This week, we move to chapter four of the book of Revelation. It’s fair to ask why, in a sermon series on the letters to the seven churches, you would also include chapters four and five? The letters end with chapter three and there is a very clear break between the first three chapters and chapter four. So, why does a series on the letters to the seven churches need to include chapters four and five?
The reason is that chapters four and five are theologically VERY connected to the letters. Here are two ways they’re connected theologically. First, they’re connected in the sense that, in each letter—whether the church is healthy or not, Jesus promises to each church a reward if they “conquer” or, if they are faithful to Christ in the midst of opposition and persecution. All those rewards are related to heaven and eternity.
To Ephesus, Jesus promised that if they repent, they would be granted the privilege of eating “of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” [2:7] The believers at Smyrna were promised “the crown of life” and that they would “not be hurt by the second death.” The other churches received similar promises and all of those promises of future blessing relate directly to heaven. Those blessings will be given to faithful believers when they die and go to heaven. It’s very clear that Jesus expected the future glories of heaven to help motivate these churches to be faithful. So, it’s no coincidence, that for these churches (that were either in the midst of persecution or would soon be persecuted), that chapter four opens with a vision of the glory of God in heaven that would remind them of what would be theirs if they prove faithful.
A second theological connection between these two sections of the book is related to the fact that a big part of the purpose of this book is to reveal to these persecuted churches that, underlying the material, physical expressions of imprisonment and confiscation of property there is a deeper, spiritual reality in heaven controlling these flesh and blood calamities and disasters. That reminds these churches that their suffering for Jesus is not an accident or purely the result of human cruelty and prejudice. No, ultimately what is happening to them is directly ordained by God. It’s all part of his plan and in this book, he is gradually revealing to them what must take place.
That explains why, after these seven letters, Jesus takes us directly into the throne room of heaven. And he reveals, not only God on his throne, but also what scholars have called his “ruling council.” This is the group, (groups) with God as their infinite, Supreme Leader, that is ultimately executing God’s plans manifest in world events. So, the Spirit is revealing, NOT ONLY that God ordains what is happening to them but also what the specific process looks like by which God’s pre-ordained decisions are carried out. It begins with a sovereign God’s master plan who then leaves the execution of his plans to these heavenly beings. The churches are strengthened and reassured because they are let in on even God’s underlying process by which ALL the events of their lives are decided and executed by God and his ruling council for his glory and our eternal joy.
And …it’s not insignificant that, when all this is revealed, the predominant scene in heaven is not some war room where strategies are crafted to carry out God’s will. No, first and foremost, what these members of the divine ruling council of God are doing is…worshipping their King. God’s purposes are being established and carried out in the midst of a continuous, incredible celebration of his glory. That reminds the church that what is really important is NOT what is happening to us, but that God is being glorified in the midst of it! As we look at this vision of heaven’s throne room, it divides into three sections. The first section is “the glory of the King.” Section two we can call “the glory of the King’s Council” and the third section is “the worship of the King in his glory.”
First and most importantly, let’s look at the glory of the King that John reveals to us here. There are at least five aspects to the glory of God revealed here and the first and most important one for persecuted believers is in verse two. John recounts his vision of heaven and he begins with “2 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.” The overriding, dominant feature of this glorious heavenly temple—the element of God’s glory that first strikes John is the throne of God. This word “throne” appears in almost every chapter of the book of Revelation. Of the 62 times it’s found in the New Testament, 47 of them are in the Revelation.
The main reason for this is because a throne symbolizes the sovereign authority of a King. When an order comes “from the throne” that means it carries the authority of the King. The fact that the persecution of these churches is ultimately under the sovereign authority of their King would have been such a reassurance to people living under the often-brutal reign of Roman emperors. Most of the authority to persecute Christians came by order of the throne of Caesar. John’s incessantly frequent references to God’s throne is his way of powerfully reminding these believers that the REAL authority in the midst of their persecution is NOT in Rome; it’s in heaven. Caesar is NOT sovereign over the affairs of this world; the King of heaven is!
Caesar’s throne in Rome only acts out on earth what an absolutely sovereign God has pre-ordained must happen for his glory and the ultimate joy of his saints. Think about how comforting it is to know that the One who sits on the ultimate throne of the universe is the same God who sent his sinless Son to suffer and die for you. God’s goodness in the midst of this suffering is not in doubt because the cross of Calvary has erased any possible doubt of his love for his people. The Sovereign who ultimately ordained the suffering of the saints is NOT some pompous, immoral, power- drunk sinner in Rome. NO, he is nothing less than the Almighty Lord of all who loves these churches enough to come to earth to suffer and die for them!
A second element of God’s glory seen here is the manifold glory of the God who sits on the throne. If you were to actually see God, just from what you know of God, how would you describe him? As John knew, the answer is—he defies a literal description. It’s a logical impossibility for finite words to capture an infinite God, so John uses symbolic or apocalyptic images to give powerful impressing and create profound impact. He says of God in verse three, “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.” Typical of many of the apocalyptic images in the Revelation, there is no strong consensus about what this means with any great specificity or even what modern day precious stones correlate to what John is talking about. And it really doesn’t matter because that kind of precise identification is not the point.
The reason John uses apocalyptic imagery here for God is because literal descriptions exhaust themselves in describing the glory of God. So, he describes him by taking what the people of his day most identified with glory-rare and valuable gemstones. We know this because later in chapter 21 of this book, John correlates precious stones with glory. John is describing the end-time revelation of the bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem. Speaking of an angel, he says in verse 10, “10 And he [the angel] carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.” There, John explicitly relates jasper to the radiant glory of the church of Christ.
How astonishing is it that John, in describing the glorified children of God uses the same language and symbols he uses to describe the glory of God? The precious stones are an image representing the radiant or outshining glory of God. Precious gemstones intensify light when it hits them. God emits such radiant glory that the only thing John can think of is the intensified light produced as it reflects off a precious stone—like a diamond. Connected to these precious stones, but distinct from them, is the other part of John’s description of God. “…And around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.”
What could this glorious, emerald-like rainbow signify about God? We can be more certain of this because God has already explained the meaning and purpose of the rainbows he hangs in the sky after a rain. This is a sign of his everlasting covenant with Noah that he will never again destroy the earth with a flood. The rainbow is a powerful symbol of God’s mercy and in the Revelation.
The point is that behind all the violent and even grisly judgment God will bring against the evil world that is plotting against God and trying to destroy his church, there is a merciful God. Though these rebels deserve instant destruction, he has patiently, mercifully waited until the sins of this world are fulfilled when God, as a just Judge, can do nothing else but destroy sinful humanity. John is revealing through this apocalyptic image of the rainbow that God is merciful, and this understanding of God should serve as a backdrop for all the violent scenes of his holy judgment to come in this book. Though his destruction and judgments are unstoppable and devastating, they come from the hand of a God who has mercifully waited centuries for this evil world to repent of their rebellion.
A third element of God’s glory in this description is in verse five. “5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder.” It’s important for us to remember here that, to most of the people who have lived on the earth, lightning and thunder are the scariest things they regularly experience. We must remember that before Ben Franklin, people didn’t know there was a natural, scientific explanation of these phenomena. History tells us that most people saw in lightning and thunder terrifying manifestations of the power and might of angry divine beings. It comes from the heavens, it is the loudest thing in nature and, if God is really mad at you, he can use his lighting to incinerate you alive. Even primitive people today cower in fear when severe thunderstorm approach.
But there is something else that helps us know what this reference to lighting and thunder represent. In the book of the Revelation, there are three major series of God’s judgments on the wicked people of this earth. Within these three, there are seven separate judgments each in chapters eight, 11 and 16. These are the seals, the trumpets, and the bowls that are poured out in judgment on rebel sinners. At the end of each of these three series of judgments is an almost verbatim repetition of this sentence about lightning and thunder that we here see originates from the throne of God. The purpose is to reinforce that these judgments come from the very throne of God. These terrible calamities that come upon the earth, plagues and the other afflictions described in Revelation, must be seen as God’s judgements on sinners that come by his sovereign command.
A fourth element of the glory of God is in the second half of verse five where John says, “…before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God,” This is basically a repetition of something the prophet Zechariah saw in a vision in Zechariah four. There, this is identified as the Holy Spirit and so that is what this is. This is the unique glory of a Trinitarian God—with the Father seen here on the throne, the Son seen in the next chapter as the sacrificial Lamb and the Holy Spirit seen in both chapters serving both the Father and the Son. This reveals the very heart of the glorious, Trinitarian nature of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
A fifth and the least easy to identify of these expressions of the glory of God is in verse six where John says, “6 and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal…” No one knows what this means with any certainty. Probably the most compelling suggestion relates to the stillness and serenity symbolized by a sea of crystal glass. The idea here is that in the bible, the sea is often seen as a source of destruction and tumult. Where do nearly all the evil beasts emerge from? The sea. But this sea in heaven has been stilled to the place of absolute serenity. Though Satan rages through his tumult on earth, in truth, no matter how much chaos may appear to be raging on earth, the reality in heaven (that will one day appear on earth), is that the spiritual environment Jesus won on the cross is perfectly still—like glass.
That’s the manifold expression of the glory of the King. Next, let’s look at the glory of the King’s Council. We see this first in verse four where John reveals that, “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.” As you read through the Revelation, you discover that this is the first of two groups—that, along with a very few other angelic beings, execute on earth God’s judgments. Who are these elders? Many contemporary scholars believe these elders are a class of intensely high-ranking angelic beings because they perform tasks typically performed by angels in the Revelation.
For instance, chapter five, verse eight says, “8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” These elders are holding the prayers for relief from God’s saints on earth and presenting them to God. In chapter eight, John explicitly says it is “another angel” that offers these incense-like prayers of the saints before God’s throne. That implies these elders who offered these prayers are also some sort of angelic beings.
But more important is that these elders have significant authority as well. They sit on their own thrones and wear golden crowns. These are beings with cosmic levels of authority. Their thrones don’t sit in earthly palaces, but in the very throne room of God, the Almighty. We can’t know much about these beings, but they evidently have authority given by God and second only to God. The number 24 is not used anywhere else in the Bible symbolically so it’s impossible to be dogmatic here.
The second group within God’s ruling council here are these four strange creatures that appear beginning in the second half of verse six. John says, 6 … 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…”
Suggestions are legion as to what these creatures are that are described with such heavy apocalyptic imagery. That means that their precise identity isn’t that important. What we DO know of these creatures is the role they play in the rest of the book is very similar to the elders. That is–they inaugurate, dispense and mediate God’s judgment on sinful humanity in the end times. And each of the creatures captured in this apocalyptic imagery represent the highest forms of their class of beings. For predators, there is the lion, for domestic animals, the ox, for birds, the eagles, and for wisdom and intelligence, humanity.
Because these are agents who dispense God’s wrath, that helps us understand some of the other imagery. The eyes that are everywhere is a symbolic way of communicating that they see everything happening on earth—no act of injustice on God’s people goes unseen. Their six wings probably expresses the truth that, when they see any injustice, they can fly to the scene with supernatural speed and immediately dispense any appropriate judgment on the wicked. What a comfort to know that, as you are being persecuted, the Lord of the universe is monitoring everything that is being done to you and is able, in an instant, to bring his judgment if it’s his will to do so. When he DOES allow injustice to be perpetrated on his people, it’s NOT because he is not paying attention or he’s helpless to bring deliverance (even though that’s the lie we are tempted to believe). It’s because it is simply not part of his sovereign plan to bring glory to himself and ultimate joy to his suffering people.
Another major truth pertaining to both of these groups within God’s heavenly council is—these are intensely, incredibly, impressive, and fearsome creatures. You do NOT want to be on the bad side of these creatures. In any other setting in the universe, the appearance of these creatures would be so impressive and intimidating that THEY would be the main focus of attention. And the point is—you know how much glory a King has by the kind of people or beings paying homage to him.
In the Old Testament, King Nebuchadnezzar was a uniquely great king in part because those who paid homage to him included all the kings of all the defeated nations that he trampled under his feet. That manifests the high level of glory a King possesses. When we are speaking of the Almighty of heaven, these fantastical, supernatural, unimaginably powerful and wise agents of judgment–these executors of God’s heavenly plan—these who stand above all the chaos and brutality of what is happening on earth—its these beings who, when we meet them here in heaven… are obsessed with worshipping God on his throne. That speaks to the infinite supremacy of God’s glory and leads us to the third and final section and that is the worship of the King.
There are two separate outpourings of praise to God here, the first by these four creatures and the second, by the 24 elders. These four creatures, who, it’s clear from the rest of the book, God has given the power and strength to wipe out as many billions of people as they are commanded to —these creatures spend the great majority of their time engaging in a vastly different activity. In verse eight, John says of these beasts, “…day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
When a normally intelligent person repeats something incessantly its either because he has received some brain damage or because he has experienced something so profound and is so utterly dumbstruck, that he/she can only repeat expressions of how smitten they are. That is the impact God’s holiness has on even completely sinless beings of supernatural intelligence and ability. In Isaiah chapter six, the Seraphim—literally these “burning ones” are likewise affected by God’s holiness. Verse three records, “3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
Those who are familiar with R.C. Sproul’s treatment of the holiness of God know that, in the bible, only one of God’s many attributes is elevated to the third level of repetition; his holiness. In the Ancient Near Eastern world, the way you emphasized the importance or brilliance or impressiveness of something was to repeat it. But to repeat something to the third degree was a sign that whatever you are emphasizing is infinitely, inexpressibly impressive and brilliant and important.
To say that God is holy is to say that he is superlative—he’s categorically, infinitely better, stronger, wiser, more beautiful, more glorious, more powerful, more majestic than anyone or anything else. God is in a class by himself and that means that he is separate. He is qualitatively different than anyone or anything else. He stands in the solitude of himself. His power is holy power because it cannot be equaled. His love is holy love because no love could be purer or more sacrificial. His justice is holy justice because it could not be more judiciously expressed. These incredibly impressive, angelic creatures are so smitten, so enraptured, so entranced, so awe-struck by God’s holiness, they repeat it endlessly—day and night.
In verse eight, when they continue with, “the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come…” they are declaring that nothing is stronger or more powerful than God and evidence of that is–he has reigned over all things for all of history—over what was, and over what is, and over what is to come. He is, always has been, and always will be in absolute control over all of history.
The second outpouring of worship is in verse nine. “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…”
These elders worship first, by falling off their thrones. There’s nothing dignified about this—these elders are overwhelmed—knocked off their thrones! Even though they have heard this worship of these creatures countless times, they remain so thunderstruck, they don’t climb down, they fall down. You can’t rightly worship the true and eternal King if you are seated on a symbol of your own authority! They instead lay prostrate before the King and they toss their crowns before God in joyful acknowledgement of the fact that GOD is the ultimate Sovereign.
What they declare as they worship God is in verse 11. “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.” To worship is literally to declare the worth of whatever or whoever you are worshipping and that is precisely what these elders do. “Worthy are you, our Lord and God to receive glory and honor and power…” They then go on to say the reason he is worthy of this kind of effusive worship is for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” He is worthy because he alone is the Creator of the universe.
There are two great works of God that most clearly reveal who he is and what he is like, creation and redemption. He is praised for his work in creation here, and in chapter five, he is worshipped for his work of redemption. About God’s revelation of himself as Creator, Paul says in Romans 1:20, “20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made…”
If you are a careful student of nature and in your study of nature you are seeking to discover more of what God is like (and 300 years ago was the primary motive for scientific research!), you can come to know an encyclopedic amount of truth about God because his fingerprints are all over this place. We don’t have time to give examples—I wish we did. Suffice it to say that David Attenborough and all his BBC nature programs should be required watching for any believer hungry to know more about God through his creation. If you love God, you cannot watch those programs without becoming worshipful. The amazing attributes of God are clearly seen in his creation.
There is much more that could be said of this glorious chapter but what does all this mean to us? First, it means that, whatever happens to us (as faithful believers in a hostile world)—whatever happens in our cities—whoever wins the election, we need not fear because a glorious, omnipotent, eternally praiseworthy King is running the universe and he has ALL things under his absolute control. God intends that these two pictures of him in his heavenly throne room in chapters four and five of Revelation will inspire his people to face down and conquer in the midst of even the cruelest, most intense persecution imaginable.
This scene of heaven has inspired countless persecuted believers to endure unspeakable torture and punishment. If it is able to inspire and encourage to that degree, it can surely encourage us to endure much lower levels of persecution and the ordinary trials of life when we’re tempted to wonder if God has stepped off his throne.
He has not. His is Almighty God and he reigns as our absolutely sovereign King. If, when you are experiencing the trials of life, you become anxious, one thing that can remedy that is—spend much more time in the throne room of God. Spend much more time meditating on his glory, his majesty, his holiness, his magnificence. “The things of earth grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”
Second, this chapter, with its glorious depiction of God, reminds us that this Almighty God in his manifold glory does not come into our lives to be our personal assistant. Jesus is to be our Treasure, our Savior, and our… King. He’s not our president—president’s can be vetoed or voted out of office. He’s a King. And he comes into our lives to rule, not give us advice that we can disregard if we find it bothersome. Our King carried a cross that he calls all of his subjects to carry after him. That means that his rule in our lives extends to the point where we are to be willing to die for him. And, that includes a 1000 ways, that, on a daily basis we must die to our own selfish desires and instead embrace his will.
But don’t miss this. Obeying this King, submitting to this King is not burdensome precisely because he IS also our Treasure and our Savior. That means that obedience to our King should flow from our amazement of who he is as our Great Treasure and our gratitude for what he has done for us in saving us. If you do not have a strong grasp in your heart of Jesus as your Treasure and Jesus as your Savior, your obedience to him as your King must of necessity be forced, performed through the gritted teeth of someone who is doing something purely from a wretched sense of obligation. That’s not the gospel!
This King we have seen here in Revelation chapter four and his Son who we will see in chapter five is Lord and King over all. It’s so easy to forget that and sinfully place him in an advisory role. A God with the kind of glory we have seen this morning, will not be that to us. He is Lord over all and that includes our hearts, our decisions, our priorities, our possessions. Everything from what media we watch or listen to, to what we do with his money, to our willingness to share the gospel with others.
May God give us the grace to trust in the King of Glory now and forever for his glory and our eternal joy.