And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (Rev. 5:6)
Is this a good example of what might be described as latent or incipient Trinitarianism in the New Testament—a vivid heavenly tableau in which God the Father and the Son are worshipped in the presence of the Spirit which speaks to the churches? Trinity Sunday is coming up, and we would do well to think about such things. In a spirit of orthodox generosity I would say, “Yes, but….”
First, let’s set the scene.
John has just written seven letters to churches in Asia Minor at the behest of the risen Christ, who spoke of himself in these terms: “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev. 1:17–18).
In a piece on Jesus as Alpha and Omega, first and last, beginning and end, I argued that the transfer of divine language to Jesus presupposes a pervasive and persistent distinction between two narrative levels. “God is the beginning and the end of the creation story, but Jesus is the beginning and end of the political subplot.”
This seems to me to be the key to the structure and meaning of any latent or incipient Trinitarianism that we may think we have found in the New Testament.
The last of the seven letters happens to conclude—not accidentally, I think—with this characterisation of Jesus: to the one who overcomes hardship, opposition and fear he will “grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” Then we hear the refrain: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:21-22).
After this John sees a door standing open in heaven, and a voice invites him up to see “what must take place after this” (Rev. 4:1).
What he sees first is the throne of God, surrounded by the twenty-four elders on their throne and the four living creatures. The living creatures repeat the chorus without ceasing: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:8).
When the living creatures “give glory and honour and thanks to him who is seated on the throne,” the twenty-four elders fall down before him and throw their crowns before the throne, saying:
Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created. (Rev. 4:11)
The scroll of God’s judgment
Then John observes that the psychedelic figure seated on the throne is holding in his right hand “a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals” (Rev. 5:1). An angel proclaims a contest: “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” John is at first distraught that no one is found, but then he is told that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Only now does he notice, between the throne and the four creatures, “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Rev. 5:6).
The lamb approaches the throne and takes the scroll, and the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fall down before the Lamb, “each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”
We now begin to understand that this is a scroll of divine judgment which will be opened in response to the prayers of the persecuted churches.
Those killed for their testimony to Jesus will cry out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10).
We may recall the story that Jesus told about the mean-spirited judge who gave in to the widow’s demands for “justice against my adversary” (Lk. 18:1-8). He tells the story as an encouragement to the disciples to pray and not lose heart: “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” But he wonders in the end whether the Son of Man will find faith when he comes. Will the opposition that they will encounter in the period leading up to the public vindication of Jesus be so great that there will be no witnessing community left?
‘Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”’ The Psalmist complains. ‘Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations before our eyes!’ (Ps. 79:10). “How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me?” (Ps. 119:84).
Songs about the lamb
So now the living creatures and the elders sing a new song, similar in form to the one they sang about God, but this time addressed to the lamb:
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth. (Rev. 5:9–10)
What happens next is really quite extraordinary, breath-taking as a piece of theological imaging. First, the angels in heaven in their countless multitudes take up the song:
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!
Then “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them” joins in:
To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever! (Rev. 5:13)
The four living creatures say, “Amen!”, and the elders fall down and worship. Then John watches apprehensively as the lamb begins to open the seals on the scroll of God’s wrath.
The apocalyptic narrative
The Trinitarian argument is that the lamb receives the same worship as the figure on the throne. For example, Richard Bauckham writes:
Revelation portrays the worship of Christ in heaven quite explicitly as divine worship…. The heavenly worship of God the Creator… is followed by the heavenly worship of the Lamb…, and then, as the climax of the vision…, the circle of worship expands to include the whole of creation addressing a doxology to God and the Lamb together.1
Well, perhaps, if we don’t look too closely….
The twenty-four elders “fell down before” God and “worshipped” (proskynēsousin) him. They also “fell down before” (epesan enōpion) the lamb, but it is not said that they “worshipped” him. At the end of the section the elders “fell down and worshipped”, but no object of worship is specified. Falling down before a person and worshipping him is not reserved for God in the Greek Old Testament. Abigail “fell before (epesen enōpion) David on her face and did obeisance (prosekynēsen) to him on the ground” (1 Sam. 25:23 LXX). Jesus is, after all, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David.
In chapter four it is said that God is worthy to receive “glory and honour and power” because he created all things. In the new song in chapter five, it is said that the lamb is worthy to open the scroll because by his death he has brought into existence a multinational people of God, a “kingdom of priests to our God”, who will reign on earth. The parallel is between the God who created all things and Jesus who “made” (epoiēsas) an international priestly people to serve the creator God on earth. Here we see the differentiation between the creation story and the political subplot.
The only pre-history ascribed to the lamb is that he is the “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” who has conquered (Rev. 5:5): he is the forerunner of the martyrs who will also “conquer” and sit with him on his throne. He is the “male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron,” who is caught up to the throne of God (Rev. 12:5).
It is the redemptive act that qualifies Jesus, makes him “worthy”—not to receive worship but to open the scroll. The song announces and celebrates the fact. Jesus is not worshipped; he is declared worthy to do one thing because he has done another thing. It is an exceptional declaration and an exceptional achievement, but God and the lamb remain quite distinct. Whether Jesus has his own throne or shares the throne of God is unclear, but if he will grant the martyrs to sit with him on his throne, we cannot make too much christological capital out of the fact that, as the Davidic king and shepherd, he was enthroned with God (Rev. 3:21; 7:17; 12:5; 22:1,3).
When the angels join in the chorus, the message has changed slightly. Jesus is worthy not only to open the scroll of God’s judgment but also to “receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12). This looks like a package of rather worldly values, and it may be that they are due more to the priests of the good creator God on earth than to the lamb in heaven. But they include the attributes which God was judged worthy to receive: “glory and honour and power”. The point here, I think, is that the attainment of kingdom, from the perspective of John, will bring glory both to God and to Jesus, who will rule on God’s behalf.
The closing worship of the elders is ambiguous. Is it directed only to God, as in Revelation 4:10? Or does it now also include the lamb? In any case, we are not bound to restrict proskyneō to divine worship in Revelation. Jesus has just told the church in Philadelphia that certain Jews will be made to “bow down (proskynēsousin) before your feet” (Rev. 3:9). In the background are such Old Testament texts as Isaiah 49:23 LXX:
kings shall be your foster fathers, and the women who rule, your nurses. On the face of the earth they shall do obeisance (proskynēsousin) to you, and they shall lick the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the Lord, and you shall not be put to shame. (Is. 49:23; cf. Is. 60:14)
Putting the apocalyptic back in Trinitarianism
The basic flaw in Bauckham’s argument, therefore, is that he disregards the apocalyptic context and misses how the narrative shapes the language of the passage. He has reduced the whole event to an isolated account of a new binary pattern worship. What is actually going on here is the celebration in heaven of the creation of a new priestly people and, more importantly in the context of Revelation, of the coming judgment on the political powers that opposed this whole transformation. The opening of the seals, I think, releases the conditions for judgment, followed by the seven trumpets of God’s wrath against Jerusalem, and the seven bowls of God’s wrath against Rome.2
But here’s where we can be more generous.
The early Christian conviction was that the crucified Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of God, in the language of Psalm 110:1, and given a divine authority to judge and rule, at some point in the not too distant future, over both Israel and the nations. In Revelation 4-5 John attempts to picture a decisive moment in the heavenly drama.
But close heaven’s door again and return to earth and these careful narrative distinctions are no longer so obvious. Pull the plug on the dazzling apocalyptic vision, lose sight of the brazen ambition of the early church, begin to ask more philosophical question about differences of person within the frame of a rational or logical monotheism… and we can understand how a very different conceptuality and language soon came into play.