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Around the Throne (Pt 1)


Revelation 4:1-6a
December 15, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

The sermon starts at 15:30 in the audio file.



Or, Worship of Him Who Holds the Scroll

Things are different from here on out in the Apocalypse. It is time for John’s second vision, and it is otherworldly.

In the first vision, John saw Jesus walking among the lampstands. In this second vision, John sees Jesus as a Lamb standing. In the first, John was in the Spirit and saw an image of Jesus who gave messages to seven churches in Asia. In the second, John is in the Spirit and sees the throne in heaven.

Twice in Revelation 4:1 John wrote “after these things.” The phrase is used a few more times in Revelation, and it marks the movement from one scene to another. Some interpreters understand “after these things” as a reference to John’s visions; John saw one thing, then another. Other interpreters understand “after these things” as a reference to the events John saw in the visions. Yes, he had a sequence of visions, but the sequence is not just regarding when he received the revelation, but the sequence relates to when the revelation plays out on a timeline.

The first “after these things” in verse 1 is certainly a comment about his first vision having been finished. He saw Jesus and the stars and the lampstands in the Spirit, he heard Jesus’ messages to the churches, then the vision was finished (1:10-3:21). Another vision begins here in chapter 4. But in this vision the voice calls him up to heaven to see “what is necessary to take place after these things.” The churches, and it seems the life of the churches, is completed, and after these things, here’s what will happen.

It starts in heaven, with thrones and creatures around the throne, worshipping the Lord Almighty and the Lamb of God. In the outline of Revelation, we move from a focus on seven messages to the churches to focus on seven seals on the scroll. Chapter 4 is necessary to identify who holds the scroll. Chapter 5 shows us who is worthy to take and open the scroll. Chapters 6-8 are the breaking of the seals and the various judgments that come as the scroll is opened. The seventh and final seal leads to the next round of seven trumpets in chapters 8-15.

When have, or when will, the events related to this scroll happen(ed)? How one answers this question is a major hinge point for reading Revelation. When John saw what was necessary to happen, was he seeing what was about to happen in the rest of the first century, or was he seeing something that still hasn’t happened, though it’s already been twenty centuries?

I understand the desire to find fulfillment of chapter 4 and forward in the first century, namely with the destruction of Jerusalem and the downfall of the Roman Empire. I really do understand the motivation to take “soon” seriously (Revelation 1:1), and wanting to avoid inserting a gap (of centuries) between chapters 3 and 4. This happened, and after that, this happened.

But, and this is a big but that I have not found a convincing interpretive answer for, everyone must mind a gap somewhere in Revelation. This is a timely place to remember that everyone acknowledges that not everything in Revelation has happened yet, in particular, Jesus’ second coming and the final judgment and the new heaven and the new earth. It is, from my perspective, a cheap shot against futurists (Premillennial, Dispensational types) to say that we make “soon” not soon in chapter 4, when preterists (Amil and Postmil) just wait until chapter 21 to call it future. Somewhere the events described in Revelation are in the future, here in 4:1 or later in 21:1. Which is it?

At least in chapter 4 we have some time indications. John’s second vision, specifically about the “after things,” also fits with the outline of the book in Revelation 1:19. Finding the gap between chapters 20 and 21 requires finding it from outside the text. Is it possible? Is it likely?

While dragging my theology through the verses again, and reading a wide variety of interpretations on chapter 4 so far, I believe that this part of what John saw has not happened yet, though believers on earth from John’s day until now have been anticipating it. ”It makes a giant leap” (Kuyper). We are encouraged to JustConquer, like those in the seven first-century churches, awaiting God’s judgment on the wicked.

As I said, chapter 4 turns attention to the scroll, and chapter 4 is quite an introduction to the one who holds the scroll. We’ll cover the chapter in two parts, looking at four pieces in verses 1-6a for now. This is a spectacular scene. Having recently finished Dante’s Paradiso again, I was impressed by his imaginative effort to describe the brilliance of heaven. This is better. It’s better of course because it’s inspired by the Spirit, not by mental muses. John makes no apologies for his descriptions. The only way to mess this up is to turn it all into symbolism, but someone doing that would have to recognize s the substance is even greater than the symbol.

A Heavenly Throne-room Vision (verse 1)

After his vision of Jesus, another vision, and Behold, two things: a door and a voice. The door was standing open in heaven. Typically, heaven is closed to man’s view (though Ezekiel has a similar vision, Ezekiel 1:1), here it had already been opened for John. It is a door in heaven, so not like the imaginative door in The Last Battle in Narnia that opens with a view into heaven.

John also beheld a voice, and it was the first voice, like that of a trumpet, the one which had spoken with him before. That voice was Jesus Himself in Revelation 1:10, also likened to the sound of a trumpet. Unlike in chapter 1 where John turned around to see Jesus, now Jesus calls John up (though John doesn’t see Jesus until chapter 5).  Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this. In verse 2 John is in the Spirit, so we don’t know if John’s body went to heaven for the vision or if his body stayed on Patmos, sort of like Paul didn’t know whether his vision of the third heaven/paradise was in body or out of body (2 Corinthians 12:2-3). But up in heaven, John was in the Spirit, and saw the future. He would be shown, and this is the point of the unveiling, the apocalypse, the revelation (1:1).

History proceeds from here.

A Radiant and Merciful Throne (verses 2-3)

At once I was in the Spirit (this phrase is only used in 1:10 and 4:2), not his human spirit but the Holy Spirit, and behold again. This time he’s through the door, and the first thing John notices is a throne. Throne is the keyword, used 14 times in the chapter. Even the “thrones,” plural, are placed around this central throne. Throne is key in chapter 5, too, a theme that connects with the promise in Revelation 3:21 even though that was in the previous vision.

This is a throne [placed] in heaven, a celestial throne room. There is no more centered center in the cosmos than this center. And there was one sitting on the throne. It is not Jesus, because He is the Lamb in chapter 5 distinguished from this throne sitter. Somehow John blows our minds with detailed descriptions of what he saw without actually giving a form to God. His vision compares with, and completes, similar throne visions in Isaiah 6:1-4 and Ezekiel 1:26-28.

In verse 3 the one sitting on the throne was like the appearance of jasper [stone] and carnelian, or sardius. People who study valuable rocks typically think that this jasper stone was more like a diamond than what we think of as jasper, so more clear than opaque, as explicitly stated in Revelation 21:11. Carnelian is a red stone, such as a ruby. A few times in the Old Testament these precious stones are found together on royalty, representing majesty and mastery.

“The stones intensify the light around the throne by reflecting unapproachable brightness” (Beale), and so Psalm 104.

Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.
(Psalm 104:1–2)

That’s what John saw regarding the one sitting on the throne.  Around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Perhaps the rainbow brings mercy to mind (part of God’s covenant with Noah after the flood), and the green hue of emerald is also a color associated with grace and mercy. The scroll, which we’ll see opened in John’s vision soon enough, is a scroll of judgment. So seeing the throne as wrapped in glory and grace is important context.

The Great Council around the Throne (verse 4)

In John’s vision the first thing he saw was the throne, but perhaps closest to him were 24 more thrones, also occupied.

 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.

John doesn’t say if the thrones were smaller, or on a lower level, but they were around the throne in the center, so they are not equal with the one. Those sitting on these thrones are named as elders, the Greek word presbuteros, a word used in the epistles for those in church offices of pastoral oversight.

I read a lot of options and arguments for the identity of these elders. The two primary categories are that these elders are either men or angels. If men, they may represent the 24 Levitical priests established by King David, or they may represent the 12 Tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles, which connects with a description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:12-14. The white garments would relate to purity and priesthood, the golden crowns and thrones to royalty, so connected to Christ redeeming men to be “a kingdom, priests” (Revelation 1:6).

However, angels in the New Testament are regularly described as wearing white (for example, Matthew 28:3; John 20:12). Plus, equating the number as Tribes and Apostles doesn’t come from John’s vision as related in chapter 4. Additionally, these elders play key roles in the rest of Revelation, including an intermediary role between humans and God. They are instruments of God’s judgment, and bring the prayers of the elect to God (5:8).

Also note, there is nothing in chapter 4 about redemption, rather it is entirely about creation. So these elders on thrones were there from the start, not from the saved.

In particular, the elders seem to distinguish themselves from the redeemed at least twice. See Revelation 5:9-10 and 7:13, an “us and them.”

Such a scene fits with various Old Testament descriptions.

Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD,
your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!
For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD,
a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones,
and awesome above all who are around him?
(Psalm 89:5–7)

It also fits with Paul’s categories in Colossians 1:16: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities.”

John names the elders before the “living creatures” because they are closer to his perspective, not because they have priority (contra Kuyper). As angels they could represent the redeemed, as there are angels connected to each of the seven churches in chapters 2-3. It would be an unusual way to speak about some level of angelic being, but this is an unusual scene.

“[T]he twenty-four elders are a special class or college of angels, beings of high authority that belong to the court of God in heaven. In this book they are always grouped with angels rather than men, but are distinguished from other angelic subgroups…. Very probably they are part of the assembly of heavenly beings that are regularly pictured as present with God in heaven (cf. 1 Kings 22:19; Ps. 89:7; Isa. 24:23)” (Thomas).

On that day the LORD will punish
the host of heaven, in heaven,
and the kings of the earth, on the earth.
They will be gathered together
as prisoners in a pit;
they will be shut up in a prison,
and after many days they will be punished.
Then the moon will be confounded
and the sun ashamed,
for the LORD of hosts reigns
on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
and his glory will be before his elders.
(Isaiah 24:21–23)

The word “elders” in Isaiah 24:23 is presbuteros in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, a seeming reference to angels, not men.

Lightening and Thunder from the Throne (verses 5-6a)

There are three more things related to the throne.

First, there are phenomena like weather in this throne room.  From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder. God is responsible for them, just as when God gave the Law at Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 19). This is a powerful, terrible throne. You don’t want to be on the wrong side.

Every time thunder and lightening resound in Revelation something unusual and spectacular is about to happen. Thunder and lightening follow the breaking of the seventh seal (8:5), the blowing of the seventh trumpet (11:19), and the pouring out of the seventh bowl (16:18)(Mounce). Those are three judgement texts, this is a worship text, which prepares for the judgements (Osborne).

Second,  before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God. We already saw this description of the seven spirits of God in chapter 1, in between “the one who is and who was and who is to come” (see also 4:8) and Jesus, a source of the grace and peace given by the Eternal One and the Messiah. As another name for the Holy Spirit, this reveals that all three Persons were in the throne room.

And third,  before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. It is not water, but it had the appearance of clear water. What is the point of this sea? In Psalm 104:3 God’s throne sat on the firmament above the earth. More than water for cleansing, this is the appearance of God’s vast reign.

It is similar to Ezekiel’s vision in Ezekiel 1:22 (see 23-28), “crystal,” though he sees it from beneath, perhaps a reason why the beings he sees are different from the “living creatures” in the second part of Revelation 4:6.

Conclusion

We’ll meet the “four living creatures” right next to the throne in verses 6b-8, and two hymns of worship in verses 9-11, preparing us for the worthy one who can open the scroll in chapter 5.

Usually we want action. Chapter 4, especially what we’ve seen so far, is description. But the story really gets moving soon.


Charge

It is hard to believe that anyone will be able to stand before God’s throne. His holiness, His authority, His sovereignty are beyond the tolerances of mortal flesh. God is a consuming fire, and from His throne come flashes and rumblings of judgment. But, Christian, this one with all power has chosen You and targeted You in love and is keeping you and preparing you for that very thing: to be in His presence. You will stand before Him in great awe, and with great joy.

Benediction:

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 1:24–25, ESV)