The Angel with the Open Scroll
The failure of God’s purpose is not the last word. In order to transcend failure and bring about repentance, human participation is required–and human suffering. Therefore John himself becomes an actor in the unfolding drama. He sees another angel (10:1) in addition to the four who had released the terrible invading cavalry from the east (9:14-15). This angel is distinguished from those four, and from most angels in John’s visions, by being called mighty, or strong. The only “mighty angel” we have met before is the one John had seen in heaven “proclaiming with a loud voice, `Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?'” (5:2). The mighty angel in the present scene also has “a loud voice” (NASB) like the roar of a lion (v. 3). Moreover, the rainbow above his head (v. 1) recalls the rainbow encircling the throne of God in John’s first glimpse of heaven (4:3), while the comparison of his face to the sunrecalls the angel in John’s introductory vision (1:16) who identified himself as the risen one (1:17-18).
In short, this mighty angel has an aura of divinity about him that prompted some older commentators to see him as none other than Jesus Christ himself. This is highly unlikely, yet the angel does represent God, or the power of God, in a way that most other angelic figures do not. He stands astride land and sea as one who is sovereign over both (v. 2; compare God’s judgment on the land and the sea in connection with the first two trumpets). Although he is not Christ in person, he can be viewed as a divine agent acting on behalf of God and the Lamb. That Jesus uses certain angels to represent him in John’s visions will become explicit in 22:16: “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches.”
The mighty angel here, like the one in 5:2, is introduced in connection with a scroll (v. 2). The scroll in chapter 5 was last seen in the possession of the Lamb, and if this angel holds the same scroll, now open, it is clear that he is acting as the Lamb’s agent or representative. Most commentators hesitate to identify the two scrolls because the first was called simply “a scroll” (Greekbiblion, 5:1), while this one is a little scroll(using a diminutive form, biblaridion, vv. 1, 9, 10). Moreover, John mentions it as if seeing it for the first time (v. 2). Yet later (v. 8) he is told to take the scroll (Greek to biblion) from the angel’s hand, indicating that the terms “scroll” and “little scroll” are used interchangeably. Perhaps the scroll is “little”only in relation to the gigantic angel who holds it. Its most conspicuous characteristic is that it lies open in the angel’s hand (vv. 2, 8). By contrast, the scroll in chapter 5 was sealed. The overriding question in that chapter was when and by whom it would be opened (compare 5:2, 3, 5, 9). The simplest conclusion is that the scroll John will take from the angel’s hand in this chapter is none other than the scroll taken by the Lamb in chapter 5 (see Mazzaferri 1989:271-74; Bauckham 1993:80-81). John has witnessed the breaking of its seals (6:1–8:5), so there is no reason why the scroll should not be open. Just as in chapter 5 the Lamb took the scroll in the presence of a “mighty angel” in order to open it, John must now take the open scroll from a mighty angel’s hand in order for the plan of God to run its course (vv. 8-11).
First, however, the mighty angel and a voice from heaven (v. 4), acting together, supply a kind of fanfare to raise our level of excitement and expectancy. When the angel shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke (v. 3). John is about to write down their messages when the heavenly voice stops him: Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down (v. 4). Richard Bauckham rightly observes that “the process of increasingly severe warning judgments is not to be extended any further” because “such judgments do not produce repentance” (Bauckham 1993:82). He implies, however, that the seven thunders were somehow canceled simply because John did not write them down. On the contrary, John’s point is that he has heard and therefore knows far more than he is telling. If anything, the seven thunders are more mysterious and more frightening for notbeing described in detail. Like the best modern writers of horror and fantasy (M. R. James, for example), John knows that sometimes “less is more,” and that understatement can be an effective vehicle for wonder and suspense.
Nevertheless, the suppression of the seven thunders does hasten matters toward their conclusion. The mighty angel backs up the command not to write them down by swearing a solemn oath (vv. 5-7). His gesture of raising his right hand toward heaven (v. 5) recalls the “man clothed in linen” in one of Daniel’s visions. He announced an interval of “a time, times, and half a time” before the prophecies would be fulfilled (Dan 12:7). The mighty angel, by contrast, swears that there will be no more delay (v. 6). Like the figure in Daniel, he swears by him who lives for ever and ever. But adds to this oath an elaborate reference to God’s sovereignty as creator over the sky and earth and sea and everything in them (v. 6). This comes as a further reminder of the first four trumpets, with their demonstrations of God’s power over each of these spheres of the created order (see 8:7-12).
The solemn assurance that there will be no more delay should not be taken literally. We have, after all, twelve more chapters to go. All it means is that seven thunders will not intervene before things move to their conclusion.
That the fulfillment is still future to John is shown by the expression in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet (v. 7). This does not happen until 11:15, after a period spread out over at least forty-two montes (11:2) or 1,260 days (11:3)–the prophetic equivalent of Daniel’s “time, times and half a time” (see note on 11:2). The accent falls less on no more delay (v. 6) than on the fact that what is to come is God’s mystery (v. 7). Because the future is in God’s hands, it is bright, despite all the terrible things John has seen.Mystery does not imply a deep, dark secret. On the contrary, it is an open secret, or divine plan, that God announced to his servants the prophets (v. 7). The word “announce” is literally “to preach the gospel, or good news” (Greek euangelizo). The purpose of the mighty angel’s oath is to assure John that the “bad news” of the first six trumpets is not God’s last word. But in order to transform “bad news” into “good news,” John himself must be drawn into the action, and with him all the people of God.
John’s part in the realization of the mystery of God is made known to him by an experience similar to one that the prophet Ezekiel had (Ezek 2:9–3:3). Again the “voice from heaven” (vv. 4, 8) and the “mighty angel” act together (vv. 8-11). The voice tells John to take the scroll from the angel’s hand. When he does so, the angel gives him further instructions: Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey (v. 9). The thought of eating the scroll instead of reading it is arresting. It is a thought that would probably not have occurred to any of us had we been writing the story. It appears that the common metaphor of “devouring” an interesting book has been taken literally!
We must know Ezekiel’s story in order to understand what is going on. Ezekiel too was told to eat a scroll and “then go and speak to the house of Israel” (Ezek 3:1). Unlike John, Ezekiel had seen the scroll actually being unrolled. “On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe” (Ezek 2:9). When he ate it, “it tasted as sweet as honey” (Ezek 3:3), suggesting that Ezekiel’s message would be sweet to him, though bitter to his hearers. John’s experience is more complex. Nothing is said of what is written on the scroll, but the message is sweet as honey in John’s mouth and sour in his stomach (v. 10). Even though John (and his fellow prophets) have the sweet privilege of hearing and delivering God’s “good news” (v. 7), their prophecies will inevitably bring them sorrow and suffering. John knows this, for he is already a “brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus.” He is on Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9).
The Prophecy of the Two Witnesses