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.
Fairly quickly, the loss of Jesus’ vulnerable humanity led to terrible problems. Jesus’ cross, for example, became a symbol for the violence and militarism of empire—the very empire that executed him. The Roman Empire became Christianized, or, we could say, Christianity became imperial-ized. Church members became the empire’s best soldiers—the conflict of loyalties central to Revelation was decisively settled—in favor of the Empire. Jesus’ professed divinity became a way for Christians to ignore the political meaning of his self-giving love that resisted empire and led to his execution.
The linking of the exalted Christ and Empire has continued to our day. We often have Jesus’ divinity defined in terms of a notion of God’s coercive power, rather than God’s divinity defined in terms of Jesus’ vulnerable love.
Redefining God’s power
I think there is a different—and much better—way to read this vision. Again, let’s focus on the high point of the worship service. The service begins and ends with praise; in between, we could say, comes the content. The One on the throne has a scroll—meant to signify the healing of creation, the fulfillment of God’s creative will for God’s creation. But no one can open it. Will the promise remained unfulfilled? John himself, the seer, moves from simply describing what he sees to bitterly weeping. The opening of this scroll is at the heart of everything.
He’s comforted with words from one of the elders—One has been found, a great king, a mighty warrior. Perhaps anticipating Constantine the Great or Charlemagne, or maybe Franklin Roosevelt or Douglas MacArthur: the great warriors for Christian Empire. This is what John hears.
Then John sees something that redefines his entire world—what John sees interprets what he hears and transforms his very understanding of God and the universe. “I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (5:6). This Lamb, slaughtered (crucified) and yet standing (resurrected), walks over and takes the scroll. As Revelation continues, we will learn that indeed the Lamb does have the power to open the scroll, and by the end of the book, the power to bring the promised healing to God’s creation.
We can imagine these two verses, Revelation 5:5-6, as being the center of a calm pool of water. Then we drop a sizeable rock into this center and watch the waves ripple out. These verses effect a revolution of expectations and understandings of power and victory that can spread and reorient the way we read the whole of Revelation, that reorient the way we read the New Testament and all the rest of the Bible, that reorient the way we understand life in God’s creation itself.
Praising the Lamb
A crucial part of this vision in Revelation 4 and 5 then follows from the Lamb taking the scroll. He is praised by all creation—the elders, the living creatures, thousands of angels, and ultimately every creature in heaven and on earth and under earth and in the sea—for what already has happened: “You have liberated for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (5:9).
This already-ness is central to John’s exhortations in the seven messages. He calls his listeners to conquer, not in the sense that they have to find a way to defeat empire—but in the sense that they have to find a way to live in harmony with the way of the Lamb that already stands in contrast to empire and offers life to all who join with it.
According to Revelation, the way of Empire has already failed—it revealed itself to be a tool for evil when it slaughtered the Lamb. And, it revealed itself actually to be unable to defeat the Lamb’s love when God brought the Lamb back to his feet through resurrection and empowered him to stand. To realize this, to realize that only the Lamb’s way gains the praise of creation itself, is to realize that one need not give in to the Empire’s demand for loyalty, one need not accept the Empire’s call to take up arms or to sell one’s soul for the sake of corporate profit and empowerment.
So, then, what is God like? Let me supplement the Revelation 4-5 vision with a verse from John’s Gospel: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). And with a text from the first letter of John: “God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him….No one has ever seen God, [but] if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us” (1 John 4).