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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).|
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.
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.