Revelation 4:1-11

The focus of John's book now changes from earth to the heavens. Jesus has been speaking - through John - to the seven churches but we don't "return to earth" again until the end of the book. Jesus has been encouraging the churches who have lost their way, by trying to shepherd them back on track. He has given those who have been falling short a clear choice: to hear His voice and open the door of their hearts to allow Him in, or to ignore Him and carry on in their own way. Jesus doesn't seek to force anyone but leaves it entirely up to the individual. The same applies to us today. We have to make an individual decision; that door cannot be answered by anyone else. It is a matter of personal choice and Jesus is content to leave it to us to decide for ourselves.

The door is always open for us to come to Jesus. At His crucifixion and resurrection, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, signifying that Jesus had opened the way for us to have direct access to the throne of God, rather than go through an intermediary such as a priest. (Matthew 27:51)

A door into heaven

As chapter four opens, John is now facing a door of his own. This time, it is not the door of his heart, but the door to heaven. The same voice that John had been unable to ignore in chapter one, now speaks again and Jesus calls John to join Him up in heaven. “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'” (Revelation 4:1)

On hearing the voice, John knew to "look". There is a challenge here for us to keep our spiritual eyes open to what God is trying to reveal to us. He recognised the voice of Jesus, so he knew to listen to what he was being told and, in his obedience, he was "at once in the Spirit". Imagine what he (and we) would have missed if John had "been too busy"! John is immediately in the Spirit and in heaven - at God’s throne: the unforgettable throne, which is the seat of absolute control throughout the entire period of judgement.

A message for all of us

We must never think that God is operating in a vacuum as far as His people are concerned. He wants us to know ahead of time what He is doing, so that we can understand His purposes for us. He will share with us what lies ahead, if we are prepared to spend time with Him, learning to hear His voice. Back in the Old Testament, at Mamre, the Father shared with Abraham what He was about to do for him in giving him a son. (Genesis 18:10) Later, when He was about to bring judgement on Sodom, God again took Abraham into His confidence. (Genesis 18:17-19) In the same way, Jesus wanted to share with John what He was about to do on the earth as He prepared to gather to Himself His church - the bride for whom He died such an ignominious and horrific death, so that she might be free to serve Him and to be with Him for ever!

God is now going to judge the earth that crucified His Son but, once again, He wants to take John (and us) into His full confidence, disclosing all the events that we can expect at the climax of the ages. We are now living in that time, so it's well worth listening to what God has to say to us! Chapters four and five serve as an introduction to the long section at the heart of the book: chapters six to twenty. In the throne room of heaven, where ultimate power, authority and judgement reside in the person of Jesus - the "Lamb of God" - we shall see Him taking the responsibility of initiating the great, final conflict with the forces of evil. Then, at the very end, se shall see the Lamb triumphant and Satan - our Enemy - consigned to the lake of fire. The visions of judgement that are seen here are about Israel and the nations rather than the church.

John's experience of heaven

We know very little about "heaven" from the Bible, either what it is or where it is. But John’s experience with Jesus does show similarities with other glimpses of "heaven" that we have. The first of these is what the apostle, Paul, described in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he talks about what Christians can expect at the end of time. Many will have died before then (although some will still be alive) but when "the last trumpet" sounds, "the dead will be raised imperishable and we will be changed." (1 Corinthians 15:51-54) Paul later expands on this in his first letter to the Thessalonians, where he talks about being "caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air". (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

If you remember, we looked briefly (in study ten - "the hour of trial") at what is called "The Rapture". This is linked to "The Tribulation" - a period of trial and tribulation that the whole earth will experience after Jesus' return. Many believe that this period will cover the last seven years of this planet, whilst it is still under the influence of Satan. It will be a time like no other, when Satan comes into the open and attempts to usurp God’s throne. It cannot take place while the Holy Spirit is still on the earth living in believers. We do not need to be unsettled about this time, but we need to follow the Holy Spirit's direction and walk in step with Him continually.

John was not taken into heaven permanently, but his experience may have been similar to something that happened to the apostle, Paul. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he describes being "caught up to paradise" and hearing "inexpressible things, things that no-one is permitted to tell". (2 Corinthians 12:2-6) Also, many others have described being transferred to heaven for differing lengths of time and have written interesting books about their experiences. (For example, see "Heaven" by Randy Alcorn, "Visions beyond the veil" by HA Baker and "I saw heaven" by Roberts Liardon.) Unlike Paul, John was expressly told to write about what he saw. It is so wonderful for us to know where we are going to spend eternity. Some of the description is in words we understand and some is hard to imagine, but it helps us to focus on the fact that this world is not our home and we have a better place to look forward to. (John 14:3)

The throne room

It was not an empty throne. God is the ruler of heaven and earth and He was there, just as He always is, ruling in ultimate power, justice and might over humanity and its affairs: "The one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby". Why is God is described as being like a stone? John Philipps, in his book "Exploring Revelation", describes jasper as an example of true hardness. This is an analogy of God’s government which is fixed and firm; His moral laws are just as inflexible as His physical laws. One day, the Lord Jesus will rule the earth with "a rod of iron". (Psalm 2:9) Again, this is the very symbol of unyielding hardness. The second stone used to describe God is carnelian or sard, a semi-precious stone with a brownish-red colour, like a ruby. This signifies holiness because it reminds us that "our God is a consuming fire”. (Deuteronomy 4:24) While sin exists on the earth, God’s attitude towards it is one of burning holiness.

A warning of judgement to come

There are three phases of judgement: seals, trumpets and vials (or bowls). As the world becomes increasingly wicked and godless and lawlessness comes to a head, God steps in and completes the work to make a final end to sin. The judgement of God can be described as the combined strengths of hardness and holiness. However, as pictured in the ephod of the High Priest's clothing, our names are forever written over God's heart: the place of affection and love. (Exodus 28:17-20) God's judgement is inevitable and He does not lower His standards. Neither should we give way to "cheap grace" - the temptation that we can go on sinning, but rely on God's ever-increasing grace to avoid the consequences. (Romans 6:1) Remember: the one through whom all judgement will be given is Himself both God and Man. (John 5:22-27)

God dwells in unapproachable light and is the one whom no one has seen or can see. (1 Timothy 6:16) The prophet, Ezekiel, whilst in exile in Babylon, has a vision of God which he describes in terms of glowing metal and brilliant light in all the colours of the rainbow. (Ezekiel 1:26-28) We see a similar picture here in John’s description, where the presence of precious stones enhances the all-encompassing rainbow light that completely encircles the throne. It is a vision of God's hardness and holiness combined but the rainbow also reminds us of God's promise never the destroy the earth again by flood. (Genesis 9:8-17) It shows perfection but also speaks of endless love.

The court of the eternal King

Around God’s throne, John sees twenty-four other thrones, on which were seated twenty-four elders. The number, "twenty-four", has suggested to many believers the twelve tribes of Israel from the Old Testament plus the twelve apostles, chosen by Jesus, in the New Testament. Thus, every believer on earth and throughout history is represented here. God surrounds His throne with authority and order. He likes things to be done fittingly and with dignity. The elders are dressed in white, showing their purity as a result of the forgiveness of sin, granted through Jesus’ death. They also have crowns of gold on their heads, symbolising the authority under which they have been appointed, but they constantly acknowledge that this authority belongs solely to God by laying down their crowns at His feet in worship. This should challenge us, similarly, to offer worship to God constantly from a heart of surrender and purity.

These activities in heaven are accompanied by terrifying sights and sounds from the throne: “flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder”. (Revelation 4:5) We should never forget that wisdom is rooted in the "fear of the LORD". (Proverbs 1:7) Yes, we are loved intensely by God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit, but we are human; God's creatures and not His equals. When Moses was given the ten commandments (God's law) on Mt Sinai, God gave very clear instructions for the order of how things were to happen and the whole event took place with frightening sights and sounds as Mt Sinai trembled violently. (Exodus 19:16-18) "The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, 'I am trembling with fear.'” (Hebrews 12:21) There is something to be feared about God’s judgement. (Hebrews 10:31) We can thank God that "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1) but God's judgement is still (and should be) a fearful prospect.

The seven spirits of God

"Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God". (Revelation 4:5) In the Old Testament, Zechariah had a similar vision of a gold lampstand with seven lamps and he was told that they represented the Holy Spirit. (Zechariah 4:2-6) The number, "seven", was seen by ancient people as a "perfect" number - a number representing perfection. So, we may see here the seven lamps referring to God’s Holy Spirit, standing ready to carry out to perfection God's final act of judgement. Part of His work on earth had been "to convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement". (John 16:8) This work had begun on the day of Pentecost when "suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven... and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit". (Acts 2:1-4) His presence, here before the throne of God, indicates that His work is now finished.

The sea of glass

"Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal." (Revelation 4:6) The image of a sea - a large body of water - is used elsewhere in the Bible to represent various things. It could represent forces of chaos and rebellion, set against God. (Isaiah 17:12; Isaiah 57:20) But water can also be something that cleanses and, when king Solomon had built his temple, he created a vast, circular basin of cast metal that contained water for use in cleansing and placed it at the South-East corner of the temple. It was known as "The Sea". (1 Kings 7:23-26, 39)

The sea described by John appears to be solid, like glass or crystal. Crystal is a substance in which flaws cannot be hidden; in fact, any flaws are magnified! Some believers see this as a picture of Jesus' bride - the church - washed with water through the word of God and presented to Jesus "as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless". (Ephesians 5:26-27) Others think that it may represent some form of protection that sets a distance between God in His holiness and purity and His creation, warped by sin.

The living creatures

John goes on to describe for us four living creatures around the throne. These creatures were all-seeing. Nothing could approach the throne of God without being seen. They had eyes everywhere! The creatures looked like animals: a lion, an ox, one with a human face and a flying eagle. (Revelation 4:7-8) The prophet, Ezekiel, also had a vision where creatures of a similar type were described. "Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man and, on the right side, each had the face of a lion; on the left, the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle". (Ezekiel 1:5-10)

As with many of the other images that John describes, we don't have a "key" to interpret them clearly or definitively. These creatures may represent the best of God's creation amongst wild creatures, domesticated animals, flying creatures and human beings. Lions have been described as "kings of the jungle"; oxen are strong and willing servants, eagles are swift and strong, whilst humanity is at the pinnacle of creation. (Psalm 8:4-5) On the other hand, the creatures may represent the character and quality of God Himself. Like the seraphim ("burning ones") of Isaiah's vision of God, the creatures have six wings, surrounding God Himself and continually worshipping Him. It has been said that the lion emphasises God’s majesty and power; the ox represents His faithfulness and sacrifice; the human represents His incarnation and His intelligence; whilst the eagle symbolises His gifts of the Holy Spirit and His sovereignty.

Some have noticed how each of the writers of the four gospels emphasises a certain facet of God’s character. Matthew declares Jesus as the "Lion of the tribe of Judah" as he points the Jewish people to their King and Messiah.
Mark’s portrait of Christ shows Him as an ox, giving His life in service and sacrifice. Luke, the doctor, traces Jesus' ancestry back to Adam and is full of stories that show Jesus’ gentleness and humanity. John’s portrait of Christ can be seen as the eagle: the one who came from on high and who lives in the highest heaven. Many eloquent, learned writers over the past two thousand years have made different points about each gospel but all of them point to the four living creatures reflecting some aspect of God’s character.

These creatures lead the worship of God. As they give glory to Him, the praise and worship spreads to the twenty-four elders, who all give praise to the God of heaven and earth. The elders fall down before the living God, worship Him and lay their crowns before the throne. We see their complete submission in the words that they use:

You are worthy, our Lord and God,
To receive glory and honour and power,
For You created all things
And by Your will they were created
And have their being.

Simply to call God, "Lord and God" was a triumphant confession of faith, declaring to the known world and the principalities and powers, that He holds first place in the whole universe. It is vital that we keep declaring this truth, whatever our situation looks like, so that we have victory. This unity of worship sums up the entire scene in heaven: it is one of praise and worship of the almighty God, who has created all things perfectly for His glory and pleasure and in complete order and harmony.

How could we possibly think otherwise? When in doubt of how to pray or what to pray, this is all we need to know so that we can join with all the host of heaven. Do you and I want to be part of this most amazing scene? I believe that we do but, if we do, we have to be serious about the person of Jesus, who is the focus of all this attention. Salvation comes only through Him and we owe Him our very lives.

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