Revelation 4-5. A throne is seen in heaven, the centre of all power in the universe. The question is: who is to exercise that power on earth?
We pass from Christ’s review of the churches to ‘what must take place after these things’ (1:19), the subject of the rest of the revelation. Nonetheless, ‘after this or these things I looked’ refers, as also later in the revelation, to what he saw next, not necessarily to the chronology of the events themselves. The set phrase ‘I looked, and behold’ echoes Daniel’s phraseology concerning the revelations given to him (Dan 2:31, 7:2). Transported to heaven, John sees a person on a throne, the throne just mentioned in the message to Laodicea. He is privileged. Only prophets (including David), and the Church’s first martyr, Stephen, were granted sight of heaven’s throne.
Although we know who this must be, John does not describe a person. His only observation is that the one enthroned has an appearance like diamond and carnelian. The word translated ‘diamond’ is iaspis, otherwise translated ‘jasper’. While the kind of stone denoted is uncertain, ‘diamond’ fits better in 21:11. Diamond and carnelian, a reddish-brown stone, were the last and first of the twelve stones that encrusted Aaron’s breastplate of judgement, one for each of the twelve sons of Israel (Ex 28:17-20). They bring to mind the radiant purity of God and, latterly, his shed blood.
A rainbow was a sign of the promise, largely forgotten, 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 single colour green. At first this seems nonsense. In fact it is an an attempt to describe another atmospheric phenomenon, the aurora borealis, which is typically emerald as a result of electrons exciting molecules of oxygen, but also streaked with other colours. The significance of the aurora around the throne will become apparent later.
Also around him, on subsidiary thrones, are twenty-four elders. At this point they are left unidentified. The vitreous sea (Ex 24:10) is the celestial counterpart of the bronze sea in Solomon’s Temple, signifying the primeval deep whose eruption destroyed the antediluvian world. ‘Yahweh is seated like the mabbul, David says, like the waters of the cataclysm over the earth (Ps 29:10). It is a perpetual reminder of former wrath. The lightning, sounds and thunder (evidently distinct from the sounds) hint at future wrath (Ex 9:23). The flaming lamps correspond to the lamps on the seven-branched lampstand in Moses’ Tabernacle (Ex 37:23) and have a searching function (Zeph 1:12). Although distinct, they are elements of God. Like the lightning and the thunder, they also suggest that the surroundings are dark (I Ki 8:12), though of course John can see.
More and more the description evokes the vision at the beginning of Ezekiel’s prophecy. As a storm approaches, he sees a large cloud surrounded by brightness, and a blazing fire, and appearing from the midst of the fire something like glowing metal. Also he makes out four living beings; not ‘creatures’, for the single word, zωon, means ‘living one’ or simply ‘animal’ (so Heb 13:11 and II Pet 2:12). They seem like burning coals, like constantly moving torches, with wings stretched out one towards the other. And over their heads is something crystal-like, corresponding to heaven’s firmament. Above that, a throne. As the vision gets closer, he sees that the apparition of glowing metal sits above the throne and, from the waist up, surrounded by fire, its form resembles a man. The brightness all around him is like a true rainbow. Ezekiel has seen the glory of the maker of heaven and earth. The living beings in John’s vision proclaim his holiness, as they did in Isaiah’s vision of God the King, enthroned in the future Temple of his glory. The revelation establishes John as the New Testament successor of Ezekiel and Isaiah.
The beings represent life on earth: wild and domesticated quadrupeds, man (the only non-hopping terrestrial biped) and flying animals. But the beings all have six wings, like the fiery beings that Isaiah saw, 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. They manifest something of the otherness of God, even though distinct from him. Something of the Creator appears in earth’s creatures – the mighty lion (Hos 11:10, Amos 3:8), the patient ox (Matt 11:29), the man (Gen 1:26), the soaring eagle (Ex 19:4) – for they originate from above, from God’s imagination, not Earth’s self-evolution. Jesus was pleased to liken himself even to a domestic hen (Matt 23:37), an animal we cage and abuse, so alienated are we from the source of life. When Ezekiel later sees the glory abandoning the Temple, he realises that the animals under the throne are the cherubim, the only supernatural beings described as having wings. Two cherubim overshadowed the mercy seat on the ark (Ex 25:17-22), and two spanned the inner sanctuary of the Temple where the ark was later housed (I Ki 6:23, 8:6). Hidden in darkness behind a cherubim-embroidered veil, they were the one likeness of a heavenly being that Yahweh sanctioned. God spoke to Moses from between the cherubim (Ex 25:22). In the old world they guarded the way to the tree of life.
When God first made himself known to Moses, he told him not to come near. He revealed his name as Yahweh, ‘I am who I am’, existing in and beyond time; ‘who inhabits eternity, whose name is holy’ (Ex 3:14f, Isa 57:15). The cherubim might have declared much more about his of Israel’s deliverance, he revealed himself as compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in truth and goodness (Ex 34:6). In their worship the cherubim affirm in heaven what we pray on earth: “Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” Defined by the supreme fact of his existence he is coming to manifest himself in person. The tenses shift from past to present.
The world’s scientists and philosophers say, “There is no God,” but it is the heart that schools the mind in such folly. Eternal nothingness is easy to conceive of, whereas 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 each case, there are six types. How can six different but mutually compatible types of quark have come into existence or 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 their ability to bind into protons and neutrons and combine with electrons (a type of lepton), quarks make atoms possible, and make diverse elements possible. The hypothesised existence of ‘dark matter’, capable of interacting with atoms, only adds to the mystery – should one wish to believe in the existence of a physical thing that has never been detected. 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. Those who choose death will be granted death. But not before they kneel before his throne.
The elders are a completely new presence.
The tenses shift from present to future. The cherubim express thankfulness to God for the gift of life. 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; over his creation he is lord; and one day he – God himself – will come to the earth to receive the glory, honour, and power due to him as Creator. These attributes of kingship belong to him because everything belongs to him (I Chr 29:11f, Dan 2:37f); the nations will give back what is his. As throughout the Bible, ‘worship’, proskuneω, means to bow down, to kiss the ground in a physical act of homage (3:9), and hence to acknowledge with the lips, in spirit and truth, that he is worthy to be king. This is the worship he both seeks and requires (John 4:23f).
The house was God’s Temple or palace (hekal), built on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. When it was finished, in 961 BC, the people saw his glory enter the building. Next to the Temple was the palace of the king, and within that his throne (I Ki 7:7). The first king after David was Solomon.
The king was meant to be the people’s representative before God, and God’s representative before the people. But that is not how things turned out. Beginning with Solomon, king and people alike lusted after gods that cared nothing for their souls. Throughout the land they worshipped idols, they performed fertility rites with cult prostitutes, they summoned up the dead, they practised human sacrifice. They would not listen when God pleaded with them to repent of their unfaithfulness. After more than three hundred years his patience ran out. In 586 BC, he quit the Temple and allowed the Babylonians to destroy the city. Of those who survived, all but the poorest were deported from the land. The kingdom was abrogated. Although some returned and rebuilt the Temple, he did not return to it, and the nation continued to be 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 one 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 among them, he was too distant. They wanted an image that made him visible, that brought him close.
Although the Lord God himself is worthy, some other person must come forward to open the scroll. Unless that happens, whatever is written in it will not come to pass. But no one anywhere is qualified, not even in heaven, or among the dead. Except one. He is not named, but the title ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah’ suggests that he fulfils Jacob’s ancient and enigmatic prophecy that a lion-like descendant of Judah, his son, would command the obedience of the peoples (Gen 49:10). Isaiah later foresaw a time when a man of perfect righteousness would rule the earth, filled with the Spirit of God, and this man would be both a shoot from the stem of Jesse and a scion from his roots (Isa 11:1); he would be ‘the root of Jesse’ itself (11:10). Jesse was David’s father, of the tribe of Judah. Jesus, born of Mary, was descended from him, and by his own testimony was in existence before Abraham (John 8:58). He, as God’s firstborn son, was the true Israel who fulfilled all righteousness (Isa 49:3, Matt 2:15, 3:15).
Jesus is associated with the verb ‘conquer’ three times in Revelation (3:21, 5:5, 17:14), and in total the word occurs eight times before this chapter and eight times after it. This is Revelation’s central statement: his having conquered – in every respect – entitles him to open the scroll.
We expect to see a lion, but instead, in the centre of the throne and of the whole gathering, we see a lamb, previously unnoticed. The lamb has seven horns, one more than the maximum in nature. In some respects he is like the cherubim: he stands in the same place, he is portrayed as an animal, and he has many eyes. These eyes are the seven spirits of God, an attribute of the Almighty (1:4, 4.5). Zechariah saw a golden lampstand with seven lamps, symbolising “the eyes of Yahweh, 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 (as in Rev 3:1).
‘Us for God’ becomes ‘them for our God’: he possesses us, then we possess him. ‘Us’ refers to the twenty-four elders, becoming ‘them’ as the elders identify with the unseen multitude that has been purchased for God from every division of humanity. ‘Every tribe, language, people, and nation’ is the first of seven variations of the phrase, and a key idea, referring to the dispersion of mankind after the Cataclysm and the effect of what followed when the construction of Babylon was interrupted. In the absence of rocks, the colonists of Mesopotamia had learned to make bricks from the alluvial muds around them and were building this new city in order to make a name for themselves. It was intended to be the capital of the world’s first empire, controlling the lands either side of the Tigris and Euphrates, and it included a tower or ziggurat, a brick-built mountain with steps to persuade God to come down from heaven and dwell in their midst. The human king would rule on his behalf, as his visible deputy. But God ‘confounded’ their language, and being no longer able to communicate with each other and act as one, they dispersed. However, they took their ideas of kingship and spiritual power with them, and by these means their many languages spread.
‘Saints’ is the plural of hagios, ‘holy [one]’. We are holy because we have been made so, sanctified through faith as an unearned gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 26:18, I Cor 6:11), without which we cannot enter the presence of a holy God (Isa 6:3-7). This is the sense 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). God has called into being a new, holy nation such as Israel was called to be. That those purchased are also a ‘kingdom of priests’ (Ex 15:16, 19:6) is therefore no idle metaphor. God will be their inheritance as he was for the Levites, whom he set apart to serve as priests in cities throughout Israel (Num 18:20). Whoever explains the truth about God to those who are estranged from him serves as priest (Rom 15:16). In the resurrection they will rule over cities amidst the tribes of all the earth. They will be priest-kings after the order of Melchizedek (Heb 7:11-17, Gen 14:18), mediating between the peoples and the Lord God in Jerusalem.
The atonement was prefigured in Abel’s offering of the firstborn from his flock already at the beginning of history (Gen 4:4). It was prefigured when Abraham prepared to sacrifice his only son Isaac, until God provided the substitute of a lamb (Gen 22:8, 13f). It was prefigured again 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. Egypt was ripe for judgement. But for the blood, the children of Israel also would have perished, for they too were idol-worshippers (Ezek 20:7f).
God had promised that ‘all the tribes of the earth’ would be blessed through Abraham’s offspring, of whom Isaac was the type. He would make him into nations; kings would issue from him (Gen 17:6). In Christ he began to fulfil that promise. God’s firstborn son became the substitute for Israel, God’s firstborn son (Ex 4:22), so called because Israel was the first nation to be redeemed. Later, he would redeem souls from every tribe, language, people and nation.
Israel’s escape from Egypt in 1447 BC is narrated in Exodus 12-14 and summarised in the table below. It 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, days began and ended in the evening. On the 10th day of the month Nisan (Abib), Jesus rode into Jerusalem and presented himself as the paschal lamb. Moses stipulated that the lamb should be killed ‘between the two evenings’ of sunset and nightfall on the 14th day (Ex 12:6). That the beginning of the day was meant is clear from the instruction to eat the flesh that night and not let any of it remain till the morning. However, the temple authorities interpreted the phrase to mean the end of the day. So it happened that, crucified on the afternoon of the 14th day, he became the paschal lamb for the whole nation at the very time that the Jews slaughtered their paschal lambs (John 19:14). God himself made atonement (Ezek 16:63).
|Nisan||Day||The Exodus||Passion Week|
|10||Sun||A lamb is taken and kept until Nisan 14||Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey.|
|13||Wed||At the end of the day (= beginning of Nisan 14, Jewish reckoning) the lamb is slaughtered and eaten.||Jesus celebrates the Passover; he is arrested the same night.|
|14||Thu||Egypt’s firstborn die. The Israelites leave Egypt. That night 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, John 19:31).|
|16||Sat||The Israelites reach Migdol, where they camp but do not rest.||Weekly sabbath (Luke 23:56).|
|17||Sun||During the night they cross the Red Sea. Egypt’s pursuing army is drowned.||Jesus rises from the dead before dawn.|
Although he was Jerusalem’s king (Zech 9:9), he entered the occupied city on a donkey, not as a military conqueror on a warhorse. He defeated man’s greatest enemy by surrendering his life (Heb 2:14), knowing that he could trust his father to give it back. The effect of his death was twofold: he propitiated God’s wrath toward sin for anyone who believed in him, and he earned the right to rule the world and judge the souls of all mankind. Having descended to Hades (Eph 4:9, I Pet 3:19), he ascended to the position of ultimate authority, the right hand of God in heaven, there to abide until the day of his return. For the first time he sat on the throne.
We have been bought for a price, redeemed from a slave-owner who has had to let us go. The word ‘purchase’ is agorazω, the regular term for buying in the market place (agora). Our new master has left his seal on us until the day he comes back to complete the purchase (Luke 21:28, Eph 1:13f, 4:30). Once slaves to sin, we now serve righteousness as slaves (Rom 6).
‘Elder’ is a term of leadership but not hierarchy, first used of the tribal leaders of Israel. Hierarchy was discouraged in the early Church. Papias, a disciple of John, called even the apostles elders, as did the apostles themselves (I Pet 5:1, II John 1). Their number, twenty-four, suggests the twelve sons of Israel and twelve apostles, but the former were never described as elders, while the latter included John himself, who is here an onlooker, not therefore one of the twenty-four. Their identity is conveyed in their own words: ‘you purchased us for God from every people and nation.’ They represent the redeemed, keeping their place before the throne in anticipation of the day of resurrection (Eph 2:6), the ‘assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven’ (Heb 12:23). The saints whose prayers fill their golden bowls are not seen because that day has not yet occurred. Even the apostles will not be raised until the resurrection (Phil 3:11). Their golden crowns (wreaths, not diadems) symbolise the prize given to those who have fought the good fight (II Tim 4:7f, Rev 2:10); their thrones symbolise that they will one day ‘reign on earth’; their number, also symbolic, indicates that they represent the redeemed under the old covenant as well as the new.
The innumerable multitude of angels evokes the chariots and ‘thousands of thousands’ that David saw on the mountain of God (Ps 68:17); also the ‘thousand thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand’ that Daniel saw around his throne (Dan 7:10). Suddenly they are heard, if not seen. Like John, Daniel saw other thrones, then ‘one like a son of Adam’, who presented himself before the Almighty and was given ‘dominion and glory and a kingdom’. The kingdom is now imminent.
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 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, the image of God who at the end of the ages would bring God near (Gen 1:26, Col 1:15).
All creation has been groaning, awaiting release from the bondage of corruption, and now every creature – winged animals, terrestrial animals, burrowing animals, marine – joins in the cry. His worshippers joyously assent to the glory, majesty, dominion and authority which rightfully are 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. Who we worship – Satan in human form, or God in human form – will be a critical question.