Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
The text of Scripture serves as a fitting conclusion to our Advent series on The Songs of Christmas: Mary’s Song (Magnificat), Zechariah’s Song (Benedictus), the Angels’ Song (Gloria in Excelsis), and Simeon’s Song (Nunc Dimittis). Each of them praised God for His goodness, His faithfulness to His covenant, His grace, His salvation, Jesus Christ.
As the songs recorded in Luke’s infancy narrative in chapters 1 and 2 focus on the birth of Jesus, this song focuses on the death and resurrection and exalted status of Jesus, and he is praised for redemption purchased. This was the purpose of Jesus’ birth!
With the New Year, many commit themselves to do “new” things by making a list of resolutions. The Bible is also filled with new things. One of them is “a new song,” the focus of our final advent devotional. Not only is Revelation 4-5 a fitting conclusion to this series, it is an appropriate way to begin the New Year, learning to sing a new song which focuses on redemption. As Isaac Watts wrote and we sing,
Come, ye that love the Lord,
And let your joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord,
While ye surround the throne.
Let those refuse to sing,
Who never knew our God;
But children of the heavenly King,
May speak their joys abroad.
John has just completed writing letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor (Rev. 2-3). Chapters 4 and 5 constitute one vision, worship on the throne room of heaven. Chapter 4 sets the stage for the drama of chapter 5. Chapter 4 describes John’s initial vision of what he sees in heaven’s throne room, while chapter 5 describes the unfolding drama of what is happening in the throne room.
Jon first of all sees a door standing open in heaven, and there was a voice that beckoned him to “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place” (4:1). While John was in the Spirit, he saw before him a throne with an occupant (4:2). The occupant was God Himself and the throne signified His supreme, absolute authority over everything - the transcendence, majesty, and sovereignty of Almighty God (4:1-6a). He was surrounded by twenty-four thrones upon which twenty-four elders were seated. This refers to (The elders are an exalted angelic order who serve and adore God as the heavenly counterpart to the 24 priestly and 24 Levitical orders [cf. 1 Chron. 24:4; 25:9-13].)
In the center around the throne were four living creatures, an exalted order of angelic beings, who lead the heavenly hosts in worship and adoration of God (4:6b-8a). The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders are both an exalted order of angelic beings, while the four living creatures lead the praise and worship, the twenty-four elders follow their lead: praise the “Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (4:8b). Praise and worship of God is unceasing, and is based on his attributes: holiness, omnipotence, and eternal existence (4:8b-9). The living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to God, who sits on the throne and who lives forever and ever. Day and night they never stop saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”
To a persecuted church and an exiled John, these truths would have been a great source of encouragement and strength. As the four living creatures praise and worship God, it leads the 24 elders to fall down before God and worship him also (4:10). The twenty-four elders praise God directly for his creation (4:10-11). They say, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
John sees a scroll in the hand of the One who is seated on the throne, but no one was found worthy to open it or to look inside it. Overwhelmed with grief, John wept (5:1-4). The scroll contained writing on both sides (5:1), which speaks of fullness, completeness, plenitude. This scroll contains the fullness of all of God’s purposes in judgment and blessing. It contains the full account of what God in his sovereign will has determined as the destiny of the world, which rests in God’s hands. No one was found worthy to open the scroll. John wept, not because of ignorance, he did not know what God’s plans were, but rather because of an apparent frustration of God’s purposes. One of the elders comforted John. The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David has triumphed. He is worthy to open the scroll (5:5). So God’s plans are not thwarted, but actually fulfilled by the Lion, the Root. When John looked at the One described as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, he actually saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne (5:6-7). The slain Lamb is the One who took the scroll from the One who sits on the throne, God the Father.
Worship was not confined only to God as the Creator, but also included the Lamb who alone was considered worthy to open the scroll (5:5). No one other than the Lamb was worthy to disclose the plan of Almighty God. As John looked at the victorious, triumphant Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David (5:5), to surprise he saw a Lamb standing in the center of the throne, which looked as though it had been slain (5:6). Ultimate victory comes through sacrifice, the death of a Lamb who lives again. There is no greater display of universal adoration and worship as when the Lamb took the scroll from the One sitting on the throne (5:7).
Various countries have images that reflect might, strength and power. One would think the proper symbol for Christianity would be the Lion, certainly not a helpless, slain lamb. But the Lamb is the ultimate source of strength, power and hope, for the slain Lamb still lives. He is the ultimate outworking of God’s plan – overcoming death and sin through death itself and resurrection. God’s plan required the death of the God-man. It is appropriate that the One who is the outworking of God’s plan should disclose God’s plan (cf. Jn. 1:18; Heb. 1:2).
The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb (5:8) and they sang a new song (cf. Ps. 96, 98) praising the Lamb for His redemption (5:9-10). Then innumerable angels joined in the heavenly chorus and sang of the worthiness of the Lamb (5:12). Finally, the climax is reached when all creation sings to the One who sits on the throne and to the Lamb (5:13). This magnificent scene of worship is brought to a close by the four living creatures, who began the singing (4:8), as they cry, “‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down and worshiped (5:14).” The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb and sang a new song, a song focused on the Lamb’s redemption. God was praised and worshiped in 4:11 for creation. Here the Lamb is praised and worshiped for redemption.
The Person of Redemption, The Redeemer – The Lamb is the only one worthy to take and open the scroll: “And they sang a new song, saying: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals (Rev. 5:9). They sang a “new song.” This was not the song of creation, but the new song of redemption. The idea of a new song grows out of the Psalms. In 98:1 we read (sing!), “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” In other words, every new act of mercy calls forth a new song of gratitude and praise. The song to the Lamb is a new song because the covenant established through his death is a new covenant.
It is interesting to note that the statement, “You are worthy” is the cry with which the Emperor’s arrival was celebrated. Any new Caesar or King would be addressed, “You are worthy.” But it is extremely important for us to remember that ultimately no king, Caesar, emperor, president or any other created being is worthy to disclose the plan of God and to fulfill it – only the Lamb of God. He alone is the one who is worthy to take the scroll from the hand of God and disclose and enact its contents. The four living creatures and the twenty-four elders were joined by innumerable angels in singing about the worthiness of the Lamb. They sang, “Worthy is the lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise” (5:12). The first four are attributes of the Lamb while the last three are related to our response to him. As one says of praise, it is “the inevitable climax of it all . . . the one gift that we who have nothing to give to him who possesses all.”
The Ground of Redemption – The Lamb is worthy because of his death: “because you were slain” (Rev. 5:9). Jesus, the Lamb of God, is worthy simply because of who he is. His worthiness is grounded in his essential being. He is, in fact, very God. Yet his worthiness does not solely attributed to who he is, but also what he did. In this text, the Lamb is worthy precisely because he was slain. His worthiness is attributed to his great act of redemption. As the great church Father Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “Without ceasing to be what he always was [God], he became what he was not [man].” And I like to add, so that we might become what we could not (children of God).
As was stated earlier, God’s plan is worked out through the sacrifice of a Lamb, the God-man. As Jesus said during his earthly ministry, the Son of Man “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). Paul reminds believers they were “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). In this verse, “with (at the cost of) your blood” denotes the pure price paid for the purchasing, the redemption. We were redeemed at the cost of Christ’s death. He alone is worthy, and his death is the ground of redemption.
The Extent of Redemption – Through the death of the Lamb, people from every tribe, language, people, and nation were ransomed/purchased: “you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9). Redemption is not universal in the sense that everyone will be redeemed. But it is universal in the sense that it will include people from all kinds and classes of people. Those who are redeemed, those who comprise the church, recognize no national, political, cultural, or racial boundaries. There is no elitism base on anything, only humility because the Lambs is the only One worthy.
This gives meaning to the texts that speak of God’s desire for all to be saved such as as 1 Timothy 2:4 or 2 Peter 3:9. Some suggest that God’s plan is fulfilled and all will ultimately be saved. Others, suggest God’s plan is thwarted due to the free will of man. This text teaches that God’s plan is fulfilled in the redemption, the salvation of all people, not without exception (universalism), but rather all without distinction. This means there will be people from every tribe, language, people and nation who are redeemed.
The Purpose of Redemption – The Lamb purchased these people for God. They were made to be a kingdom and priests to serve God: “you ransomed people for God . . . you have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God” (Rev. 5:9, 10). As a kingdom they shall reign and as priests they serve. The purpose of redemption is to serve God, it is for God, not for us. This is the consistent witness of Scripture – saved to serve. Worship is an engagement with God in all of life. All we do, whatever it is, is for him, to serve him. This is the purpose of redemption.
As we thank God for creation (4:11) and for the Lamb’s redemption (5:9), we join with all creation in their song of praise, thanksgiving and worship of God and the Lamb: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13). Added to this throng of worshipers, the four living creatures said “Amen” and the elders fell down and worshiped (5:14).
Ponder and pray, prepare and pray, and pray as we begin a new year. Here are a few questions to aid you.