As I write this article on July 1st, 2020, the United States is facing a crisis on multiple fronts. On one front, you have the COVID-19 epidemic. On the other front, you have protests which are (for the most part) okay, but many of those protests have turned to riots and anarchy in the streets—night after night, day after day—all across America. In my hometown of Seattle, up until today (July 1st), there was an area overtaken by protestors, called the “CHOP Zone” in Capitol Hill—a major part of the downtown Seattle area. Today the mayor of Seattle issued an executive order declaring that they were taking back the police precinct, which was over-run (and closed) by the protestors three weeks ago.[i] But why? As an elected official, why let a major part of your city sit “occupied” for three weeks? Why wasn’t anything done, and why only today do something to end it? Meanwhile, during these three weeks, chaos and anarchy have reigned in this “zone” in Seattle, resulting in multiple deaths.
Meanwhile, we’ve seen calls from New York to Washington State and everywhere in-between for the police departments of those locales to be defunded. In New York City, the council voted yesterday (June 30th, 2020) to defund the police there by one billion dollars.[ii]
In Los Angeles, the city council voted that the police department would be defunded by approximately 100-150 million dollars.[iii] The message our government officials are sending is loud and clear: concede to the demands of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the social justice movement now!
Now, let me be clear here: black lives matter; but they are not the only lives that matter—all lives, including every race, tribe, tongue, and people group matter. It’s not merely one race that matters (or people group), for every person is made in the image and likeness of God. All lives truly do matter, because all lives matter to the Lord. After all, every life has dignity, value, and purpose before the Lord.
The idea that one group of lives matters so much that everyone else’s rights are suspended is appalling. All lives matter to the Lord God, both born and unborn.
It is not simply justice that the protestors on the street want, although that’s part of it. Part of the problem is that they are making demands for justice to be done for one group, to the exclusion of others. At stake with the riots causing anarchy in the streets is not whether they can protest or not, everyone is for protests. What is at stake in the debate over people rioting verses protests is the question of why they are rioting or protesting. A riot by definition is not peaceful and involves violence property or to people’s personhood, or ability to make a living. A protest can be a march down an important street in front of important buildings. What those engaging in riots want is social change at the expense of whatever it costs. They demand change because they believe if they peacefully protest they won’t get the attention they want. In some cases all they want is attention not real change. Sometimes even people engaging in rioting and anarchy have given up on the system and just want to cause problems. All of these reveal that the matter of equality and justice is not only a matter of getting justice for some, but justice according their view of it. What we have to understand here is that God defines justice and to understand that, we have to get a biblical understanding of what is happening in our hearts and how we all, whether pursuing peaceful protests or rioting are worshipping someone or something. To get a biblical understanding of what is happening, and how we are all worshippers (despite the fact that some are not worshipping God)—including how divine justice has been forever satisfied by the Lord Jesus in His finished and sufficient work—we must turn to Revelation 5:8-14.
In Revelation 5:8-14 we discover what kind of worship is accepted to the Lord God, who fully satisfied divine justice and who is in control of all history. This passage of Revelation says:
“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before 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 by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
“To him who sits 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 down and worshiped.”
Some occasions are so momentous that they warrant a new song. As an example, the Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky was approached in 1880 to write music for a number of events occurring in Moscow. These included the dedication of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tsar Alexander II’s coronation, and a commemoration of the Russian victory over Napoleon at Borodino. Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 Overture, famed for the resounding cannons that conclude its score. New compositions mark other special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, inaugurations, and dedications.
There has never been a more momentous event, however, than the one recorded in Revelation 5, which John said warranted a new song in heaven. This event was the ascension and enthronement of the Son of God after successfully completing His saving work. John watched as Christ approached God’s throne and took the scroll of the divine will. The apostle wrote in Revelation 5:8-9, “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb…And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.’”
The new song that John heard in heaven is the song of redemption, celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the vision of Revelation 4, John heard the song of creation sung to God’s praise (verse 11), “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things.” This song is similar to the creation song that God spoke of in Job 38:7, when “the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy” (NIV). But with Christ’s redeeming work, there is a new cause for God’s praise. William Hendriksen writes: “They sing a new song…because never before had such a great and glorious deliverance been accomplished and never before had the Lamb received this great honor.”[iv] Revelation 5 adds to chapter 4, in the same way that Christ’s redemption adds to the glory of God in creation. The new song is offered to Jesus because, having redeemed His people, He has taken the scroll, which will determine the flow of future history, and that means that Jesus is controlling history in the interests of those He has redeemed.
Worthy to Be Worshiped
The host of heaven sang a new song, not only for the greatness of the occasion, but also for the worthiness of the Savior, who has ascended and taken up His reign. Revelation 5:9 states, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals.”
Christ’s worthiness is extolled not in the sense of His glorious divine person, but in light of His successful saving mission on Earth. Hebrews 5:9 similarly asserts that Christ was “made perfect” by His obedient suffering, as “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Christ was always perfect in His being, but now He has qualified Himself to be the Savior of His people. In this sense, He has become worthy to take the scroll and to be praised.
Revelation 5:9–10 presents the third of five songs in the vision that began in Revelation 4. It contains the praise given to Christ by the twenty-four elders, who represent the redeemed church. They sing the new song: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Christ is glorified for his sacrifice in death to redeem his people from their sins.
First, Christ is praised for being “slain”. He did not die from an unavoidable tragedy, but rather as a voluntary act of sacrificial love for His people. Ancient history lauded the philosopher Socrates, when he willingly submitted to unjust execution out of the principle of loyalty. American children extol the name of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary War patriot, who regretted that he had only one life to give to his country. Socrates died for a principle and Nathan Hale died for a cause. But the Christian has an even higher reason to love and adore God’s Son, Jesus Christ, since we can say, “He died for me.” Jesus said in John 10:15 and 18, “I lay down my life for the sheep…No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Therefore, when people ask who killed Jesus Christ, the best answer is that Jesus willed His own death, for the sake of the people He loves.
Second, Christ is worthy because of what He achieved by His death: “By your blood you ransomed people for God” (Revelation 5:9). Different English translations render ransomed as “purchased” (NIV) or “redeemed” (NKJV). The Greek word agorazo has the general meaning of purchasing, but often had the specific connotation of ransoming a prisoner or slave out of bondage. Here we see the essence of what Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross: at the cost of His own blood, which is evidenced in His death, Jesus delivered His people from the bondage and condemnation of sin. Many writers, especially in the early church, envisioned Jesus as paying a ransom to Satan. This is a mistaken idea, however, since the devil never had the true right to possess God’s people. Instead, Jesus made payment to the justice of God, which demanded death as the penalty for sin (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23). Jesus foretold that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” in Matthew 20:28. Paul, therefore, wrote in Ephesians 1:7, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.”
Significantly, the adoration of the Church in Heaven centers on the redemptive sacrifice of Christ’s cross. Similarly, when true Christians explain the substance of their faith, they always focus on His sacrificial death to purchase us from the debt of sin. In 1915, Benjamin B. Warfield made this point to incoming students at Princeton Theological Seminary: to Christ’s people, His most precious title is “Redeemer”. Warfield explained further that the reason is because “it gives expression not merely to our sense that we have received salvation from [Jesus], but also to our appreciation of what it cost him to procure this salvation for us.”[v]
Warfield proved this claim, not from the tomes of theology, but from the volumes of the Church’s hymnody, listing song after song extolling Christ as Redeemer: “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise”; “All hail, Redeemer, hail, for thou hast died for me”; “I will sing of my Redeemer, and his wondrous love for me: on the cruel cross he suffered, from the curse to set me free.” Warfield listed twenty-eight such hymns, and twenty-five more that used the word ransom to celebrate Christ’s sacrifice.
Warfield might have added the new song of the twenty-four elders to prove the centrality of redemption in believers’ worship of Christ. If the death of Christ to ransom us from sin is the center of Heaven’s worship, it must also be at the center of the Church’s witness on Earth.
We should notice not only the emphasis of the elders on Christ’s redemption, but also the kind of redemption they praised. We see this at the end of Revelation 5:9, which says, “By your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” The question is asked regarding for whom Christ paid a ransom with His blood. Universalists reply that Jesus died for everyone, so that all are forgiven, even if they refuse to believe in Him.
Others assert that Jesus died for all people equally, offering His blood for their salvation, yet only those who receive this gift in faith benefit from the cross so as to be saved. This view is called general redemption and is associated with Arminian theology. But this also conflicts with Revelation 5:9, along with other Bible verses on Christ’s redemption. The elders sing that Jesus actually “ransomed” those for whom He died, so that they no longer remain in bondage. This can describe only those who are saved. Moreover, they use a definite, not a general term for the objects of Christ’s redeeming work. He did not die for “every tribe and language and people and nation,” but for “people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation”.
In other words, Christ redeemed particular people from all over the world—that is, the elect. This affirms the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement or particular redemption. This doctrine does not state that Christ died to make redemption possible for everyone, if only they will believe, but rather that Christ died particularly for His own people, foreknown and given to Him by the Father in eternity past (John 17:2; Ephesians 1:4), who are actually and effectually redeemed by the His blood, paid as their ransom. These same persons go on to believe because the Holy Spirit applies the benefit of their redemption through the gift of saving faith (Ephesians 2:8–9). Revelation 5:9 teaches an effectual redemption and a ransom that successfully purchases people for God.
Restored to Offer Worship
This emphasis on God’s sovereignty is continued in Revelation 5:10, where the elders go on praising Christ because He had “made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” The emphasis here is on what we have been saved to and what Christ has made us to be: a kingdom and priests to God.
The elders’ song teaches a salvation theology of restoration. Adam was placed into the garden to be king and priest in service to God, but lost this office through his fall into sin. Israel, in Exodus, was established by God to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Israel’s calling was to live out the rule of God in obedience to His Word and bear a priestly testimony of God to the nations. Instead, the Israelites turned from God’s Word to follow the idols of the nations around them. But whereas Adam and Israel failed, Jesus Christ triumphed. Jesus succeeded not only through His own ministry as King of kings and true High Priest, but also in making His Church “a kingdom and priests to our God”, as Revelation 5:10 says.
How thrilling this message is when we remember that Christ’s Kingdom consists completely of once-condemned sinners. The Church acclaims Christ’s worthiness, not her own! But we celebrate that Christ cleanses and forgives prostitutes, such as the woman who anointed His feet in Luke 7, murderers such as Moses and King David, and arrogant persecutors such as Paul. Paul notes the presence of others who were sexually immoral, idolaters, homosexuals, thieves, greedy, and drunkards. “But you were washed,” he exclaims, “you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1st Corinthians 6:9–11). Douglas Kelly points out the invitation that this presents to every sinner: “Absolutely nothing we have done in our life that is wrong, unworthy, nasty, unclean or impure disqualifies us to apply to the blood of the Lamb. You are invited to sing the song that they sing.”[vi]
It is noteworthy that in Revelation 5:10, the word “kingdom” is singular, and “priests” is plural. Christ made a kingdom consisting of priests. The Church is under the monarchy of Christ, so that His truth is to be taught, His commands are to be obeyed, and His saving grace is to be offered. The ancient Church was not to bow to the demands of Caesar or to accommodate the tastes of pagan culture.
Likewise, the Christian Church today is not to affirm the edicts of Congress or of a president when they are contrary to Christ’s Word. Moreover, the Church serves Christ’s kingdom in a priestly way. We see this in the description found in Revelation 5:8: “When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” They are worshiping Him with the new song of redemption, holding the kind of small harp described in the temple worship of the Old Testament (Psalm 33:3; 40:3; 96:1) and offering their prayers before His throne.
What a picture this presents of the Church’s worship! As the twenty-four elders prostrated themselves before Christ, we also must worship “with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28). The playing of harps while singing the new song shows that true worship engages not merely the mind but also the emotions and the will. As the Jewish priests daily burned incense before God, so also are we to pray fervently. In Revelation 6, we will see that God’s judgments fall on the wicked in response to the petitions of His people, as Revelation 6:10 explains. In Revelation 5, we should understand more generally the prayer lives of God’s people. We are reminded that prayer is not only petition, but also worship: we honor God by thanking Him and by praying for His intervention; as Jesus taught us, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
The elders praise Christ, not only for making them a kingdom and priests to God, but also because “they shall reign on the earth”. It is crucial, then, for Christians to realize what it means to reign on earth in Christ’s behalf.
In response to an alarming moral decline, American Christians have sometimes sought to reign by gaining control of worldly authority structures. It is questionable whether this is even possible without a loss of spiritual integrity and legitimacy. More importantly, Christians should realize that our spiritual authority is always more potent than any worldly coercive power.
We think of Polycarp of Smyrna, who inspired the early church by submitting to the fire rather than betray his Savior. We think of Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation from a pulpit, not from a princely throne. We think of Chinese house-church pastors such as Allen Yuan and Samuel Lamb, who were imprisoned in labor camps for over twenty years, but immediately resumed preaching about Jesus when they were released. “The more persecution, the more the church grows,” Lamb stated. Yuan said only a few years ago, “We have a saying in Beijing. If you dare to preach, people will believe.”[vii]
These evangelists remind us that, just as Christ said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), so also do Christians reign by the spiritual authority of biblical obedience and gospel proclamation. Derek Tidball comments: “The role of the Church, then, is to be a faithful witness and to take an uncompromising stand for God, even to the extent of its members laying down their lives.”[viii] He cites the example of the Romanian pastor, Joseph Tson, who was threatened with death by his Communist interrogator. Tson answered:
Sir, your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying. Sir, you know my sermons are all over the country on tapes now. If you kill me, I will be sprinkling them with my blood. Whoever listens to them after that will say, “I’d better listen. This man sealed it with his blood.” They will speak ten times louder than before. So, go on and kill me. I win the supreme victory then.[ix]
Before that spiritual power, Tson’s jailers quailed, and the Communist regime fell, largely through Christians’ witness and prayers.
Creation Welling Up in Worship
Revelation 5 concludes with the entirety of creation responding to the adoration of the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders by welling up in worship to God and the Lamb. First, we are shown the innumerable host of the angels, who offer their song to Christ: “Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” (Revelation 5:11).
In describing the angels as “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands”, the point is to show the innumerability in the very millions of God’s heavenly servants. It is significant that they give their praise to Christ following after the twenty-four elders, for it is through the redemption of the Church that the holy angels learn the glory of Christ’s saving work. Peter described the gospel doctrines as “things into which angels long to look” (1st Peter 1:12). Now that they have comprehended the glory of Christ’s saving work through the worship of the Church, the angelic hosts offer their own praise: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12).
This sevenfold list of praise to Christ seems to ascribe to Him all the glorious possessions properly belonging to God Himself. The fact that the Greek text provides a definite article only for the first item, “the power”, suggests that the whole list consists of a unified whole. Like that of the glorified Church, the angels’ worship responds to Christ’s atoning death on the cross. Their testimony, therefore, shows that what once seemed like defeat for Jesus has been revealed as total victory. The cross was seen as weakness, but was actually power. The cross displayed poverty, but gained true riches; the cross was foolishness to the world, but wisdom from God. The cross represented shame, but earned the highest honor for Christ. The cross was a place of deep disgrace, yet revealed the very glory of God’s grace; and the cross stood for the curse of sin, but achieved eternal blessing for those on whose behalf Jesus died. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!” the angels conclude, inviting us to enter their praise.
Finally, the worship extends to the entire creation joined together in praise of God and the Lamb: “And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’” (Revelation 5:13). Here we see the farthest extent of Christ’s redemptive domain. As the angels comprehend the Lamb’s glory in the worship of the Church, so also Christ’s redemption of His people undoes the curse of sin on the entire created realm. The Creator and the Redeemer together are praised by the work of their (His) hands, the twin works of the Godhead having achieved their designed end in universal doxology.
The Sovereign is Good
As we return to Apostle John’s world at the time of writing the book of Revelation, we can see what this worship scene would have meant to the weak and threatened churches of Asia (and Asia minor). It is Christ who reigns, not Caesar, and Christ’s finished work of redemption has secured a destiny in which all things will work for the salvation of his people and the praise of God’s grace. The chapter concludes with the only proper response: “And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped” (Revelation 5:14). That was how the beleaguered Christians were to respond: by adding their own amen of faith in Christ’s sovereign rule and by giving themselves over to joyful adoration, fulfilling their calling as a Kingdom of priests.
In the spring of the year 2000, James Montgomery Boice, pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, was diagnosed with cancer. He was sixty-two years old. Eight weeks later, on June 15, 2000, he died. On May 7, 2000, he addressed the congregation he served. In the midst of his remarks to the congregation that morning, he said to them, “If God does something in your life, would you change it? If you’d change it, you’d make it worse. It wouldn’t be as good. So that’s the way we want to accept it and move forward, and who knows what God will do?”[x] The great comfort of our lives is the fact that Jesus is good, and He has taken hold of the scroll. He is in control.
[iv] William Hendriksen, More than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation (1940; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967), 91.
[v] Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “ ‘Redeemer’ and ‘Redemption,’ ” in The Person and Work of Christ (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1950), 325.
[vi] Douglas F. Kelly, Revelation, Mentor Expository Commentary (Tain, Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 2012), 110.
[vii] Quoted in David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2003), 57–65.
[viii] Derek Tidball, The Message of the Cross: Wisdom Unsearchable, Love Indestructible, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 313.
Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon. Dave is a lover of Christ, His people, the Church, and sound theology. He serves as the Executive Director of Servants of Grace Ministries, the Executive Editor of Theology for Life Magazine, the Host and Producer of Equipping You in Grace Podcast, and is a contributor to and producer of Contending for the Word. He is the author of The Word Explored: The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy and What To Do About It (House to House, 2021) and The Word Matters: Defending Biblical Authority Against the Spirit of the Age (G3 Press, 2022). You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, or read his newsletter. Dave loves to spend time with his wife, going to movies, eating at a nice restaurant, or going out for a round of golf with a good friend. He is also a voracious reader, in particular of Reformed theology, and the Puritans. You will often find him when he’s not busy with ministry reading a pile of the latest books from a wide variety of Christian publishers. Dave received his M.A.R. and M.Div through Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.