The Heavenly Throne

Have you ever seen something so beautiful that you couldn’t speak? The Grand Canyon, the Pacific Ocean, the Northern Lights, the Great Pyramids…If Apostle John was not commanded to write his vision down in Revelation 4, it would have been one of those moments for him. God opened heaven and gave him a glimpse into the majesty of God. I pray we would catch a glimpse of that majesty this morning.

The Throne of God

            The first vision in Revelation 1 lays the foundation for the opening section of the book. Each letter to the seven churches had aspect of the vision of Christ in Revelation 1. The vision dominated the first three chapters. The second vision of the book begins in Revelation 4:1, “After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” The rest of the book will be dominated by this vision of the heavenly throne.

The interpretation of Revelation depends on how one views time. In Revelation 1:19, Jesus says to John, “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” Many people that verse lays out the structure of the book of Revelation. chapter 1 would be the things you have seen, chapters 2-3 represent the things that are in the letter to the churches and chapters 4-22 represent the things that are to take place in the future. I believe chapters 4-22 primarily take place in the future, but just not exclusively in the future. We will have to be very careful in our interpretation of time as we move through the rest of the book.

The language of Revelation 4 is apocalyptic in nature. Jesus invites John into to heaven to see the future. As one commentary noted, “A true insight into history is gained only when we view all things from the vantage point of the heavenly throne.” There are three apocalyptic or “end time” images in this opening verse. The first two are combined with door and the open heaven. The door to heaven is like Jesus exhortation to strive through the narrow gate in Luke 13:24. Heaven was closed because of man’s sin in the garden. God banished man from paradise and placed the cherubim guarding the entrance with a flaming sword that turned in every direction, so no one could enter. However, Jesus has opened a door to heaven inviting John to bear witness. (We see heaven open at Jesus baptism, the death of Stephen, Peter’s vision and Paul’s vision). The third image is the voice like that of a trumpet like chapter 1 to announce the end time reality. All that to say, the audience would have been thinking of the eschaton.

It is important as we traverse through the rest of this book that we do not lose the historical context of the churches to whom this letter is written. The churches were struggling with intense persecution from false Jews and dealing with the compromise of the church to the imperial cult. Emperor worship and the cultic practices associated with the imperial cult are a major theme addressed in the letters. As each of the letters was not merely written for the individual church for we were commanded to hear what the Spirit says to the churches, Revelation 4 and following are speaking specifically to the seven churches but to all churches throughout history as well. We want to try to understand the details while not losing the big picture of the book. God is on his throne.

How precious would this truth be to a church that was facing intense persecution. God is on his throne. We judge our present reality by the future one. Throughout Scripture, God promises a reversal of fortunes for his people. The first shall be last, the last shall be first. He will vindicate his people and punish the wicked. The rich shall be poor, the poor shall be rich. The meek shall inherit the earth. Those who laugh will mourn, those who mourn will laugh. God is on his throne and He, and He only, determines our future reality. We are going to ascend with John into Heaven and the future reality so that we can find comfort and hope.

The Throne of Glory

            The main thrust of the vision is to show the glory of the throne of God. My former pastor would always say of Revelation that sometimes we have to look at the book like a twelve-year -old boy. Most twelve-year-old boys are not looking for deep meaning in all that they say, but simply say, “That is awesome.” When we approach the throne of glory there is a part of us that needs to push aside our desire to understand the meaning of every detail to simply say, “That is awesome.” Revelation 4:2-6,

[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.

The vision begins with one seated on the throne. This would have been an obvious contrast with Caesar and his small earthly throne compared to God’s heavenly throne. Remember the background of the imperial cult worship that has plagued the churches in Asia.

            God is often described as light. 1 John 1:5, “God is light,” 1 Timothy 6:16, “God dwells in unapproachable light.” The stones of jasper and carnelian and a rainbow with an appearance of an emerald are all meant to be taken together. Although the stones had certain qualities associated with them in the Ancient world, (jasper with majesty and holiness; carnelian with judgment; emerald with mercy), attempting to decipher the purpose for each stone is counter-productive. The stones should be taken together as they communicate God seated on his throne in splendor and majesty.

            Around the throne were 24 other thrones with 24 elders seated on those thrones who were clothed with white garments and wearing golden crowns on their heads. Who are the elders? The elders have been identified in various ways with the most common options being: (1) Stars (from an astrological background, (2) angels, (3) OT saints, (4), angelic, heavenly representatives of all saints, (5) patriarchs and the apostles representing the OT and NT saints together, and (6) representatives of the prophetic revelation of the twenty-four books of the Old Testament.

There is not enough time to unpack the different views, but after my study I believe that the most plausible option would be either a (4) angelic, heavenly representatives of all the saints throughout history (12 tribes of Israel representing all the OT saints and the 12 apostles presenting all the NT saints similar to Revelation 21:12, 14 describing New Jerusalem with 12 gates named after the tribes of Israel and the wall having 12 foundations named after the 12 apostles of the lamb). Or angelic, heavenly beings that function like the 24 priestly and 24 Levitical orders (1 Chron 24:1-25:13) to maintain worship of God in heaven. (We know from Hebrews that the earthly temple/tabernacle was a shadow of the things to come. Therefore, the worship of God maintained by the Levitical priesthood in the OT could serve as shadow the heavenly worship of God around his throne.) Regardless, the 24 elders on 24 thrones clothed in white garments with golden crowns continue to contribute to the overall picture of awe and wonder.

            God often communicates his power and presence through nature. We see that in verse 5. This would have brought back images of God in visiting his people on Mount Sinai and the images of Ezekiel 1. God is powerful and over all nature. Before the throne, the seven torches of fire represented the seven spirits of God, which is a reference to the Holy Spirit as seen previously in the opening Trinitarian doxology. Also before the throne there was, “as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.” It is not exactly a sea of glass, but appears to be like a sea of glass. This contributes to the wonder John’s view. Imagine the beautiful light reflected off the sea of glass. A sea of glass is mentioned 2 other times in revelation (15:2 and 21:1). As one scholar notes,

Here the crystal-clear sea of glass symbolizes God’s transcendent holiness and his awesome sovereignty that is a source of worship (4:6) and then becomes the basis of divine judgment (15:2) when God will eradicate evil from his creation.

Several scholars connect the sea of glass to Genesis 1:7 when God divided the waters that were under the firmament (the heavenly expanse) from the waters that were above the firmament. The floor of heaven and the ceiling of creation.

            Again, we cannot lose the overall portrayal of splendor, awe, and majesty this visual sight would have been. John was taken up into heaven to see the throne of glory. The beauty, majesty and splendor of what he saw was not meant for a precise description, but to create a sense of awe for the glory of God’s throne. John continues to describe what he sees around the throne, Revelation 4:6b-8a,

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

As in the 24 elders, there has been much speculation on who the 4 living creatures are. Some have associated them with the 4 gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but there is no evidence for this view. Others try to connect the four to Babylonian or Assyrian mythology, but there is no hint of Babylon imagery in Revelation. Others believe that they represent divine characteristics (courage and majesty with the lion, patience and strength with the ox, intelligence and spirituality with man, and sovereignty and swiftness of action with the eagle). The most viable and accepted view is that the four living creatures both transcend and represent all life in the created order (perhaps the noblest, strongest, wisest, and swiftest in God’s creation.[1]) These four creatures have eyes all around them to communicate God’s all-seeing knowledge and his ceaseless vigilance.

            We should be careful not to hold our convictions on the who and what of the 4 living creatures because there are several viable options. And yet, regardless of what they represent in Revelation,

These four living beings lead worship (4:6-9, 5:8-9, 11;19:4), stand sentinel at the throne (5:6 7:11, 14:3), and take the lead in outpouring of divine judgment (6:1, 3, 5-7; 15:7) … Most likely are the leaders of the heavenly court.[2]

All we know for certain is that these 4 living creatures represent the highest of heavenly beings and help contribute to the awe, wonder, and majesty of God.

            I believe there is value in understanding the different particulars of John’s description of heaven. There is value in discerning who are the elders and who are the living creatures, why did God use these particular stones, but all of the specifics are secondary to the overall vision of God’s glory. Remember this book was written to the seven churches dealing with persecution and the false worship of Caesar as Lord. God gave this vision to John to help the church persevere with him.

Regardless of what this earthly world praises, we must understand the awesome wonder and majesty of God. He is far above the heavens. He is worthy of worship. He is awesome. He is glorious.

The Throne of Worship

            There are two responses that should come when we hear of the majesty and splendor of God. Our hearts will either worship or fear. The heavenly beings worshiped God for holiness. Revelation 4:8b,

[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.”

The heavenly beings know exactly who God is and the only proper response is worship. We see the three-fold declaration of God’s holiness; He is holy, holy, holy. Then we see the elders declare that he is worthy to receive glory, honor and power for the Lord has created all things and by his will all they continue to exist. God is worthy of worship.

As humans, we too often focus on ourselves. We view our lives and our problems as the most important things in the universe. God is trying to correct that view in Revelation. We should always view life considering God who is seated on the throne of glory. The holy, splendor of God should create fear in those who do not know Him. How could man who is sinful stand in the presence of such an awesome God? When Isaiah saw the glory of God he replied, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell I the midst of people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” When Peter saw the glory of God in Christ, he said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Have you ever truly understood who you are in the face of such a holy God? Have you ever been awakened to your own sinfulness?

            One of the greatest travesties of the modern church is a casualty and a lack of holy fear of awesome God. One reasons there is a lack of conversions in the church is that people do not realize they should fear God. The modern church’s love for authenticity and relationship hinders people from realizing their sin and their desperate need of forgiveness.

Our need to understand the depth of our sin is not just for the non-believer. I was with our college students on Tuesday night and I told them that one of my goals in my preaching is to help you see how utterly sinful you are. I want you to realize how wretched, poor, blind and naked we are before a holy God. Not exactly the feel-good message of the year, but it is only when you understand how utterly sinful you are that you will realize how incredibly glorious God is. And when we realize the transcendent majesty of a holy God compared to the depth of our depravity, it is only then, we can fully understand our need of forgiveness. If you consider yourself an unbeliever, do you have any fear when you hear of God’s glory? Do you believe that you will have to answer for what you have done? Christian, do you realize how much God has saved you from?

            The degree in which we love God and love others is determined by how view our own forgiveness. If we have a small view of God and a small view of our sin, our love for God and others will also be small. But if we have a large view of God and a large view of our sin, our love for God and others will be large. Jesus shared this story in Luke 7,

[41] “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. [42] When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” [43] Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” [44] Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. [45] You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. [46] You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  [47] Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

The sin of the Pharisee was not less than the woman, but the Pharisee viewed his sin as less than the woman and it affected his love for God and his neighbor. If we lose a high view of God, we also lose a high view of our sin, and lose our understanding of how much God has forgiven and lose our ability to love well.

            If one response to the majesty of God is fear, the other is worship. The elders and the living creatures worshiped God. And we can worship God because we belong to the Son. God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. This glorious God sent his Son to be our Savior. We must read Revelation 4/5 together. The whole scene must be taken together. John does not only see God sitting on the throne in unapproachable light, but he sees the lamb who slain. We will dive deep in Revelation 5 in a few weeks, but can we just hear it as a 12 year-old boy and say, “That is awesome!” Revelation 5,

[1] Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. [2] And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” [3] And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, [4] and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. [5] And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

[6] And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. [7] And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. [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. [9] And they sang a new song, saying,

            “Worthy are you to take the scroll

                        and to open its seals,

            for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God

                        from every tribe and language and people and nation,

            [10] and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,

                        and they shall reign on the earth.”

[11] Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, [12] saying with a loud voice,

            “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,

            to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might

            and honor and glory and blessing!”

[13] And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

            “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb

            be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

[14] And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

John began to weep loudly and the elders said weep no more. Friend, weep no more. The Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered the grave because he was led, like a lamb, to the slaughter. And that my friend…is awesome!

 

[1] Osborne, Robert. Baker

[2] Osborner, Robert. Baker 234-235.