III. The Throne Room of Heaven (Revelation 4:1–5:14)
III. The Throne Room of Heaven (4:1–5:14)
4:1 The phrase after this marks a transition to the third section of the book, with the pronoun this referring to the church age—that is, the period of history between Christ’s ascension and his rapture of believers. The first section of Revelation recounted a vision of Jesus (1:1-20) while the second depicted the present state of the church through letters to seven representative congregations (2:1–3:22). Now John begins describing events that will occur during the seven-year period of divine judgment on earth known as the tribulation. All events described in Revelation from this point forward will occur following the rapture. But not only has John shifted in the time period he is describing, the venue has shifted as well from earth to heaven.
4:2-3 A key phrase here is in the Spirit (4:2). The command to do anything “in the Spirit” is a command to enter the spiritual perspective. That is, to see things that physical eyes cannot see, as when believers are commanded to pray in the Spirit (Jude 20). Naturally, certain aspects of John’s experience of being in the Spirit were unique and not repeatable since he was writing Holy Scripture. But much of it is repeatable. Believers today can abide in the Spirit, receiving understanding of God’s will and work. Too often, though, we merely “visit” the Spirit, so to speak, without “living with him” in a condition of heightened spiritual awareness.
With the right spiritual perspective, John gets a view of God’s throne in heaven (4:2); his is similar to the perspective depicted in Isaiah 6:1-8, in which the prophet “saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and the hem of his robe filled the temple” as “seraphim” stood “above him” (Isa 6:1-2). The description of God as having the appearance of precious stones—jasper and carnelian (4:3)—refers to his value and elegance. The rainbow that surrounded the throne (4:3) harkens back to Genesis 9:12-17, where God designated the rainbow as a sign of his covenant with Noah never to destroy the earth with a flood again. Each time a rainbow appears in Scripture, it is a reminder of God’s faithfulness.
4:4 Similar to the number seven, twenty-four has special significance in Scripture, pointing to people who stand out as spiritual leaders like the twenty-four priestly divisions among Aaron’s descendants (see 1 Chr 24) and the twenty-four divisions of singers who led Israel in worship at the temple (see 1 Chr 25). Here, the twenty-four elders are believers who have overcome during the church age and are ruling with Christ, providing spiritual leadership through their faithful example. The thrones, white clothes, and golden crowns correspond to the rewards of 2:26; 3:5; and 3:10 for, respectively, “the one who conquers and who keeps [Christ’s] works to the end,” “the one who conquers,” and the one who perseveres in faithfulness amid persecution.
4:5-7 Flashes of lightning and . . . peals of thunder (4:5) depict the power and majesty of God. The seven spirits of God signify the Holy Spirit present before God the Father on his throne (4:5). Also before the throne is an utterly calm and smooth body of water, described metaphorically as a sea of glass.
The four living creatures harken back to awesome angelic beings described in Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6. Like the angels in Ezekiel 1:5-11, they have appearances like a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle as well as eyes facing multiple directions (4:6-7). The appearances of these four angels may symbolize the portraits of Jesus in the four Gospels. In Matthew, Jesus is King of the Jews, represented by a regal lion. In Mark, he is a servant, represented by an ox—a beast of burden. In Luke, he is the Son of Man, represented by the face of a man. And in John, he is the Son of God who gives eternal life, represented by a majestic eagle.
4:8 As in Isaiah 6:2-3, each creature has six wings and cries, Holy, holy, holy without stopping—day and night. In Isaiah, each creature covered its face with two wings, its feet with two wings, and flew with two wings. They called to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Armies; his glory fills the whole earth” (Isa 6:3).
4:9-11 Whenever the living creatures worship God (4:9), the twenty-four elders join them (4:10). The elders, in fact, appear inspired by the angelic worship and sing a song declaring God worthy to receive glory and honor and power, because he has created all things (4:11). The worship of God as Creator sets the stage for subsequent chapters in which God is depicted as moving into creation and setting it right from the effects of sin. This entire scene is a lead-up to chapter five, in which Jesus Christ is introduced.
5:1 The seven seals represent the first in a series of judgments to come on the earth that will also include seven trumpets (8:1-9:20; 11:15-19) and seven bowls (16:1-21) among metaphorical depictions of God’s wrath. The scroll is like a title deed to the earth. It depicts God’s ownership of all creation and right to hold accountable those who misuse it and thus dishonor him. Through judgment administered by Jesus, God once again will lay claim to his creation, which was plunged into sin by Adam in Genesis 3.
5:2-4 In response to the question of a mighty angel—Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals? (5:2)—no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth is found worthy (5:3). In fact, no one is worthy even to look at the Lord’s plan for worldwide judgment, much less administer it, prompting John to weep (5:4).
5:5 One of the elders comforts John, telling him not to cry because Jesus—the Lion from the tribe of Judah and the Root of David—is worthy to open the scroll and administer the judgment of its seals. This scene reflects the fact that sinful people, even when they are redeemed, fall short of the qualifications necessary for one who could judge the earth. But Christ, by virtue of his full divinity, sinless humanity, and atoning death, is qualified. God the Father has granted judging authority to the Son (see John 5:22, 27). Jesus died to redeem humanity at his first coming. He will judge in order to redeem the entire creation at his second.
5:6-7 The depiction of Christ like a slaughtered lamb (5:6) contrasts with the lion metaphor of 5:5. Yet this is not a contradiction. Jesus is regal like a lion, and he was slain like a sacrificial lamb to atone for the sins of the whole world (cf. Isa 53:7; 1 John 2:2). The repetition of the number seven—seven horns . . . seven eyes . . . seven spirits of God (5:6)—signifies the completeness of Christ’s atoning work. Because he “[fulfilled] all righteousness” (Matt 3:15), he is qualified to bring judgment on the earth. Hence, he went and took the scroll out of the right hand of the one seated on the throne (5:7).
5:8-9 Prayers of God’s people for vindication are pictured as incense rising from golden bowls (5:8). Two implications of the metaphor are that prayer truly reaches God and pleases him. As the living creatures and twenty-four elders fall down before Christ, they cite his redemption of a diverse population as part of the reason he is worthy to judge the world.
The mention of redeemed people in heaven being from every tribe and language and people and nation (5:9; repeated in 7:9) portrays the ethnic, linguistic, and national diversity that will be present in eternity. This means that difference and diversity are not problems to be solved, but were part of God’s plan from the very beginning. God delights in the variety and beauty of his creation. Here in this perfect, complete worship service around the throne we can see clearly that “red, yellow, black, and white” are all precious in God’s sight. And this diverse community of saints is unified in their worship of the Lamb. Christian unity does not mean uniformity, but a shared focus on and worship of Christ Jesus.
5:10 The destiny of every believer is to reign on the earth as priests to our God. This will occur in the millennial kingdom (20:6) and in the new heavens and new earth (21:1). Of the millennium, John wrote specifically, “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection [salvation]! The second death [eternal judgment] has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years” (Rev 20:6). Previously, John recorded Christ’s promise of “authority over the nations” for “the one who conquers” (2:26). You were redeemed to reign.
5:11-14 The chapter culminates in a magnificent scene of worship, involving many angels, the living creatures, and the elders—the total number of worshipers reaching countless thousands, plus thousands of thousands (5:11). Their song repeats the word worthy (5:12) for the fifth time since 4:11, over which span it first was applied to God the Father and then twice to the Son, emphasizing their coequality and divinity. The first two persons of the Trinity are worshiped together when every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, on the sea, and everything in them praises the one seated on the throne and the Lamb, forever (5:13). The worship is affirmed by the four living creatures, with the elders joining as well. (5:14). As when people clamor to see and cheer a celebrity, no prodding is required to incite this worship. When humans and angels behold Christ—the Lion and the Lamb—they cannot help but fall down and worship. In fact, Revelation is fundamentally a book about worship.