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07.10.11 A Glimpse of Heaven, Revelation 4-5

by on July 12, 2011

Summary Points

  • Why Revelation is weird and making it a little less so
  • Three things to note about worship from Revelation 4-5
  • Four ways we can participate in heavenly worship of God now
  • Questions for further reflection or discussion

The Book of Revelation is the only book-length example in the New Testament of the genre known as “apocalyptic eschatology.” That’s geeky Greeky for “revelation of the end times.” The use of symbol upon symbol is characteristic of this genre. In today’s text, there are two primary symbols embedded in the complex of other symbols. These are the One on the throne, never named, but referring to God; and the Lamb who is worthy, whom we recognize as the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Craig Keener suggests as much as 70% of the book of Revelation alludes to, if not quotes directly from, the Old Testament. And 100% of the book applies to its original context. What this means is that the original meaning of the text easily eludes us. Most of us don’t know the OT all that well, and the historical circumstances under which Revelation was written is something we can only approximate. The symbols that are used, like all symbols, both reveal and conceal. They are insider language meant to encourage those who can decode it, and hide meaning from outsiders who cannot.

These facts about Revelation create ambiguity for contemporary readers, even anxiety for some. And it leads to a lot of wacky interpretation and questionable theology. As we contemplate the meaning of Revelation 4-5, it might help to do some unpacking.

As I’ve already mentioned, the One on the throne is God, though by the end of the passage, we realize God is not alone on the throne. There are also 24 thrones occupied by “Elders” surrounding God’s throne. These either represent the whole people of God, 12 from the OT community (12 tribes of Israel) and 12 from the NT community (12 disciples of Jesus). Or they represent the divine counsel we see appearing throughout the OT in particular (many those plural references to the God of the Israelites, or references to God among the gods).

There is a glassy sea surrounding the throne room. Whenever we encounter water in the Bible we need to ask ourselves, Does this suggest anything about baptism? Here, one can only get into the presence of the king by passing through this pure, calm water. Yeah, I think it says something about baptism.

The four living creatures allude to other such creatures found in the OT, creatures that guard the things of God. That there are four suggests to some that they represent the four directions of creation, and thus all creation. The scroll, we are told, contains the things which are to come, and that it is written on both sides indicates how much will happen and how long it will take.

There is a Lion, later identified as a Lamb, whom we recognize as the resurrected Jesus. And it is this Lamb who eventually shares the throne and the worship with God.

With those symbols clarified somewhat, there are three things I note about worship from this vision.

First, the author has this vision while “in the Spirit.” He is in the Spirit only four times in Revelation: on the Lord’s Day in chapter 1; here; when he witnesses Rome oppressing the martyrs; and when he sees the New Jerusalem. In all four instances, it is in the context of the community of faith. (See my blog entry on 05.30.10 for more.) Worship also characterizes these visions while in the Spirit. Worship, we can conclude, must be in Spirit and in community.

Second, God is worshiped because God is the Creator. And those who worship God come from both heaven and earth. All created beings worship God simply for the fact that God is the Creator (and according to their nature as creatures). God is also worshiped because God is King. Despite what it might look or feel like to us, God is still on the throne, in control, and working behind the scenes and our emotions. And God is worshiped in this vision of the end times because God is our Destiny. What God is accomplishing behind the scenes is to reconcile all creation to himself.

Third, Jesus is worshiped because he and only he is worthy to break the seals of the scroll. Why he and only he? Because he has “triumphed.” Most of us will think first of the resurrection as his qualifying triumph. But Christ’s resurrection is more about God’s triumph over sin, death, and “the devil” than it is about Jesus’. Jesus’ triumph came in his faithful obedience to God’s will for his life—faithfulness that warranted making an example of, faithfulness that God desired should be continued and multiplied throughout God’s children. And so God raised Christ from the dead, validating his faithfulness, making him our example, sending us his Spirit, so that we too might triumph in our lives. “Jesus is worthy” is a confessional statement that reminds us to follow another such statement, “Jesus is Lord.”

How can we participate in this glimpse of heavenly worship? First, this scene includes us in the bowls of incense offered in worship by the Elders. These represent our prayers. Through our prayers, we participate, and even bring about, the end times and heavenly worship envisioned by Revelation.

Second, when we gather at the Lord’s Table we remember Christ’s promise that he would not partake of this meal again until he would did so in the Kingdom. This could refer to the climactic “wedding feast” between Christ and the church in the end of time. Or it might refer to Christ’s presence in and with us through the Spirit following his resurrection. In either case, his promise to be with us at the Table is a participation in or a foretaste of the kind of worship Revelation portrays.

Third, this passage calls us to worship God with our whole lives, because our lives are part of creation. This means most simply (though not always so easily) to be who we are. Who we are is God’s gift to us, and God’s gift through us to the rest of creation. When we are who we are, we give this gift to creation, and we give it, as worship, to God.

But it also means we are to be creative. God “made” us in God’s image, and that includes our own ability to “make.” Worshiping God in this life and with our lives includes our being creative and constructive.

Fourth, this passage refers to us as a “kingdom” of “priests.” It calls us to act as if God is on the throne, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We are to live as subjects in God’s Kingdom—before living as citizens of the United States, children of short-fallen parents, victims of circumstance, or whatever other identifying characteristics may be true of us. We are, and are to live, first as part of God’s Kingdom.

And when we do this, we will mediate God’s presence to the world, even as Jesus did. We will function as priests.

Revelation 4-5 calls us to worship God in Spirit and thus in community, to worship God as Creator, Ruler, and Destiny, to worship Christ as worthy by following him as disciples. Practically this means we pray and live out our identity as belonging to God, following the example given in Christ and empowered by the Spirit.

Questions for Further Reflection or Discussion

  • Your prayers are included now and in eternity in the worship of God. What do you want and need to say to God today?
  • You are a creation of God, and a creator for God. What holds you back from being who you are? What contribution are you making to the world?
  • What things in your life obscure the vision of God on the throne? How is this assurance undermined by things you see and feel? Read and pray the enthronement Psalms (47, 93, 96-99) for spiritual strengthening.
  • Think of the places where you can mediate God’s presence—work, school, neighborhood. This is your temple, where you are called to be the priest. How can you participate in the reconciliation of the world with God?
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