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?
We pass from the present (1:19) and Christ’s review of the churches, encompassing the whole present age, to ‘what must take place after these things’, the subject of the rest of the revelation. John is transported to heaven, where he sees someone seated on a throne. Only prophets, and Stephen as he was martyred for his message, are granted visions of the throne. The vision is therefore ominous.
Although we know who this must be, John does not describe a person. His only observation is that the sovereign, inscrutable and unknowable, has the appearance of the gemstones jasper and carnelian. The most prized kind of jasper was green, carnelian is reddish-brown, so the stones give him the colour of the earth, the dry land distinct from the sea (Gen 1:10). The rainbow too has the appearance of a gemstone, a now forgotten reminder of the promise to all animals 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’ – ‘rain’ is not part of the Greek word) is dominated by the colour green. It resembles another atmospheric phenomenon, the aurora borealis, which is most commonly emerald in colour. The significance of this will become apparent later.
Also around him, on subsidiary thrones, are twenty-four elders. Their number suggests the twelve sons of Israel and twelve apostles, including John himself (II John 1), but they are left unidentified. They participate in his sovereignty. 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. Like the rainbow, 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). Described as distinct, they are part of God. Like the lightning and the thunder, they suggest that the surroundings of the throne are dark.
The description evokes the vision given to Ezekiel at the beginning of his work. As a storm approaches, he sees a great cloud with brightness around it, 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 in Hebrew means ‘living one’ or ‘animal’, the same as with the Greek word in Heb 13:11, II Pet 2:12 and in Revelation passim). 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 is a rainbow. He has seen something of the glory of God, 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 glory of God, the author of life, even in being distinct from him. Something of God is to be perceived in earth’s creatures – such as the eagle (Ex 19:4), the ox (Matt 11:29), the man (Gen 1:26) and the lion (Hos 11:10). Consider also the domestic hen (Matt 23:37), which we do not even treat as a living being, so alienated are we from animal life. Notwithstanding the second commandment, the vision sanctions its own use of imagery to show the godhead, just as the placing of two cherubim over the throne of the ark of the Tabernacle was sanctioned (Ex 37:7f). Far from being objects of worship these beings accord him honour and gratitude and glory (Rev 4:9, cf. Rom 1:21-23). When, later, Ezekiel sees the glory quitting the Temple, he realises that the beings are the cherubim. On them Yahweh sits enthroned (II Sam 6:2). 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’, existing beyond time, always present. He is ‘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 heavenly animals might have said much more about his character. Having delivered the Israelites from slavery, the Lord God revealed that he was merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (Ex 34:6). But now, through these beings, he declares only his holiness, as if this is what the world most needs to understand – and, inscrutable 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 have always 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 belief that there also exists ‘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, 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 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.
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 the glory and honour and power due to him as the Almighty 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.
When the Temple was finished, in 961 BC, the people saw the glory of God fill the building. In its sanctuary the mercy seat was his throne.
But both king and people repeatedly lusted after gods that were not holy. They would not listen when he 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 in due time some returned and rebuilt the Temple, the nation had to learn to worship him without a king. In AD 70 that 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 a 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 brought him near.
The Lord God is worthy, but the scroll must be opened by someone else. John senses that it must be opened, whatever its contents, or the kingdom will never come. But no one is found worthy to open it, either in heaven or on earth, among the living or the dead. Except one. Although he is not named, his titles indicate that he fulfils Jacob’s ancient and rather obscure prophecy concerning a descendant of Judah (Gen 49:8-12) and similar prophecies from 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.
In the centre of the throne, now, for the first time, John sees a lamb, not a lion. It occupies the same space – insofar as we can speak of space – as the Almighty, and the animals, and the elders. It has seven horns. In nature, sheep have up to six horns. 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, Rev 3:1, 5:6), an attribute of the Almighty himself (1:4, 4.5). but here sent out. We are also reminded of the golden lampstand that Zechariah saw in a vision. Its 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 the vision. The eyes are not a separate person; they are part of the lamb.
‘Us’ refers to the twenty-four elders, becoming ‘them’ as the singers identify with the multitude from every people group who have been purchased for ‘our’ God. The word translated ‘saints’ is agioi, ‘holy ones’ – 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. 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, but failed. That they are also a ‘kingdom of priests’ (Ex 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 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).
This 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 God executed the final plague on the Egyptians he commanded every household in Israel to sacrifice a lamb without blemish and smear the 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, with further details in Numbers 33. It is 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. But 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 coming at 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).
|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).|
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 both to rule the world and to 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 as his slaves to be the world’s kings.
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 perennial 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. Eventually, God takes them temporarily out of the world, and on its remaining inhabitants pours out his wrath. But there will still be survivors. His wrath expended, he will return to Jerusalem with his people, redeemed and glorified, to reclaim the world. 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).
Apart from the elders, the saints who have been redeemed are not seen in the vision, because the resurrection has not yet occurred. The elders are their representatives, keeping their place in advance of that day (Eph 2:6, II Tim 2:12). With their bowls of incense, they intercede for them.
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 in his vision of the throne of God (Dan 7:10). Suddenly they are heard, if not seen. Daniel, like John, 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 into being through him, and without him did not anything come into being that did come into being’ (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 (Gen 1:26) that at the end of the ages would bring God near (Col 1:15). The Lamb and he who sits on the throne are one.