Revelation 5, Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 43
One of the glories of a God-given vision is that, by it, we can be shown matters that seem logically contradictory, but remain true in their paradox, and demand to be kept together. Chapter 5 of Jesus’ Apocalypse to John is famous for the picture of a slaughtered-standing Lion-Lamb. In this visionary description of our Lord, we see two double mysteries. First, Jesus’ resurrection does not undo his astonishing crucifixion: both remain eternally significant. Second, that John sees the Lion of Judah as a Lamb for the whole world does not undo Jesus’ regal majesty or His Messianic significance for Israel (Romans 11:1, 11-12, 24).
Given our position as creatures in time and space, we normally take such pictures in sequence, and tend to see the final scenario as surpassing all the rest, or even making the previous acts unimportant. In a sense this is true, since our God has entered human space and time, and, so to speak, “gets His hands dirty” within our unfolding creaturely continuum as He accomplishes His will. But He is also the great I Am, the Existing One, the One “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” To understand the God-Man is not to say that He arose even though He died, or to believe that He is majestic, though He appears to us in vulnerable humanity. It is to include the embrace of death, and the humility of suffering and death as intimately bound up with that eternal life and that regal status. “He made himself of no reputation,” and so is worshipped by the Name that is above all names. Jesus’ crucifixion and his “lamb-like” appearance remain a part of it all, and are not discarded or forgotten.
There is, in the vision of Revelation 5, yet another paradox that sometimes doesn’t come through in our English translations. Let’s hear John again, in a more literal translation of the passage than we usually hear:
Then I saw in the right hand of the One sitting on the throne a scroll, written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel calling publicly with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look in it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look in it. And one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! Behold, the Lion has conquered—the One who is of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, so he is able to open the scroll and loose its seven seals.”
And I saw, and behold—in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders there was a Lamb, standing as though slain, having seven horns and seven eyes (which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth). And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of the One sitting on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down in the presence of the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,
Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for You were slain, and You ransomed us for God by Your blood
out of every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made us to be kings and priests to our God,
and we shall reign on the earth.
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders. And their number was myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!
And I heard every creature that is in heaven and that is on earth and that is under the earth and that is in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
To the One sitting on the throne, and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!
And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell prostrate and worshiped the One who lives unto ages of ages.
So what is this third mystery? Why, it is the position of Jesus—in the midst of the throne that is surrounded by the four creatures, and in the midst of the elders. Frequently translators can’t conceive of how the Lamb is to be seen in two places at once, and so they translate this as meaning Jesus to be between the two places. A translation that smooths out like this is not remembering that visions are strange things. Moreover, that is not what the text says. It says that He is to be found smack in the center of two places—a heavenly or godly place, and a human one. In case we might doubt this, we see that later on the same book of Revelation promises, “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:17). So, a later verse makes it clear that the proper place of the Lamb is indeed in the midst of the throne—but also in the midst of His people, guiding them.
The book of Revelation itself, then, confirms our reading of this mystery: the placement of the Lamb in chapter 5 matches chapter 7. But we also find confirmation in the explanation of a perceptive ancient reader of the Scriptures, Bishop Aspringius of Beja, who lived in sixth century Spain at a time when the Visigoth ruler was Arian. One scholar points out that the good bishop “quoted the Apocalypse to defend orthodox ideas concerning the full divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Trinity” (Reynolds, Roger E. “Apocalypses New: The Recently Discovered Beneventan Illustrated Beatus in Geneva in its South Italian Context.” Peregrinations: Journal of Medieval Art and Architecture 3, 4 , https://digital.kenyon.edu/perejournal/vol3/iss4/1). When commenting on the fifth chapter of the Apocalypse, the bishop explains: “[John] says that he had seen this [Lamb] in the midst of the throne, that is, in power and in divine majesty…. “And among the elders.” By this he indicates the chorus of the law and the prophets, or of the apostles.” To this, he adds “And among the four living creatures.” This is because he is known in the fourfold order of the gospels.” So, then, this ancient close reader of the text recognizes both Jesus’ position with God, on the throne, and his position among the representatives of humanity. To this he adds that we come to know this Jesus from the witness of the evangelists, whom he sees, as many have in tradition, represented in the four creatures.
The book of Revelation itself confirms the reading that Jesus is on the throne and amidst the elders, and an ancient bishop also reads this way. Moreover, if we look to the prophet Ezekiel, we find language that is very similar to John’s vision, if not quite as explicit. In chapter 43, Ezekiel has reported an astonishing vision of the glory of the LORD in His heavenly temple. Then he hears the LORD assure him, “Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the people of Israel forever” (Ez 43:7). God’s word to the prophet speaks both of His transcendence, His place on the heavenly throne as represented by the Ark of the Covenant, and His immanence, dwelling in the midst of His own people. On top of this, the divine words to Ezekiel are confirmed by what Isaiah saw, recorded in chapter 6, when he heard the thrice-holy Hymn. That is, Isaiah saw Him high and lifted up even while God’s train filled the Temple. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD God Almighty”—He is Holy, Separate, the Only Divine One. But the song goes on to say “the whole earth is full of his glory:” He is not only holy, but choses to dignify us with His presence.
This was glimpsed by Isaiah and Ezekiel, who saw both the loftiness of God and His willingness to visit His people. But as those who know the LORD Jesus, we understand it even more clearly. We are claimed by the God-Man, whose proper place is both on the throne with the Father, and among His human brothers and sisters. His true glory is seen in His willingness to take on human flesh, and to die for us. He has become what we are, that we may be made, in Him, what He is.
This dual position of the standing-slaughtered Lion-Lamb governs everything else in chapter 5 of the Apocalypse. It is because of His double position that the LORD Jesus can take or receive from the right hand of the Father the scroll, and open it for us, to make sense of human history. (We might pause to note that the Son has been called Himself, “the right hand” of God, and so it is apt that in the vision He takes this scroll). It is because of His double identity that He is worshipped by the elders, the creatures, the hosts of heaven, and that He redeems us for God to be kings and priests. Here, in the received Greek text of the Church, we see for our benefit both the utter divinity of our LORD, upon the throne, and His powerful and tender actions. (The repeated “us” of the vision is missing in contemporary critical texts, and may not be in the earliest readings, but it is nonetheless true.) We are among the ones, the brothers and sisters of every race, and tribe, and tongue, whom He is making like Himself. And so we follow the lead of the four beasts and the elders, while the whole creation takes its cue from us, delighting to honor this One who alone is both human and divine by nature and by right.
Paul, in Romans 8:19-24, speaks of our God-given place in the cosmos as those who offer hope to the whole of creation. All of creation is groaning, but instinctively knows that when humanity is glorified, every creature in the sky, on the earth, and under the earth, will be restored to what was always meant to be. Because of the God-Man, we are, even now, being restored to the position that God gave to us, a bridge position in which we care for creation, and enhance it so as to bring glory to God. And here Paul makes explicit what John sees in terms of “seven spirits”—it is the Holy Spirit who works in us to bring to fulfillment what Jesus has accomplished.
Here, in this strange vision of John, we thrill to see the One who elicits from us all honor and glory and blessing. By this One, we also come to understand the purpose of our human history, and where it is leading. And, as we see the One who both sits upon the throne and walks (and dies and rises!) among us, we come to see how we are made for communion with God. Because of the human fall, our race has not consistently joined the myriads and myriads, and thousands and thousands around the throne. But now, with Jesus among us in His divine majesty, who sends the seven spirits out into all the world, and with the elders presenting our prayers before Him, we take our place with every other creature, high and low. “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us.” We cannot think of the One on the throne without thinking about the Lamb who is the Lion, the One who was slaughtered and yet lives, the One who remains with us unto ages of ages.