A Real Experience
Let us step back in time a moment and read of another prophet who was called by God at a critical moment in Israel’s history. Samuel 3:1 related to us how the word of the Lord was “precious in those days” and there had been no “open vision” from God. God had not given any direct revelation to His people as He had done in former times. But now, three times Samuel is called from God and he, not recognizing the voice of God, runs to Eli, who himself only understands at the third call what is going on. In a vision the Lord himself comes to Samuel and reveals things that “will make the ears of those who hear tingle.” Samuel was called by God to tell what was going to happen in the years ahead, some things soon and swift, other events away in the future. Eli heard and accepted to words of Samuel and the punishment that he and his sons would receive for their wrong behavior (v. 18) and so did Israel listen to God’s word through Samuel.
The revelation to John, the apostle who outlived all of his colleagues, was given in a manner that was far more impressive and grandiose than the visions given to Samuel. Yet, just as Samuel passed on and proclaimed the words from God to man, so does the apostle John reveal God’s plans for his world to us. Samuel talked with God, who appeared to him on many occasions, but John reports to us what he actually saw and heard as he was transported in time and space to be an actual eyewitness of what would happen in the future. It is significant that the words “I heard” are used exactly 28 times – 7 X 4 – and the words “I saw” 49 times – 7 X 7. John is reporting as a direct witness of these things to come. He tells us they will occur as he wrote them, because he was there and saw and heard them happen.
The pervasive use of the number seven in the book of Revelation is noteworthy. The word “seven” occurs more often in Revelation than in all the rest of the New Testament put together. The number seven is the number that indicates fullness or completion, the reason being that God’s creation of the universe was completed on the seventh day in that first week. Ever since creation, man has kept time in terms of seven-day weeks, commemorating God’s completed work. In the book of Revelation, the “seal of seven” is subtly reminding us that God’s work of the redemption and restoration of his creation is likewise about to be completed. See below the chart of sevens in the book of Revelation:
|Spirits||1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6|
|Golden lampstands||1:12, 20; 2:1; 4:5|
|Stars||1:16, 20; 2:1; 3:1|
|Seals||5:1; 5:5; 6:1|
|Angels||8:2, 6; 15:1, 6, 7; 15:8; 16:1; 17:1; 21:9|
|7 Thousand people||11:13|
|Heads||12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 9|
|Plagues||15:1, 6, 8; 21:9|
|Golden bowls||15:7; 16:1; 17:1; 21:9|
|Last 7 visions||Chapters 20-21|
Now, in chapter 4, after a concise and fitting review of the seven churches, and recognizing much of what was taught in chapters 1-3, and considering what we see going on around us in present day churches, we join John as he begins his journey into the future. John here sees, hears and learns of the “things that must be hereafter”(v 1b). John is not watching the scenes unfold before him but is taken there in spirit and his senses are fully in tune with all that is happening around him. Just as in chapter 1:10 the voice he hears is like the sound of a trumpet and it invites John to come up and see the future. One day, like John, we too will be caught up into Heaven to be with the Lord forever and see and hear (1 Thess 4:16-17)! What a day of rejoicing that will be! It will be immediate, “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor 15:52).
The Heavenly Throne Room
John was transported – or raptured – both in space and time to the throne of God at the end of the age, and what he saw he was commanded to “bear record of” (1:2). He finds himself in front of a throne being set in the nearby atmospheric heaven – Οὐρανός (ouranos), the sky, the eternal abode of God. This throne quite possibly is the “judgment seat” of Christ, transported from the far off third heaven (2 Cor 12:2) where God presently dwells and where Paul was taken to “paradise”. On the throne is the triune God who prepares himself for the judgment of the earth, “dwelling in the light which no men can approach unto; whom no man has seen, nor can see” (1 Tim 6:16). But the light emanating from the throne becomes visible to John in a complete rainbow around it. The color emerald (green) dominates, and the colors carnelian (red) and jasper (violet) are at either end of the spectrum. The rainbow is mentioned only four times in the Bible, each time referring to God’s mercy in a time of judgment (Gen 9; Ezek 1; Rev 4 and Rev 10). The rainbow is a reminder for us that in the midst of an ungodly world ripe for judgment, there is a remnant of believers, and that the “God of all grace” (1 Pet 5:10) will “in wrath remember mercy” (Hab 3:2).
Around the throne are arranged twenty-four seats, or “thrones”, on which are seated twenty-four elders. These elders are real men who are on two occasions quoted as speaking to John (5:5; 7:13). They are redeemed men, for they are wearing white robes (3:5). They also wear the victor’s crown – στέφανος, stephanos, as in the wreath given to winners of the Olympic games – and not the diadem – διάδημα – crown of a ruler or king. Paul wrote about this stephanos in 1 Cor 9:24-27 as being the crown that will be awarded to believers who overcome the flesh and conquer sin to live godly lives. Since the word “elder” always implies relative chronological age as well as official position, it seems possible that these men are the elders of the human race (Adam to Pharez). But their appearance gives them away. They have thrones, so they are also rulers. They are seated, so their work is done. They are dressed in white, so they have been made righteous. They are wearing the stephanos, so they are overcomers. They are elders, a title associated more with Christianity than Judaism. This strongly indicates that these elders are representatives of the Church. Also, in 6:2, the first horseman of the apocalypse is wearing the same stephanos, which is in keeping with the mission of Christ to cleanse the world, i.e., he will be victorious! Each judgment of the seven seals is sent firth by Christ, and the first rider is Christ, just as at the end of his judgments of the earth (19:11).
Verse 5 now describes some more of the things around the throne. When God revealed himself to man (e.g. Exo 19:16), thunder and voices and lightning were often part of it. When God spoke to Israel and gave them the Law through Moses, he did so in the same awe-inspiring manner. If the Law were not adhered to, judgment would follow. Also here, at the time when God proclaims his final judgment, it is again accompanied by thunder and lightning.
John sees seven lamps burning before the throne. They are identified as the seven Spirits of God (c.f. 1:4; 3:1). The seven Spirits are not seven angels, but are the Holy Spirit, joining with the Father and Christ in giving the message. Seven is here to be understood as seven-fold, as shown in the book of Isaiah 11:2 where the Spirit of the Lord is identified as “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The Holy Spirit is made visible to John here, just as when he descended upon Jesus as a dove after his baptism (Mat 3:16), and as cloven tongues of fire upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:3).
The sea of glass like unto crystal round about the throne has been explained by scholars in many different ways. The fact is that John does not give an explanation and leaves it to his readers to draw conclusions from similar scenes in the Bible. It may be compared to the sea of bras in the Old Testament tabernacle, the sea of cast metal (1 Ki 7:23-27), the laver or wash stand (Exo 30:18-21), or the molten sea in the temple (2 Chr 4:2-6), a similar receptacle holding water for the cleansing of the priests and for other ceremonial rites. We know that the tabernacle and temple were built to exact specifications because they are reflections or symbols if you will, as are the feasts and all their details (Heb 9:22-23). Since crystal is solid, the sea mentioned around the throne may indicate that the elders, just as all believers who were raptured with Christ into the presence of God, need no longer purify themselves with water or ceremonies, but have access to the throne of God directly.
In any case John is not too concerned with this glass sea, perhaps because he understands the reference, and moves on to describe in detail the four beasts that are around the throne and in the midst of the throne (4:6-8). The beasts – θηρίον, therion – are not ugly or repulsive animal-like creatures, but handsomely crafted living creatures – ζῷον, zoon. The emphasis here is on the quality of life and the attributes that relate to it.
So, what are these creatures? There is a lion, a calf(or ox), a living creature (zoon) with the face of a man, and a flying eagle. Each creature has six wings and is full of eyes and energy. Much effort has been made to reconcile these four creatures with imagery and descriptions from other texts in the Bible. These living creatures are identical to the cherubim described by Ezekiel (Eze 1:5-25; 10:1-22) and the seraphim that Isaiah saw (Isa 6:1-7). They are the highest in God’s hierarchy of angelic beings and are always associated with Gods immediate presence. In fact, the four living creatures are representative of the attributes or qualities of God, similar to how the Holy Spirit is represented by seven lamps. The fact that the creatures are full of eyes is taken as signifying the omniscience and omnipresence of God who sees all and knows all. The different aspects of divine majesty may be considered as follows. The lion is a symbol of the king of wild animals, and so represents majesty and omnipotence. The calf, the most important of domestic animals, represents patience and continuous labor. The eagle, greatest among the birds, is symbolic of sovereignty and supremacy. Man is the greatest of God’s creatures, and represents intelligence and rational power. These are all undeniable attributes of God.
There are also further representations that we can see from the creation in Genesis 1:25-26. The lion represents the beast of the earth. The calf represents the cattle. The eagle represents the fowl of the air. Note here that there is no living creature representing the fish of the sea or creeping things. In the new earth there will be no more sea (21:1). As for the creeping things, the most striking examples we have now are the serpent and the scorpion (Deu 8:15; Rev 9:10, 19), which are always depicted in the Bible as enemies of mankind.
The fact that the creatures have six wings each (c.f. Isa 6:2-3) gives rise to the consideration that the creatures are angels (as depicted in so many apocalyptic books). Both here and in Isaiah the living creatures bring praise and ascribe holiness to the Lord of hosts. The ministry of the creatures is designed to emphasize the holiness of God and his eternity:
Rev 4:8 … day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!
The amazing scene before John’s eyes now moves to a new activity. The glorious resurrection and rapture of the saints has been consummated, their sins have been purged and their rewards given, and their elders have assumed the thrones prepared for them. The four living creatures now change their perpetual refrain of holiness to the Lord and sing a new song ascribing glory and honor and holiness to him, and thanking him.
Rev 4:11 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.
But what would these creatures thank him for? Certainly not for their redemption, for they were never lost as we were. It is thanksgiving for their creation and preservation throughout all the ages. Note that the last three references to thanksgiving in the Bible all apply to this throne room in heaven. The first (4:9) focuses on God’s creation; the second (7:12) references God’s work of salvation; and the third (11:17) anticipates the great work of consummation. The elders are participants in each, glorifying and praising and thanking God with all that they are. On the occasion that the elders join, the four living creatures cast their stephanos before the throne of God declaring that he is worthy of glory and honor and power because all things have been created by him and for his pleasure. This should lead us to reflect and think, are we joining in that heavenly chorus?
As the elders join they come down from their thrones and prostrate themselves before God. The crowns given to them as their reward for overcoming and remaining faithful, now unseemly, are returned to God in thanksgiving for his faithfulness to them. Nothing that they have or are was accomplished without God’s willing and enabling pleasure – i.e. θέλημα, his will. All came from God and consequently they return their crowns, their gifts, to him in humble thanksgiving. They know that had it not been for his goodness and his grace that brought salvation, they – and we! – could not have victory over sin and death. Let us remember here that it is God’s pleasure that we be with him, and he made sacrifice to redeem us from the just punishment for our wickedness so that we could be, forever. The creature honors his Maker and accepts that man is subject to his Creator.
The world today does not give such honor to the Lord God. Though men benefit from his goodness and live in a universe of his creation, they tend to neglect the worship of God. One of the important goals of the book of Revelation is to trace divine history toward the goal of universal recognition of God.
Php 2:9-11 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
But perhaps such powerful praise seems to be too costly. When Isaiah heard the four living creatures praising God in the temple, the doorposts and the thresholds shook. When Christ is praised, things begin to happen, especially in the temple of our lives and the temple we think of as his church. In fact, we are told that God inhabits the praises of his people (Psa 22:3). The twenty-four elders who were seated around the King of Kings left their thrones and fell down before him, laying their crowns at his feet. These crowns represented not only their positions but all the praise and achievements and glory and honor and rewards that they had received for serving God. All throughout the Bible we are encouraged to get a crown that will last forever (1 Cor 9:25), to finish the race that we might have the crown stored up for all those who have loved his appearing (2 Tim 4:8); to persevere in order to receive the crown (Jam 1:12); to hold on to what we have so that no one can take our crown (Rev 3:11).
1Pe 5:4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
These crowns must be important and of extraordinary value in eternity. Are they related to Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17? We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of our lives from the day that we accepted Christ as our Savior until the day that we see him face to face. The Lord will hold a torch to the pile of rubble that represents our achievements and reveal upon what foundation we have built our lives. Have we studied God’s word, lived in obedience to God’s will, been a blessing to others, proclaimed the gospel, made the world a better place for at least some? If we did, that pile of rubble will burn away and what is left over will be precious stones, gold and silver – a precious offering to God, laid at his feet.
Genuine praise is costly – it costs us our lives laid down in worship and laid down in work for the Lord our King. But what cost is this really when we have a view of eternity in the presence of the Most Holy One? How can this be reckoned as an expense, a sacrifice, when the alternative is in reality death?
Genuine praise is the overflow of a life lived in the light of the vision of his glory. Fix your eyes on the Lord who is enthroned at the center of the universe, encircled by a court in heaven, enveloped in a crescendo of praise, and who may at any moment enter time and space to claim you as his own!
The Significance Of Numbers In Scripture