I’m a word nerd. Not quite as accomplished as my dear friend Claire Monserrat Jackson, who is a writer that you should be reading if you are not already. But nonetheless, a word nerd. So it brings me great joy to say that Revelation 4 and 5 are a diptych.
You can’t understand one without the other. We talked last week about chapter four, and we were left perhaps a bit confused as to what was transpiring. Chapter five is itself odd on the surface, but when understood in tandem, the gatekeeper and the key-master are walking hand-in-hand.
The first sight in Revelation 5 is that of a right hand, a sign of power and authority in the biblical tradition. The hand holds a scroll that has writing on both sides; the Greek word βιβλίον (biblion) provides the root for our English word bible. However, βιβλίον does not refer to a codex, what we call a book. There are numerous theories regarding the significance, but two presented in Dr. Ian Boxall’s Black’s New Testament Commentary are worth noting.
- The scroll is a legal document, like a will or testament fashioned in the Roman tradition. Legally, valid wills had to be witnessed and sealed by seven persons, each with a distinctive wax seal. It could only be opened after the testator died. The commentary is palpable: in Rome’s kingdom, a person unwillingly dies and the seals are opened by those greedy for their allotment. In God’s economy, Christ willingly dies and in so doing, offers a path to salvation that can only unfold with the Lamb of God opening the seals.
- Another possibility is that the scroll represents the Tanakh and the New Testament being sealed in perfection, signified by the use of seven. I like this one, as too much of Christian history has involved telling our Jewish siblings that they are God-killers and calling their sacred texts “old.”
Then the text takes a curious turn. An angel–many exegetes believe one of the so-called archangels, like Michael or Metatron–declares that the entire cosmogony has been searched and been found wanting for one worthy to open the scroll.
Like, not even God? Y’all went to the reaches of heaven and not even God was worthy?
Here we see evidence of what I call in my upcoming book, Mark as Manifesto, a Pauline Christology. The emphasis is upon the salvific death of Jesus. Later, Augustine and then Anselm will use passages from Revelation to develop the doctrine of original sin and the blood atonement theory, respectively. But we should be wary of projecting those ideas onto the text of Revelation.
The imagery continues and brings into focus the purpose of the two chapters, to contrast and compare the Roman notions of power with the power of God. As John bitterly weeps, like Peter at the well, an elder proclaims the victory of the Lion of Judah. This potent symbol is paired with the root of David, alluding to the stump of Jesse mentioned in Isaiah 11. “Both titles would evoke in the Judaeo-Christian mind an image of the Davidic Messiah, God’s anointed king who would act on his behalf in the last days.”*
Drying his eyes, John of Patmos sees the Lamb of God, slaughtered, yet standing. Perfect, yet bloodied. Again, the number seven is key; what is being presented as perfect does not meet the legal requirements for a paschal lamb. Yet, take the scroll the lamb does and sings himself a new song. Soon a celestial choir–no doubt sounding almost as good as the World House Choir–joins in. Harps were the traditional instrument of worship at the time, and gold bowls filled with incense were traditional offerings in sacred spaces; what we have here is a heavenly worship. What happens in the heavenly realm that John witnesses are to be brought back to the people as a model for how to acknowledge the Lamb of God. Early Christian iconography, including cruciforms, emphasized Jesus as the Lamb of God.
What does God’s power look like? A slaughtered lamb so perfect that even saints throw away their crowns and bend the knee. Honor and glory are not to be found in earthly power and worship of the temporary, but rather through love, sacrifice, compassion, and rightful worship. Let us not get bogged down in thinking of worship as something we do only in buildings and solely through mindless blathering. Proper worship is how we center God in our lives, how we follow the directives of Jesus, so eloquently summarized with the Shema and “love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
I fear those powerful words have been robbed of their sting through some of the aforementioned mindless blather that comes from so much of Christianity. We’re to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our strength. Think of Jewish prayer with phylacteries or tefillin.
Pictured: The amazing Women of the Wall who have been physically attacked by men for daring to proclaim that the נָ֫פֶשׁ (nephesh or soul) has no gender. Interestingly, nephesh is a feminine noun.
When we keep God in our hearts, on our minds (signified by the box of the forehead), and as the source of our strength (the wrap around the right arm and Scripture box in the palm), we can become an integrated whole. When we remember that we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, knowing that we only know how to love ourselves through loving God, we have all that we need. We need not fear death, for in the loving of God, ourselves, and others as exemplified by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we have eternal life.
Yeah, I get that this can seem like hibbity-jibbity on the surface. A lot of nice words that are overly generic and do not address things like little kids getting cancer. But those are not the questions Revelation seeks to answer, at least in my view.
We began this journey with me admitting my concerns about Revelation and presenting ideas from scholars about how to properly contextualize the text. Revelation is fantastical for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest ones is to throw us into a world that cannot be reasoned and can only be experienced. I used to think such talk was obfuscation, an intellectual dishonesty owed to being unable to present good arguments. So I now use a phrase I used to detest: when you have faith, you can understand certain things for which reason cannot account.
I honestly don’t know if Christianity is the “right way” to spiritual enlightenment, but it is the path that works for me. I have had moments in which I have acutely felt both eternity and decay within myself. I, like you, carry within myself the inherent contradictions of being capable of immense love for others and of destructive hatred of myself. I’ve found that by continually deconstructing a sense of self that is derived from titles and accomplishments, I’m able to connect with nearly everyone I meet on a significant level. At times I become overwhelmed with love for others. As someone with bipolar disorder, this spiritual gift is a great blessing and a great curse. Jesus tells us to love in balance, always returning to the source of it all.
Our investigation continues next week. Stay tuned.
*Boxall, I. (2006). The Revelation of Saint John (p. 97). London: Continuum.