The Only True God Chapter 5: Monotheism and Worship in the Book of Revelation

The Only True God Chapter 5: Monotheism and Worship in the Book of Revelation November 2, 2009

The Digital Commons at Butler University obtained permission to share an excerpt from my recent book The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context. It is chapter 5, which is on worship, Christology and monotheism in the Book of Revelation.

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  • Thanks for posting this. I enjoyed reading it. However, I'm not sure your argument makes much sense! Sorry, perhaps I've misunderstood?You seem to pin an awful lot of your argument on the assertions that 1) sacrifice is not offered to the Lamb in Revelation and 2) sacrifice was the thing that was reserved for God alone in Jewish Monotheism.Doesn't this neglect the fact that in Revelation sacrifice is not even offered to God either? With the death of Christ early Christians believed the sacrificial system to have reached its end, a point you actually acknowledge toward the end of the posted chapter, so of course they didn't sacrifice to the Lamb: they didn't sacrifice to his father anymore either!You are right to point out that the cultic worship that is offered to the Lamb in Revelation is metaphorical but an important point you ignore is that this is the only kind of "cultic" worship that the early Christians of Revelation engaged in. So it would be much more representative of Revelation to say that 1) it maintains the Jewish-monotheistic idea that there is a kind of worship which should be reserved for God alone and not given to his competitors or even his loyal servants but 2) precisely this kind of worship which is reserved for God alone is shared by the Lamb. Although you repeatedly claim that such a point would be subtle, were it being made at all, on the contrary it would seem to be a consistent, overt component of the book's Christology. This is evident from the high frequency of texts within the book that you have to try and "neutralise", though unsuccessfully it would seem.

  • Hi Jeremy, and thank you for the comment. Let me see whether I can clarify my point (obviously one reason for the lack of clarity may be that this chapter builds on others that went before it). On the one hand, your generalization about what early Christians believed doesn't seem to have been true of all early Christians. The references in Acts to Christians going up to the temple at the time of prayer/sacrifice, and the reference to Paul offering sacrifices for some men who has completed a vow, reflects a different viewpoint than in found in Hebrews, from which presumably you were generalizing to the rest of early Christianity. Matthew's Gospel, which refers to Christians who bring their gift to the altar and then rememeber something that someone has against them also seems to presuppose participation in temple sacrifices. So we cannot presume that all early Christians had the view you suggest.On the other hand, the sort of worship that is offered to Jesus in Revelation (principly prostration) is also directed to Christians – indeed, more clearly than to Jesus! And so I find questionable your other point, namely that Revelation offers to Jesus a sort of worship that was thought to be reserved to God alone. I do think that in surveying the types of worship that are and are not offered to various figures, I've made a case for a different viewpoint. You may not be persuaded, but I hope that you'll do more than assert that I'm wrong and explain where specifically you feel my argument fails to persuade.Here too, though, I am building on a more extensive theoretical discussion of sacrifice, worship of other sorts, and the views of other scholars like Richard Bauckham, which I had offered in earlier chapters. And so I suppose I may end up feeling sorry that I got the publisher to make available chapter 5 rather than an earlier one! 🙂

  • It's probably true that I need to read the whole book. I refrained from interacting with your point about titles because I assumed I would need to hear your full argument from previous chapters before voicing my disagreement :-)I take your point about the continuation of sacrifice in early Christianity but I think you are pressing it far too far. Matt 5 does make mention of sacrifice but quite possibly as a reminiscence of some striking teaching by Jesus before his death and resurrection, not necessarily as a description of common praxis after it. Recall that Matt 24 presents the temple as doomed to destruction i.e. hardly a central pillar of continuing praxis. Attendance at the temple in Acts 1-5 is explicitly linked only with prayer and teaching, not with sacrifice, a restriction which is telling. Acts 7 is quite emphatic on the superfluity of the temple and its sacrifices.The only exception to this is that of Paul in Acts 21. In the context of Acts this forms part of Luke's apologetic that Paul stood in line with Judaism. It does not serve as the description of common or normative praxis. Luke does not go into the background of why Paul did this but it does fit Paul's evangelistic praxis as he describes it in 1Cor 9 i.e. he is not under the law, he only acts like it when trying to win the Jews.So the most that might legitimately be made of these texts is that in some sections of the early church sacrifice was not forbidden and so some of the Jewish Christians fulfilled their cultural obligations occasionally. That is very different to saying that sacrifice was ever encouraged or common in the early Christianity. On the contrary, the evidence indicates the reverse. There is no evidence in the NT that sacrifice was ever encouraged in any section of the church and plenty of evidence that the vast majority of the church never practiced it all, being told rather to "present your bodies as a living sacrifice" (Rom 12:1). So it is important not to treat Hebrews as a "minority report".It seems Revelation also fits neatly within this majority tradition of Christian approach to sacrifice, and this is the point. Even if sacrifice were more widespread in early Christianity than I have argued, in Revelation God is only ever worshiped with prostration, prayer and praise, not with sacrifice. The concept of "sacrifice" has been spiritualised and it is offered not only to God but to the Lamb also (Rev 14:4).It seems that in Revelation the only forms of worship which are ever given to God are given to the Lamb also. The same cannot be said for all Christians, who, as you say, only receive prostration and only from a select few. Revelation 5 is especially instructive, where both God and the Lamb are worshiped by every created thing. There is a clear line between the creator who is worshiped and the created things who worship him and the Lamb is clearly on the worshiped-creator side of the line.

  • Thanks for taking the time to engage my book in such a sustained, careful, critical way! On the one hand, I'm not sure on what basis you claim to know that when the Christians met in the temple at the time of prayer, which was the time of prayer precisely because it was the time of sacrifice, the sacrificial element was irrelevant to them. Nor am I sure on what basis you claim to know that the participation of Paul in the temple's sacrificial activity, at the behest of James, did not reflect usual or normative Christian practice. My guess is you are reading Luke-Acts through Hebrews, and Hebrews can scarcely be considered normative or typical – while its theology is not unrelated to that of other NT authors, it certainly is unique in many respects! Be that as it may, my main point is that the kinds of worship that are offered to the Lamb in Revelation are prostration and acclamation. The former is offered to Christians in Revelation 3:9, and that scarcely suggests that the author was using prostration before a figure as a way to define which side of the dividing line a figure was on. Although it is less relevant to Revelation than to other parts of the New Testament, that there was an unambiguous dividing line between God and all else cannot simply be assumed. Certainly God's Word, Wisdom, and/or Spirit served as such a "dividing line", but both are spoken of both as intrinsic to the one God and as a separate personal being with an origin and a distinct identity. And so if such concepts were the dividing line in this period, then the dividing line was blurry on both sides. And in a period when the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo had yet to be formulated, this is not too surprising. But as I said, that is more relevant to other works. With respect to Revelation, it seems that 1 Chronicles 29:20 depicts exactly what we see in Revelation: crowds bowing before God and his king. It may be possible to argue that such actions implied divinity, but if so, it implies the divinity of figures other than Jesus too! 🙂

  • Don't thank me, this is improving my understanding :-)I don't think I'm interpreting Luke-Acts through Hebrews. I think I'm interpreting it through the following observations: Jesus is never portrayed as sacrificing to God; none of his followers are portrayed as sacrificing to God; no new believers are instructed to sacrifice to God; the only exception to this is James asking Paul to sacrifice (i.e. he was not about to sacrifice without being asked) only as a demonstration to the Jews that he was not against the law of Moses as they claimed (Acts 21:17-26; i.e. not because he was expected to do it anyway but because a particular situation required a particular apologetic act). These observations make sense in light of the fact that Luke 22:19-20 & Acts 20:28 portray Jesus' death as the supreme sacrifice.The same could be said of Paul's letters. He never instructs Christians to sacrifice to God, whether Jew or Gentile, neither does he even mention any current practice of sacrificing to God, and his understanding of Jesus' death makes it obvious why (e.g. Rom 3:23-25, 8:3, 12:1). Peter is similar (1Pet 1:18-20, 2:5), as is John (1John 1:7).I agree that Acts gives evidence that some of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem continued some of the sacrifices. The only sacrifices described happen to have been in connection with apologetics but I guess it's possible this is not representative. However, to judge from the rest of the NT, much of which is written earlier, you would have to concede there is no evidence that Gentile Christians or Jewish Christians outside Jerusalem made any sacrifices to God whatsoever.Am I wrong? It seems that in the whole NT sacrifice to God is either non-existent (NT except for Acts and possibly Matthew) or at least unimportant (Acts and Matthew).I guess my point is that you've declared sacrifice to be the dividing line between God and not-God and, while that may (or may not) apply to non-Christian Jewish writings, it certainly cannot legitimately be applied to Christian Jewish writings like Revelation for which sacrifice to God is evidently unimportant if not non-existent. The closest Revelation comes to describing sacrifice is 14:4 but, like most of the NT, it is metaphorical (cf Rom 12:1, 1Pet 2:5) and given to God and the Lamb.I agree that prostration is not the dividing line. I think the dividing line is between every created thing who worships and the one(s) that is(/are) worshiped by every created thing. Every created thing ascribes all honour, glory and power (Rev 4:11, 5:12,13) to the one who is alive forever (Rev 1:17, 4:9), to the first and the last (Rev 1:8,17, 22:13 cf Is 41:4, 44:6, 48:12-13). The recipients of this worship are God and the Lamb and no one else, because everyone else is one of the created things.The New Jerusalem requires no temple, i.e. a building which represents God's presence and in which he is worshiped, because God himself is actually there to be worshiped directly, i.e. God and the Lamb are its temple (Rev 21:22).

  • Thank you again (in spite of your insistance that I shouldn't!), Jeremy. On the one hand, even after Christians were no longer practicing any sort of literal sacrificial worship, not doing so to any other god or person remained a make-or-break issue. And the sacrificial understanding of Jesus' death (whether connected with a reenactment in the Eucharist or not) had Jesus as the high priest/sacrifice and the Father as the recipient. I think that nevertheless, in the period that followed the destruction of the Temple, Jews and Christians had to find new ways of delineating their allegiance to one God alone in practice. But let me ask you a question: If literal sacrifice was not practiced by Christians (for the most part at least) and so did not in practice serve as a useful way for indicating God's oneness and whether Christ was "included in the divine identity", and if prostration is not a form of worship clearly reserved for God alone, then what if anything in Revelation seems to you to be offering to the Lamb worship reserved for God alone. How in practice could we tell the difference between the Lamb's "inclusion in the divine identity" and symbolic acts of submission and adoration offered to the Lamb as God's appointed ruler, even viceroy?

  • I think there are several things, not necessarily by themselves but certainly in combination, which show the Lamb is included within the divine identity and is not just God's viceroy.1) Just as is predicated of YHWH in Revelation and Isaiah explicitly to distinguish him from everything else, Jesus actually is the first and the last (see references given previously).This seems to be predicating much more of Jesus than is predicated of Yahoel in the Apocalypse of Abraham who has a name "like unto" YHWH and in whom YHWH's name "dwells", or "little" YHWH in 3 Enoch. In Revelation Jesus actually is the first and the last with no hint of transfer, mere representation or qualification i.e. he is the creator God in distinction from everything else.2) In Revelation 5 every created thing worships God and the Lamb.In Revelation is this true of anyone else except God and the Lamb? Outside Revelation, is it true of Solomon or Yahoel or little YHWH? (that's a genuine question, not rhetorical; I haven't read the early chapters of your book)Similarly "God and the Lamb" alone receive the "first fruits", a seemingly divine prerogative.3) In the New Jerusalem, where the temple representing God's presence is replaced by the presence of God himself, the presence of the Lamb is apparently considered essential to that presence of God. God, in the full sense in which the author of Revelation has come to understand him, would apparently not be sufficiently present to replace the temple without the presence of the Lamb. Of course no one shares this with God and the Lamb.The author of Revelation can talk about God and the Lamb separately when needing to describe their separate roles. But ultimately his full identification of God would seem to be: "God and the Lamb".

  • Hi Jeremy. I think the closest parallel to the submission of all people to the Lamb in Revelation is probably the depiction of the Messiah in the Similitudes of Enoch.As for one of the expressions you used, doesn't it strike you that "God and the Lamb" is a rather unclear way of saying that "God is both God and the Lamb"?I also wonder what in Revelation itself leads you to conclude that it is saying something radically different about Jesus than the other texts you mention were saying about the figures in them. I think that such a distinction seems self-evident to readers who presuppose the creeds that later defined the 'orthodox' Christian doctrines about God and Christ. But the challenge of a historical approach is to read those texts as they might have been heard in their own time. And the amount of time the church later spent arguing about how to define the nature of God and Jesus suggests that these New Testament texts did not answer these questions in an unambiguous manner – to say the least.

  • Hi again :-)I think Jesus in Revelation is different to Yahoel and little YHWH because he does not have a name like unto "the first and the last", and does not have the name of "the first and the last" dwell in him, and is not "the little first and the last", he actually is "the first and the last". Which is to say that from the beginning of Revelation (1:17 cf 1:8, 22:13) Jesus is presented as identifying himself with YHWH of Isaiah 40-48: "the first and the last" as the designation of YHWH in distinction from anyone and anything else (Is 41:4), the one before whom "no god was formed, nor shall there be any after" (Is 43:10), besides whom "there is no saviour" (Is 43:11), besides whom "there is no god" (Is 44:6), who alone created the heavens and the earth (Is 48:12-13).Is that not different?At the climax of Revelation the author "saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb" (21:22). For some reason he apparently could not say "its temple is the Lord God the Almighty" without including the Lamb. "The Lamb" is apparently inherent to his conception of the one whose direct presence makes a temple unnecessary.Is that not different?'doesn't it strike you that "God and the Lamb" is a rather unclear way of saying that "God is both God and the Lamb"?'Have I ever said the phrase "God and the Lamb" says that by itself? If so I retract :-)Rather, the evidence seems to indicate that for the author of Revelation the phrase "God and the Lamb" denotes the cluster of concepts traditionally denoted by the word "God" alone. He shows this by calling both God and the Lamb "the first and the last", together they are the exclusive recipients of worship by every created thing, together they are the exclusive recipients of the "first fruits", together their presence obviates the need for the temple. A non-Christian 1C Jew would predicate all these things together only of "God". The author of Revelation predicates all of them of "God and the Lamb".Granted, there have been many great controversies throughout the history of the church over many different kinds of issues. But it cannot be assumed that the problem was always due to ambiguity in the NT texts. I think Revelation at least is pretty clear about Jesus in relation to God 🙂

  • Thanks for such a stimulating conversation, Jeremy! I think you are in one sense absolutely right that we do have "God and the Lamb" being referred to and acting in ways that would in the Judaism of the time generally featured only God. But the question for me remains whether, precisely for that reason, a first century Jewish or Jewish-Christian reader/hearer in the first century would have understood the meaning to be "God and his principle agent" rather than "God now understood to be two persons." If someone developed the latter view, surely they would have had to clarify their meaning extensively, and yet we don't encounter that in the New Testament. Ultimately, it seems to me that discussions like the one we're having return to the question of what early Christian readers/hearers would have presupposed and understood, and that is always somewhat speculative (to say the least). I appreciate as well your point about there not being a qualifying phrase such as "little" or "like unto." Jesus/the Lamb simply seems to bear divine epithets. Yet we might say the same about John's Gospel, where Jesus declares "I am," and yet we are later told (chapter 17) that the divine name was given to him. And so what might initially have been understood in terms of inclusion of a second person in the Godhead ends up sounding rather like agency. And if we then go back and reread chapter 8, it becomes clear that agency was presupposed all along – the very one who says "I am" also emphasizes that he does nothing of himself but only the will of him who sent him.

  • Thanks, James. Last reponse from me I think.I agree that whatever we deduce and speculate about the presuppositions that a 1C audience might have brought to their interpretation do indeed play a big role in our own. In fact it is worse than that! Even if we agree they would have held a particular presupposition we might still disagree on the effect it would have had on their interpretation e.g. a presupposition like "Certain predicates identify the only God." When those predicates were heard applied to Jesus, would that have indicated that therefore Jesus must be God, because they are true of Jesus and identify the only God? Or would they have assumed that Jesus could not be God and therefore taken those predicates as not really true of Jesus himself, only true of him in so far as he represented God, because those predicates identify the only God? I guess one could argue for the logic working either way, indeed that is what we are doing :-)I would say however that in the Jewish texts that you cite for the concept of agency there are real indications that the main figure is only an agent of God, not God himself, indications that I do not see regarding Jesus in Revelation. In fact, I must admit I find the concept of mere agency very difficult to reconcile with the presentation of Jesus in Revelation, throughout the book as a whole but particularly the God/Lamb temple-replacement at the end.I take your point about such a development needing to be made clear but I think there are a couple of reasons why it is for the most part simply stated, alluded to or even just assumed, rather than explained. First, most of the NT documents were written for an audience assumed to be already Christian. Perhaps not the gospels but even there I am not so sure. So they all (or mostly) presuppose prior Christian teaching about Jesus: they are not introducing Jesus but appealing to aspects of prior knowledge relevant to achieving a particular occasional purpose.Second, it seems entirely plausible (to me at least!) that most of the NT represents relatively immature reflection upon the nature of Jesus and his relation to the Father so that at the time of writing a detailed explanation of how Jesus could be God had yet to be thought through. It seems the early church was over-awed by their experience of Jesus such that he immediately became the focus of their worship. They were then effectively faced with a choice between changing their understanding of God to include Jesus or having God mostly eclipsed behind someone who was not God. Paradoxically, I think the contribution of their prior monotheism was to ensure they chose the former. This would have happened very early, before any understanding of how Jesus could be God had been worked out. That is, their theory had to catch up with their practice.I think the author of Revelation does clearly indicate that he includes Jesus in his definition of what he would have previously referred to as "God" but now refers to as "God and the Lamb", but I do not think his book was designed to introduce this concept to his audience for the first time. He states it clearly and repeatedly but, you are right, he does not explain it in any detail.I would argue that the gospel of John is the NT's most sustained explanation of the relation between the Father and the Son in the sense I am arguing for. However, I know you have done a lot of work on John so I am probably not going to persuade you on that :-)It has been an enjoyable discussion and I've learnt from it. I should probably get back to studying instead of procrastinating, more tempting though the latter is. Of course I'd like to hear your response to this comment if you'd like to make one but I probably shouldn't keep responding further ;-)Thanks.

  • I think it is probably fairer to let you have the last word – for now, at any rate. We both have other things we need to work on, by the sound of it, and for me that means turning my full attention to finishing a paper for SBL that is about intertextuality, but will focus on the use of monotheistic texts in Christological passages in Paul's letters, and so once that's done, and perhaps shared online, it may also give us more to talk about – or confirm that, unless we can figure out what Paul and his earliest hearers/readers assumed about Jesus, God, and these texts, we may never be able to reach agreement about what Paul is likely to have meant.Thanks again for such a stimulating discussion – and do feel free to start it up again when you have more time, if you're so inclined!