When we approach a text like Revelation 4, we must remember that the believers in the early church were a small and persecuted minority in a hostile world. So, they needed to be reminded that God is the sovereign creator. And this passage is put in Scripture because we need the same teaching. Our world is filled with uncertainty as well. We see the worldwide economy experiencing a major downturn, and many people are losing their jobs. The tension between Israel and Hamas is localized now, but it has the potential of becoming a flashpoint for a worldwide conflict. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan testify to the tensions between the West and Islam. Muslim populations are growing in Western countries, especially in Europe, and native European populations are shrinking. In some parts of the West the legitimacy of Sharia law is debated and even accepted.
So why is all of this significant? It may be the camel’s nose in the tent, forecasting the future Islamic character of Europe. But God’s sovereignty and rule don’t just relate to international issues. We see loved ones struck down with disease and death. We may lose our source of income and suddenly our secure and ordered life is scrambled. We are literally a breath away from a disaster. Or, perhaps we are experiencing a relationship crisis within our family or with our friends. Life may be going well, and then we turn a corner and face a huge change in our relationship with someone. It can be difficult to get a grip on life when everything we hold dear is suddenly reeling. But we are reminded in Revelation that our God reigns.
Our Sovereign God
In Revelation 4 we read,
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.” 2 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. 3And 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. 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, 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.”
This is quite a striking passage. John wants his readers to see what is really happening in the world. They see their circumstances, but he wants them to see God’s throne, for that will give them an entirely new perspective on life. John is having visions of God, and he looks and a door is standing open in heaven. That means that he is about to receive revelations of God. It doesn’t mean that there are literal doors in heaven. John’s being called up into heaven is not the rapture of the saints, but it shows that God is going to reveal more truth to him. God will show him “what must take place after this” (v. 1).
The words “after this” are rather vague. They probably refer generally to the last days which have been inaugurated with the coming of Jesus Christ. Elsewhere in the NT when the phrase “last days” is used it refers to the days that have arrived with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is unconvincing to think that “after this” refers only to the future which is prophesied from Revelation 4:1ff, for some of the events in Revelation 4ff are not future.
We see in v. 2 that John is “in the Spirit” and is receiving prophetic revelation. And what does he see in his visions? He sees a throne and the one sitting on the throne. John uses the word “throne” over 30 times to refer to God’s sovereign rule over all. The first thing John teaches us is that God reigns over all. Will Europe actually become Muslim? Our God still reigns. Will our loved ones be struck down by disease? Sometimes diseases seem to have almost supernatural power. But our God reigns over all diseases and all circumstances. Are you trusting this sovereign God who sits on the throne? Are you recognizing that what is happening in and to your family is the working out of his will? Can you trust his sovereign love for you in disappointing circumstances? People let us down. Friends let us down. Spouses let us down. Pastors let us down. But our God always reigns and rules. He is never off the throne. He is guiding, guarding, and protecting. And this one and only God on the throne is glorious.
The Beauty and Glory of God
Verse 3 says that he has the appearance of beautiful stones like jasper and carnelian. And there was a rainbow like an emerald surrounding the throne. What do these stones mean? John describes the indescribable here. How beautiful is the one on the throne. His beauty defies description. He is far beyond all we can think or imagine. His glory is compared to stones that sparkle with radiance and beauty. Perhaps the rainbow recalls Noah’s flood, and the promise of mercy in the midst of judgment. John’s vision draws on the Ezekiel’s vision of God when he was commissioned to be a prophet.
And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance. 27 And upward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were gleaming metal, like the appearance of fire enclosed all around. And downward from what had the appearance of his waist I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. 28 Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking (Ezek 1:26-28).
What does John want us to see here? He wants us to see that our God is beautiful and worthy of all praise. In the crush and rush of life we can often forget that he is beautiful and all-satisfying. Our thoughts are often so consumed with the things of earth that we do not see the beauty of God in heaven. We forgot how lovely and indescribably precious he is. Have you forgotten that? Are you so taken up with the things of this life that you forget God? The rest of life is like this, isn’t it? I looked up the other night and saw the moon, and I thought: How beautiful the moon is! Sometimes I forget how beautiful the world is in which we live because I get caught up in the pressures of everyday life. I forget about the glory of the moon in the midst of my circumstances. Or, I look outside and I think: What a stunning world this is!
I visited the Warwick Castle in England and climbed one of the towers and looked over the English countryside, and I thought: “What a beautiful landscape. How easily I fail to see the beauty before me.” And if that is true of the natural world, how much more is that true of our God? How easily we forget about his inexpressible beauty and loveliness! How quickly we become immersed in our circumstances. We forget that our God is on the throne, ruling over all of history and all our circumstances. We forget that he cares for us and ordains all that happens to us. The real world is the world where God reigns, where he rules.
Who are the 24 Elders?
We read in v. 4 that there were 24 thrones surrounding God’s throne, and on those thrones were 24 elders clothed with white garments and golden crowns. Who are these elders? Readers of Revelation have debated their identity for a long time. I would like to suggest that they are angels who represent the saints in heaven. They represent the saints because of the number 24. In Rev. 21 the people of God are summed up with the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Lamb. So, I think the number 24 points to the whole people of God.
But still the 24 elders are not the saints but represent them in heaven. There are two pieces of evidence that support this view. First, the 24 elders in Revelation are always mentioned with other angels that worship God, and they are not ever clearly described as human beings. Second, the elders sing this song in Revelation 5:9-10. “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, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Notice that the elders do not sing that you ransomed “us” but you ransomed “people” or “them.” They do not say that you made “us” be a kingdom, but you made “them” to be a kingdom and priests. So, I conclude that the 24 elders are not human beings but angels who represent the people of God.
And they represent God’s people before God’s very throne. We see in v. 5 that God’s throne is a fearsome place as well. “Flashes of lightning” and “rumblings and peals of thunder” were before the throne, and “burning torches of fire.” Elsewhere in Revelation lightning and thunder always stands for God’s judgment. So, we can be confident it has this meaning here as well. The 7 burning torches of fire are identified as the 7 Spirits of God. In chapter one the seven Spirits of God refer to the Holy Spirit, so I think John is saying here that the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of judgment as well. We read in Isaiah 4:4 that “the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.” John reminds persecuted believers that the God they serve will judge the wicked. He is the Holy One of Israel. He does not tolerate evil.
The evil that has been done by human beings is mind boggling. Not that long ago terrorists came into Mumbai and they killed a Jewish couple, but they treated them especially bad because they were Jewish. Here is what one doctor said. “Of all the bodies, the Israeli victims bore the maximum torture marks. It was clear that they were killed on the 26th itself. It was obvious that they were tied up and tortured before they were killed. It was so bad that I do not want to go over the details even in my head again.” The evil that has been done by human beings is mind numbing, but Revelation reminds us that those who do such evil and do not repent will be judged. God’s lightning and thunder and fire are coming. There will be no escape for those who do not repent.
The four living creatures testify to the truth of God’s holiness. Like the seraphim of Isaiah 6 who were in the temple of the Lord, the four living creatures exclaim endlessly, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (v. 8). The threefold confession of his holiness signifies that he is infinitely holy, that his holiness is matchless and perfect. But we are all dirty and defiled as sinners. We fall short of his intense holiness. Even as Christians we feel that way, don’t we? We know our uncleanness. We know that have all sinned in many ways: in thought, word, and deed. We have sinned in things we have done and things we should have done that we did not do. None of us can stand before a holy God! Now if you are an unbeliever, you should be asking: Is there any hope?
Yes, there is hope because our sins are borne by Jesus Christ who died to take away the sins of the world. We escape the lightning and thunder of God’s wrath if we put our trust in Jesus Christ who died to save us from the wrath of God. If we cry out to our God and ask him to save us, he will spare us from the wrath to come. Only he can clean up the dirt of sin that has defiled our lives. Put your trust in him and know the joy of being clean before him.
The Four Living Creatures: Lion, Ox, Human, Eagle
Well, let’s go back to Revelation and think about the four living creatures. These creatures are quite remarkable. The first one is like a lion, the second like an ox, the third having a face like a human being, and the fourth like an eagle flying. John says they are like a lion, ox, human, and eagle, not that they are an ox, etc. Clearly John draws here on the four living creatures described in Ezekiel 1. And we are told in Ezekiel 10 that these four living creatures were cherubim, who had a special place in guarding the throne of God. Remember that the vision of God in the first verses is very similar to the vision of God in Ezekiel 1, and in both Ezekiel and Revelation God’s throne is central. Obviously the picture here is not literal. The four living creatures are full of eyes because they know what is happening in the world. They are God’s agents who survey the world. But Revelation does not focus on the 24 elders or the four living creatures. How easy it is for us to become distracted and focus on them instead of focusing on the Lord. But these angelic beings call our attention to God. As v. 9 says the four living creatures “give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever.”
Glory be to God!
And they are the model for us, aren’t they? When we see the world aright, our hearts are lifted into God’s presence. Our hearts are exalted with praise. We are filled with joy as we give glory and honor to the one who reigns over all. And the 24 elders are a model for us as well. When the four living creatures give praise, they fall before God’s throne and “worship him who lives forever and ever.”
And like them we are to cast our crowns before God. All our authority and glory and goodness are to be given to him. Like the angels we are to be swept up into the praise of our God. We are to surrender our vanity and pride, and to forget about ourselves by being caught up to God and his throne. How easily I am caught up into pride in myself. But pride in ourselves never satisfies does it? It leaves us empty and depressed, for we are meant to worship the creator rather than the creator. How glorious it is to fix our eyes on him who is worthy of all “glory and honor and praise” as v. 11 says, for he is the creator. The sovereign creator of all deserves our praise and thanks. Here is something—Here is someone worth living for. How wonderful to be freed from the smallness of esteeming ourselves. How glorious it is to worship the creator of all things, for the creator of the universe is also the sovereign God who rules over all. He has promised to take care of us his own, and to fill us with inexpressible joy. How wonderful it is to entrust our lives to our creator and our God. The world may fall apart. Our health may fall apart. Our families may fall apart. But if we know God, we have the pearl of great price. He will give us strength to endure all that happens to us, as he strengthened the early Christians in Revelation so long ago.
Thomas Schreiner joined the Southern Seminary faculty in 1997 after serving 11 years on the faculty at Bethel Theological Seminary. He also taught New Testament at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Schreiner, a Pauline scholar, is the author or editor of several books including, Romans, in the Baker Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament; Interpreting the Pauline Epistles; The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law; The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance; Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives of Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace,co-edited with Bruce A. Ware; Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of I Timothy 2:9-15; Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.