The Presentation of God in the Book of Revelation
Prof. Thomas F. Johnson
George Fox University
[This "paper" is part of a larger project I am working on - the presentation of the character of God in the Bible. There is a lot of diversity in the Bible's presentation of who God is and what God does. It cannot all be easily reconciled. We should expect this, given the long time frame over which the biblical documents were written and the various viewpoints represented by their writers. Revelation was written by and for a Christian community undergoing intense suffering in the Roman province of Asia, probably at the end of the first century A.D. They, through their author, the prophet John (probably not an apostle), represent God in a way that supports their need for a divine deliverer who will vindicate them and judge their enemies, if not in this life, then in the life to come. Revelation is nothing like the book portrayed in recent best-selling popular fiction. For an analysis of the readers of that "literature," see Amy Frykholm, Rapture Culture (Oxford University Press, 2004).]
I. God as the source of Revelation
The Book of Revelation, at the beginning and at the end of the book, attributes the content of the book to God. In an extended chain of revelation God gave Jesus a revelation that he gave to “his angel,” who gave it to his servant John, who gave it to God’s servants in the seven churches of Asia (1:1). Revelation 22:6 describes a shorter process: “the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets” sent “his angel” to show his servants (presumably John and the seven churches) what must soon take place.
II. The gospel message is called the word of God
In a related subject, the gospel message that John and the martyrs (including the beheaded martyrs who will reign with Christ during the millennium – 20:4) have testified to is called “the word of God” (1:2, 9; 6:9). The prophecies of Revelation may also be referred to as “the words of God” (17:17; 19:9; and “the words of the prophecy” in 1:3; 22:7, 9, 10, 18, 19, and “these words” in 21:5 and 22:6). Christ himself, the rider on the white horse (19:13), is also called “The Word of God” (as in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel).
III. Names, descriptions, and the character of God
A. God is called Lord, God, and the Almighty.
This includes the combination Lord God (1:8; 4:8; 18:8; 22:5), “our Lord and our God” (4:11), “the Lord of the earth” (11:4), “Lord God, the Almighty” (1:8; 4:8; 11:17; 15:3; 16:7; 21:22); , “the Lord our God, the Almighty” (19:6), “God the Almighty” (16:14; 19:15), and “the God of heaven” (11:13; 16:11).
B. God is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
Twice in Revelation God says "I am the Alpha and the Omega" (1:8; 21:6), ironically at the beginning and the end of the book. In 22:13 Jesus says he is “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.”
C. God is the one who was, and is, and is to come (1:4, 6; 4:8; contra. 17:8, 11!) God is also called “You who are and who were” without reference to the future (11:17; 16:5).
D. God is the one who lives forever (4:9, 10; 10:6; 15:7; cf. 11:15)
E. God is the King (15:3) who has a kingdom (1:6; 5:10; 11:15; 12:10) and has begun to reign (11:17).
F. Like a King, God is the one who sits on the throne in heaven.
Beginning with the vision in chapter four , Revelation frequently returns to the heavenly throne room and refers to God as the one who is seated on the throne (e.g., 4:1-2, 9-10; 5:13; 6:15; 7:9-11, 15; 19:4). One of the culminating events of the book is the great white throne judgment (20:11) from which God judges all the dead. From this throne God pronounces, “Behold, I am making all things new (21:5), and in the end God shares this throne with the Lamb (7:17; 22:1, 3).
G. By far the largest category of passages that deal directly with God are those that show God as one who is worthy of worship in all its forms. All beings (heavenly and earthly) give God worship in various ways and tell the reader to do the same. The vocabulary of worship in Revelation is as follows:
1. Worship (proskuneō) (4:10; 7:11; 11:1, 16; 14:7; 15:4; 19:4, 10; 22:9); Everything in all creation worships God and the Lamb (5:13-14). (There are more uses of proskuneō for worshiping the beast in Revelation than for God! Clearly there was spiritual competition going on in John’s readers’ situation!)
2. Glory (doxa) (1:6; 4:9, 11; 5:13; 7:12; 11:13; 14:7; 15:4, 8, 9; 16:9; 19:1, 7; 21:11, 23)
3. Honor (timē) (4:9, 11; 5:13; 7:12)
4. Thanksgiving (eucharistia) (4:9; 7:12; 11:17)
5. “Dominion” (kratos) (1:6; 5:13)
6. “Power” (dunamis). Worshipers celebrate God’s power (4:11; 7:12; 11:17; 12:10; 19:1) and God uses it (15:8; 16:9).
7. “Authority” (exousia) (12:10)
8. “Great” (mega, megalē). God’s day of wrath is great (6:17; 16:14), as is God’s power (11:17), God’s works (15:3), God’s supper (19:17), and God’s white throne (20:11).
9. Marvelous (thaumastion) (15:3)
10. Might (ischus) (7:12; 18:8)
11. Blessing (eulogia) (5:13; 712)
12. Wisdom (sophia) (7:12)
13. Service (latreuō) (7:15; 22:3)
14. Fear (phobos, phobeō) (11:18; 14:7; 15:4; 19:5)
15. Salvation (sōtēria) (7:10; 19:1; cf. 12:10)
16. Amen (amēn) (5:14; 7:12; 19:4; cf. 1:6)
17. Hallelujah (allēlouia) (19:1, 3, 4, 6)
18. Praise (aineō) (19:5)
H. God or God’s ways are described as holy, righteous, and/ or true. Isaiah’s vision of God is quoted in Rev. 4:6: “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty” (Isa. 6:3). God is the Holy One (16:5) and holy and true (6:10). God’s character is righteous (16:5) and his ways, acts, and judgments are also true and righteous (15:3-4; 16:7; 19:2).
I. Revelation even attempts to describe God’s physical appearance as one who “looks like jasper and carnelian” (4:3 NRSV).
IV. God’s relationship with Christ, Jesus, or the Lamb
Revelation emphasizes the unity of God with the Lamb, Jesus. God is called both Jesus’ God and his Father (1:6; 2:27; 3:5, 21; 14:1). Jesus calls God “my God” five times in Revelation (3:2; 3:12 – four times). Jesus is the Son of God (2:18) and the Messiah of God (12:10). He is also called the beginning of the creation of God (3:14). Both God and the Lamb receive worship (5:13). Both of their names are written on the foreheads of the 144,000 (14:1). Both are called Alpha and Omega (1:8; 21:6; 22:13) and “holy and true” (3:7; 6:10). They share the same throne (3:21; 7:17; 22:1, 3) and are jointly the temple in the New Jerusalem (21:22). Both have priests in the millennial kingdom (20:6). They each send an angel to inform believers about the near future (1:1; 22:6), and both command John to write what he sees and hears (1:11, 19; 14:3; 19:9; 21:5). Jesus the Lamb also shares God’s title of Lord and King (17:14; 19:16).
Jesus takes several actions in relation to God. Her receives authority from God (2:27), confesses the name of the faithful before God (3:5), takes the seven-sealed book or scroll from God (5:7), purchased for God with his blood people from all nations (5:9) and made them a kingdom and priests to God (5:10).
V. God’s relationship with the Spirit
Revelation refers to “seven (s)Spirits of God (3:1; 4:5 ; 5:6), and after three days the (s)Spirit or breath of life from God comes into the two witnesses, causing them to live again (11:11). Somewhat less direct is the reference to God as the God of the spirits of the prophets (22:6).
VI. God and the Angels
Seven angels stand before God (8:2), and in one instance they mediate the prayers of the saints (8:4). An angel swears by God’s name and when he blows his trumpet the “mystery of God” will be fulfilled (10:6-7). God also sends his angel to show his people what must soon take place (22:6; cf. 1:1).
VII. God’s relationship with human beings
Multitudes of people stand before God: an uncountable redeemed multitude from all the peoples of the earth (7:9), the 144,000 who sing God a new song (14:3), and all the dead, the great and the small, awaiting his judgment (20:12). More specifically:
A. God is blasphemed by human beings. Inspired by Satan or the beast who blasphemes against God and his name (13:6), rebellious humanity refuses to repent, does not give God glory, and blasphemes the name of God (16:9, 11, 21). They worship dumb idols and demons, instead of God (9:20).
B. Judgment. The most prominent (by frequency) action God takes in Revelation is in God’s role as Judge, the one who punishes, avenges, and rewards or is expected to do so. In 6:10 the martyrs ask God how long it will be before he judges and avenges them. The twenty-four elders in heaven, who probably symbolize the entire people of God, Israel and the Church, give God thanks, because he judges the dead, rewards his people, especially the [Christian] prophets, and destroys those who destroy the earth (11:18). An angel announces that the time for God to judge has come (14:7) and celebrates God for justly judging and avenging the blood of the martyrs by giving their enemies blood to drink, just as they deserve (16:5-7). The city of Babylon, probably symbolizing Rome, is singled out for God’s avenging judgment in Revelation 17-19 (e.g., 18:8, 20; 19:2). In Revelation 20 God sits on his great white throne to judge all the dead according to their deeds from the books, including the book of life (20:12-13).
C. Wrath and anger. Closely related to this are the many passages where God exercises wrath (ovrgh/) and anger (qumo,j) against the ungodly. The day of God’s and the Lamb’s wrath has come against which no one can stand (6:17). The twenty-four elders celebrate the coming of God’s wrath against the destructive nations (11:18). In 14:10 an angel announces that those who serve the beast “will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (cf. 14:19 – “the great wine press of the wrath of God; 19:15 – “the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty”). In chapters 15-16, the seven bowls full of the wrath of God (15:7) are poured out upon humanity (16:1) and especially upon Babylon the great (16:19; cf. 18:5). This completes God’s wrath or brings it to an end (15:1). Related to this theme of God’s wrath are the warnings with which Revelation concludes: God will add the plagues of Revelation to anyone who adds to its prophetic words and take away their part in the tree of life from those who take away from its prophecy (22:18-19).
Due to these aspects of God’s action against them, it is no surprise that sinful people flee from God’s presence. “The kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man . . . said to the mountains and to the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb . . . .” (6:16). Even heaven and earth flee from his presence when God takes his throne to judge the world (20:11).
D. God’s people have a different relationship with God. Though they are accused night and day before God by Satan (12:10), Jesus Christ the Lamb has “made them to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (1:6; 5:10). The 144,000 have been purchased for God by the blood of the Lamb as first fruits (5:9; 14:3-4). They serve God day and night (7:15; 22:3; cf. 15:13, Moses is God’s servant). God seals people with his seal (7:3; 9:4), preaches the gospel to them (10:7), and hears their prayers (8:4). In chapter eleven God breathes life into his two witnesses (11:11), and in chapter twelve God catches up the “child” of the “woman” and prepares a place for her in the wilderness (12:5-6). Those who die in the Lord are blessed (14:13).
E. Final actions. In the end God will make all things new (21:5). Earthly kingdoms will become God’s kingdom (11:15; 12:10), and God will reign forever (11:15). God will send the New Jerusalem from heaven to earth (21:2, 10), and there God will make his home with his people (21:3) and have his throne (22:3). He will be their tabernacle and temple (21:3, 22; 15:5 identifies these two) and will cause them to see his face (22:4), to have his name on their foreheads (22:4) and to be his children (21:7). In that New Jerusalem God will be its shining glory (21:11); therefore the city will need no sun nor moon (21:23) nor lamplight (22:5). God will wipe every tear from the eyes of his people (7:17; 21:4) and freely give the water of life to the thirsty (21:6; 22:1). God commands John to write all this down (21:5).
VIII. God created everything
Recalling the Old Testament as well as early Christian (even Johannine) tradition, Revelation affirms God’s creation of all things (4:11 – “for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created;" 10:6 - “who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it” [NRSV]). It is also a way of affirming God’s sovereignty in times of tribulation. God is in control because God created everything. Humans should “fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; [and] worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters" (14:7).
IX. The sovereignty of God
Although the destructive, afflictive, and corrupt actions of evil powers (human and heavenly) are given wide range in Revelation’s visions, God remains sovereign, guiding the world and especially his people toward God’s goals for them. God’s sometimes secret sovereignty is directly revealed in Revelation 17:17, when an angel tells John that “God has put it in their hearts [the hearts of the evil powers] to execute His purpose by having a common purpose, and by giving their kingdom to the beast, until the words of God will be fulfilled.”
Another way in which the actions of God are evident in the Book of Revelation, even when God’s name is not mentioned, is the frequent use of the passive voice, the so-called “divine passive.” In the New Testament use of the passive voice often points to God’s action when no actor or subject is specified. For example, there are seventeen examples in Revelation of the verb didōmi used in the passive voice. All of them imply permission given from some higher power or authority. In many cases that power is most logically God. For example, in Rev. 6: 2, 4, and 8 riders on three of the four horses of destruction are given something with which to carry out their actions. Angels are given powers in 7:2, 8:2, and 9:1. Other verbs also appear in the passive voice. The child of the woman in chapter twelve “was caught up” to God (12:5). In 12:10 and 13, Satan is thrown down from heaven to earth.
XI. Things God has, or that are associated with God, or “before God”
Finally, in addition to what has already been referenced above (throne of God, servants and people of God, word(s) of God, etc.), there are many things Revelation states that God has, or that are associated with God, or that are simply “before” God. There is a paradise of God (2:7), a city of God, the New Jerusalem (3:12), a temple of God (3:12; 7:15; 11:1, 19), a tabernacle of God (7:15; 21:3), an ark of His covenant (11:19), a golden altar before God (9:13), a special name of God (3:12), a right hand of God that holds a seven-sealed book (5:1), a seal of God (7:2; 9:4), a mystery of God (10:7), commandments of God (12:17; 14:12), harps of God (15:2), a great day of God (16:14), and a great supper of God (19:17).
XII. What is missing about God in Revelation
While the love of Jesus is mentioned in 1:5, 3:9, and 3:19, it is surprising that the love of God, so prominent in the other Johannine writings, is absent from Revelation. So is mercy or forgiveness. God’s grace and peace are mentioned in the opening salutation (1:4; cf. 22:21). All five uses of God as Father are with respect to Jesus (1:6; 2:27; 3:5; 3:21; 14:1) not to human beings, though in Rev. 21:7 the one who overcomes will be “God’s son.”
Copyright © 2006 Thomas F. Johnson, George Fox University