The Angel and the Little Book (Rev. 10)
My approach to the interpretation of the book of Revelation can be summarized in two words: futurist and minimalist. That I am a futurist means that I take the fundamental message of Revelation to be about the future and in particular the end of history as we know it when Christ returns to judge his enemies and fully usher in his kingdom. That I am a minimalist means that I interpret the symbolism of the book without trying to squeeze meaning out of every detail. I don’t think we are meant to go scrambling for our Bibles every time someone sneezes in the Middle East. So, for example, I interpreted the mountain of fire in chapter 9 as a symbol pointing us to a future judgment of God upon the earth without trying to pinpoint the exact nature of that judgment. I believe that the function of the symbolism of mountain on fire falling from heaven is meant to indicate two things: that this is a judgment from God and to point us to the enormity of the judgment. To say anything more than that is, I think, to press the symbol beyond its intended purpose.
However, even with this minimalist approach it is still sometimes difficult to know what exactly the point of some passages in Revelation is. This becomes more difficult when there is a wide range of interpretations even among some of the more judicious and cautious commentaries. I have found Rev. 10-11 to fall into this category. One of the things I was surprised as I first began to think seriously about this book is how difficult these two chapters were (and still are!) for me to understand. So I have to admit here at the outset that I approach this part of the book with a bit of fear and trembling.
The next chapter is certainly (in my opinion) much more difficult than this one, but there is still a lot of disagreement here among interpreters. For example, is the “little book” (10:2) the same book as the one in chapter 5 or is it a different book? Some say they are the same and give good reasons for their position and others say they are different and give good reasons for that position. Another question that is often asked of this chapter has to do with the meaning of the seven thunders and what it meant for John to seal them up (10:3-4). Does the fact that John was told to seal them up mean that they represented another cycle of judgments that never happened? Or does this mean that this is something that will in fact happen, but which John was not allowed to disclose? Again, there is a difference of opinion about this, even among the most careful and discriminating of commentators.
I say all this, not because I want to confuse you, but because sometimes people think that when we teach the Bible is clear (the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture), we mean that all the Bible is equally clear to everyone, or at least to everyone who is a genuine Christian. But this is just not the case. Even the apostle Peter said that there were places in the apostle Paul’s writings “in which are some things hard to be understood” (2 Pet. 3:16). If one apostle says that about another apostle, it’s obviously okay for us to say that there are “some things hard to be understood” in the book of Revelation!
However, we have to be careful here. It is true that some things in the Bible are difficult, arising (at least partly) from the fact that the Bible is a compilation of very old documents between 2000 and 3500 years old from cultures very different from our own. But this does not imply that all the Bible is opaque or difficult to understand or interpret. The heart of the gospel message is certainly easily grasped (at least on an intellectual level) by all. As Charles Hodge put it, when it comes to the Christian Scriptures, “in all things necessary to salvation they are sufficiently plain to be understood even by the unlearned.”
The way the Bible speaks to us implies that it is clear, for it commands us on a personal level. It speaks to us directly, not through channels. Though we do not teach that we are free to interpret the Scriptures any way we want to, and though we do not teach that we can ignore the teaching of the Church through history, we do teach that the Bible is our final and highest authority. But that would be impossible if the Bible weren’t clear on matters essential to salvation. The doctrine of sola Scriptura is meaningless part from the basic clarity of its message. Paul tells Timothy that “from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). This is not the Holy Scriptures mediated through an infallible tradition alongside Scripture – but through the upbringing he received from his mother and grandmother. The apostle goes on to say, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (16-17). The Scriptures in themselves are sufficiently able to make us perfect, and that reality again must rest upon its basic clarity.
But not all Scripture is equally clear. The Bible is like the ocean in a way; there are places shallow enough that even a toddler can wade into its riches, and there are places so deep that even the most intellectually gifted are challenged. We should expect this; it is something you would expect if the Bible were given by inspiration of God, as the apostle says.
However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take the challenge offered to us in the harder to understand parts of the Bible. The Lord didn’t include this in our Bibles for us to skip over. We need to read it and we need to try to understand it. It too is given by inspiration of God; it too is meant to equip us and to furnish us for good works.
One more point before we come to the text. On the one hand, we shouldn’t despise scholarship and the teaching gifts God has given to the church through the ages. To despise that is to despise God. On the other hand, if the Scriptures are really inspired by the Holy Spirit, surely it makes sense for us to ask for enlightenment from him who gave us the Scriptures. We should read the Bible upon our knees as it were. This in fact is modeled for us in the Bible itself. For example, the psalmist prays: “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law” (Ps. 119:18). And, “Make me to understand the way of thy precepts: so shall I talk of thy wondrous works” (27). And, “Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart” (34). This is the way we should read Revelation.
What is the function of Rev. 10-11 in the scheme of Revelation?
Let’s now come to the text, to chapter 10. This is part of the interlude between the sixth and seventh trumpet judgments. We noted that the trumpet judgments follow, like the seal judgments, a 4-2-1 pattern. In particular, in both cases the first six judgments in the cycle are separated from the seventh by an intermission of sorts. But both intermissions are placed there to help us understand what follows. Chapter 7, which divides the sixth from the seventh seal, shows how the people of God are sealed. Then in chapter 9 we see why: they are sealed to be protected from the outpouring of God’s wrath.
In the case of the trumpet judgments, the intermission goes from 10:1 to 11:14. This text also helps us to understand the material that will follow. Up to this point, the book of Revelation has mostly been about the judgment of God upon the wicked for their rebellion against him and the safety of the saints as they are sealed by God. But as we move into the following chapters we will be confronted with another reality: the suffering of the saints as they confront a world under the sway of an unholy trinity of dragon, beast, and false prophet. In this chapter and the next, the book of Revelation shifts our focus onto this conflict and the necessity of persevering in the faith in the face of demonic opposition. Chapter 10 introduces this by pointing suffering saints to two truths they need to know: they need to know that God’s long-awaited promise will be fulfilled, and they need to know that God has spoken to them to direct, encourage, and equip them as they await the fulfillment of that promise. I think the first reality is pointed to in verses 1-7 in the mystery of God fulfilled, and the second in verses 8-11 in the prophetic message imparted.
The Mystery of God fulfilled (1-7)
I want to try to unpack the meaning of these verses by asking three questions: (1) Who is the angel introduced in verse 1? (2) What is the little book introduced in verse 2? (3) What does it mean for John to seal up the things uttered by the seven thunders?
Who is the angel introduced in verse 1?
Apparently John’s point of view has changed from heaven (4:1) to back on earth, for we are told, “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire” (10:1). In 5:2 we are alerted to “a strong angel” who proclaimed “with a loud voice, Who is able to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?” In this case, we see “another mighty angel” who has come down from heaven to earth in order to stand on the sea and on the land. Instead of asking who can open the book, this angel has a little book1 already opened in his hand (10:2).
The fact that he is described in such exalted language has apparently led some to conclude that this is Jesus. However, this is not Jesus. For one thing, our Lord is never called an angel in any other part of this book, and angels are seen in Revelation as being servants of God who do not deserve to be worshiped (cf. 19:10). Also, in verse 6, he swears by God, differentiating himself from God; but we have already seen that in the book of Revelation Jesus has divine status. He is not just like God, he is God. Finally, in the scheme of Revelation, we are told that God the Father gives the Revelation to his Son Jesus who gave it to his angel who gave it to John. We see here in chapter 10 the angel giving John a little book, which must contain at least part of the contents of Revelation. This angel, according to 1:1, must have received it from Jesus who received it from God the Father.
But we should not be surprised at the exalted nature of this angel. Like Moses, no being can be in God’s presence and not come out without some indication of this. Moses came out with his facing shining like the sun. This angel has come from the presence of God clothed in a cloud, his face also shining like the sun with the radiance of rainbow about his head and with feet like pillars of fire (some commentators think this is meant to remind us of the pillars of fire that led the children of Israel out of Egypt). He is a mighty, a strong angel, not because he is God but because he represents God and serves him for the good of his people. Whatever the saints have to endure on earth, they are reminded that their sufferings don’t happen to them because God can’t help it but because it is part of his wise plan for his glory and their good.
What is the “little book” introduced in verse 2?
“And he had in his hand a little book open: and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth” (2). This angel comes down to earth and puts one foot on the sea and the other upon the land. This not only shows us that this angel is larger than life but also points us to the universality of the message that he brings. In his hand (his left hand, for he uses his right hand to swear an oath, see verse 5, ESV) he has a “little book” (or, more likely, a little scroll) opened. Some argue that because Jesus opened the scroll he was given in chapter 5, that this opened scroll is that scroll, given to the angel to give to John (cf. 1:1). That is possible, I suppose, but the fact that it is called a little scroll surely indicates that this is different in some way. This book will be given to John in verses 8-11, which he will eat (like Ezekiel of old; Ezek. 2:8; 3:1-3), representing the fact that this is the prophetic message which has been entrusted to John to deliver. Since the nature of the intermission of chapter 7 was to help explain the significance of events described in later chapters, I think the interlude of chapters 10 and 11 are also meant to help us understand what John is yet to see in the vision. What John is yet to see is the struggle between the people of God and the dragon, beast, and false prophet. In other words, I think the contents of the “little book” are about the contest between the people of God and their persecutors and the direction and encouragement given to believers in it.
I think the basic difference between the two scrolls, then, is this: the scroll sealed with seven seals is God’s plan for the end of history, to be fulfilled by the person and work of Jesus Christ. The scroll given to John is the prophetic message he is to deliver to the church as they await the fulfillment of God’s plan. Of course, there is overlap between the two scrolls. John’s prophetic message reveals aspects of God’s plan. But the fact that John’s scroll is a little scroll probably at least implies that not everything in God’s plan is revealed to John. The secret things still belong to God but those revealed through his prophets belong to us (Deut. 29:29).
What does it mean for John to seal up the things uttered by the seven thunders?
In verse 3 the angel roars like a lion, and in response seven thunders utter their voices: “And cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth: and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.” Since we have read about seven seals and seven trumpets, both which describe cycles of judgment, it would seem to naturally follow that the seven thunders represent another cycle of judgment which will interpose themselves between the sixth and seventh trumpet calls. If this is the case, this would necessitate a longer period of time before the end comes and the salvation of God is fully experienced.
However, as John sits down and begins to write, he is given further instructions: “And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not” (4).
Now some think that all this means is that there are some things about God’s plan for the end of history that are not to be revealed to the church. Maybe so. We argued earlier that this might be an implication in the fact that the scroll given to John is a little scroll. However, I think the point is that since John is not allowed to include the utterances of the seven thunders in the Revelation, this is meant to convey the fact that God will not allow them to lengthen the time until the final trumpet call and the fulfillment of the mystery of God. We see this in the following verses: “And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer: but in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished, as he hath declared
to his servants the prophets” (5-7). The sealing up of the thunders is followed immediately by a proclamation that the end has come.
That this is the point is clarified by the words, “that there should be time no longer.” Now that is not saying that in the eternal state there will be no experience of the succession of moments and that we will live in an eternal “now.” For one thing, John is not interested in making such a philosophical statement here. For another thing, it is impossible for finite beings like we are to not experience time in the sense of a succession of moments. The distinction between the present age and the eternal state is the different between the present age and the age to come (cf. Mt. 12:32; Mk. 10:30; Lk. 18:30; Eph. 2:7; Heb. 6:52).
Rather, the point here is that the time for awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promise has come to an end: the time is now. Or, as the ESV appropriately (and I think more accurately) translates: “that there would be no more delay, but that in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets” (Rev. 10:6-7). The time for the seventh trumpet which represents the fulfillment and finishing of God’s mystery will not be delayed by the seven thunders but will be immediately realized.
The “mystery of God” is not something which is mysterious in the sense that we can’t understand it. A mystery in a Biblical sense is something which we cannot know unless God reveals it to us (cf. Eph. 3:5). It is something which God reveals to us through his apostles and prophets. So here, the mystery of God is God’s plan for the end of history revealed in the past to God’s prophets and in the present to John.
The point here is that the Lord will not delay or draw out unnecessarily the fulfillment of his promises to us. The end is coming. The present age will not last forever. As we said last time, the way things are will not always be the way things are. God will bring all things to their appointed end. We know he can do this because he is the one who “liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein.” He is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, the first and the last. He is the creator of all things. And God is not to be imagined as if he were captive to the world he has created, for he is the Lord over all things and sovereign in his direction of the affairs of men. The world goes on not because of some irrevocable law independent of God but because God wills it to be so. And the God who keeps all things in existence will bring all things to their proper completion at the right time, not a moment before and not a moment later.
It is comforting to know that God is in control, and nowhere is this more clearly shown than in the fact that God will bring all things to an end and fulfill all his promises and finish the mystery revealed in his good time.
In fact, I think this is one of the things that sets the Christian religion apart from others. Our story has a beginning (in fact, it literally begins with, “In the beginning,” Gen. 1:1) and it has an ending. Not only that, but for all who are in Christ, the ending is a good ending. It is not only a good ending, but it is the kind of ending that can’t be improved on: “in the ages to come [God will] show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). We will literally live happily forever after. Do you know why we want stories to end that way? Because that is the way the story behind all stories will end. It is the way the story God is writing will end.
On the other hand, the secular story is one without an objective storyline; just a bunch of different characters with “their own” story without a meaningful beginning leading to a meaningless end. Is it any wonder then why our age is characterized by despair rather than hope? But the Christian need not and must not give in to the despair of the age for we live in hope of eternal life which God who cannot lie promised before the world began (Tit. 1:2).
The prophetic message imparted (8-11)
At the end of the chapter, John is told, “Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings” (10:11). The word “before” in that verse is one of those Greek prepositions that is incredibly versatile and can be hard to translate at times.3 It is possible to translate this as “before,” but it is more likely to mean “about.” He is to prophesy about many peoples and languages and kings, which is exactly what we see in the chapters to follow.
Though the nations include both Christian and non-Christian, we must remember that the reason God gave the Revelation to John and gave him this prophetic commission was for the strengthening and encouragement of the church. That is because between Now and Then, the Christian needs instruction; he needs direction and encouragement. And I think that is at least partly the point of John’s commissioning as a prophet in these verses. Like Ezekiel, he is told to take a scroll and eat it. In both accounts (Ezekiel’s and John’s) the scroll tastes like honey. But in John’s experience, after eating the scroll he experienced bitterness in his stomach: “And the voice which I heard from heaven spake unto me again, and said, Go and take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel which standeth upon the sea and upon the earth. And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey. And I took the little book out of the angel's hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter” (Rev. 10:8-10).
Now why did it make his belly bitter? John doesn’t exactly say. Some say that it was because of the judgments upon the nations that John was to predict. Certainly, Ezekiel’s burden was a burden of judgment, and perhaps the similarity between Revelation and Ezekiel at this point is meant to point us to that. But if we look ahead a bit, what we discover is the new theme of conflict between the saints and Satan. Personally, I think that this is what makes John’s belly bitter. He sees what is in store for the saints. He sees that they will be called upon to love not their lives unto death (12:11). He sees that the beast will make war against the saints and will overcome them (13:7).
However, this is not all that John has to say. For though the beast, the Antichrist, will be able to overcome and kill God’s people now, he cannot overthrow God’s plan. He can kill the body but after that he can do no more. He cannot take away eternal life from the elect and he cannot subject them to God’s wrath. For the one who trusts in Jesus as Lord and Savior the end will be indescribably sweet.
And this is the thing we have to remember. As it will be in the end, so it is now: in this world we will have tribulation, but we can be of good cheer for our Lord has overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). Those who remember this, who keep the end in sight, who remember the crown, who value the age to come over the present age, will be able to persevere to the end, even in the face of great trials. The way we remember this is by paying attention to God’s word, to the prophetic message. The Lord told John, “Thou must prophesy,” and that means that we must hear. Or, as the apostle Peter put it, “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts” (2 Pet. 1:19).
The point is that God is not only bringing the mystery to an end. He has also provided the follower of Jesus with sure direction as we journey to the end. We are not wandering about in darkness (cf. 1 Thess. 5:4), but we have God’s prophetic word which is a lamp to our feet and a light unto our path (Ps. 119:105).
What then should be our response to the teaching of this chapter? At least two-fold. First, let us be reminded again to live in light of the end, to let the light of the future shine into the present darkness. Let us be like Paul who kept his eye on the prize, rather than like Demas who loved this present world. This chapter reminds us that the end is not some unreachable goal. It is not like the point at infinity but will be reached in a finite amount of time. The end will come; let us live in light of that reality.
Second, let us be encouraged by the fact that God has spoken to us in the prophetic word, which we have in the Scriptures. We don’t write the Story in which we find ourselves; God does. God writes it and interprets it for us. He shows us how to live as we await the end. He provides us with great encouragement as we run our race. We must therefore hear the words of life given to us in his holy Word.
This Word is fundamentally about Jesus Christ; the book is the Revelation of Jesus Christ (1:1). It is the name of Christ that is the name by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). The fulfillment of the mystery of God centers on Christ; the glory to come is a glory purchased by Christ. He alone is worthy to take the book and to open the seals thereof. For he was slain and by his blood he has ransomed people from every nation, tribe, and language. Are you in that number? Believe on the Lord Jesus and repent of your sins. Those who do so will find that their names have been written in heaven from the foundation of the earth.
1 The Greek word biblaridion means “little book.” See verse 2. The word for "book" in chapter 5 is biblion. Although this same word is also used to describe the little book in 10:8.
2 In most of these passages, the KJV translates the word aion as “world,” but a better translation is “age.”
3 It is the Greek preposition epi.