 4) to describe the occupant of the throne, he is able to make out that the figure is holding something and this he is doing in his right hand (the place of authority and power).

As John looks closer he beholds “a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals” (5:1b). This double-sided document appears to allude to Ezekiel 2:9b-10 and also Daniel 12:4/Isaiah 29:11 (Beale, Revelation NIGTC, 337).

Ezekiel 2:9b-10-“Then I looked, and behold, a hand was extended to me; and lo, a scroll was in it. When He spread it out before me, it was written on the front and back, and written on it were lamentations, mourning and woe.”

In Revelation 5, the book is described by means of two descriptive participles—“written” and “sealed up.” Both descriptive phrases are followed by peculiarities. First, it is “written” on the inside and the outside. Writing on a scroll was typically limited to one side of the medium. However, when the contents were especially full or lengthy, the writing would “spill over” onto the back (Thomas, Revelation, 380). Therefore, whatever is contained in this unusual document is a complete volume and/or the whole counsel of the one who presumably produced it (the one sitting on the throne).
Second, it is “sealed up” (katasfragizw-a more emphatic verb for sealing), demonstrating the security and mystery of the contents inside. “Such a seal was an impression usually made on clay, wax, or some other soft material that restricted an unauthorized person from access to the contents” (Thomas, Revelation, 380). The emphasis on the hiddenness and protection of the contents inside this double-sided volume is accentuated by the number of seals—seven. In other words, the contents of the book is completely/totally locked up. This is reminiscent of Isaiah 29:11-12 and Daniel 12:4.

Isaiah 29:11-“The entire vision will be to you like the words of a sealed book, which when they give it to the one who is literate, saying, ‘Please read this,’ he will say, ‘I cannot, for it is sealed.’”

Daniel 12:4-“But as for you, Daniel, conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time; many will go back and forth, and knowledge will increase.”

So what is this seven-sealed scroll/book? Commentator G. K. Beale surveys several options. First, some believe it is the “lamb’s book of life” that contains the names of all true believers (see 3:5; 13:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27). Those who hold this view consider that perhaps there is writing on both the inside and out because the names of the redeemed are so numerous. However, once these seals are broken, so much more than names are revealed. Second, there are those who hold that this book is a copy of the Old Testament and that Christ is the only one who is able to unlock the true meaning of this covenant since its prophesies are fulfilled in him (see 2 Cor. 1:2-; Matt. 5:17). However, this book seems to have more in common with the books that are discussed in Daniel 7, 12, and Ezekiel 2-3 than the entire Old Testament. Third, it is a book that contains events of the future that lead up to the second coming of Christ, ultimate salvation of the saints, and the final judgment.” Fourth there are some that believe it is a book containing God’s plan of judgment and redemption which was inaugurated in Christ’s death and resurrection (in his first coming) and will be completed in his second coming. Each of these interpretations as presented appear to be nearing the nature of this peculiar volume.

However, there is another view that may be even better. The description of the document is similar to that of an ancient will or testament (binding contract). “This kind of contract…would be written on the inner pages and sealed with seven seals. Then the content of the contract would be described briefly on the outside…” (Thomas, Revelation, 378; see also Ford, Revelation, 92 and Beasley-Murray, Revelation, 120-33). “Since the opening of the seals enact the judgments of God on earth in order to bring about the return of Christ as King of the earth” (and usher in a new heaven and a new earth) “it seems best to view the scroll as the title deed or divine contract to the world. As such, the scroll certainly contains the eternal decrees of God and expresses his divine will and counsel” (Hindson, Revelation,  64; see also Beale, Revelation NIGTC, 340ff). However, this title deed or document of inheritance must be bequeathed and then opened in order for all to learn its contents. This naturally leads to an important question.

2. ELEMENT #2: An Important Question-5:2-3

John continues his report with “And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals?’…” (5:2a). Though the identify of this angel is unknown (some have suggested Gabriel and Michael as possibilities) what is known is that he is described as mighty and appears making an important inquiry. What follows next in the vision (everything moving forward in the book) appears to be contingent on the contents of this scroll. The next thing would be to hand it over and have it opened so as to reveal its contents and usher in the glorious end culminating in a new heaven and new earth. However, in order for this to happen, someone worthy of the scroll must surface.

The rising tension of the scene reaches fever pitch when in verse 3 John reveals “and no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the book or to look into it,…” (5:3). “The worthiness required for this is so great that no created being can even contemplate it, much less attain it” (Bullinger).

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on how the vision that began in chapter 4 has unfolded. It is similar to a glorious piece of music (say, “Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber) that exists as one large crescendo leading to a climax. Everything from the new time (“after these things”) to the new domain (being taken up into heaven) to the perspective offered (“in the Spirit”) to the focus given (to the one sitting on the throne) to the strange phenomena (rainbows, lightning, etc.) to the other characters present (twenty four elders and four living creatures) has increased John’s expectation (and the expectation of his readers) for something incredible to happen. This is only accentuated by the crisis of verse 3. Is all this build-up for naught? Like a lingering dissonant chord in need of resolution, the scene appears to stall, and it is too much for John to handle.

3. ELEMENT #3: A Grievous Proposition-5:4

John’s emotions boil over in verse 4—“Then I began to week greatly” (5:4a). The verb means to weep or wail, with emphasis upon the noise accompanying the weeping (Louw Nida). There in the middle of this glorious worship service, stanzas of praise are replaced by the vociferous cries of this humble guest who is overwhelmed by the grievous presumption that now confronts him.

“because no one was found worthy to open the book or to look into it,…” (5:4b). Though we might find John’s behavior a bit curious, consider what might have been going on in his mind. Because no one was found to open the seven-sealed scroll, John probably believed there was no way he could receive the knowledge of the revelation that he was told to expect in 5:1. Also, because there appears to be no way for the book to be opened, John probably wondered whether or not God’s glorious plan contained therein could be carried out. Therefore, John is not weeping for his own sake (say unfulfilled curiosity). Instead, he is grieved by the apparent indefinite postponement of God’s final and decisive action to bring about the new heaven and the new earth and, by proxy, the ultimate salvation and hope of God’s people (Mounce).

Thankfully, the extreme tension is satisfied, the dissonant chord resolves, John’s tears are wiped away, and overwhelming grief is itself overwhelmed by profound comfort.

4. ELEMENT #4: A Profound Comfort-5:5

The comfort that John desperately needed and the satisfaction the scene requires to move forward is introduced by one of the elders sitting around the throne—“and one of the elder said to me” (5:5a).
 “Stop weeping” (5:5b-d). The prohibition is offered quickly and directly. “The…messenger sees beyond John’s limited human perspective that such sorrow is inappropriate and instructs him to cease wailing” (Thomas, Revelation, 386). After all, the elder wouldn’t want John cries to interrupt the most glorious introduction of the most important character in the book.

For “Behold,” the Elder exclaims, “the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (5:5c). The elder’s exclamation immediately directs John’s attention to this occasion as a source of joy rather than sorrow for there is one who is present who is worthy to take and open the scroll—the victorious Christ. In other words, a hero exists that has provided salvation and as a direct result is qualified to provide salvation for John’s present distress (opening the seven-sealed scroll and paving the way for the eschatological judgment and salvation to be disclosed in the remainder of the Apocalypse). Two descriptive phrases introduce Christ as the long-expected conquering messiah. First he is called “the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah” (5:5). This is an allusion to Genesis 49:9.

Genesis 49:9-“Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He couches, he lies down as a lion, and as a lion, who dares rouse him up.”

The description connects the figure in view to the Jewish people and the much-anticipated Savior thereof. It is a powerful regal image (lions were, after all, used as decoration in Solomon’s palace—one of the most impressive architectural wonders in his day—1 Kings 7:29, 36). The regal theme is carried along by the figure’s connection to “the Root of David” (5:5). “Root” is a metaphor for offspring and here probably refers to Isaiah 11:1, 10.

Isaiah 11:1, 10-“Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit… Then in that day the nations will resort to the root of Jesse, who will stand as a signal for the peoples; and His resting place will be glorious.”

Such terms and references describe Christ’s headship in the final Davidic kingdom—the same forever kingdom that was promised David in the Davidic covenant found in the Old Testament. In many ways, the Christ described in this passage is the same Messiah that the Jews expected when he first came and that they have continued to anticipate. Though in his first coming he was born as a baby boy and laid in a manger, here he is described as a royal lion of victory.

John is encouraged by the elder to gaze upon this Lion because he “has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals.” The perfective aorist of “has overcome” highlights both the completeness of the action and the ongoing implications thereof. Here, the completed action is a victory that was won. This victory came three days after Jesus was crucified. In conquering the grave, Jesus confirmed his unique identity as Savior and Lord of his people—the rightful heir of the new heavens and new earth. As such, he alone is worthy of taking the scroll and breaking open its seals. This action will bring the judgements upon the world and future events that will lead to the new heavens and the new earth. As Tenney states “because He (Christ) has redeemed the world, He has the right to judge it and to cleanse it for His use” (Tenney, Interpreting Revelation, 129). Put another way, the same one who purchased salvation for his people in his first coming is the one who alone is worthy to bring about the conditions necessary for the future glory of those saved (in a new heaven and new earth).

So What?

In this incredible scene we witness the rise and relief of tension that follows an interruption of the worship witnessed in heaven. In many ways this passage—Revelation 5:1-5—contains the hinges of history, for in it, one era closes (essential salvation in a spiritual sense for the people of God) and another opens (existential salvation to follow the purge of the tribulation). To be sure, the tension that exists in this passage is other-worldly scale and the relief that is achieved by the one introduced ushers in a new era. However, the same Christ who brings peace to John and an answer to the question raised in this text is equally qualified to bring you ultimate relief and hope today. Why? Because he is the one who overcame it all—sin and death—and by extension offers that same victory to those who follow him. Praise the Lord! Though we may face things we are made to endure in this life (interruptions that disrupt our lives), we have a coming king who promises us victory and relief in the end! Certainly he is worthy of our worship and our praise! Does he receive that from you today? Do you know the overcomer and, as a result, hold the promise to overcoming yourself?

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