The throne of Jesus and the throne of God

I happened to come across an article by Darrell Hannah called “The Throne of His Glory: The Divine Throne and Heavenly Mediators in Revelation and the Similitudes of Enoch.”1 Very interesting, I thought. A bit convoluted for a blog post, but very interesting. I won’t dwell too much on the Similitudes of Enoch part. The main question is: does Jesus sit on his own throne in heaven at the right hand of God or does he share God’s throne, and what difference, if any, does it make?

Jesus shares the throne of God

According to Hannah, the two clearest statements to the effect that the risen Christ shares the throne of God are to be found in the book of Revelation. At the end of the letter to the church at Laodicea Jesus says, “The one conquering, I will give to him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21, my translation). Then in the new Jerusalem John sees “the throne of God and of the Lamb”—seemingly one throne for the two persons (Rev. 22:1, 3).

Also to be reckoned with are the statement that the “male child,” who is to rule the nations with a rod of iron, was “caught up to God and to his throne” (Rev. 12:5), and the description of the “Lamb in the midst (ana meson) of the throne” in heaven (Rev. 7:17).

It seems to me that we have three different “throne” ideas here.

1. The allusion to Psalm 2:7-8 in Revelation 12:5 suggests that the male child is caught up to heaven in order to rule as YHWH’s king at his right hand, either on the same throne or on a separate one. He will inherit the nations, he will “break them with a rod of iron”; he will rule in the midst of his enemies until the last of them is made his footstool (Ps. 110:1-2). This is the dominant enthronement motif in the New Testament.

2. The “throne of God and of the Lamb” in Revelation 20:1, 3 is not the throne of Christ’s kingly rule, along with the martyrs (cf. Rev. 20:4-6), but a proxy for the temple in the new Jerusalem in the thousand year period between the overthrow of pagan Rome and the final judgment. Perhaps God and the Lamb are imagined seated together on the ark of the covenant, with Ezekiel’s river of the water of life flowing from under it—or at least, where the ark would have stood if the city had had a temple.

3. The description of the Lamb “in the midst of the throne” in chapters 4-5 is part of a more elaborate and dramatic heavenly scene, in which the Lamb who was slain is found worthy to open the scrolls of judgment against both Israel and Rome.

Earlier John saw the Lamb standing “in the middle (en mesōi) of the throne and of the four living creatures and of the elders,” which suggests among these various entities (Rev. 5:6). God is seated on the throne, the twenty-four elders are seated on twenty-four thrones circling (kyklothen) the throne of God, and the living creatures are located “in the middle (en mesōi) of the throne and in a circle (kyklōi) of the throne” (Rev. 4:2-4, 6, my translation). The Lamb “came and took (the scroll) from the right hand of the one seated on the throne” (5:7).

In the vision of Revelation 7:9-17 a great multitude stands “before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9, 15) and cries out, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (7:10). Only God is said to sit “on the throne ” (epi tōi thronōi); the Lamb is set apart from him in these statements. The adverbial expression ana meson, which locates the Lamb, mostly means “between” or “in the midst of.” Mark says, for example, that Jesus “came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the midst of (ana meson) the borders of Decapolis. It seems to me likely, therefore, that John is still seeing the Lamb within the circle defined by the twenty-four elders, perhaps among the living creatures who are “in the middle of the throne.”

Hannah suggests that the awkward positioning of the Lamb may be explained by the fact that the living creatures “were thought to be engraved or sculpted onto the throne itself.” But the scene seems too dynamic for this, and we have been told that the living creatures are “in the middle of the throne” (Rev. 4:6). Perhaps the whole space described by the circle of the elders constitutes the “throne” of God; but the Lamb must approach the throne in order to take the scroll, and it is not said that the Lamb sat on the throne.

One throne in Hebrews and Matthew?

A few other New Testament texts are thought to provide evidence for a shared throne. The writer to the Hebrews locates the enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God in the heavenly temple (Heb. 8:1; 10:12-13). Since the earthly sanctuary contained only one throne, the cover of the ark of the covenant, there is presumably only one throne in the heavenly sanctuary, which God and Jesus must share. This can perhaps be correlated with Revelation 20:1-3: when the heavenly temple in the heaven city descends to earth, it becomes a non-temple, but the seating arrangement is preserved.

The writer to the Hebrew, however, conflates the enthronement imagery of Psalm 110:1 and the temple imagery, and the “throne” may still presuppose the setting of the royal court—note the reference to a “footstool” in Hebrews 10:13, which does not belong in the temple.

Hannah also suggests that the “throne of his glory,” on which the Son of Man will sit, is the throne of God (Matt. 19:28; 25:31). In the second temple period the phrase “throne of glory” was reserved for the throne of God. For example: “On that day my Elect One shall sit on the throne of glory” (1 En. 45:3; cf. 55:4). Jesus’ words should be understood in the same way.

I’m not so sure. Jesus says that the Son of Man will come and sit on the throne of his glory to judge Israel (Matt. 19:28) and the nations (Matt. 25:31). Hannah notes the reference to “the thrones of his glory” in 11Q17 10.7, but says nothing about the fact that Jesus speaks of the Son of Man’s own glory—the glory that he will receive at his vindication before the throne of God (cf. Dan. 7:13-14).

We read in Ben Sirach 47:11 that the Lord gave David “a covenant of kings and a throne of glory in Israel.” This is close to the idea that we find in Matthew, the difference being that the phrase is definite on Jesus’ lips (“the throne of his glory”) because he has in mind the particular glory that the Son of Man will acquire on account of his faithful suffering. Moreover, the Son of Man most likely will sit on his glorious throne not in heaven but on earth, “in the regeneration” (en tēi palingenesiai), when he will judge the tribes of Israel and the nations gathered before him.

This differs from the enthronement of Psalm 110:1 and really constitutes a fourth category: a throne is set up on earth for the glorified Son of Man to enact judgment in history.

Jesus has his own throne

Most commonly in the New Testament and nearly Christianity the enthronement of Jesus is described in the language of Psalm 110:1: the exalted Jesus has been seated “at the right hand of God,” which may have been taken to mean that the Son sat on a second throne. Polycarp says that God “raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead and gave him glory and a throne at his right hand” (Phil. 2:1)

Most of the “seated at the right hand” of God texts in the New Testament are ambiguous in this respect. Hannah thinks, however, that two thrones are implied in 1 Corinthians 15:23-28. The subordinationism of the passage and the prospect of Christ’s rule ending is difficult to square with an absolute “communality of throne between the Father and the Son,” as Hengel puts it. Hannah gets this right, I think: “Paul… appears to be visualising a temporary reign of Christ for the specific purpose of defeating the enemies of God” (77).

He concludes: “Some early Christians apparently believed that there were two thrones in heaven, one on which God sat and another, lesser throne at his right hand, occupied by the Risen Christ” (75).

Oddly, the author of the book of Revelation shows little awareness of this tradition, but Hannah thinks that two thrones are implied in Revelation 3:21: “The one conquering, I will give to him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat with my Father on his throne.”

The assurance that believers who suffer with Christ will also reign with Christ is found at a number of points in the New Testament. When Israel is restored, the disciples, who will have to take up their own crosses in order to follow Jesus, will sit on twelve thrones alongside the glorious throne of the suffering Son of Man, judging the twelve tribes (Matt. 16:24; 19:28). Luke’s “I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom” (Lk. 22:29) looks like another way of saying, “The one conquering, I will give to him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21).

It seems to me, then, that the thrones stand for the exercise of rule or kingdom. The meaning is not that Jesus switches between his own and his Father’s throne, but simply that he will share the authority which he received from God as firstborn from the dead with those who subsequently will emulate him in his faithfulness, suffering, and death.

Paul says that those who endure “will also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:12). The martyrs killed by Rome will be raised in a “first resurrection” and will reign with Christ for a thousand years (Rev. 20:4-6). The point is that they will share in Christ’s rule over the nations, not that they will share his identity.

In a 3rd/2nd century BC text Moses has a dream of the throne of God on the summit of mount Sinai. The figure on the throne instructs him to take a sceptre and royal crown and sit on the throne in his place (Ezekiel the Tragedian 67-76). This does not mean that Moses becomes God in any sense. His father-in-law provides the interpretation: “you shall cause a mighty throne to rise, and you yourself shall rule and govern men” (85-86).

So whether one or two thrones is envisaged, the meaning of the image is that the authority to rule is shared with, or delegated to, another.

Some christological conclusions

First, the four different “throne” scenarios should not be confused. They draw on different biblical-apocalyptic motifs; they mean different things:

  • the Davidic Son is enthroned at the right hand of God;
  • God and the Lamb sit together as the source of life in the non-temple;
  • approval of the Lamb’s right to inaugurate the process of judgment is acted out in the heavenly courtroom;
  • and the Son of Man will come and take his seat—the throne of his glory—to judge both Israel and the nations in history.

Hannah makes the point that in the Similitudes of Enoch the Son of Man occupies the throne of glory only in order to fulfil his office: “he sits on the throne of glory to execute and only to execute the eschatological judgment.” But in Revelation, he says, the picture is different. “Here the eschatological judgment belongs primarily to God, not to Christ (cf. 20,11-15), and the throne of glory has become the dual thronos tou the kai tou arniou, which is clearly an ongoing reality and not limited to the single eschatological act of judgment” (87-88).

Here we see the failure to differentiate. The final judgment of all humanity in Revelation 20:11-15 is not the same as the judgments executed in history by the Son of Man, according to Matthew, when he comes to sit on the throne of his glory. The close association of God and the Lamb in the non-temple, which is effectively the continuing presence of God’s people on earth, has to do not with judgment and rule but with the source of life and healing.

All versions of the throne motif bring Jesus into the closest relationship with God—to the extent that the twenty-four elders sing a “new song” about the worthiness of the Lamb to “receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12) and do obeisance before him (5:14).

But it seems to me too much to say that this creates some manner of unity of identity as is sometimes claimed. Jesus sits on the throne of God, or on a throne provided by God, without becoming God. As Hannah says, Christ’s right to share the throne of God derives from the fact that he conquered death; it is “not, or at least not necessarily, a consequence of his eternal divinity.”

The Lamb in the heavenly throne scene remains quite distinct from God as a dramatic actor, and Jesus sits on the throne in the non-temple as the Lamb who was slain, who ransomed a people for God by his blood.

Jesus is given authority to judge and rule, either as the Son of Man or as the “lord” seated at the right hand of YHWH. Even if the thought is that he sits on the same throne as God, there is no confusion of identity. The image of the bisellium or “double throne” was common in the ancient world. The famous cameo known as the Gemma Augustea depicts Augustus and the goddess Roma seated together on a single throne. The one does not share the identity of the other, they rule conjointly.

Finally, Paul is quite explicit that Jesus’ rule at the right hand of God is contingent and temporary: he rules because there are enemies and for as long as there are enemies.

As soon as the church in the Greek world began to translate these diverse apocalyptic dramas into a more philosophical language, the fine narrative distinctions collapsed into theological abstractions. The male child born to righteous Israel, who suffered, was raised, exalted, vindicated, who acted as an agent of divine judgment and rule in history, was introduced into the hall of mirror of Trinitarian theology. That was bound to happen, and I think that we are right to affirm it. But the convoluted apocalyptic narratives, to my mind, are far more interesting—and, frankly, more useful.

  • 1. Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 94 (2003), 68-96.