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A Study of Revelation - Chapter 4
Part 5 of a chapter by chapter study of the book of Revelation
Where we are in Revelation
Chapter 4 starts with 'after this', which marks a clear transition from the letters that have finished in chapters 2 and 3 but still a part of the visions that are experienced "on the Lord's day" (1:10). Most commentators agree that chapters 4 and 5 go together as an introduction to both the "one seated on the throne" (4:9) and the "lamb standing as though it was slain" (5:6) and both are worshipped in very similar words with differences that we will look into by the end of this section. Chapter 6 begins with opening of the first seal, which naturally starts a new section even while still being part of the vision in the throne room. Due to time and length, I will be splitting 4 and 5 into two separate posts but keep note that the two are meant to go together!
An open door and a great throne
'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.” At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on 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. ' Revelation 4:1-3
The one who has the voice of a trumpet is the one that John "turned to see the voice of" in chapter 1 (vs 12). The one who speaks is the one who says to the church in Philadelphia that he has opened a door that no one can shut (3:8) and has now opened the door of heaven for John, and us to have access to. If you read this alongside Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6, you will see obvious similarities. Ezekiel saw the heaven's opened (Ezekiel 1:1) and Isaiah saw the Lord on his throne 'high and lifted up' (Isaiah 6:1). The difference, is that it is is now clearly Jesus who brings John into the heavenly throne room.
Jesus' invitation into the throne room offers a glimpse of what will take place 'after this'. We must be careful not to leap too far into the future on phrases like this given the whole book of Revelation is a revelation of 'the things that must soon take place' (1:1). John immediately takes the invitation and is in the Spirit - a direct connection between Jesus and the Spirit - and the next vision unfolds.
The vision of the one seated on the throne is one of authority and governance. With the connection to the flood (Genesis 6), the rainbow points to themes of commitment and hope (see Tonstad) and judgement. Most of these themes are easy to pick up and can be summarised as a pointer to the greatness of a God who rules over creation even if you don't know your jasper from your carnelian. Ian Paul points out the gems suggest a fiery appearance similar to Ezekiel's vision in Ezekiel 1. They were also connected to what priests would wear by being 'the first and last gems' on the ephod which Jon Hosier connects as a pictorial vision of God being 'the alpha and the omega'. The continuing theme in this chapter is that God is awesome but we have access through Jesus.
24 elders and a lot of noise
'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. 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, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.' Revelation 4:4-5
The symbolism seems to be in part to highlight how inexplicable the presence of God is. Words cannot describe him but imagery and symbols might just get us a little bit closer. A throne room with multiple thrones is nothing new in Judeo-Christian ideas as Daniel was aware of thrones being placed when he has a vision of the ancient of days (see chapter 7 verse 9).
There is disagreement as to who these 24 elders are. John Hosier states that they arguably represent the universal church based off of the 12 tribes of Israel along with the 12 apostles of the Lamb. This makes sense as both can also be seen later in Revelation 21 (verses 12 and 14) as the gates and foundations of the New Jerusalem (more on what that means when we get there). Tonstad ignores the number of elders and states the arrangement is more important as it shows co-rulership but unfortunately his commentary misses what I see as an important question regarding the divine council! Bauckham states they are angelic beings who rule the heavenly realm and cites Isaiah 24:23's use of 'elder' but with little more engagement, at least not in this small commentary (I have yet to access his larger commentary). GK Beale points out 6 different ideas but seems to settle on the idea that "they are angels who are identified with the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles, thus representing the entire community of the redeemed of both testaments". I find this conclusion a good middle ground though lean towards John Hosier's and Ian Paul's conclusions. Hosier and Paul both conclude that they are representatives of God's people, though not necessarily angelic and that seems to harmonise the differing views successfully.
The 24 elders are part of the divine council and are also rulers (they have crowns after all), this is significant when we look at how they behave in a moment. They are kings and priests as seen in their clothing and we've seen this theme already in every chapter so far. Crowns, white clothing and dominion - John wants you to see this! The people of God are given co-rulership. Hosier points out the significance of this for the church now:
"This gives us the confidence that on the earth, the church, even now, is able to function with the delegated authority of God. The kingdom steadily advances in the earth. The church should therefore look up and gain the perspective of heaven."
The perspective of heaven means that the church, at its best, should be a place where heaven meets earth.
The sound blasts and lightning again emphasise the majesty of the creator God a ferocity that invokes fear. There are parallels to the invitation to Moses to "Come up to me on the mountain" all the while "the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel" (Exodus 24:12-17). We are invited to come close to God but that doesn't mean he is to be taken lightly!
We have commented previously on the seven spirits of God (see chapter 1 verses 4-5) and Ian Paul points out the lit torches connect to Pentecost and the flames of the spirit falling on the disciples (Acts 2:3). Jesus was also promised to baptise 'with the Holy Spirit and fire' (Matt.3:11, Luke 3:16). A final connection that is relevant is one to the Old Testament and the seven burning lamps that stood in front of the Holy of Holies (Exodus 25:37; 27:21).
The connections between the temple, the creation account in Genesis 1 and now the throne room of God highlight the importance of New Creation theology. Creation was made to be God's temple, sin has defiled it and earth and humanity became exiled from heaven and the future hope is heaven reuniting with the earth made new. The promise is that we see heaven unite with earth through God's people (the church) now, but in the future, heaven will come to earth made new. I'm jumping ahead but you'll see this in Revelation 21. To gain a bit more of an overview of this perspective, watch the Bible Project video on Heaven and Earth (below).
Before moving on into the next verses we must pause and discuss the 'sea of glass'. We will discuss the sea further in later chapters so it is important to engage with the symbolism here as a foundation. Starting in Genesis 1 and reading through the entire Bible but most specifically in other apocalyptic literature such as Daniel and Ezekiel, the sea is seen as chaos, non-creation or even anti-creation in the case of Daniel 7. The creation story is God bringing order out of the waters and a major story pointing to Jesus' divinity is his calming of the sea (Matthew 8:23–27, Mark 4:35–41, and Luke 8:22–25). Some commentators have stated this 'sea' is representative of a distance between God and humanity to highlight his holiness. I am unconvinced by this given the invitation discussed earlier that John, and us by extension, is invited into the throne room. We are invited to 'come up to the mountain' like Moses. God is holy (separate from us in perfection) but He will dwell with humanity and invites us into relationship with him even now, through Jesus. Even in Revelation 1, Jesus is ‘in the midst of’ the churches. Therefore this 'sea of glass' is a symbol of God's power to create order from chaos and not a symbol of his distance from us. Ian Paul states in his commentary on this that there is also an "allusion ... to the bronze 'sea' that stood in front of Solomon's temple (1 Kings 7:23-26; 2 Chronicles 4:2-5),
Revelation is again offering a theological interpretation of the symbolism of the temple: that the 'sea' represented heavenly reality which connected with both the creation narrative and the encounter with God at Sinai"
The God revealed in the pages of the bible and seen in the throne room is a God who draws near to people, not one who sets the world in motion and sits back to watch the show.
4 creatures and a lot of eyes
'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. 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!” ' Revelation 4:6-8
Tonstad points out in his commentary that when literally translated, the four living creatures "are located in the middle of the throne and around the throne. The arrangement is awkward and well-nigh impossible to visualize [sic], but it obliterates the distance between God and created beings... We are in a council where high-level participation is in view" (emphasis Tonstad's). Tonstad continues that the eyes are a symbol of intelligence, wisdom, and discernment highlighting that "God is committed to transparency, and intelligent beings are endowed with the ability to understand". God is a mystery revealed, his ways are not our ways but he does not remain a mystery and he can be known!
While Tonstad focuses on the beings proximity and involvement, he does seem to miss out their representative value of both creation and the fullness of life along with representing the creator - double symbolism is to be expected in Apocalyptic literature as Beale argues. These beings will appear later in Revelation and are shown to have authority alongside their reverence and never resting (literal translation of verse 8's anapausis) worship.
Revelation calls God the 'Lord God Almighty' seven times. This is the second time, the first being in chapter 1. Ian Paul notes this was used in the OT by combining YHWH with the Hebrew for 'commander of the armies [of heaven]'. God is the mightiest of the mighty and alongside 'who was, and is, and is to come' (now in chronological order compared with 1:4) we have a warrior God whose power extends across all time. Tonstad wants you to note that this isn't necessarily as serene a moment as many commentators state. While the worship of God is true and God is sovereign, there is an accuser and an attempt to dethrone the council of God is coming.
A God worthy of worship
'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 honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”' Revelation 4:9-11
These final verses may be fairly self-explanatory but they are no less potent in their symbolism and meaning. All things are made for and by God and all authority is his alone. This is a Christian perspective on creation and who God is. He is outside time and space and created all things from nothing. He holds all things together. It is why only God is worthy of worship and it is why the king-elders are humbled and cast their crowns before the throne. A good king knows that they rule only because they are given their authority and location by the ruler of the cosmos. No matter your position in life, any authority you do have is delegated.
Richard Bauckham notes that this chapter could be written by any 'non-Christian Jewish visionary' given the imagery all connects back into the Hebrew Bible. This is important to note as we go into chapter 5 and start seeing the connections John sees with the most important figure of Revelation - a lamb that looks like it was slain.
See resources in chapter 1.
Ian Paul states they are NOT angelic and the number 24 is not connected to the 12 tribes and 12 apostles but a parallel to the divisions in priesthood and temple musicians in 1 Chronicles 24 and 25. He also argues the number could be a play on the number of licitors (attendants) that Roman Emperors could have and Domitian doubled the number from 12 to 24.