Revelation 4

Chapter 4

v1-11: As we move onto the body of the book we must not forget the seven churches. What follows is still to them and to those elsewhere with "ears to hear." It's therefore to see the realities behind the churches' trials, what others can expect to "endure," and what will be received by conquering. Indeed, Christ's words to each of the churches pick up ideas developed later in the vision.
      The move on v1 is from the churches on earth to the realities of heaven. The open door invites John to see what is normally unseen. It should entice the reader. In wider scripture, "heaven" is the spiritual realm to the universe where God is especially present and worshipped by angels and his people. It's "realms" are also where evil spirits reside. Hebrews 9v23ff says the Holy and Most Holy places were a pattern of it. We see that here. The mercy seat with the two cherubim patterns God's throne with the four living creatures. The blood on the seat patterns the Lamb on the throne. The cherubim on the veil now removed pattern the presence of angels. The 7 cupped lampstand symbolising God's presence amongst the people patterns the 7 lampstands that represent the churches lit up by God and that Christ walks amongst. The flower design on the lampstands probably patterns this heavenly reality as a paradise (2v7). The altar of incense patterns the altar beneath which the prayers of the martyrs are heard (ch. 6). The "sea" the priests washed in to be clean patterns the massive "sea" of glass that separates the unclean from God's presence.

Excursus: How Literal is the Picture of Heaven?
     The question of course is over how literally we should take all this. The tabernacle was literal and spacial entity implying heaven is too. But the lampstands in heaven are clearly figurative suggesting we should see the altar and sea that way as well. Perhaps we can only be clear on what we see elsewhere. It is certainly a real place. The embodied Jesus is taken into heaven, and prepares a "place" for us there (Acts 1v11, Jn 14v2-3). So it is to be at home with him, and must be conciously experienced if better by far than life now. Every Christian would rather be here serving Christ that in soul-sleep (2 Cor 5v8, Phil 1v23). Jesus taught it is to be in a place of comfort with Abraham (Lk 16v22-25), Paul says he saw "paradise " (2 Cor 12v3), Hebrews promises a city (Heb 11v10, 12v22, 13v14), Stephen saw Jesus standing on God's right hand, and Hebrews 12 tells us this is where God and his Christ are worshipped by angels and the perfected spirits of God's people. Like a massive cruise airship on its way to a new continent heaven is a reality like the most wonderful garden-city where God reigns with Christ, that is inhabited by angels and continually filled by those who die in Christ. This implies it is a place where nature, culture, society and the things of day to day human life are enjoyed (cf. Is 60, Rev 21v22-27 describing the new Jerusalem when on earth). But it is a lesser glory than the final state we will enjoy in resurrected bodies. It is to experience life together in worship and service of God, in anticipation and preparation for docking and embarking into a renewed world where God and Christ will then set up their throne.
      Whether we should understand the New Jerusalem as a city-like experience in heaven is uncertain in the book of Revelation itself. It is certainly there before descending to earth. Yet although it could simply refer to the society of God's people, the language of Hebrews and it's continuity with the new Jerusalem in the new earth would suggest it is a spacial reality even if it's description in Revelation has figurative elements. And whereas heaven is now described as a temple, because it is where God is especially present and enthroned, when the New Jerusalem descends it is said to have no temple as God and the Lamb are the literal place of God's presence within it - having their throne there. In other words there will no longer be the need of a heaven as it was, for God and Christ will be especially present and enthroned on the renewed earth. This suggests that the temple-like realm of heaven Revelation portrays with the saints before God is currently within the new Jerusalem which is paradise. And if a spacial reality, on its descent it is quite possible the new Jerusalem may remain a section of the earth from which God, Christ and their people then reign, meaning that heaven as it was would have passed away - implied by the "sea" (that separated God from his creation) being no more (21v1).
     Intreguing here however, is that "a new heaven" is created with the new earth and the New Jerusalem seems to come out of it "from God." So it seems heaven is a larger realm and that a spiritual dimension to the universe will continue alongside the material. This may be the primary sphere of the unseen God and his angels, even though his special presence may somehow be displayed at his throne on earth with Jesus.
     Jesus' resurrection showed the promise of a new body is not figurative but just like those of this life yet more glorious. And Moses and Elijah showed the heavenly experience of bodies is somehow a foretaste of that final reality. This implies the same for the new earth and the new Jerusalem upon it, and the paradise and new Jerusalem within heaven as a foretaste of them - the paradise a garden and so more limited in scope in being confined to the city, and the city itself still awaiting completion in number. In every sense then we see the descriptions of heaven (and hell) as akin to the final state, though not yet its full reality.
     As for where heaven is, and how it can be all this of merely spiritual, we can only speculate. The presence of the embodied Jesus implies it is more than a virtual reality in the mind of God. And he is well able to transport our spirits at death to another part of the universe where things exist materially as they do here, but that can be seen and accessed as if adjacent. He is also well able to have these things exist in some kind of a parallel dimension. But exactly how this will all be is not revealed.

     The first voice refers us to 1v10, but by distinguishing it, the implication is that it is not the voice of Christ (1v15) but some angelic being - John's guide. The trumpet sound stresses the royal nature of heaven and the victory of God.
     The guide invite John "up here" - the common designation of heavens locality as the exalted place. "Show" reminds us this is a vision. And the second temporal note "after this" implies we should not be too quick to a preterist reading of the book as mostly taking place near in time (cf. 1v19). Rather, it suggest it is predominantly taken up with events after the trials of the seven churches have passed - whether immediate or spanning history. However, as it also refers to events preceding the letters (12v1-5) we must conclude the "after this" refers to the general focus of the vision on the church age, and most especially the end when those who conquer receive their vindication and reward. Not every detail therefore has to be subsequent to its writing.
     In saying he is now "in the Spirit" may imply Spirit given movement as Ezekiel (cf. Ezek 1v1, 11v1,5) - within the vision rather than literally. In seeing one upon a throne before all else stresses the centrality of God's reign to all that follows. Heaven is the seat of his rule, and history the working out of his decrees, justice and victory. This image should encourage and daunt us all.
     More allusion to Ezekiel (cf. Ezek 1v26f), with a jewel like green rainbow, reminding us that history only progresses by God's promise to Noah and the creation, and that it is always with a reminder if impending judgment and God's mercy. The meaning of the jewel-like appearance of the King is unclear. These stones appear on the breastplate of the High Priest and therefore signify the holy temple presence of God. They also speak of his resplendent majesty by their preciousness and brilliance. Quite simply they are to portray his supreme beauty and awe as king over all things.
     v4: At first the elders seem to be human representatives of the faithful. As Jesus promised in the letters, they reign with him on thrones, they are clothed in white - signifying their being cleansed from sin (7v14), and they wear the golden crowns of victory. This hints that the white garments may also refer to those given victors in games. The number of 24 most likely therefore corresponds to their representing the people of God - perhaps the tribal heads of the OT and the apostles of NT (21v12-14). In particular they could represent the spirits of those who have died and reign with Christ awaiting the resurrection (20v4). The point would be that seeing those who have conquered in this light, the reader is encouraged to do the same.
     However, as many think, it is possible that these representatives are angels. In the letters it is angels that represent the churches, and just as angels speak to John elsewhere, so does an elder (5v5). Indeed, the elders seems removed from the redeemed, holding their prayers, singing of their redemption, explaining their presence, and witnessing their worship (5v8f, 7v13f, 14v3, 19v4). They are also numbered amongst the angels (7v11). If this is right then we should understand them somehow as rulers of the people of God in heaven just as elders rule them on earth. They would then not just represent the redeemed but how they fare too, which explains their focus when we hear of the redeemed being saved or vindicated.
     The problem with this view is that angels are named as such elsewhere, and the title "elder" and their circumstances all reflect that of men. Perhaps we must conclude then that they are not angels or specific men, but a visionary personification of the people of God, which is why they are distinguished from the redeemed themselves yet so tied to their heavenly activity. Whatever the case, the fact that they are experiencing what Christ promised those who persevere shows what all the faithful whom they represent will themselves experience - and it seems already experience if they have died, even though Christ has not yet returned (Heb 12v23).
     The storm around the throne reminds us of God's presence on Sinai, stressing the awe and power of his rule. The seven spirits now pictured as seven torches highlights the burning and refining holiness of God's presence, with echos of the tongues of flame at Pentecost. The crystal sea-like expanse John sees from heaven is that Ezekiel saw from earth (Ezek 1v22). Being crystal glass it emphasises the glory and purity of this scene and any approach to God, but being before the throne it also speaks of God's separation from John, and the creation which is below it. Like human throne rooms, this one is decorated to bring home the supreme majesty of the King who resides there.
     Surrounding the throne God's subjects are represented. We have already considered the 24 elders. v6 implies their thrones may have been on all sides of God's too. Perhaps 6 on each like the tribes around the tabernacle. This speaks of the centrality of God's rule and life to God's people, and their role of mediating the rule of God over the creation. 
     Perhaps like gaurds, we now read of a living creature on each side of the throne too. They come next as the vision radiates out from the throne - God, the elders, the creatures (cf. 5v6). Their form tells us they are not from earth and so must be superior angels. They are different to the seraphim of Isaiah 6 which are above the Lord, and the creatures of Ezekiel 1 which accompanied the Lord (a sign that the writer is not fabricating the account and merely copying ideas from elsewhere). But they are similar in being awesome creatures at God's bidding. In context (as Isaiah) their role may be in part to lead worship (v5, 5v14), but the double stress on their being covered with eyes may also emphasise their role as guardians who see everything. Of course God doesn't need any, but the sense would again be to stress his necessary separation because of his supreme holiness. We should remember even the perfect seraphim of Isaiah 6 couldn't look at Him.
     The significance of the creatures is unclear. But lions, oxen, men and eagles are a fitting choice as some of the most awesome of God's creatures - perhaps emphasising strength, industry, wisdom and speed. Certainly their appearance should give us a particular respect for them - and for all creatures, in being represented in such a noble way. The creature with a face like a man is distinguished in the sense that the other three are apparently like their creatures in other respects too. Could this reluctance to shape a man-like creature be because he is God's image? Whatever, the importance of man makes it surprising he is just one of four, although his position may have been significant. But it does remind us we must remember humanity are part of the wider creation. "Four" throughout Revelation refers to the whole earth - its "four" corners.
     The six wings (cf. Is 6) probably imply not just a readiness to do God's will, but to accompany God as he moves throughout the earth (cf. Ezek 1). It's another reminder that God rules over all, encouraging the seven churches wherever they are located.
     v8: In case we haven't got the message, the creatures' worship says with words what the entire scene cries out in images: God is supremely holy and supremely mighty. This is the constant song of the creatures, affirming the importance of worship in its own right - apart from the edification of the worshippers, the worthiness of God, and the fundamental nature of the truths sung.
     To be holy is to be set-apart from all else for God's service. By stressing God's holiness three times we are learning just how supremely set-apart he is from the creation, and serves his own glory and purpose. Just as the tallest building or highest mountain evokes awe, contemplation of the portrayal of God in this chapter should do so to an infinitely greater extent. He is Lord, and so ruler, God our creator, and Almighty in being able to do all things - the one behind our vast universe and the power of its supernovas. He is also eternal or everlasting, being the one who was, and is and is to come - a reference in context not to Christ but to God in his essence (v9-10). He is I AM - and so always present, always ruling, and always able to help his church.
     The creatures' worship is to give "glory" by affirming God's excellence, and "honour" in showing how worthy of praise and service he therefore is. It's difficult to see how it is to give "thanks." Perhaps it's a response of thanks for God's act of creation of all creatures and the privilege of being called to worship and serve him. Perhaps it is thanks for God being as he actually is and not other – for being pure, powerful and unchanging rather than wicked, weak and unreliable.
     We're twice reminded of the centre to the vision - the one who sits on the throne and lives forever. This is why he is to be worshipped. Because he rules. And we're told that each time the creatures say the words of v8, the 24 elders fall down in worship, and cast their crowns before him. This affirms his worth and the right allegiance the redeemed give him. Theirs is a delegated rule, and one which is used in God's service. Whether in this life or that to come, every day is one where we cast our crown before the Lord, subduing the creation in a manner that honours him. This is what it is to be priests as well as kings.
     v11: As with the creatures their words are not a song and so celebrations as such, but words of affirmation and so praise in that sense. They also ascribe worth to God. But whereas they praise God for his character, the elders praise him for his first great work - creation. In chapter 5 the two groups will together then sing of Christ's work in salvation. There is progression.
     Once more the one on the throne is noted as Lord and God - the ruler of all things. v9 shows the major sense is that he is worthy to receive glory and honour and power by way of affirmation. But the casting down of the crowns of glory by the elders in v10 suggests this may also imply how worthy God is of having all men who receive these things from others, lay them down in service of him. 21v26 confirms this, as the "glory and the honour of the nations" is brought into the New Jerusalem, contrasting power, authority, glory and wealth being devoted to "the beast" (cf. 17v13, 18v7-24).
     And so any excellence in us, and degree to which we are esteemed or served, any influence or ability we have, is to be use for the furthering of God's purposes. v11 therefore impacts our daily activity. Moreover, it's a call for a people and all rulers to bow before their maker. We are to devote all we have to his service because these things have first been bestowed by him - "for" all things were created by his will, with double emphasis. There is perhaps a sense that they existed first in the mind of God (cf. Eph 1v4) stressing all is exactly as intended. As king David said in giving to God in the work of the temple: "Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand" (1 Chr 29v14.

     v6-11 provide a strange scene on constant repeat day and night. The four creatures say their words, then the 24 elders bow down, throw down their crowns and say theirs, and then the whole thing replays - bringing home just how worthy God is of our praise and service. It's possible angels perform this in a literal sense, but also that it is simply a visual representation of the right worship of God for the purposes of John's vision. And if the 24 elders are simply a personification of the people of God the latter must be the case. Either way it brings home the truth about God to the reader.