Revelation 5 is a continuation of the scene in chapter 4 where we are taken into the throne room of heaven. God is seated upon His throne and there are four living creatures and twenty-four elders seated around Him. The drama of this chapter is summed up in the question, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?” (Rev. 5:2). The answer to this question is: no one but the Lamb. The Lamb then comes and “takes the scroll out of the right hand of Him who sat upon the throne” (Rev. 5:7). This is a picture of Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father. In Acts 1:9 we get the ground level/earthly view of Jesus’ ascension, and here in Revelation 5 we get the heavenly view of the same event but from the other side of the firmament. When the Lamb takes the scroll, worship breaks out in heaven and then proceeds downward. First the four living creatures and twenty-four elders sing of the Lamb’s worthiness to take the scroll and open its seals (Rev. 5:9-10). Then myriads upon myriads of angels echo this praise saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12). Finally, every creature in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth (even those that are in the sea!) say, “Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13). At the ascension of Jesus Christ, all of creation praises the Lamb’s worthiness. This worship is a sort of prelude to the opening of the scroll, as chapters 6-11 will trace the history of the church from Christ’s ascension in AD 30 to the ascension of the saints (Rev. 11:12) around AD 70.
The primary Old Testament context for Revelation 5 is the vision of the four beasts in Daniel 7. Daniel sees: 1) a lion with eagle’s wings, 2) a bear with three ribs in its mouth, 3) a leopard with four wings of a bird and four heads, 4) and then a terrible beast with iron teeth and ten horns. From out of this fourth beast grows a little horn (Dan. 7:8), a false messianic figure, who I take to be the line of Herodian kings. Daniel then sees a heavenly court room just like the one in Revelation 5:
Daniel 7:9-10 says,
“I watched till thrones were put in place,
And the Ancient of Days was seated;
His garment was white as snow,
And the hair of His head was like pure wool.
His throne was a fiery flame,
Its wheels a burning fire;
10 A fiery stream issued
And came forth from before Him.
A thousand thousands ministered to Him;
Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.
The court was seated,
And the books were opened.”
After this Daniel sees the destruction of the beast, and we are told that their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time (Dan. 7:11-12). That is to say, the spiritual power behind Rome (and its predecessors) was removed, although Rome as a kingdom in history would continue for a little while longer. The dominion that these former kingdoms possessed is then given to the “One like the Son of Man” (Dan. 7:13). Revelation 5 portrays this same event. The Lamb unseals the book, renders judgment, and the kingdom is transferred to Christ and His saints.
It is noteworthy that Christ is portrayed as both Lion and Lamb. He is the royal Lion from the tribe of Judah, the long-awaited king, and He is the spotless Lamb, the once and for all sacrifice. When we read Revelation 5 as the fulfillment of Daniel 7, we see the Lamb as a sort of “fifth beast.” He has seven horns that signify the fullness of power. He has seven eyes that signify the fullness of the Spirit. In Genesis 1, when God creates the world, seven times we read that “God saw it was good.” The Lamb sees everything in all creation, for He is the eternal Son of God and through Him all things were made (Col. 1:16).
Revelation 5 gives us some of the strongest statements and proof texts for Christ’s divinity:
- No one is worthy to open the scroll but the Lamb who is God.
- No one can sit upon God’s throne, except the Lamb who is God.
- No one can possess the seven horns and seven eyes of the Spirit except the Lamb who is God.
- No one can make us kings and priests unto God, except the Lamb who is God.
- No can receive the worship of angels and all creation except the Lamb who is God.
- Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to God alone, and yet they are ascribed to the Lamb, who must be God.
Jesus is fully God and fully man. He is the one who reveals the Father to us, and together with the Father sends forth the Holy Spirit. Jesus reveals to us the Triune God. Although it is important to understand the historical fulfillment of Revelation in the 1st century, we must not lose sight that this whole book is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ…” as the opening words of the book tell us. After we get a grasp for how Revelation is fulfilled in time and history, we can go back and read thru it again asking the simple question, “What does this passage reveal to us about God?” This is where we begin to do theology and increase in our knowledge of God which as Jesus says, is “eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).
Let’s turn now to answering one of the more difficult questions from this chapter.
Q1. What is the identity of the scroll?
There have been many different answers to this question, I’ll mention a few of the more common interpretations:
- Alcuin of York (804 AD) says it is the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.
- Nicholas of Lyra (1329 AD) says it is the divine knowledge, in which all things are written.
- John Gill (1771 AD) says it is the book of Revelation.
- G.K. Beale says it is a covenantal promise of an inheritance.
- Doug Wilson says it is The Book of the Reign of Jesus Christ.
- David Chilton says it is The New Covenant.
- Kenneth Gentry says it is a covenant lawsuit and bill of divorce against Israel.
- Phillip Kayser says it is The Old Testament.
- Peter Leithart says, “The heavenly scroll is a book of kingship, to be conferred on a worthy descendant of David. It is a book of curse and blessing, about to be unleashed against the land and the oikoumene. It is a book of law, delivered to a new Moses. It is a book of conquest, ready to be handed to a new Joshua.”
Some of these interpretations overlap with one another (and some do not), but you’ll notice a dominate theme that this scroll/book is some form of Scripture. It might be the Old Testament, might be the New Testament, it might just e one portion or book within the broader canon. Is it possible to narrow this down?
I think the first thing we should do is look up any related passages that contain similar scenes or imagery. There are two passages that rise to the surface here and they are Ezekiel 2-3 and Daniel 12.
In Ezekiel 2:9-10 we read, “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.” This connects with the detail in Revelation 5:1 that says it was “a scroll written inside and on the back.” Ezekiel is then told to eat the scroll and then speak to the house of Israel (Ezek. 3:1-3). So the identity of the scroll in Ezekiel is God’s Word to His rebellious people, specifically “lamentations and mourning and woe.” This is a word of judgment against Israel and is what would late become the book of Ezekiel, or at least portions of it.
In Daniel 12, Daniel is told to “shut up the words, and seal the book until the time of the end” (Dan. 12:4). What book is this? At the very least it refers to the final vision of chapters 10-12, but more likely it refers to the whole book of Daniel. Since the book is going to be unsealed at “the time of the end” (Dan. 12:9), and John was living in the last days, I think the best option is take the scroll in Revelation 5 as the same scroll that is sealed up here in Daniel 12. If that is true, then in some sense the scroll is Old Testament Scripture, but it is also New Testament revelation. It is the fulfillment and continuation of Daniel’s apocalyptic vision. Since the seven seals of the book will be opened in the proceeding chapters, we can safely say that the contents of the book is the execution of covenant curses like those described in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. So Peter Leithart is correct in describing this scroll as: “a book of kingship, a book of curse and blessing, a book of law, and a book of conquest.” Whatever view you take on the precise identity of the scroll, it is at the very least Holy Scripture.