THINGS ARE ALRIGHT IN HEAVEN – CREATOR AND CREATION
(Saturday, September 19, 2020)
In Revelation chapters 4 and 5, what we have is picture of our Lord Jesus Christ as the supervisor of human affairs generally. Not simply head of the church, but the head over all of human affairs. As he himself claimed before he ascended to the right hand of the father, “all power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Revelation 4:1:11 describes a scene in God’s heavenly throne room, and resembles similar visions in Ezekiel 1, Isaiah 6, and other Old Testament passages. God was sitting on his throne, and was being worshiped by heavenly creatures — including four that John described in some detail. Each of the four was covered with eyes and had six wings. But they had different overall appearances: one resembled a lion, another an ox, another a man, and another an eagle. They probably represented all the creatures of the earth giving praise to God.
John’s vision also showed twenty-four elders surrounding God’s throne, probably numbered according to the twelve tribes of Old Testament Israel and the twelve New Testament apostles. These elders symbolized the people of God throughout history. Whenever the four creatures praised God, the elders bowed down, acknowledging his majesty and authority, and promised him their submission, obedience, and reverence. Beyond the elders was a myriad of angels that extended the praise of God outward, and also praised the Lamb of God. This scene also contains many images from the Old Testament descriptions of the tabernacle and temple: lamps were blazing before the throne; incense depicted the prayers of God’s people; there was a glass sea, more perfect than the bronze one in the Old Testament; and there were songs of praise like those offered by Levitical singers. This symbolism indicated that John was given a view of God’s heavenly throne room, from which he rules over the entire universe and renders his judgments. And this told John’s readers that the vision dealt with matters of great importance. The heavenly vision continued in Revelation 5:1-14. God held a scroll in his right hand, representing his plan for the destiny of the world. But none of the members of his court could open the scroll. In other words, none of them could accomplish his plan. Then one of the elders told John that the Lion of the tribe of Judah would open the seven seals and read the scroll.
Revelation [in chapters 4 and 5] is an instructive text for consideration as we seek to gain greater fluency in Scripture’s primary trinitarian discourse and things are alright in Heaven. Revelation 4-5 presents all three persons of the Trinity. It presents the Trinity as the agent of creation, redemption, and consummation. And it presents well-ordered, indeed normative, worship of the triune God. It presents its teaching on the Trinity in a manner with which we are less likely to be familiar. It does not use the standard terminology of “Father” and “Son” and “Holy Spirit” to identify the three persons of the Trinity. It does not say, “Jesus is Lord.” Instead, it presents its teaching on the Trinity in the highly figurative language of apocalyptic literature: there is the throne, there is the Lamb, there are the seven Spirits of God. But it is precisely this factor that makes Revelation 4-5 so instructive regarding the character of the Bible’s primary trinitarian discourse. It awakens us from the slumbers of our familiar miscomprehension of biblical language and forces us to pay attention more closely to the actual shape of the Bible’s trinitarian discourse.
In opening the door to God’s heavenly court, Revelation 4-5 opens the door to the chorus of heavenly creatures and redeemed saints who have learned, in the Spirit, and by virtue of the triumph of the Lamb, to praise with perfect eloquence the name of the Holy Trinity. In order that we may appreciate more fully how Revelation 4-5 conveys God’s transcendent, triune identity, let us look at the specific ways it names the three persons of the Trinity. Let us consider, first, the one who sits on the throne, second, the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne and, third, the Spirit who is before the throne, the Spirit of God and of the Lamb.
2.0 GOD IS ON THE THRONE – ALL OF HISTORY
The throne of God is a major subject of the book of Revelation. In fact, the word “throne” occurs over 40 times in the book. And that’s the first thing that John sees. What does any of this have to do with divine naming in Revelation 4-5? In John’s vision, he sees and hears various things regarding the triune God, which he reports to us. Revelation 4-5 identifies God by means of definite descriptions, as the “one seated on the throne” (Revelation 4:2), by means of proper names and titles, as “the Lord God Almighty” (Revelation 4:8), and by means of indicators, as the one “who was and is and is to come” (Revelation 4:8). Moreover, Revelation 4-5 predicates certain actions of God. The heavenly host declares, “you created all things, and by your will they exist and were created” (Revelation 4:8). Finally, Revelation 4-5 reports various acts with reference to God: “Holy, holy, holy,” the four living creatures proclaim day and night (Revelation 4:8). And, because he is the supreme benefactor of all creaturely being and wellbeing, God is acknowledged as “Worthy . . . to receive glory and honor and power” (Revelation 4:11).
John’s heavenly vision of God in Revelation 4-5 may be described as a vision of “monarchical monotheism,” a vision in which “God is seen as presiding over the heavenly court, in the celebration of the heavenly liturgy. “At once,” John says, “I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne” (Revelation 4:2). John’s description of the visible glory of the one seated on the throne is notably reticent in comparison to the visions upon which he draws in Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, and Daniel 7 to articulate what he sees: “he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian” (Revelation 4:3). The one seated on the throne is encircled by three concentric circles “made up of first a rainbow, then a circle of the four cherubim,” whose job it is to lead the heavenly liturgy, “then a circle of the twenty-four thrones upon which the twenty-four elders sit” (Revelation 4:3, 5, 6-8). From the throne “flashes of lightning,” “rumblings and peals of thunder” come forth, redolent of the Lord’s theophanic appearance at Mount Sinai (Revelation 4:5). Also before the throne are “seven torches of fire,” which are identified as “the seven Spirits of God” (Revelation 4:5), and “a sea of glass, like crystal” (Revelation 4:6).
As the one who is seated on his heavenly throne, he is portrayed as supreme above all creation. As the one whose throne is encircled by a rainbow, the four living creatures, and the twenty-four elders, he is portrayed as the center of all creation. And, to recall an earlier identification of God in Revelation 1:8, as the one who is “the Alpha and Omega,” he is portrayed as the beginning and the end of all creation. According to John’s vision, the one who sits upon the throne is not distinguished from creatures as the member of a broader class of creatures. John’s vision names God as supremely transcendent and supremely unique. The one who sits upon the throne is the transcendent Lord above all, the transcendent center of all, the transcendent beginning and end of all.
As John’s vision proceeds from sight to sound, the various hymns of the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders further confirm the transcendent uniqueness of God. “Day and night,” John tells us, the four living creatures “never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Revelation 4:8). Here God is praised by his proper name and title, “the Lord God Almighty,” a Greek way of representing the Hebrew proper name and title, “YHWH of hosts.” Unlike other names and titles which are commonly ascribed to both God and creatures in Holy Scripture, this name and title is never ascribed to any creature. It is only ever ascribed to God alone. God is further praised by means of an expanded version of his self-identification in Exodus 3:14. He is “the one who was and is and is to come,” a name called upon especially in circumstances where God’s people suffer the mismatch between present realities and promised blessings, circumstances much like those of the seven churches which Jesus has addressed in the preceding chapters. This manner of naming God indicates God’s eternal and unchanging being, which is the ground of God’s faithfulness to his people and to his covenant promises throughout all the changes of history. Identifying God by his proper name and title, and by his eternal and unchanging being, the heavenly creatures honor God as thrice-holy, an acclamation also reserved for God alone throughout Scripture, acknowledging that he is “set apart” from all creatures in his transcendent being, beauty, and worth.
According to John, the singing of the Trisagion by the four living creatures prompts the twenty-four elders to prostrate themselves before “him who is seated on the throne” and to worship “him who lives forever and ever” (Revelation 4:9-10). Their worship consists in a second-person acclamation of God’s worthiness. “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they exist and were created” (Revelation 4:11). Speaking now not of him but to him, the heavenly creatures acknowledge God’s absolute right to receive glory and honor and power. This right is rooted in his work of creation and providence. As the sole benefactor of the world’s coming to be and continuing to be, he alone is worthy of such praise. As all things are from him, so all praise is due him (2 Chronicle 29:11).
Worship, Revelation is keen to emphasize, as an evaluative stance and activity, is to be rendered to God alone because he alone and his actions alone make him alone worthy. Though John is tempted on more than one occasion to worship one of the glorious heavenly envoys he runs into in the course of his vision, he is repeatedly rebuked and ordered to “Worship God” (Revelation 19:10; 22:9).
3.0 JESUS IS IN CHARGE – THE LAMB WHO STANDS IN THE MIDEST OF THE THRONE
Revelation chapter five begins with John’s sight of a scroll in the right hand of him who is seated on the throne (Revelation 5:1). This scroll, which is “written within and on the back” and “sealed with seven seals,” in all likelihood represents God’s hidden purpose for the world that he has made and that he providentially governs. John then hears “a mighty angel” who asks “with a loud voice” the question, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (Revelation 5:2). Who is able to understand God’s sovereign purpose for creation? Who is able to bring God’s sovereign purpose into effect? The response causes John to “weep loudly” (Revelation 5:4). “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (Revelation 5:3).
John then hears one of the twenty-four elders proclaim the good news: “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (Revelation 5:5). After hearing these glad tidings, John then sees “in the midst of the throne . . . a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Revelation 5:6). In light of the previous determination in verse 5, this is quite an identification. The one who is not among the creatures that may be found in heaven, on earth, or under the earth is nevertheless identified by the most creaturely of creaturely descriptions, by a biographical description that is bracketed by “womb and tomb.” He is the Lion, born of the tribe of Judah. He is the Lamb who was slain. This one is not a member of that category. He too is identified by means of his transcendent oneness.
After the Lamb had taken the scroll from God’s right hand, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders again fall down in worship, this time “before the Lamb” (Revelation 5:8). In offering their worship, they hold not only harps but also “golden bowls of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8). The Lamb who has the seven horns, signifying divine power, and the seven eyes, signifying divine knowledge (Revelation 5:6), stands ready and able to receive the prayers of his suffering people, ready and able to respond to their pleas for deliverance. And so the heavenly creatures sing a “new song,” again a “second-person acclamation,” echoing themes from the first exodus, to celebrate the second exodus effected by the Lion and the Lamb in his death, resurrection, and ascension to God’s right hand: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10). Again note the sheer marvel of what is predicated of the one who stands in the midst of the throne. By means of the events of his very human biography, the Lamb has effected a uniquely divine act of redemption, ransoming God’s people by his blood, making them a kingdom of priests to God. And because of his uniquely divine act of redemption, he is regarded by the heavenly chorus as worthy of the worship that is due to God alone.
John then sees and hears “the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” joining the heavenly chorus of the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders (Revelation 5:11), “saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12). As the one who sits on the throne has been acknowledged as worthy because of his work of creation and providence, receiving the threefold acclamation of “glory and honor and power” (Revelation 4:11), now the lamb who is in the midst of the throne is acknowledged as worthy because of his work of redemption to receive the sevenfold acclamation of “power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12).
Perhaps because the sevenfold praise of the Lamb corresponds to his work of “completing” or “perfecting” God’s purpose for creation, the expanding chorus of praise then extends from “heaven” to include “every creature . . . on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” (Revelation 5:13). This time God and the Lamb are hymned together, and this time by means of a doxology: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever” (Revelation 5:13). This doxology is met, in turn, with the “Amen!” of the four living creatures, which prompts the twenty-four elders, once again, to fall down and worship (Revelation 5:14).
To summarize the preceding discussion, according to Revelation 5, the one who stands in the midst of the throne is not numbered among God’s creatures in heaven or on earth or under the earth. He is identified by his transcendent oneness. Nevertheless, this transcendent one has a human biography, being born of the tribe of Judah, having suffered a violent death. Moreover, by his means of the events of his human biography, this one has effected divine redemption on behalf of his people, ransoming them by his blood and making them a kingdom of priests to God, thereby completing and perfecting God’s purpose for creation, as he alone is qualified to do. For this reason, the one who stands in the midst of the throne receives glory and honor from all creatures, not as “a second object of worship alongside God,” but as one who is “included in the worship due the one God.”
4.0 THE HOLY GHOST – THE SPIRIT WHO IS BEFORE THE THRONE
The focus of divine naming and divine hymning in Revelation 4-5 falls upon the first and second persons of the Trinity, on the one who sits on the throne and on the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne. However, Revelation 4-5 is not silent when it comes to the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit who is before the throne. The ways these chapters name him therefore repays our careful attention as well.
The vision that Jesus “shows” John in Revelation 4-5 (Revelation 4:1) is a vision that John receives “in the Spirit” (Revelation 4:2). This is in keeping with the broader pattern of divine communication on display across Revelation as a whole. God has given to Jesus a revelation to deliver to John (Revelation 1:1). This revelation, in turn, is received by John, and by the seven churches, by means of the Spirit’s agency. All that John sees and all that John hears regarding the one who sits on the throne and regarding the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne, and all that he passes on to the seven churches, comes about “in the Spirit.”
“The testimony of Jesus” is given by “the Spirit of prophecy.” And the Spirit of prophecy is clear: “Worship God” (Revelation 19:10), which according to Revelation 4-5 means, “Worship God and the Lamb.” But what about the Spirit? Where does Revelation locate him, how is he identified, what is predicated of him, and how is his person evaluated?
The Spirit’s location “before the throne” (Revelation 4:5) is admittedly an ambiguous identification. This location is also ascribed to creatures, such as the sea of glass (Revelation 4:6) as well as those who appear in God’s presence for judgment (Revelation 20:12). However, among those who are located before the throne, he alone is described as “belonging” to the one who sits on the throne and to the one who stands in the midst of the throne (Revelation 4:5; 5:6). “The seven Spirits of God” in Revelation 4:5, taken along with the “seven horns” and the “seven eyes” in Revelation 5:6, is undoubtedly a reference to Zechariah 4:1-14. In the latter text, “the seven eyes of the Lord” are identified by the Lord as “my Spirit.” The identity of the Spirit is therefore clear. The Spirit before the throne is the Spirit of the two who are on the throne. The Spirit before the throne is the Spirit who proceeds “from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Revelation 22:1).
By identifying the Spirit with the “seven horns” and the “seven eyes” possessed by the Lamb, John further identifies the Spirit with God’s transcendent power and God’s transcendent knowledge, as one who is therefore able to bring God’s creative and redemptive purpose, accomplished by Jesus, to its goal by empowering the prophecy, prayer, and praise of God’s people in the midst of an idolatrous world. In the Spirit, the redemptive purpose of God for creation, the purpose unveiled and enacted by the Son, is brought to completion.
This identification is confirmed when we look more broadly at John’s letter as a whole. In the opening salutation, John does not offer the typical dyadic Christian greeting, wishing grace and peace to the seven churches from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead he offers a unique triadic greeting: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:4-5). In other words, John locates the Spirit, along with God and Jesus, on the divine side of the Creator-creature distinction, characterizing him as an agent of divine blessing. Moreover, in Jesus’ address to the seven churches, the churches are repeatedly urged to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). This is a noteworthy repetition. In enjoining the churches to listen to the Spirit of God, Revelation enjoins the churches to perform the first and fundamental act of worship they owe to the one true God: “Hear, O Israel . . .” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
With the one who sits on the throne, and with the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne, John thus locates the Spirit who is before the throne on the divine side of the distinction between Creator and creature, as the source of all divine blessing, as one who is worthy of all divine honor. According to the revelation given by Jesus to John, we honor the third person of the Trinity by heeding the Spirit of prophecy, who enjoins and empowers us to render “blessing and honor and glory and power forever and ever . . . to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (Revelation 5:13).
Though Revelation 4-5 names the one who sits on the throne, the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne, and the Spirit who is before the throne in three distinct ways, it does so without compromising scriptural monotheism, without suggesting the existence of three gods. Revelation 4-5 characterizes the Holy Trinity as indivisible and internally ordered in his being, agency, and worship. How so?
First, while Revelation 4-5 recognizes the presence of many thrones in heaven, the three persons of the Trinity share one throne. As we have seen, the throne of God symbolizes God’s transcendent oneness, indicating his supremacy over all creatures, his centrality to all creatures, and his status as the beginning and end of all creatures. From this we may conclude that, although the three persons are distinguished by various means of identification and predication in Revelation 4-5, because they share one divine throne they share God’s transcendent oneness. Moreover, the fact that both God and the Lamb share the seven Spirits of God also indicates their transcendent oneness.
Second, although Revelation 4-5 appropriates the work of creation and providence to the one who sits on the throne, the work of redemption to the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne, and the work of sanctification to the Spirit who is before the throne, the identification of the three persons with these three distinct moments of God’s unfolding kingdom should not be taken to suggest that they act serially within that unfolding kingdom: first the Father, then the Son, and finally the Spirit. For one thing, Revelation elsewhere ascribes the works of creation and consummation to the second person of the Trinity (Revelation 1:17; 3:14; 22:13). For another thing, Revelation elsewhere exhibits the Greek grammatical oddity of using a singular verb to describe the reign of God and of the Lamb, thus violating the basic rule of subject-verb agreement (Revelation 11:15; 22:3). From this we may conclude that the distinction between the first, second, and third persons of the Trinity in enacting the unfolding kingdom of God is not a distinction between three agencies. It is rather a distinction within one divine agency. The three persons who share one divine throne enact one divine agency.
Third, though Revelation 4-5 progresses from the worship of the one who sits on the throne to the worship of the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne, these chapters conclude with the worship of the one who sits on the throne and of the Lamb. That this is the climactic expression of worship in Revelation 4-5 indicates that Revelation does not envision the worship of two or three gods. Instead it envisions the worship of one God in three persons. In the Spirit, Revelation calls us to worship God and the Lamb.
Fourth, though it does not receive the same degree of emphasis in these chapters as it does elsewhere in John’s writings, Revelation 4-5 does indicate something about the character of the distinction that obtains between the three persons of the Trinity within the transcendent oneness of God’s being and agency. According to these chapters, the revelation that John receives comes from God by Jesus in the Spirit. In similar fashion, God’s hidden purpose for creation is accomplished by Jesus and applied by the Spirit sent out into all the earth. Here, as we have already seen, we are not dealing with a distinction between three divine agencies. We are dealing with distinctions within one divine agency. What is the character of that distinction? According to Revelation 4-5, the singular agency of God proceeds from the one who sits on the throne, through the Lamb who stands in the midst of the throne, in the Spirit who is before the throne.
In concluding our discussion of the Trinity in Revelation 4-5, I would like to return to the question of the relationship between scriptural trinitarianism and ecclesiastical trinitarianism. How does this text address that question?
Not only does Revelation 4-5 explicitly identify the three persons of the Trinity, it also explicitly mentions the three foundational moments of God’s unfolding kingdom. It speaks of God’s work of creation. It speaks of God’s work of redemption. And it speaks of God’s work of sanctification. Revelation 4-5’s triadic pattern of identifying the three persons of the Trinity and of appropriating to them the three foundational moments of God’s unfolding kingdom is later reflected in three article creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed.
Revelation 4-5 also says something about the ultimate end of human beings, and indeed of all creatures, in relation to the Holy Trinity. According to Revelation 4-5, the revelation of the mystery of God’s purpose for creation comes by means of the revelation of the mystery of the person and work of the Lamb. The revelation of this mystery, in turn, leads to the worship of God and the Lamb by means of the person and work of the Spirit who is sent out into all the earth. This suggests that God’s ultimate purpose for all creatures in heaven and on earth, in the sea and all its depths, is that they would know and adore the Holy Trinity, with human beings ransomed from every tribe and language and people and nation leading the cosmic chorus as a kingdom of priests.
This suggests, in other words, that devoting our attention to the triune God as he presents himself to us in Holy Scripture is not a matter of vain curiosity or arcane interest. In seeking to gain fluency in praising God and the Lamb in the Spirit we are participating in what is the deepest reality of the cosmos, as well as its ultimate end. In doing so, we are also beginning to realize our nature as creatures designed to recognize, receive, and respond to the thrice-holy Trinity. To him be glory forever and ever. Amen.