A vision of the throne

Revelation chapters 4-5. A throne is seen in heaven, the centre of all power in the universe. The question is: who is to receive that power on earth?

After this I looked, and behold, an opened door in heaven, and the voice that I first heard as of a trumpet speaking to me, saying, “Come up, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, and someone seated on the throne, and the one seated similar in appearance to jasper and carnelian, and a rainbow encircling the throne, similar in appearance to an emerald, and encircling the throne twenty-four thrones, and seated on the twenty-four thrones the twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads. And from the throne go forth lightning, and sounds, and thunder, and before the throne seven lamps of fire burning, which are the seven spirits of God; also before the throne, what seemed a glass sea, like crystal.

We pass from Christ’s review of the churches to ‘what must take place after this’ (1:19), the subject of the rest of the revelation. The set phrase ‘I looked, and behold’ echoes Daniel’s phraseology (Dan 2:31, 7:2) and signals that we are about to glimpse the future. John is transported to heaven, where he sees someone seated on a throne, the throne of the Father just mentioned in the letter to the Laodiceans. The vision is ominous, for only prophets, and Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, were ever granted sight of the throne.

Although we know who this must be, John does not describe a person. His only observation is that the king, inscrutable and unknowable, has the appearance of jasper and carnelian. The most prized kind of jasper was green; carnelian is reddish-brown. The Image credit: Gettystones give him the colour of the earth, the land distinct from the sea (Gen 1:10). The rainbow too has the appearance of a gemstone, a now forgotten reminder of the promise that the waters of the deep would never again destroy the earth (Gen 9:11-17). But this rainbow (iris, which can also mean ‘halo’) is dominated by the colour green. It resembles another atmospheric phenomenon, the aurora borealis, which is typically an emerald colour. The significance of this will become apparent later.

Also around him, on subsidiary thrones, are twenty-four elders. Their number, and the definite article, suggests the twelve sons of Israel and twelve apostles, including John himself, but they are left unidentified. The vitreous sea is the celestial counterpart of the bronze sea in Solomon’s Temple, signifying the primeval deep by which the antediluvian world was destroyed. ‘The Lord is seated upon the mabbul [cataclysm]’ (Ps 29:10). It is a perpetual reminder of former wrath. The lightning, sounds and thunder express his cosmic power and hint at future wrath. The flaming lamps (not necessarily torches) correspond to the lamps on the seven-branched lampstand in the Mosaic Tabernacle (Ex 37:23) and have a searching function (Zeph 1:12). Although depicted as distinct, they are part of God. Like the lightning and the thunder, they suggest that the surroundings of the throne, which itself is nowhere described, are dark.

And in the midst of the throne and around the throne, four animals, full of eyes in front and behind: the first animal like a lion, the second like a calf, the third with the face of a man, the fourth like an eagle flying. And the four animals, each with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and they have no rest, day or night, saying,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”

The description increasingly evokes the vision given to Ezekiel at the beginning of his work. As a storm approaches, he sees a great cloud surrounded by brightness, and perpetual fire, and appearing from the midst of the fire something like glowing metal. Also from its midst he makes out four animals (not ‘living creatures’ – the single word means ‘living one’ or ‘animal’, the same as in Heb 13:11 and II Pet 2:12). They seem like burning coals of fire, like constantly moving torches, with wings stretched out one towards the other. And over their heads, something crystal-like, symbolic of the firmament. Above that, a throne. As the vision gets closer, he sees that the appearance of glowing metal is above the throne and, from the waist up, its form resembles a man, and the brightness all around is like a rainbow (but it is not a rainbow). He has seen something of the glory of God, the maker of heaven and earth. The animals emphasise his absolute holiness, as they did in Isaiah’s vision of God the King, enthroned in the Temple. The vision granted to John marks him out as the New Testament successor of these prophets.

The animals represent life on and above the earth (Gen 9:10). But the beings have wings, and they are full of eyes, before, behind and within, as if they share in the divinity of the all-seeing Creator. And they are both around and in the centre of the throne, as if the throne were translucent and they did not have a physical nature. Like their fiery appearance in Ezekiel’s vision, they show forth something of the imagination and otherness of God, the author of life, notwithstanding that they are distinct from him. Something of the Creator is manifested in earth’s creatures – the eagle (Ex 19:4), the ox (Num 24:8), the man (Gen 1:26) and the lion (Hos 11:10, Amos 3:8) – because they originate from above, from the mind of God, not Earth’s self-evolution. Jesus was pleased to liken himself even to the domestic hen (Matt 23:37), an animal that we cage and abuse, so alienated are we from the source of life. In contrast to all who worship images, these supernatural beings accord him honour, gratitude and glory (Rev 4:9). When, later, Ezekiel sees the glory quitting the Temple, he realises that the beings are the cherubim, the only ones described as having wings. Two cherubim overshadowed the throne of the ark of the Tabernacle (Ex 37:7f). Hidden behind a curtain, in the darkness, they were the one likeness of a heavenly being that Yahweh sanctioned. In the old world they guarded the way to the tree of life.

When, in the midst of fire, God made himself known to Moses, he told him not to come near because of his holiness. He revealed his name as Yahweh, or ‘I am who I am’, one who existed in and beyond time; ‘the one who inhabits eternity, whose name is holy’ (Isa 57:15). Now, as at the beginning of the Revelation (1:8), the ‘I am’ is also the one who in the future will manifest himself in person. The cherubim might have said much more about his character. At the time that he delivered the Israelites from slavery, he revealed himself as one merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (Ex 34:6). Now, through these beings, he declares only his holiness, as if this is what the world most needs to understand – and, unknowable though he may seem, he is coming. The twofold declaration is the central theme of the book.

The world’s scientists and philosophers say, “There is no God,” but it is the heart that instructs the mind in such folly. Eternal nothingness is easy to imagine. Existence is a mystery. We might conceive of one thing existing simply because it always has, but how can we conceive of two identical things having always existed? The universe consists of countless trillions of atoms, and atoms consist of quarks and leptons, of which, in both cases, there are six different types. How can six different but mutually compatible types of quark have always existed – let alone trillions of identical quarks of each type? How can six different but mutually compatible types of lepton always have existed? With the ability to bind into protons and neutrons and combine with electrons (a type of lepton), quarks make atoms possible, and make different elements possible. The hypothesised existence of ‘dark matter’, capable of interacting with atoms, only adds to the problem. God was one from the beginning; his creation was multipartite from the beginning. Even if we are blind to the witness of God in the order and beauty of the world, and in the mystery of our own consciousness and sense of free will, in the history of Israel, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, atheism is a doctrine without clothes. If God made the world, and if without him there would be nothing, how indeed could his handiwork not be evident? Those who choose death will be granted death. But not before they kneel before his throne.

The elders are a completely new presence around the throne.

And whenever the animals give glory and honour and thankfulness to the one seated on the throne, who lives forever and forever, the twenty-four elders fall down before the one seated on the throne, and worship him who lives forever and forever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory, and honour, and power,
because you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

The truth that God exists goes hand in hand with the truth that the world came into existence by his will. He is eternal; all things owe their existence to him; he created them (they did not evolve into existence by themselves); over his creation he is lord; and one day he – God himself – will come to the earth to receive from man the glory, honour and power due to him as Creator. Indeed, these attributes of kingship ultimately come from God (I Chron 29:11f, Dan 2:37f). ‘Worship’, as throughout the Bible, means to bow down, to prostrate oneself: a physical act of homage. The same word is used to speak of worshipping God in spirit and truth (John 4:23f).

The throne which we have seen is in heaven, not on earth. While it is true that “he does according to his will among the host of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay his hand” (Dan 4:35), his kingdom has not yet come. After the Flood-Cataclysm, God withdrew to heaven. He left the earth to be ruled by others:
When the Most High gave to the nations what was theirs,
when he separated the sons of Adam,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
For the Lord’s portion is his people,
Jacob the bounds of his heritage. (Deut 32:8f)
In order to begin to re-establish his sovereignty, God brought into existence a people that belonged to him. He became their national god, in the same sense that his sons ruled other nations; except that the Israelites were to worship only him, and make no image of him. After rescuing them from slavery, he gave them a portion of land and a law to live by, and centuries later – on their insistence – a human king who would rule them on his behalf. He dwelt amongst them, initially in a tent, later in a stone temple. To David he promised,
“I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” (I Chron 17:11f)

When the Temple was finished, in 961 BC, the people saw the glory of God enter the building and fill it. In its sanctuary the mercy seat was his throne.

But king and people alike repeatedly lusted after gods that were not holy. They would not listen when God pleaded with them to repent of their unfaithfulness. At last his patience ran out. In 586 BC, he quit the Temple in Jerusalem and allowed the Babylonians to destroy the city. Of those who survived, all but the poorest were deported from the land and the kingdom abrogated. Although some eventually returned and rebuilt the Temple, he did not return to it and the nation remained subject to foreign kings. In AD 70 that second Temple too was demolished.

God had no wish to be ruler of Israel merely on the ground that he was the all-powerful Creator and everything belonged to him. He wished the relationship to be that of marriage. He courted the people for their affection, sought to demonstrate that he was worthy of their love, and hoped that they would respond. But although he lived amongst them, he was too distant. They wanted an image that made him visible, that brought him close.

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll, with writing on both sides, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll, nor to look at it. And I wept greatly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll, nor to look at it. And one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he may open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Although the Lord God himself is worthy, the scroll must be opened by someone else. John understands that unless it is opened, the kingdom will never come. But no one is found qualified to open it, either in heaven or on earth, whether among the living or the dead. Except one. Although he is not named, his titles indicate that he fulfils an ancient, rather obscure prophecy of Jacob’s concerning a descendant of his son Judah (Gen 49:8-12) and similar prophecies by the Assyrian mystic Balaam concerning all Israel (Num 23:24, 24:9). ‘Root of David’ recalls Isaiah’s appellation of the Messiah as ‘the root of Jesse’ (Isa 11:10), David’s father. He is not only a branch (Isa 11:1) in David’s family tree but its very root, as he is indeed the root of us all (Gen 1:26).

Jesus is associated with the verb ‘conquer’ three times in the book (3:21, 5:5, 17:14), and this is the central statement: his having conquered entitles him to open the scroll, just as our having conquered entitles us to enter the inheritance bequeathed in the scroll. In total the verb occurs eight times before this chapter and eight times after it.

And I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four animals and in the midst of the elders a lamb standing, as though slaughtered, with seven horns and seven eyes which are the seven spirits of God sent into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four animals and the twenty-four elders fell down before the lamb, each holding a lyre and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and open its seals,
for you were slaughtered,
and by your blood you purchased us for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you made them kings and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

In the centre of the throne, and of the whole gathering, John for the first time sees a lamb, not a lion. The lamb has seven horns, one more than the maximum in nature. In some respects this being is like the cherubim: he stands in the same place, he is portrayed as an animal, he has many eyes, and these eyes are the seven spirits of God (Ezek 1:13). The spirits are also an attribute of the Almighty himself (1:4, 4.5), but here they are sent out. We are also reminded of the golden lampstand that Zechariah saw in a vision, whose seven lamps symbolised “the eyes of the Lord which range through the whole earth”. Like God himself, the lamb searches even the unconscious parts of our being (Rev 2:23), and contrary to trinitarian expectations, it is only in this role that the Spirit is presented in John’s vision of the throne. The eyes are not a separate person; they are part of the lamb.

‘Us’ in the song refers to the twenty-four elders, becoming ‘them’ as the singers – the elders – identify with the unseen multitude from every people group who have been purchased for ‘our’ God. ‘Every tribe, and people, and language, and nation’ is a reference to the dispersion of mankind after the Cataclysm, and the supernatural confusion of the language at Babel (Gen 10-11). The sons of Adam had learned to make bricks and were building the first Babylon in order to ‘make for themselves a name’. The city included a brick-built mountain with steps that led down into the underworld and up to the spirit world of the heavens, and it was intended to be the capital of the world’s first empire, embracing the lands either side of the Tigris and Euphrates, namely Mesopotamia. It was the place where kingship first developed, not under God but under sons of God, and they (as before, Gen 3) wanted worship for themselves. So God dispersed them over the face of the earth. They took their ideas of kingship and spiritual power with them, and since they could no longer act as one, they split up and competed with each other. ‘Every tribe, and people, and language, and nation’ is the first of seven variations of the phrase: evidently it is a key idea. Following the new creation programmatically signalled by Christ’s resurrection, Pentecost programmatically signalled the reversal of man’s division (Col 3:11). God had promised that through Abraham ‘all the tribes of the earth’ would be blessed (Gen 12:3 LXX, alluded to in Rev 1:7). In Christ he fulfilled that purpose.

‘Saints’ is the plural of hagios, ‘holy [one]’, used pre-eminently of God (4:8). They are holy as he is holy, because they have been made so, sanctified through faith, as an unmerited gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 26:18, I Cor 6:11) without which we cannot enter the presence of God. This is the sense of the word in Revelation; the saints are not an elite group in heaven, and one does not become a saint by being ‘canonised’. But holiness is also something for which the Spirit urges us to strive (Heb 12:14). He has called forth a new, holy nation, such as Israel was called to be. That those he has purchased are also a ‘kingdom of priests’ (Ex 15:15, 19:6) is no idle metaphor. They will be kings of cities, and the people ruled will be the peoples of the earth. They will be as priest-kings after the order of Melchizedek (Heb 7:11-17, Gen 14:18), mediating between the peoples and the Lord God in Jerusalem. Whoever explains the truth about God to those who are estranged from him serves as a priest (Rom 15:16).

“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John the Baptist hardly knew what he was saying when he hailed Jesus in this manner. How could the Saviour of Israel be a lamb? And how could he take away the sin of the world – Gentiles as well as Jews? As Paul was to explain in writing to the Romans, we fall short of God’s perfect goodness. We are not fit for the life to come, where there is neither sin nor death. Our bodies decay, and we die. The solution to this impossible dilemma is that God offers eternal life on the basis of forgiveness, and forgiveness on the basis that we accept the sacrifice that he himself provided for us. Uniquely begotten as God’s human son, Christ lived without sin and willingly endured crucifixion in order that the justice of God might be satisfied.
He was wounded for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the chastisement that was our peace came upon him,
and by his stripes we were healed. …
He was oppressed, and was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
as a lamb is led to the slaughter
and as a sheep is silent before its shearers,
so he did not open his mouth. (Isa 53:5, 7)

The atonement was prefigured in Abel’s sacrifice of the firstborn of his flock already at the beginning of history (Gen 4:4). It was re-instituted at the Exodus. Before redeeming his people, God commanded every household to sacrifice a young sheep or goat without blemish, and smear its blood on their doorposts. It was a foretoken of Christ’s perfect sacrifice. Egypt was ripe for judgement. But for the blood, the children of Israel also would have perished. He distinguished between Egypt and Israel on the basis of its blood.

Israel’s escape from Egypt in 1447 BC is narrated in Exodus 12-14 and summarised in the table below, which shows that the week in which Jesus offered up his life followed precisely the chronology of the Exodus. In accordance with the first created day, calendar days began in the evening. However, the temple authorities interpreted the time ‘between the two evenings’ of sunset and nightfall when the lamb was to be eaten (Ex 12:6) as referring to the end of the 14th day of the month. Jesus, like the Essenes, celebrated the Passover at the beginning of the 14th day. Crucified the following afternoon, he became the paschal lamb for the whole nation at the same time as the Jews slaughtered their paschal lambs (John 19:14). God himself atoned (Ezek 16:63).

 Abib  Day The Exodus Passion Week
  10  Sun A lamb is taken and kept until day 14 Palm Sunday.
  13  Wed At the end of the day (= beginning of Abib 14, Jewish reckoning) the lamb is slaughtered and eaten. The angel of the Lord slaughters Egypt’s firstborn. Jesus celebrates the Passover and is arrested the same night.
  14  Thu The Egyptians urge the Israelites to depart, which they do. In the evening they camp at Succoth. Jesus is crucified. The Jews celebrate the Passover at the end of Abib 14.
  15  Fri The Israelites travel on, camping at Etham. Special sabbath (Ex 12:16, Mk 15:42)
  16  Sat The Israelites travel on, camping at Migdol, but do not rest. Weekly sabbath (Luke 23:56).
  17  Sun In the night they begin crossing the Red Sea. Around dawn the Egyptian army chasing them is drowned. Jesus rises from the dead (before dawn).

Jesus told his disciples: “Take heart, I have overcome the world.” His followers were not to use force when seeking to advance the kingdom. “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would become great among you must be your servant.” He exemplified this in himself:
He did not hold on to equality with God as a usurper might, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, born in the likeness of a man. And having the appearance of a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient even to death, death on a cross. Therefore God has supremely exalted him and granted him a name that is above every name. (Phil 2:6-9)

Although he was, by destiny, Jerusalem’s king (Zech 9:9), he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, not in the manner of a military conqueror. He defeated man’s greatest enemy by surrendering his life (Col 2:15, Heb 2:14), knowing that he could trust his father even to raise him from the dead. The effect of his death was twofold: he offered propitiation of God’s wrath toward sin, and, by the same obedience, he earned the right to rule the world and judge every soul that has ever lived. Having plundered Hades (Eph 4:9, I Pet 3:19), he ascended to the position of ultimate authority, the right hand of God, to abide there until the day he would return.

“Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). We have been bought for a price, redeemed from a slave-owner who has had to let us go. The word ‘purchase’ is agorazein, the regular term for buying in the market place (agora). We who were once slaves to sin are now slaves (‘servants’) to righteousness (Rom 6), destined, if we do works worthy of repentance, to be the world’s kings, invested with the same authority as that of Jesus himself (Rev 3:21).

The Exodus of his people from a world of corruption is the central theme in Revelation. God’s wrath comes not simply because sin is the inveterate condition of mankind, but because sin has run its course (Gen 15:16, Matt 23:32). The world’s iniquity is complete. God brings plagues upon the land as a warning to repent and avert his displeasure. The enemy persecutes his people all the more. At the last, God takes them temporarily out of the world, and on its remaining inhabitants he pours out his wrath. But there will still be survivors. His wrath expended, he will return to Jerusalem with his redeemed people to rule the world in righteousness. He will speak peace to the nations. ‘His rule will be from sea to sea, and from the River’ – the Euphrates, the approximate border of the future land of Israel (Gen 15:18, Ezek 47:17) – ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Zech 9:10).

‘Elder’ is a term of leadership but not hierarchy. Hierarchy was discouraged in the early Church. Papias, a disciple of John, called even the apostles elders, probably because the apostles referred to themselves as elders (I Pet 5:1, II John 1). The saints whose prayers fill the golden bowls of the elders are God’s people on earth, the ‘sons of Israel’ (his descendants, not just his immediate sons) and God’s people under the new covenant. They are not seen, because the resurrection has not yet occurred. The twenty-four elders are their representatives, keeping their place in advance of that day (Eph 2:6). Their golden crowns (wreaths, not diadems) represent the prize awarded to those who are faithful to the end, who have fought the good fight (II Tim 4:7f, Rev 2:10). The apostles themselves, when Christ sits on his throne in Jerusalem, will sit on twelve thrones ruling the resurrected twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19:28).

And I looked, and around the throne and the animals and the elders I heard the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered
to receive power and riches and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!”
And I heard every creature in the sky, on the earth, under the earth and on the sea, all that is in them, say,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb,
blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever!”
And the four animals said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshipped.

The innumerable multitude of angels evokes the chariots and ‘thousands of thousands’ that David saw on the mountain of God (Ps 68:17) and the ‘thousand thousands and ten thousand times ten thousands’ that Daniel saw around his throne (Dan 7:10). Suddenly they are heard, if not seen. Like John, Daniel saw other thrones, and then ‘one like a son of man’, who was presented before the Almighty and given ‘dominion and glory and a kingdom’, just as the Lamb now goes and takes the scroll.

The Lamb is worthy because of his perfect faith, his perfect love, his unblemished holiness. When the elders proclaim that the one on the throne is worthy to receive the glory, honour and power, because he created all things, the implication is that God alone is worthy. But in this too the Lamb qualifies. For ‘all things came to be through him, and without him did not anything come to be that came to be’ (John 1:3). When God spoke, it was the Son who executed the commands. He was the appointed heir from the beginning, the image of God that at the end of the ages would bring God near (Gen 1:26, Col 1:15). The Lamb and he who sits on the throne are one.

Therefore the angels proclaim that glory and honour and power are due no less to him than to God. And they invoke still more: wisdom and riches and blessing (benediction), just as David blessed God in the presence of the assembly and acknowledged that the kingdom belonged to him, for everything in heaven and on the earth belonged to him. All the assembly blessed God and bowed down and worshipped before God and the king alike (I Chron 29:11-22). The angels are the celestial counterpart of that congregation; the Lamb is the celestial counterpart of that king. They express the mystery of the faith of Israel, that the son of David would be like Solomon but greater than Solomon (Ps 72, Isa 11:1-10).
Give the king your judgments, O God,
and your righteousness to the king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness
and your poor ones with justice. …
Let them fear you as long as the sun
and as long as the moon, before all generations. …
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. …
May he live, and may the gold of Sheba be given to him,
and may they pray for him continually;
Let them bless him all the day long.

All creation has been groaning, awaiting release from the bondage of corruption, and now every creature – flying animals, terrestrial animals, burrowing animals, marine – joins in the cry. His worshippers gladly assent to the glory, majesty, dominion and authority which are rightfully his. As yet, he reigns in heaven, not on earth. It is important that there be a people on earth, drawn from every tribe and nation, who assent to his reign, for the world hates him and does not want him to rule over them.