Revelation 4 and 5 are the heart of Revelation. They are the most important two chapters and if you do not understand them fully and deeply everything that follows will be distorted and damaged. John has transported us to the Heavenly Throne Room. Like in chapter 1 we return to the incredibly detailed language of the prophets. John wants us to soak in every detail, each piece is a part of the grand painting he is offering to explain the vision he has seen.
These two chapters draw from a double set of images, the first is the Judeo-Christian gallery of prophetic images. John is drawing from the throne and heavenly visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel to convey God’s presence and His relationship to the Creation. But John is also drawing on Roman imagery. The Heavenly throne room is a reverse-parody, it reveals all of Rome’s royal and imperial trappings as a pale imitation of the true ruler of the universe. Caesar is not a god or a true king but a boy costumed in his family’s sheets, playing at something he isn’t.
First, there is the throne, a single highest heavenly throne over everything. God is the King of Kings, the ultimate ruler who sits over everything. John uses the language of gemstones and rainbows to convey the shining, majesty of God enthroned. The first century world was not particularly colorful, extravagant colors were markers of royalty and prosperity and power. The thunder and lightning remind us of the cloud of God’s presence in Exodus and the appearance to Elijah at Mt. Horeb. This breath-taking throne room is ultimately occupied by God/Christ, not Caesar.
The twenty-four thrones are the apostles and the twelve tribes, all those who believe, the old and new, joined together in worship. They rule because they too have “conquered” but their rulership is only under and through Christ, hence the laying down of their crowns. It also echoes the 24 attendants (lictors) who surrounded the Caesars in their public appearances.
The sea was an ancient symbol of death and chaos, sometimes personified as a dragon (like in the Babylonian Creation myth which Genesis echoes). The sea is so still and calm that it looks like glass or crystal. In God’s presence death and chaos are absolutely conquered, held in stillness like the depths he pushed back from the dry land at Creation.
The four living creatures are angelic representations of all the animals and creatures in Creation, each one the peak of a Jewish category of created things, humanity, the wild animals (lion), the domesticated animals (oxen) and the birds (eagle). They also have the six wings and the constant song of the Cherubim and Seraphim as we see them in the prophets. Together with the 24 elders, they are the faithful joining with all created things to continuously praise and honor God.
The book in God’s hand contains everything that will come to pass, when it is unsealed everything that follows begins to unfold. Whether the scroll is meant to be seen as a will or inheritance (as some scholars say) or God’s book of life, we know for certain that it contains God’s judgment which we will see unfold in the next 7 chapters. But John throws us back into an advent-esque despair, there can be no final judgment, God will not yet set things right, because none can unseal the scroll.
But one of the Elders turns to comfort John saying “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” There is a Lion! A messianic symbol. This Lion is God’s warrior-prophet-king who will overthrow all evil and earthly powers and rule the whole Creation. The Lion is strength, royalty, bloodshed, honor and violence. It is the most powerful thing in all of Creation. The Elder dramatically points us towards a lion-shaped hole in our apocalyptic story.
We know how apocalypses are supposed to go. John is joining in a long Jewish tradition of apocalypses. Once this Lion hits the scene the next dozen chapters will look like a scene from ‘300’ as the Lion rampages around, grinding up and destroying the evil ones in dramatic blood-spraying slow motion. Bring on the Lion!
And here John flips the whole world on its head. Into this Lion shaped hole in our Apocalypse John gives us this
“Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth”
Into our Lion shaped hole John plugs “the little slaughtered lamb.” There is a diminutive on this word. Not Lamb. Lambkin. Little Lamb. The very image of weakness, meekness, vulnerability, defenselessness, innocence and purity. And it has already been slaughtered, the word here specifically implies an altar sacrifice. It stands but it still bears the wounds of its death.
Into our Lion shaped hole, John has placed Jesus. Crucified, “forgive them for they know not what they do,” “turn the other cheek,” “die by the sword,” “forgive 70 times 7 times” Jesus. And this is why Revelation is a Christian book. There are lots of Jewish apocalypses that end with God’s violent wrath poured out on the world. But John has taken the Apocalypse formula and stuck a negative sign right down in the heart of it. Everything is inverted and flipped upside down.
Because strength and power are redefined. Strength looks like forgiveness. Power looks like faithfulness. That mystery word, conquering, that John has already used almost 20 times, is redefined as a faithful innocent death at the hands of evil. That throne at the center of all Creation is a rugged Cross, still stained with blood. John is telling us that God has forever redefined the vision of winning.
And this is the place from which Revelation will unfold. Every plague, every bowl, every trumpet, every seal must be interpreted in light of the crucified one who is at its center. We’re not suddenly seeing a new, hidden side of Jesus where he becomes the Punisher and wreaks havoc on the ones who wronged him. Whatever happens must be consistent with who we already have seen Jesus to be. The slaughtered lamb, wrapped in the Holy Spirit, will take the scroll and break its seals.