September 30: Revelation 7:9-17

Revelation 7:9-17

Rev 7:9-10

Verse 9 begins with words similar to the opening of verse 1, indicating that these are two halves of a single visionary scene:

With [i.e. after] these (thing)s, I saw, and see! a throng (of) many (people), which no one is able to number, out of every nation—and (all) offshoots [i.e. tribes] and peoples and tongues—having taken (their) stand in the sight of the ruling-seat and in the sight of the Lamb, having been cast about [i.e. clothed] in white dress and (with) palm branches in their hands, and they cried (out) with a great voice, saying: ‘The salvation (is) to our God, the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, and to the Lamb!'” (vv. 9-10)

The image of believers—those who are “able to stand” in the great Judgment (6:17)—begins with those sealed out of the twelve tribes of Israel (vv. 4-8, cf. the previous note), and concludes with a throng of people out of every nation, language, and ethnic group, etc. The relationship between these two will be discussed further below. First it is necessary to examine how this second “group” of believers is described here in vv. 9ff.

    • “cast about [i.e. clothed] in white dress”—this corresponds with the traditional description of heavenly/angelic beings (4:4; 19:14), as well as the heavenly reward/status promised to believers in 3:4-5, 18.
    • “(with) palm-branches in their hands”—the palm branch symbolized victory in Greco-Roman tradition (Virgil Aeneid 5:112; Livy Roman History 10.47.3; Plutarch Moralia 723-4; Pliny Natural History 17.244; Caesar Civil War 3.105, etc; cf. Koester, p. 420), and was recognized by Jews as well (1 Macc 13:37, 51; 2 Macc 10:7; 14:4; Philo On the Unchangableness of God §137). In John’s version of the Triumphal Entry scene, palm branches are used (Jn 12:13), presumably to greet Jesus as the (conquering) Messiah.
    • The song they sing is similar to that of the heavenly beings in chaps. 4-5, and reflects the same dual emphasis of the Lamb (the exalted Jesus) standing alongside God on His throne. It also indicates the same position of homage and adoration, in which the salvation believers have experienced is “given back” to God (and Christ), recognizing Him as its source. Ascribing salvation to God (that is, as coming from Him, or belonging to Him) is part of the Old Testament tradition (cf. Gen 49:18; 1 Sam 2:1; Psalm 3:8; 27:1; 38:22, etc).
Rev 7:11-12

The song by the believers effectively joins that of the heavenly throng (chaps. 4-5), and the heavenly beings around the throne of God answer in return, with a new refrain. On the language used here, cf. 4:9-10f; 5:9-14; in particular, the wording of the song in v. 12 echoes 4:11 and 5:12-13. Significantly, seven words are strung together, symbolizing the praise that is worthy of Deity.

Rev 7:13-14

The identity of the great throng clothed in white (vv. 9-10) is addressed here, by way of a leading question from one of the heavenly “Elders”. Such an exchange reflects similar episodes in Old Testament and Apocalyptic tradition—cf. Ezek 37:3; 40:3-4; Zech 1:8; Dan 7:16; 8:15; 1 Enoch 21:5; 22:3; 2 Baruch 55:3-4ff, etc; Koester, p. 420.

Elder: “These the (one)s cast about [i.e. clothed] with white dress—who are they and (from) where did they come?”
John: “My lord, you have seen [i.e. you know].” (cf. Ezek 37:3)
Elder: “These are the (one)s coming out of the great distress/oppression [qli/yi$], and they washed their dress and made the (garment)s white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Here the emphasis is on their white garments. The word stolh/ is often translated “robe”, but fundamentally it refers to any sort of (special) clothing or dress, used to indicate position, honor, etc. The white garments reflect the dress of heavenly/divine beings (cf. above), which believers receive as a sign of honor and victory (i.e. heavenly reward). Now, however, the color is given a particular significance, which is two-fold:

    • they have come out of “the great distress/oppression”
    • they have washed (i.e. rinsed under flowing water) their garments “in the blood of the Lamb”

Previously, the blood of the Lamb was tied to sacrifice—i.e. Jesus’ death in terms of (a) Passover, (b) the offering at the establishment of the covenant, and (c) a sin/guilt offering. Only the last of these is really in view here, with the distinctive idea of cleansing (i.e. from sin). Obviously, blood is antithetical or paradoxical as a symbol for cleansing, but it may relate to concepts of atonement (wiping out/off) through blood in ancient religious traditions—cf. Gen 9:6, etc. There was a sacred quality associated with blood, it could be used in religious ritual to consecrate people or objects (Exod 24:6, 8; 29:12ff; Levit 8, etc). The connection with washing is perhaps drawn more directly from Gen 49:11, as a Messianic prophecy (cf. Rev 5:5). Since these believers have come out of the time of great distress, which includes persecution and killing of believers (6:9-11), it is possible that here blood specifically refers to believers who are put to death for their faith. While this allusion is likely, the reference here should not be limited to that interpretation. According to basic early Christian teaching, all believers are cleansed through Jesus’ blood (Rom 3:25; 5:9; 10:16; Col 1:20; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:13-14ff; 10:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 1 John 1:7; Rev 1:5, etc). Moreover, the obvious parallel with baptism likewise would apply to believers generally.

Some comment is required regarding the expression “the great distress/oppression” (h( qli/yi$ h( mega/lh). Under the now-traditional designation “Great Tribulation”, this expression has very much taken on a life of its own, especially among Dispensationalist commentators. We must, however, be careful not to wrench it too quickly out of its context here, within the vision-cycle of the seven seals. Limiting it this way, at least for the moment, it must refer generally to the visions described for the first six seals, which we may summarize (again) as:

    • Seals 1-4, the four horses and riders—a period of intense warfare among the nations, resulting in disruption of the social order, culminating in hunger, disease and death.
    • Seal 5—persecution of believers, resulting in many being put to death
    • Seal 6—cosmic disruption of the natural order, marking the appearance of God to bring Judgment

As I noted previously, this sequence generally parallels that of Jesus’ sayings in the “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13:7-8, 9-13, 24-25 par). There, too, it is described in terms of great distress and suffering (the word qli/yi$ being used in vv. 19, 24). Jesus also ties this period to the choosing/election of believers (vv. 19-20, 27), as here in Rev 7:4-9ff, though without the specific image of sealing. It is customary for many Christians today to view this period (the “Great Tribulation”) as a time which has not yet come—i.e. many centuries after the author’s time. While this is understandable, it is hard to find support for such an interpretation, and certainly not based on what we have seen thus far through the first six chapters of the book, where the language of imminence is used throughout (Rev 1:1, 3, 7, 19; 2:5, 16; 3:3, 10-11, 20). Indeed, 3:10 refers to “the hour of testing that is about to come upon the whole inhabited (world)”. There is little, if any, indication that this “hour of testing” is anything other that the time of “great distress” mentioned in 7:14. The entire issue of imminent eschatology in the New Testament will be addressed in a special article, as part of the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”

Rev 7:15-17

This answer by the Elder suddenly turns into a kind of poem, or hymn, which echoes that of v. 12 (also in chaps. 4-5), and serves as a fitting conclusion to the vision:

“Through this they are in the sight of the ruling-seat of God and do service for Him day and night in His shrine, and the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat will stretch (out His) tent upon them. They will not yet hunger (any more), and will not yet thirst (any more), and (certainly) the sun shall not fall upon them, and not (either) any burning (heat), (in) that [i.e. because] the Lamb (standing) up in the middle of the ruling-seat will herd them and will lead the way for them upon fountains of waters of life, and God will wipe out every tear out of their eyes.”

The language of verse 15 brings out two motifs drawn from Israelite religious tradition:

    • Believers serving as priests (cf. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6), day and night, in the sanctuary—both of the Temple, and, more particularly, of the older Tent-shrine (Tabernacle)
    • The Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) indicating God’s presence, and the protection which that brings

Verses 16-17 also allude to a number of key passages in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 49:10 and 25:8. The motif of the Lamb serving as a shepherd for the people, is primarily Messianic, by way of Ezek 34:23-24, etc. Both the shepherd-image and the idea of God’s sanctuary/dwelling among his people, are combined in Ezek 37:24-28. The exalted Jesus (the Lamb) is recognized as the Messiah, but also, through his divine status/position at the right hand of God, he fulfills the same life-giving and protecting role as God Himself. Jesus identifies himself similarly as a shepherd at various points in the Gospel tradition (Mark 14:27 par; John 10:1-18; cf. also Matt 2:6; 10:6; 15:24; Mark 6:34 par; Luke 15:3ff; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4; Heb 13:20).

Concluding note on the two “groups” in vv. 4-17

The distinction in this passage—believers from the people of Israel and those from all the nations—would seem to reflect two themes in early Christian eschatology taken over from Jewish tradition, and which ultimately stem from the Old Testament Prophets (esp. the book of Isaiah):

    1. The Restoration of Israel. At the end time, the twelve tribes will be regathered from their dispersal among the nations, forming a new Israel, centered back at Judah/Jerusalem. Among the many passages note: Isa 11:12; 43:5-6; 49:5-6; Jer 29:14; 31:8-10; Ezek 11:17; 34:13; 36:24; 47-48; Zech 10:8-10; Sirach 36:11; 48:10; Tobit 13:5; 2 Macc 2:18; Jubilees 1:15-17; Psalms of Solomon 11; 17:28-31. Related to this theme is the idea that the restoration will involve a faithful remnant, or portion of the people—Amos 3:12; Zeph 3:11-13; Mic 2:12; Isa 10:19-22; 11:11ff; Jer 23:3, etc. Early Christians seem to have shared this latter idea with the Qumran Community—i.e., they represented the faithful remnant of Israel (Rom 9:27-29; 11:5ff).
    2. The Inclusion of the Gentiles. Along with the restoration of Israel, at the end time the nations (i.e. Gentiles) also would come to Jerusalem and be included among the people of God. This belief was fundamental to the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, but was reflected already in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition—e.g., Mic 4:1-5 (par Isa 2:2-4); Isa 49:5-6; 56:3-8; 60:3-7ff; 66:18-24; Zech 2:11; 8:20-23; Tobit 13:11; 14:6f.

As I noted above, it is possible that here the book of Revelation expresses and eschatological view similar to that of Paul in Rom 9-11, and that the portion sealed from the tribes of Israel, with its symbolic number of completeness (12 x 1000), is more or less equivalent to Paul’s statement regarding “all Israel” (Rom 11:26). As Paul describes this end-time conversion of Israelites (vv. 25-27), it suggests a sudden and miraculous event, which could be comparably expressed through God’s sealing of the 144,000 in Rev 7:4-8. Along with this large number of Jewish believers, there is an even larger number of believers from among the nations; Paul doubtless envisioned this as well (10:18; 11:11ff, 25). Both “groups” together—Jews and Gentiles as believers in Christ—make up the true, complete people of God.

September 25: Revelation 5:11-14

Revelation 5:1-14 (concluded)

Rev 5:11-13

Following the song sung by the Living Beings and Elders (cf. the previous note on vv. 9-10), a vast multitude, both in heaven and on earth (and below the earth), joins in the singing. First we read of “many Messengers” (i.e. Angels, heavenly beings), almost beyond numbering—indicated by the expression “ten thousands of ten thousands and thousands of thousands (more)”. As they add their voices, it is as though we are hearing a refrain to the song in vv. 9-10, as it follows a similar pattern:

“…a&cio$ [i.e. worthy] is the Lamb th(at) has been slaughtered to receive the power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and esteem and (a) good account!” (v. 12)

Not coincidentally, there are seven attributes listed here, in keeping with the seven horns and eyes possessed by the Lamb, as well as the seven seals on the scroll. In some ways, the sequence of seven is more important than the individual attributes, as it clearly indicates the divine status and character of the Lamb, who is worthy (on a&cio$, cf. the previous note) to receive the same declaration of praise, worship and homage that the heavenly beings would give to God on His throne. This is a fundamental theme of the chap. 4-5 vision, as well as the book of Revelation as a whole. The seven attributes are traditional, and require little comment; I begin with the first four, which properly reflect divine attributes:

    • du/nami$ (“power”)—For God (or Christ) to receive power from others is a reflection of the (ritual) language and imagery of vassalage. The beings around the throne receive their position of rule/power from God, and thus give it back to him, as an indication of their submission and obedience, etc. It is also a natural characteristic of (religious) praise to emphasize the greatness of the Divine. The word du/nami$ indicates not only strength, but also the ability or authority to do something.
    • plou=to$ (“wealth, riches”)—This is a collective noun related to the verb plh/qw (“filling, fullness”). The customary translation “wealth” or “riches” can be somewhat misleading, suggesting a static possession, whereas here it denotes the fullness of God’s presence, power, etc—the source of all life and blessing. To recognize this of God (and Christ) effectively gives “wealth” back to him.
    • sofi/a (“wisdom”)—In its more original (and practical) sense, sofi/a refers to a thorough knowledge or skill in a particular area. Eventually, it came to have a more strongly intellectual denotation. Among early Christians, in particular, the word took on an increasingly spiritual dimension. True knowledge and ability comes from God, through Christ, by way of the presence of the (Holy) Spirit at work in and among believers.
    • i)sxu/$ (“strength, ability”)—Fundamentally, this refers to something which a person holds, or possesses—the ability to do something, in terms of capability. It is tied more directly to a person’s life-force, than is the similar term du/nami$ (above). The declaration here recognizes God (and Christ) as the source of life, and our own (natural) strength and ability which we give back (through worship, service, etc).

The final three words are, in a sense, synonymous, forming a triad which reflects how devout religious persons (believers) view God/Christ:

    • timh/ (“honor”)—This word fundamentally means “value” or “worth”, but is usually translated in the New Testament as “honor”. It refers to the worth we place on God and Jesus, i.e. the extent, or the way in which we value them.
    • do/ca (“esteem”)—Often translated “glory”, the word more properly refers to the way in which we consider or regard someone/something. However, in traditional religious usage, this represents only one side of the equation. How we regard God and Jesus is based on the nature and character which they possess—i.e., they are esteemed because they are worthy of esteem. In Hebrew, the word typically translated as “glory” actually means “weight” (db)K*), i.e. the weight or value which God possesses in His person.
    • eu)logi/a (“good account”)—The word is derived from eu)loge/w, “give a good account”, i.e. “speak/think well (of someone)”. Customarily, eu)logi/a is translated as “blessing”, but that covers up to some extent the concrete sense of the word. Because of their nature and character, and what they have done for us, God and Jesus are deserving of good words (of praise, proclamation of the Gospel [“good message”], etc) from us.

In verse 13, all creatures—in heaven, on earth, and under the earth (cf. verse 3)—join the song, further expanding the vast number of voices. Their refrain serves as a climax to the entire vision of chaps. 4-5, joining God and the Lamb (the exalted Jesus) together as the focus of worship:

“To the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, and to the Lamb—(be) the good account and the honor and the esteem and the might [kra/to$] into the Ages of the Ages!”

The three attributes (cf. above), which reflect how created beings (should) view and respond to God and the Lamb (Jesus), are repeated here; and a fourth is added: kra/to$. I am inclined to view this word as a summary of the four divine attributes in v. 13 (cf. above); in which case, the multitude of living creatures here echoes that earlier refrain. The meaning of kra/to$ (often translated “might”) differs somewhat from the words du/nami$ (“power”) and i)sxu/$ (“strength”)—I would define this as signifying the manifest presence of power and strength. As such, it is commonly used in reference to Deity. It is rather rare in the New Testament, occurring just 12 times, but its earlier use in Rev 1:6 is worth noting. Indeed, it may well be that its presence here, following do/ca, is meant as a deliberate echo of the closing words of 1:6. The entire greeting of 1:4-6 has the same two-part structure as chaps. 4-5, and shares many of the same phrases and ideas.

Rev 5:14

This verse serves as a coda to the vision, repeating the gesture of homage by the four Living Beings and twenty-four Elders. In 4:9-10, it was given to God on His throne, while in 5:8, it is directed toward the Lamb; now, here, we must understand it as an act of worship for them both, together. It is a solemn and fitting conclusion to the grand dual-vision in chapters 4-5.

September 24: Revelation 5:9-10

Revelation 5:1-14 (continued)

The vision of the Lamb in chapter 5 climaxes with the song in verses 9ff, just as the throne-vision of chapter 4 concludes with a similar song—the parallelism between the two halves of the chap. 4-5 vision were discussed in the previous daily note. The song begins in vv. 9-10, sung by the four Living Beings and twenty-four Elders, before being taken up by the heavenly multitudes in vv. 11-13.

Rev 5:9-10

“and they sang a new song, saying, ‘a&cio$ are you to take the paper-roll and to open up its seals, (in) that [i.e. because] you went to the market-place [i.e. bought] for God in [i.e. with] your blood, (purchasing) out of every offshoot [i.e. tribe] and tongue [i.e. language] and people and nation, and you made them a kingdom and sacred officials [i.e. priests] for our God, and they will rule as king(s) upon the earth’.”

It is worth noting again the opening word of the song, which begins as in 4:11, to be repeated here in 5:11. The adjective a&cio$ is rather difficult to translate literally in English. Fundamentally, the underlying idea is of bringing something into balance (i.e. being weighed/measured on the scales), as, literally, “bringing [vb. a&gw] up” the beam of the scale. The adjective itself signifies something which is thus of an equal, or proper, weight. As an honorific, especially when used in a religious context (in reference to God, etc), it indicates that someone is deserving of honor and praise, etc, and so should be given the appropriate reverence and respect. It is typically translated in such instances as “worthy”. However, in this case, the parallelism between chapters 4 and 5 connotes a deeper theological meaning—that the Lamb (i.e. the exalted Jesus) is of the same “weight” (Heb. db)K*) as God, and, in his divine position/status, shares with God the Father the ruling authority, etc (including effective ownership of the seal on the scroll). It is possible that this is what is signified by the characterization of the song as “new” (kaino/$). A song of praise and worship to God is obvious and natural for any religious person; it is the extension of this song to the Lamb (Jesus) which is new. On the motif of a “new song”, cf. Psalm 40:3; 96:1; Isa 42:10).

The emphasis on the blood of the Lamb helps to clarify the sacrificial image. In the previous note, on verse 6, I outlined three sacrificial motifs with which Jesus’ death is associated in the New Testament: (1) the Passover Lamb, (2) the offering for sin/guilt, and (3) the sacrifice at the establishment of the Covenant. The Last supper scene, before Jesus’ impending death, blends together all three of these:

    • The context of the Passover meal (Mark 14:1, 12ff, 22ff par); in John’s account, Jesus is put to death on the day of Passover eve, identifying him more precisely with the Lamb that is slain (13:1; 18:28; 19:14).
    • The establishment of the (new) Covenant—the wine-cup is identified specifically as “the blood of the [new] covenant” (Mark 14:24 par)
    • A sacrifice for sin (Matt 26:28; cf. also John 1:29)

While the Lamb’s blood features prominently in the Passover narrative (Exod 12:7, 13), symbolizing God’s deliverance of his people and their protection (from death), here there is a more precise connection with the Covenant scene in Exodus 24. The blood thrown upon the people (v. 8), identifies that they are bound to God by the agreement (covenant) that has been established. The blood marks them as His people and consecrates them as “a holy nation” and “a kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6). This is exactly the tradition which is being referenced here, and it is also the primarily meaning of the Last Supper symbolism—”this is my blood of the covenant th(at is) poured out over many“. Only here in Revelation, the “many” (polloi/) have been expanded and given a universal scope: “out of every tribe/race and tongue and people and nation”. According to the tradition of the (old) Covenant, Israel was purchased by God, from among all the other peoples/nations on earth, to be his own chosen people (Exod 15:16, etc). Now, the new people of God (believers in Jesus), have been similarly purchased, but as individuals taken from every conceivable ethnic and racial background. In order to preserve the etymology and concrete sense of the verb a)gora/zw, I have given it an excessively literal translation above. It signifies a person going to the market-place (a)gora/) and purchasing something. In this case, the “market-place” is the entire inhabited world—all peoples and nations, etc.

As mentioned above, verse 10 draws upon the ancient covenant tradition, and especially, the language in Exodus 19:6. The same wording and imagery is used in 1 Peter 1:5, 9—believers in Christ are the true people of God, fulfilling the very characteristics previously applied to Israel under the (old) Covenant. We are a “holy nation” and a “royal priesthood” (“kingdom of priests”). This is stated succinctly here in v. 10a, as it was earlier in 1:6. However, special attention must be given to the concluding statement in v. 10b:

“and they will rule as king(s) upon the earth”

First, one should note the variant readings involving the verb basileu/w (“rule/reign as king”). The textual evidence is divided between the present tense (basileu/ousin, “they rule as king[s]”), and the future tense (basileu/sousin, “they will rule as king[s]”)—the difference being a single letter (s). It is an important distinction, since it effects how one should interpret the nature and character of the believers’ reign. The present tense (supported by A 046 1006 1611 and other minuscules and versions), indicating that believers currently rule as kings on earth, would suggest a symbolic, or spiritual reign. By contrast, the future tense (read by a P 1 94 1854 2053 2344 and many other MSS and versions) most likely would be understood in an eschatological sense—in the Age to Come, believers will rule (with Christ). Moreover, the specific phrase “will rule upon the earth” would seem to indicate a concrete manifestation of the Kingdom of God (and Christ) on earth at the end of the current Age. For some commentators, this is readily identified with a (literal) Millennial Kingdom, in light of 20:1-6. Verse 6, in particular, is emphasized, though it should be noted that it applies specifically to those who were put to death for their faith in Jesus—following the resurrection, “they will be sacred officials [i.e. priests] of God and of the Anointed (One), and they will rule as king with him (for) a thousand years”. By contrast, 5:10 indicates that all believers will function as priests and kings. This will be discussed further when we come to 20:1-6; the question of the precise eschatological expectation, in terms of God’s Kingdom being established on earth, will also be addressed at several points as we continue through the book.

In the next daily note, we will look at the concluding song in verses 11-13.

September 23: Revelation 5:1-8

Revelation 5:1-14

Revelation 5:1 begins the second half of the vision in chapters 4-5. If chap. 4 was devoted to a vision of God (the Father) on His throne, chap. 5 is a vision of Jesus at the right hand of the Father—that is, sharing the ruling place with God. The parallelism between these two halves is unquestionable, and reflects a central theme of the book, theological and christological, which was already introduced in the opening words, and the first vision, in chapter 1. The key points in parallel are:

    • The central presence of the Throne, representing the seat of ruling-power in heaven. The Lamb has a place near and/or on the Throne.
    • Both God and Lamb are surrounded by the “seven Spirits” and have authority/control over them.
    • The Living Beings and Elders likewise surround both figures and give homage/praise to them, in a similar fashion.
    • The Song of praise that is sung to each uses similar language and form, beginning with the word a&cio$, usually translated “worthy”—i.e. “Worthy are you…”
Rev 5:1-4

The chapter begins with a narrowing of focus for the vision, closing in on the image of the throne:

“And I saw upon the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of the (One) sitting upon the ruling-seat, a paper-roll [i.e. scroll] having been written (on the) inside and on the back, (and) having been sealed down with seven seals.” (verse 1)

Here we have the central motif of the “right hand” of God. The adjective decio/$ literally means “giving”, referring to the right hand as the auspicious (or giving hand)—i.e. the hand or side from which blessing comes, where symbols of power and authority are focused, etc. A fundamental element in the early Christian view of Jesus, and the Gospel proclamation (kerygma), was that, following his death and resurrection, Jesus was exalted to a position at the “right hand” of God in heaven—cf. Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22. In terms of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God, this motif was largely drawn from Psalm 110:1, and its application goes back to Jesus’ own words (Mark 12:36; 14:62 pars). The viewpoint here of the right hand of the throne of God prepares the reader for the appearance of the exalted Jesus.

Another important detail in this verse is the seal or stamp (sfragi/$) on the scroll. Typically, a papyrus or parchment scroll (bi/blo$, here the diminutive bibli/on) would be tied up with a string, upon which a clay or wax (or lead) seal was applied, and then stamped down (vb. katasfragi/zw) with an engraved image (from a signet ring, etc) to indicate ownership. God, as the Ruler, is the one who has stamped down his signet onto the seal, indicating his ownership. No one could tamper with (i.e. break) this seal; only the owner (God himself) has the authority to open the scroll, or someone who possessed the same authority (from God). The divine character of this seal is further emphasized by the plural (“seals”) and use of the number seven. This is the point of the solemn declaration which follows in verse 2:

“And I saw a strong Messenger proclaiming in [i.e. with] a great voice, ‘Who is a&cio$ to open up the paper-roll and to loose(n) its seals?'”

This is the same adjective (a&cio$) applied to God in 4:11, and which will similarly be applied to the Lamb in verse 9. I have temporarily left it untranslated (cf. further in the next note), but will mention here the fundamental meaning of something which is brought into balance (i.e. being of equal/appropriate weight). The significance of this is brought out vividly in verse 3:

“And no one—(not) in heaven, and not upon the earth, and not down under the earth—was able [i.e. had power] to open up the paper-roll and to look at it.”

The implication, of course, is that no one in all of creation possessed the personal authority of (or from) God in order to be able, rightly, to break the seal. The verb du/namai literally means “be (en)powered, have power”, but is often better rendered in English as “be able (i.e. to do something)”. The emphasis is not on a test of strength or power as such, but on a person’s authority (i.e. ability) to do something. This scene becomes personalized when the visionary (seer) gives his own reaction:

“And I wept (very) much (at this), that no one was found a&cio$ to open up the paper-roll and (so) not to (be able to) look at it.” (v. 4)

The importance of looking (vb. ble/pw) at the contents of the scroll is emphasized repeatedly, though it is not immediately clear why this would be so. On the one hand, it can be regarded as a literary/narrative device, building suspense—the reader is waiting and eager to find out what is written on this scroll (v. 1). At the same time, the ability to look at its contents implies someone with the authority to open the scroll and read it, which, again, anticipates the appearance of the Lamb (Jesus), building narrative suspense. The person allowed to open a sealed scroll would be: (a) the owner of it (or his/her representative), or (b) the person to whom it was rightfully sent (and intended to be read). Both aspects of meaning are present here, though it is the former which is emphasized.

Rev 5:5-8

In these verses, we find a precise response to the scenario established in vv. 1-4—no one in all of creation is able to open the scroll. There is a chiastic structure to vv. 1-8 which I outline as follows :

Indeed, the answer comes in verse 5:

“And (then) one out of the Elder (Ones)s said to me: ‘Do not weep! (for) see, the lion th(at is) out of the offshoot [i.e. tribe] of Yehudah, the root of Dawid, (he is able) to open up the paper-roll and its seven seals!'”

On these “Elder Ones” (presbu/teroi), see the previous note on 4:4. His response is characteristic of heavenly beings (Angels) when they appear to chosen ones among God’s people (i.e., “Do not be afraid!”, etc). The declaration which follows is among the most overtly Messianic in the book of Revelation, expressed very much in traditional language, specifically related to the Davidic Ruler figure-type (cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). Two expressions are involved:

    • “the lion out of the tribe of Judah”—The lion commonly symbolizes power, but also a leading/regal position among all the other animals (i.e. ‘king of the beasts’); lion images were frequently used in the royal iconography of the ancient Near East. Here the expression is derived primarily from Genesis 49:9-10, part of Jacob’s testament (“last words”) to his sons (Judah, vv. 8-12). These verses were given a Messianic interpretation by the time of Jesus, as we see from the Qumran texts (4Q252 5:1-4), and other writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D. The ruling staff (tb#v@) in Gen 49:10, was blended together with that of Balaam’s oracle (Num 24:17), to form a dual Messianic reference, prophesying the coming of the (end-time) Davidic Ruler.
    • “the root of David”—This expression comes from Isaiah 11:1: “A stick/twig [rf#j)] will come forth from the stem [uz~G#] of Yishai {Jesse}, a green shoot [rx#n@] will bear (fruit) from his roots [vr#v, pl.]”. The Septuagint (LXX) translates both uz~G# (“stem”) and vr#v# (“root”) as r(i/za (“root”), which is used here in Revelation. Isaiah 11:1-4ff was one of the key passages interpreted as prophesying the coming of the Davidic Messiah. With its military allusions, which could only be realized for Christians at the return of Jesus, it is generally absent from the New Testament, except for 2 Thess 2:8 and (here) in the book of Revelation. David himself was more properly referenced by the “branch” [rx#n~ / rf#j)], which, under the influence of the similar expression “sprout/branch of David” (dw]d*[l=] j^mx#) in Jer 23:15; 33:5 (cf. also Zech 3:8; 6:12), gave rise to rich set of Messianic motifs—see the Qumran texts 4Q161 7-10 iii 22; 4Q174 1-3 i 11; 4Q252 5:3-4; 4Q285 5, and other writings of the period.

In verse 6, this Messianic description (of the exalted Jesus) gives way to the image/vision of a Lamb (a)rni/on):

“And, in the middle of the ruling-seat and the four Living (Being)s, and in the middle of the Elder (One)s, I saw a Lamb having stood as (one) having been slaughtered, holding seven horns and seven eyes, which are the the [seven] Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.”

The repeated use of e)n me/sw| (“in the middle [of]”) is a bit confusing, but I believe it is meant to emphasize two things: (1) the central position of the Lamb in the heavenly scene, and (2) his close proximity to the throne of God. There are four visual attributes or characteristics of this Lamb:

    1. It is standing (i.e. alive) even though it appears to have been slain. The paradox of this image may be conveyed by the sequence of perfect verb forms—”having stood”, “having been slaughtered”. This aptly reflects the dual-aspect of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the importance of both to his exaltated position/status as Messiah and Son of God.
    2. It has been slaughtered (vb. sfa/zw). This refers to ritual slaughter, i.e. a sacrificial offering. There are several possibilities:
      (i) The Passover lamb (Exod 12:6, etc), the blood of which symbolized God’s protection/deliverance for the faithful ones among His people.
      (ii) A sacrifice for sin/guilt (Lev 14:12-13), though lambs were more commonly used in the daily offering, etc, and not regularly connected with atonement for sin/guilt.
      (iii) The sacrificial offering at the establishment of the Covenant between God and His people—according to Exod 24:5-8, this was a sacrifice of “good will”, utilizing an ox/bull for the partial burnt offering.
      Jesus’ death is associated with all three of these, at various points in the New Testament. Probably the connection with the Passover is most clearly in view, as also in 1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19, and, presumably, John 1:29, 36 (cf. the details in 13:1, etc, 19:14, 29[?], 31). There may also be a allusion here to Isaiah 53:7-8 (Acts 8:32-33).
    3. It has seven horns. The horn of a powerful animal, like the lion itself (cf. above), was a common ancient symbol of the strength and authority to rule; as such, it was natural as a Messianic motif—i.e. Luke 1:69 (cf. Ps 132:17; 92:10; 148:14; Ezek 29:1; 1 Sam 2:1, etc). The number seven here indicates divine power and authority, that the Lamb shares rule with God the Father (on/at His throne).
    4. It has seven eyes. These are identified specifically with the heavenly beings or Messengers (“Spirits”) which surround God’s throne and which “are sent forth into all the earth”. This imagery seems to be drawn from Zech 4:2ff, in which the “lamps” (Angels/Spirits) are described as “the eyes of the Lord” which travel back and forth in all the earth (v. 10). Here they are the eyes of the Lamb, indicating again the close relationship between the Lamb (the exalted Jesus) and God the Father.

Verse 7 narrates simply how the Lamb approaches the throne (at God’s right hand) and takes the scroll from God (“the One sitting on the ruling seat”). This action triggers an explosion of praise from the heavenly beings around the throne (vv. 8ff), similar to that which they offered to God in 4:8-11 (on this, cf. the previous note). It is an elaborate and dramatic scene, as the Living Beings and Elders again fall down to give homage—this time to the Lamb. They hold musical instruments (the kithara, a six- or seven-stringed harp) and golden dishes containing fragrant smoke (incense), identified as the “prayers” of the holy ones. These represent different aspects of worship—music and ritual offerings, only in the latter case the offerings, in a Christian context, have been defined in terms of prayer (largely eliminating the sacrificial/ritual dimension).

The Song sung by the heavenly beings will be discussed in the next daily note.

January 14: John 1:29

The Gospel of John differs markedly from the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew-Mark-Luke), and nowhere more so than in describing the Baptism of Jesus (commemorated on the octave of Epiphany, January 13). While clearly drawing from common traditions, the Fourth Gospel offers no narrative description of the baptism such as is found three-fold in Mark 1:9-11, Matthew 3:13-17, and Luke 3:21-22. Instead, we find testimony given by John the Baptist (John 1:29-34), involving three revelatory statements (one might treat these as pieces of early Christian kerygma) which serve to demarcate this brief narrative:

    1. John 1:29—”See! the Lamb of God…”
    2. John 1:30-31—”This is he over whom I said…”
    3. John 1:32-34—”I beheld the Spirit…”

I will be discussing each of these over three successive notes.

John 1:29

It is important first to consider the place of this episode in the structure of the Gospel (chapter 1). I would outline this as follows:

  • The Prologue (Jn 1:1-18)—this famous and remarkable section may reflect an earlier Jewish-Christian hymn which has been adapted by the Gospel writer. Notably, two (parenthetical) references to John the Baptist have been inserted:
    (1) Introducing John, with a statement that he was not the true Light, but only bore witness to it (1:6-8)
    (2) A statement summarizing John’s witness (1:15, nearly identical with v. 30).
  • The testimony of John the Baptist (Jn 1:19-28)—”I am not the Christ… (nor) the Prophet…”
    • The theological witness of John the Baptist (Jn 1:29-34)—”See, the Lamb of God…”
    • The evangelistic witness John the Baptist (Jn 1:35-39)—”See, the Lamb of God…”
  • The testimony of the first followers (Jn 1:41-51)—”We have found the Messiah… of whom Moses.. and the prophets wrote…”

In John 1:19-28 is narrated not only the Baptist’s testimony (in answer to questions by priests and Levites from Jerusalem), but a description of his baptizing (lit. dipping/dunking) and the reason for it. This sets the stage for verse 29:

“Upon the morrow he sees Yeshua coming toward him and says/relates: ‘See—the lamb of God, the (one) taking up the sins of the world!'”

The interpretation of this verse involves determining the meaning and context for two expressions:

    • “the lamb of God” (o( a)mno\$ tou= qeou=)
    • ” the (one) taking up the sins of the world” (o( ai&rwn th\n a(marti/an tou= ko/smou)

The first expression “Lamb of God” is so familiar as a Christian title for Jesus, it may be surprising to learn that it occurs nowhere else in the New Testament outside of the parallel references in John 1:29, 36. Elsewhere, the idea of Jesus as a lamb only appears in 1 Peter 1:10 and in the book of Revelation (29 times), although there the word a)rni/on (diminutive of a)rh/n) is used. a)mno/$ occurs only twice in the New Testament outside of John 1:29, 36 (in Acts 8:32 [quoting Isa 53:7], and 1 Peter 1:19). There are three primary images associated with the Lamb (a)mno/$) relevant to the context here:

1. The Lamb as a symbol of innocence and meekness (in the face of suffering). This actually reflects two themes: (a) the gentleness/innocence of the lamb, often contrasted with the wolf (Isa 11:6; 65:25); and (b) the helplessness of the lamb (Isa 40:11; Luke 10:3, etc), especially as one led for slaughter (Isa 53:7; Jer 51:40). The use of a)mno/$ in Isa 53:7, would especially come to mind for early Christians, for it was a passage applied to the suffering and death of Christ from the earliest time—it is read/quoted in Acts 8:32, and note the silence of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and Pilate in the Passion accounts (Mark 14:61; 15:5, and par.).

2. The Sacrificial (Passover) Lamb. a)rni/on (or a)rh/n) is used in the LXX for the burnt offering (Lev 1:10) and for the Passover lamb in Ex 12:5; whereas a)mno/$ is used for the daily offering (Ex 29:38-39) and for ‘guilt’/purification offerings in (Lev 14:10; Num 6:12). So, a)mno/$ here would better fit the idea of sacrifice for ‘sin’ or sacrifice in general. However, the Gospel of John makes frequent use of Passover motifs and symbols, including an explicit identification of Jesus with the Passover lamb in Jn 19:14, 31-36. The Passover Lamb also seems to be in mind with the use of a)mno/$ in 1 Pet 1:19.

3. The Conquering Lamb (of Judgment). This is an important theme in the book of Revelation (from the same author and/or community as the Gospel): Jesus is not only the “lamb that was slain” (Rev 5:12; 13:8, “blood of the lamb” in 7:14; 12:11), but also is exalted/worshiped as the Lamb in Heaven (Rev 5:6-12; 7:9-10, 17; 14:1ff, etc.); included within this motif is the Lamb as a conquering figure in the eschatological Judgment (6:1, 16; 17:14, etc). The book of Revelation uses a)rni/on instead of a)mno/$, but, as seen above, these words are relatively interchangeable. Now the theme of (eschatological) Judgment was central in John the Baptist’s preaching, much more than Christians today may wish to admit (cf. Matt 3:7-12; Luke 3:7-9, 17; and the central citation of Isa 40:3/Mal 3:1 in Mark 1:2-3 par.). It is certainly possible that he (perhaps moreso than the Gospel writer) has this association in mind—as a possible parallel, cf. the Testament of Joseph 19:8 (which may however be a Christian interpolation).

In my view the second image above (that of the Sacrificial Lamb) is most directly applicable in Jn 1:29. However what of the other expression “the (one) taking up the sins of the world”?

“The sins of the world” (th\n a(marti/an tou= ko/smou) is fairly straightforward, as it reflects closely the idea that Jesus acts on the behalf of the sins of (many) people (cf. Matt 1:21; 13:41; 26:28; Mark 2:10; 3:28; Lk 11:4; 24:47; Jn 8:24; 15:22, 24; 16:8-9; 20:23, etc. and all pars.). In the Gospel of John there also is a frequent association of “the world” (o( ko/smo$) with darkness, evil, and sin (Jn 1:10; 3:17-19; 7:7; 8:23; 9:39; 12:31; 14:17, 19, 30; 15:18-19; 16:8, 11, 20, et al.), which may be responsible for the unique expression as it stands here. The more difficult point of interpretation is in the use of the verb ai&rw, which has the primary meaning “take up”—here o( ai&rwn (“the [one] taking up…”). This can be understood in one of three ways:

  • “taking up” as in lifting, bearing, carrying—the emphasis would be that the Lamb takes up or carries the (burden of) the world’s sins. Language involving “lifting” or “raising” occurs often in the Gospel of John, including use of the verb ai&rw; see for example in context of the Good Shepherd parable(s), Jn 10:18, 24. This motif would better apply to the Day of Atonement than Passover, but it could be understood from the standpoint of vicarious sacrifice in general. Jesus is “lifted up” on the cross as the slain Passover lamb in Jn 19:14, 31-36 (cf. also Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34).
  • “taking up” in the sense of taking away—i.e., forgiveness. This is no doubt the most common understanding of the expression here; however, “forgiveness of sin” as such is normally expressed with the verb a)fi/hmi (“send [away] from” or “let [go] from”) or the noun a&fesi$ (“release”)—cf. Mark 1:4; 2:9; 3:28; 6:12, 14-15; Matt 9:2, 5-6; 12:31-32; 26:28; Lk 24:47; John 20:23; Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43, etc.
  • “taking up” as taking away, but in the sense of removing or destroying sins—i.e. esp. in the (eschatological) Judgment. For something of this idea, see Matthew 13:41, which is reasonably close to the scene of Judgment in John’s preaching (Matt 3:12; Lk 3:9, 17); that the Baptist himself understood this in terms of an (imminent) eschatological Judgment seems clear enough from Lk 3:7. See also in this regard the ethical saying of Jesus to “cut off” the cause of sin (Mk 9:42-47 par., again in the context of the Judgment). In other words, the Johannine image of Jesus as savior of the world (John 3:16-17; 4:42; 6:33; 12:47, etc) involves not just forgiveness, but destruction of sin. This is the two-fold aspect of (the coming) Judgment (and wrath of God): salvation and destruction—see Jn 3:17, 19; 7:7; 9:39; 12:46-47; 16:8-11.

Perhaps the soundest guide to interpretation of the expressions in Jn 1:29 come from the closest parallel, namely 1 John 3:5:

“and know that this one [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. appear] so that he might take up/away [a&rh|] sins; and in him there is no sin”

for which there is a parallel, explanatory statement in 1 John 3:8b:

“and unto this the Son of God was made to shine forth [i.e. appear] so that he might loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] the works of the Accuser [i.e. Devil]”

In other words, “taking away sins” is connected with “dissolving the works of the Devil”. In 1 Jn 3:5 we also have mention of Jesus’ sinlessness, which can be understood as a parallel to the (Passover) Lamb without spot or blemish (cf. 1 Peter 1:19 [a)mno/$]).

For several references and observations in these posts on John 1:29-34, I am indebted to the discussion in R. E. Brown’s classic Commentary (John 1-12, Anchor Bible vol. 29, 1966, pp. 58-67).

For more on the Baptism of Jesus, see the recently posted daily notes for Jan 6 and Jan 13.

One critical theory is that a)mno/$ (“lamb”) in John 1:29 reflects an ambiguity in, or misunderstanding of, an original Aramaic word (ay`l=f^ ‰alyâ, Heb. hl#f*) which can mean both “lamb” or “child, youth, servant”. Now pai=$ also can carry the sense of “servant”; so the argument goes that the original expression would have been something like ah*l*ad@ ay`l=f^, i.e., “Servant of God”, which ought to have been rendered in Greek as o( pai=$ qeou=, was instead (mistakenly) translated o( a)mno/$ qeou=. It is an intriguing argument (for a more detailed summary cf. J. Jeremias, TDNT I:338-340), but apart from all other objections, the process by which original sayings of Jesus and John the Baptist, etc., presumably given in Aramaic, were turned into traditional oral and written (Greek) sources for our Gospels is still quite uncertain (and have been hotly debated by scholars). Even if John originally used the word ay`l=f^, the idea that it was then ‘mistranslated’ into Greek is highly speculative.