05. An Inside Job
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”
The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
05. An Inside Job
John’s unspeakable vision began with all-powerful, unstoppable Jesus… and his vision never leaves him. In fact, as his visit to the universe’s backstage continues in Revelation 5, the One who conquers by being crucified becomes even more central. John’s attention is drawn upward to a mysterious detail which leads to a game-changing revelation.
Until this point, the identity of the Someone on the Throne has been left vague and undefined (4v2-3). Many other apocalypses also do this, presumably out of reverence for the Holy Mystery that is God. We’ve seen that all of creation bows down to… Someone. The four living creatures continually worship… Someone. And the people of God—the twenty-four elders—follow creation’s lead.
Someone is on the Throne.
If Revelation 4 wants us to remember we’re not on the throne, then Revelation 5 wants us to explicitly know who is. That will be the game-changing revelation.
But before we discover the identity of this Someone, we’re tantalized with a mysterious detail. And, as it turns out, this mysterious detail plays a central role in John’s entire story.
When we join John in his vision, when we stand before the Throne with him, and when we look up—way up there—in the right hand of the Mysterious Someone who sits on the throne—we see a scroll (v1).
That’s the mysterious detail. A scroll.
A scroll in someone’s hand would not have been terribly surprising in the ancient world. Scrolls were basically the equivalent of books or moleskin journals or three-ring binders. There was nothing exotic about scrolls; they were where you wrote stuff down.
So what exactly is going on? What the deal with this scroll? You didn’t miss anything. Yes, this is the first time we’re hearing about it. And, no, John doesn’t explain what this scroll is.
Whatever it is, though, it’s important.
It’s a scroll sealed shut… sealed with seven seals (5v1).
At first glance this scroll resembles an ancient will. Under the Roman legal system, you needed six witnesses to sign and seal your will for when you died.1 You would write your will and sign it, have six people sign it, roll it up, and have them all use a glob of hot wax to seal it shut. Everyone would use a ring or a stamp to make their own unique impression in the wax. And then when you added your own unique glob of wax, you would have your will updated… sealed with seven seals.
Some people have speculated this scroll is something like that.
Some scholars have speculated that it could be some kind of a legal document. The vision of heaven is a government setting on the grandest scale, so a nicely sealed government document would fit in nicely… sealed with a symbolically loaded number.
Still other scholars have thought this scroll might be the Old Testament. That would be a lot to fit on just one scroll—the Torah, the Prophets, the Writings—but maybe that’s the kind of scroll we’ve got… a scroll that has writing on both sides of it.2 This makes a little less sense when we remember that the Hebrew Scriptures aren’t a mystery—they’re not hidden or “sealed up.” But that doesn’t stop the speculation!
You haven’t missed anything. John doesn’t tell us what this scroll is. But it’s safe to guess it’s important. It’s got lots to say (with writing on both sides), it’s perfectly sealed (with seven seals), and it’s in the right hand of the One at the center of the universe.
And then an angel draws attention to the scroll (5v2). Another clue that it’s important. This angel cries out in a loud voice:
“Who is worthy enough—who is significant enough—who is capable enough, fit enough, deserving enough—to break off these bits of wax and open this scroll? Who’s got the security clearance to open this classified document?”
The suspense builds and the tragic answer hits us. No one can open the scroll (5v3). No one anywhere—in this entire epic throne room—no one “in heaven or on earth or under the earth”—can open this scroll.
Whatever this scroll is, it’s super-duper important. And it’s really important that it gets opened and read, because notice John’s reaction when he hears the news that the scroll cannot be opened:
John has a nervous breakdown (5v4).
In the middle of heaven, John loses it. This is a big clue that John has not time-traveled to the future. Tears don’t make sense there. Where John finds himself is backstage behind reality while the present world keeps spinning.
John is weeping because things are not as they should be yet… God’s kingdom has not yet come “on earth as it is in heaven.” John’s loved ones are still suffering. His churches are still struggling. The world is still full of violence and evil and darkness. Tears aren’t gone yet. John is sobbing—he “wept and wept”—because it looks like no one can open this scroll.
Whatever this scroll is… it’s not coupons for Albertsons or an ad from Dennys. This scroll is not junk mail. Whatever it is, it’s important.
Even though John doesn’t tell us what the scroll is, it gathers importance as his story continues. In chapters to come, we’re going to see all hell breaking loose—the four horsemen of the apocalypse come bursting forward—as the seals of this scroll are broken (6v1-8). Then after the scroll is opened, we’re going to see John receiving this scroll from an angel (10v2,8) and told to eat it (10v9-10). But John never explicitly tells us what this scroll is (or what it symbolizes).
The storytellers of modern, serialized television (like Mad Men or Breaking Bad), don’t always spoon-feed us with flat-footed explanations, and neither does John. He expects a lot from those listening to his story. To make sense of his story, we have to make a decision—an intuitive leap—about this scroll.
We can do this if we remember why John has been drawn into God’s dimension of reality. He has been beckoned to see “what must take place after this” (4v1). So since John doesn’t seem to have time-traveled to the future, it’s a really good guess that this scroll contains what must take place.
That’s why this is such a classified document. It’s what one scholar called it the “scroll of destiny.”3 This the place where the answers are written down.
Well… all of them.
Answers to questions like: What’s going on? What’s in store for the world? What are God’s purposes in the world? How will God sort out history? In short, this scroll seems to answer most important question of them all: “How exactly does God save the world?”
Again, there’s no flat-footed exposition saying: “Sealed up in this scroll are God’s plans to save the world,” so don’t go looking for it. The Spirit of God inspires a better story-telling than that. We’ll have to hold the meaning of this scroll with open hands and keep watching it as the story unfolds. Until then, you’ll just have to trust me… this makes sense of why John has a nervous breakdown.
John glimpses a scroll that—if someone could only open it—would give us the answers and show us the future. If someone could only read it, we would discover God plans for healing human history and addressing injustice and dealing with suffering and making all things new (20v5).
These are only God’s plans for the world at large—for righting the wrongs of Aleppo or brutal governmental oppression in North Korea or famine and food shortages in third-world countries—for all the places places where we all ask:
“Is there a future?
How can these hurts be healed?
Can this too be made new?”
We don’t just ask these questions on a global level… we ask them on a personal level too. Every one of our individual stories participate in the long, limping saga of human history. The questions we ask about the world become painful and personal as we look at our lives.
“Is there a future?
How can these hurts be healed?
Can this too be made new?”
We usually distract ourselves away from asking these questions, because we, like John, despair that anyone can answer them.
“How CAN there be healing… when this thing has happened? Things have gone from bad to worse, and there doesn’t seem to be any solution, and the cancer has come back, and my loved one has already died.”
What future could there be?
How could anything be made new?
We don’t ask these questions… in fact, we avoid them if at all possible. Because (let’s be honest) these questions are too heavy for us. If we really ask those big questions about the pain of the world or the pain in our lives, we would weep and weep. We can’t open the scroll. Nothing can. There is nothing that seems capable of answering these questions in any way. We distract ourselves because that’s the only alternative to despair.
But then something happens. The twenty-four elders say something. The people of God speak up. One of them says: “Do not weep” (5v5).
This is always the task of the Church… to bring hope to the hopeless. To say: “Do not weep, because someone CAN make sense of the world—of history, of the future. The Strong One—the Lion of tribe Judah, the King from whom all other kings grow—has conquered. He has triumphed. He can make sense of the world and bring hope to our lives. Someone CAN open the scroll.”
And so we look with John to see this Lion—this Conquerer, this Strong One—and we share his shock. We’re told of a Lion (5v5) but what we see is a Lamb (5v6).
A Lamb looking “as if it had been slain.” The NIV’s translation of “slain” makes it almost sound clean and sterile, but the greek is messier… “slaughtered” is a better translation. It sounds messier… and that’s the picture. This Lamb has been slaughtered. Violently killed. Butchered.
This Lamb is slaughtered… but still standing.
That would be strange enough in itself, but that’s not the only strange feature of this Lamb. It sounds a bit like a radioactive lamb… an unfortunate animal with his seven horns and seven eyes (5v6). And this is where we begin realizing—if we hadn’t before—that numbers and images in this style of writing are genre are symbolic… not literal.
Eyes are an ancient symbol of seeing, perception, and knowledge. Horns are a symbol of vitality, power, and strength. And this Lamb has “seven” of each. This Lamb is perfectly knowledgable and perfectly strong.
And to top it all off, this strange-sounding lamb shares the center of heaven. The Throne—that place where only God should be—that’s where the Lamb is (5v6). And now we’ve arrived at the game-changing revelation. God has revealed himself in the triumphant suffering of Jesus.
God is not forever a mystery. The Throne is not forever in a fog.
The Mysterious Someone sitting on the Throne has revealed himself.
“Peek-a-boo—! Apocalypse—! This is what I’m like!” It may not give us a quick answer—it certainly doesn’t give us an easy answer—but the triumphant suffering of Jesus makes sense of everything.
Crucifixion and resurrection
is what opens the scroll.
God is a Giver—
always giving life and existence to everything (4v11).
God is a Lover—
a Lover to the point of pain—
to the point of suffering, to the point of slaughter.
God is a Servant—
a Servant to the point of death—
even death on a cross.4
And that’s precisely why the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders (5v9) bow down before him. That’s why everything in existence gives him “praise and honor and glory and power” (5v13). That’s why
the scene continues to get stupidly big, with the circles around the throne continuing to grow and grow (5v11-14). Because at the center of all reality we find the Beautiful, the Good, and the True. We find a God who makes everything new by healing it from the inside.
I’m not sure we can ever intellectually make sense of every bit of suffering in the world. We can’t even rationalize the suffering in our individual lives. There’s so much pain and suffering and slaughter that all our efforts to cognitively parse it out are doomed to despair.
For Christians, the life of faith offers us a relational answer rather than an intellectual answer to our greatest questions and deepest wounds. There are no flat-footed answers… just the game-changing revelation that the Heart of Heaven bears the wounds of violence yet is still standing.
The opening of the scroll is an inside job. That’s how God works in the world, and how God heals history, and even how God saves us. It’s an slow, patient, inside job.
The game-changing revelation shows us a God who is never detached or disinterested or far away. It shows us a God who has felt every pain, who knows our every weakness, who experienced our every temptation, and who chose to suffocate in our sin.
If we’re honest, the decisions of this God don’t strike us as having “seven eyes” or “seven eyes.” And it’s precisely where we’re uncomfortable that we’re challenged to rethink our definitions of “perfect knowledge” and “perfect strength.” Evidently this is a better, deeper kind of rescue than we could imagine.
God plunges into the worst of pain—sinks into the grossest of injustices, suffers the deepest of tragedies—to heal it all from the inside. Humanity is not alone in the slaughter. And after absorbing it all, the center holds… God is still standing.
As we struggle to make sense of all our questions, Revelation invites us trust that salvation is an inside job. God’s victory does not avoid the slaughter but bears it, passes through it, transfigures it.
How many of our struggles in the life of faith are actually our looking for a different kind of victory? Most days of the week, I’m wishing that God would leap out from hiding in the underbrush to make sense of the world. I wish God would charge out and use his strength and knowledge to break bones—to overpower my circumstances, to deliver a death-blow to my enemies, to arm-wrestle the world into compliance. I wish God would fix everything from the outside. And do it now.
But that’s not how God works.
Much of our frustration comes from desiring a life of faith that looks different from God’s victory. In almost every area of our lives, we want our victories proud and immediate and obvious. And painless. Don’t forget that. We want the Lion’s success with none of the Lamb’s suffering.
But there’s no “success” or “salvation” outside of the Lamb.
The Lion’s power comes through the Lamb’s patience.
The Lion’s success comes through Lamb’s surrender.
The Lion supremacy comes through the Lamb’s service.
Patience. Surrender. Service.
Even when it means suffering.
Those things don’t feel like victory. But Jesus assures us that they are. The Lamb on the throne invites us to rethink the entire world. The path that looks like weakness, like an absurd dead-end, like a bloody mess, might just be the path of deepest healing and hope. It might be the path of conquering.
God uses his knowledge and power to get inside, and to—slowly, patiently, painfully—save. And this holy inside job leads to a better future than we can imagine. John recognizes the gospel with crystal clarity—that the triumphant suffering of Jesus is how God saves the world.
Love to the point of death is how God saves the world. And that’s why the local church is so important. The local church joins Jesus in suffering the brutal, beautiful task of love. And one day we will see the scroll opened, our questions answered, and the world made new.
Lion of Judah, may I bring my hard questions to the throne and never hide my weeping. May you surround me with the witness of the Church to tell me “There is hope… salvation is an inside job.” Give me faith to trust your presence in suffering and to follow you patiently, Lamb of God, on the victorious path of surrender and servanthood.
- Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, 248.
- John had a vision like Ezekiel’s in Ezekiel 2.8 – 3.4, or perhaps John is describing the indescribable by borrowing that image. The scroll in Ezekiel is the hidden declaration and plan of God that will be made known through his words and actions.
- Mounce, 129-130.
- Phil 2.6-8.