Christ’s Charge to Peter, Raphael,
1515–1516, Victoria and Albert Museum
(About this Image)
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Third Sunday of Easter
May 1, 2022
The Book of Revelation does not offer different doctrines from the rest of the New Testament. Indeed, it often provides excellent summations of traditional teachings. Yet John the Seer many times offers a unique perspective Today’s reading is such an occasion.
We most often think of the Ascension from the perceptive of the Apostles. Luke understood that visualizations of this would be a bit kitsch and kept the details vague. John the Seer today is giving us a heaven’s eye view of Jesus returning to the Father and speaks only in symbols which intentionally defy visualization.
Today we read the climax of Chapter 5, but we need to start at the beginning. John is in the heavenly court and he tells us:
I saw a scroll in the right hand
of the one who sat on the throne.
It had writing on both sides
and was sealed with seven seals.
Revelations is often difficult for us to read because it is dense with allusions to the Old Testament, Jewish commentary, and contemporaneous references. Not even the greatest scholar knows all of them and it would be impossible to reproduce those we do in a limited reflection. But Revelations is particularly indebted to the Book of Daniel and the prophet Ezekiel. Let us first look at Ezekiel.
I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me,
and a written scroll was in it.
He spread it before me;
it had writing on the front and on the back
and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe.
Writing on a scroll was expensive and would have had to be important, writing on both sides would indicate that it was overwhelming. The seals reveal the same, one seal indicated importance, seven was unheard of. The astute reader remembered Ezekiel and would expect “words of lamentation and mourning and woe”.
A mighty angel asked if anyone in the court
was able to open the scroll. But no one in heaven or on earth
or under the earth
was able to open the scroll or to examine it
But an elder—representing the wisdom of Judaism—-proclaimed that
The lion of the tribe of Judah,
the root of David, has triumphed,
enabling him to open the scroll
with its seven seals.”
“Then in the midst of the throne room stood a Lamb who although slain had seven horns” —representing power—”and seven eyes”—representing wisdom. He received the scroll, and the entire court sang a hymn acknowledging his right to do so. (Re 5:6–7)
We are not meant to visualize this but to understand it symbolically. The Lion of Judah and root of David are signs of kingship and power, yet it is the Lamb who has “ascended into heaven.” This is the preeminent sign of Jesus in Revelations. That which seems powerless is triumphant.
The section we read today begins here with all heavenly creatures praising the victorious lamb.
and they cried out in a loud voice:
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain
to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength,
honor and glory and blessing.”
It is not surprising that there are seven honors, and they are not arbitrarily chosen. The first four may be seen as what is given to kings but to God in a superlative degree. The last three denote worship that can only be given to God. (This is almost an exact quotation from David’s Prayer of Blessing, 1 Chronicles 29:11–13)
To this praise is now added the entire universe “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe” (Re 5:13)
The background of this image is from the Book of Daniel the major “inspiration” for the Book of Revelations. As Daniel watched:
Thrones were set up
and the Ancient One took his throne.
Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him,
and myriads upon myriads attended him.
The court was convened, and the books were opened.
As the visions during the night continued, I saw
One like a son of man coming,
on the clouds of heaven;
When he reached the Ancient One
and was presented before him,
He received dominion, glory, and kingship;
nations and peoples of every language serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed
(sections from Da 7:9–14)
Thus, both the “one who sits on the throne” the Father and the lamb are given equal honor. It is not important here if in the Son of Man was to be considered equally divine with God in the original context; for John the Seer he clearly is.
The four living creatures answered, “Amen,”
and the elders fell down and worshiped
The four living creatures have an interesting history. They come from a Jewish apocalyptic tradition which never entered the official canon of Scripture. They are the beings chosen by God to direct the physical world therefore they represent all creation. An ancient Jewish source comments:
Man is exalted among creatures,
the eagle among birds,
the ox among domestic animals,
the lion among wild beasts;
all of them have received dominion”
Later these became signs of the power of Jesus but still later and indeed now the signs of the four evangelists (Gospel writers). Matthew is represented by the Man, Mark by the Lion, Luke by the Calf, and John by the Eagle. The elders are not angels but in the widest sense priests. Previously
Each of the elders held a harp
and gold bowls filled with incense,
which are the prayers of the holy ones.
John is acutely aware that the lamb, Jesus, must be worshiped liturgically.
John the Seer is a man who understands symbols. He knows how to create or adapt them to give greater understanding but also and perhaps most importantly he knows that as we are physical beings we must celebrate—act out—our symbols. In this passage, as in so many in Revelations, he is telling his listeners that they too must fall down and worship the Lamb and that the meaning of Revelations is not found in reading a book but in celebrating the Eucharist.