by André Reis | 29 January 2019 |

Adventist scholars have long debated whether the Old Testament background for Rev 4–5 is the inauguration of the earthly sanctuary or the Day of Atonement. The implications of this are not unimportant for Adventist historicists who see Jesus initiating his Day of Atonement ministry in 1844 rather than at his ascension.[1]

This brief study will briefly explore the arguments for both positions.

Day of Atonement in Revelation 1

Hints for a Day of Atonement background in Rev 4–5 can be found in Rev 1, where Jesus appears to John inside the heavenly sanctuary wearing what is clearly Day of Atonement attire: a long, white linen robe and a sash on his chest. Absent here are the regular high priestly accessories: the hyacinth high priestly robe, the ephod holding the Urim and the Thummim, the onyx stones on the shoulders, the golden bells and pomegranates at the hem of the robe and the golden plate on his forehead––all were set aside for the Day of Atonement rituals (Lev 16:4). To complete the picture, Jesus’s voice sounds like a shofar, the Jewish trumpet played before the Day of Atonement rituals began (Lev 25:9). The two-edged sword appears to echo the two verdicts on the Day of Atonement: clean or unclean (Lev 16:30–31).

It appears, then, that John is setting up his description of the exalted Jesus not only as a regular priest inside the sanctuary, but a high priest officiating on the Day of Atonement. Jesus ministers and intercedes as high priest for the seven churches of Asia represented by the seven lampstands.

Not surprisingly, the vision of the slaughtered Lamb inside the throne room––the heavenly Most Holy Place––appears to be a segue from Rev 1 and contains echoes of the Day of Atonement. First, let’s do a quick overview of Rev 4–5.

Overview and Discussion

After the letters to the seven churches, the exalted Jesus invites John to “come up” into heaven (Rev 4:2). John finds himself immediately “in the spirit” in the heavenly throne room. He sees a throne surrounded by a rainbow with someone who looks like “jasper and carnelian” seated on it (4:2–3) and, around the throne, twenty-four thrones with “twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes with golden crowns on their heads (4:4). Dramatic atmospheric phenomena (4:5) fill the room where also are present the seven spirits of God symbolized by “seven lamps” (4:6). Around these twenty-four thrones there are four “living creatures” (4:7) which defy description. They praise God without ceasing (4:8) while the twenty-four elders follow with acclamations and cast their crowns before the throne (4:10–11).[2]

The scene is continued into Rev 5 where the sealed scroll which is in the hand of the God comes into focus (5:1). A mighty angel asks with a “loud voice,” “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (5:2). When no one is able to take the scroll John weeps bitterly but is told by one of the twenty-four elders that the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” is worthy to take the scrolls and open its seals (5:5). The focus of the scene then turns to the throne and to the Lamb standing who takes the scroll (5:7), an event that elicits the praise of the four creatures, the twenty-four elders and all the angelic hosts (5:8–14)

Several elements in these chapters reveal echoes of the Day of Atonement in Rev 4–5.

  1. The vision begins with an entrance into the heavenly throne-room where a sacrifice is offered, which echoes the entrance by the high priest into the earthly Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement.
  2. The creatures with many wings around God’s throne echo the two cherubim placed on top of the ark’s mercy seat inside the Most Holy Place (cf. Exod 25:18–22; 1 Kgs 6:23, 27; (Ezek 1).
  3. The chapter’s sanctuary context indicates that the best Old Testament backgrounds for the 24 elders are: (1) the 24 orders of priests of the sanctuary (1 Chron. 24:3–19); (2) the 24 Levitical gatekeepers (1 Chron 26:17–19) and (3) the 24 orders of Levites charged with offering music and worship in the sanctuary (1 Chron 25:6–31). These elders certainly function as such: (1) they wear long white robes, as did the priests (along with the victor’s crown, Rev 4:4); (2) they perform mediatorial functions by offering incense (Rev 5:8); (3) they play a Levite’s harps in worship (Rev 5:14); (4) they stand in a subservient, priestly relationship to the one seated on the throne––the heavenly high priest/sacrifice symbolizing Jesus. This imagery is parallel to that of the redeemed saints who also wear “white robes” and play “harps” (cf. Rev 7:9; 14:2; 15:2). [3]
  4. The same term for “slaughtering” the goat for the Lord on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:15, sphazo), is used for the “Lamb as if slaughtered” in Rev 5:6 (sphagmenon) while the presence of “blood” (Lev 16:15) offered inside the Most Holy Place in both passages connects them thematically to the Day of Atonement.[4]
  5. The most striking aspect in Rev 5 is that this slaughtered lamb––a composite figure which draws from several OT sacrificial contexts––is inside the heavenly Most Holy Place and seated on a throne right beside God. This cannot point to any sanctuary ritual other than the Day of Atonement, the only time the offering of blood was brought before the mercy seat (Lev 16:15). In this context the slaughtered lamb seems to point to a Day of Atonement “sin/purification offering” whose blood was offered inside the heavenly Most Holy Place as in the earthly sanctuary.[5]
  6. Paulien suggests “lambs were appropriate for sacrifice during the service of inauguration” rather than Day of Atonement.[6] However, burnt offerings on the Day of Atonement also required seven one-year-old male lambs (Num 29:7–11) while the inauguration of the Mosaic tabernacle prescribes “one male goat” as a “purification offering,” a lamb for “burnt offering” and “an ox and a ram” for an “offering of well-being” (Lev 9:3-4). Moreover, the lamb was “for burnt offering” (Lev 9:3), not for “atonement,” while the Lamb in Rev 5:9 clearly is for atonement: “for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed [atoned] for God saints…” Thus the Lamb in Rev 5 incorporates aspect of the Passover lamb as well as the Day of Atonement sacrifice brought into the Most Holy Place.
  7. The inauguration sacrifices were part of the olah shelamim system of burnt/peace/thanksgiving offerings which included grain offerings (Lev 7:11–18; 8:21, 28 Num 15:2; 2 Chr 7:1–11; 1 Kgs 8:64) and had the goal of invoking Yahweh’s presence (Lev 8:21, 28; cf. 1 Kgs 18:20–40). The inauguration sacrifices were virtually all “peace offerings” (cf. Exod 20:22–26; 29:35–37), not for “atonement.”
  8. The exception was the bull calf offered as a “sin/purification offering” presented during the inauguration in Lev 9 meant as an “atonement” for Aaron and his sons at the establishment of the priesthood; this atonement had functional implications for the order of priests only so they could act as mediators in the tabernacle and did not apply to the inauguration of the sanctuary tent per se. Conversely, the slaughtered Lamb of Revelation dies as a “sin/purification offering” “for the people” (Rev 5:9). It is also important to note that the blood rituals that established the Aaronite priesthood do not reoccur in the Solomonic dedication (cf. 2 Chr 7)
  9. Isa 53:10: “When you make his life an offering for sin” and Isa 53:7: “He was led as a lamb to the slaughter” clearly connect the slaughtered Lamb of Rev 5 with “guilt/sin/purification offering” rather than an inauguration offering.
  10. None of the OT sanctuary dedication passages indicate that either the blood or any part of sacrificed animals is brought into the sanctuary in order to dedicate it, let alone inside the Most Holy Place as we see in Rev 5. Instead, the dedication of the tabernacle is performed with the “holy anointing oil” (Exod 26:22–38; 37:29; 40:9) as indicated in Lev 8:10: “Then Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the tabernacle and all that was in it, and consecrated them.” Blood is consistently reserved for purgation/purification offerings, while “oil” is reserved for “dedication” (cf. Lev 8:12, 23–24; Exod 29:23–24; 1 Sam 16:13; Ps 133:1).[7] Since the sanctuary had not yet been authorized to receive sacrifices and intercession at the time of the inauguration, no blood was authorized to be brought into it.
  11. In the image of the slaughtered Lamb offered inside the heavenly sanctuary, John seems to be echoing the tradition found in the book of Hebrews that Jesus ascended as high priest “into heaven itself” (Heb 9:24), “within the veil” of the Most Holy Place (Heb 6:19–20), “with His own blood [into] the Most Holy Place once for all” (Heb 9:12, NIV).
  12. The Day of Atonement was the first official duty for Aaron and constituted a “validation of Aaron’s high priesthood, the proof of his ordination and consecration.”[8] Under this prism, a Day of Atonement background for Rev 1 & 4–5––in line with the portrayal of Jesus as high priest in Hebrews––confirms the beginning of Jesus’s high priesthood in heaven without the need for “inauguration” of sanctuary imagery. He is at once sacrifice and high priest (“as a High Priest…he entered…with his own blood,” Heb 9:12).
  13. Lastly, the scene of jubilation in the throne room in Rev 5:8–10: “You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation…” does not meet the “inauguration” requirement since atoning blood was not used to inaugurate the sanctuary. Jesus’ installation as heavenly high priest as slaughtered Lamb is based on the merits of his atoning, Day-of-Atonement blood offered inside the heavenly Most Holy Place (cf. Heb 6:19–20; 9:12, 24). It is his atoning blood that makes him “worthy”[9] to receive worship as heavenly high priest and to “open the scroll” which holds the revelation of Jesus Christ as laid out in the rest of the book.


On balance, the imagery accompanying the “throne room” scene and the “slaughtered lamb” seen inside the heavenly Most Holy Place in Rev 4–5 does not echo any OT tabernacle/temple inauguration passage but conflates Old Testament atonement themes: (1) the Passover lamb (Exod 12:21; cf. 1 Cor 5:7; John 1:29, 36); (2) the offering of sacrificial blood inside the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16) and; (3) the suffering servant/slaughtered lamb of Isa 53:7, 10 offered as a “guilt offering.”

The natural conclusion is that these chapters describe the atoning sacrifice of Jesus and his subsequent ascension to the heavenly sanctuary where he entered “within the veil” of the Most Holy Place, “once and for all… with his own blood,” to “intercede forever” (Heb 6:19; 9:12; 7:25), events which lay in John’s past. As such, this initial scene stands as a foundational Leitmotif for the presentation of Jesus in the remaining chapters of Revelation.






  • Norman R. Gulley, “Revelation 4 and 5: Judgment or Inauguration?” JATS 8 (1997): 60–64.
  • The representative works on Rev 4–5 are Loren Johns, The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John: An Investigation into Its Origins and Rhetorical Force, WUNT, 2nd. ser., 167 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003); Ranko Stefanovic, “The Background and Meaning of the Sealed Book of Revelation 5” (PhD diss., Andrews University, 1995); Christopher A. Frilingos, Spectacles of Empire: Monsters, Martyrs, and the Book of Revelation. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religions (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); Matthias Reinhard Hoffmann, The Destroyer and the Lamb: The Relationship Between Angelomorphic and Lamb Christology in the Book of Revelation, WUNT 203 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005).
  • Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 660–661.
  • Ibid., 323.
  • See Aune, Revelation 1–5, 373: “The metaphor of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb whose blood (i.e., death) has atoning significance is based on the confluence of two traditions: Jesus as the (Passover) lamb (1 Cor 5:7; John 1:29, 36) and the conception of the death of Jesus as atoning in a way similar to the חטאת [hattat] “purification offering.”
  • Jon Paulien, “The Role of the Hebrew Cultus, Sanctuary, and Temple in the Plot and Structure of the Book of Revelation,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 33 (1995): 251.
  • The author of Hebrews appears to imply that the entire tabernacle was dedicated with blood when he writes: “And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship” (Heb 9:21). However, the dedication of the entire tabernacle with blood is not attested in the Old Testament. This may be part of a list of imprecisions found in Hebrews: (1) In Heb 9:4, the author places the “altar of incense” inside the Most Holy Place when in fact it is in front of the veil of the Most Holy Place, in the Holy Place (Exod 30:6). (2) The author states that the ark of the covenant contained the “golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded” (9:6). The inclusion of these items inside the ark cannot be attested in the Pentateuch. (3) The use of “water, scarlet and hyssop” is not connected to the dedication of the tabernacle but rather to the purification of a leprous person (Lev 14:4) and the ritual of the red heifer (Num 19:6). (4) In the dedication, Moses reads from the book of the law (Exod 24:4) while the author of Hebrews states that he sprinkled it and the people (Heb 9:19). Nevertheless, as the authors of the Pulpit Commentary on Hebrews state, “the force of the argument does not depend on these added details. (H. D. M. Spence-Jones, ed. Hebrews, The Pulpit Commentary [London; New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1909], 235).
  • Deborah W. Rooke, “The Day of Atonement as a Ritual of Validation for the High Priest,in Temple Worship in Biblical Israel, ed. John Day (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2007), 347.
  • Although the vision of Revelation 4 is introduced as “what must take place after this,” the vision portrays events that happened prior to John’s writing, e.g., Jesus’ exaltation and enthronement at his ascension (Ps 24:9). Thus “after this” need not be understood as indicative of a sequence of events, but rather the order of the visions, i.e., “Come, and I’ll show you the next vision.” As Beale, Revelation, 316–317, explains it: “Μετὰ ταῦτα (“after these things”) does not place the events within the visions in chs. 4–5ff. after the events narrated in chs. 1–3. It indicates rather only that a new vision is coming after the vision in chs. 1–3. This is the order in which John saw the visions but not necessarily the historical order of their occurrence as events.”






André Reis, PhD., has degrees in Theology and Music and has recently finished his doctorate in New Testament at Avondale College. He writes from Orlando, FL where he lives with his wife and three daughters. He is the author of the upcoming book The Day of Atonement in Revelation.

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