5. What is God like? (Revelation 4:1–5:14)
[This is the fifth in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation. I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]
My sense with Revelation is that most people start to read it with the assumption that Revelation’s God is violent and judgmental. This assumption can lead some Christians to be happy. There are others who also might agree with the God-as-violent-judge reading of Revelation—but for these such a picture of God is a good reason to reject Christianity altogether. If this is what the Christian God is like, forget about it.
Well, we do have other options, starting with taking the vision at the heart of the book seriously.
Revelation chapters four and five contain one vision. This is a vision, we could say, of a worship service. It begins with the twenty-four elders worshiping, then moves to the four living creatures, and then to the central focus, the Lamb taking the scroll from the One on the throne’s right hand. Then the service kind of repeats itself with more worship that ends with the living creatures and finally back to the elders. This movement from the elders to the four living creatures and then back emphasizes the point in the middle. If we want to learn about God from this vision, we must center our attention on the high point of the worship service. In the middle is the shocking revelation that the Lamb defines God’s self-revelation.
Jesus’s divinity, properly understood
The first scene of the heavenly vision centers on the one on the throne. However, this character is never physically described—evidence, actually, that indeed the One is God. The surroundings make this clear: the throne, the worship by all creation. This vision of power echoes the claims for the god-emperor of Rome. But there is no hint here of anger or judgment, only joy and celebration. This is the true God, comparable to the emperor but profoundly different. That is, the true God and the emperor are rivals. You cannot divide your loyalty between the two, Revelation insists.
The difference becomes even more clear as the vision proceeds. When read as a whole, the most remarkable element of this vision is how the One on the throne and the Lamb are seen together. Both receive the same worship. And it is only the Lamb who can open the One on the throne’s scroll.
This vision underlies the Christian affirmation of Jesus’s divinity. Jesus, the Lamb, stands on the same level as the One on the throne. However, with tragic and ironic consequences, Christians have tended to misunderstand this affirmation. Jesus as linked with the One on the throne all too often becomes a kind of supernatural “Christ”—separate from the vulnerability and peaceableness of the Lamb image.