December 29, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 16:15 in the audio file.
Or, Worship of Him Who Holds the Scroll
This really is an amazing scene. The vision of Jesus that John had in Revelation 1 was amazing, and the messages from Jesus to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 were somehow both local and cosmic, immediate and eternal, startling but unsurprising, confronting and also comforting. But our imaginative capacities are pushed to new heights as John relates his vision of the heavenly throne room.
We started our look at Revelation 4 two Sundays ago, skipping last Lord’s Day for sake of focusing on Christ’s first coming. I also plan to preach a short series on our worship and liturgy at the start of the new calendar year, as usual, starting next Lord’s Day. Revelation 5 will be a part of that series, for reasons I’ll give later. So while it could seem untimely to finish our look at Revelation 4 today, I think it will be a word that lifts our heads as we finish this year and decade.
Remember that John was “in the Spirit” and given revelation through an open door in heaven, whether in his body or not. In the center of his vision, and in the center of this chapter and the next, was the throne. There were twenty-four additional thrones around the central throne, with twenty-four elders on those thrones. There were flashes of lightening and peals of thunder coming from the throne. The one sitting on the throne had the appearance of light, brilliant and bright. There has hardly been any action so far, the chapter is almost entirely description, which continues in the second part of verse 6 through 7. In Greek most of the verbs are assumed, but not written, giving the grammatical impression of little time to breathe.
I believe that the twenty-four elders are twenty-four angelic beings of a certain class, the “thrones” level as Paul referred to them in Colossians 1:16. They are part of the divine council (see Psalm 89:5–7 and Isaiah 24:21–23), those who do God’s will as we’ll see when the seals on the scroll are broken in chapter 6. There is another group of angelic creatures introduced in verses 6 and 7, and together with the elders, we finally see some action in verses 8-11 as they worship.
While the throne was at the center of the room and the first object of focus, John described the twenty-four elders second because they were closer to him. Now he describes an inner ring of beings, those who were between the elders and the throne.
And there were four living creatures in the middle of the throne and around the throne. It’s a double description of their spatial location that appears to get them as close to the throne as possible without being on it, and a description that locates them on each side of the throne.
The first thing John noticed about their appearance is that they were full of eyes in front and behind. There are some who think this doesn’t make sense, or that it appears grotesque, and so they take it as symbolic language. But John is describing what he saw, and each of them have a “likeness” in verse 7, so there is no good reason to think that the eyes are merely metaphorical. These creatures are covered with eyes. What that suggests is that they are able to see a lot, from a lot of angles. They also have wings, which we’ll se in verse 9, but having eyes all around means that they don’t miss much.
Verse 7 works around the throne to give at list one distinct feature about each creature. The first living creature was in the likeness of a lion. The second living creature was in the likeness of an ox. The third living creature was having the face as a man. The fourth living creatures was in the likeness of an eagle flying. And each one was having six wings.
Three of the four follow the same pattern, using the word “likeness” with the object of comparison. The creature that is described differently is the third, the one “having the face as a man.”
The “four forms suggest whatever is noblest, strongest, wisest, and swiftest in Nature” (Swete, quoted by Mounce). Some have taken the four to refer to the four quarters in Babylonian mythology and Zodiac (Taurus = Ox, Leo = Lion, Scorpio = Man, Aquarius = eagle)(Osborne). But the eagle is not used in the zodiac, and it’s difficult to prove a Babylonian origin for these ideas. Some of the church fathers (e.g., Augustine) believed them to symbolize the four Gospels, but there isn’t agreement on which goes with which.
We will meet a Lamb in chapter 5.
Who are these creatures? They are very similar to creatures described by Ezekiel in his vision (creatures called cherubim later in 10:1ff).
However, while Ezekiel saw four living creatures, the creatures that Ezekiel saw had four faces each, making a total of sixteen. John saw four creatures with only four appearances. Also, Ezekiel saw four creatures with four wings each, John’s creatures had six each. Ezekiel’s creatures were also “darting to and fro…like lightening” while John’s were stationary. I pointed out previously that some of this could be explained because it seems that Ezekiel looked from below the throne (Ezekiel 1:22, 26). The expanse and the throne were above the creatures Ezekiel saw, whereas the creatures John saw were in the midst of the throne itself.
The living creatures John saw were closer to those Isaiah saw in his vision of the throne room (creatures called seraphim).
Isaiah gave no description of their appearances, but they did have six wings each, and they did say something very similar to what John heard in Revelation 4:8. So perhaps these living creatures are the seraphim, another class of heavenly being. They are not merely symbolic (contra Beale), nor blended together (contra ESVSB).
Each living creature calls forth a different rider of judgement when the seals are broken in chapter 6. It deserves more attention that worship precedes judgment.
As representatives of creation, the living creatures lead the twenty-four elders in praising God.
Verse 8 adds to their eyes placement and describes what they never stop doing. The four living creatures are being full of eyes within and without and do not have rest night and day, saying, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord, the God, the Almighty, the one who was and who is being and who is coming.
This time John says their eyes are “all around and within,” not just front and back. They have a lot of eyes to see what’s happening.
And their unceasing, “not having rest night and day,” activity is praise. We will see them doing other activities in Revelation. But, their regular behavior is verbal exaltation of the Master of the Universe. Of course “Holy, holy, holy” is the trisagion (three holies), the beginning of the seraphim’s praise in Isaiah 6. The three-fold repetition is superlative; He is the holiest. His names are the Lord God Almighty, and the maker of time, the one who exists, the one who isn’t finished yet (see also 1:4). The living creatures are a heavenly quartet.
Verse 9 is a grammatical setup for verse 10: when the living creatures do this, then the twenty-four elders do that. But verse 9 is still describing worship from the four in a different way.
When the living creatures give glory and honor and thanksgiving to the one sitting on the throne, to the one living unto the ages of the ages…. This is not entirely different behavior from ascribing holiness to the Lord. That is part of giving Him glory. Of course He has omnigloria whether anyone recognizes it or not, but this “giving” is a willful acknowledgement. Glory refers to His radiance and honor refers to His dignity and thanksgiving refers to His generosity. He is the one on the throne, the eternal one.
As I said, when the living creatures worship, then the twenty-four elders follow (three verbs in the future tense, though not translated as such in the ESV). The twenty-four elders will fall before the one sitting on the throne, and they will bow down to the one living unto ages of ages, and they will cast their crowns before the throne, saying…. Still the throne, still the I AM, the Existing One. There is a lot of homage by getting low. Interesting that the ones on thrones get off their thrones to bow before the one sitting on the throne. They fall before Him, and even the “worship” is a worship via prostration. The giving of crowns is a recognition of where they received their appointment to rule.
The elders follow the cue of the living creatures and acknowledge that the worship was appropriate. The elders are saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive the glory and the honor and the power because You created all things and they are because of Your will and they have existed.
The living creatures cried out Hagios, Holy!, and the elders cry out Axios, Worthy! They pick up on what the living creatures were giving, the glory and the honor, but change “thanksgiving” to the power, which sees the generosity from God’s side. The focus on power also prepares for the stated reason for His worthiness: He made all that there is.
Our Lord and God, Dominus et Deus noster, is not a title found in the OT, but it was required as an address to the emperor Domitian (Osborne and Beale, quoting Suetonius).
This worship is about the Creator, worship in chapter 5 will include worship of the Redeemer. Here God is worthy not only because He exists but because everything that exists does so because of Him. It was through Your will, His call, His decision, and His power. Creation is a fact, creation is an ongoing reality. Creation by itself is a reason that God is worthy to receive worship. (See also Daniel 4:35, “He does according to His will among the host of heaven….”)
Chapter 4 sets us up for chapter 5 which prepares us for chapters 6-8. The scroll with seven seals of judgment must be opened, who is worthy to do it? We meet Him in chapter 5. Who holds the scroll in the first place? The scroll-holder is the one we’ve seen with John in chapter 4. This is a vision of “what must take place after this,” so the events of chapters 4 and 5 haven’t happened yet. Yet the first part of the vision presented in chapter 4 describes activity in the throne room that is typical, that is ongoing before the scroll is taken.
Heaven is a worship center. That shouldn’t be surprising since that’s where God’s throne is, and He is worthy. But it strikes me that, with all the eyes of the living creatures, they aren’t resting from acknowledging His holiness. Aren’t they ready to move on to a new song? Is the repetition really necessary? They’ve been saying the same thing at least since Isaiah heard them, and will be until the nations are judged.
And how about the elders. When the living creatures worship, and they don’t stop, then the elders follow. “Here we go again. Why don’t they take a break for a while so we can actually sit on our thrones? We’ll worship when we’re ready, tired of following them all the time. And for real, can’t they sing a new song?”
It would be like us getting tired of acknowledging “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Our fatigue would be due to our own dullness, not to His worthiness.
As you prepare to shut the book on 2019 and open a new decade, let this vision from Revelation 4 remind you that:
May we ring in the new year with praise like the heavenly praise around the throne of God. Just conquer.
Christian, your calling is to praise God, to increase in your understanding of and affections for His glory and honor and power. Your calling is also to live before Him by faith, to understand and walk according to His will. As you look toward a new week, as look toward a new year, as you look toward a new decade, let your life be worthy of His blessed name.
I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. (1 Timothy 6:13–16, ESV)