A revelation of the throne in heaven

After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I heard like a trumpet speaking to me, said, “Ascend here, 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 one seated on the throne. And the one seated had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of emerald. And around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones, twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with 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, and before the throne as it were a glass sea, like crystal.

We pass from John’s present (1:19) to ‘what must take place after these things’. The message to the church in Laodicea has just upbraided its members for their self-satisfaction. Now he is transported to heaven, where he sees someone seated on a throne. Although we know who this must be, John does not describe a person. His only observation is that, inscrutable and unknowable, the sovereign has the appearance of of the gemstones jasper and carnelian. The most prized kind of jasper was green; carnelian is reddish-brown. Thus the stones describe the colour of the earth, i.e. land (Gen 1:10). The rainbow over the throne also has the appearance of a gemstone, emerald being the middle colour of the spectrum; but presumably it is not the only colour visible. Although no longer understood, the rainbow is a reminder of the promise to all living creatures that the waters of the deep would never again destroy the earth.

Also around him, and on subsidiary thrones, are twenty-four ‘elders’. Their number suggests the twelve sons of Israel and the twelve apostles, including John himself (II John 1), but they are purposely left unidentified. Their thrones and crowns show that they participate in his sovereignty, but we do not see the kingdom over which they might rule. The glass object looking like a sea is the celestial counterpart of the bronze sea in Solomon’s Temple, signifying the primeval deep by which the antediluvian world was destroyed. It too is a perpetual reminder of the wrath meted out in the remote past. The lightning, sounds and thunder proceeding from the throne 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 in the middle of the throne and around the throne, four living beings, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living being like a lion, the second like a calf, the third with the face of a man, and the fourth like an eagle in flight. And the four living beings, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they say without ceasing,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”

The description evokes the similar 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 living beings (not ‘creatures’ – as in Hebrew, the single word means ‘living [one]’). They seem like burning torches. 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 that, from the waist up, its form resembles a man, and the brightness a rainbow. He has seen something of the glory of God, maker of heaven and earth. The living beings emphasise his absolute holiness, as they did in Isaiah’s vision of the 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 that the living beings resemble 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 nature 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; they do not simply represent terrestrial life. Like their fiery appearance in Ezekiel’s vision, they reveal something of the glory of God, the author of life, even in being distinct from him. There is something of God to be perceived in earth’s creatures – perhaps especially the eagle (Ex 19:4), the ox (Matt 11:29), the man (Gen 1:26) and the lion (Hos 11:10). Notwithstanding the second commandment, the vision sanctions its own use of animal 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 they accord him honour and gratitude and glory (Rev 4:9, cf. Rom 1:21-23). When, later, Ezekiel sees the glory quit the Temple, he realises that the living beings are the cherubim. In the old world they guarded the way to the tree of life. On them Yahweh sits enthroned (II Sam 6:2). Differences between Ezekiel’s description and John’s show that how they manifest to human sight is not fixed.

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, but always present in the 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 he who, in the future, will manifest himself in person. The living beings might have said much more about the character of God. 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 the living beings, he declares only his holiness, as if this is what the world most needs to understand – and that, 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 – that anything exists – 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. Even if we are blind to the witness of God in the order and beauty of the world, or in the mystery of our own consciousness and sense of free will, or in the history of Israel, or 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 that possibly 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 living beings give glory and honour and thankfulness to the one seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before the one seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever, and they cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive the glory and the honour and the power,
because you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

The truth that God exists is indissociable from 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 (Dan 2:37f). ‘Worship’, as throughout the New Testament, literally means to bow down, to prostrate oneself – a physical act of homage.

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 their inheritance,
when he separated the sons of Adam,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
But the Lord’s portion was his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage. (Deut 32:8f)
In order to begin to re-establish his sovereignty, God brought into existence a people that worshipped and 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 were to make no image of him. After rescuing them from slavery, he gave them a portion of land, a law to live by, and eventually – on their insistence – a king who would rule them on his behalf. He dwelt amongst them, initially in a tent (or tabernacle), 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 fill the building. In its sanctuary he placed his throne.

But 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. Eventually his patience ran out. In 586 BC, he quit the Temple and allowed the Babylonians to destroy the capital city and its inhabitants. All but the poorest people were deported from their 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 the Temple too was taken away.

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 like 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.

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 or to look at it. And I wept greatly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or 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 is a document that must be opened by someone else. John senses that the scroll must be opened, whatever its contents, or the kingdom will never come. But no one is worthy to open it, neither in heaven, nor on earth, nor among the dead. Except one. Although he is not named, his titles indicate that he fulfils Jacob’s ancient, rather obscure prophecy concerning a descendant of Judah (Gen 49:8-12) and Balaam’s similar prophecies for all Israel (Num 23:24, 24:9). ‘Root of David’ recalls Isaiah’s appellation of the Messiah as ‘the root of Jesse’ (11:10), David’s father. He also characterises him as a branch who sprouts from ‘the stump of Jesse’ – only a stump, because Judah has been exiled and its royal house stripped of its kingship (6:13, 11:10, 4:2). He is the first and the last. His ‘origin is from old, from ancient days’ (Mic 5:2).

And I saw in the middle of the throne and of the four living creatures 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 living creatures 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 to 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 have made them kings and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

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 living beings. It has seven horns. In nature, sheep have up to six horns; with more than two they are called ‘polycerate’. 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 (4.5). 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”. The lamb “searches mind and heart” (Rev 2:23).

‘Us’ refers to the twenty-four elders, distinct from the ‘them’ whom he has purchased from every people group (the grammar is condensed). The word translated ‘saints’ is agioi, ‘holy ones’ – the word used pre-eminently of God (4:8). They are holy as he is holy, because they have been made so, sanctified by faith, as an unmerited gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 26:18, I Cor 6:11). Without such holiness we cannot enter the presence of God. It is also something for which the Spirit urges us to strive (Heb 12:14). He has called out from the peoples 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 all be kings, and the people ruled will be the peoples of the earth. They will mediate as priest-kings after the order of Melchizedek (Heb 7:11-17, Gen 14:18) between the peoples and the Lord God in Jerusalem. Within the Church there are no priests in the sacerdotal sense, because all know God for themselves and therefore the whole Church is a priesthood. Whoever explains the truth about God to those who do not know him serves as a priest (Rom 15:16).

“Behold the Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the whole world.” John the Baptist hardly knew what he was saying when he hailed Jesus in these terms. How could the Saviour of Israel be a lamb? And how could the Saviour take away the sins of the whole world – of Gentiles as well as Jews? As Paul was to explain in his letter to the Romans, we have all sinned, we continually fall short of God’s perfect goodness. So we are not fit for the life to come, where there is neither sin nor death. By reason of corruption 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 provided for us. Uniquely begotten as God’s human son by the Holy Spirit, Christ lived a life 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;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are 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)

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, and but for the blood, the children of Israel would also have been judged. 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. As per Genesis 1, calendar days began in the evening. 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 Abib. 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 Nisan 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 Nisan 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.” As in Revelation, the verb is nikaω, sometimes translated ‘overcome’, sometimes ‘conquer’. He taught that his followers were not to use force when seeking to advance the kingdom of God. “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 his own life:
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, becoming obedient all the way to death, death on a cross. Therefore God has supremely exalted him and granted him a name which 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 to raise him from the dead. The effect of his death was twofold: not only did he offer propitiation of God’s wrath toward sin, but, by the same act of obedience, he earned the right to rule the world and to judge the living and the dead. Having plundered Hades (Eph 4:9, I Pet 3:19), he ascended to the position of ultimate authority, the right hand of God, there to abide until the day when he would return in glory.

He bought the freedom of those held in captivity. “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 translated ‘purchase’ is agorazein, the regular word for buying in the market place (agora). We who were once slaves to sin are now slaves (or servants) to righteousness (Rom 6), destined as his servants to be the world’s kings.

God is holy. The Exodus of his people from a world of moral 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. The world’s iniquity is complete. God brings plagues upon the land as a warning to repent and avert his displeasure, but the enemy persecutes his people all the more. Eventually, God – temporarily – takes them out of the world. On its remaining inhabitants he pours out his wrath. But there are still survivors. When his wrath is 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, approximately the 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 resur- rection is yet to come. The elders are their representatives, keeping their place in advance of that day (Eph 2:6, II Tim 2:12). Their golden bowls of incense and golden crowns show that they too are priests and kings. They number twenty-four because they represent all the saints, Israel (Dan 7:22) and the Church.

Then I looked, and around the throne and the living beings 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 the power and riches and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!”
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb,
blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever!”
And the four living beings said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshipped.

The innumerable multitude of angels evokes the ‘thousand thousands and ten thousand times ten thousands’ that Daniel saw in his vision of the throne of God (Dan 7:10). Like John, he 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’, much as the Lamb now goes and takes the scroll. Like the prophecies of Ezekiel and Isaiah, those of Daniel are important for understanding John’s visions.

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 (Col 1:15) would bring God near. The Lamb and he who sits on the throne are one.

Therefore the angels proclaim that glory and honour and power (or might) are due to him as to God. And they invoke still more: wisdom and riches and blessing (eulogia – benediction. They express the mystery of the faith of Israel, that the son of David would be like Solomon but greater than Solomon (Ps 72).
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.