By Christopher VanDusen
The beginning of 2021 has already proven to be just as troubling as 2020, and shows no signs of getting any better. This is especially true of the United States and the United Kingdom. In the U.S., a new president has been elected who is unfit for that office, while in the U.K., a mandatory lockdown has once again gone into effect. Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are seeing the catastrophic results of the major events of last year, which promise to bring even greater social unrest, political upheaval, economic disaster, and religious persecution. We may be tempted to forget that our God is still in control of history, since the world as we know it seems to be spinning out of control. How do we get the firm conviction that every single event we are going through is ultimately from the hand of God? One way is by marveling at the basics of who He is, and how He relates to the universe. This is what the apostle John’s vision in Revelation 4 allows us to do.
The churches to which John sent the Book of Revelation were in much the same situation as we are today. They were living under the oppressive regime of a Roman Emperor named Nero, who was fiercely opposed to Christians, and severely persecuted them with imprisonment, slander, torture, and murder. This persecution was only increasing, and they could also expect the beginning of the downfall of the Roman Empire due to its moral decay, and poor governing.
Therefore, the Lord sent one of His angels to John with a series of messages that He had received from God the Father. John explains this in the first couple of verses of Revelation. Then, he explains who will be blessed by learning and acting on this book.
In his greeting to the seven churches in modern-day Turkey, or Asia Minor, that he was writing to, John assures them that they have grace and peace from the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is described as the trustworthy Witness, the most honored Person to be raised from the dead, and the ruler of all earthly kings. Further, John says that Jesus will eventually return, and judge His enemies. Finally, he assures the churches that Jesus is in control of history, since He’s the timeless God.
Next, John describes the first vision that he received from an angel. He explains that he was on an island off the coast of Asia Minor because he had preached God’s Word, and testified about the Lord. On the day of the week that Jesus rose from the dead, his mind was transported into a spiritual realm, where he heard a voice speaking to him. This voice commanded him to write what he was about to see in a scroll, and send it to the seven churches.
Then, he saw a vision of Jesus, whom he describes as a divine man clothed in His priestly robe, who was standing among seven golden lampstands. He has white hair, eyes like fire, seven stars in His hand, feet like glowing bronze, a powerful voice, and a sword coming out of His mouth. When John sees him, he passes out, but Jesus revives him with the touch of His hand, and speaks words of comfort to him about His resurrection from the dead, and His control of death and hell.
In chapters 2 and 3, the Lord gives a message to each of the seven churches. Most of the churches are practicing sins, and called to repentance, while a couple are simply comforted and encouraged. These messages deal with the most important matters that they need to deal with, before they can hear the main contents of Revelation, which are “the things that must soon take place”.
Yet, before future events are described to the churches, John sees a vision of God as the Ruler and Creator of the universe, which will prepare the churches to understand the significance and magnitude of the revelation that Jesus received from the Father, to communicate to them through John:
“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.” 2 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. 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. 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. 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, 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: 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. 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!”
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,
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.”” — Rev. 4 (ESV)
In this chapter, John experiences 8 main things that tell the seven churches something about the God who ultimately gave him the revelation of their future:
- He’s Invited to See Heaven (v. 1)
- He Sees an Individual Seated on a Throne (v. 2)
- He Sees an Impressive Show of Treasures (v. 3)
- He Sees an Encirclement of Seniors on Thrones (v. 4)
- He Sees the Illumination of Shocking and Torches (v. 5)
- He Sees an Encirclement of Spirits with Traits (vss. 6-7)
- The Spirits Unceasingly Speak of the Thrice-Holy One (v. 8)
- The Seniors Impulsively Sacrifice to the Enthroned One
John is Invited to See Heaven
In the first verse, John describes his invitation to see heaven by saying,
“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 main event that takes place before this is the Lord’s proclamation of the messages that He has for the seven churches, as He’s standing among golden lampstands as a divine, priestly, figure. After seeing this awesome vision, and listening to the seven messages, John now sees “a door standing open in heaven”. This isn’t the “open door” that Jesus has said He’s given to one of the churches in His messages, but is another one that represents access to the throne room of heaven, God’s spiritual dwelling place, apart from the physical universe.
This sight of an open door is followed by the invitation of “the first voice” that John heard in chapter 1. It’s best to see this voice as the voice of the “angel” that Jesus sent to John to give him His revelation. This voice sounds “like a trumpet”, which is a reference to the instrument that the Israelites heard from Mt. Sinai, when God’s glory and presence appeared to them. It announces the arrival of a revelation of God, and alerts John to pay careful attention to what he’s about to see, so he can understand it, and describe it in writing.
The voice that John hears commands him to “come up” to heaven, so that the angel “will show [him] what must take place after” Jesus has given His messages to the seven churches. I don’t say that what he’s about to see describe the events that take place after the events described in the messages, since it’s a description of God on His throne, being worshiped by His angels, and then of Jesus receiving God’s revelation of the future in chapter 5, which He later sent to John. Clearly, God is always on His throne, and Jesus received the revelation of the future before the events described in the messages to the seven churches. Thus, when the angel calls this vision “what must take place after this”, he’s not referring to events in the physical world, but in the spiritual realm, where John is receiving the visions.
John Sees an Individual Seated on a Throne
In verse 2, John describes the main feature of this vision of heaven:
“At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.”
The phrase, “in the Spirit”, is used in Old Testament prophetic passages in the same way that it is here. Since the “definite article”, “the”, is used, this is clearly a reference to God the Spirit, who is one of the Persons of the divine Being. But to be in the Spirit means to be enveloped, or empowered by Him to receive direct, divine, revelation. In this case, it means that John has his mind transported to the spiritual realm, where he sees a supernatural vision from God.
John precedes this vision with the word, “behold”, to emphasize the importance of what he sees. It’s “a throne” that “stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne”. Obviously, the most important throne in heaven is God’s throne, since He’s the King of the universe. However, we can also tell that he’s speaking of God because he only refers to him as “one”, rather than as a specifically human figure. The fact that He’s on a throne symbolizes that He controls the universe from heaven.
He Sees an Impressive Show of Treasures
In verse 3, John describes the colors of the enthroned one, and the appearance of 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.”
First, he says that God looked like two gem stones — jasper and carnelian. In Revelation 21, “jasper” is said to be a clear stone. If this is what John saw, then this would clearly represent purity. Carnelian, on the other hand, is commonly red, which would make the most sense, since it’s the color of fire, representing the judgment of God on His rational creatures.
Second, “a rainbow” is surrounding the throne, alluding to God’s creation of the rainbow in the Book of Genesis. The rainbow is the sign of God’s covenant with the earth, in which He promised never to destroy the earth with a flood again. Every time a rainbow appears in the sky, it’s a reminder of this promise. However, the fact that this rainbow looks like an emerald again shows that God’s rule of the universe manifests His precious beauty.
He Sees an Encirclement of Seniors on Thrones
In verse 4, John describes 24 heavenly beings that surround God’s throne:
“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.”
First, he says that these heavenly beings sit on “twenty-four thrones”. As we try to understand what this aspect of the vision represents, we need to remember that it’s a vision of heaven, picturing realities that are far beyond our everyday experience. These are heavenly and spiritual things, so it’s not to be taken literally. After all, the divine Being, who is revealed to be the Father in chapter 5, doesn’t literally sit on a throne.
That being said, since the first throne represents God’s control of the universe, the 24 thrones must represent some involvement in this reign, since they are “around” God’s throne. Further, the fact that there are 24 is significant. Twelve is the number of the tribes of Israel, and of the first apostles, the first leaders of the church. Since both of these numbers are connected to governing or overseeing part of God’s kingdom, this must be the connection to those who are seated on the thrones. Given the fact that God’s people in the Old Testament were the 12 tribes of Israel, and His people in the New were first represented by the first 12 apostles, it seems best to see the “elders” on the thrones as representing God’s people, who participate in His rule of the universe as part of His “kingdom”.
But what does John mean by “elders”? The Greek word translated “elders” literally means “mature men”, and was used by the Jews to refer to the male leadership of their communities. In the New Testament, the term is used to refer to the leaders of each church. So, by using this term, John is emphasizing that these rulers are wise rulers of whatever domain God has assigned to them.
Another piece of evidence that these elders represent God’s people is that they’re “clothed in white garments”, which through Revelation represent the righteousness and moral purity of the saints. Finally, John says that they have “golden crowns on their heads”, again signifying their kingship, but also their knowledge of, and connection with, God, since their crowns are the color of Old Testament objects used in the presence of God.
He Sees the Illumination of Shocking and Torches
In verse 5, John describes the effects of God’s rule of the universe, and the way in which He reigns by saying,
“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 . . .”
Just as the trumpet-like sound of the voice John hears is an allusion to God’s Old Testament revelation, so also the lightning, and thunder are. Thunder was heard by the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, representing the infinite power of God, which He uses to destroy His enemies.
Likewise, the “seven torches of fire” refer back to the seven golden lampstands that stood in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple. The number “seven” represents completion, or perfection, while the fire pictures the purifying presence of God. However, we aren’t left to wonder exactly what these torches symbolize, since John says they are “the seven spirits of God”. In chapter 1, he says that the same grace and peace that come from the Father and Jesus Christ, also come from “the seven Spirits who are before [the Father’s] throne”. By saying this, he’s implying that these “seven Spirits” are representative of God the Holy Spirit. However, the fact that They number “seven”, and are “before the throne”, show that the Spirit has a complete and utter involvement in the Father’s control of the universe. In other words, God the Father reigns through the Holy Spirit, who is at work in the entire universe.
John Sees an Encirclement of Spirits with Traits
In verses 6-7, John finishes his description of God’s throne, and tells his audience about four more creatures surrounding it:
“. . . 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.”
John concludes the imagery of God’s throne by saying that there’s “a sea of glass, like crystal” that’s in front of the throne. By calling it “like crystal”, he means that it’s see-through, so God can look down from His throne on to the earth. This tells us that He knows all that goes on on the earth, and has complete control of it.
Next, John sees “four living creatures”, which are “full of eyes in front and behind”. The fact that they are covered with eyes “in front and behind” signifies that they see all that God is doing in heaven, and know Him well. Thus, they can accurately express who God is to John.
In verse 7, he describes exactly what these creatures look like. The first one is “like a lion”. In the Old Testament, as well as in the ancient Mediterranean world, the lion was the most respectable and admirable animal. Hence, this description represents the fact that these creatures are noble. The second creature is “like an ox”, which was viewed as the most powerful of animals, showing that these creatures are extremely powerful. Third, one of them has “the face of a man”, symbolizing the creatures’ great intelligence. The last one is “like an eagle in flight”, showing that they’re extremely fast, like a flying eagle moving quickly from place to place.
Once again, the fact that these noble, powerful, intelligent, and fast creatures are “around the throne” shows that they too are involved in God’s reign of the universe in their service to Him.
The Spirits Unceasingly Speak of the Thrice-Holy One
In verse 8, John recounts the living creatures’ praise of God the Father by saying,
“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!’”
John begins to end his description of these creatures by saying that they have “six wings” each. The number “six” here doesn’t represent the same thing that it does when John speaks of a beast’s number being “666”. Rather, this is a reference to Isaiah’s vision of angels hovering over God’s throne. In Isaiah 6:2, Isaiah says,
“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.”
Why are these angels covering themselves? Because the glory of God is so awesome that they can’t bear to look at it, nor to have it touch their feet. By describing the living creatures as having six wings, John can only mean that they are doing the same thing. Although they fly around God’s throne, doing His bidding in His rule of the universe, they can’t bear to look at His glory, nor to let it touch their feet. Remember, this description of the living creatures isn’t literal, since angels are non-physical beings, and don’t have physical wings, faces, or feet.
Again, John says that the four creatures are covered with “eyes all around and within”, picturing their intimate knowledge of God’s reign, and of His heavenly glory. This knowledge is why they “never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’”
The word “holy” literally means “set apart”, or “separate”, and the fact that they repeat it three times emphasizes the fact that God is the holiest Being of all beings. In other words, of all Beings, He is the most different, distinct, separate, and set apart.
The first reason for His supreme holiness is that He’s “the Lord God Almighty”. As “the Lord”, He has ultimate control over the universe. As “God”, He’s the Creator of the universe. And the fact that He’s “almighty” means that He has infinite power, and can do whatever He wants. Second, the creatures imply that He has always existed, exists now, and will always exist, since He transcends time.
The Seniors Impulsively Sacrifice to the Enthroned One
To conclude this vision, John ends by explaining the response of the elders to the praise of the living creatures:
“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.’”
John begins this description by calling the living creatures’ praise the giving of “glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever”. The word “glory” literally means “apparentness”, and is used by the apostle Paul to refer to the light of stars in 1 Corinthians 15. When it’s “given” to God, it means that His character and nature is “made known”, or “apparent”, by His creatures. The term “honor” means “esteem” or “value”, and refers to the creatures’ proclamation of God’s infinite worth to Himself, and therefore to His creation. Finally, the creatures give “thanks” to Him by expressing their appreciation of His act of revealing His holiness, nature, and character to them. And since He “lives forever and ever”, they’ll give these things to Him forever and ever.
The 24 elders’ response to the creatures’ praise of God is first to “fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever”. They fall down in front of Him to show Him that they are nothing compared to Him. The word, “worship”, literally means “ascribe or proclaim the worth of”. In the case of the elders, they proclaim the worth of God by throwing their crowns in front of His throne, and praising Him.
By throwing their crowns down in front of God’s throne, they’re declaring that their authority to rule comes from Him, and belongs to Him. That’s why they tell Him, who is their “Lord and God”, that He’s worthy “to receive glory and honor and power”. His “power” particularly refers to His all-powerful control of the universe, which is put on special display when He enables His creatures to obey Him. The reason the elders say He’s worthy to be glorified, to be honored, and to be obeyed, is because He “created all things, and by [His] will they existed and were created”. This means exactly what it says. Not only did God create all things, but He did this simply by willing it, or desiring it, causing absolutely every thing in the universe to come into existence.
Remember God’s Rule and Holiness, and Worship Him
So, if you’re a believer in the Lord Jesus, how does this passage apply to you?
First, every event in your life is controlled by the One seated on a throne in heaven. He’s pure, just, and faithful to His promises. Therefore, His control of history is pure, just, and consistent with His promises. You can be sure that everything in your life is ultimately under God’s control, and for your good.
Second, just as the 24 elders were seated on thrones around God’s throne, so we participate in His rule of the universe. First, we do this by controlling ourselves out of love for God and others. Second, we do this by influencing others through our service to them in our actions or words. Third, we do this through our requests to God, which He answers if they’re asked according to His will, and in the name of His Son.
Finally, just as the 24 elders “fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him” “whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him”, so we should worship God unceasingly because He’s completely separate from creation, and He’s the Lord God Almighty. Also, He’s worthy to be glorified, honored, and obeyed because He created everything through His will.