The Most Revealing Book of the Bible 4:1-14
As we move into this scene in the throne room of God, be very aware that John's motive in writing and ours in reading is not simply the satisfaction of curiosity as to what a certain spot in heaven may or may not look like. No, John still is making an affirmation regarding the nature and meaning of history, ours as well as his own. And the essential fact about this history is that it is controlled from here. Its center is to be found here rather than in itself; it displays more of the character of a railway car that must be hitched to its engine than an automobile that is self-contained. God is Lord, and history is subject to him. Surely his lordship is powerful and glorious; but John's picture also affirms that it is wise, benevolent, and beautiful--worthy of boundless praise and adoration. Always read John as relevant; this part of the book was addressed to the seven churches just as much as the earlier part was.
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,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,
"Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come."
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."
"After this," opens verse 1. John customarily uses the phrase to mark a break in the action and introduce a new scene. The Revealer appears again, with details very reminiscent of his first appearance. There he came to John on Patmos; here John goes to him in heaven; the same Jesus Christ, he is the continuity between earth and heaven, the continuity of John's entire story.
"In heaven stood a throne." Thrones are very big in Revelation, getting mentioned in chapter after chapter. They represent, of course, sovereignty and lordship. And it is significant that John is much more interested in the fact of the throne than he is in telling us what God looks like; a little imagery of glory is all he gives; John has no room for idle curiosity about things that don't concern us. Further, it is the case that every personage and group appearing in Revelation is represented in symbolic form, is given its own particular symbol--except God. John knows that there is no symbol great enough to express what "God" means. To call him anything other than "God" would be to falsify.
Through the scene as a whole, imagery recalling the Old Testament temple is combined with that which suggests the throne room of a royal palace. There is no conflict in this, because the heart of the temple was the Holy of Holies, in which sat the ancient Ark of the Covenant, which itself was understood to be an image of the throne of God. John consistently treats the temple as the royal "house of God" rather than as a cult center involving animal sacrifice, the activity of holy priests, and all such.
Close about God's throne are twenty-four elders on thrones, wearing white robes and golden crowns--symbols of victory and sovereignty. Twenty-four--note well, is a twelve number that, we will see, inevitably denotes the church. In this case, it is a double twelve-most likely John's way of affirming that the true church consists of both the twelve tribes of the Old Testament people of God and the twelve apostles of the New Testament church (in Rev. 21:12-14, John specifies the unity of these two groups).
We are told, then, that in the reality heaven represents (the reality which, at present, is "coming to be" on earth as it "already is" in heaven), the church has the sovereignty, and its place is in the front rank around the very throne of God--good things for the little congregations of Asia Minor (and us) to know. Also, we discover, the primary function of the double-twelve church is to magnify and honor the God who makes her what she is--so get with it on earth as it is in heaven!
That flashes of lightning and peals of thunder proceed from God's throne may be meant to recall his appearance on Sinai and the pillar of cloud and fire that led Israel through the wilderness. The Holy Spirit, placed in closest conjunction with the throne of God, goes plural again; the description as "seven flaming torches" may even intend Pentecost's "tongues like flames of fire." The "sea of glass" may come from the sea of the Old Testament temple even though it is described in quite different terms.
The four living creatures come through as the strangest part of the picture; but they need not; there is nothing mysterious about them. They date back to the first chapter of Ezekiel, where each has four wings rather than six and has all four faces rather than each having a different one of the four. From there, they go back to Isaiah 6 and his great vision of God in the temple, where an undesignated number of seraphim (undoubtedly pictured much more like John's and Ezekiel's living creatures than the way we draw seraphs) had six wings each and cried, "Holy, holy, holy!" From there they go back to the old Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25:18-20; Ex. 37:7-9; Ps. 80:1) where two cherubim (again, more like living creatures than what we call cherubs), presumably with two wings each, were made of beaten gold as decoration upon that symbolic throne of God. John's four living creatures are a composite of these. Christian tradition comes to make each of the faces representative of one of the four Gospels; but it undoubtedly was long after John's day this happened.
The wealth and depth of the tradition John draws upon here indicates that his is not simply a first-century Christian God; the God he would portray is the same one the ancient Hebrews knew when they set the golden cherubim to watch his throne. The living creatures form the foremost honor guard of God, indicative of his majesty and glory and also showing that he is Lord of the supernatural world as well as the natural. That they are "covered with eyes" we might choose to express by saying that God has satellites outfitted with TV sensors to keep him in touch with what is happening all over the world. The song they sing combines the thrice-holy ascription of the seraphim of old Isaiah with John's own new threefold title of the past-, present-, and future-coming God.
And at the cue of the living creatures, the twenty-four elders (the church) join in the hymn of praise. Notice that their theme is particularly that of God's glory as creator (and thus Lord) of all that is. When they sing to Christ the Lamb in the next chapter, their theme, appropriately, will be redemption. We would do well to learn both of these songs for ourselves, ready to join in on cue with the rest of the universe.
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.
In his right hand God holds a scroll which is sealed. There seems no doubt it represents that part of world history that is sealed from us, namely the future. And it is completely understandable that there should be such consternation when it is discovered that no one in heaven or on earth is competent to open and read it.
Where is the world headed? How are things supposed to come out? What is the end of it all (and "end" more in the sense of telos [purpose] than finis [when does it stop])? If the assumption is that history as a whole is a meaningful, directed sequence, then the answer to these questions is important--all-important. Of course, if the assumption is that history is not a directed sequence, then the questions ought not even be asked; they have no answers. History, in such case, amounts merely to what each generation decides to do with its moment, consists merely in independent moments, each an end in itself.
Neither John nor any Christian can buy this view of things; so for him the questions are crucial; on them, many other questions depend. "Where will it all end?" also becomes "What does it all mean?" and thus "What is the significance of this point of time within that total sequence?" and thus "What should be happening in this moment, and what should I be doing?" and thus "Who are we, and who am I?"
If no one can be found to open that scroll, it's all over for the human race; hopeless; we have been plunked down in the middle of a maze with not so much as a sense of direction as to where "out" lies.
And yet, John tells us, there was no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth able to open the scroll. Man-with all his learning, science, and technique--still is too short-lived, too finite, too time-bound to be of any good here. The history he controls is too short a snatch out of the drama as a whole; even our shiny, new computerized science of futurology has difficulty handling decades when our ultimate concern must be with the aeons. Modern man has become a real whiz at manipulating moments; but this has no significance at all in telling us where we should be headed. No more in the twentieth century than in the first can there be found anyone competent to open the scroll. John does well to weep; and we would, too, were we alert enough to realize our situation.
But one of the elders says (and thus the church is to proclaim) that there is a Lion who has won (not "will win," already "has won") the right to open the scroll. And by the way, it will take a "lion" to do it--this symbol of regality and kingship, of courage, strength, and ferocity. Enter the LION!
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:11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered in myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 singing with full voice,
"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."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,
"Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!"
14 And the four living creatures said, "Amen!" And the elders fell down and worshiped.
"To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!"
Enter the LION! And look what we get, a little lambkin!
There is nothing wrong with thinking of Revelation as a freaky, far-out book--as long as you spot the freakishness at the right place and the far-outness in the right direction. And here is the place, and this the direction. It's a freakishness, by the way, not simply of Revelation, but one that lies at the very heart of the Christian gospel; it is just that John presents it more graphically than anyone else does. But "freaky"? It's "unearthly"--or better, it's "unworldly," the absolute contrary of what all our knowledge of the world and all our worldly knowledge would lead us to expect. This is one good reason we needed someone bigger than ourselves to open the sealed scroll of the future: our worldly calculation has us headed in precisely the wrong direction.
The Lion is a lamb. John will use that "Lamb" as the controlling symbol of Jesus Christ from here on out; we are up against the heart of the matter. Put "the Lamb" over against "the Lion "--as John certainly invites us to do. They stand for completely opposite things. Over against the characteristics we attributed to the Lion, the Lamb represents meekness, helplessness, defenselessness, and vulnerability. And the situation is compounded when John specifies that this Lamb bears "the marks of slaughter upon him." This Lamb, as lamb, not only looks as though he would be an easy mark; he has proved it in his inability to keep from being slaughtered. How totally vulnerable can a symbol of vulnerability get?
That's the Lamb over against the Lion--which he also is. Now let's try him over against his opponent, his counter image, that which he most definitely is not. John obviously intends that these two should be put into conjunctive opposition, in that he calls the one "Antichrist," but also in the very words he uses to designate the two.
In the Greek of a sheep-oriented culture, there were many more words for "lamb" than our English language would know what to do with. The one that John chooses for his purpose is not the one used regarding Jesus elsewhere in the Bible. He uses arnion, which has been translated "lambkin"--"poor little thing" sort of creature. But his most likely reason for going to this particular term is that he plans to designate Antichrist as therion, the beast, a great big vicious MONSTER!
So the main bout on the card of history (for the heavyweight championship of the entire created universe) is to be "Arnion vs. Therion"!
Oh, no, no, no! God wouldn't send that wee, little, slaughtered lambkin up against a monster like that! It isn't fair! He doesn't have a chance!
You're right! It isn't fair; the arnion is going to make mincemeat out of that no-good therion; the beast doesn't have a chance. I can't even give you odds on it, because the fact is the Lamb already has him whipped.
How do you figure that?
Do you see those marks of slaughter upon him? Well, those show that he got himself killed and so won the championship.
Man, you're talking weird!
No, you've got to understand that things aren't what they seem. That Lamb really is a Lion!
Yes, the Lamb is the Lion; and at points in Revelation Christ is presented more like a lamb, at other points more like a lion. But we need to be very careful as to how we handle this alternation. The structure of the present scene makes it plain that John does not mean to say that Jesus switches roles, sometimes taking the role of a lamb and other times that of a lion; that would make for a very undependable, Jekyll-and-Hyde Christ. But no, the Lamb's very defenselessness is his lion-like strength; his suffering death is his victory; his modus operandi (method of operation) always is that of the Lamb, but the consequences, the results, always are a victory that belongs to the character of the Lion. (So, for example, an allusion such as the Psalm 2 phrase about ruling the nations with an iron rod must be taken as a reference to the fact of his ruling rather than as a description of its method.) John here bonds the Lion and the Lamb as being two sides of one coin; we dare never allow them to be separated or put into tension with each other. Jesus' love, though defenseless, is a ferocious and victorious love.
That the Lamb wins true victory precisely in and through his "lambness" is indicated by the reception given him here upon his appearance in heaven. Remember that heaven is where things are seen for what they really are, regardless of how they appear in the transient actuality of earth. So nobody in this scene finds it strange that the slaughtered Lamb should be heavyweight champion of the universe. Not at all--how else would you ever expect God to do it? That the business strikes us as freakish proves only that we are not yet in heaven, that we see things from the perverted worldly perspective which says that monsters are powerful but lambs are not--this rather than seeing things as they really are. A major purpose of John's book is to help us see on earth as it already is seen in heaven--not so much to see new realities but to see the realities of our own history in a new way, from a new perspective. And only from here can we see that the Lion who looks and acts like a Lamb is indeed the only one who can open the sealed scroll of human history, because, in his lion-lambness, he is the key to that history.
The Lamb appears "in the very middle of the throne" upon which God already is sitting. That might cause a problem for simple-minded literalists; but John plainly wants to say that there is no distinction of dignity between God and the Lamb; both hold the same position. The Lamb is given attributes in "sevens," the God number. His eyes are the seven spirits earlier identified as the Holy Spirit. Literalists, again, will have a hard time with the Spirit's being flaming torches at one point and Lamb's eyes at another; but John now wants to suggest how close is the relationship between Christ and the Holy Spirit. Other New Testament writers do it by referring to the Holy Spirit on occasion as "the Spirit of Christ."
The hymn the elders sing in praise of the Lamb is a great statement of what the whole scene is about. There are three main verbs that form a most interesting pattern.
So the sequence is this: what Jesus did in the past gives him the status in the present that guarantees our future. And in this sequence we have what amounts to an outline of the Christian gospel.
That Christ's act on the cross "ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation" is a universalistic note to put into our collection. It is topped in verse 13, where "every creature" is portrayed as voicing the praise of God and his Christ. We do not demand that a conclusion be drawn even from this unambiguous a statement; but it must be given due weight in our final decision.
John's scene, now, opens out in a way the previous description of God's throne room did not, to include "many angels" and "every creature"--which is about as wide as matters can go. It certainly is not that John desires to ascribe greater honor to Christ than to God. For him, to praise Christ is to praise God--as the concluding song indicates. There is no possibility of competition here. But the first scene celebrated God as creator (and thus Lord of the universe). However, when the Lamb is introduced, that celebration inevitably takes on the aspect of redemption("by your blood you ransomed for God"); and God's lordship is not a total and perfect lordship until it includes redemption as well as creation. It is entirely proper that the scene celebrating creation plus redemption open out from that celebrating creation alone. Neither the angels in heaven nor we who live among the created things of earth know God in the fullness of his glory until we know him, not only as Creator, but, through the Lamb, as Redeemer also. "And the four living creatures said, 'Amen,' and the elders fell down and worshipped." Where were you?