Language is so revealing. This week the Oxford English dictionary announced its word of the year as ‘post-truth’, meaning: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
This term has come to be used by our cultural/political elites to explain why the people have in some instances been voting against what to them is self-evidently good. The irony is that even if this somewhat self-congratulatory and patronising description were true (they have the truth, the dumb peasants don’t), it would only be chickens coming home to roost. For years our cultural elites have been telling us that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that morality is relative and that everyone has their own truth. After decades of teaching that ‘truth is dead’, now they want to mourn at the funeral. But God is still on the throne and the truth will out.
Last week we looked at Revelation 4 and saw that God is on the throne, not any of our political leaders.
This high view of the sovereignty of God has been, and continues to be debated among Christians. My colleague at Christian Today, Mark Woods, has a different view that he expressed well in this article.
I appreciate what this argument is trying to do – clear God of responsibility for bad things and assert the importance of human freedom. For those who agree with this position the logic seems incontrovertible, but as Mark says, we need to be careful not to try and squeeze the Bible into the mould of human logic and philosophy. These are not new questions. Christians have been thinking about, debating and discussing these issues since the New Testament.
What does Revelation 5 have to say?
It adds to the high view of God’s sovereignty taught in chapter 4. It is not just that God is on the throne, but the Lamb who was slain is on the throne! And he alone is worthy to open the scroll. What is this scroll? Borrowing from Ezekiel chapter 2, it is a picture of a parchment, written on both sides, which contains the history of the whole world and God’s covenant with his people. As Torrance argues, “the secrets of the world belong to God and no man can pry into them. Who knows what a day or a night may bring forth? Who knows what this year holds in its dark unknown future? Even the strong angels of God are unable to open the book. Only God can unseal the seals and read the secrets of men.”
Only the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (amazingly this is the only time this description of Christ is used in the Bible) can open the scroll. What I love in this imagery is its shocking seeming contradictions. John looks to the throne to see “the Lion of the Tribe of Judah” and what does he see? A lamb! Russia has the bear, Britain the lion, France the tiger and America the eagle, but the Church has the lamb.
But what a lamb! It looked as if it had been slain and it had seven horns – the horn being a symbol of power. Seven eyes indicate that it is all seeing. So we have the all-powerful, all knowing lamb, sacrificing himself. It is the ultimate in power and the ultimate in self-giving.
It takes the death and resurrection of Jesus for the scroll to be opened. This fantastic picture of the lamb taking the scroll means that the will of God and the will of Christ are the same and that there is nothing outside this will.
People don’t like this. Humanity without God hates it. Tim Keller in his new Christmas book, Hidden Christmas, puts it clearly:
“There is a natural enmity of the human heart against all claims of sovereignty over it. It rises up a little when minor claims are made over us. But Jesus claims of authority are ultimate and infinite. No heart unaided, can gladly surrender to them… We create gods of our own liking to mask our own hostility to the real God, who reveals himself as our absolute king.”
The atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel agrees: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and naturally I hope that my belief is right. I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God. I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not rare.”
But some Christians also struggle with the idea of God being on the throne – at least in the sense of controlling everything, because they think it makes God the author of evil. But to argue in such a way misses the point of what Revelation (drawing on the rest of the Scriptures) teaches us. If God does not control everything then logically there are things outwith his control. ISIS, cancer and child abuse are all beyond the control of God. The world is a dark picture and there is nothing much God can do about it because although he is very nice, there are some things that are beyond his control. He is weak and incapable. As weak and incapable as we are when faced with a cat we cannot control – one which we hope will just love us!
The solution to this is not difficult. Instead of dethroning God and denying his control, we lift up our eyes and see the Lamb on the throne. Our God is so great that he ordains free will. That freedom is not absolute. We do not have the power, ability, knowledge or love of God. But his sovereignty is absolute. So absolute that he even foreordains free will and all its consequences. Augustine put it beautifully:
“And, in the universe, even that which is called evil, when it is regulated and put in its own place, only enhances our admiration of the good; for we enjoy and value the good more when we compare it with the evil. For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if he were not so omnipotent and good that he can bring good even out of evil” (Enchiridion, chapter 11).
Revelation 4 and 5 declare that the world’s destiny is not under the control of blind fate or chance. The whole world is in the hands of a loving Father and a Saviour who died for us.
This results in worship. The golden bowls carry the prayers of God’s people: “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2).
Isn’t this wonderful? On this earth the Saints are despised and mocked. But in heaven their prayers are so precious they are carried in bowls to the throne.
It also results in singing. The wonderful Leonard Cohen in a song reflecting on the will of God, If It Be Your Will, writes
“From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing”
It is God’s will that we should sing. The new song of verses 8-10 is a redemption song.
The picture here is of slaves being set free by generous people paying the cost. The redeemed come from all over the world. They are there to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God. They sing another song, one that echoes throughout the whole universe. The Lamb who was slain is worthy. He possesses, power and wealth and wisdom and strength. He is to be given honour and glory and praise. Denying that he is sovereign robs him of that honour, glory and praise.
And it denies us great comfort. This week I took the funeral of a lovely Christian lady who died after decades of loving service to the Lord. An intelligent, vivacious woma,n her last years were hard as dementia robbed her and us of so much. But the funeral was a joyous celebration. We believed absolutely that all the days ordained for her were written in God’s book/scroll before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:16) – even the latter days of struggle, because we were reminded that even though we walk through the valley of dementia, the good Shepherd is with us.
Or think of the situations of Christians in Iraq. The Life Agape Iraq director Maher Barbary knows the comfort of God being in control: “But, we and others believe God has a different plan, a plan that can turn this dark picture into a bright picture… The Christians of Iraq from all denominations will gather to celebrate this fact – that God’s plan will prevail.”
(Iraqi Christians praying to the Sovereign Lord)
In terms of the word of the year, ‘post-truth’ refers not so much to the time aspect as to the idea that truth no longer matters. Whatever fears and emotions we may have when faced with the most horrendous situations, we need to avoid the ‘post-truth’ narrative (‘God is not in control’) of our feelings and instead rely on the objective facts taught us here. Don’t allow personal feelings and beliefs to dictate your understanding of God. Take the objective truths of his Word and apply them to your heart and mind. Heaven and earth will pass away but his Word will endure forever.
I know of nothing more wonderful than this teaching of Revelation 5. The world is not out of control but is rather under the control of the Lamb who died and gave himself for us. Sovereignty and Goodness blend together in the greatest manifestation of truth ever. This is a truth that will never be post!
David Robertson is minister of St Peter’s Free Church, Dundee and associate director of Solas CPC. Follow him on Twitter @theweeflea