This is a continuation of Applying Revelation 3.
For the first three chapters of this book, Jesus has been in the spotlight. Now it’s time for the magnificent Yahweh to get a turn basking in the glory. Since the Jews thought of Yahweh as enthroned in a majestic Heaven, Heaven is where Jesus takes John in a kind of vision. It’s important to note that these things are all happening in John’s mind—he isn’t actually visiting the real Heaven, for the real Heaven looks nothing like the scene we’re going to read about.
After this I looked, and there in Heaven was an open door. The first Voice that I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” (Rev. 4:1)
This is Jesus talking. He’s the One who first blasted John with His trumpet like Voice in Chapter 1. Now He’s blasting John again with more instructions in that blaring Voice which the Jews so strongly associated with God.
Immediately I was in the Spirit, and a throne was set there in Heaven. One was seated on the throne, and the One seated looked like jasper and carnelian stone. A rainbow that looked like an emerald surrounded the throne. Around that throne were twenty four thrones, and on the thrones sat twenty four elders dressed in white clothes, with gold crowns on their heads. Flashes of lightning and rumblings of thunder came from the throne. Seven fiery torches were burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God. (Rev. 4:2-5)
Here we go with more ancient world symbolism. In these times, torches were placed before the thrones of rulers to indicate authority. Here John understands that these torches symbolize more than just authority—they also communicate perfection (by being seven in number), and they are functioning as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. In the Old Covenant mind, the Holy Spirit was considered an extension of Yahweh Himself—He was thought of as Yahweh’s Spirit, not as a separate Being. So it’s very fitting that the Holy Spirit is represented as being right in front of Yahweh’s throne, as opposed to off by Himself somewhere. As far as accuracy goes, this whole set up is pretty lousy, but our Gods aren’t going for accuracy in this book. They’re focused on communicating certain key principles. Right now the awesomeness and supremacy of God is one of those principles.
Realize that in John’s world, there were many, many gods being worshiped all around him. Temples were a very common occurrence in cities throughout the Roman Empire, so simply depicting Yahweh as being in some nice looking temple doesn’t set Him apart enough from all the other gods. What’s needed here is imagery that packs a wallop of a “wow”—imagery that really confirms to John that the Gods he is worshiping are the Ones who are really in charge.
Flashes of lightning and rumblings of thunder came from the throne.
In ancient Jewish minds, lightning and thunder were intimately associated with the magnificent Yahweh. Ever since His famous appearance on Mt. Sinai—which resembled some kind of fiery, stormy volcano—when the Jews think of seeing Yahweh, they expect noise, thunder, and lightning. If it’s not loud and dramatic, it just isn’t God.
Something like a sea of glass, similar to crystal, was also before the throne. (Rev. 4:6)
A popular form of entertainment in ancient times was to go to a theater where actors or singers would put on a show. The human chorus would stand in front of a glistening mosaic which would add luster to the performance. Here we find the exact same device showing up in Heaven: a glistening, crystal like sea that’s functioning like a special stage area in front of Yahweh’s throne. As soon as you see manmade constructions like this popping up in Heaven, you ought to realize that the Heaven John is seeing has nothing to do with the real Heaven. This is pure fiction—but John probably doesn’t realize this. Like many Christians today, he probably assumed he was seeing what Heaven literally looks like, never finding it the least bit suspicious that it looked so much like his current experience of earth.
Four living creatures covered with eyes in front and in back were in the middle and around the throne. The first living creature was like a lion; the second living creature was like a calf; the third living creature had a face like a man; and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings; they were covered with eyes around and inside. (Rev. 4:6-8)
In ancient times, if you wanted to emphasize a certain characteristic of a statue, you covered it with a certain feature. For example, the false god Artemis was supposed to control human fertility, so she was depicted as a ball of breasts. When people visited a temple of Artemis to worship her, they’d be bowing down before the breast balls. Bizarre? Yes, but we can hardly throw stones given some of the very ugly and nonsensical modern art that we crank out today.
These heavenly creatures which John sees covered in eyes are following the same principle: the plethora of eyes are meant to emphasize a certain characteristic about these creatures. John would have immediately understood what the eyes symbolized. We can only guess that the many eyes probably meant that the creatures had a special knowledge of God and of supernatural things. We find the same principle at work back in Ezekiel’s time, for he also saw visions of Yahweh being accompanied by creatures who were covered in eyes (see Ezek. 1:18).
The stage is being set here for an antiphonal choral performance. Picture two groups of monks in a cathedral taking turns singing chants. An antiphony is when two groups of performers take turns singing parts of a song at each other. This was a popular form of entertainment in ancient times. Here in Heaven, the two alternating choruses are going to be those twenty four human men and these freakish looking creatures.
Now everything John is seeing here is symbolic in his eyes. Because it’s all “modern day” symbolism to him, he instantly gets it. When we try to share his experience with him 2,000 years later, we struggle to get why we need a creepy looking lion, cow, man, and eagle beast hanging out in Heaven. Well, these things are probably representing the various elements of the created world: the lion would stand for wild animals, the cow for domesticated animals, the man for people, and the eagle for birds. What’s missing? Fish and bugs and plants. Well, no one cares about plants at this point. Because the sea was mysterious and dangerous, the ancient people had a lot of negative feelings towards sea creatures, and they didn’t like bugs back then any more than we do today. So what we’ve got here in Heaven is a chorus of four freaky looking creatures who represent all of the good parts of Creation—that is, according to John’s narrow minded perspective. Our Gods like insects and fish just fine, but John doesn’t, and this vision is being tailored for John.
Now the second chorus of twenty four elders are probably meant to symbolize true believers. In a moment, we’re going to see these two groups breaking out in song and putting on a performance of God’s people and God’s Creation praising Him. The freaky creature chorus begins the song.
Day and night they never stop, saying:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty—the One who always was, who is, and who is still to come.” (Rev. 4:8)
This praise is specifically directed at Yahweh, not Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Notice those three holies. When the ancient Jews wanted to really emphasize a point, they repeated themselves. Two holies says “super holy.” But three holies right in a row—well, you just can’t get more holy than that. This triple holy talk is the Jewish way of saying that Yahweh is the ultimate in holiness. In modern day English, we’d say He is so incredibly, awesomely, totally holy! When we want to emphasize something in English, we start piling on the adjectives. In John’s day, they just said the same word multiple times.
Now that the freaky beast chorus has paid Yahweh this ultimate compliment, it’s time for the second chorus of human elders to respond. An elder was the title Jews gave to their community leaders. And because John lives in a male-dominated culture, you’ll notice that males dominate the heavenly scene.
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the One seated on the throne, the One who lives forever and ever, the twenty four elders fall down before the One seated on the throne, worship the One who lives forever and ever, cast their crowns before the throne, and say:
“You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power. For You created all things, and they exist because You created what You pleased.” (Rev. 4:9-11)
What’s with this “You are worthy to receive” language? Of course God is worthy, and He doesn’t receive anything, because He already has everything. No one gives God His power. Well, once again, we’ve got Heaven being adjusted to fit John’s cultural expectations. In the Old Testament, we definitely find some triple holies being directed at Yahweh, but we don’t find any “You are worthy to receive” language, because back then such language would have been considered an inappropriate way to speak to the Almighty God. But we’re not in Old Testament times anymore—we’re in the days of the Roman Empire, and new phrases are in use. During public sessions of Roman emperor worship, everyone would stand around saying “you are worthy” over and over to that emperor and then they’d tack on a bunch of things that the emperor was worthy of. So basically these twenty four elders in Heaven are mimicking the language used in a session of Roman emperor worship. But the elders then go on to point out that Yahweh is supreme over all other rulers by saying He created all things and that He only creates what He wants to create.
Okay, so now that we’ve moved into Heaven’s main showroom, and we’ve watched Yahweh being exalted, what about Jesus? Jesus has presented Himself as the One directing this vision—is He going to be content to stay in the background and let Yahweh steal the show from now on? Not hardly. Our Gods love to exalt Themselves. In our next chapter, Jesus is going to turn the focus back onto Himself. After all, He is just as worthy as Yahweh is, and He’s going to make sure these two Roman style choruses publicly say so.