by David C. Grabbe
Revelation 5:11-14 is the source of the finale of George Frideric Handel’s acclaimed oratorio, Messiah:
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: “Blessing and honor and glory and power beto Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!” Then the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him who lives forever and ever.
This passage, a fitting conclusion to that epic piece of music, describes a vast choir of apparently over 100 million voices (verse 11) singing praises to the Father and the Son. What is more, verse 13 states that “every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea” joins in to give honor and glory to the Father and the Son (emphasis ours throughout). Without grasping what led to this scene, the vast heavenly choir and its proclamation may be just so many words on a page, perhaps something that comes to mind only when catching a snippet of Messiah on the classical music station.
The Weeping Apostle
The immediate context begins in Revelation 5:1-4, which hints at the magnitude of what is happening in the apostle John’s vision:
And I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a scroll written inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals. Then I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?” And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll, or to look at it. So I wept much, because no one was found worthy to open the scroll, or to look at it.
Why does the apostle “[weep] much”? Was he emotionally overwrought because his desire to see the scroll’s contents was denied, or is there more to it? His weeping signifies something momentous taking place. John, probably in his 90s at this point, had already seen and experienced extraordinary things. Given the amount of time God had worked with him, he must have attained a level of spiritual maturity of the highest order. Yet, this faithful servant—not given to whimsy—sobbed over what was at stake. Something shook him to the core—something far beyond mere disappointment over not having a prophecy opened.
John’s account in chapter 5 begins in the previous chapter, where he sees “a throne set in heaven” occupied by the Most High God (Revelation 4:2). Twenty-four elders and four living creatures surround the throne. His description of the four living creatures matches the angelic beings that Ezekiel saw, identified as cherubim (Revelation 4:6-8; Ezekiel 1:5-11; 10:14-22). Significantly, the cherubim are first mentioned as guarding the way to the Tree of Life after Adam and Eve sinned and God evicted them from His presence (Genesis 3:24).
As Revelation 4 closes, John describes the twenty-four elders prostrating themselves before God and saying something very significant: “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” (Revelation 4:11; English Standard Version [ESV]).
The twenty-four elders praise God as the Creator of all things. We understand that the One who became the Son, Jesus Christ, was His Spokesman (John 1:1-3), but the Most High—the Father—was the motivating Source behind all that has ever existed. While the focus of their words is the creation, the mention of the cherubim recalls an event that has affected creation, most specifically, humanity’s access to its Creator.
On the heels of this, John sees a scroll in the Father’s right hand. But there is something else to consider about the setting. In chapter 4, John refers to the throne twelve times, and he mentions it another five times in chapter 5, indicating that the throne is a dominant element in this vision.
A throne is often used as a symbol of judgment or as a representation of legal authority. Thus, the vision shows God about to act in judgment or a legal matter, and it revolves around this sealed scroll. To grasp what was weighing on John so heavily, then, we have to understand this scroll.
Scrolls in Prophecy
Several passages can provide insight into this scene. Obviously, the aged apostle was familiar with the Scriptures, so when he saw this vision of God’s throne, the One who sat on it, and a sealed scroll, several writings of the prophets probably came to his mind.
For example, in Daniel’s vision, thrones are set up, the Ancient of Days takes His seat, and books are opened (Daniel 7:9-10). We tend to focus on the four beasts in this vision, but the more significant theme shows the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven, given dominion, glory, and a kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14, 27).
In Revelation, John sees the Ancient of Days likewise seated on a throne. Remembering Daniel’s vision, John knows that court’s purpose is to remove the dominion of man and the satanic power behind him and to give the Kingdom to the saints of the Most High under the Son of Man.
The prophet Ezekiel provides another related record. He also had a vision of the divine, including cherubim and a throne of God (Ezekiel 1:1-28) as a prelude to his commission to warn the rebellious house of Israel (Ezekiel 2:1-8). His vision contains another, similar scroll to the one John saw:
Now when I looked, there was a hand stretched out to me; and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. Then He spread it before me; and there was writing on the inside and on the outside, and written on it were lamentations and mourning and woe. (Ezekiel 2:9-10)
Like Ezekiel’s scroll, the one John saw had writing “inside and on the back” (Revelation 5:1), but there are some differences as well: Ezekiel’s scroll was the symbol of a commission to a human servant, while the one John saw was not. Also, Ezekiel’s scroll was open and readable, while in Revelation 5, the scroll is sealed. Both scrolls, though, do involve “lamentations and mourning and woe.”
Zechariah 5:1-4 contains another vision of a scroll, which may also have flashed through John’s mind when he saw the scroll in the right hand of the Most High. An angel explains that Zechariah’s scroll, also written on both sides, is “the curse that goes out over the face of the whole earth”—specifically, a curse on thieves and perjurers. When John sees the divine scroll opened, it likewise contains a judgment for sin, but it affects far more than just thieves and perjurers.
Each of these scrolls symbolizes the judgments contained within them. In addition, each is written on both sides, indicating that nothing further will be added. The contents of each scroll are complete for its purpose, and once the scroll is opened, everything written on them will occur until God’s purpose is fulfilled. As He says in Isaiah 55:11, “My word . . . goes forth from My mouth [and] it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thingfor which I sent it.” Nothing more needs to be added, and nothing will change the judgment that has been decreed.
Who Is Worthy?
In Revelation 5:4, John gives the primary reason for his weeping, and the issue is one of worthiness. Isaiah describes a similar circumstance where the prophet also has a vision of the Lord sitting on His throne (Isaiah 6:1). Seraphim are praising God, and at the sight of all this, Isaiah becomes unglued (verses 2-5), painfully aware of his uncleanness. He knows that in his state he is not worthy to look upon the Lord of Hosts.
However, a seraph touches Isaiah’s mouth with a coal, removing his iniquity and purging his sin (verses 6-7). Then the prophet hears the Eternal asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Isaiah eagerly answers the call and receives his commission (verse 8). With cleansing, he was fit—worthy—for God to use him to take a message to Judah.
However, in John’s vision, something like a call goes out, but nobody answers it. Even with the cleansing that God is willing to do for His people—as He did for Isaiah—nobody can be found who is worthy. John, looking forward in vision to the Day of the Lord, sees that no angel in heaven, no servant of God on earth, and no spirit under the earth can open the scroll.
The matter of worthiness, then, must go beyond the matter of sin, because heaven is filled with angels who have not sinned, yet they still are unworthy to take the scroll. Likewise, as with Isaiah, God can purge the sin of His servants, but something even above sinlessness is needed to be worthy to open the scroll of Revelation.
What, exactly, makes this scroll’s worth so great? John’s reaction to it indicates that he was not ignorant of what it was; instead, he felt the full weight of its significance and expressed great distress over the absolute need for it to be opened. The apostle greatly desired the scroll to be opened, suggesting he knew that it contained something of tremendous worth, in addition to including judgments like the other prophetic scrolls.
Jeremiah’s Sealed Deeds
Scripture contains another sealed scroll that rarely receives a second glance, yet it more closely resembles the scroll John agonized over than the scrolls of Ezekiel and Zechariah. Just before the siege of Jerusalem, God instructs Jeremiah to perform an act as a sign that the Jews would return to the land:
The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Behold, Hanamel the son of Shallum your uncle will come to you, saying, ‘Buy my field which is in Anathoth, for the right of redemption is yours to buy it.’” Then Hanamel my uncle’s son came to me in the court of the prison according to the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Please buy my field that is in Anathoth, which is in the country of Benjamin; for the right of inheritance is yours, and the redemption yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. So I bought the field from Hanamel, the son of my uncle who was in Anathoth, and weighed out to him the money—seventeen shekels of silver. And I signed the deed and sealed it, took witnesses, and weighed the money on the scales. So I took the purchase deed, both that which was sealed according to the law and custom, and that which was open; and I gave the purchase deed to Baruch the son of Neriah, son of Mahseiah, in the presence of Hanamel my uncle’s son, and in the presence of the witnesses who signed the purchase deed, before all the Jews who sat in the court of the prison. Then I charged Baruch before them, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Take these deeds, both this purchase deed which is sealed and this deed which is open, and put them in an earthen vessel, that they may last many days.’ For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Houses and fields and vineyards shall be possessed again in this land.’” (Jeremiah 32:6-15)
This passage is about inheritance and redemption of property, in which Jeremiah is the kinsman-redeemer, similar to Boaz (Ruth 4:1-11). At God’s direction, Jeremiah pays the purchase price, signs and seals the deed, and performs it all in the presence of witnesses.
Verse 11 refers to the purchase deed in the singular but later describes it as “boththat which was sealed . . . and that which was open.” These title deeds consisted of duplicates. One copy was left open so the contents could be read by any interested party, while the second copy was sealed to ensure that no tampering could be done. When it was time to buy back the property, the sealed copy would be unsealed to verify the original agreement. The only person with authority to unseal the deed, however, was the rightful owner—the one redeeming the property.
Consider how this applies to the scroll of Revelation 5. In type, it is not merely a prophetic scroll of judgment but a sealed title deed! Its sealing is not due to its contents being truly secret since the majority of its contents can be found in other places. God’s prophets warn about religious deception; wars; famines; pestilences and earthquakes; the deaths of God’s servants; great signs in the heavens; and the future Kingdom. In other words, in the words of the prophets, we already have the open deed, though it is fragmented and not in time-sequence. The essence of what John sees as the seals are opened has not been completely hidden from human knowledge; the prophets have already, at least in part, spoken of each of them.
Also, we have Jesus’ testimony in the Olivet Prophecy, of which the Revelation scroll is essentially an expansion, particularly regarding the Seventh Seal. The two prophecies describe the same judgment events in the same order. In type, then, the gospel of the Kingdom of God, including the Olivet Prophecy, is like the open deed that we can consult at any time.
Thus, the Revelation scroll remains sealed until the right time for a different purpose—not because of wholly secret contents, but because the seals denote that only the one claiming the property at issue is legally allowed to open the scroll. John sees the scroll in the Father’s right hand because the time has come to release the seals. It is time for the property to be redeemed and the proper ownership to be legally determined. With the sealed scroll in the Eternal Judge’s right hand, a strong angel—an officer of the court, so to speak—issues a challenge for the worthy party to step forward and claim what is his.
What Is Redeemed?
What, then, is being redeemed? The rest of the book of Revelation gives the basic answer, as do Christ’s teachings. After the Lamb takes the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fall before Him (Revelation 5:8) and sing a new song:
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your bloodyou ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made thema kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10, ESV)
Notice that the immediate response by the beings closest to the Lamb (aside from the Father) is to praise Him for redeeming a diverse people and making them “a kingdom and priests.” Similarly, Peter calls the church “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people” (I Peter 2:9). Later in John’s vision, the 144,000, described twice as being redeemed (Revelation 14:3-4), also sing a new song. In Christ’s Parable of the Hidden Treasure, He teaches, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). In the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares given immediately before, He defines the symbol of the field as being the world (Matthew 13:38). His people are so valuable to Him that He is willing to give everything He has—that is, exchange His life—to redeem the world!
This answers why John wept so much: He was looking at the title deed of all things! God is praised for creating “all things” (Revelation 4:11), and He has appointed the Son as heir of “all things” (Hebrews 1:2). However, the world and its inhabitants are presently in Satan’s hand. He currently holds the property in question, having the whole world under his sway (I John 5:19).
Thus, the ownership of the creation and the whole purpose of Elohim in creating humanity in God’s image are hanging in the balance—and nobody is found who could claim it. The weight of what it would mean for the deed to go unredeemed—for the world to continue with Satan as its ruler—must have overwhelmed John.
In Satan’s temptation of Christ, the Devil had the authority to offer Him all the world’s kingdoms because they are legitimately his (Matthew 4:8-9). Our first parents chose to become citizens of his kingdom, and the cherubim of Genesis 3:24 ensured that they could not renege on their unwise decision. All their children have remained part of Satan’s kingdom, except for the very few whom God has redeemed at great cost. The physical nation of Israel was redeemed with lambs (Exodus 13:13-16; 34:19-20), but the spiritual nation—the church—has been and will be redeemed by the Lamb of God (John 1:29).
Paul writes in Romans 8:19-24 that the whole creation eagerly awaits the revealing of the sons of God. “All things” are subjected to futility, and all of creation waits to be delivered from the bondage of corruption—he describes it as “groaning” (verse 22). This is why, after the Lamb takes the scroll, every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them [declare]: “Blessing and honor and glory and power beto Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13).
Paul also says that Abraham and his spiritual descendants are heirs of the world (Romans 4:13), and the Lamb’s works are how we obtain that inheritance. Having paid the ultimate purchase price for His property, He alone is worthy to open the sealed deed. The Lamb even provides His own witnesses to testify of His eligibility—His claim on His property—throughout His earthly ministry (John 1:6-8, 15); after His death (Acts 1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:33; 5:32; 10:39; 13:31; 14:17; 22:15; 23:11); in every martyr willing to die for his Kingdom and King (Revelation 6:9-11); and in two final witnesses of the Lamb’s right to all things (Revelation 11:3-13).
The Lamb Takes the Scroll
In Revelation 5:5, one of the elders tells John, “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” (ESV). The One who prevailed is the Heir of the Kingdom, and David’s throne belongs to Him. So the Lamb who had been slain takes the scroll from the hand of God.
The rejoicing that follows is solely in His taking the scroll before He even opens it. The rest of the chapter—including the one-hundred-million-voice choir (verses 11-12), then every last creature (verse 13)—contains praises because One is found worthy to take the scroll, open its seals, and redeem the property in question. If we allow the scope of this vision to sink in, it is evident it cannot simply be about unlocking prophecy.
When the scroll’s seals are opened, we see glimpses of what happens as the redemption is fully realized. The seals reveal a world in turmoil as the current ruler strains to retain what has been his, even as the Redeemer stakes His claim on what He has created and purchased. The last trumpet of the Seventh Seal sounds, completing the redemption of the earth. Not only that, but the firstfruits are resurrected, finalizing our redemption as well.
The conclusion appears in Revelation 11:15-18, another stirring hymn in Handel’s Messiah:
Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdomof this world has become the kingdomof our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” And the twenty-four elders who sat before God on their thrones fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying: “We give You thanks, O Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was and who is to come, because You have taken Your great power and reigned. The nations were angry, and Your wrath has come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that You should reward Your servants the prophets and the saints, and those who fear Your name, small and great, and should destroy those who destroy the earth.”