Monthly Archives: May 2018

 Revelation 5 The Lion is a Lamb

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, between 1635 and 1640

 

Revelation 5

1 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; 2 and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.4 And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

 6 Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.

7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. 8 When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 They sing a new song:

“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints
from every tribe and language and people and nation;
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.”

11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 singing with full voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom
and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,

“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

Revelation envisions a world centered upon the worship of God and the Lamb. In contrast to the way in which people will worship idols of stone, wood, and metal or those who will worship at the altars of commerce, military might, fame, popularity or political power the people of God were always to ‘fear, love and trust God above all things’ in Martin Luther’s memorable explanation of the first commandment. The Lord’s prayer asks for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Heaven becomes the template for what life on earth is to become. There is a consistent theme throughout the Bible of the desire of God to dwell among the earth and the people of God represented narratively through stories like God walking with Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, God’s creation of the tabernacle to dwell among the people of Israel in Exodus and decisively for Christians in the narratives of the incarnation in the gospels. Revelation will move us to a world where God comes down to dwell among humanity but here in heaven we see a glimpse of what the properly ordered world will look like. Heaven shows us a world centered on God the Father and on Jesus. To use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s description from his lectures on the creation narratives, “The life that comes from God is at the center; that is to say, God, who gives life, is at the center.” (DBWE 3: 83)

The previous chapter brought us into the throne room of God where we saw the creatures and the elders worshipping the Lord who is seated on the throne. We begin chapter five with the introduction of a scroll with seven seals which is written inside and one the back. There is a message that is coming from God that is unable to be read because it is sealed and the revelation of its contents can only occur once all the seals are removed. The disclosure of the contents of the scroll and receiving this message from the Lord is a weighty matter and no one or nothing in heaven or on earth or under the earth meets the call for worthiness put forward by the mighty angel. God’s proclamation, judgment and justice seems to have been delayed because of the unworthiness of those throughout creation to receive the message. This situation causes John to weep at the delay of God’s action. In contrast to the merchants and the wealthy in Revelation 18 who will weep at the unfolding of judgment within the scroll, John weeps that justice appears to have been sealed away until another time. But John is among those blessed mourners mentioned in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5:4 for in Christ his mourning will be comforted.

One of the elders informs John that ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered.’ This conquest enables this one to be worthy to open the seals on the scroll, but this is a scene of many reversals and redefinitions. The one mentioned is Jesus and his conquest is in his crucifixion. Instead of a military leader who conquers through military might, as one might expect of one whose title is the Lion of Judah, by his suffering he redeems for God a multitude from every tribe and every nation. Revelation frequently evokes images and figures from Israel’s scriptures much like the gospel of John does. To use Richard B. Hays’ language about John the apostle applies here to John the author of Revelation as well, “John is the master of the carefully framed, luminous image that shines brilliantly against a dark canvas and lingers in the imagination.” (Hays, 2016, p. 284) The Lion of Judah goes back to Jacob’s final blessing of his sons Genesis 49: 9-10:

Judah is a lion’s whelp;
From the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He crouches down, he stretches out like a lion,
like a lioness—who dares rouse him up?
The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and the obedience of the peoples is his.

1 Kings relates how lion imagery adorned the throne room of Solomon:

The throne had six steps. The top of the throne was rounded in the back, and on each side of the seat were arm rests and two lions standing beside the arm rests, while twelve lions were standing, one on each end of a step on the six steps. Nothing like it was ever made in any kingdom. (1 Kings 10: 19-20)

The root of David recalls the imagery used in the prophets to talk about a coming one who will once again reign in the place of the lost Davidic monarchy. Isaiah 11: 1 specifically links the imagery of branch and root:

A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of its roots.

Other prophets like Jeremiah (23: 5; 33:15) and Zechariah (3:8; 6:12) will refer to the hope of the coming Davidic king referring to the branch imagery. Both of these terms had strong messianic resonance in the hope of the Jewish people around the time of Jesus and many New Testament books would link Jesus’ identity to his association with the line of David.

Jan van Eyxk, Mystic Lamb detail from the Gent altarpiece (1432)

The Lion of the tribe of Judas is worthy to open the scroll but in a reversal of expectations what John sees is not a man or a king or even a lion but a lamb. The lion is the lamb, the one who has conquered is the one who stands as if it has been slaughtered. This reversal is a key image for the remainder of Revelation. John’s gospel places a similar image in the mouth of John the Baptist when he proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1: 29) The distinctive description of the lamb having seven horns and seven eyes continue to develop the paradox of the scene. The lamb appears like one that has been slaughtered but horns are considered representations of power. The seven eyes are linked to the seven spirits of God which are mentioned in chapter four linking the torches and spirits around God’s throne with the eyes on the Lamb. The description of the Lamb having seven horns sets up a comparison with the dragon and the beast that will arise from the sea (Revelation 12: 3; 13: 1) in addition to the death blow on the beast that arose out of the sea. Both the dragon and the beasts will demand honors that are only appropriate for God and the Lamb.

The Lamb approaches the throne and takes the scroll and the worship of the Lamb begins to radiate outward from the throne of God. The twenty-four elders bring the golden bowls of incense which we learn are the prayers of the saints. As Psalm 141 can state:

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. (Psalm 141:2)

And in light of the action of the Lamb they lift up a new song. As I read these words I am reminded of Psalm 96 which begins:

O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.
The LORD has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. (Psalm 96: 1-2)

The new song the elders lift up to the Lamb is full of images from the scriptures. The connecting the slaughter of the Lamb and ransoming a people for God probably has its origination in the Passover lamb Exodus 12). Paul can use the image of Christ’s blood becoming a sacrifice of atonement (Romans 3: 25) and Mark’s gospel can briefly point in this direction when it mentions the Son of Man coming to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10: 45). The ransomed include saints of every tribe, language and people and confers on this group the vocation of Israel as a kingdom of priests (see Exodus 19:6 and the discussion in chapter 1).

The praise of the elders ends and the focus of the vision expands to include an uncountable host of angels lifting up their voices in praise as well. The angelic host lifts up a seven fold praise as they sing together in a full voice. God the creator was given a three fold praise, “Glory, honor and power” but now the Lamb receives this seven fold praise in language similar to David’s praise of God in 1 Chronicles:

Your, O LORD, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we five thanks to you and praise your glorious name. (1 Chronicles 29: 11-13)

This scene of worship and praise ends with all of creation lifting up its voice in praise of both the one on the throne and the Lamb. The worship of the Creator and the Lamb are joined together in a final three-fold blessing of “honor and glory and might.” On behalf of the creation the four living creatures utter, “Amen!” and the elders continued their worship.

We will be returned to these scenes of heavenly worship throughout the book of Revelation. In the midst of the turmoil the saints will be reminded that God and the Lamb are firmly in control and worthy of worship and praise. Even though their praise may seem weak in the midst of the cacophony of the triumphant shouts directed to idols and the emperor, the faithful can know that their voices are joined to the elders, the myriads of angels and all of creation acknowledging the sovereignty of God. Though the individual communities may feel insignificant they are a part of the multitude from every tribe, language and people. They are reminded that all creation centers upon the Creator and the Lamb as they join in the universal worship.

Revelation 4 The Throne Room of God

Herz-Jesu-Kirche, westseitige Teiansicht der Pendentifkuppel,Shared under Creative Commons attribution-Share alike 3.0 Germany

Revelation 4

1 After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” 2 At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3 And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. 4 Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. 5 Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; 6 and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,

“Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.”

 9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,

 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

At the end of Revelation 3 the congregation in Laodicea was instructed to open the door when they hear the voice of the Lord and, with the other seven churches, to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. At the beginning of chapter four there is now a door that is open, the voice of the Lord (described in Revelation 1: 10-11 as a voice like a trumpet) now invites John to come up and see. Now once again John is in the spirit to see what is to be revealed to the churches and to the world. The promise at the end of the previous chapter promises to the one who conquers a place on Christ’s throne, and the throne Christ shares with God, now John (and by extension the readers) are invited to see the throne room of God to share in the things that are about to be revealed.

Some modern futurist interpretations of Revelation note that the word church disappears here until the end of the book and use this along with Paul’s address to the congregation in Thessalonica when he mentions the saints meeting the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17) to argue that the faithful church will be raptured away from the troubles that come in the later portions of the vision. While this view has a lot of popular support it also misreads Revelation and the New Testament in significant ways. The passage in 1 Thessalonians is Paul’s reassurance to the church in Thessalonica who have seen some of their members die that at Christ’s return to earth both the dead and the living will greet the returning Christ and join in procession with him as he returns. The direction of both Paul and Revelation’s theology is the return of God to dwell on earth, a reality where ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ becomes a reality. Instead of following Jesus’ call to his disciples to take up their cross and follow him in my view this interpretation makes the congregation of the faithful a group that when the going gets tough they are gone. It also requires the address to John to come, a singular invitation, to be broadened to the entire church in a futuristic way.

Before delving into the imagery of the throne room of God in all its strangeness to a modern listener it is helpful to realize that ancient listeners found scenes like this both fascinating and dangerous. Throughout religious history there have always been those who approached faith in a more mystical manner. In the early church the idea of the spirit taking someone up into a vision of heaven was accepted and within Judaism of this time we have writings which would testify to the writer entering the throne room of God. Jewish mysticism at this time rotated around two critical passages: Genesis 1 (the creation) and Ezekiel 1 (the throne room of God). This Jewish mysticism around Ezekiel 1 was known as merkbah and tended to be theologically interested in both God’s nature as well as the hierarchy and explaining the surroundings of the vision of God’s throne in heaven. Christopher Rowland points out that within the Mishnah (early Jewish writings explaining Torah probably compiled in the first and second century) we see evidence that, “Reading Ezekiel 1 was severely restricted by ancient Jewish teachers because of its use by visionaries and the dangers to faith and life that such visionary activity posed.” (NIB XII: 596) Yet, Ezekiel and Revelation continue to fascinate and perplex people and the time when the church or synagogue could prevent people from reading these passages has long passed.

My own tradition has long been suspicious of mysticism that focuses on the nature of God in Godself or long drawn out reflections on the throne room of God or angelic hierarchies. Martin Luther in his critique of the theology of the Roman Catholic church of his time labeled many of these speculative theologies as theologies of glory, while (in Luther’s mind) a true theologian would come to know God through the cross and suffering. Perhaps this is another reason why Luther was willing to consign the book of Revelation to the appendix of the New Testament. Yet, Luther in his writings did use this passage to refer to the centrality of proclamation in Christian worship and viewed the elders as teachers of the word. (LW 35:401, Koester, 2014, p.351)

Diving into this passage we are invited to imagine the scene that John sees and records. As implied above the passage echoes the portrayal of the throne room in Ezekiel 1 in several ways, but there are also several differences. We are invited to view what must take place in several powerful symbolic visions which will proceed in several cycles. Within each of these cycles there are pauses and delays to give time and space for repentance and change. But the early Christian communities who were struggling to remain faithful in the world of the Roman empire found this vision comforting because it reminds them that God has both the power and the authority to act. The forces of death and destruction, which will often be described in language that parodies the language of the Roman empire, will come to an end in this vision. The church may still be in the time where the saints cry out, “how long, O Lord?” and yet, Revelation allows the churches to know that God will not remain inactive.

While the Psalms, Isaiah, and the prophet Micaiah in 1 Kings could all mention the throne of God briefly (Psalms 11: 4, 103:19; Isaiah 6: 1-3; and 1 Kings 22:19) it is only Ezekiel 1 and Daniel 7: 9-10 that risk any type of description of God or God’s throne. The language of simile is used to describe that which is beyond description. The figure on the throne is like jasper and carnelian, two precious stones that have blue/purple and reddish colors respectively. The rainbow around the throne is emerald like in its splendor. Even Revelation doesn’t dare to dwell too long upon the figure sitting upon the throne but instead focuses its attention on the area surrounding the throne.

The twenty-four elders have been related to the twelve tribes and twelve apostles, priests and musicians in the temple, attendants of the Roman emperor, the cosmic order or even the twenty-four hours of the day. Each of these images is suggestive and may enrich how we view these figures but the term presbyteros (translated elder, this is where the Presbyterian church takes its name) is frequently used in the New Testament for elders within the church. These elders of the church may be taking on a timeless cosmic role as they minister around the throne of God, but they like the seven spirits of the churches in Revelation 1, they probably connect the church on earth with what is going on in heaven.

 

Stained-Glass depicting the four symbols of the gospel books : St. Luke (flying ox), St. John (bird), St. Mark (lion) and St. Mattthew (angel) Image from https://christianclipartreview.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-four-gospels.html

The four living creatures bear some similarity to the creatures mentioned in Ezekiel 1, but also a significant difference. Instead of each creature being the same with human form but four heads (human being, lion, ox, and eagle) the creatures now are individually like a human, lion, ox and eagle. This image of the four creatures has had a rich history in interpretation from representing the four gospels, to Joachim of Fiore’s four senses of Scripture (literal, moral, spiritual and anagogical) to representing constellations. I like the suggestion that they are heavenly representatives of the created order (Koester, 2014, p. 353) since so much of this portion of Revelation is permeated with creation imagery and praise of God as the creator. Yet, I love the iconography which identifies the four gospels with the images from the creatures (even if there were disagreements in the early church about which gospel was represented by which image the identification of Matthew (man/angel), Mark (lion), Luke (ox), and John (eagle) has become standard in iconography).

It is appropriate that this scene where there is continual singing has become an inspiration for the church’s singing and worship life. As I read these songs where the creatures sing “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come” I have the words and melody of the hymn by Reginald Heber and John B. Dykes “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” and as the elders cast their thrones at the feet of the one who lives forever and ever the lines of Handel’s Messiah singing, “and he shall live forever and ever, Hallelujah!” echoes in my mind. While the songs and worship in my church or any church is probably an inadequate reflection of this vision of the heavenly worship it does point to the centrality of the worship of God for these representatives of the people of God and the whole creation.

The central proclamation of this heavenly worship is that God is the creator of all things and the one who causes creation to exist. The God of the Bible is not a creator who creates and then abandons the world, but who continues to sustain and watch over the world and God’s people. Revelation shows us a vision of blasphemous forces, represented by the dragon and the beasts, which seek to destroy the creation and usurp for themselves the worship due only to God and the lamb. The elders and the living creatures will praise God, while others will bow down before the beast. Many people in Revelation will be caught up in a lie and yet there is a time for repentance. There are those people and groups that may be unwilling to reconcile with God and yet we are shown that true worship is centered on God the creator and the lamb who has conquered who will become the central figure of the next chapter.