What is the Scroll in Revelation 5?

The “one on the throne” holds a seven-sealed scroll with writing on both sides (Rev 5:1). No one in all of creation can be found worthy to open the scroll except the “Lamb that was slain” (5:2-5). This scroll is an important symbol in this chapter, but also for chapters 6-7 since a series of things occur as the seals on the scroll are opened. How did John intend for us to understand this scroll?

Scroll 3 sealsNormally a scroll is only written on one side (the inside), a two sided scroll is rare.  Because of this there are several variations in the textual tradition to try and explain to “fix” the phrase. For example, by changing the wording slightly, one might read the text as “within, on the inside.” David Aune offers several suggestions for the “form of the book.”

First, the book could be an opistograph, or a scroll “written on both sides.” The main problems with this view are the parallels to Ezekiel’s vision of a scroll in Ezekiel 3, and the original reading of the text; if this were an opistograph, it should be described differently.  It is possible, however, John did not know this technical term.

Second, the book could be a doppelurkunde, or “doubly written legal document.” It was common enough for a legal document to be written twice with a short gap between the two parts.  Jeremiah 32:9-15, for example, describes a double-written deed.  A brief description would be written on the outside of the scroll so the general contents might be known without opening the seals.

Third, Zahn argued the scroll is not a scroll at all, but rather a codex (i.e. book). The Greek word used here is βιβλίον, but in the first century the word meant simply “a document” or scroll. While this view has been criticized because there are clear parallels to the scroll Ezekiel, it is a fact that early Christians were very quick to adopt the codex for their collections of letters and gospels.  In addition, a book could be sealed so that individual pages could be opened while later ones remained sealed.

This scroll has been identified as any number of things, including “a bill of divorce for Jerusalem and a nuptial contract for the New Jerusalem” or a sealed copy of the Torah. But the most common suggestion is that the scroll as having something to do with the revelation which follows. In the most general sense, the scroll contains the eschatological punishments inflicted on the world by the will of God.

  • The contents of the scroll begin to occur with the opening of the first seal in 6:1 to the seventh seal in 8:1.
  • The events of the scroll cannot occur until the scroll is completely opened.  This does not happen until 8:1, therefore the contents are 8:2ff.
  • If the scroll is “doubly written legal document,” then it is possible the section 6:-7:17 is the exterior while 8:1-22:5 is the interior, the actual content of the scroll.  (D. Hellholm made this suggestion)
  • The contents of the scroll is Rev 6:1-22:6. The Lamb reveals to John the contents of the scroll after he receives it.
  • The scroll is the whole of the book of Revelation.  The book is described as prophetic (1:11; 22:7, 9, 18-19) and 22:10 commands John not to seal his book.

It is possible the book does not contain the prophecies which follow.  There are several suggested ideas for the contents of the book, such as God’s plan for human beings and the world or even a record of the sins of humankind. After the scroll is opened in chapter 6, it appears that the contents of the book are the seven trumpet and seven bowl judgments.  If this is the case, then the book is the “decree of God” for the judgment of the world described in those sections.

Revelation 4 and Apocalyptic Throne Imagery

Revelation 4-5 are often read only for their value in describing worship (worthy is the Lamb….) or their angelology (who are the elders?  What are the four living creatures?)  While these elements are certainly there, the function of these chapters in Revelation is to introduce the vision of the seven seals.  The Lamb is worthy of the same worship applied to God, but this means he is also worthy to open the scroll with seven seals. These seals represent the beginning of God’s judgment on the world.

John in Heaven

First, the “door of heaven” is opened, is a common apocalyptic element.  The idea of going “up to heaven” may be drawn from Gen 28:17 or Ps 78:23, but is developed in non-biblical apocalyptic into the idea that heaven is closed.  Only the visionary is invited to “come up” into heaven.

3 Maccabees 6:18 Then the most glorious, almighty, and true God revealed his holy face and opened the heavenly gates, from which two glorious angels of fearful aspect descended, visible to all but the Jews.

1 Enoch 14:8-9 And behold I saw the clouds: And they were calling me in a vision; and the fogs were calling me; and the course of the stars and the lightnings were rushing me and causing me to desire; and in the vision, the winds were causing me to fly and rushing me high up into heaven.

Second, John hears a “voice like a trumpet.”  This too is a common apocalyptic element as trumpets are used to signal an announcement. Perhaps this is a description of some king of ecstatic state.  John’s body remains on Patmos, but in his spirit (mind?) he experiences heaven.  Paul appears to have experienced the same sort of thin in 2 Cor 12:1-4, in non-biblical apocalyptic 1 Enoch 70-73 and 81 are quite similar.

 1 Enoch 71:1-2 (Thus) it happened after this that my spirit passed out of sight and ascended into the heavens. And I saw the sons of the holy angels walking upon the flame of fire; their garments were white—and their overcoats—and the light of their faces was like snow.

Third, as John enters heaven in the Spirit, he sees a fantastic throne (Rev 4:2-3). This vision is very similar to that of Ezekiel 1-3 as well as Isaiah 6, but the main source of imagery appears to be Daniel 7:9-27. Again, there is some element of“stock language” in the description of the throne. Throne imagery is important in Revelation, although John never names the one on the throne. It is as if he cannot find a word to describe the glory of God associated with the throne.

 Testament of Levi 5:1 At this moment the angel opened for me the gates of heaven and I saw the Holy Most High sitting on the throne.

John is describing heaven exactly the way any Jewish reader would have expected heaven to look in the late first century. Imagine if he had described heaven like a modern office complex, or Disneyland (the allegedly happiest place on earth) or a resort in the Caribbean. The original readers would not understand the imagery, since they were expecting these sorts of stock images of “what heaven might look like.”

This might be a good warning against using these descriptions to create a list of things about what heaven is really like.

 

The Stones in the Throne Room in Revelation 4

The throne in Revelation 4 is a good opportunity to think about our interpretive method for apocalyptic literature. In another post I pointed out throne room scenes are common in Second Temple apocalyptic and that the imagery John uses here is similar to several other well-known apocalyptic texts.

The throne is described as having the appearance of jasper (ἴασπις) and carnelian (σάρδιον).  The identification of ancient minerals is always tentative. For example, Jasper “was not limited to the variety of quartz now called jasper, but could designate any opaque precious stone” (BDAG). In fact, the color of the stone varied greatly.  Both Jasper and carnelian are stones in the New Jerusalem in 21:19-20, although BDAG suggests that an opal is a better translation for jasper. The words appear in only two contexts in the LXX, but both are of interest here. First, both jasper and carnelian are part of the ephod worn by the high priest (Exod 28:18) but also the decorations of the “guardian cherub” in Ezek 28:13. Jasper appears in LXX Isaiah 54:12, a description of Zion when she is re-established as the Lord’s wife after the exile.

God's ThroneEncircling the throne is a rainbow, resembling emerald (σμαράγδινος). The rainbow is more like a halo emanating out from the throne, possible “like an emerald” because the light from the throne is penetrating the transparent stones of the thrones. While emerald is among the stones in the high priest’s breastplate and New Jerusalem, the whole scene is reminiscent of Ezekiel 1:28. There a rainbow was behind the throne of “something like a man,” a representation of the glory of God.

Is there any “special meaning” to the stones in the throne room? In older commentaries, the stones in the throne of God (and the New Jerusalem) have been interpreted as having something to say about the character of God.  Even as recently as John Walvoord’s commentary on Revelation, the stones were thought to represent God’s attributes.  Jasper referred to God’s holiness, carnelian his wrath and judgment, and emerald referred to God’s grace and mercy (103-104). In addition, he observes that jasper and the “sardine” stone are the first and last stones in Exodus 28:17-21. Jasper represents Reuben, carnelian Benjamin. Since Reuben means “behold a son” and Benjamin means “son of my right hand,” Walvoord understands the stones as references to Jesus, the son of God.  As for the carnelian, Hengstenberg, thought the reddish stone was used “to represent the punitive righteousness of God, his anger, cannot be doubted when we look at the fundamental and parallel passages” (The Revelation of St. John, 245).

Older commentaries often allegorized the emerald rainbow as well. Elliot thought that the emerald rainbow was “in sight like unto an emerald;”—the well-known and lovely memorial of the covenant of grace (Horæ Apocalypticæ 1:85, cf., Simcox, The Revelation of S. John the Divine, 31). The green of the emerald “the green emerald may fitly represent God’s goodness displayed in nature.” (A. Plummer, Revelation, The Pulpit Commentary, 145).

The vast majority of modern commentators take the stones as indications of the glorious nature of the throne room of God.  God does not need a gem encrusted throne on which to sit, it is a way of described the awesomeness of God. But for someone who knows the Hebrew Bible or Septuagint, the image of “God’s throne” always includes precious stones and emeralds. For a Greco-Roman reader, imperial throne rooms are always majestic  and richly decorated.

Rather than interpret each detail in order to give it a “spiritual” meaning about God’s attributes or some hint at the incarnation of Jesus, the whole scene is intended to evoke the glorious majesty of the one who sits on the throne. To over-interpret the imagery to find an allusions to the “covenant of grace” or the attributes of God risks missing the original intention of John.

Who are the 24 Elders in Revelation 4?

The 24 elders in Revelation 4-5 are a good test-case for methods of interpretation in this unusual book. What is important in this vision is the worship God receives from all of creation. Is the number 24 significant?

William Blake, Throne of GodThere are a few unusual views for the 24 elders we should probably set aside early on. For example, some have taken the number 24 as the 24 books of the Old Testament. (This is mentioned by Greg Beale, although he does not advocate for this view, Revelation, 326). The evidence for this view is The Gospel of Thomas 52. There Jesus says that there were 24 prophets who spoke to Israel, meaning the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible.  This means the “elders” are the book which the Lamb fulfills in his death and resurrection. Ford identified the 24 as the “great men of the faith” listed in Sirach 44-49, although few have been persuaded by her argument. Henry Morris argued the rather unique view that the 24 elders are the 24 ancestors of Christ, Adam to Pharez (The Revelation Record).

In most cases, the 24 elders are either angles or humans.  David Aune sorts commentators into these two categories. If they are humans, then there are several possibilities to identify who those humans might be.

The Elders are Angelic beings. No other human beings are present when John is called up to heaven.  Isaiah 24:33 may refer to angels as elders and  Psalm 89:7 describes God enthroned among his “council.” Colossians 1:16, Eph 3:10 and 6:12 refer to angelic hierarchy as “thrones. There are several places in Revelation in which the elders re-appear.  In each of these verses it seems unlikely that humans are in view (5:8, 7:13-14, etc.)

This is a tradition, beginning with Old Testament texts and extending into the apocalyptic literature, of God’s counsel as consisting of angels. That these are angels is consistent with the general apocalyptic images gathered together in this chapter.

Sepher ha-Razim 1.8  Within, three princes sit on their thrones; they and their raiment have an appearance like fire and the appearance of their thrones is like fire, fire that gleams like gold, for they rule over all the angels of fire. (Cited by Aune, 1:61)

The Apoc. Zeph. A  And a spirit took me and brought me up into the fifth heaven. And I saw angels who are called “lords”, and the diadem was set upon them in the Holy Spirit, and the throne of each of them was sevenfold more (brilliant) than the light of the rising sun. (And they were) dwelling in the temples of salvation and singing hymns to the ineffable most high God. (Cited by Aune, 1:61).

If the scene in heaven is a “heavenly temple,” then the 24 elders may be a reference to the 24 priests / Levites who lead  worship in Solomon’s temple.

The 24 elders are humans. In support of the 24 elders as humans, commentators usually note that angels are never called elders anywhere else in scripture (Isaiah 24:33 is a debated passage.)  In addition, the white clothing and crown are promised to the churches of Asia Minor if they “overcome.” There are three variations on this view. First, the Elders may represent the Church. The letters to the seven churches were all addressed to the “angel” of the church.  This is an indication that an angel might represent a church.  Here, these heavenly inhabitants represent the church of this age.  Several classic dispensationalists have held this view, including Ryrie (Revelation 36) and John F. Walvoord Revelation (107). In fact, Walvoord entitles chapter 4 “The Church in Heaven” because they are rapture before the time referred to by this chapter.

Second, the Elders may represent Israel. The 24 thrones are based on the 24 priest in David’s temple (1 Chron. 24:3-19 or the 24 Levites in 1 Chron5:6-31, cf. Josephus, Ant 7:363-367).

Qoh. Rab. 1.11 In the Hereafter, however, the Holy One, blessed be He, will number for Himself a band of righteous men of His own and seat them by Him in the Great Academy; as it is said, “Then the moon shall be confounded and the sun ashamed for the Lord of hosts will reign in mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before His elders shall be glory” (Isa XXIV, 23). It is not written here “Before His angels, His troops, or His priests” but “before His elders shall be glory.”

Tanhuma, Shemot 29   The Holy One, blessed be He, will in the future cause the elders of Israel to stand as in a threshing floor, and He will sit at the head of them all as president and they will judge the nations of the world.

Third, the Elders may represent the Old Testament and New Testament Saints. For some, the 24 thrones are twelve for the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 for the 12 apostles. Occasionally this is expressed as “the church of all ages,” or as Swete thought, the elders represent “the church in its totality” (Revelation, 68-69). An a-millennial interpretation of Revelation would naturally see the Old and New Testament believers as the same church

One other possibility is that the elders are human, but the image is designed as a parody of the 24 lictors (bodyguards) who normally accompanied the Emperor Domitian. Suetonius described Domitian as follows:   “He presided at the competitions in half-boots, clad in a purple toga in the Greek fashion, and wearing upon his head a golden crown with figures of Jupiter ,Juno, and Minerva, while by his side sat the priest of Jupiter and the college of the Flaviales, similarly dressed, except that their crowns bore his image as well.” (Aune 1:292)

While it is probably better to avoid dogmatism on this point, my understanding of the 24 elders is that they are angels who worship God before his throne. This might overlap with the lictors in a Greco-Roman throne room scene. Since there is a distinction between the elders and the “saints” later in the book, this identification seems best. In this case the number 24 (12 and 12) might not be significant for interpreting the imagery.

What Does Revelation Say About the End Times?

The theological term for the end times is eschatology, the study of last things. This includes not only the return of Christ and the kingdom, but also “personal eschatology,” what happens to individuals after death, what judgments await the believer and the unbeliever. I think that the study of the “end times” has mutated into “what is going to happen to those people left behind after the Rapture?” While I do believe in a Rapture / Tribulation / Second Coming scheme, I think it is more helpful to see the overall themes of Revelation rather that try to get ever detail of the Tribulation lined up on a chart.

I want to let Revelation speak for itself as much as possible, and to do that the book must be read in the context of the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Jewish expectations. John is remarkably consistent with the Judaism of his day, with the exception of identifying Jesus as the Messiah.

The most general teaching of Revelation concerning personal eschatology is that the righteous are to be rewarded and the unrighteous are to be condemned. This is consistent with the Hebrew Bible. When the messianic age begins, there is a judgment of the nations and of Israel. Not everyone participates in the messianic age, as a text like Isaiah 25:6-9 makes clear. While many will gather on Zion to participate in the inaugural banquet at the beginning of the age, Israel’s prototypical enemy Moab will be trampled in the mud (25:10-12). Jesus also described the beginning of the new age as a harvest, where the wheat will be gathered into the barn (where it belongs) and the weeds gathered and thrown on a fire (where they belong). This theme of eschatological separation is common in Jesus’ parables (Matt 13:24-30, for example).

Prior to the beginning of the eschatological age, the Hebrew Bible expects a time of persecution of the people of God. In a book like Daniel, this period of persecution will separate the true Israel from the false. The capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians initiated a long sequence of conflict with pagan rulers which reached a climax during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. The struggles of the Maccabean period become a paradigm for future persecutions.

In Revelation, there is a persecution of those who refuse to worship the beast or take his mark. Revelation 13:7 describes this as a “war on the saints” which will result in the death of many who are followers of Christ (13:10, 20:4). This persecution is a time when a choice must be made to worship the beast (taking his mark) or to worship the Lamb. There is no middle ground, the time of great persecution is a sifting of the true followers from the false.

In Revelation 20, there is a judgment at the beginning of the Kingdom of God, or the eschatological age. John’s vision turns to a scene of thrones, thrones for those who were martyred during the tribulation, and thrones for those that endured until the end. In this vision, it is the souls of those who were faithful during the tribulation that sit upon thrones. The souls that John is seeing in these verses are those that were under the altar in 6:9 crying out to God asking to be revenged for their death at the hands of the beast and his kingdom.

With respect to the future, then, Revelation promises that God will judge justly.  Those who persecute will be judged and separated from the Kingdom of God, while those who were persecuted will be vindicated and enter into that Kingdom.