by Felipe Diez III
John’s remarkable vision in Ch.4 of the great apocalypse is before Him, with a scenario he paints as exceedingly bright, bombastic, and remarkable. A great door, a voice, twenty four thrones with 24 elders seated on them, lamps, a rainbow, gems, a sea of glass, torches, and four living creatures uttering praises are listed. The chapter ends with the twenty four elders worshipping the Lord along with the creatures. This 5 verse short essay will raise several questions while attempting to make some sense of the text, referencing a few verses from the Old Testament which at times makes sense of the New, and vice-versa. Here is the text:
Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “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.”
Verse one presents a scroll in the hand of the Lord, “Him who was seated on the Throne.” There is writing “within” and “on the back.” Presumably, the reason for this kind of writing is that it resembles a Roman contract with an external summary and details on the inside. Some more official contracts are written in this manner and it is probably that the scroll given to Ezekiel (2:9-3:3) was of similar nature. His scroll might have been smaller, containing words on only one side of it. At any rate, the scroll in Revelation 5 is sealed with 7 seals (the number generally thought to be one of perfection in Ancient Near East and biblical symbolism). The “and” at the beginning of all 5 verses (“kai” in Greek) in the Greek manuscripts is significant, for repetition is of great importance for John and in biblical writing in general, especially as it is culturally and linguistically a way for Jews and other Semitic people to express boldness or importance in writing. Both Greek and Hebrew contain very few exclamation symbols as we do in our English language. The ESV translation of the verses provided above omits 2 “ands” from the 5 total found in the manuscripts. Other English translations omit even more to, in the opinion of the translators, simplify the translation although I would argue that this is faulty translation methodology.
The great scroll may symbolize the fact that in Roman law, a document was to be sealed with 7 witnesses. Considerable debate has occurred concerning the contents of the seal. Whether it is the whole of human history, God’s covenant blessings and curses, or the rest of what was to be John’s rendition of the content of the book of Revelation is not indubitably clear. The strong angel in verse 2 poses a great question, but it does not seem seriously inquisitive. “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” (ESV) is not so much a question as it is a statement. The Greek reading is “tis axion estin anoixai to biblion kai lusai tas sfragidas autou?” In my opinion, a better way to translate this to English is “Who is worthy to open the book and to loose its seals?” It seems closer, in my opinion, to the original Greek, or at least a better choice of words. A couple of translations render it “break its seals” since to many modern translators it seems more linguistically feasible to use “break” than “loose its seals,” but although “lusai” (luo as the stem) can at times mean “to break”, and even could in this instance, the term “to loose” seems to better convey the idea of taking a seal apart. So I argue that “breaking” is not the best word to use for “lusai” but this is not at all a major issue in the verse.
Back to the strong angel’s question in verse 2. The focus of the question is not so much focused on the book itself, or the seal, or the contents of the scroll, but of “axion estin” or “who is worthy?” The questioning angel is not implying that, like for example King Arthur’s sword in that legend, any strong creature may be able to open the biblical seal. In that mythical story, the challenge posted to anyone was that a person able to take out Excalibur from the rock was automatically worthy to be King. In the biblical story, the King is able to open the seal because He is worthy. To put it another way, the angel could have just as well said: “None of us is worthy to do this, so I will point you to the Only One Who Is.” The use of the word “ischuron” (strong) was possibly meant even to convey that the angel was posing a challenge (I’d like to privately think not too unlike the Excalibur one) to the other creatures, maybe even the demons?John’s use of spatial language (heaven, earth, under the earth) captures the weakness and fallibility of creatures in comparison to the Creator who is both able and worthy to open the seal with no difficulty. But since no creature was found “axion” (worthy) to open up the book nor peer into its contents, John began to weep loudly.
Why did John weep in verse 4? Was it a lack of faith, or a sudden outburst of mood caused by the ecstatic meta-vision? Many commentators suggest that the contents of the Great Will are precisely God’s will for His people and the universe – the whole of God’s plan, and John, in anticipation of this, could not fathom why it was so difficult to open. Perhaps he greatly desired to know exactly what was in it, and wept in frustration that the challenge went unheeded. Matthew Henry states: “Those who have seen His glory desire to know His will.” I will add that those who know His will desire to see Him glorified. An elder approaches John in verse 5, who apparently was at peace with the state of affairs and comforts the grieved apostle. “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered.” (v.5a) these two names given to Jesus Christ are key to determining a great part of the key to understanding the situation. A cross reference of this passage is Genesis 49:8-12 where a blessing is given by Jacob to the tribe of Judah, the wellspring of David’s rule. 49:9a, “you are a lion’s cub, Judah,” may refer to the title “Lion” given to Jesus. This animal, being the “king of the beasts,” is adequate to relate Jesus to – just as adequate as “Lamb” referenced in verse 6. The lamb that was slaughtered for our sins in a weak and horrific state is now depicted as a triumphant Lion, completely glorified and worthy of all praise from all creatures in all areas of God’s creation. “Enichesen” (conquers; has conquered) has to do with Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins and His conquering of Satan, sin, and death, having perfectly obeyed the Father. His Person and Work make Him worthy of this great honor reserved only for Jesus. Now He can open the scroll and its seven seals” (5b). All of revelation up to this point has prepared John for the experience of finding out who it was that would have this honor, Him whom the living creatures and the 24 elders were worshipping in the previous chapter. At least concerning the living creatures and God’s people in the future, this praise is and will be eternal. The Lord has the right to create beings for Himself that will extol Him at all times, since He alone is worthy of worship. His Son is worthy to open the seals that announce a wonderful and powerful message which embody the verses to come. It is filled with as much apocalyptic imagery which becomes terrifying and at last exceedingly hopeful. Later chapters will reveal what this is.