Last Sunday I taught on Revelation chapter four. Inevitably the discussion was richer than the notes reveal, and I mentioned other verses that sometimes I would normally add back in after the fact, but for this post I’m going to leave it as is simply due to time constraints. That being said, I hope you enjoy the notes, and allow some grace for their brevity. Looking back on the matter, I would like to have taken more time with this chapter, which is what I’m planning to do with chapter five (slated for this Sunday morning).
We are now done with the letters to the churches, and John receives a new vision. Remember, he has already seen a vision in chapter one (Jesus walking in the midst of the churches etc.), and this is a new one with a new scene.
There are certain passages in Scripture which cause us to meditate upon the beauty and majesty and power of the Lord God, and Revelation 4 and 5 are two of the most majestic of those types of passages found in the sacred Text.
To frame this section of scripture, I want to quote from Hendriksen because while he definitely agrees with other commentators on these things, he seems to say it a little better:
Chapters 4 and 5 teach us one main lesson. Unless we clearly grasp this point, we shall never see the glorious unity of the Apocalypse. We shall lose ourselves in allegorization. That one main lesson may be expressed in the words of the Psalmist: “Jehovah reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits above the cherubim; let the earth be moved.” The assurance of this truth should impart comfort to believers in the midst of fiery trials. That is why this vision of the universe governed by the throne precedes the symbolic description of the trials through which the Church must pass, chapter 6. This is a very beautiful arrangement.[i]
Indeed these chapters are a great gift to the church. For as Jim Hamilton notes, “Our need for this text is much the same as the need of the seven churches to which John sent this letter.”[ii] Which is to say that we need to have our faith in the living God bolstered, and these chapters leave us in awe of who He is, and remind us again of His great sovereignty over all life.
4:1 After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”
The first thing we ought to note is that these images that John sees are often described using the words “like” or “likeness”, and this is because he is transcribing things that are difficult to describe and is using the best words he knows how in order that we might profit from the vision. These words should not be taken as anything less than inspired, however. We ought to remember that while John is writing about amazing things, things difficult to grasp, he is seeing things God has purposefully shown in a way God has purposefully shown, using words that God has purposefully superintended.
With that said, we ought to first note that there is a door open in heaven. That means that God has opened up a window to see into the great things of heaven. In other visions the separation of physical and metaphysical has been opened using similar expressions. For example, at the very beginning of Ezekiel we read:
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1:1)
The voice he hears is like a trumpet – which is to say it is very loud! It got his attention.
The voice says the he will “show you what must take place after this.”
There is some debate about what “after” means, but I think the easiest and most natural understanding of this is that we are beginning a new vision. It doesn’t mean “after this chronologically”, but rather “the next vision I saw.”
This is where dispensationalists say that the church has been raptured, that the trumpet blast is the blast of the final trumpet at the return of Christ, and that the elders represent the church in heaven, and so on. But there is nothing to indicate that John’s beginning of a new vision has anything to do with the rapture of the church. Furthermore, it says that the voice of God is like a trumpet, not that it was a trumpet that he heard here.
It is one thing to try to understand the meaning in a symbol, it is another to insert something that doesn’t quite fit simply in order to conform to a certain system of thought.
Nevertheless, it is clear that what we have here is the beginning of a new vision, and thus a new division of the book.
4:2-3 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.  And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.
Again, similar to how Ezekiel described his own experience, he first says that the heavens were opened, and then notes that he was under the power of the Holy Spirit.
Now John sees something amazing – it is a throne in heaven and there is someone seated on the throne, and John is concerned to explain this person’s appearance. So he says that he is like “jasper and “carnelian.” These are gems of presumably great value. Little is known about “jasper” now, and it is said to perhaps be a diamond that he’s referring to. The point though is that the one who sat on the throne is of exquisite beauty.
Have you ever noticed how the lighting in a church sanctuary really causes your jewelry to sparkle? I just think that some lighting in certain places really brings out the “bling” in gems and jewelry. Well, think of the most precious gem you have ever seen, surrounded by the most radiant and pure light you’ve ever beheld, and John says you’re just starting to get at what the one seated on the throne looked like.
Furthermore, the throne is surrounded by a rainbow that must be green, for it “had the appearance of an emerald.” In other words, it is beautiful, it is majestic, it is valuable/precious exquisite scene.
4:4 Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.
The twenty four elders seem to represent believers – God’s elect from across time. Perhaps a reference to the sum of the 12 patriarchs and the 12 apostles is meant here, and “taken together, represent the church in its character as a universal priesthood of believers.”[iii] Though they may actually be angelic representatives offering prayer on our behalf (Morris). Beale makes the distinction because he notes that the elders are “distinguished from the multitude of the saved in 7:9-17. And the fact that they present the prayers of the saints in 5:8 and sing of the redeemed in the third person also distinguishes them from believers.”
Beale’s conclusion makes some good sense of the OT backdrop:
Remembering that in the letters the angels were identified as representatives of the seven churches and that in Daniel 10-12 angels represent nations, the elders here are to be identified as angelic beings representing the church as a whole, including the saints of the OT. If the four living creatures are heavenly representatives of all animate life throughout creation (as most interpreters think), then the elders are probably heavenly representatives of God’s people. The four living beings represent general creation and the elders the elect of God’s special creation.[iv]
These elders are wearing “white garments” and have “golden crowns on their heads.” Even though I disagree with much of what John MacArthur says about the timeline of this chapter, I think his description of the white garments here is great:
Christ promised the believers at Sardis that they would “be clothed in white garments” (3:5). He advised the apostate Laodiceans to “buy from Me…white garments so that you may clothe yourself (3:18). At the marriage supper of the Lamb, His bride will “clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean” (19:8). White garments symbolize Christ’s righteousness imputed to believers at salvation.[v]
Golden crowns are likewise described as part of the garb of these elders. They are thought to symbolize victory, since in the preceding chapters Jesus promises golden crowns to those who overcome (cf. 2:10, 3:11, 18 etc.). There was also many times in those letters that Jesus promised we would sit with him on thrones – similar to what we see here as well.
4:5-7 From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God,  and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind:  the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight.
A Familiar Scene
If this scene sounds familiar, then it’s because you’ve read something like it before. The lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder that accompany the presence of God’s throne here are likewise given in Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6:
As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. (Ezekiel 1:4)
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6:4 ESV)
Likewise, in both Ezekiel and Isaiah the descriptions of these creatures are very similar. Here is just a portion of that description from chapter 10 of Ezekiel:
These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the Chebar canal; and I knew that they were cherubim.  Each had four faces, and each four wings, and underneath their wings the likeness of human hands.  And as for the likeness of their faces, they were the same faces whose appearance I had seen by the Chebar canal. Each one of them went straight forward. (Ezekiel 10:20-22)
And Isaiah 6…
Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:2-3)
They are described as being “full of eyes” in front and behind. Similarly in Ezekiel 10 we read:
And I looked, and behold, there were four wheels beside the cherubim, one beside each cherub, and the appearance of the wheels was like sparkling beryl.  And as for their appearance, the four had the same likeness, as if a wheel were within a wheel.  When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went, but in whatever direction the front wheel faced, the others followed without turning as they went.  And their whole body, their rims, and their spokes, their wings, and the wheels were full of eyes all around—the wheels that the four of them had.  As for the wheels, they were called in my hearing “the whirling wheels.”  And every one had four faces: the first face was the face of the cherub, and the second face was a human face, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle. (Ezekiel 10:9-14)
So right away we understand that God is using imagery that John and his contemporaries would understand and be familiar with. They’d no doubt read about and maybe even recited aloud the words of Ezekiel’s book growing up in that Jewish culture.
We encounter again the “seven spirits of God, which we noted earlier represents the fullness of the Holy Spirit. And here we are told of another descriptor for the Spirit, that He is like seven torches burning before the throne of God. When we think of fire as it relates to the Spirit, we are reminded of Pentecost and the symbolic fire that appeared in the likeness of tongues on that day. It was a notification to God’s people that He was amongst them.
The storm is like a great reminder that God is in control of nature, and more poignantly that He is powerful and awesome in His presence. “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods” (Ps. 96:4 also cf. 1 Chron. 16:25).
This imagery reminds us of the interaction Moses and the Israelites had with God at the foot of Mt. Sinai:
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled.  Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.  Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.  And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder.  The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Exodus 19:16-20)
There is also a sea of glass before His throne, like crystal, as it were. This was the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around. I found a lot of help from Katie who threw out several ideas – each of which commentators also mention, which just shows you that much of these images are rooted in what we already know about the Bible and God. As we got to be talking through it, I read her the notes from the Reformation Study Bible (this is the first edition, not the latest one), and it was helpful in summing up some of the ideas about what this sea is:
This imagery might suggest a number of associations. The parallel verse in 15:2 calls to mind the waters of the Red Sea. The defeat of Pharaoh and the pushing back of the waters foreshadowed God’s final victory over evil (Is. 51:9-11). If so, the sea of glass pictures water subdued under God’s power. Moreover, the extent and beauty of the crystal—like sea, when taken together with the precious stones in vs. 3 and 21:18-21, suggest the magnificence and preciousness of Gods’ throne. The numerous parallels elsewhere with the temple might suggest that this sea is the heavenly counterpart of the sea in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:23-25). Finally, the picture of heavenly water might suggest that God faithfully supplies water from heaven (Deut. 11:11). It is consistent with the style of Revelation to weave together a number of Old Testament images.
George Ladd says, “The easiest interpretation is to see in the glass sea a picturesque element adding to the majesty of the divine presence.”[vi]
Then we encounter the four living creatures, which we noted that Ezekiel explained were the Seraphim who are constantly before the throne of God worshiping Him. And this is what they say…
4:8-11 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”  And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever,  the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,  “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
Worship of the Holy One
Notice that whatever the Seraphim do, the elders do. The three-fold song of “holy, holy, holy” is constantly on the lips of these creatures and the response of the elders is to agree by proclaiming the worthiness of the Lord.
This ascribing of worth to the Lord is the content of true worship. Worship is not simply an “encounter with God,” it is our reaction to that encounter in a manner that is true. It is ascribing to the Lord all that is due to Him.
This worthiness is specifically tied to God’s absolute power as the Creator. All things exist because His wills them to exist. In fact, the word “absolute” is an apt descriptor because what these beings are saying is that there is nothing which comes even close to God’s glory, His honor, or His power. That He “lives forever” reminds us of His eternality. He is in a class entirely by Himself.
When God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to show that He was the One true God, He constantly reminded the Israelites that He was the creator, as opposed to the idols they worshiped.
One such example is from Isaiah 40:
To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?  An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains.  He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.  Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?  It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;  who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. (Isaiah 40:18-23)
Remember now the idolatry and false teaching that Christ addresses in the letters to the seven churches. I don’t think the placement of this scene coming right after the letters is coincidence. It is as if to show the majestic God of heaven in great contrast with the gods of our appetites and the idols of our lives. This is the Lord. This is the maker of heaven and earth.
It is typical of our vernacular to generalize things in everyday conversation. We say “He always does this” or “We never go there” or “He is the only person I know who can do this” and so forth. We know in the back of our minds that our generalization is hyperbolic because it is applied to creatures are necessarily finite. Yet this is not the case with God. We can apply these general-type descriptors to God because He is eternal, immutable, and absolute in His character.
Therefore He is the only being worthy of worship. All lesser beings simply do not have the ontology and character worthy of our worship.
I mention character because one of the things that makes God so worthy of our worship and of our “giving thanks” is His loving-kindness to His creatures (us). His presence is awesome and awful in its power and majesty. Yet, He is loving and beneficent to His image bearers.
So it is not wrong for us to be reminded from this passage once again of the reverence we ought to have when addressing God in prayer and in worship. We need to keep in mind whom it is that we are standing or kneeling before. This is the great God, the maker of heaven and earth, by whom all things existed.
Similarly, we are thankful to Him for His Son who died for us. Paul certainly captures a majestic image of Christ as co-equal in stature with the God we are reading about here:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
Why are we shown this majestic scene? What purpose does it serve? I think that it is clear from the imagery and the words written here that the attributes and reign of God are front and center. God Himself is the chief subject of this text. His sovereign reign over all the created universe is what is clearly portrayed here, and I think when we ponder the throne scene in Revelation 4, we are immediately thinking about reality from the vantage point of God.
What does this mean? Well it means that God is in absolute control of all things. All of the persecution that the church faces, all of the toil that the church endures, all of the rejection and hatred of the world is all seen in contrast the absolute majesty of God. If He reigns, then all things truly do work together for the good of those called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). If He is in control, then we have no need to fear. If He is sovereign, then we have no call to be anxious about tomorrow (Matthew 6), for He knows all that we need, and will provide and care for us until He brings us home.
Therefore let us continually behold our God. Let us worship him by ascribing to Him all that is due Him. Let us behold and be transformed by what we see in His word. As the hymn says:
Who has held the oceans in His hands?
Who has numbered every grain of sand?
Kings and nations tremble at His voice
All creation rises to rejoice
Who has given counsel to the Lord?
Who can question any of His Words?
Who can teach the One who knows all things?
Who can fathom all His wondrous deeds?
Who has felt the nails upon His hands
Bearing all the guilt of sinful man?
God eternal humbled to the grave
Jesus, Savior risen now to reign!
Behold our God seated on His throne
Come let us adore Him
Behold our King nothing can compare
Come let us adore Him!
[i] Hendriksen, Pg. 84.
[ii] Jim Hamilton, Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, Pg. 141.
[iii] Beale, Shorter Commentary, Pg. 102.
[iv] Beale, Shorter Commentary, Pg. 102.
[v] MacArthur, Volume 1, Pg. 149.
[vi] Ladd, Pg. 77, On page 76 Ladd also discusses the fact that the sea seems to remind us of Solomon’s “brazen sea” from 1 Kings 7.