A Bible Lesson on Revelation 4

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

In Revelation 4 we’re given an awesome word-picture of what is really true in the universe. It is too common for people to read Revelation as if it were some kind of puzzle to be solved, looking for clues for specific timing of particular future events. In the process of that kind of thing, we can miss the real intent of the book, namely to show us the way things really are. The book shows us this in a variety of pictures and symbols that are hard-to-impossible to nail down with perfect precision. But then, John is trying to tell us about things that are beyond our human vocabulary and categories. This is no puzzle to be solved, it is a revelation of how things really are.

Remember that as he writes, John and the church are under severe persecution by the most powerful empire the world has known to this time. Their situation might look impossible from the point of view of earth. But they are reminded of what really is. We humans mostly have it backwards. God is the really real person, and we’re the ones that have only a derivative existence. It’s not what we see and touch that are fundamental, but rather the One who made those and all things who is fundamental.

Revelation 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.”

John is on Patmos. He is invited to come and see how things look when earthbound blinders fall away and we see reality clearly. The voice of the glorified Christ calls to John, and he is to be shown inevitabilities. He’ll see things that MUST be. These are things that are not matters of chance or contingency, but things that follow from who God is and what is essential. They are outworkings of God’s nature and His will.

In Exodus 24:1 Moses is invited up onto Sinai to learn the will of God in the same language that John is invited into heaven.

Exodus 24:1 Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar.

2 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.

There is in the universe one central throne, and it is the eternal God, Creator and Sustainer of all, who occupies it. He has always been on it and will always be on it. There used to be (and may still be) a silly evangelistic tract that talked about the “throne” of our lives and how we might (generously?) offer Jesus the chance to sit on it (instead of occupying it ourselves). That’s nonsense. Such thinking is a delusion. We don’t sit on any central throne. The emperor of Rome in John’s time didn’t sit on any central throne, much less puny little people like us. The fact that we humans have delusions of grandeur and have our imaginary kingdoms in opposition to the real King doesn’t change the reality that John is shown.

3 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.

John doesn’t try to describe God in human terms. There is no (human or other) form to be described. Instead, John tells us about light, light seen as if it were refracted through precious gemstones, light seen as if refracted through the atmosphere and split into its gorgeous components.

Psalm 104:2 covering yourself with light as with a garment.

1Timothy 6:16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.

In comparison, what is any person who has sat on an earthly shadow throne? In reality, the only legitimate authority in the universe proceeds from the central throne.

The rainbow there is a reminder that God’s promises are eternal. The promise made to Noah in Genesis stands into eternity. And the glory of that absolute steadfastness and reliability of God surrounds and radiates from the throne of God.

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.

Around the central throne are 24 derivative thrones. Who are these “elders” and why 24? No one can say with certainty, but the best guess seems to be that these stand for all of all time who have known and loved God. They are likely representatives of the church universal. For example, 12 Old Testament patriarchs plus 12 New Testament apostles would make 24. Momentarily, it might not seem so to John and the beleaguered Christian church of the late 1st century, but the reality is that the authority of the rightful Sovereign of the universe extends to His church. There are crowns of gold indicating positions of high honor and estate.

5 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,

At Sinai there was this:

Exodus 19:16 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.

Ezekiel saw a vision of God and:

Ezekiel 1:13 As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.

John sees an awesome manifestation of the presence of God. And there is a “7” referring to the Spirit(s) of God. This is poetic assertion of the perfection and completeness of the Spirit of God.

6 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:

In front of the throne there was “as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.” Glass of this time was not typically clear like glass of our time. So this is a picture of impossible brilliance and costliness. And there is in the picture, a sense of distance. God is forever both immanent and with His creation, and at the same time absolutely holy and separate from it. John always expresses a proper reverence and respect for the complete perfection of God. Between John and God lies a huge, brilliant, and unbelievably pure barrier. John doesn’t just go skipping up to the throne. There is a glassy sea. None of us can approach God in and of ourselves.

And around the throne are these “living creatures.” There are four of them, probably indicating the 4 points of the compass and the totality of the created order. They are close to the throne, and so somehow important/special. They are also in harmony with it. But beyond this, it’s not clear what can be said.

7 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.

Various systems have been suggested since ancient times for identifying the important characteristics of the animals giving their faces to these angelic creatures. But at the end, the total comes down to what is said by Swete: “The four forms suggest whatever is noblest, strongest, wisest, swiftest in animate Nature. Nature, including Man, is represented before the Throne, taking its part in the fulfillment of the Divine Will and worship of the divine majesty.” The truth here is that all of creation, when properly carrying out that for which it was made, is engaged in an act of worship to its Creator

Psalm 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

2Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.

Psalm 103:22 Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!

 

8 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!”

Like the seraphs in Isaiah 6:2, these creatures have 6 wings and can see everything around them. Their constant cry is “holy, holy, holy.” Three times holy, perfectly holy! So said the Seraphs in Isaiah.

Isaiah 6:3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And this comes first. The creatures never cease to testify to the moral perfection and complete separateness/purity of God. And this Holy One is the Lord God Almighty. Contrary to present appearances, righteousness is not on the losing end, defeated, and mocked. The One who is completely holy is omnipotent. Real power in the universe is ultimately not with evil but with God. And this is not some temporary or passing thing. The Holy One is the One who was, and is and is to come.

Lift up your heart Christian, the One who created the world for good (Genesis 1:31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.) is unchanging, all-powerful, and eternal. Whatever you must presently suffer is temporary. The fact that the One who is absolutely perfect and good is also almighty is guarantee that ultimately and forever, all will be set right.

9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever,

10 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,

What is true in the rest of creation is true for human beings. The creatures as representatives of creation constantly testify to the goodness of God. And in response, the 24 elders as representatives of those who through all time have loved Him, also bow in worship and adoration. They cast down the crowns He’s given them. In comparison to Him and His great majesty, they understand themselves to be nothing. They understand themselves to be only His humble subjects. They see it to be improper that they would have marks of status in His presence.

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.”

What is true in nature is true in the affairs of mankind. From the most powerful to the humblest person in the world, those that carry out what they were made and called to be, do so to the glory of their Creator. Those who humbly cast down their crowns do so in harmony with the way things really are. The One who made all is on the throne of the universe. He is absolutely holy and perfect. He is eternal and omnipotent. He presently sustains all things. In the end, all things WILL be again, as in the beginning, set right. However pressed and exhausted a Christian person might find himself or herself in the present, a look again at the reality John shows us ought to cause that Christian person to take heart and carry on in reliance upon the King.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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