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When John ascends to heaven, he steps into the middle of a continuous worship service in a transcendent temple (Revelation 4). Twenty-four heavenly priests encircle a throne that is banded by a rainbow, where “one enthroned” sparkles like sardius and jasper above four living creatures. In front of the throne, the seven Spirits burn like lamps, brightening a sea of crystalline glass. When the cherubim say the Sanctus, the elders prostrate themselves and shout the worthiness of the one on the throne at the center of it all.

Yet something is missing. Heaven is imperfect. On the right side of the one enthroned there should be a prince; instead there is an unopened book (Revelation 5). It is the sealed book of prophecy (Daniel 12), the book of conquest (Joshua 1:8), the “book of the kingdom” (1 Samuel 10:25). As long as it lies unopened, it is as dormant as the Torah hidden in the temple. Heaven needs a Josiah to unleash the prophetic word, initiate the conquest, to demolish idols and inaugurate the kingdom. In heaven, earth, and under the earth, no one is found worthy to open the book, and John cries with the anguished “how long?” of unfulfilled promise and unrealized prophecy.

There is a worthy one in heaven—the one enthroned—but no one mentions him as a suitable candidate. He is the king of heaven, and hence of earth, but he won’t open the book himself. God is not proud. He is neither cheap nor selfish. He created humanity to occupy the throne at his right hand and to read the book of the future, and he has determined to bring his purposes to fruition only through a worthy man.

One of the elders tells John to stop weeping, since a worthy one has suddenly appeared. The elder calls him the root of David and the lion of Judah, but John sees a Lamb, slain but standing, the true cherub who springs up in the middle of the throne of living creatures. He is qualified to open the book because he bought people with his blood from the four corners of earth to constitute a kingdom of priests who will reign on the earth.

As soon as the Lamb takes the book, the worship of heaven is transformed. The Lamb becomes a new object of worship. The living creatures who have been in the midst of the throne turn and bow to the Lamb with the twenty-four elders, and they are joined by myriads of angels. Praise ripples to the edge of creation until all is filled with praise.

When John first enters heaven, the angels are saying a low Mass without song or instruments. Once the Lamb appears, everyone receives a harp and begins to sing the “new song” that comes after a time of silence or lamentation. Now they have bowls from which the aromatic incense of prayer ascends. From what we can tell from the Pentateuch, Israel’s worship included no music until David became king. Heaven’s worship is similarly changed by the arrival of the Lamb. It’s Ascension Day, and the old worship no longer suffices, now that the king has come.

The Lamb breaks the seals and opens the book. A voice summons four horsemen, martyrs under the altar cry out for vindication, 144,000 from the tribes of Israel receive protective seals on their foreheads. When the Lamb breaks the seventh seal, there is a pause before an angel throws coals from a heavenly altar to the earth. When John first saw the throne, it flashed with lightning and rumbled with thunder. After the seven seals are opened, that same thunder, and lightning shake earth, as God establishes his heavenly throne in the midst of the world.

According to John’s Gospel, Ascension Day begins already on Good Friday as Jesus is “lifted up” on the cross to draw men to himself, and Pentecost begins on Easter as Jesus breathes the Spirit on the disciples. Revelation completes this Johannine ascension theology. A slain Lamb doesn’t save the world. Even a slain and standing Lamb isn’t enough. Unless the slain and standing Lamb ascends, the book remains sealed, the Pentecostal fire never falls, and the thunderstorm of God’s kingdom stays in heaven. The news is good only because there is a worthy one in heaven, a Lamb slain, standing, and ascendant.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here .

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