Understanding Revelation: Only One is Worthy (Chapters 4-5)

Wilfrid J. Harrington writes, “The great throne dominates Revelation: a constant reminder that God rules even in our chaotic world.” As we move into chapters 4-5 of Revelation, the setting of John’s vision shifts to this “great throne”. In Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature, revelationThe Heavenly Throne Room.jpgs are mediated to the human recipient in two ways: in the form of dreams/visions, and in the form of other worldly journeys. Chapters 1-3 of Revelation fall under this first type, while chapters 4-5 shift to something more similar to the second type where John is called up and shown a heavenly throne room. As John’s vision takes him to the heavenly throne room, he, and we, find this central theme in the text – that God alone is worthy to receive the believer’s total allegiance.

Again, as we explore the imagery of these chapters, remember that John is not attempting to present a blueprint for the future or a road map for the end of the world. His approach is not logical or sequential, but creative. His visions are variations on a few related themes. Revelation is a book we are meant to creatively experience, rather than to dissect line by line.

We find a number of symbols present in the throne room imagery, which communicate to us some truths about what it means to worship God and God alone. The following are some of the notes I shared during the Bible study:

Rainbow – reminds us of God’s covenant with Noah; a sign of God’s mercy that tells us there is to be no triumph for God’s sovereignty at the expense of his mercy

24 Elders – The identity of the 24 is not entirely clear – a common interpretation is the 12 tribes of Israel + the 12 disciples; another is a doubling of the 12 tribes of Israel, thus representing both Jewish and Gentile believers, ie. The totality of the Church. They are heavenly exemplars of pure worship of God, in contrast with worship of the emperor that is occurring on earth

Thunder and Lightning – conventional imagery used for theophanies (appearances or manifestations of God) in the Old Testament

Seven Blazing Lamps – similar to the 7-branched menorah in the Jerusalem temple; John says they represent the seven spirits of God – affirming the wholeness of God’s presence and work

Sea of Glass – ancient Hebrew cosmology (understanding of the world/universe) conceived waters as below the earth and above the firmament (the dome covering the earth), and water was seen as a representation of chaos, evil, and the untamed part of creation. Here, the sea is made calm under God’s rule and presence

4 Living Creatures – modified from imagery in Ezekiel 10; representations of the highest order of angels who stand closest to the throne of God; cherubim and seraphim are described as the highest orders of angels in the Old Testament, and they are usually depicted as winged creatures that have characteristics of both animals and humans

Scroll with 7 Seals – legal documents were often written on one side of a scroll, then folded, sewn together, and sealed, with a summary of the content written on the outside – this scroll could represent the kingdom of God that is conveyed by the work of the Lamb; it could also represent the purposes/plans of God for all of creation, which are effected through Jesus; seals were used not only to safeguard a document, but they also identified the source of the document – the only one who can open the scroll is the Lamb

Lion or Lamb? – Jesus is originally described as the Lion of Judah – an image of a fierce and conquering ruler. John looks around for this Lion, but instead of a lion he finds a lamb with the marks of its slaughter. “Lamb” is the most prominent title for Christ in Revelation, appearing 28 times

Lamb’s 7 Horns – symbols of power and strength

Lamb’s 7 Eyes – symbols of God’s presence and knowledge, demonstrating that the Lamb acts with the authority of God

At the center of these two chapters (and really the whole of Revelation) is a question about worship. Who do we worship? To whom do we give our allegiance? The Christians who lived during the time of the writing of Revelation were faced with some difficult decisions to make about how they chose to live, especially in relationship to the Roman empire.

The Roman empire was incredibly powerful – the emperor held ultimate authority over the empire, and he knew it. Roman emperors had even taken to claiming divine status, and demanded that Roman citizens worship him as a divine being. Christians were faced with this difficult choice: refuse to participate in the imperial cult of emperor worship and likely face some form of persecution, or go through the outward actions of participating in the imperial cult, even if they believed differently in their hearts, and avoid persecution. For John, the choice was clear. Faithful Christians can do nothing other than worship the one true God. To do anything other was a complete denial of faith.

Chapters 4-5 center around the absolute worship of God. The heavenly throne room is centered wholly around God, who is in the center. The attention of all of the creatures and elders is focused solely on the one whom they worship. There is no room for anything else. Worship, in Revelation, is a political act. Through worship, one declares one’s own allegiance and loyalty. Through worship, one reaffirms again and again that commitment. Those who worship God cannot give allegiance to Rome or its emperor.

Furthermore, chapter 5 gives us a picture of the character of this God that we are called to give our whole allegiance to. We find that the one who is worthy to open the scroll is the one on the throne – and the one John finds on the throne is the Lamb who was slain.

Lamb
Lamb of God, 6th C in dome of Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna 

This was a surprise for John, because he was expecting to see a fierce, conquering Lion, the Lion of Judah. But instead he finds the Lamb, bearing the marks of execution. As Mitchell G. Reddish points out, “Through this imagery, John declares that the only ‘conquering’ that is consistent with the values of God is conquering that occurs through self-sacrifice and love, not through violence.” At the center of Christian worship is a ruler who does not claim authority through violence or force, but through the giving of self for the sake of the other. This is fundamentally contrary to the ways that the kingdoms of the world, like Rome, work.

As the scene in the heavenly throne room continues to unfurl, we see who else is participating in the act of worshipping the Lamb – it has moved from just the creatures and the elders to include tens and thousands, and they sing a song of praise and honor, recognizing that people from every tribe, language, people, and nation are included in this new reality. There are no barriers; there are no divisions. The Lamb has broken all of those down.

We have much to ponder from these two chapters. They raise many questions for Christians today, living in America. To whom or what are we ultimately giving our allegiance? Where have the lines between worship of God and worship of empire been blurred?  How do we tell the difference, and how are we called to live faithfully in such a time and place? Read the two chapters again, and reflect on these questions. I’ll leave you with another word from Mitchell G. Reddish for you to ponder, a word which may or may not sit well with you. Whether it rubs you the wrong way, or whether it resonates with what you experience, take some time to pray and ask God to reveal what it is to be faithful to the Lamb today.

“American culture lays claim to the allegiance of the church. Patriotism becomes entwined with religious faith. American flags are placed in churches; churches hold patriotic rallies. Capitalism is seen as a divinely ordained economic system. Caesar demands to be worshiped, and too readily the church obeys. As a result, the message of the gospel is subverted, and the church becomes a willing participant in the deification of nationalism. To this situation, also, the book of Revelation declares, “You must not do that. Worship God!”

You can read the introduction here and the blog on chapters 1-3 here.

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