Revelation 5 - THE SCROLL CHANGES HANDS - Rev. G. VanDooren (bio)
THE SCROLL CHANGES HANDS
When we continue our walk through the Revelation of Jesus Christ, we better take along, and keep in mind, those traits of the book that will guide us to a proper understanding.
First, we should never forget that this book is a book of comfort for God's people, even the only comfort in life and death.
Then every time we will discover that it does not only speak of the very last days before the return of Christ, but that it gives us a picture of the whole history from Christ's first to His second coming. As already in this second sermon on chapter 5, it will lead us back to the days of the Old Testament.
We therefore will take along that concept of the "biblical perspective" which we found present in all the Scriptures, and especially in this last part of ft. There is a first and a second and a third fulfilment of biblical prophecy; and Revelation is prophecy (the words of the prophecy of this book, ch. 22:18, and already ch.1:3). This perspective means that fulfilment is right at the door, very near, and also farther away, even as far away as the end of time.
Revelation consists of several chapters, one might say. It is one vision indeed, but it is divided in a number of pictures of the terrible things that are happening in the world; plagues, calamities, but also monsters and murder. Every time such a picture that reflects an aspect of not only the very last days but of world history is interrupted by a view of the church as it is safe among the tempests, and is completed until the very last one of God's elect is brought in.
To all this may, for the moment, be added that the whole book is composed as a beautiful architecture. Every part fits perfectly in the whole and contributes to the "rapid succession" of the events described in this book. And, of course, being a vision, all things must be understood as symbolical. That does not mean that they are not real, but they are presented to us in numbers, images and appearances that can only be understood as reality in symbols. We will meet several examples of this on our way, even already this time.
The walk through Revelation that we planned, will be one with long steps, even with leaps and bounds from chapter 1 to 5, from 5 to 7, then to 13, and finally to chapter 20. In order not to get lost, we will therefore every time briefly look at the chapters in between. This sermon is on chapter 5. ft is built upon the previous chapters.
After chapter 1, in which the Exalted Lord appears in all His glory to John standing among the churches, and holding the stars, the angels of the churches in His right hand, there come the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia, chapter 2 and 3. One may call them the audience before whom the drama of this vision will be unfolded. Each of the seven letters is addressed to one of the seven churches, and fits, so to speak, the situation in that particular church. These situations are quite different. Some are praised, some are warned, even threatened. Yet, this is not all. This part of Revelation is more than incidental letters to some individual church. Their number is already striking, seven! Seven is one of the important symbolical numbers in Revelation. There were, of course, more than seven churches in that province. Think only of Troas and Colossae and possibly more. But seven are mentioned, the number that indicates fullness. In these seven churches the whole church of all times is addressed. Every local church will find and recognize itself here and there in these seven letters written by Jesus Christ Himself. They contain warnings and encouragements for all times. Attempts have been made to divide the seven into a group of four, and of three. In three letters would be found a description of the church in her relationship to God (3 is the number of God) and in the other four is depicted the relationship of the church towards the world (4 is the number of the world). Be this as it may, here is not the place to further investigate that. Be h sufficient to state that Revelation is written for and addressed to all the churches of Christ of all times and places.
After all this the main body of Revelation starts in chapter 4. Chapter 5 cannot be properly understood without an eye on chapter 4. It is another proof that this last book of the Bible "covers" the whole history of world and church from the very beginning. For in this chapter the LORD God appears as the Creator. The picture of the throne of God, vs. 2 to 8, is painted with colours borrowed from, for example, Ezekiel. Round His throne are 24 thrones for the 24 elders. I hope every one understands that these are not elders as we know them in our churches, and then 24, 12 for the O.T. church and 12 for the elders of whom the New Testament speaks so often. No, every word here is taken from the Old Testament. God is, according to many parts of the Old Testament, surrounded by His holy ones. Psalm 89 is very eloquent about that. Let the heavens praise thy wonders, 0 Lord, thy faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones; God is feared in the council of the holy ones, great and fearsome above a# that are around Him, Ps. 89:57. Something similar we find already in 1 Kings 22:19, where Micaiah the prophet says, I saw the LORD sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside Him, at his right and at his left. Daniel 7: As I looked, thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat ...
John saw the same in chapter 4. No, in chapter 4 we do not yet find the church of Jesus Christ. That comes later. Here God is surrounded by the heavenly hosts, and by the four living creatures, who represent the whole creation, from the four corners of the world, as is said elsewhere, like in Isaiah 11:12. Therefore the songs in this chapter are not addressed to the Lamb, like in chapter 5, but to the Lord God who was, and is, and is to come. Thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created, v. 8.11.
That is the scene, the stage upon which the "drama" of Revelation will be unfolded. The stage of creation, with the lord God as the Creator in the centre, upon His throne, far above the holy ones all around Him. It is necessary to say and to see all this before entering chapter 5. It will prevent us from getting the idea that Revelation speaks only about the very last days of world, and church history, only about the Rapture, the Millennium and Armageddon!
Now, then, let us enter chapter 5. And let us learn why heaven burst into singing in three mighty waves. It is because the scroll which John saw in the right hand of the Creator, is going to change hands.
This, then, is the theme of our text:
THE SCROLL CHANGES HANDS
1. What took place in heaven
2. Why heaven sings
1. What took place in heaven
And I saw in the right hand of him who sits upon the throne a scroll, with writing on both sides, and sealed with seven seals. This, then, is the first glorious truth: "the scroll is in the hand of the LORD God, Creator of heaven and earth." No one else held that scroll. Not man, not satan, but the Lord God. Yet, there sounds a mighty voice, so strong that it penetrates into the three stories of the universe, heaven, earth and under the earth, the nether world. A strong angel, indeed, who can produce such a sound that reaches into all the corners of creation.
Is there anyone in heaven, who can take over the scroll? Before we answer that question, we must know what is written on it, so much indeed, that both sides of the parchment are crowded with the words. Chapter 6 answers that question, when it reveals what happens in the world after the first and second and following seals are broken. The answer is, the scroll is filled with the description of wars and famine and pestilence, plagues and judgments.
I read the book by Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. If you did not know it yet, the whole history of the world has always been filled with wars, and their aftermath of destruction, hunger, pestilence. Things have not changed since the author of Samuel wrote, a bit laconically, In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, 11 Sam. 1 1:1. That was their yearly custom: as soon as winter was over, start fighting again. The book 1 mentioned, is filled with such wars. History is filled with wars. Is that all that the LORD God held in His right hand? Some believe that the text of the scroll was limited to what happened when the seven seals were broken successively. But Revelation is one, and it is like fireworks. In fireworks the one brilliant explosion produces a next one, and another one. So after the explosions of the seven seals there come thunderclaps and earthquakes and bowls filled with the wrath of God. And then, as we have seen before, these explosions are interrupted by the beautiful picture of the church which is kept and gathered and preserved and defended all through the ages of war and pestilence and hate and death. The whole history was written on that scroll; the history of the new dispensation, indeed. But, every time there are sounds and colours that remind us of the old dispensation. One may think of the plagues in Egypt, and the journey through the desert, to mention no more. The whole history, indeed. What else would one expect, when this scroll is resting in the right hand of God Almighty, the Creator? Only a piece, a small segment of that history? No! All of it!
But now then that strong voice, Who is worthy to open the scroll? Not, who is able? Maybe the devil would try. But, who is worthy? Who has, not only the power, but the right and authority to take the scroll out of the hands of God?
But no one answered. No one in heaven, angels, archangels, the twenty-four eiders, the four living creatures. No one. No one on earth. Caesar Augustus, Nero, Napoleon, Stalin, the World Council of Churches . . ., the Pope . . . ? The true church? No one!
No one under the earth. Leviathan, Behemoth, or whatever other monsters are mentioned in the book of Job. No Lucifer, no number of demons, not even the devil himself. No one was found worthy to take over from the LORD God almighty.
And then John wept. He even wept much, so we read. Why so many tears? John must have understood that if no one could take the scroll and open its seals, world history could not continue, and, above all, there would be no history, no future for the church. Then all that Jesus Christ had done to save sinners, would not result in sinners being gathered into the one holy and universal church. After having died for His church, there would not be a Bride for Him. John wept. He wept much.
Then one of the twenty four elders tapped him on the shoulder. John! your tears are blinding you. Do not weep. Look! And John looked. What he saw, reminds us again of the symbolical character of Revelation. He is supposed to see a lion, even the lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, and not just the Son of David. This reminds us of what the Lord Jesus said when He was among His disciples. Before Abraham was, 1 am, and before David was, 1 am. The root of David; the reason why there was a house of David at all. And then, what does he see? Not a lion but a lamb. And, again, a lamb of which you cannot, should not make a picture except in your mind. It stands there, as though it had been slain. It had been slain, indeed, and it yet had the marks of its death, his death on the cross. The scars of the cross, and at the same time seven horns - all the power, all the authority in heaven and on earth. And seven eyes, looking in all directions, reaching out by the seven spirits who are before the throne, as we read in chapter 1. And then the three brief, abrupt verbs: He stood - He went - He took. What is all this? It is, no more, no less, the other side of what the disciples saw on the day of Christ's ascension, Act 1. They saw how He was lifted up, slowly, then faster, and finally a cloud came in between and they could no longer see Him. But He went up and up, as Hebrews says, He went through the heavens, the heaven of clouds, the heaven of stars, to the heaven of heavens. As it was prophesied in Psalm 24:
Lift up your heads, you arch and gate,
0 ancient doors, rise up and wait,
Let Him come in, the King of glory.
There is only one way to read and understand Revelation: in the light of all the Scriptures.
Here in heaven happened what long ago David had seen by divine revelation, in Psalm. 110: The LORD said unto my Lord, 'sit at my right hand, till 1 make your enemies your footstool.'
Here is the heavenly side of what our Saviour said on earth, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto Me, Matthew 28. Here is the reality of what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15. For He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet for God has put all things in subjection under his feet. All this heavenly glory of our Saviour is now shown to us in this symbolical picture of the Lamb that stood He was dead and is alive for evermore, and He went, and He took. He was not only able, but worthy to take the scroll. To take over from the LORD God, He the Son of man, who humbled Himself, even unto death. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that a# knees should bow and all tongues confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, Philipp. 2:9-1 1.
See it once more before you, what really happened, and rejoice! There He enters, our Saviour, our brother, the Son of God and the Son of Mary. 'We have our flesh in heaven", Although Christ is in heaven and we are on earth, yet we are flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones, so we confess in Lord's Day 28 of the Catechism. There He enters heaven as man. The first Adam never came that far, because he fell into sin. But the last Adam did! He who hung naked on the cross (you can still see it: the Lamb as though it had been slain). And now He takes over, until He has put all enemies under His feet. He takes over from God the Creator. He takes over so that He may unfold the history of this world and out of this world gather His church.
This is the central message of Revelation. In Psalm 99 we sing, God the LORD is King, throned on Cherubim. Yes, but now the world is governed by a man, by the Man Jesus Christ.
That is what happened on Ascension Day. That is what happened in heaven when He rose above the clouds and stars, and arrived in the heaven of heavens as the Lion of Judah.
He took the scroll. He reigns!
All heaven burst into singing!
Before we say farewell to this first part of chapter five, it is good to keep in mind the symbolical character of every detail of the vision of Revelation. Some may fear that takes away from the "reality" of things revealed here. But it adds to the reality, we think.
There is, then, this scroll. John saw ft. Thus ft really looked like a scroll. But that does not mean that ft was exactly the kind of scroll that every synagogue in those days had in its sanctuary. It was not made of parchment or of any similar material. No such earthly scroll could ever contain all that was written in this scroll that the Lamb took from the hands of God. This symbolical scroll contained the summary of all books written on the history of mankind. And holding that scroll is also symbolically meant and understood. Having ft in your hand, you have absolute control over what is written in ft, absolute control over the execution of the "text of the drama". And that is very real, indeed!
The place where the Lion of Judah, the Lamb, stood has also symbolical meaning. He stood between the throne and the four living creatures. A clearer translation is that of Dr. S. Greydanus in his commentary, which is equal to what we find in the New International Version, i.e. Then 1 saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders.
The throne here obviously is more than a single seat. The Lamb stands in the midst of it! It reminds us of Ezekiel's description of what he saw in heaven, Ezek. 1. This position of the Lamb tells us that He now stands at the right hand of God. He stands, although we often confess that He is sitting at the right hand of the heavenly majesty. There is no contradiction. It only tells us not to forget that the Lamb is so busy, so active in the rapid succession of what is happening, that he stands! And he stands as a King, so to speak, between the heavenly majesty and creation: heaven and earth are like a circle around Him. He is the very centre. The church confesses, in answer to the question, Why is ft added, And sits at the right hand of God? Christ ascended into heaven to manifest Himself there as Head of His church through whom the Father governs all things. Joseph was the right hand of the Pharaoh. Our Saviour is now what Ezekiel could not yet see, the right hand of God. Because of this new chapter in the history of the throne of God all heaven, encircling that throne, bursts forth into singing.
2. Why Heaven Sings
Indeed, at the very moment that the scroll passed from the right hand of God to the Lamb, all heaven burst forth in singing. John is overwhelmed. Heaven sings; not earth. Not yet.
Within the framework of chapter 5 the church does not yet find its place. Those who see in the twenty four elders of chapter 4 the representatives of the people of God both from the old and the new dispensation, twelve plus twelve, nearly automatically understand the songs in this chapter as sung by the believers, at the least anyway by the believers who have gone to be with the Lord, and thus now belong to the church triumphant. But it is clear from the wording of this chapter that not those who are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, sing here about their own deliverance. Notice, in vs. 9 and 10, thou didst ransom them: them! And again, thou hast made them a kingdom. Not "us" but them.
Heaven sings, and their songs are dated. Vs 8 informs us that at the very moment that the Lamb had taken the scroll, heaven started singing. And in order to underline this, vs 9 adds, they sang a new song, a song that they had not sung before this world-historical moment that the scroll passed from God to the Lamb.
A new song. The songs of heaven are dated. The Bible does not give us the impression that those angels, whatever names they get here, have been singing always and again the same song, since the day of their creation. Heaven is up to date and well-informed about what is going on in the world, especially in what is going on in the history of revelation and redemption. The book of Job informs us, chapter 38:7, when the Lord laid the foundation of the earth, the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy. Some might say, "that is poetry" and then start a discussion about whether the angels were already there, when the Lord God created heaven and earth, Genesis 1: 1. No one can answer all questions here. But, in whatever poetical form this information comes to us, it is a fact that heaven sang when the Lord laid the cornerstone of the earth.
Thus the angels sang at the morning of creation; and they sang about creation. They shouted for joy, because they saw, not a simmering jelly at the start of millions of years of evolution, but they shouted for joy about God's beautiful creation. That song was dated.
And in the same way their song was "dated" when the shepherds heard them sing in the fields of Ephrata, after the message, to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.
Then, suddenly, just like in our text, suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men with whom He is well pleased. You see the similarity, the parallel with their song here in Revelation 5. They sing about men, and they sing suddenly, at the very moment that the birth of Jesus is announced.
And now again. Another new song. We can only guess what has been going on in heaven, for example when Isaac was born; when Pharaoh's army drowned in the sea, when David killed Goliath and when the temple was rebuilt after the return from exile. A tot of new songs, accompanying God's mighty acts of deliverance. Peter tells us, that the angels long to look into the good news sent from heaven, 1 Peter 1:23. They must have been wondering what it meant for a lost sinner to be saved by the blood of the Cross. They themselves would never experience such a deliverance. The Saviour was born, not for them, but for us. But they must have known enough in order to sing all those dated songs, and now this song after the Lamb had taken the scroll !
Before we let ourselves, with John, be overwhelmed by the three waves of heavenly singing at the occasion of Christ's arrival in heaven, the question is repeated; was the church completely absent in heaven? Was there no place, no room for her, to sing along with the angels? The answer to this is given in verse 8. The elders and living creatures held golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. So then, the church was present in and with her prayers. The saints, that is in the Bible always the true believers whose lives are dedicated to the Lord.
Their prayers are called incense and that created the impression that the stress is on a special kind of prayers; prayers that not only call for forgiveness and help, but also bring the sacrifice of our lips to the Lord. Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. Ps. 141:2 However that may be, again we will understand this presence of the payers of the saints in heaven only against the background of the whole revelation of God.
We think here of two outstanding examples in the history of God's people where the prayers on earth influenced the course of things in heaven. Both were related to an "exodus". The one was from Egypt, the other from Babylon. When in Egypt the misery of slavery had hit bottom, the Israelites cried out. The people of Israel groaned under their bondage and cried out for help and their cry under bondage came up to God, bowls full of them! And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant ... and God saw the people of Israel, and God knew their condition. h is as though the Bible repeats itself here in order to convince us that those prayers really did something! And they did, because God did not only see them and knew their condition, but the next step is, in chapter 3, that God reveals Himself to Moses in the burning bush. 1 have seen their affliction and 1 have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, Exodus 2 and 3.
In those bowls of prayers of crying slaves God's people were present in heaven. You may be sure that angels carried those prayers to the attention of the LORD God almighty.
And then, during the slavery in Babylon. There are those deeply moving prayers in Isaiah 63,64. Look down from heaven and see, from they holy habitation ... For Thou art our Father ... 0 that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down. And the LORD came down, and heard their prayers. Even our personal prayers, like in Psalm 56: Thou hast put my tears in thy bottle. This is all written for our comfort, as this whole book of Revelation is written for our comfort. To assure us that no prayers, not even a single child's prayer falls down. It reaches heaven. It is carried there like in golden bowls.
And thus, here in Revelation 5, the prayers of the saints are mixed with and give colour to the songs of heaven. Not a hair can fall down, let along a prayer of a crying heart, without the will of Father.
There are three mighty waves of heavenly songs. The first wave comes from the four living creatures and the twenty four elders. We have already met them in chapter 4. They surround the throne, and are closest to that throne, and now closest to the Lamb. It is therefore, their new song is a song to the glory of the Lamb. Worthy art thou... Remember the big question? Not, 'Who is able?" but Who is worthy? And although Peter told us that even angels are eager to look into the mystery of our salvation, they obviously have seen and understood more than enough about it to sing this glorious and rich song.
Worthy are thou to take the scroll and to open its seats, for (notice this little word for, that's the reason why the Lamb is worthy), for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation and hast made them (them!) a kingdom and priests to our God and they shall reign on earth.
Words fall short to carry and interpret this majestic song. It speaks about the Cross, about the blood that paid for our terrible guilt. It describes the church, as it is repeated by our Catechism, Lord's Day 21. the church being gathered from (notice the four words, indicating the world-wide gathering of the church) from the four corners: tribe, tongue, people, nation. Not one will be passed by. And then a royal priesthood, as again Peter expresses it: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people ... 1 Peter 2:9,10. In their song the archangels already see this new people of God reigning on earth! And indeed, whoever is born of God overcomes the world, and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. 1 John 5:5.
Then comes the second wave. Following the example of the inner circle around the throne, myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands angels form a larger ring around the inner circle. Millions and millions of angels, multiplied by thousands of thousands. The dragon may have pulled a third of the stars along in his fall, as chapter 12 will tell us, but heaven is still filled with all those ministering spirits, who are, the Bible tells me so, sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation. Heb. 1: 14. Thus we keep them pretty busy.
We do not have to adopt the angel-theology of the Rabbis, who built up a complete system of hierarchical relationships, classes and functions of various groups of angels in order to be deeply impressed, not only by their number, millions times millions, but by their total commitment to the glory of God and the glory of the Lamb. Hear them sing!
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing! When one mighty angel voice can, vs. 2, reach the utter corners of heaven, earth and under the earth, one starts getting an idea how overwhelmed John must have been when he heard all those angelic voices united in singing the glory of the Lamb, of our Saviour. And then, they did not even benefit from the Lamb is slain the way we sinners do! Yet, their song of glory is seven- fold. There is a symbolism in all this. The inner circle used the number four: "tribe - tongue - people - nation". The same number returns in the third wave of singing by every creature in heaven and on earth. But now it is seven, the number of fullness and holiness. It gives us just an inkling of the glory of our exalted Saviour, son of Mary, son of man, and now as the last Adam sitting in the throne of God with the scroll in his hands. "Power wealth wisdom - might - honour glory blessing". We hear and repeat the words, but we hardly realize what they all mean, each separately and all seven together. It is quite busy up there, because we are sure that the angels did not stop singing. The Lamb still stands in the throne and he still unrolls the scroll. Waves of song are flooding the heavenly regions, up till today.
And then the last, anyway the third wave of heavenly singing. Or is it "heavenly"? Scripture speaks here of every creature, in heaven, on earth and under the earth. It make one think of what the apostle Paul wrote in chapter 2 of his letter to the Philippians: Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven, on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Here again is what we will meet at every step on our walk through this last Book of the Bible. The whole history is pulled together in one picture. What Paul wrote will not become full reality until Christ arrives in full glory at his return. Then all creation will lie at his feet. But already now every creature sings the glory of God. The birds, the flowers, the world of animals. Present and future are drawn together into one by Him who is and who was and who is to come. And He has given all this glory to the Lamb who was slain.
There was the inner circle, to which all songs return, when they say, Amen!, vs 14. Then the wider circle of billions of angels. And now the widest circle of all creation and all creatures.
You must have noticed it already: where are the ones for whom the Lamb was slain? Where are we in this picture? It seems a bit awkward that we, that the church is left out, except that her prayers are carried in golden bowls before the throne. We may feel ashamed, but we need not worry. This is not the end of Revelation yet. Chapter 7 will be our next stop, and then it seems as though only the church is singing: behold, a great multitude which no man could number. And they cry out with a loud voice, Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb. They, then, form the "inner circle", and all around are the angels, the elders, the tour living creatures, and they say Amen! to the songs of the redeemed.
Obviously the idea, or rather the meaning of the Holy Spirit here is that the elect, all those washed in the blood of the Lamb, take over and form the centre of all the heavenly hosts with their heavenly songs. Indeed, here in chapter 5, the church is still the audience, listening to what others sing about her. But John wrote it all in a book and sent it to Ephesus and to the other churches, and to all the churches so that they might learn to sing more and better songs to the glory of God and of the Lamb. Some have said, "isn't that cruel? How can heaven sing about what is happening on this bloody earth, this vale of tears?" They seem to have thought of Hitler's destruction camps, where an orchestra of Jews had to play the classics while the line-up to the gas chambers passed by. Cruel! Heaven should cry about what is happening, when the seals are broken, in chapter 6 and following.
The world did not look that nice when Psalm 118 was born, hark! glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous! Yet, surrounded on all sides and in distress. It was a song of victory. Just like here, in Revelation 5. Glad songs! Can it still be said, that the tents of the righteous, that is the homes of the children of God, are filled with singing? Or does the time of reformed homes with a harmonium in the centre, and the family around it, belong to the past, since radio and television took over? Is that what the world of the media has done to our homes? Should we not, in preparation for everlasting life, restore that good custom of singing families? We have all the reason in the world to sing, even if we are not yet martyrs who sang in the flames. If we want to join the choirs of angels, we better start preparing and rehearsing here. After all, did not the Saviour teach us to pray, Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name on earth as it is in heaven?