It was a strange day when I first realized normal people don’t read book introductions. An incurable completist, I couldn’t imagine not taking in every bit of the front matter, from the title and “other works” pages, to the forwards, prefaces, and introductions, so the thought that some (read: most) people simply can’t be bothered with all of this “incredibly vital information” boggles my mind.
I understand that most people want to get on to the main attraction; that in many works you can skip the front matter entirely and the reading experience wouldn’t be totally shortchanged, but in the book of Revelation, these first five chapters are of immense significance if one is to understand the original interpretive lenses, the fundamental perspective, and primary theme of the book. So as much as we want to jump straight to John’s acid trip, let’s make sure the foundation is adequately laid.
As we discussed in our chapter 1 posts, John first introduces the book itself, providing clues to the interlaced genres and responses this work was supposed to engender. Understanding the genres helps us frame our expectations and ask the right questions. (Chapter 1 also includes a vision of Christ that we did not discuss but which provides a particular angle on the prophet’s Christology.)
In chapters 2-3 we were given a cheat sheet for the various ways this work would be originally heard through a series of letters to “seven churches” (seven literal communities as well as code for the universal Church), each of whom were living out the Christ life with varying degrees of fidelity. These churches’ situations each showed us how the prophetic message of Revelation might impact each of us differently and also introduced us to the primary theme of Revelation: overcoming.
We could consider these chapters the preface or author’s note to the book.1 Don’t skip them or you might misunderstand what this book is trying to do and be!
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Now we turn to what in our analogy would function as the book’s introduction: the heavenly worship scene of chapters 4-5.2 Today we will highlight the first of two major points that will finally set us up to interpret the message of Revelation in a way that is consonant with the Gospel, these songs helping us understand the world as God sees it, rather than our limited human perception.
It can be difficult to reconcile the difference in the views from the ground and from the throne.
In chapters 2-3, we saw the various starting points from which the Church, on earth, must begin their task of overcoming. Some needed to be comforted and encouraged to stay the course, while John must put others’ feet to the fire, challenging them to opt out of an unjust system. These perspectives are what the fight looks like from the ground.
But in Revelation 4-5, we are given a different view. Although the “vision” begins in chapter 1 when we meet the risen Christ, the “apocalypse” truly takes effect here, when John is encouraged to “come up” and walk through an open door (4:1).3 When there, the first thing he encounters is God sitting upon the throne, holding court over all the creatures of heaven.
It is this latter perspective which will allow John to widen his readers’ lens, moving them beyond their own troubles and into a larger field of vision in which God is completely in control, and this control is fully recognized. As the “sphere of ultimate reality,” heaven represents that which is eternally true–in this case, God’s sovereignty and the centrality of the Divine in the order of the cosmos. As we mentioned in the previous post, the universe is ultimately theocentric: revolving and emerging from God. In heaven, God is always recognized as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), who “sustains all things by His powerful word” (Heb 1:3), in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).
(Now if you’re paying close attention, you might notice that all of those quotes were actually speaking about the Christ rather than God the Father, but bringing the two together is one of the major theological points of John’s work.)
The problem is that John’s readers dwell on earth, not in heaven, so remembering this point is very difficult. In the slog of daily life, we can so easily forget that the world we inhabit is only part of reality.
Hence the need for an apocalypse: something that can take us out of our normal space and allow us to inhabit an entirely different atmosphere, where we are reminded of what is fundamentally true about reality.
By the end of Revelation, we’ll see the first half of the Lord’s Prayer realized–what is already true in heaven will become recognized as true on earth. The five songs of chapters 4-5 develop what will become the subtext of the entire book: the movement from the heavenly beings recognizing God’s sovereignty to all creation bowing the knee to God and the Christ.Note the movement here. Like a darkened stadium slowly turning on the lights, we see a growing crowd of worshipers: in 4:8 we have the four living creatures (angels) worshiping God as the eternal, “wholly other” while in 4:11 we have both the creatures and the twenty-four elders (the collected faithful people of God or 12 Tribes of Israel + 12 Apostles) worshiping God as the creator and sustainer of life.
Now, up to this point we’ve seen standard conceptions of God and worship; nothing indicates this as a particularly Christian conception of God.
But then we get to chapter 5.
We’ll talk more about the Lion who is revealed as a Lamb in the next post, but to close, let’s look at how the Lamb is seen as an object worthy of worship and how that finally draws all creation into worshiping the fullness of God both in heaven and on earth.
In 5:9-10 we see the previous creature-elder duo now turn their attention to the Lamb who has just been introduced. Their song is focused on the work of Christ and how this makes him both worthy to be worshiped and in line with the stated aim of God’s people from ancient times (cf. Exod. 19:6), and this is followed by the innumerable company of heaven offering the same refrain (5:12).
It is in this next moment that the trajectory of Revelation takes on a decidedly Christian and eschatological flavor, as John witnesses “Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” offering worship to both God and the Lamb (5:13). It is Christian because we have here an obvious equation of God (“the One who sits on the throne”) and Christ (the Lamb), and it is eschatological because what we see is not yet a reality.
As the reader prepares be immersed in John’s disturbing apocalyptic visions, the last image we are given is of the Lord’s Prayer realized: God’s Name, Kingdom, and Will fully recognized by all creation throughout heaven and earth. While this was not yet a reality for John’s first readers nor for us, we are given hope that just as John will guide us through darkness into a glowing vision of unity between the Creator and creature, we too can see beyond the reality of the ground into the deeper, ultimate reality that surrounds the throne.
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1. The definitive text for questions of manuscript protocol, Words Into Type, says a preface “Deals with the genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book.”↩
2. Words Into Type: ‘An introduction deals with the subject of the book, supplementing and introducing the text and indicating a point of view to be adopted by the reader.’↩
3. Remember, an “apocalypse” is defined as a story in which an angel (usually) guides a human through the supernatural world, revealing a deeper reality that looks forward to some sort of salvation experience at the end of all things.↩