Thursday, January 3, 2019
After These Things-Revelation 4:1-11
I can’ think of a better way to enter a New Year than to return to our series in the Book of Revelation. As it would happen, we pick things up in Revelation 4:1-11 and are confronted with a spectacular scene. Aside from all the fantastic, miraculous, and other-worldly phenomena, this passage will serve as a reminder of a very simple lesson that I pray will remain with us this upcoming year and every year thereafter—a lesson that has everything to do with the focus of our worship. Therefore, without any further ado let’s pick up our texts and make FOUR OBSERVATIONS of a glorious scene that erupts into view in Revelation 4:1-11 and be reminded of God’s rightful place of worship in our lives.
1. OBSERVATION #1: An Invitation to a Holy Spectacle-4:1
Before we dive into this wondrous spectacle, let’s remind ourselves of where we are in the Book of Revelation. John’s phrase in verse 1—“after these things” (meta tautau) marks a major division in his presentation. In chapter 1 we saw a preface to the book and in chapters 2-3 we listened to a series of proclamations (to the seven churches). Chapter 1 dealt with what John was viewed earlier (in the vision provided first in the book), while chapters 2-3 dealt with Jesus’ message for John’s contemporary context (the seven churches of Asia minor in the late first century). These opening chapters deal with the things which were (chapter 1) and the things which are (chapters 2-3). However, with “after these things” opening up the fourth chapter, we are now moving to “the things which must take place after these things” (see Revelation 1:19). In other words, verse 1 doesn’t just begin the next section or the next chapter, it transitions the book from introduction and epistle (chapters 1 and 2-3 respectively) to prophetic apocalypse (chapters 4ff).
It is “after these things” that John witnesses a threshold to a new domain—“and behold, a door standing pen in heaven,…” (4:1b). Notice, not only is the reader now dealing with a different time (“after these things”), but he/she is dealing with a different dimension (“heaven”). The access John has into this new continuum is granted him by means of “a door standing open.” This threshold seems to allude (at least potentially) to Christ himself. In John’s gospel Jesus calls himself the “door” (“I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.”-John 10:9). After all, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the Life, no one comes unto the Father except through” him (John 14:6). Not only is this true in Jesus’ earthly ministry, but so too is it in his eschatological ministry. The only way that John can access the domain of the Father is through the door—access granted him by Christ himself.
In fact, Christ may not only serve as the door granting access to heaven, he also is presented as the one who invites John into heaven. From the other side of the door, John hears a voice—“and the first voice which I had heard, like the sound of a trumpet speaking with me said, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things,’…” (4:1c). Who’s voice is speaking here? The same voice that spoke in Revelation 1:10—“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like the sound of a trumpet.” Given the description of the speaker in Revelation 1 and what he calls John to do, it is clear that Christ is the speaker in both Revelation 1 and in Revelation 4. In Revelation 4:1, Christ invites John to witness “what must take place after these things,” again highlighting prophetic nature of the phenemona that will soon be revealed.
The repetition of “after these things” along with what follows helps us identify the nature of the large section of the book spanning from Revelation 4-22. It might surprise you to learn that there are at least four approaches to John’s Apocalypse that have garnered support throughout church history.
One approach is called the idealist approach or the spiritual view. This view uses the allegorical method to interpret the Book of Revelation. Such an approach to John’s apocalypse was introduced by ancient church father Origen (AD 185-254) and made prominent by Augustine (AD 354-420). According to this view, the events of Revelation are not tied to specific historical events. The imagery of the book symbolically presents the ongoing struggle throughout the ages of God against Satan and good verses evil. Another approach is called preterism. “Preter,” is Latin for “past.” Something all preterists believe is that all or most of Revelation is a description of historical events already completed in the first century. According to preterists, chapters 1-3 describe the conditions in the seven churches of Asia Minor prior to the Jewish war (AD 66-70). The remaining chapters of Revelation describe the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans (mostly through metaphor). There are two major views among preterists. 1) Full preterists believe that all the prophecies found in Revelation were fulfilled in AD 70 and that we are now living in the eternal state, or the new heavens and the new earth. 2) Partial preterists (the majority view among preterists) believe that most of the prophecies of Revelation were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem but that chapters 20-22 point to future events such as a future resurrection of believers and return of Christ to the earth. Partial preterists view full preterism as heretical since it denies the second coming of Christ and teaches an unorthodox view of the resurrection. A third position is the historicist approach. This view teaches that Revelation is a symbolic representation that presents the course of history from the apostle’s life through the end of the age. The symbols in the apocalypse correspond to events in the history of Western Europe, including various popes, the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, and rulers such as Charlemagne. Most interpreters place the events of their day in the later chapters of Revelation. Finally, there is the view that I hold and that seems to be in keeping with a more literal reading of the text (a view that also appears compliant the repetition of “after these things” in verse 1). This view is called the futurist view and it teaches that the events of Revelation chapters 4-22 will occur in the future. Most futurists divide the book of Revelation into three sections as indicated in 1:19: “what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later.” Chapter 1 describes the past (“what you have seen”), chapters 2-3 describe the present (“what is now”), and the rest of the book describes future events (“what will take place later”). All views are still able to appreciate the glorious scene currently underway in the text and glean the important application from this particular passage.
2. OBSERVATION #2: The Focus of the Glorious Scene-4:2-3, 5-6a
This is because the focus of the glorious scene is not on when this takes place, but on who is described next. John captures the moment much as he did in the first vision he was given earlier (in 1:10). In 4:2a he states “immediately I was in the Spirit.” Let’s stop for a moment just admire how all three members of the Trinity are already involved in this most wondrous vision. Soon, God the Father will be revealed as the focus of this text. Already we’ve learned that access is granted to John by Jesus the Son (who invited the apostle to enter the domain through the special door). And finally, the ability to behold what is disclosed is brought about by the Holy Spirit. One commentator has described John’s abilities “in the Spirit” as “. . .a state of ecstasy; the outer world being shut out, and the inner and higher life or spirit being taken full possession of by God’s Spirit, so that an immediate connection with the invisible world is established.” Whether John saw this as a dream, was literally carried into heaven, or was impressed upon in some other spiritual way, all that is disclosed is viewable and discernible because of the Spirit’s activity in the life of this last-living apostle.
Now “in the Spirit” John beholds “a throne…standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne” (4:2b). Occupying the “seat of absolute power” is none other than God the Father. This is brought into focus by the worship he receives later in the chapter, the distinction that is drawn between He and others around him in chapter 5, and the description that follows in the next few verses.
While the Father is unviewable (after all “no one can see God and live”—Exod. 33:20) at times in the Scriptures he is represented as assuming a visible form. In 4:3, John describes the glory that he observes, not the essence of the one producing the white hot rays emanating from the throne—“And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance” (4:3a). Ordinarily, the jasper is a stone of various wavy colors that are somewhat transparent. In Rev 21:11 it represents watery crystalline brightness. The sardine, our cornelian, is typically a fiery red. Some have suggested that as the watery brightness represents God’s holiness (jasper), so the fiery red His justice executing fiery wrath (the sardius). The same union of white or watery brightness and fiery redness appears in Rev 1:14; 10:1; Ez 1:4; 8:2; Da 7:9.
Revelation 1:14-“His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire.”
Revelation 10:1-“…and his face was like the sun, and his feet like pillars of fire;”
See also: Ezekiel 1:4; 8:2; Daniel 7:9.
More is said about what exists further out from the center of the throne space-“and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance,…Out from the throne come flashes of lightning and sound and peals of thunder (4:3b, 5a). The rainbow is a divine symbol of beauty and promise—a promise that has been kept since the days of Noah. This particular rainbow is compared to an emerald…?... Remember John is doing his very best to describe what he is seeing in another realm—something that is only remotely possible by means of the Holy Spirit. Later we learn (in verse 5) that the emerald rainbow is accompanied by flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder. It is an awesome, loud, and almost frightening vision complete with powerful manifestation of natural wonders.
John continues with “and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God;” (4:5b). Seven Spirits of God? Both here and in Revelation 5:6 “seven Spirits” is employed as a sophisticated way to refer to God’s complete Holy Spirit (inasmuch as the number 7 is a number of completion and, at least here, appears to be utilized in a figurative way). Another translation of this might read “the seven-fold Spirit of God.” The description used of the Spirit “lamps of fire” is in keeping with the manifestation of the Spirit described in Acts 2 and with the Spirit’s unique ability to illuminate the things of God!
Also “before the throne there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal;…” (4:6a). A churning sea in the ancient world was believed to be a place of mystery, chaos, and danger. However, the sea before the throne of God in heaven is perfectly placid. The pure ether which separates God’s throne from John, and from all things before it, may be meant to symbolize the “purity, calmness, and majesty of God’s rule” (Alford). There is, in other words, no disturbance in God’s holy realm.
3. OBSERVATION #3: The Worshipers Gathered Around-4:4, 6b-8
Next, we observe along with John, the worshipers that are gathered around the throne. There are two groups of worshipers identified in this passage. The first are twenty four elders—“around the throne were twenty-four elders” (4:4a). Of all the biblical numbers (7, 3, 12, etc.) 24 is a bit peculiar. However, context clues might help us ascertain who these 24 elders represent.
John describes these elders as “sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads” (4:4b). Some have wondered if these are angels. However, angels are never said to be clothed in white with crowns. Given what we read elsewhere in the New Testament white robes and crowns of victory, implying victory after enduring some conflict.
James 1:12-“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the LORD has promised to those who love him.”
1 Corinthians 9:25-“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”
Both Paul and James seem to be encouraging the church. Perhaps these twenty four elders represent the church! (after all, church leaders are even referred to as “elders” throughout the New Testament). However, there is this awkward 24 number. Certainly the church has twelve founders (the apostles), but that only gets us halfway to what we see in this scene. Where might another twelve make up the difference? The twelve tribes of Israel! After all, were not Old Testament saints God’s people as well? Sure! Therefore, these 24 elders probably represent all who make up the people of God (Old and New Covenant)—those who were saved by looking ahead to Jesus’ coming and those who embraced Christ’s completed ministry after the fact.
2 Timothy 4:8-“Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the LORD, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day-and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
Therefore, the prophecy disclosed to John includes all the redeemed, pictured here in the heavenly throne room surrounding the throne of God in worship.
But these are not the only worshipers present, “and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind, the first was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had a face like that of a man, and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle …” (4:6b). If this scene could not get any more other-worldly, just add four different multi-winged creatures covered in eyes! The identity of these creatures and exactly what they represent is unknown and largely up for speculation. One possible explanation is that each represents a gospel with the one like a lion representing Matthew (the gospel that exalts Christ as a Jewish Messiah), the one like a calf representing Mark (a beast of burden that sympathizes with Mark’s presentation of Christ as suffering servant), the one like a man representing Luke (who loves to call Jesus the Son of Man and accentuate Christ’s humanity), and the one like the eagle representing John (the gospel who argues for Jesus’ divinity). Regardless of what they represent, one thing is for sure, they are not of this world.
Though their identity is left a mystery their activity absolutely clear—“And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within, and day and night they do not cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come,’…” (4:8). These creatures are shown praising the Lord for his unique and supreme holiness. The thrice proclaim accolade of “holy!” (agioV) probably means something close to “holy to the third power” and identifies God’s other-worldly character. The four living creatures also invoke the Father’s proper name in their praise—"Lord God” (kurioV qeoV--a Greek translation of yhwh Elohim). They even comment on God’s supreme power by referring to him as “the Almighty.” Finally, the four living creatures celebrate God’s eternality—“who was and is and is to come” (a triad that demonstrates one of God’s enduring qualities—sovereign over time).
By now it is clear what is taking place in this unfolding spectacle—John has been invited to a wondrously glorious worship service in which many have gathered around the heavenly throne to offer praise to its occupant. In fact, worship preoccupies the remainder of the passage.
4. OBSERVATION #4: The Praises lifted to the Almighty Creator-4:9-11
Praises continue to echo against the celestial walls of this hall “when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks (another triad 😊) to him who sits on the throne, to him who lives forever and ever.”
For every time the four living creatures cry “holy, holy, holy” (agioV, agioV, agioV) “the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne” (4:10). The example of worship introduced by the four living creatures is followed by the collective people of God who fall in humility before the eternal God and accompany their praise with a demonstration of their adoration –they cast all their crowns (any merit they have achieved in the Lord’s strength, any good works they have accrued in the Spirit who saved them, any eternally redemptive act that follows Christ’s example) before the Father.
And this they do while saying, “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power (another triad 😊); for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created” (4:11). God the Father is worthy (axioV) to receive praise because in his Holiness (agioV) he created the universe. Allusions to Genesis abound in this opening worship service as the Father is celebrated here principally for his ability to create. Earlier, the sign of the covenant with mankind never to flood the earth again (the rainbow) hints at God’s ability to restart things in a most miraculous way. These subtle references to creation and the flood foreshadow what the majority of the rest of this book is about—the re-creation of the world. The same one who spoke the world into existence at the beginning will bring about a new heaven and new earth in the end and for this he is worshiped.
What if you were shown the door to heaven, called up by Christ, and were the one tasked with recording all of this! I can’t imagine how hard it was for John to keep up and put into words what he saw at the beginning of this vision. However, stripped of all of the pomp and circumstance, behind all of the wonder and glory, there is a very simple lesson to be learned here that has everything to do with God’s rightful place of worship. In this scene, we witness the Father in what might be referred to as his most natural habitat—the center of heaven sitting on his throne, receiving worship and adoration form all who are present. While we might revere what is described in this passage with awe and wonder, what is keeping it from being a reality be albeit on a small scale, in our everyday lives? God’s people ought to praise the Father (the audience of one and writer of the unfolding opus), because of the Son (the instrument of praise that carries the melody to the Father’s ear) through the Spirit (who enables us with the ability to play well). When we do this, we live in our most natural state as worshipers of a God who brought this entire world into being and one day will bring about a new heaven and a new earth. May he receive glory, and honor, and thanks forever and ever.