RPC Hanson – A lecture on the Arian Controversy

A lecture delivered at the Colloquium in commemoration of the’ Nicene Creed at New College, University of Edinburgh, 2nd May 1981.

Dr. Hart, lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen, wrote that nothing exists in the English language, treating the so-called “Arian Controversy” which dominated the fourth-century theological agenda, that is comparable to RPC Hanson’s book – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – in either scale or erudition (See Hart).

This article is a lecture by RPC Hanson which I found at Doctrine of Trinity. I post it here in order to preserve it for public use. I corrected spelling errors, added headings, bolded main thoughts and divided the text into more readable paragraphs, but I did not alter the text in any way. Let us listen to Hanson:

Purpose of this paper

WHEN we read the Creed of Constantinople of the year 381, which is generally called the Nicene Creed, we gain the unmistakable impression that we have travelled a long way from the opening verses of St. Mark’s Gospel. This paper will consist of an attempt to answer the question, Was this journey really necessary?

A number of negatives have been given to this question:

It has been asserted that the doctrine of this creed was reached because the spirit of useless intellectual curiosity and of metaphysical speculation had gripped the theologians of the Church, so that the creed became only a stage towards ‘the bankruptcy of Patristic theology’ which was to be reached by the middle of the next century.

It has been suggested, perhaps as a variant of the same argument, that this creed represents the capture of the original Judaeo-Christian message or gospel of primitive Christianity by a process of Hellenisation, a gradual approximation to late Greek, mainly Platonic, philosophy.

The theory has even been put forward with a wholly misplaced confidence that the doctrine of the Trinity was produced in order to guarantee a celestial order and security corresponding to and supporting the order and security represented by the Christian Emperor himself.

These are all explanations of the doctrinal journey which in one way or another see it as a superfluity or a deviation.

The Conventional Account

This doctrine and the creed which represents the official and dogmatic justification for the doctrine were achieved, as is well known, as the result of a controversy known conventionally but not quite accurately as the Arian Controversy. The version of events connected with this controversy, which lasted from 318 to 381, to be found till very recently in virtually all the text-books runs something like this:

In the year 318 a presbyter called Arius was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ, to the effect that Christ was a created and inferior god.

When the controversy spread because Arius was supported by wicked and designing bishops such as Eusebius of Nicomedia and his namesake of Caesarea, the Emperor Constantine called a general Council at Nicaea which drew up a creed intended to suppress Arianism and finish the controversy.

But owing to the crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians, this pious design was frustrated.

Supporters of the orthodox point of view such as Athanasius of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch and later Paul of Constantinople, were deposed from their sees on trumped-up charges and sent into exile. Orthodoxy was everywhere attacked and, as later in the controversy succeeding Emperors joined the heretical side, almost completely eclipsed.

But Athanasius resolutely and courageously sustained the battle for orthodoxy, almost alone, until in the later stages of the controversy he was joined by other standard-bearers of orthodoxy such as Hilary of Poitiers, Pope Damasus, and the three Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa.

Ultimately by the aid of the Emperor Theodosius right prevailed, the forces of error and wickedness represented by the Arians were defeated and crushed, and the formulation at Constantinople in 381 of the revised Nicene Creed crowned the triumph of the true faith.

A Complete Travesty

This conventional account of the Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is now recognised by a large number of scholars to be a complete travesty. To see this it is only necessary to read that weighty and magisterial recent work upon the subject, Ia Crisi Ariana del Qarto Secolo by M. Siinonetti, a Roman Catholic scholar whose integrity is as unexceptionable as his orthodoxy.

The Beginning of the Controversy

At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?’, certainly not in the form which was later to be enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople.

It is a priori implausible to suggest that a controversy raged for no less than sixty years in the Church, so that every single one of the original contestants was dead by the time the controversy was settled, over a doctrine whose orthodox form was perfectly well known to everybody concerned and had been well known for centuries past.

Arius’ particular doctrines, as far as we can reconstruct them, seem to have been almost uniquely calculated to arouse both agreement and dissension without giving any serious prospect of providing ground for a solution of the dispute. That is his main claim to fame.

The Creed of 325

The Creed of Nicaea of 325, produced in order to end the controversy, signally failed to do so. Indeed, it ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sibellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period.

Two Points of View

What is conventionally regarded as the key-word in the Creed homoousion, falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after the Council of Nicaea and is not heard of for over twenty years.

To regard the bishops and theologians taking part in the controversy as falling simply into two groups, ‘orthodox’ and’ Arian’, immediately after the Council of Nicaea of 325, and to interpret the course of that Controversy as a straightforward struggle between these two points view, with sub-groups forming themselves from time to time within the two clearly-defined camps, is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs.

Mistakes and Serious Faults

The dispute was indeed aggravated and clouded by a number of extraneous factors and a number of dangerous mistakes and serious faults committed by those who were parties to it. But these mistakes and faults were not confined to the upholders of any one particular doctrine, and cannot all be grouped under the heading of a wicked Arian conspiracy.

The most serious initial fault was the misbehavior of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria. Evidence which has turned up in the sands of Egypt in the form of letters written on papyrus has now made it impossible to doubt that Athanasius displayed a violence and unscrupulousness towards his opponents in Egypt which justly earned the disgust and dislike of the majority of Eastern bishops for at least the first twenty years of his long episcopate.

It is of course true that Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had supported Arius, displayed ambition and craft in forwarding the interests of his own party and in his relations with Western bishops, but the depositions of his opponents cannot all be attributed to an Arian plot.

It seems highly likely that Eustathius of Antioch was guilty of some misconduct, because it is only long after his deposition, and perhaps after his death, that he begins to rank as a martyr in the cause of orthodoxy. The Westerners at Sardica in 343 significantly fail to mention him in their roll-call of the innocent injured.

Paul of Byzantium/Constantinople appears to have become embroiled in a domestic quarrel unconnected with the Arian Controversy and, like Eustathius, to have been the subject of pro-Nicene hagiography only at a comparatively late date.

Julius of Rome I was in Eastern eyes irresponsible to the point of mischievousness in championing the deposed Eastern bishops, Athanasius, Marcellus and Asclepas, in assuming that they must have been the victims of injustice and in branding as’ Arian all those who disagreed with them; and we can sympathize with the Easterners’ resentment here.

The views of Marcellus of Ancyra were eccentric by any standards of orthodoxy recognized in the fourth century. Marcellus in some respects displayed a discernment in interpreting Scripture which others lacked, but he cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism. The fact that he could sign the baptismal creed of Rome was no proof at all of his orthodoxy, because it constituted no sort of test of Trinitarian doctrine.

That Julius and later the Westerners at Sardica should have declared him orthodox was bound to appear to the Eastern theologians to be a condoning of Sabellianism, a doctrine which the anathema of Nicaea against those who maintain that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia from those of the Father and the emphatic identification of the ousia and hypostasis of the Father and the Son in the Western statement after the Council of Sardica only seemed to support.

The repeated confusion caused by the use of the same terms by different writers in different senses, right up to the very end, well after the Council of Alexandria of 362 which on the conventional view is supposed to have cleared up the confusion, added its own exasperation to the whole dispute.

East versus West

Up to the year 357 the East could label the West as Sabellian and the West could label the East as Arian with equal lack of discrimination and accuracy. In the year 357, Arianism as a relatively clearly thought out doctrinal position emerged for the first time, and for the first time those Eastern theologians who were not Arian were in a position to distinguish their own views and confess them. This is the point at which the solution to the controversy begins very faintly to dawn, though its full realisation was delayed for twenty-four years.

End of the Controversy

The end was at last gained when an Emperor had secured a genuine consensus for one point of view and was able to enforce it.

Throughout the controversy everybody with rare and occasional exceptions assumed that the final authority in bringing about a decision in matters doctrinal was not a council nor the Pope, but the Emperor. Several Emperors had attempted to fulfil this role, Constantine, Constans, Constantius, and Valens when in intervals of fussing ineffectively about administrative affairs he began fussing about ecclesiastical matters. All had failed because though the measures which they took might for a time appear to have been successful they in fact were not supported by a consensus in the Church at large.

Theodosius succeeded because, at the time he came to Imperial power the point of view which he supported was backed by a consensus in the Church. In the past Imperial coercion had been freely applied but had failed. Now it succeeded, not because it was coercion but because it was coercion backed by general assent.

Cappadocian Fathers

But even here we must dissent from the conventional account of the end of the Arian Controversy.

The solution did not emanate directly either from Rome or from Alexandria.

On the contrary: the opening of the year 375 saw the ironical situation in which the Pope, Damasus, and the archbishop of Alexandria, Peter, were supporting Paulinus of Antioch, a Sabellian heretic, and Vitalis, an Apollinarian heretic, against Basil of Caesarea, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy in the East, later to be acknowledged universally as a great Doctor of the Church, who never during a single minute of his existence was formally in communion with the see of Rome!

The direct source of the solution of the Arian Controversy, and the great articulators of the doctrine of the Trinity, were the three Cappadocian fathers whose origins were undoubtedly from that Homoeousian party whom Epiphanius, that unsubtle but useful preserver of the views of others, had the impudence to call ‘Semi-Arians’.

II The Need to Formulate Doctrine

Doctrine of God in the Bible

But we must delve deeper than this if we are to understand the reasons for the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity. We must ask, not what was the immediate occasion of its development, but what was the original urge or need or dynamic which made it seem necessary to those who formed it?

The answer lies in the necessity for finding a specifically Christian doctrine of God. The Bible does not give us a specifically Christian doctrine of God, though it gives us the raw material for this. When the NT was canonized, in effect by the middle of the third century, even those parts of it which were devoted to a consideration of the person rather than of the function of Christ, such as the first chapters of the Gospel according to St. John and the Epistle to the Colossians and the Epistle to the Hebrews, did not supply anything more than some hints towards the formation of a specifically Christian doctrine of God.

Jewish dominated church

Before the writing of the NT, the church professed to all appearances the monotheism of late Judaism with the story of an eschatological Messiah as an addendum. To say that Christians believed in one sole God and in addition that Jesus Christ was a very important person was not to state a specifically Christian doctrine of God.

I may perhaps illustrate the point by relating an experience which I had recently. I was invited to a lunch in Manchester along with the representatives of several other religions and after lunch our genial host required of us to state our religious views in two sentences. The Sikh representative (who I do not for a moment believe was capable of giving us the authentic doctrine of Sikhism) said that his fellow-worshipers believed in one God and that Sikhs should not be required to wear helmets when they rode motorcycles. The doctrine of primitive Christians would have appeared, at least to the non-Jew, not much less disproportionate in its parts than that. The NT made some closer approach to an integrated doctrine of God, but was still far from achieving anything more than a sub-variant of the Jewish doctrine of God.

There certainly were forces within Christianity even before it emerged from its Jewish milieu or matrix moving towards an integrated doctrine of God:

There was the fundamental Jewish urge towards monotheism, its rejection of lesser deities or any qualification or diminution of the concept of God.

There was the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ which can be traced back to a very early period.

There was the practice of praying to Jesus Christ as well as praying through him.

There were the theological trajectories (to use current theological jargon) pointing to a doctrine of incarnation, in Matthew, in Paul, in Hebrews and above all in John.

There was, in fine, the ineradicably Christocentric nature of Christianity, the concept of Christ as the Last Act of God, the eschatological pressure, so to speak, that his figure exerted on Christian thought.

But as long as Christianity remained in a Jewish environment none of these factors was strong enough to constitute on its own a movement towards the development of a specifically Christian doctrine of God, the enterprise of determining what difference the career of Jesus Christ must have in forming the Church’s thought, not just about what God had done, but what God is.

Gentile dominated church

It was when Christianity emerged during the second century into a non-Jewish, largely Gentile milieu that the pressure to produce a specifically Christian doctrine of God became unavoidable.

The intellectual world of the Late Roman Empire, enjoying under a series of enlightened Emperors chosen on an adoptive rather than hereditary principle its last St. Luke’s summer of peace and prosperity before the storms and disasters of the next three centuries, was dominated by the inheritance and the practice of Greek philosophy.

The Greek intellectual tradition had of course altered since its great days in the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ. Its Platonism was not exactly the Platonism of Plato; Stoicism had arisen as a distinct and attractive alternative; Aristotelianism, though studied by some, was under eclipse. Greek philosophy had become more eclectic than in Plato’s day, and also much more religious and theistic. What J.B. Bury in all the confidence of Victorian rationalism has called a ‘loss of nerve’ had taken place.

But philosophy was still full of vitality and was actively studied or at least acquired in a general way by the great majority of those who called themselves intellectuals or who had received a higher education in that age.

And Greek philosophy required of any religion which aspired to be a universal religion, as Christianity did, that it should give a rational account of itself. If it had a teaching about God, the intellectual tradition of the Late Roman Empire insisted that that teaching should be rational (not necessarily rationalist), consistent, defensible, intellectually acceptable. If Christianity was to be more than an enthusiastic or moralizing sect making no pretensions to intellectual respectability, more than just an ethnic religion, more than a barbaric cult or a sub-variety of Judaism, in short, if it was to capture the mind as well as the heart of the society in which it existed, it was bound to produce a specifically Christian doctrine of God.

This was not an unreasonable demand, not the requirement of a futile speculative Greek curiosity, but a plain necessity if Christianity was to be a genuinely missionary religion, a religion capable of sustaining the daring claim that it was a faith for all races and all classes and all minds, a religion for the whole world.

The Apologists

The first attempt at this task was made by the group of writers whom we call the Apologists, and it was made, significantly enough, to a large degree in independence of the thought of the Fourth Gospel.

This group had nothing in common, if we except the connection between Justin Martyr and Tatian, apart from a common purpose and a common pattern of thought. They did not all live in the same place or at the same time. But their common aim resulted in a common pattern of theology.

Used Greek Philosophy

They used to great effect several features of contemporary Greek philosophy to enable them to construct their doctrines of God. They identified the pre-existent Christ, thought of as manifesting himself on critical occasions throughout the history of the Jewish people, with the nous or Second Hypostasis of contemporary Middle Platonist philosophy, and also borrowed some traits from the divine Logos of Stoicism (including its name).

They thereby solved for those who accepted their doctrine a difficult contemporary philosophical problem: how was the supreme being, whether conceived as to on or to agathon impersonally or as a personal mind ordeity, to communicate in his immutable, abstract, immaterial condition with our world of change and decay, transitoriness and matter? The answer was, the divine Logos or nous identified with Christ both pre-existent and incarnate in his earthly ministry. He was the agent for creating the world of the supreme Divinity and also the means of the Divinity revealing himself in the world, both in the history of the Jews and in the earthly career of Jesus.

No Trinity

They felt some obligation to fit the Holy Spirit into this scheme, but were less successful here. They could hardly be said to have developed a recognisably Trinitarian scheme, but they certainly had produced the first specifically Christian doctrine of God.

Not Bible-based

They were writing mostly for non-Jews and non-Christians. Such a public demanded philosophical consistency but no very great attention to historical detail nor to the witness of the Bible.

Lasted into the Fourth Century

The theological structure provided by the Apologists lasted as the main, widely-accepted, one might almost say traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century, and was, in differing form, the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted.

Iranaeus and Tertullian

The doctrine was given a better balance and proportion by both Iranaeus and Tertullian. They redressed the tendency of the Apologists to fall into Gnostic doctrine of an unknown, inaccessible High God whom the lesser god, the Logos, brings communications. They paid much more attention to Scripture, and especially to the Fourth Gospel. They made more room for the Holy Spirit in their doctrine of God, and brought out the significance of the earthly career of Jesus, which all the Apologists apart from Justin had ignored. But their fundamental theological structure was the same as that of the Apologists. The Logos was begotten or produced or put forward by the Father as his instrument or tool for communicating with the world, a subordinate though essential divine agent.

Origen

Origen produced something like a theological revolution without completely demolishing this theological structure. He extended it and diversified it, but he did not alter most of its main features. In his brilliant search for common ground between Christianity and the kind of philosophy which appealed to him, late Middle Platonism laced with some Stoicism, he introduced some new and enduring features and made some daring speculations. He launched the doctrine of the eternal, not merely economic, Trinity; he produced a neat and ingenious account of how the Son/Logos could be, as incarnate, both divine and human. He taught the eternal pre-existence of souls, and a pre-mundane fall, and he demythologized eschatology as radically as ever Bultmann did. But, he still envisaged the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father and still treated him as an ingenious philosophical device, indeed he enhanced this feature in his Trinitarian doctrine.

How divine is Christ?

Even when greatly altered and given a much more sophisticated appearance by Origen, this form of the Christian doctrine of God had serious flaws. The chief flaw was that which the Apologists had regarded as its greatest merit. It made Christ into a convenient philosophical device. He was the means whereby the supreme God, the Father, was protected from embarrassingly close relation to the world. He was, not by reason of his incarnation but by reason of his very nature apart from the incarnation, a defused, depotentiated version of God suitable for encounter with such compromising things as history and humanity and transitoriness. He was the safeguard against a too close acquaintance with our existence on the part of the supreme God.

This Logos-doctrine was not the Logos-doctrine of the Fourth Gospel, where the incarnate Logos is the guarantee that the supreme God has in fact communicated himself to and in our world, where the fact that the Son is accessible in the flesh means that the Father is accessible to us too, where the veil or restriction imposed on himself by God is not his Son but the Son’s humanity, where the contrast is between sight and faith, not between incorruptibility and the corruptible. Whatever the theological or philosophical effect of the conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century may have been, its religious effect, once granted the worship of Christ, was to make the Son into a demi-god.

This can be observed by looking at the second-rate or third-rate writers of the period, not at the successors of Origen, Theognostus, Methodius, Eusebius of Caesarea, but at Lactantius, Arnobius, Victorinus of Pettau, Dionsysius of Alexandria. They present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God and capable of incarnation.

When Gwatkin nearly a century ago in the last full-scale book written in English on the Arian Controversy branded Arianism as ‘heathen to the core’ and as a watered-down version of Christianity suitable for imperfectly converted pagan polytheists, he was writing vague imperfectly substantiated rhetoric, based on an inadequate examination of Arius’ background, but he was not talking complete nonsense. The Arianism of Ulfilas, of Palladius at the Council of Aquileia of 381, of Eunomius, does present the Son as in effect a demi-god, even though the antecedents of this doctrine are not to be found in pagan religion nor directly in Greek philosophy but in various theological strands to be detected in Christian theology before the fourth century.

Theos and Deus

The ancient world did not disdain demi-gods. The word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought.

This is a fact which is often forgotten by those who are anxious to read the later doctrine of Christ’s divinity incontinently into the NT. This is why Christians found it quite possible to hold the kind of conception of Christ’s divinity which was widespread in Christian thought as the third century gave way to the fourth. Of course Christ was divine. But how divine, and what exactly did ‘divine’ mean in that context? It was with this question that the Arian Controversy started and it found nobody in a position to give an immediately satisfying answer.

The Answer in the Creed

But once the question was raised – and Arius’ teaching had raised it in such a way that it could not now be ignored – it could only be answered by the formulation of a more detailed and thorough Christian doctrine of God.

The Church of the fourth century, after much travail answered this question. The answer was only reached after long controversy, heart- searching, confusion and vicissitude in a manner which can best be described as a process of trial-and-error in which the error was by no means confined to the so-called heretics.

Its results in the Nicene Creed was to reduce the meanings of the word “God” from a very large selection of alternatives to one only, so that today it is part of the bloodstream of European culture. When Western man today says ‘God’ he means the one, sole exclusive God and nothing else. Even when he denies the existence of God he does not even pause to disbelieve in gods. Even when he blasphemes, he swears profanely by the sole God. This is why the theologians of the Eastern Orthodox Church who use the word ‘god’ to describe the divinized human nature of Christ and the final state of man in glory can only cause bewilderment and dissent in the minds of Westerners.

Destroyed the Tradition.

What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device, of Christ, as the Cappadocian fathers put it, existing for the sake of us instead of our existing for his sake. The Cappadocians, following in the footsteps of Athanasius, put a firm ‘No Thoroughfare’ notice in front of this theological track, a track which must have seemed to many a hopeful and useful one.

In this respect at least they fought an example of the Hellenisation of the gospel, they rejected the allurements of Greek philosophy.

Indeed if we want a beautiful example of Hellenisation of Christianity we can turn to the most extreme of the Arians, Eunomius, who would have agreed heartily with the title of Toland’s famous book, Christianity not Mysterious, and who had an unbounded confidence in the capacity of Greek metaphysics to solve all theological problems and to scale all the heights of knowledge of the divine. In the course of refuting his teaching Gregory of Nyssa has quite often to pause and protest against his indiscriminate use of philosophical jargon.

In the place of this old but inadequate Trinitarian tradition the champions of the Nicene faith substituted another which was more in accordance with the pressure towards monotheism that is part of the inner nature of Christianity and that also did justice to the ancient practice of worshipping Christ. They were forced through the exigencies of controversy to realize that Christ is either ultimately irrelevant to Christianity, a paradigm, an example, a supremely obedient and godly man, but no more; or he must be a mediator, and therefore authentically God and not a second-class deity. The dispute was about the necessity, the centrality, the indispensability of Christ.

They developed a doctrine of God as a Trinity, as one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases, three distinct realities or entities (I refrain from using the misleading word’ Person’), three ways of being or modes of existing as God. This doctrine which finally emerged with the result of assimilating the indispensability of Christ to the monotheism which Christianity inherited from Judaism and which it would not abandon.

The Holy Spirit

Of course the theologians of the side which was ultimately victorious included the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. In a sense this was an afterthought, because the theme of the Son occupied the screen, so to speak, right up to the year to the year 360. It was only when the battle for the recognition of the Son’s full divinity was in a fair way to being won that the Spirit moved to the centre of the stage.

It has been suggested that this pneumatological development was a kind of lame epilogue or un-happy corollary to the development concerning the Son. Napoleon Bonaparte was Emperor of the French, Emperor in fact and in form. His brother Joseph was for a period by a kind of creaking imperial logic King of Spain, in form if not in fact. Was this the kind of process by which the Holy Spirit became deified?

It is certainly true that until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians. I do not believe those historians of doctrine who tell us that people like Novatian and Victorinus of Pettau were really Binitarians, but certainly nobody for the first four centuries had seen the necessity of working out a theology of the Spirit and when Athanasius in his Letters to Serapion set out to do so he was not wholly successful.

Further, two of the Cappadocians, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, admit silently that the Scriptural evidence for the Spirit as a distinct hypostasis within the Godhead is inadequate. Basil in his De Spirilu Sancto tries to take refuge in a most unsatisfactory doctrine of secret, unscriptural tradition on the subject. Gregory, though he tacitly rejects Basil’s device, in effect appeals to the experience and practice of the Church to supplement Scripture at this point. It was not that the Scriptures did not declare the Spirit to be divine, but in the matter of their witnessing to his existence as an hypostasis, a distinctly recognizable reality, within the Godhead, they were not contradictory, but insufficient.

Certain points can, however, help us to understand the Cappadocians’ decision that the Holy Spirit must be included in the Trinity and why they wrote of him as they did.

In the first place, Christians have always found it difficult to write about the Holy Spirit, just because he is God as we encounter him. It is always difficult to write about our own religious experience, to stand outside ourselves sufficiently to convey what we know to be true in ourselves.

In the second place the Spirit is God sovereign over time, God overcoming the limits of history and space and time. He is in the NT an eschatological figure. He is Lord of history and his appearance heralds of the ages. It is therefore improper or inconsistent to expect the historical witness which we have in the Bible to his advent to be entirely adequate. Historical documents cannot adequately witness to him who is beyond history as well as in it, who makes past history present for us, who has not yet finished unfolding the history of salvation.

Finally when the Cappadocians decided that having been committed to drastic theological decisions about the Spirit they were being true to the NT. The Holy Spirit is bound up with, inseparable from, Jesus Christ, and if we decided that Christ is divine we cannot in the end withhold divinity from the Spirit. The Cappadocians therefore boldly included the Spirit in their Trinitarian theology.

They resisted a formidable movement to reject the Spirit’s divinity, led not by the shadowy Macedonius, but by that extraordinary and unpredictable character Eustathius of Sebaste. They formulated a full-blooded Trinitarian doctrine and went some distance towards defining the relations of the Persons within the Trinity. The revised Nicene creed of 381 enshrined the conclusions to which they had come without canonizing any one Trinitarian formula.

III Greek Vocabulary and Thought

The last section of this paper must be devoted to comment upon the achievement of the fourth-century theologians. It must be noted that the development of the doctrine of the Trinity was carried out in terms which were almost wholly borrowed from the vocabulary of late Greek: hypostasis, ousia, homoeousious, tautousios, heterousios, hyparxis, prosopon, perichoresis, and so on.

In this matter the ancient theologians had in fact no choice. Once the theologians of the early period had, under the influence of the Christian Platonists of Alexandria, abandoned the illusion that Christianity was itself a philosophy rivalling the others, and had realised that their faith needed the aid of philosophy in order to express itself in contemporary and comprehensible terms, then the Church was committed to the necessity of explaining its beliefs in the terminology of Greek philosophy.

One of the lessons learnt by the bitter experience of the Arian Controversy was that you cannot interpret the Bible simply in biblical terms. If your intention is to explain the Bible’s meaning, then on crucial points you must draw your explanation from some other vocabulary apart from that of the Bible. Otherwise you will be left with the old question in another form still unanswered.

The only alternative language available for interpreting the Bible was that of Greek philosophy. Roman philosophy was no more than a pale imitation of Greek. There was no philosophical language available in the tradition of Syriac-speaking Christianity, even had it been comprehensible to the majority of ancient theologians. Indian philosophy, though not wholly unknown, was too remote and too strange to serve their purpose. No other intellectual tools were at their disposal.

This borrowing from Greek philosophy, like all borrowing, exacted a price. The case was not merely that the theologians of the fourth century used Greek words. They thought Greek thoughts. Many of the fundamental assumptions which they made in all their theological writing were those of Greek philosophy, not those of the Old and New Testaments.

Psychology

Their psychology and anthropology were, with few exceptions, largely Stoic or (less frequently) Platonist.

Ethics

Their ethics were for the most part not the ethics of the Bible, involved as these are in particular situations and rule-of-thumb of expressions, not easily detected or identified. The Stoics had developed a consistent and attractive ethical system, and the Christian theologians found it impossible to resist the temptation (if temptation it was) to read this system into the biblical text.

Otological Immutability

More important was their unanimous assumption that ontological immutability is an essential attribute of God, that under no circumstances could God ever be thought of as coming in contact with the transitory and corruptible or mortal; a concept which is quite alien to the conception of God to be found in the Old and New Testaments.

This axiom had far-reaching effects on their theology. It troubled Athanasius when he had to face the undeniable fact that the Bible represents God as acting in history. He had to fall back on the lame explanation that all the events of salvation history had been eternally predestined by God before the foundation of the world.

The same axiom produced extraordinary results when the pro-Nicene theologians came to envisage the earthly life of Jesus. Almost all the orthodox theologians say that while the Word of course took human flesh, it was not human flesh like ours, but a different sort of purer, sanctified human flesh.

Hilary of Poitiers plunges wildly into Docetism at this point: Christ felt the effect of the blow when he was struck, but not its pain, and so on.

Another consequence of this axiom is that very few theologians of the fourth century appreciate the full force of the dynamic, eschatological language which the NT uses of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. They flatten and blunt this language, transposing it into ontological categories. For Athanasius, as has frequently been observed, the divinity of Christ means his ontological stability.

Inconsistent use – Variety of meanings

But though the fourth-century Fathers thought almost wholly in the vocabulary and thought-forms of Greek philosophy, they were by no means consistent in using them. The study of ousia by G.C. Stead in his book Divine Substance has shown how large was the variety of meanings which the Fathers attached to that word, and E.P. Meijering has demonstrated that even in so apparently precise a term as ‘beyond being’, epekeina tes ousias, different writers could attach different meanings to it.

Tension between Philosophy and the Bible

In such obviously unplatonic subjects as the resurrection of the body, the creation of matter out of nothing, and the possibility of an incarnation of God, the Fathers recognized clearly that Christianity manifestly diverged from philosophy and said so. Perhaps the best way to express the situation would be to say that in all their theology there is a tension between the ideas of Greek philosophy and those of the tradition of Christian truth which they inherited, a tension sometimes explicitly realized but more often not, and that in none of them is this tension completely resolved.

While, for instance, they believe that Christ’s humanity could not have been exactly like ours because he was born of a virgin without male human parentage, they also reject the Arian doctrine that incarnation necessarily implies inferiority in the God who is incarnate. Here the tension becomes very visible.

Two Natures Theory

It is perhaps worth noting incidentally, on the subject of consistency, that the Nicene dogma does not entail the Chalcedonian dogma with an iron necessity. On the contrary, the two-nature scheme of Chalcedon might be regarded as drawing back from the full drastic consequences of the Nicene Creed under the influence of a Greek fear of compromising God with human experiences.

Faithfulness to Scripture

How much of faithfulness to Scripture did the Fathers of the fourth century sacrifice? Maurice Wiles has suggested that as far as grotesque misunderstanding of the truth of the Bible goes the pro-Nicenes were as distant from accurate interpretation as the Arians.

Certainly all exegetes of whatever color in that period shared common ideas about the Bible which are impossible for us,

Julian the Arian on Job as well as

Didymus the Blind on Zechariah;

For them most of the Psalms were tape-recordings made by David of conversations held between God the Father, God the Son and the Church.

Very large numbers of passages in the OT spoke to them directly of Christian doctrine which to us are wholly devoid of such reference, e.g. Provo 8:22 which might be called the key-text of the Arian Controversy, and Amos 4:13 which was much adduced by the Macedonians.

The Antiochene preference for eschewing allegory in handling Scripture had scarcely yet appeared in the fourth century; the irresponsible use of allegory abounded, perhaps more among the pro-Nicenes than among the Arians. Julian in his Commentary on Job uses it very little.

But though in detail Patristic interpretation of the Bible can be utterly different from ours today, in several of the points where what one might call the weight or what Athanasius calls the skopos, the main burden or message of Scripture, is concerned they discern clearly enough the true facts.

They recognise at least in theory, as an intellectual proposition, the humanity of Christ, they resist Apollinarianism.

They know that the OT witnesses to God revealing himself in history.

They acknowledge consistently that God can only be known in faith.

They do some justice to the thought of St. Paul, to Augustine almost full justice.

John’s Gospel

Above all, they are deeply influenced by the Fourth Gospel, whereas the Arians are not. This is the crucial point of interpretation where Athanasius has a deeper appreciation of the thought of the NT than his opponents. 

For the Arians, God cannot communicate himself to man, he can only send a well-accredited messenger, because incarnation is a reduction, a diminution of Godhead.

Athanasius accepts the full significance of the doctrine of that Gospel, though he expresses it in terms of Greek ontological thought and though, like all the pro-Nicene theologians, he assumes erroneously that St. John is laying out pre-fabricated Trinitarian doctrine in his pages. But here he shows a vitally important insight into the significance of the NT which the Arians, preoccupied as they were with the incomparability of God, failed to see.

Not Precise

We must also realize that when the Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity they did not present it with a formula designed to express that doctrine permanently. There is no universally recognised formula expressing the doctrine of the Trinity, for the Athanasian Creed, which has such a formula, is not an ecumenical creed.

The theologians of the fourth century, though they were quite ready to countenance creeds, did not have the same intense addiction to precise formulae as later ages had, nor the same insistence on precise accuracy as we have.

Auxentius of Milan could say that the creed which he had probably met for the first time when he became bishop of Milan was what he had learnt from his youth up; he was referring to the content, not to the words.

The fact that the members of the council of Constantinople of 381 could regard themselves as reproducing in the creed which they adopted the original formula of 325, which we would regard as a very different document, speaks for itself.

At one point Gregory of Nazianzus, in a letter defending Basil against the charge of refusing to acknowledge openly the divinity of the Holy Spirit, states explicitly that it is not the words that count but the meaning which they convey.

The Cappadocians cannot be accused of spinning theological formulations simply for the sake of creating ever new Greek metaphysical instructions. They were very well aware, as was Athanasius, of the inadequacy of language to express thought about God. It was one of the lessons learnt during the course of the controversy. What the Cappadocians contended for was the shape of Trinitarian doctrine, not for a particular formulation of it. They were emphatically not fighting for a creed, but for a doctrine. That doctrine has since been expressed in different ways by later theologians, by, for instance, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Gregory Palamas, John Calvin, and Karl Barth, but it remains the same doctrine.

Interpretation of Development?

Last of all, we must ask whether this doctrine of the Holy Trinity, achieved after so long and trying an experience of controversy, heart-searching and vicissitude, was an interpretation of the Bible, or whether it should rather be regarded as a development.

If, as I think, we can answer the question originally asked in this paper by saying that the journey was necessary, we must decide what sort of a journey it was.

Of course the doctrine of the Trinity was in a sense an interpretation of the Bible. It began as an attempt to answer the question, how divine is Jesus Christ?, and went on to decide whether God has communicated himself or not. Neither of these questions lie directly on the surface of the Bible, though they are both raised if the Bible’s contents are studied with care and in depth; the Bible does not directly answer either.

The question we deal with here is ultimately that which Newman raised, but did not find an answer, in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I think that a consideration of the whole history of the gradual formation of this doctrine must convince students of the subject that the doctrine of the Trinity is a development, and a development which in its shape, is true and authentic. Christians can honestly worship Jesus Christ and also honestly declare that they are monotheists, but only if they adopt a concept of God which has a Trinitarian shape.

When they profess this doctrine they are not saying precisely what Mark in his first chapter and Paul in the first of Romans were saying, though in different words, just that and nothing more. Time and trial and long thought and ventures into speculation and even into error, both aided and hindered by non-biblical thought, have taught the Church something about the implications of its faith, have assisted towards the gradual unfolding and uncovering of the basic drive and genius and spirit of Christianity here. Development has meant discovery.

R. P. C. HANSON
University of Manchester

Articles in this Series
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Fourth Century (State Church)

Fifth & Sixth Centuries

Extract from specific authors

Revelation 5 verse-by-verse – Jesus Christ is worthy to open the book.

INTRODUCTION

This article is a verse-by-verse discussion of Revelation 5. It is highly dependant on the following three articles that discuss specific aspects of Revelation 5:

Christ’s enthronement
Revelation 5 presents a specific event. Based on descriptions in the rest of the New Testament, this chapter describes Christ’s enthronement after His ascension 2000 years ago.

The Lamb’s Book of Life
The sealed book symbolizes things that are not understood or agreed upon, namely the book of God’s judgments as to who will inherit eternal life and who will die; also known as the book of life. The seven seals symbolize things that prevent understanding.

Christ resolves the crisis of the sealed book through demonstrations.
The book of Rev 5 is sealed because of a dispute between the angels of heaven over God’s judgments. Christ refutes Satan’s accusation through demonstrations of faithfulness: Firstly, during the hours of His own death, He overcame Satan’s ultimate temptation. Secondly, the deaths of God’s elect demonstrate their worthiness. God delays Christ’s return and the implementation of His judgments until all understand that His judgments are perfect.

The reader may prefer to read these three articles first. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes on this website are from the NASB translation.

SUMMARY OF THIS ARTICLE

REVELATION 5:1

I saw in the right hand
of Him who sat on the throne

This Greek phrase can mean either “in” the right hand or “at” the right hand (or side – of God). If we assume that Jesus, when He took the book (Rev 5:7), also sat down with His Father on His throne (Rev 3:21; 22:1), it is possible to understand the book to be AT the right side of God because the NT frequently states that Jesus sat down “at the right hand of God” (e.g., Rom 8:34).

a book written inside and on the back,
sealed up with seven seals.

Both Revelation 5 and 12 describe a crisis in heaven that relates to a lack of understanding and that was solved by Christ’s death, namely the sealed book in Revelation 5 and the war between the angels in Revelation 12 (Rev 12:7). For that reason, it was concluded that these two chapters describe the same crisis with different symbols.

On the basis of Revelation 12, the crisis in heaven has been identified as a dispute between the angels of heaven over the perfection of God’s judgments. Consequently, the sealed book has been interpreted as the book of God’s judgments (the book of life) and the seals as Satan’s informed accusations against God’s elect. Through these accusations, Satan effectively accuses God of unfair judgment.

God’s judgments are known. “Sealed up,” in this instance, means that, due to Satan’s accusations, even God’s loyal angels are unable to fully refute Satan’s allegations of unfair judgment.

REVELATION 5:2

And I saw a strong angel
proclaiming with a loud voice,
“Who is worthy to open the book
and to break its seals?”

Since the book contains God’s judgments, to open the book is to explain God’s judgments; to show that His judgments are perfect. The book is opened by breaking the seals, which means to refute Satan’s accusations against God’s elect. How Christ does that is explained in Revelation 6.

REVELATION 5:3

And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth
was able to open the book or to look into it.

The Son of God defended God’s people and God judgments. As part of Satan’s strategy to discredit God’s judgments, Satan was able to create doubt in the minds of the created universe of the truthfulness of the Son’s defense of God’s people and of God’s judgments. In that sense, before His death, not even the Son was not regarded as “worthy” to open the book. 

REVELATION 5:4

Then I began to weep greatly
because no one was found worthy
to open the book or to look into it;

John’s weeping symbolizes the great sorrow in God’s creation caused by the inability to conclusively prove the perfection of God’s judgments. For as long as Satan’s objections to God’s judgments remain unrefuted – until all understand that His judgments are perfect, God delays Christ’s return and the implementation of His judgments; both the destruction of evil and the resurrection of God’s elect. For that reason, evil still rules on earth today; 2000 years after Christ died.

REVELATION 5:5

and one of the elders said to me,
“Stop weeping;

Since joy now replaces the weeping of verse 4, verse 5 describes a specific point in time. In verse 6, Jesus will appear as a slain lamb. That explains HOW he overcame, namely at the cross as “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29). Revelation 5:5, therefore, can be dated to Christ’s death. Consequently, the remainder of Revelation 5 describes events in heaven immediately AFTER Christ’s ascension. For the same reason, Revelation 5:1-4 and John’s weeping describe the time BEFORE Christ’s death. 

Jesus walks on water

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 word “overcome” is used many times in Revelation (e.g., Rev 2:26). It means to be “faithful until death” (Rev 2:10); to maintain your testimony “even when faced with death” (Rev 12:11). People are not persecuted for their faith, but for their testimony.

Jesus overcame throughout His life. But His highest test and greatest victory were in the hours of His death, for He overcame by remaining “faithful until death” (Rev 2:10). For that reason, His death – understood as the final hours of His life – symbolizes how He overcame throughout His life.

Why did Jesus have to remain “faithful until death” to be able to open the book (explain God’s judgments)? Before His death, the Son of God, due to Satan’s accusations, was not regarded “worthy” by all. But, by remaining faithful to God under the most severe circumstances, He was demonstrated to be “worthy” (Rev 5:9).

REVELATION 5:6

And I saw between the throne
(with the four living creatures)
and the elders

This recalls some detail from chapter four. The throne was at the center of that vision, surrounded by the four living creatures and by the 24 elders.

Lamb of Goda Lamb standing, as if slain,

He “has overcome;” not by using His lion-like power (Rev 5:5) but by restraining His power and, like a lamb, by offering up His life

John hears about a lion (Rev 5:5) but when he looks, He sees a lamb. These animals seem like opposites, but reflect two different roles of the same person; Jesus Christ.

having seven horns and seven eyes,
which are the seven Spirits of God,

It is not a literal lamb and not seven literal eyes or horns. Revelation depicts reality by means of symbols. As discussed under Rev 4:5, the number seven symbolizes completion in terms of time. The seven eyes symbolize that, through the working of God’s Spirit, Christ knows everything that happens on the earth.

Horns symbolize authority (Rev 17:10). The seven horns mean that He will ALWAYS reign (Rev 11:15; cf. Matt 28:18).

sent out into all the earth.

Before Jesus appeared in the throne room, “the seven Spirits of God” are “before the throne” (Rev 4:5) but, now they are “sent out into all the earth.” In the context of a slain lamb, this points to the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples (cf. Acts 2:33). 

REVELATION 5:7

And He came and took the book
out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne.

Lambs do not have hands and cannot take books. This shows again that these visions are not to be interpreted literally. John did not literally see literal things.

The book is in the “right hand” of God (Rev 5:1). The Scriptures, elsewhere, frequently states that Jesus sat down “at His right hand” (e.g. Eph 1:20; cf. Rev 3:21). This implies that, when Jesus takes the book in the current verse, He also sits down on God’s throne. 

Christ’s victory did not immediately open the book. The book remains sealed because He, by overcoming, did not refute Satan’s objections against God’s elect.

In the current verse, Jesus receives the book but He does not open it immediately. He breaks the seals one by one in Revelation 6, causing catastrophes on earth. The sixth seal has the signs of His return (Rev 6:12-15). This means that Jesus refutes Satan’s accusations in the time between His death and His return by directing events on earth. Particularly during the end-time crisis, the lives (deeds) of God’s elect will demonstrate that they are worthy of salvation.

REVELATION 5:8

When He had taken the book,
the four living creatures
and the twenty-four elders
fell down before the Lamb,

The word translated “fell down” is one of the two main Greek words for worship (the other is proskuneó – see also Rev 4:10; 5:14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4). This is the ancient form of obeisance—falling down on one’s face (1 Cor 14:25), much as Muslims do still today.

each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense,
which are the prayers of the saints.

The Old Testament also associates prayer with incense (Psa 141:2; cf. Lev 16:12-13). In the temple context, while the priest was offering incense inside the temple, the people outside were in prayer before God (see Luke 1:9-10). Likewise, here, the elders, representatives of humanity, offer incense to God while the church on earth is praying.

REVELATION 5:9-10

And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are You to take the book
and to break its seals;
for You were slain,
and purchased for God with Your blood

The Cross of ChristChrist’s blood symbolizes His death. His death does not only refer to when He breathed His last but to His final hours when tempter inflicted the most severe torment and temptation possible on Him.

men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.

Similar four-fold listings of the people are found throughout Revelation (e.g., Rev 10:11; 14:7; 17:15). The number four represents worldwide extension, for example, in the four corners of the earth (Rev 7:1). These four elements, therefore, sum up all the people in the world.

Is it not wonderful that people from every tribe and tongue will be saved? According to Rev 7:9, an innumerable multitude will be saved. Praise the Lord!

REVELATION 5:10

“You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God;

A priest is someone who stands between God and the people. God called Israel a kingdom of priests (Exo 19:6). Israel was not called for its own sake, but to be a blessing to the nations (Gen 12:1-3).

The New Testament writers understood the church to be a new Israel, with the twelve disciples becoming the leaders of the twelve tribes (Matt 19:28-30). Israel, therefore, is no longer constituted on the basis of physical descent from Jacob but in relation to the Jewish Messiah Jesus. See the discussion under Rev 4:4 or the article on the 24 elders.

and they will reign upon the earth.”

Note the cause-consequence sequence in this song:

        • PAST: The three verbs “slain … purchased …. made” indicate what has already been accomplished.
        • PRESENT: For that reason, Jesus Christ is now “worthy.”
        • FUTURE: Once He has broken all the seals, “they will reign upon the earth.”

REVELATION 5:11

11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders;

The throne is in the center, surrounded by a rainbow, the four living creatures, the elders in the next circle, and the larger multitude of angels in the outer ring (Rev 4:3-4).

and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands,

The number of angels seems too large to be exactly counted (cf. Heb 12:22; Dan 7:10). In Rev 7:11, the number of the redeemed is also too large to count. This, therefore, is not literally true. It symbolizes that there is a vast multitude of angels around the throne.

REVELATION 5:12

saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”

REVELATION 5:13-14

13 And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying,

“To Him who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb,
be blessing and honor and glory and
dominion forever and ever.” 

14 And the four living creatures kept saying, “Amen.” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

There are five songs of praise in Revelation 4 and 5:

        • The first two are sung to the One sitting on the throne, “for You created all things” (Rev 4:11).
        • The third and fourth hymns are sung in praise to the Lamb, “for You … purchased for God with Your blood men” (Rev 5:9-10).
        • But the final hymn in Rev 5:13, as the climax of the series, is sung to both and by every created being.

 – END OF SUMMARY – 

Revelation 5:1

I saw in the right hand
of Him who sat on the throne
a book written inside and on the back,
sealed up with seven seals.

And I saw

This phrase often introduces a new vision (Rev 6:1; 8:2; 10:1).

… in the right hand

This Greek phrase can mean either “in” the right hand or “at” the right hand (or side – of God). For the following reasons, it is possible to understand the book to be AT the right side of God rather than IN God’s right hand:

    • The rest of the New Testament often portrays Jesus Christ as “at the right hand of God” (Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Heb 10:12, etc.) or seated “at the right hand of the throne” (Heb 8:1, 12:2).
    • Revelation confirms that Jesus sat down with His Father on His throne (Rev 3:21). For that reason, it is “the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev 22:1).
    • But Revelation does not explicitly state that Jesus sat down at the right hand of God. However, in Rev 5:7, Jesus “came and took the book out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne.” This, combined with the statement that Jesus Christ sat down with His Father on His throne (Rev 3:21), may imply that the moment when the Lamb takes up the book (Rev 5:7) is when He sits down at God’s right side.

In Psalms 80:17 and 110:1, the king of Israel sits at God’s right side. This meant that the king ruled subject to God. Similarly, when Jesus Christ sits down on God’s right hand, He is elevated or acknowledge as Ruler of the creation; subject only to God. (See, God in Revelation)

… of Him who sat on the throne

This refers back to Revelation 4, where John saw “One sitting on the throne” (Rev 4:2), later identified as “our Lord and our God” (Rev 4:11).

… a book

In the ancient world, books took two primary forms:

      • A scroll is a long sheet of writing material that is rolled up. In the time before John saw these visions, the scroll (as in the Dead Sea Scrolls) was the predominant book form.
      • The other form is the book as we know it today with pages glued together at one end. It is called a codex. The earliest reference to books in codex form is a brief mention of around 40-100 AD. On the other hand, all manuscripts of the New Testament, including the very earliest fragments that we have (around 115-120 AD), are in the codex form. For this reason, some believe that the codex has been invented by Christians to enable one person to carry the entire New Testament, something that would not have been possible with scrolls.

What was the form of the book at God’s right hand? According to Revelation 6:14, “the sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up.” Here “scroll” translates the same word (Greek: biblion) which is translated as “book” in Rev 5:1. The book (biblion) in Rev 5:1, therefore, was a scroll.

… written inside and on the back

It was customary to write ancient scrolls on one side only because that was more convenient for reading as the book is unrolled. That the scroll in this verse is written on both sides probably means that much is written in this book. “Inside” refers to the side that is hidden from view when the scroll is rolled up.

… sealed up with seven seals

In the ancient world, a king might stamp his seal on a document to make it official. But the scroll of Revelation 5 is sealed for concealment as indicated by the phrase “sealed up,” rather than just “sealed,” and by the statement that “no one was found worthy … to look into it” (Rev 5:4).

It does not mean that the book’s contents are unknown. Rather, similar to Daniel’s prophecies, that would be known but only be understood in “the end of time” (Dan 12:4), the contents are not understood.

Since the number seven signifies completeness in terms of time, the seven seals may suggest that complete knowledge will only be possible at the end of human history, as we know it. This is supported by the conclusion that this book will only be read after the return of Christ (See, Book of Life).

Revelation 5:2

And I saw a strong angel
proclaiming with a loud voice,
“Who is worthy to open the book
and to break its seals?”

And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice

Since there is no such thing as a weak angel (Psa 103:20), this one must have been exceptionally strong. Assuming that angels have some sort of hierarchy, this angel would have been one of the chief angels.

… who is worthy

This question is one of vast importance.

Worthy” is an important word in this chapter. The word appeared for the first time in Revelation in Rev 4:11. To be worthy is to be judged able to accomplish a task or an office. At the Jordan River, John the Baptist did not feel worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal (John 1:27). The centurion of Capernaum did not feel worthy to have Jesus Christ enter his house (Matt 8:8). Mere physical strength does not make one “worthy” to open the scroll, for not even this mighty angel is able to do it.

… to open the book and to break its seals?

Since the book is the book of life, containing God’s judgments, to open the book is to explain God’s judgments to show that He judges perfectly. The seals are Satan’s objections to the grace which God granted to the people listed in the book of life. To open the book is to explain God’s judgments; to show that His judgments are perfect.

Revelation 5:3

And no one in heaven or on the earth or under the earth
was able to open the book or to look into it.

This was a problem so large that not even God could solve it. If the scroll is the book of life and the issue is uncertainty whether God’s judgments are perfect, it becomes clearer why not even God is able to open the book:

God certainly explains His judgments. However, God also protects the freedom of His intelligent creatures and, therefore, has allowed Satan complete freedom to defend himself. Satan, whom God has condemned to eternal punishment, with his vast knowledge of the evil which he has tempted each human to commit, and with his unparalleled communication skills, has brilliantly accused God’s people. By implication, Satan claimed that God applies grace in an arbitrary fashion and that His judgments are severe on those marked for eternal punishment.

Given this context, created beings, who do not have God’s infinite knowledge, are unable to confirm that God’s judgments are perfect. That is what the sealed book symbolizes.

Revelation 5:4

Then I began to weep greatly
because no one was found worthy
to open the book or to look into it

John’s weeping symbolizes the huge sorrow in God’s creation that is caused by the uncertainty about the perfection of God’s judgments. As long as Satan’s objections to God’s judgments remain unrefuted, God has to allow evil to rule on earth and God cannot execute His judgments, which includes resurrecting the people in the book of life “to everlasting life” (Dan 12:2; cf John 5:29).

As from verse 5, we will read that Christ overcame to open the book. Revelation 5:1-4 and John’s weeping, therefore, describe the time before Christ’s victory on earth. At that time, the war raged in heaven:

      • Day and night” Satan accused God’s people (Rev 12:10), and, by implication, God Himself of unfair judgment.
      • At the same time, the all-seeing four living creatures defend God: “Day and night” they do not cease to say, “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY is THE LORD GOD” (Rev 4:8).

Revelation 5:5

And one of the elders said to me,
“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.”

and one of the elders said to me

The 24 elders have been introduced in Revelation 4:4. They represent humanity before God (See 24 elders). It is one of the elders who explain things to John, rather than an angel.

… the Lion of the Tribe of Judah

This is Jesus Christ. He descended physically from Judah (Heb 7:14), the fourth son of Jacob (later called Israel). He was the promised Messiah (Gen 49:10). He is called a lion because Jacob described Judah as a lion’s whelp (Gen 49:9). A young lion was placed on the flag of the tribe of Judah, which led Israel’s march through the desert during the Exodus.

… the root of David

This is another name for Jesus Christ (see also Isa 11:1, 10; Rom 15:12). The worthy one is not only descended from Judah but he is the root or foundation of David. These two phrases imply the two natures of Christ: He is a human being, descended from a human forebear, but also the Son of God; the one who existed before David and gave David his throne (2 Sam 7:8-14). This same concept is expressed in another way in Rev 22:16, where He is both “the root and the descendant of David” (cf.  Psa 110:1 – see also Matt 22:42-45; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44).

… has overcome

Has overcome” echoes Revelation 3:21 where Jesus Christ says “I overcame.” In verse 6, Christ will appear as a slain lamb (Rev 5:6, 9, 12). The Lamb overcame at the cross. The word “overcome” is used many times in Revelation, for example, “He who overcomes …” (Rev 2:26). It means to be “faithful until death” (Rev 2:10). Jesus overcame throughout the trauma of His life. But His highest test and highest victory were in the hours before He “bowed His head and gave up His spirit” (John 19:30). For that reason, and because His test was concluded at His death, His death symbolizes how He overcame throughout His life.

Since the weeping in verse 4 switches to joy in verse 5, we are able to date Rev 5:5, namely to when Christ died.

… so as to open the book and its seven seals

Jesus Christ is “worthy” to open the scroll because He overcame (cf. Rev 5:9). This means that He is trusted to tell the truth. This is confirmed by the contrast to Revelation 12, where Satan is thrown out of heaven because the truthfulness of his witness is rejected (Rev 12:10).  How Christ’s victory made Him worthy is explained in the article Resolved:

Jesus Christ’s character has been thoroughly tested by trials, even to the point of death. Through His suffering, He has proven to be “the faithful and true Witness” (Rev 3:14; 1:5). As such, He is confirmed trust-“worthy” “to open the book and to break its seals” (Rev 5:2). This means to refute Satan’s allegations and to show that God’s judgments are perfect.

At the same time, Satan, who “disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14) has been revealed as a murderer and liar by his cruel persecution of the Son of man.

However, evil still reigns on earth today because the book is not yet open.

Revelation 5:6

6 And I saw between the throne
(with the four living creatures) and the elders

a Lamb standing, as if slain,
having seven horns and seven eyes,
which are the seven Spirits of God,
sent out into all the earth.

And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders

This recalls some detail of the vision of chapter four. The throne was at the center of that vision, surrounded by the four living creatures and further surrounded by the 24 elders.

There is disagreement between the translations WHERE the Lamb was standing:

      • between the throne … and the elders” (NASB)
      • at the center of the throne” (NIV) (See, BibleHub)

In Revelation 3:21, Jesus Christ asserted, “I also sat down with my Father on His throne.” In Rev 5:7, the Lamb moves to take the book. If the scroll was at the right side of God (see discussion of Rev 5:1), it implies that Jesus ascended the throne in Rev 5:7. In that case, in Rev 5:6, He is not yet His on the throne but is inside the ring of the elders and immediately in front of the throne, as reflected in the NASB.

… a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered

According to verse 5, “the Lion” had some sort of victory that made him worthy to open the book. The “lamb” in verse 6 shows how He obtained that victory. The lion symbolizes power. The lamb symbolizes weakness.  He “has overcome” (Rev 5:5) sin and evil; not by using His power but by restraining His power in apparent weakness; offering up His life; like a lamb. “Power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). This recalls the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:7.

John hears about a lion but never sees the Lion. He sees a lamb. He is told that the Lion of Judah has overcome and that that has qualified Him to open the book by breaking its seals (Rev 5:5). But when he looks (Rev 5:6), he sees a Lamb standing as if slaughtered. What John sees and hears seem like opposites, but the “Lion” and the “Lamb” are two are different perspectives of the same person; reflecting two different roles of Jesus Christ.

The lamb appears as if its throat had been cut, yet he is not dead or dying; he is standing. As Jesus said, “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore” (Rev 1:18).

… having seven horns

While the Lamb has seven horns, the seven-headed dragon, sea beast, and the beast of Revelation 17 each have ten horns (Rev 12:3; 13:1; 17:3).

It is not a literal lamb and not seven literal horns. These chapters depict reality by means of symbols. The number seven in Revelation is the number of completion in terms of time. Horns symbolize authority. The seven horns mean that He will ALWAYS reign: “His Christ … will reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15). Jesus Christ said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18).

… and seven eyes which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth.

The image of the seven eyes is drawn from the Old Testament (2 Chron 16:9; Zech 3:9; 4:10). There, they indicate divine watchfulness over all the earth. The Lord knows everything there is to know because His eyes roam to and fro over the earth.

The seven spirits are also mentioned in Revelation 1:4; 3:1 and 4:5. The Holy Spirit is sent both by Jesus (John 15:26) and the Father (John 14:26). The seven eyes symbolize that, through the working of the Spirit, Christ knows everything that happens on the earth.

The seven horns and seven eyes combined, therefore, tell us that the Lamb has both complete power and complete knowledge.

The seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth, in the context of a slain lamb, evidently refers to the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples. This may imply that this particular verse describes Jesus Christ in heaven on the Day of Pentecost (See, Revelation 5). If so, Pentecost is the starting point of the seven consecutive seals in Revelation 6.

HOW GOD RULES HIS CREATION

I would like to comment further on the image of the slain lamb. What startles the mind is that the One through whom God created all things, in whom “all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17), is represented by the weakness of the Lamb that was slain. He came as a Lamb led to the slaughter (Isa 53:7). In this picture, we catch a glimpse of how God chooses to rule the universe. While He is infinitely powerful, that power is exercised through self-sacrificial love:

FREEDOM

God populated the universe with creatures that were and continue to be truly free, for true love is only possible in freedom. For love to be genuine, it must be freely given. God’s creatures must be free to love, but also free to reject love and rebel against the Creator without even the fear of punishment. If we fear punishment for rejecting God, then we are not really free.

LUCIFER

In Revelation 12 and other places (like Job 1-2, Isaiah 14, and Ezekiel 28), it becomes evident that a chief of the angels, named Lucifer (originally light bearer) but later known as the devil and Satan, exercised that freedom. At first, he was without sin (Ezek 28:15) but became proud: “Your heart was lifted up because of your beauty” (Ezek 28:17). For that reason, “unrighteousness was found in you” (Ezek 28:15).

ACCUSES GOD OF UNFAIR JUDGMENT

When God condemned his behavior and showed to him the error and consequences of his ways, Lucifer further exercised that freedom and began a rebellion in heaven, in which he criticized God’s judgment. The repeated refrain which we find in the Bible is that Satan accuses God’s people (Revelation 12:10; 3:1-2; Job 1 and 2). This implies that He accused God of applying grace in an arbitrary way and of being severe in His judgment of those who oppose Him. Satan seems intent on creating doubt in the minds of the intelligent beings about God’s ability to judge.

UNABLE TO REFUTE SATAN

God knows and understands all things. His intelligent creatures, however, are limited. Without God’s complete understanding, given the context of Satan’s clever accusations, they are unable to confirm that God’s judgments are perfect. God is able to explain, but His intelligent creatures are not able to understand. This is what is symbolized in Revelation 5 as a sealed book. Opening the scroll was something that even God could not do on His own because His explanations are beyond the understanding of limited beings.

GOD PROVIDES EVIDENCE

To combat this rebellion with the use of force, before the intelligent creatures are able to understand that Satan’s allegations are false, might only serve to confirm to them that Satan’s charges are true.

To ignore Satan’s charges would be to continue sin, sickness, and death indefinitely.

God chose a third option, namely to provide evidence of the perfect accuracy of His judgments. This is what the seven seals in Revelation 6 are all about.  This thought is expanded in the other articles in this series.

CONCLUSION

The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross shows “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor 10:1). It shows how God rules the universe, namely through self-sacrificing love. In the ministry of Jesus on earth, in the way that He died, God renounced all use of force and intimidation. Instead, it revealed Christ as “the faithful and true Witness” (Rev 3:14).

Revelation 5:7

And He came and took the book
out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne.

Lambs do not have hands and cannot take books. This confirms that these visions are not to be taken literally or interpret visually. John did not literally see these things. In vision, he JUST KNEW these things. We must interpret the symbols; not visualize the images literally.

The key theological concepts in Revelation 5 are those that apply to the first century. For example:

      • The cross of Christ is the towering reality of the New Testament and is mentioned in nearly every book.
      • Christ’s exaltation to the heavenly throne room is a past event that is often mentioned in the New Testament.
      • Our inauguration as kings and priests had already taken place when John wrote the book (1 Peter 2:9-10).

Nothing in Revelation 5 is inappropriate to the first century or requires us to think that the Lamb takes the book long after the first century. As discussed in the article titled Revelation 5, Jesus Christ took the book after His ascension to heaven.

Revelation 5:8

When He had taken the book,
the four living creatures
and the twenty-four elders
fell down before the Lamb,
each one holding a harp
and golden bowls full of incense,
which are the prayers of the saints.

When He had taken the book

This refers back to the action of the Lamb in verse 7 and indicates that the praise of verses 9 and 10 follows immediately upon the Lamb taking the book.

… the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb

The word translated “fell down” is one of the two main Greek words for worship (the other is proskuneô – see also Rev 4:10; 5:14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4). This is the ancient form of obeisance—falling down on one’s face (1 Cor 14:25), much as Muslims do still today.

… each one holding a harp

The word translated “each” is masculine, as are the 24 elders. The four living creatures are grammatically neuter. It is the elders alone, therefore, who have harps and who hold bowls of incense that represent the prayers of the saints. If the elders are representatives in heaven of redeemed humanity (see 24 elders), it makes sense that they would be the ones in the heavenly chorus to represent the prayers of the saints before God.

Each elder carried a harp, with which they accompanied the song that immediately follows. In ancient times, the harp was the chief instrument for expressing thanksgiving in the temple services (1 Chron 13:8; 2 Chron 5:12; Neh 12:27; Psa 33:2).

and golden bowls full of incense

The bowls mentioned here are of the shallow variety, much like saucers. These are often associated with the sanctuary and the temple in the Old Testament (Exo 27:3; 38:23; Num 4:14; 1 Kings 7:26, 31). They would be used for burning incense (Exo 30:1-10).

It is hard to visualize someone playing a harp (or a guitar) while also holding a bowl of incense. This is another warning not to take the visions of Revelation too literally. The visions of Revelation were intended to be heard more than seen.

… which are the prayers of the saints

The combination of prayer with incense is consistent with Old Testament usage:

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you” (Psa 141:2; cf. Lev 16:12-13).

In the temple context, while the priest was offering incense inside the temple, the people outside were in prayer before God (see Luke 1:9-10). Likewise, here, the elders, representatives of humanity, offer incense to God while the church on earth is praying.

Just as incense naturally rises, so do the prayers of God’s people rise up to the throne.

The “saints” in this phrase are not to be confused with the 24 elders, nor are they to be understood as dead humans who have ascended to heaven and intercede there before God. Saints, in the New Testament, consistently refer to living believers on earth. In Greek, the word “saint” is the same as “holy.” “Saints” are essentially equivalent to the church (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1; Phil 1:1; Col 1:2; Heb 13:24; Rev 8:3-4; 11:18; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6, etc.).

Revelation 5:9

And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are You to take the book
and to break its seals;
for You were slain,
and purchased for God with Your blood men
from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.

And they sang a new song

There have already been two songs sung in the course of this vision (Rev 4:8, 11). The song in this verse is specifically called a “new song,” so they sing about something new, namely Christ’s victorious death (Rev 5:5-6). An Old Testament parallel is Psalm 144:9, where David sings a new song that celebrates the victory God provided over his enemies.

The new song is sung by the 24 elders and the 4 living creatures. In Rev 14:3, only the 144000 can sing their “new song” because only they had that unique experience. The song in Revelation 14, therefore, must be different from the one in Rev 5:9.

… saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals

The word “worthy” here is one of five occurrences in the vision of Revelation 4 and 5:

      • Rev 4:11 – The one sitting on the throne is worthy because He created all things.
      • Rev 5:2 – Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?
      • Rev 5:4 – No one was found worthy to do so (5:4).
      • Rev 5:12 repeats the conclusion in Rev 5:9 that the Lamb is worthy.

One of the elders assures John in Rev 5:5-6 that Christ has overcome, enabling Him to open the scroll. These verses do not mention the word “worthy” but, rather, explain HOW he became worthy, namely because He overcame.

… for You were slain

This confirms that the Lamb is worthy on account of His victory on the cross. The cross enables the opening of the book.

The word for slain can also be translated as slaughter (Rev 13:3, 8) or as murder (1 John 3:12; Rev 18:24). It also has sacrificial overtones (Lev 4:4, 24, 33, etc.). So it is an appropriate word to use with reference to the cross, which combined murder and sacrifice.

Slain” is the first of three verbs (the other two are “purchased” and “made”) that indicate why the Lamb is worthy to open the scroll. All three verbs describe something that occurred at a point in the past. “Slain” is a clear reference to the cross. This implies that Christ “purchased … men” also through the Cross.

… and purchased for God

The word for “purchase” can also be translated as “ransom” (ESV, NRSV, RSV) or “redeemed” (KJV). “Purchase” (NASB, NIV) has a broader meaning, with ransom and redemption being particular sub-categories of the larger concept. The translation “ransom” would be most convincing in a context where one is ransomed from slavery or captivity, but that language does not appear in chapter five.

… with Your blood

The fact that His blood is the price paid for the purchase confirms that the cross is the place of both the slaying and the purchase.

How Christ paid for the people in the book of life is explained in the summary of the current article and will not be repeated here.

… from every tribe and tongue and people and nation

Is it not a wonderful thought that people from every category of people will be saved? According to Rev 7:9, an innumerable multitude will be saved. Praise the Lord!

Similar four-fold listings of the people in the world are found throughout Revelation (see, for example, Rev 10:11; 14:7). However, the items in each list and their order changes from text to text. The number four represents worldwide extension, as in the four corners of the earth (Rev 7:1). These four elements, therefore, are truly intended to sum up all the people in the world. The text portrays an undivided people of God that is drawn from all the divisions of humanity.

The King James Version adds a single word that makes a big difference in the meaning of the text. It reads, “You have purchased … us.” However, the earlier and better manuscripts leave this word out. Furthermore, the song is sung not only by the 24 elders but also by the four living creatures, which appear to be angels. Are they also redeemed? So it appears that the original likely did not have “us” but said that some from every division of humanity are saved.

Revelation 5:10

You have made them to be a kingdom
and priests to our God,
and they will reign upon the earth.

You have made them

Made” is the third of three verbs that explain the basis upon which Lamb is considered to be worthy to take the scroll and open its seals. The first two verbs (“slain” and “purchased”) occurred in the context of the cross. This implies that they have been “made” kings and priests also by Jesus’ death and resurrection; rather than by or at their conversion and baptism.

In the Greek Old Testament, the word translated “made” is one of the major words for creation in Genesis 1. It is a consistent theme in the New Testament that the creative power of God, which made the physical world in the beginning, also creates new life in the lives of those who put their trust in Jesus Christ.

The KJV has “us” in this phrase but both the majority text and the scholarly text agree that the correct reading is “have made them.” The singers of the song in Revelation 5:9-10, therefore, are not singing about themselves, but about those on earth who have embraced the cross. They have been made a kingdom of priests.

… to be a kingdom and priests to our God

In the ancient world, kings had the highest status in the political realm and priests had the highest status in the religious realm. Those who sacrificed much to embrace the gospel are assured that, in eternity, they are considered to have the highest level status in Jesus Christ.

The majority text of the Greek reads “kings and priests.” In this reading, those redeemed at the cross have a double identity, they are kings and they are priests. However, the earlier and generally better manuscripts favor the reading “a kingdom and priests.” 1 Peter 2:9, similarly, describe the believers as a royal priesthood.

A priest is someone who stands between God and the people. God called Israel a kingdom of priests (Exo 19:6). Israel was not called for its own sake, but to be a blessing to the nations (Gen 12:1-3). The New Testament writers understood the church to be a new Israel, with the twelve disciples becoming the leaders of the twelve tribes (Matt 19:28-30). The church, as a kingdom of priests, is a nation that stands between God and all the other nations, intended to bless the nations through the spreading of the gospel.

Israel is thus no longer constituted on the basis of physical descent from Jacob but in relation to the Jewish Messiah Jesus. Thus Israel has been expanded beyond the ethnic and geographical boundaries of ancient Israel to include Gentiles from every corner of the world. Evidence from the book of Revelation is discussed in the article – 24 elders.

… and they will reign upon the earth

This kingdom and reign are the outcomes of Christ’s work; not earned by human performance. Through the cross of Christ, the power of His resurrection is made available to all who trust in Him.

They will reign on the earth” when Jesus Christ’s rule over the earth becomes literal and actual. While this earth is the very place where believers are so often rejected and mistreated, they are invited to look forward to the day when they will participate in Jesus’ reign over the earth. Man has been created to “rule over the fish … the birds … the cattle and over all the earth” (Gen 1:26).

Revelation 5:11

Then I looked, and I heard
the voice of many angels
around the throne and the living creatures and the elders;
and the number of them was myriads of myriads,
and thousands of thousands

Then I looked, and I heard …

The phrase “then I looked” often introduces a new vision or a new aspect to a vision (e.g. Rev 5:1, 6; 6:1). Previously, only the four living creatures and the 24 elders featured in the vision, but now the much larger angelic host joins in the praise. There are five songs in Revelation 4 and 5 and each song gets louder and louder:

      • The first song was sung by the 4 living creatures (Rev 4:8).
      • The second was sung by the 24 elders (Rev 4:11).
      • The third is sung by the four living creatures AND the 24 elders (Rev 5:9-10).
      • The fourth adds myriads and myriads of angels (Rev 5:11-12).

This sequence of hymns leads to a crescendo which is the universal acclamation of the fifth song (Rev 5:13) of both the one sitting on the throne and the Lamb.

… the voice of many angels

Angels are interested in the affairs of humanity (1 Peter 1:12). They learn more about God’s eternal purposes in observing human beings (Eph 3:10-11). Now that the victory of the cross has been announced by the 24 elders and the four living creatures, the wider body of angels is ready to join in the chorus.

… around the throne and the living creatures and the elders

The throne is in the center, surrounded by a rainbow (Rev 4:3), the four living creatures, the elders in the next circle, and the larger multitude of angels in the outer ring (cf. Rev 4:4).

… and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands

The number of angels seems too large to be exactly counted (cf. Heb 12:22; Dan 7:10). In Rev 7:11, the number of the redeemed is also too large to count. This, therefore, is not literally true. It just means that there is a vast multitude of angels around the throne.

Revelation 5:12

saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
to receive power and riches and wisdom
and might and honor and glory and blessing.

The “myriads of myriads” of angels of verse 11 naturally speak with a loud voice.

The phrase, “worthy is the Lamb that was slain” repeats 5:9. This is followed by a seven-fold praise:

      • Power – The end-time reign of God begins when He takes His “great power” (Rev 11:17). God has infinite power. The seven horns of the Lamb symbolize His power (Rev 5:6). He said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18).
      • Riches may include spiritual riches (Eph 3:8).
      • Wisdom recalls the seven eyes of the Lamb (Rev 5:6) and the spirit of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge possessed by God’s Messiah in Isaiah 11:2.
      • Strength – The strength of Jesus Christ is seen in creation: “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:3). It was also witnessed while He was on earth in His power over wind and waves, His healing of diseases, and His conquest of death.
      • Honor expresses that Christ is highly esteemed by others. “All will honor the Son even as they honor the Father” (John 5:23).
      • Glory is similar to honor but is an even higher ascription of praise.
      • Blessing means to speak a good word about another. The Lamb is worthy of our blessing.

Revelation 5:13

And every created thing
which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them,
I heard saying,
“To Him who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb,
be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”

… Every created thing

Every created thing” foreshadows the day when all who have ever lived, including those who reject Him, will acknowledge the justice and truth that lies at the foundation of God’s rule (Rev 15:3-4). Then every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2:9-11).

… which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them

These are the four great regions of creation, according to ancient thinking. Similar expressions are found in Exodus 20:11, Psalm 146:6, Philippians 2:10; and Revelation 14:7.

Under the earth” may refer to the tomb (Job 10:20-22); called the land of Sheol in Hebrew (Isa 14:9). It then refers to those who currently are dead but will one day rise (Rev 20:4-6, 12-13) to join in the final acclamation.

… To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb

This is the fifth and final hymn of Revelation 4-5:

      • The first two are sung to the One sitting on the throne, “for You created all things” (Rev 4:11).
      • The third and fourth hymns are sung in praise to the Lamb, “for You … purchased for God with Your blood men” (Rev 5:9-10).
      • But this final hymn, as the climax of the series, is sung to both.

… blessing and honor and glory and dominion 

The seven-fold praise of verse 12 is followed by the four-fold praise of verse 13. These numbers probably have symbolic significance. The number 7 signifies all time and the number 4 signifies all people.

… forever and ever

This song is sung after the Lamb takes the book after His ascension but the phrase “forever and ever” takes the mind to the timeless worship of God in eternity.

Revelation 5:14

And the four living creatures kept saying, “Amen.”
And the elders fell down and worshiped.

As the mighty song of acclamation echos through the heavens and slowly fades into silence, the four living creatures quietly say Amen, and the twenty-four elders fall down and worshiped. There is nothing more to say, nothing more to do, except to open the book.

God is the Creator, but He created all things THROUGH His Son (e.g. John 1:3; Heb. 1:2; 1 Cor 8:6). God is the sole Ruler, but He gave all authority to His Son (Matt 28:18). God alone is worthy of worship, but “all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father” (John 5:23), for that is God’s wish (Phil 2:9; Heb 1:6). To elevate Jesus to the level of the Almighty God distorts the Word of God. God’s end-time people are called to “Fear God, and … worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters” (Rev 14:7). For a further discussion, see:

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

When-conclusions:

      • Verse 5 refers to Christ’s death.
      • John’s weeping in verses 1-4 describes the time before Christ’s victory on earth.
      • The remainder of the chapter describes events in heaven immediately after Christ’s ascension.
      • When Jesus Christ takes the book in verse 7, He also sits down at God’s right side.
      • The seven consecutive seals in Revelation 6 began at the time of Jesus Christ and cover the entire church age.

His death – His blood is a metaphor for His death. His death refers to His final hours. Those hours were His highest test and His highest victory. His death also reflects how He overcame during His entire life.

Overcame – Christ “purchased” people for God because He overcame, which means to remain “faithful until death.

Worthy – Jesus Christ is “worthy” to open the scroll (Rev 5:9). This means that He is trust-“worthy.” The Christ-event revealed Christ as trustworthy and Satan as untrustworthy.

Purchased – He has already purchased people for God but, He has not yet received His purchase because Satan’s objections against specific names in the book of life have not yet been refuted. By breaking the seals, Christ will show that the names in the book of life are the right names.

ARTICLES ON THE SEVEN SEALS

OVERVIEW

REVELATION 4

REVELATION 5

REVELATION 6

    • Seal 1: The white horse is the gospel.
    • Seals 2 to 4: Bloodshed, famine and death
    • Seal 5: Who are the souls under the altar?
    • Seal 6 includes the plagues and concludes with Christ’s return.

REVELATION 7

REVELATION 8

For further reading on Revelation, I recommend Jon Paulien’s commentary. For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.