Crisis in the Heavenly Council

I am about to start a comment on the most important section in Revelation. How to start? It is necessary to begin with a word about expectations.

“Managing expectations”’ is an important element of strategy in sports and politics. Ahead of a big sports game, the coach will play down expectations. He or she is afraid that his team will become complacent if he projects a stance certain of victory (exception: Muhammad Ali). He would rather see the other side overconfident. Ahead of a major election, the candidates tone down expectations. They are afraid that voter turnout will be low if they seem confident (exception: Donald Trump). Two years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel got wind of negative Election Day polling. “The Arabs are voting in droves,” he tweeted. The tweet was a signal to the electorate: our side is losing. Experts agree that the expectations-lowering tweet had an impact. Loyal voters flocked to the polls, and the Prime Minister was re-elected.

I worry about readers’ expectations for the next leg in Revelation. It is the prospect of low expectations that bothers me. Let me ask this, yes or no:

I am concerned that readers have a ho-hum attitude toward the scenes in Revelation 4 and 5 and its extension all the way to 8:1, “When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Revelation 8:1). If you were limited to one of the occasions in my informal poll, which will it be? Would you rather do the Sermon on the Mount, or Lincoln, or Martin Luther King, Jr.? Let my bias show: I would attend the heavenly council. Don’t miss this opportunity. Don’t leave before the seventh seal has been broken! Prepare to become speechless!

Open Heaven

“After this I saw — and look! — a door stood open in heaven! And the first voice which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, spoke to me again, saying, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this!’” (4:1, translation mine).

Heaven’s open-door policy is amazing. You don’t find this in Moscow or Beijing — or in London or Washington, D.C. A policy of transparency is not high on the list of those who wield power. This Power is an exception. Let me suggest three things from chapter 4, each one in contrast to widely held stereotypes.

First, even the best interpreters — and I mean the very best — tend to see the transition to heaven as a contrast between two realms. On earth, there is chaos. In heaven, there is calm. Or this: on earth, there is strife; in heaven, there is serenity. Or this: on earth, there are problems; in heaven, there are solutions.

Re-readers of Revelation know better. Revelation does not show a contrast between earth and heaven. On earth, there is strife. In heaven, there is strife, too. On earth there is chaos. So there is in heaven. On earth we have problems. So does heaven. We are sleepwalking if we somehow have come to see the transition from earth to heaven as a contrast. Yes, earth has problems, but the problem began in heaven! (12:7-12). Yes, earth knows a thing or two about strife, but heaven knew it first! Yes, we struggle down here on earth, but heaven is at a loss what to do, as well!

Second, it is not hard to see why interpreters think the way they do. Heaven is a busy place, to be sure, and the anatomy of heaven’s power structure is strange. We see four living creatures “in the middle of the throne” (4:6) and twenty-four elders in the immediate vicinity, also seated on thrones (4:4). What keeps them so busy? “And day and night without ceasing they sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come’” (4:8).

I have loved Revelation since I was a little boy, but I dreaded this text. I grew up in a Seventh-day Adventist home in a small village in the south of Norway. Each Sabbath, we had Sabbath School. When we grew older, we were expected to participate with the adults, usually with my father, my mother, a visitor who shared SDA convictions about the Sabbath but not about the state of the dead, and sometimes my half-brother, six or seven people in all. My father loved the Bible, and the lesson study went on and on. On and on, yes, for two hours, sometimes three.

When I read in Revelation that the living creatures and the twenty-four elders sing, “Holy, holy, holy!” — “day and night without ceasing” — I thought about our long, drawn-out Sabbath School. Why would they go on “day and night”? How insufferable! I pictured myself sneaking off for a break, to get a respite from the monotony. I even felt sorry for God, thinking that God, too, might want to have a break.

Luckily, I was not at that time aware of the scene reported in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, or my distress would be worse. Solzhenitsyn describes a conference in the Communist Party where the participants are applauding Stalin for yet another trite line in his long speech. They clap, standing, and it goes on and on — five minutes, then six, then seven, then eight. Will it ever end? Nine minutes, then ten. The attendees are about to collapse. Then one official brings it to a close. A day or two later he is arrested, then charged on a flimsy pretext, then sentenced to ten years in prison. On his way out, an official tells him, “Don’t ever be the first one to stop applauding!”

Is this heaven’s way — a place where no one stops applauding, possibly fearing reprisals?

As an adult, I have read the following a little later in Revelation, “And I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, ‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been cast out (eblēthē), who accuses them before our God day and night’” (12:10).

Do you see it? In the heavenly perspective, there are two sides. The two sides do not agree. We do not have a scene in monochrome and monotone, repeating the mantra “holy, holy.” We have two sides engaged in a fierce contest. There is no letting up on the other side; it keeps at it “day and night” (12:10). The activity is a staple of the opposing side in the cosmic conflict, as here: “And he opened his mouth to slander God, slandering God’s name and God’s dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven” (13:6, translation mine).

The songs in Revelation are many. “Holy, holy, holy!” is one of them. These songs are integral to the story line, and they stand as clarifiers and culminations in the text. Most readers hear in the songs a voice of proclamation and a voice of acclamation. This is not wrong, but it is incomplete. Missing from most representations is the voice of accusation. These scenes are electric with conflict, the voice of accusation aiming to establish a view that is intensely critical of God. The other side responds in voices of proclamation and acclamation, saying of the other side that it is trading in slander and “fake news.”

Third, therefore, and briefly: Revelation’s main concern is cosmic, not Roman. This cannot be said too strongly. Interpreters who imagine a contrast between earth and heaven — on earth, commotion, in heaven, calm — believe that John’s horizon is primarily life in a Roman imperial context. Paul Duff has shown convincingly that Roman imperial concerns are hard to find even in the messages to the seven believing communities. We need, as we say on the West Coast of the United States, a larger view.

The Sealed Scroll

And now to the sealed scroll in chapter 5.

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice,

“Who has what it takes

to open the scroll

and break its seals?”

And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I wept and wept profusely because no one was found to have what it takes to open the scroll or to look into it (5:1–4, translation mine).

Do you feel the tension, the apprehension, the sense that heaven is at a loss what to do?

Adela Yarbro Collins, a Roman Catholic scholar and one of the greatest experts on Revelation in this generation, feels it.

The first four verses of chapter 5 imply that the heavenly council is faced with a serious problem. In the context of the Apocalypse as a whole it is clear that the problem facing the heavenly council is the rebellion of Satan which is paralleled by rebellion on earth. Chapter five presupposes the old story of Satan’s rebellion against God which leads to the fall of creation…The tears of the prophet express the desire of the faithful to have this situation rectified.

“I wept and wept profusely.” By this token alone, the scene in the heavenly council is more important than the Sermon on the Mount (amazed audience, no tears), the Gettysburg Address (the praise came later), or the “I have a dream speech” (hopeful, no need for tears). The heavenly council is in a crisis mode. Why is everyone silent? Why are the four living creatures staring at the floor? Why are the twenty-four elders looking at the ceiling? The search committee has come up empty-handed: no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth. The impasse is broken by this scene:

And one of the elders said to me,

“Do not weep!


The Lion of the tribe of Judah,

the Root of David,

has won the war,

so that he can open the scroll

and its seven seals!” (5:5, translation mine).

I must close, or you will say that I am my father’s son, going on and on day and night without ceasing. Here are some questions before we close.

1. Should the drama in the heavenly council be understood within a cosmic or a Roman framework?

2. Is the crisis centered in the sealed scroll ignorance about future events or awareness of present reality, well known to heaven and earth?

3. Is the problem of the heavenly councilors that they don’t know or that they don’t understand?

4. Is the scene in the heavenly council best described in terms of investiture, enthronement, or revelation?

5. Does Revelation struggle to establish a high view of Christ or does it assume a high view? That is, is the Christology a goal or merely a premise for the book’s theology?

6. Is the impasse broken by what the Lamb reveals as he breaks the seals or by what he is shown to be (5:6)?

7. Is the message of Revelation focused on the revelation in the middle of the throne and in the middle of history, not in the past in relation to John and not in the future?

And I saw

in the middle of the throne,

[in the middle of] the four living creatures,

and in the middle of the twenty-four elders

a lamb standing

as though it had been killed

with violence,

having seven horns and seven eyes (5:6, translation mine).

Let the conversation continue, day and night, if necessary. It will not be my fault if it does.

Further Reading:

Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019

Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019

Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019

Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019

Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Photo by Chris Brignola on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Perhaps John was the only one in Revelation 5 who was worried that no one was able to open the book and break the seals and so reveal the mysteries it contained. The elder who spoke to John knew that Jesus, the Lion, the Root of David, the slain Lamb now seated on the throne was the only one in God’s universe who was able to open the book.

The songs of praise in Revelation 5 say it all. These are songs of complete and total victory, all because Jesus, the slain Lamb shed his blood to redeem people from every tribe and and tongue and people and nation.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s answer to the rebellion. The cosmic battle was won when Jesus cried out, “It is finished” just moments before he bowed his head and died.

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” Christ, the slain Lamb, enthroned at the right hand of his Father is the answer to it all. We have absolute certainty for the present and the future because of Calvary.

Worship, praise, adoration, glory, power, riches, wisdom, might all belong to the Lamb because of His victory on the cross.


One of these things is not like the others! 1-3 are mere attendance the last one is “use it” Use it for what? You would probably have affirmatives in all of them it the last was more similar. Though number 2 is strange as well. “Would I meet you there?” How would anyone know, they would not have the knowledge that you had the chance to attend or the knowledge that they could find you there in order to meet!

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I recently tried to write an essay on the phenomenology of reading the Bible, having read the excellent essays on the more generalized phenomenology of reading written by Georges Poulet and Wolfgang Iser. I determined that I would have to undertake a reduction of the Bible, as per Husserl, and that explication of the reduction of the Bible would make what I was writing more of a book than the short essay I envisioned. So I gave up.

The end point of my analysis is this: The Bible in essence is a portal that transports the reader before the throne of judgment. Readers, always and everywhere, no matter their circumstances, have some sense as they read the Bible that they are being judged. This is what readers experience as they read the Bible. The ultimate object of interpretation is the reader, not the words, subject matter, mind of the author, etc. Not just the Bible’s words but also all of its teachings, which pose as signifieds but in reality are also signifiers, point to this portal. We don’t experience interpretative freefall caused by an endless chain of signifiers; instead, we experience an increasing intensity of recognition that we are standing before God’s throne of judgment.

This excellent essay and its thought-provoking questions stir these thoughts in my mind once again. I feel so enriched, even spoiled, reading these wonderful essays and look forward to more. Thank you, Dr. Tonstad.


I believe we’ve historically taken a fatal wrong turn in the road here.

Will we be able to retrace our steps?

Only if we can be persuaded that our pitifully anthropomorphized view of God is hopelessly inadequate and misguided, and leads nowhere.

Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.

Yes, of course. Maxwell.

The people in the Adventist spectrum, from Herbert Douglass to Graham Maxwell are endlessly stuck mid-river, churning around in The Great Controversy Theme vortex that cannot, will not, ever go anywhere.

The Great Controversy Theme will go down hard.

What could possibly persuade us that the Good News is actually good?


Consider, if you will, the possibility that The Great Controversy takes place intrapsychically…

Yes, we struggle down here on earth, but heaven is at a loss what to do, as well!<<

Really Sigve?
Where did you find this and how is it stated with such certainty…or, is it actually just your view? I personally don’t see God wringing His hands in heaven wondering what to do next or for that matter knowing what will happen. I realize some in theology wrestle with that personal view but “process/openness theology” isn’t the norm on the subject…or “the best”, in my view.


This is both very true and very sad!!!

Thanks to the darkness of the misapprehension of God’s character (COL 415) that Satan has so masterfully and deceptively pulled off, the typical view of ‘God’s judgment’ is actually reflective of a Roman imperial context rather than the context of a self-sacrificing God who undertook a personally costly process of Redemption rather than write-off a fallen humanity (Jn 3:16).

The original languages (as opposed to the English translations of the Bible) support a view of God’s judgment being nothing more that revelation of the facts so that all beings can be enlighted and informed by the “evidence that speaks for itself”. The idea that God makes a deterministic judgement and is “judging us” is absolutely untrue.

And unfortunately, if we believe that God does in fact “judge” (as most of Christianity mistakenly does), we will similarly (though subconsciously in most instances) also treat one another with the same attitude - judgmental.


Rom.2 & 3 in the original languages does in fact speak of God’s “righteous judgment” 2:5 the Good News is told us in Rom.3. AND Jn.3:16 tells us the one believing in Christ is not judged.
Judgment is a fact of scripture. Heb.9:27. The good news is what Christ has done for us! May we treat others with the grace he has provided us.

Thanks for your response Patrick.

To clarify, I did not say there was/is no judgment. What I did say is that the original languages support a conceptualisation of judgment that is markedly different to what is typically portrayed - judgment as (diagnostic and prognostic) revelation rather than determination. A more accurate image for our day and age of this ‘judgment’ would be an expert and unbiased (though absolutely caring and compassionate) medical specialist who is able to ‘reveal’ what lies hidden and unseen by the naked eye that explains what has gone on, is going on, and will ultimately happen if curative treatment is not undertaken (eg as illustrated by 1 Cor 4:5).

Hence, there is need to go beyond saying that the original languages speak of God’s righteous judgment to, more importantly, unpack what kind of righteous judgment they speak of.

I find the following quote to be very accurate of the state of affairs both inside and outside Christian (including Adventist) circles:

“…It is the darkness of misapprehension of God that is enshrouding the world. Men are losing their knowledge of His character. It has been misunderstood and misinterpreted. At this time a message from God is to be proclaimed, a message illuminating in its influence and saving in its power. His character is to be made known. Into the darkness of the world is to be shed the light of His glory, the light of His goodness, mercy, and truth. {COL 415.3}.”


Phil, I personally dont cling to specific comments of EGW but do cling to the original languages and good translations to tell us the character of God.
I would suggest, since you apparently rever Ellen you study further Patriarchs and Prophets pp.68-70 supporting Christ’s substitutionary atonement for sins and it therby justifying God , His law and His justice.


Again, to clarify. I wouldn’t say I cling to specific comments of EGW (but that’s ok, you don’t know me so I wouldn’t expect you to know that). Rather, I find that clinging to the original languages and using good translations leads me to conclusions that I then find to parallel what EGW said in many instances.

I disagree with the typical and prevailing view/conceptualisation of ‘substitutionary’ atonement. Jesus did not exchange places with us - He entered humanity and irreversibly/permanently became one with us as the second Adam (Rm 5). Atonement is a reunificatory phenomenon - not a substitutionary one. You wont find Jesus referred to as our substitute in scripture - but you will find Him directly referred to frequently and repeatedly as our Redeemer and Healer.

And when I read of quotes like “But God gave His own dear Son - one equal with Himself - to bear the penalty of transgression…” (PP 69), I similarly explore her writings further to see what she meant by these terms, paying particular attention to what she wrote in her latter years as there was considerable growth and progression of her understandings across her lifetime. And I compare this with what I have found in scripture on the topic.

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Christ was our hiliasterion.

So, again, unpack what that means in the original languages.

He is in Greek the propitiation for our sins. The Septuagint would also say “Mercy seat.” So, Christ with His own blood acts as the blood sprinkled mercy seat in our behalf.
He protects us, who believe in Him, from the judgments of the law the Philistines experienced when in control of the ark. He didn’t die just as an Example of mercy

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This is if one detaches the war from the cross of Christ and his resurrection. John’s attention, and the attention of the seven churches, is directed away from the strife on earth, and the pressures of the empire and the synagogue, to the worship in heaven of God and the Lamb on the throne, in Chap 4. The one who can open the seals in Chap. 5, can do so by virtue of who he is and the victory he has already won. He is the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world, but is alive and reigns as king.

Heaven has experienced strife, and earth is the continuing battleground, but the outcome was settled, and the solution was found in Jesus, the one who died, rose, and reigns, who is worshipped in heaven, and who walks among the churches on earth. This is Revelation’s answer to the war…surely not a picture of God at a loss of what to do.

It has been, is being, and will be done, by the one who is, who was, and who is to come. The one who was dead but who is alive forever and ever, and who holds the keys of death and Hades.




Right on, Ray! Adventist theology, in its pursuit and by the constraint of the great controversy theme, paints a picture that minimizes the cosmic scope of what Jesus achieved through his dying and rising.Heaven is not at a loss, because Jesus has already provided the answer. The worship scenes throughout the book reveal this.




Yes, but what does the term propitiation mean conceptually? I will be as brief as possible.

Hilasterion is the noun form derived from hilaskomai the verb form. So Christ became our hilasterion (noun) as a consequence of his activity of hilaskomai (verb). According to Strong’s, the activity (verb action) of hilakomai refers to being merciful and make reconciliation for. To make reconciliation for means to reconcile - or to bring to atonement.

Now this is where most commentaries go off track - by adhering to the typical view of atonement as a substitutionary process whereby Jesus absorbed/appeased God’s “wrath” for our sin so that we didn’t have to.

But if I look closely at scripture, I find a different portrayal of atonement. Lev 17:11 tells me that it is the blood of the sacrificial victim that makes atonement. But what does this mean?

Jesus stated in Jn 15:13 that “No-one has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends”. And 1 Jn 4:7-8 tells us that self-renouncing (Agape: other-preferential) love is the core of God’s character. It has been noted within Adventism and beyond that the law is a reflection/transcript of God’s character. Thus, the foundation of God’s character and the foundational principle of the law are both the principle of self-renouncing love (Agape).

And Romans 5 contrasts the first and the second Adam. The first Adam was created in God’s image (Gen 1:27) and therefore was created with self-renouncing love as his core characteristic. Unfortunately, Gen 3 saw self-renouncing love exchanged for self-referenced 'living. And it was precisely this change that constituted the “fall” via its constitution as “sin” (the transgression of the [natural] law of self-renouncing love as the foundational basis for zoe [Jn 10:10] life).

Rom 5:19 tells us that it was the obedience of the second Adam that makes the many righteous - (ie atones, reconciles, propitiates). What does this obedience mean? Obedience to what?

Isa 53:12 tells us that Jesus “poured out His life to death”. This parallels Jn 15:13 regarding laying down one’s life as the expression of self-renouncing love. And self-renouncing love is the core principle that characterises God and underpins life itself (see DA pg 20,21 for a more detailed description of this phenomenon).

Jesus “obedience” was His unwavering adherence to living by self-renouncing love, even when faced with the greatest possible temptation - death by the cruelest possible means at that time (Roman crucifixion). This is what the first Adam failed to do, and this is where the second Adam succeeded.

So, what caused the separation between humanity and divinity at the “fall”. It was the exchange of self-renouncing love (Agape) for self-referenced ‘living’ as the core principle for living.

Consequently, What was needed to reconcile humanity back into union/harmony with divinity? The restoration of self-renouncing love (in place of self-referenced ‘living’) back into the hearts of all who are willing (hence David’s prayer in Ps 51:10).

This is what Lev 17:11 is referring to - that atonement is achieved via restoration of self-renouncing love (laying down one’s life) as per Jn 15:13.

This is the scripturally-supported unpacking of propitiation: Jesus entering humanity as the second Adam (the Son of Man) and successfully holding to (ie ‘obedient’) self-renouncing love (even unto death) as the core principle for living and, in so doing, opening up the option for restoring whosoever will (Jn 3:16) back into harmony with divinity once again (Jn 3:6-9).

Thus, Jesus demonstrated the ‘cure’ for sin - the reinstatement of our heart back to self-renouncing love. This is how Jesus actually takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29) - by demonstrating what is needed to restore us back to the basis that does not desire sinful (ie self-referenced) living.

This view of atonement is Biblically-supported and in essence has Jesus fixing and repairing what got broken in Genesis 3, paving the way for restoration back to what should have been all along. And this view of atonement emphasises that it is sin (self-referenced living) that is the problem that needs to be addressed in order for reconciliation to occur, not appeasement of a ‘wrathful God’.


You obviously haven’t understood a thing I said, from the original languages, what I gave you in a few short paragraphs.
All the best.


You only stated terms in your paragraphs - you didn’t unpack what the those terms actually mean within the original languages.

But we will agree to disagree…

Till next time.