A Weeping Prophet (Revelation 5:2-4)


John’s response to the double-sided, seven-sealed scroll is curious. We might have expected him to dance with joy at the fact that God has an exhaustive plan for the ages, that the events of history and our lives find a place and meaning within that plan. But he does not. He weeps instead. Why? Read his answer for yourself (Rev. 5:2-4):

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.

An unrevealed and therefore unknown plan is a cause for mourning. As Solomon put it: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29.18, KJV). We die for lack of meaning, for the inability to see the purpose of our suffering.

Some time ago, I taught a Bible study on Hebrews 2.5–18, which addresses the paradox of Christ’s Lordship. Verses 8–9 are key: “Now in putting everything in subjection to Jesus, God left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Christ’s lordship is paradoxical because it is actual (“God left nothing outside Jesus’ control”) but not apparent (“we do not yet see everything in subjection to him”).

After the Bible study, I had the opportunity to speak with a spiritual seeker. We talked about how the Hebrews’ passage helps Christians face the problem of evil with a realistic optimism. (The problem of evil is the difficulty of understanding why an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God allows his creatures to suffer.) Christians are realistic because we frankly acknowledge that evil happens, just as it happened to Christ. But we are fundamentally optimistic because we know that resurrection, the end-times’ righting of wrongs, and eternal life also happen—just as they happened to Christ.

In his vision of the heavenly throne room, John sees the power of God. And he sees the reality of evil. (After all, he is looking through heaven’s door from exile on Patmos.) What he does not see is Jesus. So he weeps.

Without Jesus, John is trying to tell us, the problem of evil is unsolvable. Christ is the interpretive key to that mystery. He is the one worthy to “open the scroll and break its seals,” so that we can read the place of our pain in God’s plan for the ages. Specifically, it is on Christ’s cross that heaven and earth intersect, that the vertex of God power plunges through the horizon of human sorrow, acknowledging its reality but overcoming it with resurrection.

But John sees none of this, at least not yet. Until we understand his sorrow, we cannot understand the comfort the gospel provides.

A Double-Sided Seven-Sealed Scroll (Revelation 5.1)


As in the previous chapter of Revelation, so here, the setting is the throne room of heaven. But whereas that chapter focused on the “one seated on the throne,” this one focuses on “the Lamb who was slain” (that is, Jesus Christ). In it, the Lamb takes a scroll from God’s right hand because he is “worthy to open the scroll and break its seals.” What is the scroll? Why must its seals be broken? Why is the Lamb worthy to break them? We must answer these questions if we are to hear and heed God’s Word to us through Revelation 5.

Like all prophets, John is a man of sight and sound. He reports his vision of God and declares whatever word of the Lord he has heard. Having seen heaven’s throne room with an awestruck gaze, now he narrows his line of sight and focuses on God’s right hand. It is open, and a scroll lies in it (Rev. 5:1).

In the ancient world, before the use of books became widespread, important documents were inscribed on scrolls made of reedy papyrus or leathery parchment. Those scrolls were often quite long, upwards of 30 feet. Only rarely was a scroll inscribed on both sides, and even then, the writing on the outer side was a simple précis of the scroll’s contents and took up little space.

John’s scroll, on the other hand was covered with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. The prophet Ezekiel saw a similar scroll in one of his visions, covered on both sides with “words of lamentation and mourning and woe” (Ezek. 2.9, 10). Later in Revelation, John is given “a little scroll” to eat and commissioned to “again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (10.1–11). When the Lamb breaks the seals of John’s scroll, great and terrible events of salvation and judgment occur (6.1–8.5). Taking all this evidence together, it seems that the scroll is a “heavenly book containing God’s redemptive plan and the future history of God’s creation,” as Grant Osborne puts it.[i] For some, its contents are words of weal, for others, of woe.

On occasion, we wonder if God in heaven knows what he is doing. Does he have a plan? If so, can we know it? The double-sided, seven-sealed scroll asks both questions.

Does God have a plan? Yes, he does. It is set and comprehensive, exhaustive in its detail, and it is written on the scroll lying in God’s open hand. Scripture is quite clear that God governs the course of history. Psalm 139.16 tells us as much when it says, “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 were none of them.” In Ephesians 1.10, Paul writes of God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.”

God’s plan encompasses not only the happy ending but also the grievous suffering of all who believe in him. According to Peter, Jesus’ gruesome crucifixion “by the hands of lawless men” took place “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2.23). We can take comfort from such knowledge, for our seemingly meaningless suffering finds meaning in God’s plan. “You have kept count of my tossings,” the Psalmist writes, and “put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Ps. 56.8).

So, God has a plan. But can we know it? Before John shows us that we can, he shows us the great sorrow if we cannot. To that sorrow we now turn.

 

[i] Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002), 249.

Worshiping God for What He Has Done (Revelation 4:11)


The four living creatures, whose body-covering eyes are fixed constantly upon God, praise him for who he is. The twenty-four knee-bending, crown-casting elders—Israel’s patriarchs and the church’s apostles—praise him for what he does. They lift their voices with the words of this song:

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,

to receive glory and honor and power;

for you created all things,

and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11).

The English word “worthy” translates the Greek term axios. Taken with the phrase, “our Lord and God,” it is thoroughly political language. Robert H. Mounce comments, “‘You are worthy’ greeted the entrance of the emperor in triumphal procession, and ‘our Lord and God’ was introduced into the cult of emperor worship by Domitian.”[i] So, when the first-century Christians ascribed glory, honor, and power to God, they were not simply talking theology. They were doing politics. By explicitly declaring God’s worthiness, they were implicitly denouncing Caesar’s pretensions.

In the long life of the church, unfortunately, Christians often have been tempted to separate the spiritual from the mundane. The worthiness of God forces us to stare down, resist, and overcome this temptation. We cannot proclaim that God is axios inside the church building and then pretend that he is not when we are outside it. Worship requires integrity. We must give glory, honor, and power to God not only in the weekly liturgy but also in all of our works. “I appeal to you, brothers,” Paul writes, “by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:2).

In saying this, by the way, I am not advocating the intermingling of the institutions of church and state. The First Amendment is a good idea, both politically and spiritually. Theocratic states, after all, are rarely free, and political churches are never redemptive. What I am advocating is an angle of vision, a way of seeing all of life sub specie eternitatis, under the aspect of heaven. Worship, which is nothing but the worthiness of God proclaimed in our songs and embodied in our actions, helps us see thing aright and value them properly.

The great problem in life, of course, is that our values are skewed. Domitian, for instance, a mere mortal, thought he was the immortal Lord and God. Everywhere, the Scriptures proclaim that God alone is worthy of our praise. Why? Because he made us. The elders sing, “you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” The first sin, the one that kills us, is the worship of creature rather than Creator (Rom. 1:21–23). So, if you want to value creation properly, value the Creator above all else. If you love the art, love the Artist more.

Worship, then, is axiology, the assignment of value or worthiness. When we give ultimate value to God, the rest of our lives—politics included—falls into proper order.

 

[i] Mounce, Revelation, 127.

The Posture of Worship (Revelation 4:9–10)


When I was a pastor, I usually sat on the front row. I did this not because I was some sort of liturgical brown-noser, eager to earn worship points from God for my enthusiasm. I was a pastor; I was paid to sit on the front row.

Unfortunately, I could not see my fellow worshipers from the front row. My back was to them. So, on occasion, while the worship team led congregational singing, I turned around for a look. On even rarer occasions (only once or twice a year), I sat in the very back row. From there, I could see the entire worshiping church at once.

Sometimes, it was—and is—a depressing sight.

Why? Lack of participation and lack of enthusiasm. Please do not misunderstand me. I do not want to come off as some hyperspiritual, judgmental, pastoral Pecksniff who is angry at my own church. I am not mad at anyone. I am just sad. For from the back row, what I see is a sizeable chunk of the congregation that does not sing, clap, or even smile as celebratory music about an awesome, loving God pours forth from the stage.

How very different is the response of the twenty-four elders to the worship of God. Consider what John writes (Rev. 4:9–10): “And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne….”

Several words stand out to me in this description of the elders’ worship: “whenever,” “fall down,” and “cast.” “Whenever” the elders hear the creatures’ praise of the holiness and eternity of God, their bodies respond. They “fall down.” Since the four living creatures eternally praise God, the elders fall down quite a lot (5:8, 14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4). God’s gloriousness does not merely thrill their souls or magnify their voices, it moves their bodies. It buckles their knees and jerks their arms. So overcome are the elders by the greatness of God that they “cast their crowns before the throne.” In the presence of God, whatever dignity, majesty, honor, power, or wealth we have is very small beans.

I met Billy Graham once. He came to speak at my seminary and graciously stuck around to greet us young ministerial candidates. In my mind, I prepared a little speech—in hindsight, quite fatuous—about how wonderful it was that he had come to our seminary to “pass the torch” to us. When my turn in the line finally came up, I found myself incredibly nervous, trembly, and tongue-tied. Greatness does that to a person’s body. If Billy Graham did that to me, how much more should God do that to us?

So, the next time you come to church on a Sunday morning, do not be afraid to sing loud, clap hard, smile big, or even fall down in worship. Your body language is worship too.

Worshiping God for Who He Is (Revelation 4:8–9)


Familiarity breeds contempt. At least that is often the case with our relationships. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis writes, “When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other.”[i] And all the people said, “Amen!” Or, as the kids might put it, “Been there, done that.”

Interestingly, when it comes to a relationship with God, familiarity breeds not contempt but ever-increasing wonder. Consider, for example, these words from Revelation 4:8–9: “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,

“‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,

who was and is and is to come.’”

John’s words allude to the imagery of Isaiah 6:2–3. In that Old Testament prophecy, Isaiah saw the Lord of Hosts in his temple, surrounded by seraphim who voiced to one another God’s praise. And he explained the function of the six wings: “with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.” The seraphim, it seems, covered their eyes out of humility and their feet out of modesty. For, according to Exodus 33:20, no one sees God’s face and lives. Curiously, the four living creatures John mentions are covered with eyes. They constantly see both God’s glory and the world he created. And they constantly fly about him, always in motion, and always singing praise.

Both the seraphim of Isaiah and the creatures of John acclaim God for his holiness. They proclaim it three times: “Holy, holy, holy!”—a superlative of praise. God is not only “holy,” which is good; or “holy, holy,” which is better; but he is “holy, holy, holy,” which is best.

What is holiness? Typically, we think of holiness as a moral quality, the mark of genuine saints. In our more cynical moments, we think of holiness as the possession of the self-righteous. We deride a person as “holier than thou.” In the Bible, however—especially the Old Testament—holiness means “set apart for a definite purpose.” It is a term of distinction. Used of God, holiness expresses God’s utter transcendence and absolutely distinguishes him from creation. “To acknowledge God as holy,” Robert H. Mounce writes, “is to declare his complete separateness from all created beings.”[ii]

Holiness, in other words, is a way of stating that God is divine, not creaturely or human. Unlike his creation, which comes to life and dies (sustained only by God’s power), God “was and is and is to come”—he is eternal. The seraphim and four living creatures worship God simply for who he is. They “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4).

Familiarity with other humans often brings unendurable irritation, but familiarity with God only eternal delight.

 

[i] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, with Screwtape Proposes a Toast (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 13.

[ii] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 125.

The Worshipers of God (Revelation 4:6–8)


Around the throne of God are gathered “twenty-four elders” (Rev. 4:4), “four living creatures” (4:6), and “many angels” (5:11). Although he does not see them in his vision, John hears the voices of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” (5:13). All creation, John is telling us, unites to worship the God who made them and the Lamb who would save them (Rev. 4:6-8).

In Reversed Thunder—my favorite book on John’s Revelation—Eugene Peterson comments on the significance of the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures.

Of the twenty-four elders, he writes: “The throne assembles around itself that which has been directed Godward through centuries of living by faith: the sacrifice and obedience, the preaching and praising, the repenting and offering of the people of Israel named after Jacob’s sons, and along with them the twelve apostles sent forth by Jesus in acts of healing and blessing, feeding and helping, delivering and preaching. All are gathered around their center. The two twelves include the old and the new, prophecy and fulfillment, and everything in between: shy, hesitant looks upward to an undefined deity, along with confident and articulated praise to God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Every acquired strength is looking for a place to work, every impulse to love is looking for a person to meet. Every firm commitment to deny self, every clear decision to follow Christ, along with every failed resolve and blind groping are gathered around this centering throne.”[i]

Of the four living creatures, he writes: “The four creatures are all aspects of creation, just as the twenty-four elders are all the facets of faith. The noblest (lion), the strongest (ox), the wisest (human), and the swiftest (eagle) are centered in God.”[ii]

Of worship itself, Peterson comments: “In worship every sign of life and every impulse to holiness, every bit of beauty and every spark of vitality—Hebrew patriarchs, Christian apostles, wild animals, domesticated livestock, human beings, soaring birds—are arranged around this throne center that pulses light, showing each at its best, picking up all the colors of the spectrum in order to show off the glories.”[iii]

It is the glories—God’s glory—that call forth our praise. In the presence of God, we cannot help but surrender and confess that he alone is worthy (4:11, 5:9) and that Christ alone is Lord (Phil. 2:11). In worship, we are overwhelmed by the power of God’s beauty.

Therefore, with St. Francis of Assisi, I give you today this invitation:

All creatures of our God and King,

Lift up your voice and with us sing,

Alleluia! Alleluia!

 

Thou burning sun with golden beam,

Thou silver moon with softer gleam,

O praise him! O praise him!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

 

Let all things their Creator bless,

And worship him in humbleness

Alleluia! Alleluia!

 

Praise, praise the Father, and the Son,

And praise the Spirit, Three in One,

O praise him! O praise him!

Alleluia! Alleluia!

 

Alleluia!

 

[i] Peterson, Reversed Thunder, 61.

[ii] Peterson, Reversed Thunder, 62.

[iii] Ibid.

Shock and Awe (Revelation 4:2–6)


Who is the God Jesus Christ invites us to worship?

Several years ago, J. B. Phillips wrote a helpful little theology primer with the title, Your God Is Too Small. In the first half of that book, he exposed numerous “inadequate conceptions of God which still linger unconsciously in many minds,” including God as a “resident policeman,” “parental hangover,” “grand old man,” “managing director,” “and pale Galilean.”[i]

More recently, in Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and his colleagues told the story of a woman named Sheila, who said: “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.”[ii]

The God Jesus Christ invites us to worship is not small. He does not speak in our own little voices. As John portrays it (Rev. 4:2-6), God’s appearance is more likely to produce shock and awe than any other emotions in those who see him. “At once I was in the Spirit,” John writes, “and behold, a throne stood in heaven with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.” But God is not only seen, he is heard: “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder.”

John’s description of God has Old Testament antecedents, especially Ezekiel 1:26–28, which similarly portrays God’s throne as surrounded by a brilliant rainbow. Psalm 104:2 tells us that God covers himself “with light as with a garment.” In 1 Timothy 6:16, Paul says that God “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.” The celestial sound and light show of thunder and lightning that made its first public appearance at Mt. Sinai, where God gave Moses the Law (Ex. 19:16–20, 20:18–21), now reappears in John’s vision. Its inevitable—and intended—effect is that reverence of God that the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord.”

The God Jesus Christ invites us to worship, in other words, is big, powerful, and very much unlike us.

And yet, God’s power is not arbitrary or immoral. God is powerful, but he is also just. He occupies the throne of heaven; so, he exercises his power with rightful authority. G. Campbell Morgan notes: “The throne of God—the fact of the throne, and the fact of God enthroned—is the revelation of the Bible…. All the pictures of the early times are pictures of men setting their lives into relationship with the throne of God and thus finding peace, or rebelling against the government of God and thus perishing.”[iii]

What God do you worship? A comfortable one or one who shocks and awes? “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7, 9:10). Only a large God can bring an expansive peace to your life and to the world.

 

[i] J.B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small (New York: Macmillan, 1961), 8.

[ii] Robert Bellah, et al, Habits of the Heart (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), 221; quoted in Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, Not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (New York: Oxford, 2001), 159.

[iii] G. Campbell Morgan, Studies in the Prophecy of Jeremiah (London: Oliphants, 1969), 101; quoted in Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 61.