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Christmas Bible Reading from The Book of Revelation

Christmas Bible readings from Matthew and Luke are typical, but there are other places in Scripture that speak about Jesus’ birth. The Book of Revelation is a word from God to his people about the realities in heaven that effect and direct human history, things which we cannot see with our natural eyes, spiritual happenings. Chapter 12 uses symbols to describe a cosmic battle that rages between God and Satan. And Jesus’ birth is an important part of this struggle.

And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman dressed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of 12 stars and being pregnant, she cries out in labor pains, tormented to give birth.
And another sign appeared in heaven: Look! A great red dragon having 7 heads and 10 horns, and upon his heads 7 diadems, and his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth.
And the dragon stood before the woman, the one about to give birth, so that when she gives birth he may devour her child.
(Revelation 12:1-4)

If you have not spent time reading the Book of Revelation, it can be a strange experience at first, like stepping into a sort of theological Alice in Wonderland. The Book of Revelation is filled with apocalyptic literature, a style of writing that uses many symbols.

In this section we see several important symbols. The woman who is dressed in the sun is a symbol for God’s chosen people, Israel. God’s people are often spoken of in Scripture as God’s wife or bride. In the Old Testament Israel is God’s wife. In the New Testament the Church is the Bride of Christ.

The woman’s child is the Messiah, God’s Anointed One, the one he promised to send as savior of his people. He is Jesus.

The dragon is obviously an enemy of the woman and her child, that is, an enemy of Israel and Messiah Jesus. The dragon with his 7 heads and 10 horns and 7 diadems represents political power. The diadems on the dragon’s heads are crowns.

There are 2 kinds of crowns in the Book of Revelation. Stephanos is a crown made of a wreath. It is given to winning athletes and worn at feasts and celebrations. It is usually made of some type of greenery that fades quickly. But the diadem is made of precious metals and stones, jewels. It is worn by kings and queens. It is a symbol of empire, of political and military power. The dragon wields political power.

Nations and their leaders who are enemies of God’s people are often symbolized by giant dangerous creatures, like dragons and leviathans. Pharaoh and Egypt were enemies of God’s people in the Book of Exodus. Pharaoh tried to destroy the Hebrews, God’s people, by throwing all their baby boys in the Nile River. In the Book of Esther, we read about Haman in the ancient kingdom of Babylon. Haman had political power which he tried to use as a tool to destroy the Jews who were in exile in Babylon. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem King Herod tried to destroy him, killing all the babies in that town. So, this red dragon represents political powers and their leaders who try to destroy God’s people so that his chosen Messiah cannot come and carry out his mission. But there is more to it.

And she birthed a son, a boy who is about to shepherd all the nations with a rod of iron, and her child was snatched up to God and to his throne.(Revelation 12:5)

This is an apocalyptic version of the Gospel, Jesus’ life and ministry from a heavenly perspective. We are familiar with the 4 Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which give us an earthly view of Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke is filled with things familiar to us: taxes, a pregnant woman, a long journey, a town packed with travelers, the cradle, the animals, the shepherds. True, we still have the angels, but the earthly focus is unmistakable.

In Revelation 12:5, however, we are given a different perspective. Jesus’ birth, life and ascension back to God in heaven is reduced to one verse. The focus here is on his role as king. He will rule all the nations with a rod of iron. No nation, people or culture will defy the rule of Jesus. Jesus is King of kings. His rule is unbreakable, a rod of iron. His rule is endorsed by God. Jesus is welcomed to God’s throne. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to his people in the Old Testament. God promised to send his Anointed One as a descendant of Abraham. And God promised that he would be the one to rule forever. Jesus is born to rule.

These verses tell us 2 things. First, Jesus’ birth is one of God’s great goals in history. And second, Jesus’ birth leads to his universal eternal rule.

And the woman fled into the wilderness where she has a place prepared by God so that they might care for her 1,260 days.
And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels made war against the dragon and the dragon and his angels made war. And he was not able nor was a place found for them any longer in heaven.
And the great dragon was thrown out, the ancient serpent, the one called the Devil and Satan, the one leading astray the whole inhabited earth, he was thrown to earth and his angels were thrown down with him.
(Revelation 12:6-9)

If we have any doubt about the identity of the dragon it is dispelled in this section. The Lord wants to be sure that we know who the red dragon represents. He is more than a symbol for nations and their leaders who are hostile to God and his people. He is a powerful person using those nations and rulers against God and his people. He is the ancient serpent, the one who tempted Adam and Eve to sin in the Garden of Eden and so lead all humanity into a fallen state. He is the one called the Devil, which means slanderer. He is the one called Satan, which means adversary. He is the one who leads the whole world astray. Just as he persuaded Adam and Eve to doubt God’s word, so he still persuades people, communities, cultures, societies and nations today. His first recorded words, “Did God really say?” are still his most effective tool.

John’s vision includes a great battle in the heavenly realms between the Angel Michael and all the angels who follow him, fighting against the dragon, Satan, and his angels. Despite Satan’s great power, he loses and is expelled from heaven. All of this is a reminder that what we see in history is driven by forces which are invisible to our natural eyes. Spiritual warfare rages all around us. We see and experience the results. The results are broken lives and families, broken communities and nations. The battle is real and the losses are tragic. But these visions show that there is a victory and it belongs to God.

And I heard a loud voice in the heaven saying, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ, because the accuser of our brothers is thrown out, the one accusing them before our God day and night. (Revelation 12:10)

The scene shifts in verse 10. John hears a loud voice of praise in heaven, God’s dwelling place. What follows in an expression of worship. Songs of worship are found throughout the Bible and they are some of the most inspiring passages of Scripture to read and meditate upon. But many of the worship songs before the Book of Revelation use the form, To God be, To God be the glory, the power, the honor, and so forth. It is an expression of hope and belief about the future: may it be. But the loud voice in heaven affirms that the time of God’s victory is no longer in the future, the kingdom of God is no longer merely potential, Now are the salvation and power and kingdom of God. Jesus began his preaching ministry by proclaiming that the kingdom of God is near. He taught his disciples to pray for God’s kingdom to come: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. But John’s vision of the worship in heaven sees the time when God’s kingdom is consummated. Note that God’s kingdom is closely related to the authority of Jesus, the one born to rule.

The consummation of God’s kingdom rule is also important for God’s people. They are the ones who were being harassed by Satan. He accuses them before God night and day. His accusations may include lies, since he is the great deceiver, but they are damaging because they also contain some truth. God’s people have sinned and rebelled against the Lord. Satan knows that for God’s holiness to remain intact, for his righteousness to be unstained, he must exercise justice and punish his people, cut them off from his love and blessing. Satan believes that he has put God in an impossible situation. He must either show himself to be unrighteous by blessing those who do not deserve it, or he must show himself to be unloving by condemning those he created for fellowship. But God is not defeated. Jesus is the answer to the spiritual conundrum. That’s why Satan tries so hard to destroy Jesus. He knows that Jesus can defeat him. Jesus’ rule leads to Satan’s defeat.

11 And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life unto death. (Revelation 12:11)

So God’s people have victory over Satan and his accusations. Notice that this victory comes by the blood of the Lamb. “Lamb” is a reference to the Passover feast memorializing God’s rescue of his people Israel from slavery in Egypt. God instructed them to sacrifice a lamb to remember his salvation and to look forward to a much greater salvation. So, Satan is accusing God’s people of sinning, which they have done, forcing God to exercise his justice and deny his love, or exercise his love and deny his justice. But Jesus sacrifices himself at Calvary, giving his life as a sin offering for God’s people, the ultimate Passover Lamb. It is his blood, his life, offered as a sacrifice that enables God to forgive his people. God’s holiness is satisfied because the sin of his people is punished and God’s love is satisfied. This frees God to forgive and bless his people, demonstrating his mercy and grace. Satan is expelled from heaven and his accusations are silenced. God does not simply ignore sin. That would make him unjust. God does not abandon his people. That would make him unloving. His solution is brilliant, a cosmic victory.

We shouldn’t miss something important about this verse. God’s people overcome by the blood of the Lamb, by Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary, but also by the word of their testimony. The salvation that comes from Jesus’ sacrifice is not forced on anyone. It must be appropriated by personal faith, by the word of their testimony. Only those willing to testify, to place their faith in Jesus, will enjoy the benefits of his sacrifice. And this testimony is not empty words. Notice what it says: They did not love their lives even to the point of death. In other words, they were willing to die for their testimony. Saving faith inspires meaningful words which are backed up by actions, by sacrifice, even by martyrdom if necessary.

In verse 5 we read that the woman, God’s people, gave birth to her son, Jesus, who will rule the nations with an iron rod, and he was snatched up to God, to his throne. This is a short version of the Gospel, a heavenly perspective that focuses on his birth and ascension (his coming and going, if you will). Now, in verse 11, we get his important sacrificial death, the blood of the Lamb, which is the proper focus of saving faith. Those who overcome the enemy do so by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony. The blood of the Lamb does not automatically save all who are born on earth. Each one must decide and be willing to hold that faith as more precious than even life itself. Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection offer us eternal victory.

But the story doesn’t end with Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension.

Therefore, rejoice O heavens, and those dwelling in them. Woe to the earth and the sea for the Devil has gone down to you, very angry, knowing that he has little time.(Revelation 12:12)

Victory has begun with Jesus’ death and resurrection, but it is not finished. There is still a battle to be fought. This reminds me of playing ball on the street as a boy. In our neighborhood we usually played baseball or football. We played together so often that we knew once the teams were chosen which team would win. We could tell by who was on each team. If you were chosen by the losing team, well, that was no fun. You just had to go out and do your job of losing and being a good sport. But when you were chosen to play on the winning team, it was great fun to play! The Book of Revelation is telling us that we know who will win. We know by whose team we are on. Jesus is the winner. All who follow him will share in his victory. Anyone following the devil and his team will share in his loss.

And when the dragon saw that he was thrown to the earth, he pursued the woman who gave birth to the boy.(Revelation 12:13)

It may seem strange to read about dragons in the Bible. Is this evidence that the Bible is merely some sort of religious mythology with no basis in fact? It is fashionable in our culture to be skeptical of invisible heavenly happenings. But so-called “consensus science” and its self-imposed Darwinian limitations have failed to explain the richness of the human experience of reality. Darwin leaves too much out. The Bible reveals what naturalistic science cannot see. In symbolic language we are reading about the cosmic struggle between God and his enemy Satan. And the enemy hates all that God is trying to do through and for his people. He works to destroy God’s work, his people.

Notice how God’s people are identified in verse 13. They are the woman who gave birth to the boy, Jesus. Five times in this short chapter the ancient Greek word for giving birth is used (tiktō). That’s why it is appropriate to use this chapter as a Christmas reading. In just 17 short verses the birth of Jesus is mentioned at least 5 times. Why? Because Jesus’ birth is an important part of this cosmic struggle which is raging between God and his enemy, the Devil.

But we hear competing notions about the real meaning of Jesus’ birth. What is the true nature of Christmas? The watered-down version of Christmas asserts merely that people have good hearts and simply need a little inspiration to be generous and loving and kind and do the right thing. Jesus’ birth is sentimental folklore like other religious myths which are designed to appeal to our better nature. This popular presentation of Christmas uses the pictures of Jesus in the manger with Mary and Joseph and the animals and shepherds, all part of the Bible’s presentation. By using imagery that evokes the Bible’s account, this false version reinterprets the Bible’s message, replacing the truth with a lie.

A much better version of Christmas reminds us that Jesus’ birth is not folklore but history and that he came for more than the cradle. He came to die on the cross. And even more than that, he came to wear the victor’s crown. This biblical version of the cradle, cross and crown reminds us that we need more than someone to appeal to our better natures. In fact, the Bible asserts that we have no better nature, merely a sin nature. Our sin nature will destroy us if left to run its course, and we haven’t the power to stop it. We need a Savior. Jesus is that Savior. He offered himself as a sin offering on the cross and God raised him up and received him back to heaven. He is alive and able to live in the hearts of his people through God’s indwelling Holy Spirit, giving us power to overcome our sin nature.

But even this presentation of Christmas leaves out one important aspect. Jesus came to conquer more than just our sin nature. Once we have been forgiven in the eyes of God by the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, because of our faith in him, we still have an enemy who is out to destroy us: Satan. The ancient Serpent who persuaded Adam and Even to doubt God and disobey him is still deceiving people, trying to persuade them to reject God and his salvation. The dragon is active in turning nations and empires against God’s people in an effort to destroy them. So Jesus’ birth is certainly about more than sentimentality but it is about more than our personal salvation. Jesus’ birth is an important part of the cosmic battle between God and Satan.

And the 2 wings of the great eagle were given to the woman so that she might fly to the wilderness, to her place, where she is nourished a time and times and half a time away from the presence of the serpent. (Revelation 12:14)

The imagery here comes from the Book of Exodus. After God rescued his people from cruel bondage in Egypt he brought them to Mt. Sinai in the desert. He said, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” Now we read in the Book of Revelation that God will again bring his persecuted people to a place of safety in the wilderness. When it says “time, times, and half a time,” it is probably a reference to a period which is measured as 1,260 days and as 42 months in other places. It is 3 and a half years. Why any time at all? Why would God allow his people to be pursued and flee into the wilderness?

Before God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt he made them wait while he visited 10 plagues on the land of their oppressors. Why? Why not just come in and destroy Pharaoh’s army and put an immediate end to their cruel bondage? Why make them wait? God was doing more than rescuing his people. He was revealing his power and his redemption in unforgettable ways. More than that, he was refining their faith like gold in a fire. He wanted more than their freedom, he wanted their faith. He wanted them to see his glory in ways that they would talk about for generations.

Here, at the end of the age, we see in the Book of Revelation that God’s tactics are unchanged. He delays victory so that his people can be, not just saved, but strengthened. We can believe that the wilderness times in our lives, the struggles we experience, are allowed by God in order to show us his power, to reveal his work of redemption to us, and to refine our faith like gold in a fire.

And the serpent spewed from his mouth after the woman water like a river so that it might sweep her away. And the earth helped the woman, the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river which the dragon spewed from his mouth. (Revelation 12:15-16)

Notice that God’s enemy keeps changing his name: devil, dragon, serpent. Every time we turn around he is wearing a different mask. That should be no surprise. Satan is a master of disguises and full of deception.

Verses 15 and 16 demonstrate one of the challenges to interpreting the symbols in the Book of Revelation. The idea of a river coming from someone’s mouth would seem to be a symbol for speech. Since it comes from the Devil’s mouth, it would make sense for this river of water to represent an overwhelming barrage of deception. The Devil is full of deceit. But if that is a correct interpretation, then how does the earth open its mouth and swallow words of deception? Mentioning the earth makes the river seem more literal, like a natural disaster. Is it some combination of the two?

While many of the symbols in the Book of Revelation are interpreted by the book itself, and others are fairly easy to interpret without much assistance, some are quite difficult. But we must remember that God sometimes keeps the interpretation a mystery until some future time. In chapter 10 of John’s Apocalypse, the apostle hears 7 thunders. Seven is an important number in the Book of Revelation. It is the number for completion. The thunders apparently say something that is intelligible for John and he is ready to write it down. But a voice from heaven tells him not to write. The 7 thunders are kept from us for now. This is reminder that God has not revealed everything to us. Some things are kept for later.

One thing is clear from these verses: God always provides for his people, even though he allows the battle to be prolonged and even though he sometimes leads his people into wilderness places. God often uses a seemingly impossible avenue of rescue, something that we would never think of. When he brought his people out of slavery in Egypt, God led them up to the Red Sea where they were trapped by Pharaoh’s armies. Disaster seemed imminent. But then the Lord opened the sea and his people crossed through on dry ground. Pharaoh’s armies followed them and were swallowed up by the sea. God provided a way which the Hebrews could not see, until the time came. When the time comes, we will understand these symbols in the Book of Revelation. For now, we know enough to trust God.

And the dragon was enraged at the woman and he went out to make war against the rest of her offspring, those keeping the commands of God and having the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 12:17)

Satan keeps failing but he keeps fighting. Verse 12 says that he knows his time is short. This implies that he knows he will ultimately lose but he is hard-hearted, stiff-necked, and unrepentant. He never learns. Every time he tries to destroy God’s people God turns it into a celebration. Pharaoh tried to destroy God’s people in Egypt by throwing all the boy babies into the Nile River. But God saved them and instituted the Passover Feast. In Babylon a man named Haman hated God’s chosen people and tried to use the government to wipe them out. The result? God saved them and since then they have celebrated the feast of Purim to commemorate it. Back in the Promised Land, Antioch IV Epiphanes tried to destroy God’s people, but God saved them and they celebrate Hanukkah to remember it. King Herod tried to murder Jesus in Bethlehem, but he failed and so we celebrate Christmas. Satan used the Pharisees and Pilate to kill Jesus, but God meant it for our good and he raised Jesus up from the tomb and we celebrate Easter.

We have all this evidence of God’s faithfulness to his people, his ability and willingness to turn our defeats into victories. With all these examples of God’s faithfulness we should have great confidence in God. After all these defeats have been turned to victory throughout history there is no reason to think our lives and our place in history will be any different. God will turn our struggles and defeats into triumph!

Notice how God’s people are described in verse 17. They are the ones who keep God’s commands and have the testimony of Jesus, a combination of works and words. To testify without obeying is not enough. To obey without testifying is not enough. Obedience does not mean perfection. We still struggle with sin but we can humble ourselves before the Lord and be forgiven. Nevertheless, if someone has no desire to obey God it is a sign of no salvation from God. We cannot run with the Devil and share the Lamb’s victory. God’s people trust and obey.

President Donald Trump recently announced that the United States of America will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The whole world was stirred up by the announcement. After thousands of years, Israel and Jerusalem are still at the epicenter of history. God promised the land of Israel to his chosen people 4,000 years ago. He chose Jerusalem as the place where his name would dwell with his people. And he promised that even if his chosen people were scattered to all the nations of the world, he would restore them to the Promised Land: Israel. That may seem like ancient history, but God is faithful and his promises are sure.

God continues to prove the skeptics wrong. He does the impossible and he does it in the pages of our newspapers. Until very recently in history it did not seem possible that God’s ancient promise to gather his people and restore them to their land could ever come about. How can a people be scattered to the 4 corners of the earth for almost 2,000 years and even maintain their ethnic identity? Most peoples would intermarry and cease to be distinct. But God’s chosen people, Israel, has not only remained a people after being expelled from their homeland in the first century, but in May 1948 the impossible happened: Israel became a Jewish nation again, just as God promised. He gathered Jews from around the world and restored them to their homeland. And he did so after one of the most brutal attempts to destroy them history has ever seen: the Holocaust. The enemy’s hatred for God’s people is vicious, but he has failed.

God’s promises will all be fulfilled. Satan will lose. Jesus is the victor. We should trust the Lord, obey his commands, and testify to our faith in Jesus.

Merry Christmas!

Brother Richard Foster

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Digging Deeper Into Heavenly Worship: Singing Songs In The Throne Room of God (Revelation 4-5)

What does worship sound like in heaven? Do they sing hymns or choruses?  Do they use an organ or guitar?  Is it a praise team or a choir?  The Apostle John was blessed to attend a worship service in heaven.  His experience is recorded in Revelation 4-5.  John paints a vivid picture with his words that is quite regal.  Included in his description are five songs.  Each song is distinct.  John uses narrative sections to set the stage for each of these five lyrical expressions of praise.  In doing so he employs various literary devices that add another layer of depth to what is already a theologically rich piece of Scripture.

After reporting his invitation into God’s very presence and his vision of a door standing open in heaven, John writes: “Immediately, I was in the Spirit” (4:2).  His statement uses an aorist tense-form verb, “I was,” ἐγενόμην, which is the normal tense for recording narrative in first-century Greek.  John then proceeds to describe what he sees in the throne room of heaven.  We expect him to do so with a series of sentences which use aorist tense-form verbs.  Instead he gives his report with a barrage of short verb-less phrases: “And look! A throne there in heaven,” “and on the throne One sitting,” “and the One sitting like the appearance of a jasper stone,” “and a rainbow around the throne like the appearance of an emerald,” “and around the throne twenty-four thrones,” and so forth.  Most of these descriptions are prepositional phrases, which would be incomplete sentences in English, so our English Bibles supply words, usually past tense verbs (the NAS shows the additions by placing them in italics).

John’s rapid short phrases create the sense of a breathless observer so overtaken with the sights and sounds of heaven’s throne room that he is blurting out his report without any consideration for literary niceties.  When the text is translated faithfully, the reader is swept away with him, eyes darting back and forth at the magnificent sights in God’s throne room, trying to take it all in.

John’s pattern of prepositional phrases dominates the text until the first song, which is recorded in the last part of v. 8.  Two exceptions are the lightning and thunder proceeding from the throne and the eyes filling the wings of the four living beings.  In each of these cases John uses present tense-form verbs, which bring these particular details forward in the reader’s attention.  The present tense-form verbs give more ‘motion’ to the lightning and thunder, adding a sense of dramatic movement and sound, breaking up the static feel created by the series of prepositional phrases. Extra attention to the eyes on the four living beings makes us consider what an incredible view is available around God’s throne; there is so much to see![1]

John’s series of verb-less phrases is broken by the formal introduction to the first song in Revelation 4-5.  The negated finite verb (present tense-form), “they have,” ἔχουσιν, refers to the lack of rest that the four living beings have from their constant praise. That the four living beings never rest from praise is a matter we expect to be in the foreground of John’s narrative/vision, and it is marked as such by the present-tense form verb. The lyrics to their song of worship are presented as direct discourse:

Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty,
The One who was, the One who is, the One who is coming.[2]

Notice that Song 1, like much of the text before it, is constructed from verb-less phrases. Many English versions add “is” between “holy” and “the Lord” in order to avoid an incomplete sentence (some without putting the word in italics, thus concealing from the English reader the fact that an editorial addition has been made).  Song 1 is lofty but basic.  God is holy and eternal.  The four living beings do not sing about God’s works as Creator or Redeemer, nor do they list any other attributes, although v. 9 implies that their worship may include more than John records in v. 8.  In fact, we are told in v. 9 that the four living beings’ worship in v. 8 qualifies as giving “glory, honor and thanksgiving.”  Thanksgiving may imply some action on the part of God, unless they are thanking God simply for his holy and eternal being.

Many other wonderful points could be made about vv. 1-8, but for our purposes we notice that the descriptions which set the stage for Song 1 are mostly verb-less clauses, prepositional phrases, and the song itself is without any finite verb (“The One who was,” ὁ ἦν, is expressed by an article and a finite verb, the imperfect tense-form of εἰμί [aspectually vague], but the entire statement is a fixed form which functions like an indeclinable proper noun.  See 1:4 ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος which is in the nominative case even though it occurs after the preposition ἀπό, which takes the genitive.).  So the narrative which sets up Song 1 and the song itself have a definite ‘flavor’ which is created by John’s grammatical choices, i.e., verb-less phrases.

Song 2 is recorded in 4:11.  John’s set-up for the second song is recorded in vv. 9-10.  We immediately see a difference in John’s language in this section.  Instead of verb-less prepositional phrases (as in vv. 2-8) John uses sentences with finite verbs, a text that reads more normally for English speakers.  But the surprise comes when we learn that John employs future tense-form verbs.  If we translate John’s text with future tense English verbs we get the following verbal structure: “And when they will give . . . they will fall . . . they will worship . . . and they will cast” (vv. 9-10). These actions are translated by present-tense verbs in most English versions, the first action usually rendered as “whenever,” reflecting the presence of the temporal indicator “when,” ὅταν. But John’s use of Koine Greek future tense-form verbs expresses expectation, in this case expected actions contingent upon the preceding act of worship (the four living beings giving glory, honor and thanks to God).

Since English versions typically add past-tense finite verbs to John’s verb-less phrases in vv. 2-8 and employ present-tense finite verbs for John’s future-tense form verbs in vv. 9-10, the stark difference between the two sections is somewhat ‘flattened out’ for the English reader.  Nevertheless, the future tense-form verbs in vv. 9-10 present the action before Song 2 in a more contingent mood than the background picture of vv. 2-8.  The verbal structure creates a sense of anticipation, especially with regard to the worship of the 24 elders.  (NAS has future-tense verbs in v. 10, but not v. 9)

Song 1, preceded by a section of verb-less phrases, consisted of verb-less phrases (see the translation above).  Song 2, preceded by a section with finite verbs (future tense-form) includes finite verbs:

You are worthy our Lord and God
to receive the glory and the honor and the power
because you created all things
and by your will they exist and they were created.

The song itself does not use future tense-form verbs, but a present tense form (“you are,”), an aorist (“you created”), an imperfect (“they exist” or “they were existing”), and finally another aorist (“were created”). “You are” and “you exist” are both forms of the aspectually vague “to be,” εἰμί (the first verb is completed by an aorist infinitive: “you are worthy to take,” λαβεῖν).

John’s grammatical choices create a sense of development in his unfolding description of the worship session in heaven’s throne room. The lexical content of chapter 4 also reveals a progression in the worship.  The song of the four living beings (Song 1) praises God’s personal existence.  The worship of the 24 elders (Song 2) moves on to praising God for his work as creator.  The progression continues in chapter 5 with the revelation and worship of the Redeemer (see below).  In addition, the number of worshipers continues to increase until the end of chapter 5, starting in heaven and spreading to all creation.  These progressions would be noticeable from the content of John’s descriptions only (in any good English translation), but they are highlighted and supported by the verbal constructions employed by John to represent them.

Song 3 is recorded in 5:9-10.  The set-up for this song, 5:1-8, finally shifts to a more typical narrative style for Koine Greek: a section built on a series of aorist tense-form verbs with imperfect- and present-tense form verbs used to bring certain matters to the forefront.  The first two verbs are “I saw,” εἶδον, in vv. 1 and 2.  John saw a sealed book in the right hand of the One seated on the throne and he saw an angel asking if anyone was worthy to open the book.  We might expect him to say that he heard the angel since his spoken question is critical to the development of the narrative, but his emphasis in this section is on the sights of the throne room.

At this point in the narrative John begins to bring a vital issue to the forefront.  We read that nobody was able to open the book and look into it, using an imperfect tense-form, ἐδύνατο, “(he) was not able,” thus drawing attention to this critical inability (v. 3).  John’s response to this disappointing state of affairs is also marked, this time in 2 ways.  First, he brings this part of the narrative forward into our view by using the adverbial modifier πολύ, “much,” that is, John was “wept much” (AV).  Second, John uses an imperfect tense-form verb “was crying,” ἔκλαιον (vs. “cried”), which brings his weeping forward into the view of the reader against the background of aorist tense-form verbs.

The next verb is a present tense-form: λέγει, “he says,” which keeps this section front and center in the mind of the reader.  One of the twenty-four elders encourages the weeping John.  The elder’s statement is important: “Don’t cry.  Look! The Lion from the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed to open the book and its seven seals.”  After the encouragement from the elder, John returns to his use of aorist tense-form verbs in order to continue the narrative.  The next verse (5:6) is governed by εἶδον, “I saw.”  What John saw was the promised Lion from the Tribe of Judah, an obvious description of the Risen Lord Jesus (a lamb standing as one slain, etc.).  Next comes another aorist tense-form verb: ἦλθεν, “he came,” that is, the Lamb came.

Now John highlights the Lamb’s action with a perfect tense-form verb, εἴληφεν, “he took,” or “he takes.”  This choice of tense has the effect of bringing the Lamb’s action to the very front of the narrative.[3]  So the action of the Lamb when he takes the book from the hand of the One sitting on the throne receives the highest level of attention and emphasis from the verb tense-forms chosen by John.  This is a critical moment.  We get the sense that all heaven holds its breath in anticipation of this moment.  Every eye is on the Lamb.

The Lamb’s taking of the book from God now receives additional emphasis by becoming the inspiration for the third of the five songs in Revelation 4-5.  But before we get to the actual lyrics of the song, John has a few more details to share, governed again by aorist tense-form verbs.  The first verb, ἔλαβεν, “he took,” (that is, the Lamb took the book), modified by a temporal pointer ὅτε, “when,” advances the narrative.  John tells us that when the Lamb took the book the four living beings and the elders “fell down” (another aorist: ἔπεσαν) before the Lamb.  In addition, we learn that the elders each have a stringed instrument and a bowl of incense.  The incense, we are told, is the prayers of the saints (using a present tense-form verb, but of the aspectually vague εἰσιν, “they are”).

Now John has set the stage for Song 3, but first he needs a formal introduction for the speech (or, in this case, singing).  The introduction is usually rendered, “And they sang a new song” in English (they being the four living beings and the 24 elders).  But the verb for “sing” is brought to the foreground because it is a present tense-form, ᾄδουσιν, “they sing.”  English past tense is a smoother reading for English readers.  But the Greek text highlights the song by using this present tense-form verb to introduce the lyrics.  Now Song 3:

You are worthy to take the book and to open its seals
for you were slain and you purchased for God by your blood
from every tribe and tongue and people and nation
and you made them to our God a kingdom and priests
and they will reign on the earth.

Of the 5 songs in Revelation 4-5, Song 3 is the climax. Several factors verify this conclusion.  The simplest indication is the fact that this song has the longest set of lyrics.  In addition, this song falls in the middle of an odd number of songs, 3 of 5, making it the apogee in a chiastic-like arrangement.  The subject matter of the songs implies a climax at Song 3.  Song 1 focuses on God’s being.  Song 2 focuses on God’s act of creation.  Song 3 praises the Lamb for his work of redemption, surpassing the first creation by the new creation.  Songs 4 and 5 are simpler by comparison (more on them below).

John’s creative use of Koine Greek verb tenses also elevates Song 3 to the place of prominence.  As the analysis above reveals, John precedes each of the first 3 songs with a distinct atmosphere or mood.  First, he rapidly describes in short bursts a variety of sights in the throne room (verb-less phrases).  He then switches to a mood of expectation (Greek future tense).  Before Song 3 he presents a dramatic narrative that brings all eyes to bear on the Lamb.  These sections which serve to introduce songs 1-3 are more elaborate and colorful than the ones he uses to introduce songs 4-5, which also throws the attention on Song 3.

The text immediately preceding Song 4 is driven by two aorist tense-form verbs, “I looked,” εἶδον, and “I heard,” ἤκουσα.  This section is much shorter than the narrative section preceding Song 3.  What John sees and hears is a group of angels without number.  With only the idiomatic participle (λέγοντες) to mark the beginning of the song (also used as part of the formal introductions to all 4 other songs), the lyrics are recorded:

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain
to receive the power and riches and wisdom and strength
   and honor and glory and blessing

We immediately notice that Song 4 is much simpler than Song 3. The lyrics still affirm that the Lamb is worthy and identify the Lamb as the one who was slain.  Beyond this, however, no details are provided about his important work of redemption as in Song 3.  The worship is more formulaic.  The Lamb is ascribed seven attributes, which is a number of perfection or completion in John’s Revelation.  The worship is more impersonal.  Worshipers have shifted to a third-person perspective.  In Song 3 the Lamb is addressed directly, now indirectly.  None of this implies that the song is ‘inferior,’ simply of a different type.

Song 5, the final song in Revelation 4-5, is preceded by a short narrative-style section much like Song 4.  Instead of two aorist tense-form verbs, as with Song 4, the setup to Song 5 is governed by a single aorist tense-form verb, “I heard,” ἤκουσα.  As with Song 4, Song 5 has no formulaic introduction to the actual lyrics of the song (except for the participle which is used before all 5 songs, with the one minor difference in Song 5: it appears in the accusative case, λέγοντας, instead of the nominative).  The lyrics for Song 5 are:

to the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb
the blessing and the honor and the glory and the dominion
into the ages of the ages.

As with Song 4, the final song of Revelation 4-5 is shorter than Song 3. Song 5 includes no finite verb (also true of Song 1).  The song begins by identifying the recipients of worship: the One sitting on the throne (God the Father) and the Lamb (Jesus Christ the Son), both in the dative case.  The attributes ascribed to them are listed without a verb, four items each in the nominative case (in this song they are each articular and they are separated by the common conjunction “and,” καί).  Finally, the song ends with an adverbial phrase, although the verb must be supplied (in English translations “be,” that is: To the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb be the blessing and the honor,” etc.).  All in all, Song 5 is a more generic worship when compared to Song 3, thus maintaining the emphasis on Song 3.

While it is true that the lyrics of Songs 4 and 5 ‘step down’ from prominence in order to leave the spotlight on Song 3, John’s development of the heavenly scene is complex and carries on after Song 3.  The lyrical content of the 5 songs climaxes in Song 3, but other factors in Revelation 4-5 continue building to the very end of chapter 5.  For instance, the group of worshipers expands with each new song.  Song 1 was performed by the four living beings.  Song 2 is presented by the 24 elders.  Song 3 is sung by a combination of the four living beings and the 24 elders.  Countless angels are added to the “loud voice,” φωνῇ μεγάλῃ, of Song 4.  And finally, in Song 5, every created being in heaven, on earth, under the earth and on the sea joins in the praise.  Heaven’s worship has spilled over into creation!

This dramatic expansion of worshipers in Song 5 actually points to the climactic positon of Song 3. Before Song 3, all the worshipers were members of heaven’s court.  In Song 3 we learn that the Lamb’s blood purchased men for God from all peoples.  After Song 3, we see that worship of the Lamb and of God expands to include every created being.  Song 3 is the proverbial stone that hit the cosmic pool and sent theological ripples out to the very edges.  Song 5 represents a universal response of honor to the Lamb.  Everyone will worship him and worship him as God, which brings us to another development.  Song 5 is climactic in another sense.  Songs 1-2 address attributes of God the Father.  Songs 3-4 switch to the Lamb, God the Son.  Now, in the final song, both Father and Son are worshiped simultaneously.  This is a reflection of John’s high Christology.  Jesus is God and will be worshiped as God by everyone.

The fact that everyone is worshiping Jesus in Song 5 is a significant development in Revelation 4-5.  In John’s vision, he foresees a day when even the unredeemed will acknowledge Jesus’ true identity.  This striking development reflects the truth expressed in Paul’s praise poem to the Philippians, “At the Name of Jesus every knee will bow in the heavens and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father”[4] (Philippians 2:10-11, see also Isaiah 45:23).  This combined worship of the redeemed and the unredeemed may influence the content of Song 5.  So far, attributes ascribed to God include holiness, glory, honor and power in Songs 1 and 2 (and see 4:9 “glory and honor and thanksgiving” mentioned apart from direct speech).  Song 3 has no list of attributes.  Song 4 includes power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and blessing.  Now, in Song 5 the eternally saved and the eternally lost agree to ascribe to the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb the blessing, the honor, the glory and the dominion.

Some English translations render the last attribute in Song 5 “power,” thus concealing from the English reader the fact that a new term has appeared: to kratos, τὸ κράτος.  This is the third Koine Greek term in the 5 songs of Revelation 4-5 that can be legitimately translated by the English word “power.”  Song 2 affirms that the One sitting on the throne is worthy to receive ten dynamin, τὴν δύναμιν. This term is often rendered “power” in the New Testament.  Song 4 affirms that the Lamb is worthy to receive both ten dynamin, τὴν δύναμιν and ten ischyn, τὴν ἰσχὺν.  The second term is also usually rendered by English words like “power,” “might,” or “strength.”  So the new term in Song 5, to kratos, τὸ κράτος, can also be translated into English by using words like “power” and “might.”  But by translating this new term “power,” the English reader is left unaware that a different word has appeared in the last song (see NIV).

Why are the worshipers introducing another term for “power”? Does this new term have a semantic domain that distinguishes it from the 2 words already used for “power” / “strength”?  A quick look at a trusted lexical aid for New Testament Greek, BDAG[5], provides a ready answer.  In addition to “strength” and “mighty deed,” to kratos, τὸ κράτος, includes a strand of meaning that is not present for the other two words: “rule” and “sovereignty.”  So this word carries with it the idea of not just raw power, but power exercised in reigning or ruling over a constituency, power and authority applied to governing a kingdom.  The NAS translation reflects the meaning of this word in this specific context well by rendering it “dominion.”

More than an exercise of simple ability, the One sitting on the throne and the Lamb exercise a legitimate dominion. The foundation for this authority has been noted in the prior songs.  God exercises his dominion by virtue of his holiness (Song 1) and by virtue of the fact that he is the creator of all things (Song 2).  The Lamb exercises dominion granted to him because he is the Redeemer.  This new emphasis on God’s official authority over all created beings is especially appropriate because the worshipers in Song 5 include those who resist bowing the knee to Christ until they are compelled to do so at his unveiling.  And for the first time in the songs of Revelation 4-5, a marker of eternality is used to culminate the praise: literally “into the ages of the ages,” but typically translated “for ever and ever” in English.  The dominion of God the Father and God the Son is both universal and eternal.  No creature escapes their rule, ever.  Even the unredeemed will affirm this great theological reality.

The heavenly worship session concludes after Song 5. This cosmic concert certainly deserves a grand finale.  The first voices in the concert now become the last.  The four living beings voiced Song 1 and now they have the honor of adding the “Amen!”  With that, John tells us that the elders fall down and worship (both actions expressed with aorist tense-forms).

John may not answer our questions about the instrumentation or musical style of the worship in heaven, but he certainly gives us much to consider about the rich tapestry of theological development in the lyrical expressions of praise and in the voices of the various choirs. The song of redemption is front and center in the heavenly throne room (at least in Revelation 4-5).  But it is not alone.  It is surrounded by lyrical expressions of God’s personal characteristics, his occupation as maker of all things, and his office as eternal ruler of all life.  The spotlight is not on musical style, but on lyrical artistry and theological revelation, displaying remarkable creative strokes of literary skill.  No matter what musical style we prefer on earth, the lyrics are in harmony with the choirs of God’s court when the Lamb’s labor of redemption figures prominently in the message.  To him be the blessing and the honor and the glory and the dominion forever and ever, for he is worthy!


[1] One other finite verb occurs in this section: “they are,” εἰσιν, referring to the seven-fold Spirit (lit. “seven spirits”) before the throne, but it is a form of “to be,” εἰμί, which is aspectually vague. See Stanley E. Porter, Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament, with Reference to Tense and Mood, in vol. 1 of Studies in Biblical Greek, ed. D. A. Carson (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2010).

[2] Unless otherwise noted, English translations are produced by the author using UBS3.

[3] I am following Stanley Porter’s aspectual understanding of Greek verb tense-forms (Verbal Aspect in the Greek of the New Testament), where aorist is background, present and imperfect are foreground, and perfect and pluperfect are front-ground.

[4] The verbs in Philippians 2:10-11 are subjunctive tense-forms (κάμψῃ and ἐξομολογήσηται), which express potential, or projections.  In this context, the potential includes no doubt about the outcome, so English future-tense verbs accurately express the theological idea.

[5] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., rev. and ed. Frederick W. Danker [BDAG] (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000).

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Time for Vacation Bible School!

LifeWay’s Bible verse for VBS this year is Isaiah 30:21, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

The voice spoken of in this verse is none other than the voice of the Lord. Our faith is grounded in the wonderful truth that God himself has spoken and he is still speaking.

God has spoken to us through his written word, the Holy Bible. When we read the Bible, we are reading the words of the Almighty. What a thrill it is to have in our hands and in our hearts the written message of our Maker, Sustainer and Savior!

God’s word takes us back to the beginning of the heavens and earth and forward to the new heaven and earth. Only through God’s special revelation can we know about our true origin and final destination. Only through God’s special revelation can we learn about his unfolding plan for our lives now.

The voice of God also comes to us through the presence of his Holy Spirit. As God’s people we have his Spirit in our hearts illuminating his written word, enabling us to comprehend what we read.

God’s Spirit empowers us not only to grasp the great Truth revealed in his written word but also to apply it to our daily lives. We can see “the way” and “walk in it.” We understand and obey.

What a great honor and tremendous responsibility it is for us to teach these things to children. God has entrusted his word to us and called us to pass it on to the next generation. We are the most recent link in a gospel chain that stretches almost 2,000 years back to Jesus, and even further back into Old Testament times.

In this generation we face a pernicious spiritual darkness that threatens to silence the voice of the Bible in our country, thus denying children the joy of knowing Jesus. God’s word increasingly meets with a hostile reception in the halls of our government and in the classrooms of our schools.

But God assures us that his word is like a seed, carrying the power of life. Planted in receptive soil, the seed of God’s word brings a harvest of eternal life. It is our great joy to plant and nurture the word of God in the precious hearts of boys and girls in our community.

What greater hope do we have for the future?

May our hearts be tuned to God’s Spirit so that we will always hear his word clearly and always walk in obedience to him,

Brother Richard Foster

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The Face of God

An astounding description of heaven is recorded in John’s Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation, chapters 21 and 22.

Under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, John notes the things that will not be in heaven. First, he says that there will be no sea. Then he makes the wonderful proclamation that there will be no death, which means no mourning. John goes on to say that heaven will have no night, so the gates of heaven’s city, the New Jerusalem, will never close.

One thing missing in heaven, John writes, is the temple. In heaven there will be no temple. This would have been a shocking statement to many of John’s first-century readers, especially his Jewish readers. No temple in heaven?! Why not?

The Book of Revelation teaches us that God’s people will have no need for a Temple in heaven because God the Father and Jesus the Lamb of God will be there in person. Because of the secular madness that surrounds us in this life, we need a sanctuary to help us focus on God’s invisible Presence. In eternity, in the New Jerusalem we will be able to open our physical eyes and see the Almighty.

John writes that God’s people in heaven will see God’s face (Revelation 22:4). When Moses encountered God at the burning bush he hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. Later, God told Moses, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). The Old Testament saint had a healthy fear of God’s blazing holiness.

In his Gospel, John wrote, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 1:18). He is pointing out that Jesus has made God known. Paul wrote that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). When Jesus’ disciple, Philip, asked to see God the Father, Jesus answered, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

It is true; Mary was looking into the face of God when she cradled Jesus in her arms that night in Bethlehem. Christmas foreshadows heaven. For a brief moment in history humanity beheld God’s face in the gaze of a carpenter-turned-preacher from Nazareth. Then he was gone.

The day is quickly approaching when all God’s people will see him face to face. This Christmas let’s look back again at the time when “the Word become flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). As we do, let’s rejoice in the knowledge that God is preparing a place where we will live with him in peace forever.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,

Brother Richard Foster, Pastor
Grace Baptist Church, Camden AR

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