In Revelation 5 Jesus receives from God a book that is sealed with seven seals. What book is this? When did He receive it? Why is only Jesus able to open the book? Why did He not immediately open the book?
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from the NASB translation of the book of Revelation. Italics are used for quotes; not for emphasis.
Summary of this article
The seven seals – in Revelation 4 to 7 – is the second of the seven main divisions of the book of Revelation.
In Revelation 4 John is called up to heaven, where he saw God’s throne. The throne is a symbol of God’s authority to rule. God is described in rather vague terms because “no man has seen or can see” God (1 Tim. 6:16).
Around God’s throne 24 elders sit on 24 thrones. They are interpreted in this article as human beings. Their task is to judge.
Seven lamps, “which are the seven Spirits of God,” burn before the throne (4:5). The number seven symbolizes time; more specifically all time; from the beginning to the end. The seven Spirits mean that, through His Spirit, God is always with us.
Revelation 4 shows the joyous worship of the four living beings and the 24 elders.
While Revelation 4 presents a continuous state, Revelation 5 presents a special event in which “every created thing” (5:13) is gathered around God’s throne to watch the Lamb take the sealed book. A sealed book symbolizes concealed information. This caused much sorrow in heaven. But then Jesus arrives at the Father’s throne and it is announced that He “overcome so as to open the book” (5:5), causing much joy.
This event, when Jesus received the sealed book, was when He was exalted or glorified at His father’s right hand at His ascension, about 40 days after the Cross. This is indicated by the following:
- The New Testament often mentions that Jesus, at His ascension, was exalted at the Father’s right hand, and in Revelation 5 He took the sealed book from God’s right hand.
- Jesus appears as a slain Lamb.
- Jesus appeared “in the midst of the throne” (5:6 KJV).
- He became worthy to open the book because He overcame. “Overcame” is what He did during His life on earth. According to 3:21 He sat down with His Father on His Father’s throne after He overcame.
- In Revelation 4 the Holy Spirit is seen before the throne. But when Jesus appears in Revelation 5, His Holy Spirit has been “sent out into all the earth” (5:6), apparently a reference to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.
In the dispensational approach Revelation 4:1 is the rapture, which would mean that Revelation 5 refers to an event after the rapture. According to the arguments above, this view is not correct.
Jesus did not open the scroll immediately.
The Cross gave Christ the authority to open the book, and He received the book immediately after His ascension, but He did not open the book immediately. The Cross did not open the book. Revelation 6 describes what happens when the Lamb breaks open the seals. This relates to the question why God has not yet made an end of sin.
The Book of Life
The sealed book is the book of life. This book indicates who will live and who will die. This conclusion is supported by the following:
1. Revelation 5:9 indicates that Jesus purchased for God with His blood men from every nation and consequently became worthy to open the sealed book. The sealed book is therefore about redemption.
2. The book of life is called “the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (13:8) and “the Lamb’s book of life” (21:27), linking it directly to Revelation 5, where a slain Lamb receives a book (5:6, 9).
3. The sixth seal will be opened at “the great day of their wrath” (6:17; 8:1), which is the return of Christ, which means that one seal remains to be opened even after the return of Christ. The book of life will similarly only be opened in the final great judgment (20:12)—one thousand years after the return of Christ (20:7). Both books are therefore opened after the return of Christ.
Series of articles
This is the first article in a series on the seven seals. These articles, which will also explain the relationship of the seals to other parts of Revelation, are:
- Introduction (this article), which identifies the book and defines the historical starting point of the seals;
- The sixth seal, identified as the same as the seventh plague and as the great day of God’s wrath at the return of Christ;
- The fifth seal identifies the plagues as the revenge requested by the souls under the altar.
- The sealing of the 144000; who are they, when are they sealed and for what purpose?
- The first four seals, identified as the experience of God’s people;
- Why questions; asking why was the book sealed? Why was Jesus not “worthy” before the cross to open the book? Why is the book only opened 1000 years after Christ’s return?
Main Divisions of Revelation
The main divisions of Revelation are:
- The seven letters in chapters 1 to 3;
- The seven seals in chapters 4 to 7 including 8:1;
- The seven trumpets in chapters 8 to 11;
- The seven wars in chapters 12 to 14;
- The seven plagues in chapters 15 to 19 (*);
- The millennium in chapter 20;
- The new heaven and new earth in the last two chapters;
(*) Babylon receives God’s fierce wrath in the seventh trumpet at the end of Revelation 16 (16:17-19). Revelation 17, 18 and 19:1-10 are an interlude that explains the origin, nature and end of Babylon. The return of Christ is described in the latter half of Revelation 19 (19:11-20:3), and therefore chronologically follows immediately after the plagues of Revelation 16. Stated differently, the plagues conclude with the return of Christ. For more information about the relationship of the plagues to the return of Christ, see Return of Christ in the book of Revelation.
The first three chapters of Revelation focus on the church on earth, but in 4:1 John saw “a door standing open in heaven”, and hears the invitation:
“Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.“
This shifts the focus away from earth to heaven and away from John’s time to a different time. In heaven John saw God’s throne. A throne is a symbol of authority. God’s throne symbolizes His authority to rule the universe. God’s throne is mentioned many times in Revelation—in 16 of the 22 chapters. In Revelation 4 everything is described relative to the throne:
24 elders sit on 24 thrones around the throne (4:4).
Out from the throne come lightning, sounds and thunder (4:5).
Before the throne there was something like a sea of glass (4:6).
In the center and around the throne are four living creatures (4:6).
In Revelation the throne often signifies God. For instance, “a loud voice … from the throne” (16:17) means that God speaks, and to stand “before the throne” (7:9) means to stand before God.
Jesus is described in much detail in Revelation 1:13-18, but God is described rather vaguely in Revelation 4:3. God has created everything that can be seen and cannot be described in terms of things that can be seen. God does not exist somewhere in the universe. The universe exists somewhere within God:
“who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1Ti 6:16).
John also saw 24 elders sitting on 24 thrones around the throne, clothed in white and with golden crowns on their heads (4:4). Some believe these elders are a special class of angels, but for the following reasons it is proposed here that they are humans:
- The title “elder” is never used in the Bible for angels—only for humans.
- The Bible never says that angels will sit on God’s throne, but does say that humans will (3:21).
- The elders have stephanos-crowns on their heads, which is used in Revelation as the crown of the overcomer—which is the crown of life (9:7; 2:10; 3:11; 12:1; 4:4; 6:2; 12:1; 14:14).
- The number 24 is derived from the number 12, which is the number of God’s people. The New Jerusalem has 12 gates with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel written on them (21:12). It also has 12 foundations with the names of the 12 apostles written on them (21:14). The number of the sealed is 144000 (7:4), which is equal to 12 x 12 x 1000.
For these reasons the 24 elders probably are human beings. They might be the beings to whom the responsibility for judgment is given in Daniel 7:9, 10, 26 and in Revelation 20:4.
The number seven
Seven lamps—“which are the seven Spirits of God”—burn before the throne (4:5). God does not literally have seven Spirits. The number seven must be interpreted symbolically. It originates from the seven days of the week, is mentioned may (56) times in Revelation, and is interpreted as a symbol for ‘the full period’. Many of the sevens in Revelation are different from the other numbers in Revelation in the sense that the seven stands in chronological sequence to each other—the second follows after the first—the third after the second, and so forth, with the seventh as the last or end. The same cannot be said of the other important numbers in Revelation, such as 4, 10 and 12. The number seven therefore has to do with time, and should be understood as completion or perfection of time—the full period. The seven Spirits of God therefore perhaps symbolize that He is present from the beginning to the end.
Before the throne is a sea of glass (4:6). In the center and around the throne are four living creatures; full of eyes in front and behind (4:6-7). They ceaselessly say (4:8):
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, Who was and Who is and Who is to come.
One may think that continual worship is boring, but to be in the presence of God is an extremely emotional experience, because God is the most emotional Being in the universe. To be in His presence is the highest joy possible.
When the living creatures give glory to Him who lives forever and ever (4:9), the 24 elders fall down and worship Him, saying (4:10-11):
Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.
Specific Event – While Revelation 4 presents a continuous state, Revelation 5 presents a special event in which “every created thing” (5:13) is gathered around God’s throne to watch the Lamb take the sealed book.
Sealed book – John saw, in the right hand of God, a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals (5:1). This is not a real literal book. A book is a symbol of knowledge and a sealed book is a symbol of concealed information—something that is not understood. Daniel was similarly told “seal up the book until the end of time” (Daniel 12:4) and “these words are concealed and sealed up until the end time” (v9).
Sorrow in heaven – At first nobody is “worthy” to open the book (5:2-3), and John began to weep greatly because no one was found worthy to open the book (5:4). John’s tears symbolize the sorrow of the entire universe. We see the universal nature of the sorrow when Jesus arrives at God’s throne and, by taking the book, converts the sorrow to joy throughout the universe (5:8-14). The sorrow therefore represents the time before the Cross, when no one was able to open the book.
Worthy – John saw a “Lamb … as if slain” (5:6), and heard “one of the elders” say that Jesus “overcome so as to open the book” (5:5). Then John saw millions and millions of angels around the throne (5:11), saying with a loud voice (5:12):
Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.
Then John heard every created being say (5:13):
To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.
At His Ascension
Revelation 5 depicts a special and critically important heavenly meeting, as indicated by the millions and millions of angels looking on (5:11) and by the interest of “every created thing” (5:12). They are gathered to see Jesus receive the sealed book from God. For the reasons provided below, this was when Jesus was exalted at His Father’s right hand at His ascension (12:5), about 40 days after the Cross:
FIRST: He appears as a slain Lamb, which implies that the event described by Revelation 5 followed immediately after He was slain.
Jesus is described as a “Lamb, as if slain” (5:6) and the beings in heaven said to Him, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain” (5:8-9).
SECOND: He earned the right to open the book because He overcame, and therefore logically received the book immediately after He overcame.
In Revelation 5 Jesus is declared worthy to receive and open the book because He overcame (5:5):
Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals.
The “the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” is Jesus. He overcame on earth, as a human being (3:21). Since He overcame during His earthly life, He logically received the book immediately after the end if His earthly life.
THIRD: He appears on God’s throne; on God’s right hand, which the New Testament indicates happened at His ascension.
The New Testament frequently mentions that Jesus was glorified at the Father’s right hand at His ascension to heaven, for instance:
“when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority“ (Eph. 1:20-22; cf. Acts 2:32-36; Rom. 8:34; Hebr. 8:1; Acts 5:30-31; Phil 2:6-11; Col 3:1; Hebr. 1:3; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:21-22; Rev. 3:21).
In Revelation 5 we see Jesus at the Father’s “right hand”:
The NASB reads that the book is in the Father’s right hand (5:1), but this can also be translated as “on” (epi Strong G1909) God’s right hand. The point is that, to receive the book, Jesus had to take up His position at the right hand of God.
In Revelation 5 we also see Him sitting on the Father’s throne:
Jesus appears “in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts” (5:6 KJV). The four living beings are “in the center and around the throne” (4:6). Jesus therefore appears at the center of the throne.
In Revelation 5 Jesus is furthermore glorified. He is—along with God—praised by “every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them” (5:13).
Revelation 5 is therefore very similar to the statements elsewhere in the New Testament, that Jesus was glorified and seated at the Father’s right hand when He ascended to heaven.
FOURTH: His appearance on God’s throne sent out the Spirit of God into all the earth as His eyes (5:6), which the New Testament indicates happened at His ascension.
The New Testament links Jesus’s glorification at the Father’s right hand to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, about ten days after His ascension:
“for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39).
“Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear” (Acts 2:33).
In Revelation 4 “the seven Spirits of God” are “seven lamps of fire burning before the throne” (4:5). But in Revelation 5, when the Lamb appears on the throne, “the seven Spirits of God” are said to have been “sent out into all the earth” (5:6), apparently a reference to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. This links the outpouring of the Spirit to the event described by Revelation 5.
In summary, for the following reasons the event described in Revelation 5 is Christ’s enthronement at His ascension to heaven:
- He appears as a slain Lamb, which implies that the event described by Revelation 5 followed immediately after He was slain.
- He earned the right to open the book because He overcame, and therefore logically received the book immediately after He overcame.
- He appears on God’s throne; on God’s right hand, which the New Testament indicates happened at His ascension.
- His appearance on God’s throne sent out the Spirit of God into all the earth as His eyes (5:6), which the New Testament indicates happened at His ascension.
Rapture – In the dispensational approach 4:1 is the rapture, and Revelation 5 therefore refers to an event after the rapture. This seems to do an injustice to the text, and cannot be supported by Revelation 5. The following are some further reasons for not agreeing with the view that 4:1 is the rapture:
- The interpretation of 4:1, where John is called “Come up here”, as the rapture of the Church, rests on very slender evidence. It is much more likely that 11:12, where the two witnesses are also called “Come up here“, represents the rapture of the church.
- The purpose of John’s ascension to heaven in 4:1 is not to rescue the church from tribulation, but, as explicitly stated, to show John “what must take place after these things” (4:1).
- In 10:1 John sees an angel coming down from heaven. He therefore is again or still on earth. John represents the church when he receives the little book (Revelation 10). The church is therefore still on earth in Revelation 10.
Judgment at Christ’s return – Many understand Revelation 5 as the judgment prior to Christ’s return to the earth, as in Daniel 7, but:
- No books are opened in Revelation 5, as in Daniel 7:16. Jesus is praised for taking the book, but He does not open it in Revelation 5. The books are only opened in 20:12.
- We find no typical judgment language (judge, avenge) in Revelation 5. Such language we only find in the second half of Revelation (except for the fifth seal—but this is only a request for judgment).
- If Revelation 5 was the judgment before Christ’s return, then Revelation 6 would have been His return, but, as discussed below, the first five seals represent the history of the Church.
Still sealed – The Cross gave Christ the authority to open the book, and He received the book immediately after His ascension, but He did not open the book immediately. The Cross did not open the book. Revelation 6 describes what happens when the Lamb breaks open the seals.
The Book of Life
Many books will be opened in the last judgment, one thousand years after the return of Christ (19:11-20:12). The book of life is one of these books (20:12). It contains the names of the saved (Ps. 69:28; Ph. 4:3; Rev 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:15; 21:27). It indicates who will live and who will die (21:2, 27; 20:14-15):
and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it (the holy city, new Jerusalem), but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.
A fundamental concept, which will greatly influence the interpretation of the seals, is that the sealed book, which Jesus receives in Revelation 5, is the book of life. This statement is justified as follows:
Both the sealed book and the book of life are about redemption. God’s Lamb was slain, with two consequences. The first is that He purchased for God with His blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (5:9). The second and subsequent consequence is that He is considered worthy to open the sealed book (5:9). This context indicates that the sealed book is about redemption, and therefore could easily be the book of life, which contains the names of God’s redeemed people (20:15).
The book of life is called “the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (13:8) and “the Lamb’s book of life” (21:27), linking it directly to Revelation 5, where a slain Lamb receives a book (5:6, 9).
The book’s sixth seal will only be opened at “the great day of their wrath” (6:17), which is the return of Christ, which means that even then one seal remains to be opened. The book of life will also only be opened in the final great judgment (20:12)—one thousand years after the return of Christ, which is described in Revelation 19:11 and following. Both books are therefore opened after the return of Christ.
In Revelation 5 we read about sadness in heaven due to a sealed book, which nobody is able to open. A sealed book symbolizes concealed information. It was concluded above that the sealed book is the book of life. The concealed information is therefore the names of the people that will receive eternal life (20:14-15). The questions remain, why was this information concealed, and why did the fact that it was sealed cause so much sorrow?
After the sorrow was mentioned, Christ appears on the Father’s throne in the form of a slain Lamb (5:6), and we are told that He “has overcome” (5:5). It was concluded above that the heavenly meeting in Revelation 5 describes what happened when He ascended to heaven, 40 days after the Cross. As Jesus said “I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (3:21). He was slain when He died on the Cross. The sorrow therefore refers to the time prior to the Cross. He overcame Satan’s temptation by being faithful to God, even to death. In this way he purchased men from all nations for God (5:9). These things are not new to us, but we would like to ask: How did His faithfulness purchase men for God? Why was it necessary for Him to die?
What Revelation 5 further adds is that, because Jesus overcame, and because He was slain and purchased men for God with His blood, He became worthy to open the sealed book (5:5, 9). We might have expected Him to open the book immediately, but He does not open the book in Revelation 5. The seven seals are things that prevent the book from being read, and they are only broken in Revelation 6. This is a bit strange, for it means that, although He bought people for God with His blood, something else must still happen before it will be known who those people are. We may also ask what things prevent the book from being read, and why was He not worthy to open the book before He was slain? The seven seals are broken by the happenings described in Revelation 6. Only after those things happened will we know the names of the saved. We will next investigate Revelation 6 with these questions in mind.