We began the previous post with the assertion that Revelation 1-5 make up what is essentially the “front matter” of the book. Chapter 1 is analogous to a preface, the section explaining the author’s unique voice and approach while 2-3 are a “note to the reader,” providing clues to the target audience’s contexts.
Then we get to the introduction-proper in chapters 4-5, where John accomplishes two objectives.
First, he introduces us to the fundamental point of view of this book: the theocentricity of the universe. God as Creator sits rightfully at the center of all creation’s praise and is the point from which they all emerge. Worthy of all worship (Song 1, Rev. 4:8) and the ground of all being (Song 2, 4:11).
This perspective will hold us in good stead when we encounter visions of intense evil that seems to hold sway over the earth. Although God’s Name, Kingdom, and Will are not yet fully recognized “on earth as it is in heaven,” we are here given reason to believe this is only a temporary arrangement due to God’s willingness to allow evil to exist (which is an undoubtable problem we must discuss… in another post).
The second objective of John’s introduction is to provide a definitive interpretation of his primary theme: overcoming. We and the churches spent chapters 2-3 being exhorted (seven times!) to overcome, but the problem is we were left unsure as to how we are to do this overcoming
Until we meet the Lamb.
Well, actually first we meet the Lion.
Chapter 5 opens with all of heaven looking toward the throne, where God holds a scroll containing the Divine will. But when an angel asks who is worthy to break the seals and reveal the contents, there’s a collective silence among the heavenly beings and John deeply weeps.
But it is at this moment the Lion steps forth.
I know it’s difficult to catch on to much of the Jewish and Old Testament imagery in Revelation, but most of us probably recognize the messianic imagery of the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” This is what we’ve been waiting for, this is the one Israel has been longing for all these years! At last, God’s anointed, from the Davidic tribe of Judah, would step forward and receive the will of God and bring it to bear on earth, uniting the long-sundered tribes of Israel and destroying God’s enemies. Peace and justice at last.
But that’s not what happens.
In the least climactic magic trick ever, we look to see the majestic messianic Lion and instead see he’s been switcherooed with a measly Lamb. And not just any lamb, but one who has been killed! This–this is God’s worthy conquering hero who will definitively deal with evil? You can almost hear John’s words dripping with disappointment.
And yet it is precisely here when everything changes.
Imagine you’re standing upon the crest of that hill outside Jerusalem. As a crowd of onlookers mills about, the small detachment of soldiers raises three men off the ground. You involuntarily jerk as the feet of their crosses slam into the pre-dug holes and each man groans. Over the next hours the grotesque scene plays out: some stand silently weeping while others posture and mock. The soldiers, calloused by years of spilling blood, gamble with raucous laughter. Every so often, one of the tortured men would speak and all fall silent.
This is especially true when the man in the middle speaks. Unlike the others, he never calls down curses on his torturers, never begs for mercy. No, instead he calls down forgiveness upon those who mock and scourge him. He assures the safekeeping of his mother and promises paradise to one of his companions in death. Utterly alone, he speaks the despairing words of David and calls out for drink, and in the end, he declares his mission as successfully completed, surrendering his soul in peace.
If you could, in that moment, that particular heartbeat, been able to see differently, oh, what a sight! If your perspective could shift, a new lens slid into place, perhaps you would’ve seen a different sight than a poor man breathing his last breath. Perhaps it would’ve been something far more extravagant. Instead of an impoverished, itinerant rabbi bleeding to death, it would’ve been a Lion–or was it a Lamb?–looking as if it had been slain, and yet standing triumphant as the gathered hosts of heaven sing a song of praise:
You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth. (Rev. 5:9-10)
If you could only see more, perhaps the shift from warlike Lion to sacrificial Lamb would begin to make sense. Maybe you would begin to see that God has never conquered enemies through coercion and slaughter, but has time and again entered into the fray and taken the blows Himself. That in fact, the People of God, with their long history of sacrifices and purity laws (and their abject failure to live up to said laws) have been a way for God to show humankind the utter senselessness in scapegoating.
With the new lens provided by our prophet John, we see through the man we left hanging to die and up into the heavenly throne room where that man, revealed as a Lamb, destroys the myth of redemptive violence forever. While the view from earth shows His enemies mockingly asking why He doesn’t call down God’s legions to save Him, the perspective from the throne shows Him surrendering His life for their sake.
Those men would most assuredly be undone by such a display, but they would not have been overcome.
In Revelation 5:5, we are told that the Lion of the Tribe of Judah has triumphed (nikao, “overcome”), but when we look to this victorious Lion we instead see a bloodied Lamb and realize that this is the way God has always been bringing people into relationship, through sacrificial death.
And once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
No longer can we honestly attribute genocide and bloodlust to this God–because the jig is up. Violence is proven to not save. No longer can we believe evil is overcome with violence and slaughter–because God has always-already overcome it with sacrificial death.
This has massive implications as we move forward in our study of Revelation, and for how we interpret Scripture in general.
In the ensuing chapters, we’ll see John stand visions of ultimate redemption and ultimate destruction side by side, comfortable with the tension it creates in his readers’ hearts: “Will God indeed overcome with sacrifice? Or with the same powers as Caesar?” We will see images of a triumphant Christ, who at first blush seems much more akin to the Lion than the Lamb. A white battle charger, blood-stained clothes, a sword in His mouth–these warlike visions are a far cry from the bleeding carpenter on that hill far away.
And yet as we arrive at those chapters and look more closely, and as we apply the perspective from the throne to their imagery, we might just see that these are intricate ways of continuing to develop the model of Divine sacrificial death and forgiveness over-against bloody conquest and coercion. But we would never get there if it weren’t for chapters 4-5 introducing the particular tilt to our definition of “overcoming.”
We would never get there on our own because we crave security and power. And vengeance. But God has time and again proven, as Bauckham says, “The perspective of the Divine Throne is from the underside of history.” God is fundamentally on the side of the oppressed and the persecuted. The immigrant, the orphan, and the widow. Those who have been cast or pushed out.
Revelation calls these people to resist evil: but “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zech. 4:6). It encourages them to hold on even as they feel forsaken. To forgive, care for the needs of the living and the dying, and to see their mission as fulfilled if they might only come to the end and gently surrender their spirits to the One who calls them home.
And to those for whom the system works: the natural-born citizen, the secure two-parent child, the Rockwell painting marriage, Revelation calls them to resist the slow-creeping evil of insulated comfort by going out of their way to seek solidarity with those same people. . . or risk seeing this book, Scripture, and reality from the wrong side of the throne.
The Lamb “stands in the center of the throne” (5:6), a throne situated in the deepest recesses of human pain, neither manipulating nor forcing its will, but quietly and gently overcoming the poison of evil through its tender love, even to death. Perhaps this is why all of this groaning creation joins in the final song, proclaiming the day when evil is no more because it has been gently loved into extinction:
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”
The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped. (Rev. 5:13-14)
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