Today, we are continuing our study of the book of Revelation entitled “Visions of Victory”. Listen for God’s word to you from Revelation 4…
After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
“‘Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,’
who was, and is, and is to come.”
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”
A Door in Heaven
This chapter of Revelation begins with John’s statement, “After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.”
What does John mean?
We must begin by distinguishing different senses of the word “heaven” in the ancient world and in the Bible. The word “heaven” can refer to the sky, outer space, or to God’s realm. In 2 Corinthians 12:2, Paul talks about being caught up to the third heaven, by which he means the realm of God.
Old Testament scholar, Lawrence Boadt, explains further, “The ancient picture of the universe is [one]… in which the earth is a disc surrounded by water not only on the sides, but underneath and above as well. A firm bowl (the “firmament”) keeps the upper waters back but has gates to let the rain and snow through. The sun, moon, and stars move in fixed tracks along the underside of this bowl. From below the disc, the waters break through as wells, rivers, and the ocean, but the earth stands firm on pillars sunk into the waters like the pilings of a pier. Deep below the earth is Sheol, the abode of the dead, which can be entered only through the grave. In this picture, the Israelites were no different from other ancient people around them.”
Thus, when John talks about a door standing open in heaven, he is, most likely, talking about one of these doors in the firmament that is open, allowing him to see into God’s realm.
The “sea of glass” that John mentions also fits into this ancient picture of the cosmos. The Jewish “belief was that above the firmament, perhaps as the kind of floor of heaven there was a great sea. Further, it was on that sea that God had set his throne. The Psalmist says of God that he set the beams of his chambers upon the waters (Psalm 104:3).”
Thus, the sea of glass reflects God on his throne. To get the idea, think of what a day on Cape Cod is like when there is no wind. We talk about the waters being like glass. On such a day we can walk down to the beach near our house, look across the water to Sandy Neck, and see the lighthouse reflected in the water. Just so, God’s throne is reflected in the sea of glass above the firmament.
To understand much of the Old Testament and the New, one must understand this ancient view of the cosmos. This does not mean that we have to believe in this ancient view. We know much more about our physical universe now through science. And heaven, as my father used to say, might be right next to us, but on a different frequency. Still, we need to understand how the ancient Jews viewed the cosmos if we are to understand what someone like John is telling us in this vision in Revelation.
And there is one more thing we need to understand about heaven as it is described in Revelation 4 before we proceed. That is that the heaven described in Revelation 4 is distinct from the “heaven” described at the end of the book of Revelation. The heaven that is now is temporary.
The teaching of the New Testament is that, as believers in Christ, if we die before Christ’s second coming, our bodies go into the ground, but our souls go to be with the Lord in heaven. This heaven, which is now, is the one described in Revelation 4. But that is not the end of the story. The New Testament also teaches that when Christ returns to judge the world, he will establish his eternal kingdom on a renewed earth. At that point, believers will receive their resurrection bodies, like the resurrected body of Christ. Furthermore, heaven and earth will be joined, as described at the end of the book of Revelation where we see the New Jerusalem coming down out of “the heavens” to the earth. More on that when we get to the end of the book…
A Voice from Heaven
After seeing the door open in heaven, John hears a voice from heaven inviting him to come up and see what must take place after this.
It is interesting to note that we hear a voice, usually the voice of God, from heaven at least four times in the Hebrew Scriptures and at least fourteen times in the New Testament; six of the latter are in the book of Revelation. (Deuteronomy 4:36; 2 Samuel 22:14; Psalm 18:13; Daniel 4:31; Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22; John 12:28; Acts 11:9; Acts 26; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; 2 Peter 1:18; Revelation 4:1; 10:4,8; 11:12; 14:13; 18:4)
In John’s case, the voice that he hears is the voice of Jesus. The same voice that spoke to him in chapter one. John hears the same voice that said, at the end of chapter three: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”
So far in Revelation we have seen a door of opportunity, a door of the church and of the individual heart, and now a door in heaven. The voice of Jesus speaks to us. He wants to open a door of opportunity for us. He wants us to open the door of our church and of our hearts to him. And if we do that, then he will open the door of heaven to us.
A Throne in Heaven
Of course, the dominant image of chapter four is God’s throne in heaven. It is the main thing that John sees after he steps through the door in heaven.
The throne of God is a common Old Testament picture. (1 Kings 22:19; Psalm 47:8; Isaiah 6:1) In Revelation the throne of God is mentioned in every chapter except 2, 8 and 9. The throne represents God’s sovereign rule and majesty.
God’s form is not described. He is like light (1 Timothy 6:16; Psalm 104:2) flashing off jewels. One of the jewels mentioned is jasper, a translucent stone of some sort. Some say this is a precious stone of various colors (purple, blue, green, or the color of brass). Others think that John intends what we call a diamond or maybe an opal. The other precious stone mentioned here is sardius which was also known as carnelian, a flesh-colored stone. These were two of the precious stones on the breastplate of the Jewish high priest. These precious stones will also form part of the foundation of the New Jerusalem at the end of the book of Revelation.
The rainbow around the throne is a reminder of God’s covenant with Noah. However, intriguingly, this rainbow has an emerald-green appearance.
The rainbow and throne together suggest that there is to be no triumph of God’s power at the expense of his mercy. The two go together. The visions of seeming disaster that follow in the Book of Revelation should not lead us to think for a moment that God has forgotten his promises of mercy.
Nonetheless, out of the throne come flashes and voices and thundering, reminiscent of Moses meeting with God on Mount Sinai. We have here also seven lamps of fire burning, like the seven golden lampstands representing the seven churches that we encountered earlier in Revelation. Now these lamps represent the seven-fold Spirit of God. Perhaps we are not meant to distinguish between the seven-fold Spirit of God and the seven churches. For it is the Spirit of God in each church that gives life to each one.
Elders in Heaven
Moving out from the throne we encounter twenty-four elders sitting on twenty-four thrones. They are clothed in white, representing purity, and they have golden crowns on their heads.
Why twenty-four? Various correspondences have been proposed. But it seems to me that we have twenty-four because twelve represent the twelve tribes of Israel, or the leaders of those tribes, and twelve represent the twelve apostles.
Jesus says to his twelve disciples in Luke 22:28-30, “You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Here, in Revelation, the twelve tribes, or the leaders of the tribes, and the apostles, are equal to one another. They represent the fulness of Christ’s Church in all ages, Old Testament and New.
The really important thing is that these human elders fall before the throne of God and cast their crowns before him.
Living Creatures in Heaven
Next, we see four living creatures in heaven. They are always found near the throne of God. They have six wings like the angels in Isaiah 6. That makes 24 wings total, corresponding to the twenty-four elders. These living creatures are full of eyes; thus, they are all-seeing. They are constantly engaged in praising and worshipping God. They have certain functions to perform which we will see in the rest of the book.
We see the same living creatures described in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel and they are identified with the cherubim. (Ezekiel 10:20,22) Thus, we get the clear picture that the cherubim are not cutesy little baby angels, but rather fierce and mighty warriors for the Lord. It is important to note that pictures and statues of the cherubim formed part of the decoration of Solomon’s Temple. Also, in the book of Enoch, the cherubim are guardians of God’s throne.
But these four living creatures also represent all of creation (lion, ox, eagle, man). So, when you combine these creatures together with the twenty-four elders you see all of creation (angels, humans, and the animal kingdom) worshipping God.
Worship in Heaven
So, let’s take a closer look at the worship going on in heaven since that is what this chapter is all about. In heaven there are not only things to be seen but also things to be heard. Worship is something we can both hear and see. Whatever senses we may have in heaven, I believe the place will appeal to all of them.
Notice the words with which the Living Creatures worship God: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” These words are reminiscent of the worship of the seraphim in Isaiah 6.
Then we also have the words of worship from the Elders: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” This refrain, “you are worthy”, is repeated in chapter five, as we will see next week. But in chapter five these words are said of the Lamb who was slain, the Lord Jesus. God the Father and God the Son are both worthy of all our worship.
Notice too that the worship of the elders is worship with a “because”. The human elders seem to know why they worship, whereas the living creatures just do it.
In any case, the bottom line is this: worship seems to be the main activity of heaven as it is now. And this worship involves both angels and human beings. If worship as the main activity of heaven does not excite us, that may be because we haven’t yet experienced the heights and depths, the length and breadth of worship as it is truly meant to be.
Now, allow me to make a couple of final points as we close for today. First, let me say that, in a sense, this chapter is at the heart of the book of Revelation. More important than predicting future events is an understanding of what lies behind those events. Or it might be better to ask: Who lies behind these events?
John’s answer is God, on his throne, ruling, caring, loving, and working out his divine plan for humanity. The God of our day is the same God who sat on the throne when John looked beyond heaven’s door.
Second, as we read Revelation, we must not think of it merely as a puzzle, but we must ask: how do these images make us feel? I met one young man, many years ago, who understood this intuitively, perhaps better than anyone else I have ever known. His name was Tim.
Fresh out of seminary, I was working as a youth ministry intern at a large church near Charlotte, North Carolina. During my year-long internship I conducted a Bible study with a small group of interested middle school boys: Robbie, Tim, and John. We began by reading through the Gospel of John together and discussing it chapter by chapter. All three boys asked great questions and were keen to learn. Tim especially was very eager, and he began to invite one friend after another to join us for our Bible study. Many of his friends turned him down, but some accepted the invitation.
One day, Tim’s friend Stephen joined us. That day I talked with the boys about how they could have a personal relationship with God by inviting Jesus to come and live in their hearts. At the end of our session, Stephen prayed to accept Christ into his life. I was thrilled. But what I didn’t know until sometime later, was that Tim went home that day, and prayed a similar prayer, inviting Jesus into his life.
Eventually, we finished reading the Gospel of John together and I asked the group, now up to five in number, what book of the Bible they would like to read next. Without missing a beat, one of them said, “The book of Revelation.” I agreed and the next week we began reading and discussing Revelation together.
The discussion that is emblazoned on my mind was the one we had about Revelation 4. We were sitting on the grass outside the church, on a beautiful day in June. At the end of our discussion that day, in which we talked much about heaven, Tim looked at me and said, “I can’t wait to get there.”
The next week, Tim travelled to Asheville, North Carolina, to visit his grandparents. And one day that week, I received a call from Robbie’s mother, Janice. Tim was in serious condition in the intensive care unit at a hospital in Asheville. Janice said she was about to leave with her son Robbie to go and visit Tim and his family. I said that I would get in my car and travel to Asheville as soon as I could.
When we reached the hospital in Asheville, Tim was unresponsive. We learned that he had been diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis, a rare but serious bacterial infection.
While we were at the hospital, one of the nurses told us of a conversation she had with Tim when he first arrived. Tim asked the nurse if he was going to die. She said, “No, we are going to do everything we can for you.” To this, Tim responded, “No. It’s alright, even if I die, because I know where I am going.”
Tim died a day later. But when I resumed the Bible study with the other boys, suddenly we had thirty people show up, including all of Tim’s immediate family, and a number of Tim’s friends. I shared with them the same good news about Jesus and the hope of heaven that Tim had embraced, and many of them committed their lives to follow Jesus just as Tim had done.
The memory of Tim has never left me. And whenever I think of heaven, I think that the most important thing is to be like Tim: to receive Jesus, to know where you are going when you die, and to have an eager heart, a heart that can’t wait to get there.