Thursday of week 33 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Rev 5:1-10

The vision we were introduced to yesterday of God on his throne in glory continues with the introduction of a scroll which represents God’s secret plans for the world. Its contents are unfolded in chaps. 6-9 of Revelation, which, however, we will not be reading in the liturgy.

Today’s passage is beautiful, once the symbolism of the images is made clear.

First, a word about scrolls. The normal way for writings to be kept was in the form of scrolls. Books, as we know them, did not come into existence until the 2nd century AD. The scroll was made either of leather (e.g. parchment) or from papyrus, a reed whose fibres were made into a kind of rough paper. They were written normally on only one side (but sometimes two) and in columns with pen and ink. After completion, they were rolled up and sealed so that only those authorised could read them. (Very few people could read anyway. Widespread literacy would have to wait for printing.) Some examples found in Egypt could be up to 100 feet in length but biblical scrolls would seldom be more than 30 feet, for instance the text of Isaiah. Reading them was a somewhat inconvenient process as they had to be unrolled and re-rolled at the same time. The arrival of the book changed all that by making any part of the script quickly accessible (as the CD did for the recording tape).

In his vision, John sees the One on the throne, God, holding a scroll in his hands. Unusually, it was written on both sides and it had seven seals. This indicated its degree of total inaccessibility to the unauthorised.

The voice of an angel then is heard asking if anyone, anywhere has the authority to break the seals and read the scroll. But it seemed that there was absolutely no one in the whole universe (“in heaven, on the earth, or under the earth”) who could do so. The known universes consisted of these three components. “Under the earth” was Hades, the place of the dead and the word corresponding to the Hebrew sheol. Only Christ will have the power to release those trapped there.

John weeps when he realises that no one is found worthy to open and reveal the contents of the scroll, until one of the 24 elders tells him that there is someone who can open the scroll and read it. He is “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David”. The “Lion of Judah” is a messianic title found in Genesis, where Judah is referred to as a “lion’s cub” and promised the right to rule “until he comes to whom it belongs”. The “Root of David”, from Isaiah, points to a future saviour-king descended from King David. The Lord Jesus, of course, is indicated here. “He has conquered”, that is, over Satan and the world.

The “Lion” then appears in the form of a Lamb, standing between the throne of God with the four creatures and the outer circles of the elders on their 24 thrones. The Lamb bears the marks of having been sacrificed, for this is the Passover Lamb sacrificed to save God’s people. Although the wounds are visible, the Lamb has risen from death and is upright in triumph and victory. The wounds are the badges of his victory over sin and death.

As a conqueror of death, this Lamb is also a Lion. (Incidentally, Revelation uses a word for “lamb” [arnion, ‘arnion] 29 times, which is found only once elsewhere in the New Testament, in the scene after the resurrection where Jesus tells Peter to feed his “lambs” and “sheep”, John 21:15]. There is also a tradition in apocryphal writing for the lamb as a victorious military leader. The Lamb has seven horns and seven eyes. The number ‘seven’ indicates fullness and completeness. The horns represent power and the eyes knowledge and wisdom.

The Lamb now comes forward to take the scroll from the hands of God sitting on his throne. As soon as he does so, the four creatures and the 24 elders all prostrate themselves. They give the same worship to the Lamb as they do to the One on the throne.

They each have a harp, used to accompany the songs of praise they sing, and bowls of incense representing the prayers of the whole Christian community. Incense was a normal feature of Hebrew ritual. In later Jewish thought, angels often present the prayers of saints to God (e.g. Tob 12:15) (Our image of heaven as people kneeling on clouds playing harps comes from images like this in Revelation. Again, our future life with God should in no way be seen as being like this!)

The passage concludes with the “new” hymn of the creatures and the elders, a hymn in praise of the Lamb, who alone is found worthy to open the scroll. In the Old Testament a new song celebrates a new intervention of deliverance or blessing by God. Here it is the Lamb who has earned the right to open the scroll by the sacrificing and pouring out of his blood which bought back people of every race and nation and “made them a line of kings and priests to serve our God and rule the world”. ‘Kings and priests’, previously an Old Testament designation of Israel, is now applied in the New Testament to the whole Christian community.

Through our baptism and our identifying with the Lamb, we share in a special way in both the kingship and priesthood of Christ and also in his role as prophet. This is true of every single Christian and not just the hierarchy, clergy or religious.

Today we give special thanks and praise to the Lamb, who sacrificed his life in love for us and who, through his life, death and resurrection and the through Gospel (the Scroll) he bequeathed to us has left us a priceless guide to a life of happiness and fulfilment.

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