Wednesday, March 21, 2012

John's View of Heaven

Tonight in my Revelation class at a local church (noted earlier here), we concentrated on the beautiful passage in chapter 4, where John sees the scene of God on his throne in heaven, with 24 elders surrounding the throne, and an emerald rainbow and a sea of glass, and four living creatures--one that looks like a lion, another a calf, another a man, another an eagle--ceaselessly flying around the throne praising the one who sits on it, and the 24 elders falling down before the throne in praise of its occupant.

Two thoughts about this:

1. The plot of the book.

I realized for the first time just as I was reading the passage aloud during the class that the very first verse says that these things I have just described "must take place" (Rev. 4:1). I take that to mean that what we see in ch. 4, and then on into ch. 5, must come true.

What do we see? First, all creatures worshiping the one who sits on the throne. That seems to me to be part of the point of describing the four living creatures as a lion, calf, man, and eagle. Certainly John is drawing on the imagery of Ezek. 1:10, but he does so because it fits his theology so well--God must be praised, and all creatures (not just man) must participate in this praise. This is not an option. It "must take place" (4:1).

The second thing we see--and this takes us into ch. 5--is that when the Lamb is counted worthy to open the book that is in the right hand of him who sits on the throne, "every created thing which is in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them" praised the Lamb (5:13). So, again, all created things praise the Lamb, just as they had praised the one who sits on the throne.

Now, the fact is, all created things currently do not praise the Lamb or the one who sits on the throne, but Rev. 4:1 tells us that this "must take place." I think that is a significant clue to the plot of the book. The mystery of Revelation is not whether all things will praise God--this must take place--but rather the mystery is how God will bring this about. That apparently has something to do with the book in his hand (5:1), but that takes us to another topic, perhaps for another post.

2. Worship

The second thing Rev. 4 brings home to me is the nature of worship. One of Walter Brueggemann's  essays on the Psalms (the reference appears below) gives a list of about 11 descriptions of proper worship as illustrated by the praise psalms. Over the years in my teaching I have especially emphasized two items from Brueggemann's list that I have found especially helpful, and they are both wonderfully illustrated in Rev. 4.

Praise is an act of doxological self-abandonment. When we enter into worship, what we seek, what we desire, what we want to "get out of it" is precisely the abandonment of ourselves, the refusal to focus on our own wants and desires and what we can get out of it, and to focus completely, solely, without reservation, on God. It is a reorientation away from that selfishness that characterizes so much of our lives. We need to imitate those 24 elders.

Praise is a polemical act. When we declare that God is worthy of our worship, we are at the same time making war on all those others that would claim to be worthy of worship. In the context of ancient Israel in which the Psalms were written, the Israelites would mean--Yahweh is worthy of worship, and Baal is not! In the context of Revelation, the Christians would be saying--The one who sits on the throne in heaven is worthy of worship, and Caesar is not! We moderns also (should) think of worship as a polemical act, in which we say--God is worthy of our worship, and _____ is not! It's a good exercise to have the class fill in the blank. Tonight they filled it in with money, power, possessions, career, and maybe some other things. No one said Alabama football.

Walter Brueggemann, “Praise and the Psalms: A Politics of Glad Abandonement,” The Hymn (October 1992); reprinted in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 112–32.

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