Thursday, September 08, 2005

Heaven Now (Revelation 4-5)

Many people think that heaven is the place where you can do what you enjoy most forever and ever. Others, on their own reading of Revelation 4-5, think that heaven will be an eternal "praise and worship" session (basically the bands they like, playing the music they like with the requisite Christian lyrics slotted in for good measure of course, since this is supposed to be heaven). And a few more imagine it to be an eternal church service, which as Andrew Peterson comments, is as appealing as traffic school. It seems to be an ethereal place, a far country, somewhere in the future.

But Revelation 4-5 suggests that though we cannot see it yet, heaven is a place that exists even now. If we know what heaven is like now, then we know what it will be then, when it is revealed to all.

[I have a theory about heaven being in a different dimension so that just as inhabitants of a two-dimensional universe cannot perceive what is happening in the third dimension, so we cannot perceive what is happening in the heavenly dimension. But that is just a theory with not much evidence. Just like the super-Planck length-string and M theories with Heisenberg wondering around uncertainly looking for Schrödinger's cat. Hahaha. Ok ok. Don't accelerate protons at me lah.]

What Must Take Place
Revelation 4 starts with the voice like a trumpet saying to John that he would be shown what must take place after this (4:1). The emphasis is on must. Not what might take place nor what we would like to take place but what must take place, given what we have seen of Jesus so far in Revelation 1 and 2: who he is and what he has done and what he will certainly do.

Age of the Spirit
At once, John was "in the Spirit" (4:2), not meaning that he had an out-of-body experience or that he had reached some nirvanic state in his mind, but that he saw that different reality that exists now but that we do not yet see; the reality of the heavenly dimension; the reality of the age to come. Before Jesus' death, he spoke of 2 ages: "this age" and "the age to come" (see eg. Matthew 12:32). This age is doomed to pass away (1 Corinthians 2:6) and Jesus' death has ushered in the "age to come" (Hebrews 9:8ff). Another way of speaking of these 2 ages is "the age of the flesh" and "the age of the Spirit". So John sees as reality what takes place in "the age to come"; "the age of the Spirit" that exists now but is hidden from view and will only be revealed fully to all at the End.

God is Worshipped
What must take place in the age to come after the death of Jesus? We see God on the throne in heaven (4:2-3).

[Some people take it that it is Jesus who is sitting on the throne rather than his Father. Not sure that the passage suggests this. And Revelation 5 indicates that they are 2 separate people. In any case, Jesus sitting down = his work has been completed; he has fulfilled his duties. We know that this has already taken place (Acts 2:33; Ephesian 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22).]

Then we see more symbols (which are a far better literary device for communicating such a scene than using abstract terms like magnificent, awesome, spectacular): there are 24 elders and 4 living creatures surrounding the throne and worshipping God.

The 24 elders are seated on thrones themselves (4:4) so they are clearly rulers and have crowns on their heads and power and authority. They are wearing white robes apparently symbolising victory or conquest. Their number (24) is suggestive - could it be the sum of the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles (referred to in Revelation 21:12-14) and so the sum total of God's people? Could it be the number of the Aaronic priesthood (1 Chronicles 24:1-19) and so the anointed servants of God? Or are they heavenly beings that represent the church in this other reality? We can't be sure.

The 4 living creatures (not beasts) are on each side of the throne (4:6). Their number might suggest the totality of creatures on the earth (like the 4 winds, the 4 corners of the earth (7:1)). Their species might be representative of all the types of animals in the world. Their many eyes might suggest universal understanding and watchfulness. But we cannot be sure.

The whole scene reminds us of Isaish's vision of six-winged seraphs worshipping the LORD Almighty in Isaiah 6, or Ezekiel's vision of the four four-faced living creatures with four wheels (!) in Ezekiel 1, or even the throne scene in Daniel 7...but not quite...

However, it is extremely clear what the 24 elders and the 4 living creatures are doing. Whoever they might be, whatever they may represent, they are laying down their crowns and authority to God and worshipping him. Ceaselessly. They are worshipping him by praising his unique attributes:
  • God's holiness (4:8): his distinctiveness, his differentness;
  • God's permanence and eternalness (4:8): he was, and is, and is to come;
  • God's worthiness to receive glory, honour and power because he was before all things and created all things out of nothing. We can create things out of other things. But God made everything out of nothing. We are created by him and totally dependent on him for everything: our creation, our continuing existence and our purpose and meaning.
So who ever these people and creatures are supposed to symbolise, they obviously know their place in the universe. They are created beings and live under the rule of the only God and Creator. So their chief purpose and goal in life must be to worship him. Ceaselessly and enjoy him forever.

Praise of God involves dwelling on his marvellous attributes. It is God-centred, not self-centred. It doesn't say how much we love him because he has made us happy or he is our best friend or loving Father, or how we want to be held close to him/be loved by him etc. It is fixated on God alone and his attributes alone.

The Lamb is Worshipped
Then the camera lens zooms in on a scroll on the right hand of God (5:1). It is sealed with seven seals and completely written. There is the suggestion that the whole universe waits to see what is in the scroll. But that comes in the later chapters. The first thing that must happen is that someone must open the scroll. Asks the strong angel, who is worthy to open it? [Not who is strong enough or powerful enough to open it but who is worthy.]

There is no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth who is worthy to open it (5:3).

John weeps loudly (5:4).

Then one of the elder tells him not to cry anymore. There is one who is worthy to open the scroll and look into it. It is the "Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David" (5:5). He is worthy because he has conquered (5:5). He has done something that has made him triumph in such a way that he is worthy to break the seals on the scroll and look into it. Judah, it was promised a very very long time ago, would have rule over all God's people and indeed, over all the nations (Genesis 49:8-12). The lion of Judah is a kingly messianic title. David was God's anointed king and under his rule, God's people lived under God's rule in the land God had promised to them. But this person is not a descendant of David but someone who came before him. He is not the shoot of David but the root of David.

So we turn with John, expecting to see a majestic lion, powerful, strong, growling, fearsome with flashing teeth and sinewy muscles...

...and what do we see but a lamb. Lambs, compared to lions, are meek and mild little things that make silly bleating noises. As if that were not weak enough, this particular lamb looks dead. Not the sort you would expect to even have the strength to stagger about. And it has 7 horns and 7 eyes. [If you, like me, try to draw a picture of the Lamb, you will find, like Allan Chappel once said, that it is a VERY. UGLY. LAMB.]

But the 7 horns symbolise complete and total power and strength and the 7 eyes, the 7 spirits of God in the world, possibly all-seeing and all-knowing.

Then the 24 elders and the 4 living creatures who had previously been worshipping God, now fall down and worship this Lamb! What blasphemy is this?! Who else is worthy of worship but God alone, the only Creator of the universe and the holy and eternal One?

And the 24 elders and 4 living creatures (now joined by thousands and thousands of angels) continue giving the Lamb all the same things that they gave God: songs of praise that the Lamb is worthy indeed to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing (5:12).

Why is the Lamb worthy of the same worship as God? Because he was slain, and by his blood he ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and has made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth (5:9-10). He has redeemed from slavery a people to serve God and rule with him.

The Lamb doesn't steal the thunder [sorry, pun on 4:5!] from God the Father but shares it with him. And every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, worship them both saying,
"To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!"(5:13)
And the four living creatures said, "Amen!" and the elders fell down and worshipped (5:14).

God is in control and the Lamb has already conquered. This age/the age of the flesh must soon pass away. The age to come/the age of the Spirit has already been ushered in. God and the Lamb are already reigning now and worthy of worship. If these things already exist and will soon be revealed, then we must live according to this revelation. No idiot sells his life to buy an expensive seaside house knowing it is made of sand and straw and after it has been revealed that it sits on quicksand and also that a devastating tsunami and a hurricane are headed his way, because of what must soon take place and already exists in the here and now. Neither should we. If we know what heaven is like now, then we know how it will be like when the curtains are pulled away.

*******
Hallelujah to the Lamb
Lord we stand in the midst
Of a multitude
Of those from every tribe and tongue
We are Your people
Redeemed by Your blood
Rescued from death by Your love
There are no words
Good enough to thank You
There are no words to express my praise
But I will lift up my voice
And sing from my heart
With all of my strength

CHORUS
Hallelujah hallelujah
Hallelujah to the Lamb
Hallelujah hallelujah
By the blood of Christ we stand
Every tongue every tribe
Every people every land
Giving glory giving honor
Giving praise unto the Lamb of God

Lord we stand by grace in Your presence
We're cleansed by the blood of the Lamb
We are Your children
Called by Your name
Humbly we bow and we pray
Release Your power
To work in us and through us
Till we are changed to be more like You
Then all the nations will see
your glory revealed and worship You

(Repeat chorus)
Every knee shall bow
Every tongue confess
That You are Lord of all
Lord of all Lord of all

(Repeat chorus 2 times)
(Hallelujah)
Giving praise unto the Lamb of God
(Hallelujah)
Giving praise unto the Lamb of God
Jesus Christ Lamb of God

*******
Irreverent aside: Was prepping for this study while rushing through some lamb shank at Secret Recipe. Didn't realise the irony until I was done... ;-)

*******

Letters to the Seven Churches (Revelation 2-3)
The Revealing Book of Revelation (Revelation 1)

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