A vision of the throne

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


After this I looked, and behold, an open door in heaven and the trumpet-like voice that I first heard speaking to me, saying, “Come up, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, and someone seated on the throne, and the one seated similar in appearance to diamond 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, with golden crowns on their heads. And from the throne go forth lightning, 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 things of the future. Transported to heaven, John sees a person on a throne, the throne of the Father just mentioned in the message to Laodicea. He is privileged. Only prophets (including David), and the Church’s first martyr, Stephen, 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 one enthroned has an appearance like diamond and carnelian. The word translated ‘diamond’ is iaspis, otherwise translated ‘jasper’; while the meaning is uncertain, ‘diamond’ fits better in 21:11. Carnelian, a reddish-brown stone, and diamond were the first and last of the twelve stones that encrusted Aaron’s breastplate of judgement, one for each of the twelve sons of Israel (Ex 28:17-20). Here they bring to mind the radiant glory of God and his shed blood.

A rainbow was a sign, largely forgotten, 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 single colour green. At first this seems nonsense. In fact it is an Image credit: Gettyan attempt to describe another atmospheric phenomenon, the aurora borealis, which is typically emerald but 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 is the celestial counterpart of the bronze sea in Solomon’s Temple, signifying the primeval deep whose eruption destroyed the antediluvian world. ‘The Lord is seated upon the mabbul [(the waters of) the 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 correspond to the lamps on the seven-branched lampstand in Moses’ 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 are dark (cf. I Ki 8:12).

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!”

More and more the description evokes the vision given to Ezekiel at the beginning of his work. 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 animals; not ‘living creatures’ – the single word, zωon, means ‘living one’ or ‘animal’ (as in 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, something crystal-like, corresponding to the 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, its form resembles a man. The brightness all around is like a rainbow (but it is not a rainbow). He has seen the glory of the maker of heaven and earth. The animals in John’s vision proclaim his absolute 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 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. Like their fiery appearance in Ezekiel’s vision, they show forth something of the otherness of God, even though distinct from him. Something of the Creator is manifested 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 his imagination, 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. When, later, Ezekiel sees the glory abandoning the Temple, he realises that these 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 because of his holiness. He revealed his name as Yahweh, ‘I am who I am’, existing in and beyond time; ‘who inhabits eternity, whose name is holy’ (Isa 57:15). The cherubim might have declared much more about his character. At the time that he delivered the Israelites from slavery, he revealed himself as compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in truth and goodness (Ex 34:6). The cherubim affirm in heaven what we pray on earth: “Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” Defined again by the verb ‘to be’, he is coming to manifest himself in person.

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. 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 different elements possible. The hypothesised existence of ‘dark matter’, capable of interacting with atoms, only adds to the mystery. 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. 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 offer glory, and honour, and thanksgiving to the one seated on the throne who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before the one seated on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever, 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 cherubim express thankfulness to God for the gift of life. The truth that God is – that he 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 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 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.
For Yahweh’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 being a people of his own. He became their national god, in the same sense that his sons ruled other nations; but the Israelites were to worship him exclusively, sacrifice to him in only one place, 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 on his behalf. He dwelt amongst them, initially in a tent, later in a stone house. To David he promised,
“I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your 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 Chr 17:11f)

In the first instance the house was God’s palace (hekal) or Temple, built on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. When it was finished, in 961 BC, the people saw his glory enter the building and fill it. Next to the Temple was the palace of the king, and within that his throne (I Ki 7:7). The first such king 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 worked out. Beginning with Solomon, king and people alike continually lusted after gods that were not holy. 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 almost four 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 eventually 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 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 among 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, nor on earth, nor under the earth was able to open the scroll, nor look at it. And I wept greatly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll, nor look at it. And one of the elders says to me, “Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he will open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Although the Lord God himself is worthy, the scroll must be opened by another person. John understands that unless this happens, the kingdom will never come. But no one is qualified to open it, either in heaven or on earth, whether among the living or among the dead in Hades. Except one. Although he is not named, his titles indicate that he fulfils the rather obscure prophecy that Jacob gave long before concerning a descendant of his son Judah (Gen 49:8-12) and similar prophecies that Balaam, an Assyrian mystic, gave concerning all Israel (Num 23:24, 24:9). Isaiah called him ‘the root of Jesse’ (Isa 11:10), Jesse being David’s father. The tenth of the tree of Israel that returned after the Babylonian deportations was cut down and burned a second time by the Romans, leaving only a stump (Isa 6:12f). By genealogy (Matt 1:1, Luke 3:23-31) the Messiah was both the branch (Isa 11:1) who would one day sprout from the stump of David’s family and its root, his lineage going back to before Adam (Luke 3:38).

Jesus is associated with the verb ‘conquer’ three times in Revelation (3:21, 5:5, 17:14). This is Revelation’s central statement: his having conquered entitles him to open the scroll. In total the word 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 you purchased us for God by your blood
from every tribe, language, people and nation,
and you made them for our God kings and priests,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

We expect to see a lion, but instead, in the centre of the throne and of the whole gathering, we see a lamb, previously not noticed. 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. The spirits are an attribute of the Almighty himself (1:4, 4.5), but here they are sent out. 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 (also 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 from every division of humanity that has been purchased for God. ‘Every tribe, language, people, and nation’ is a reference to the dispersion of mankind after the Cataclysm and the supernatural confusion of the language of the builders of 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 to 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. Mesopotamia was the place where men first exercised kingship, not under God but under his sons, and (as in Gen 3 and Matt 4) the sons wanted worship for themselves. So God disrupted their plans. Being no longer able to communicate with each other and act as one, they dispersed. But they took their ideas of kingship and spiritual power with them, and by these means their languages spread. ‘Every tribe, language, people, and nation’ is the first of seven variations of the phrase: it is evidently a key idea. Following Christ’s resurrection, Pentecost 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 began to fulfil that purpose.

‘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 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). 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 no idle metaphor. God will be their inheritance, as he was for the Levites who were set apart as priests (Num 18:20). Whoever explains the truth about God to those who are estranged from him serves as a priest (Rom 15:16). They will be kings of cities, and the people ruled will be the tribes of 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.

“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 Israel’s Saviour be a lamb? And how could he take away the sin of the whole world – Gentiles as well as Jews? As Paul was to explain in his letter to the Romans, we come 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. But God offers a solution: renewal on the basis of forgiveness, and forgiveness on the basis that we accept the sacrifice provided, who lived without sin and willingly endured the agony of crucifixion in order that justice might be satisfied, no matter how heinous our offences – even the offence of crucifying God’s son.
He was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
on him was the chastisement that made for our peace,
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 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 a lamb as substitute (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.

Israel’s escape from Egypt in 1447 BC is narrated in Exodus 12-14 and summarised in the table. 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 Abib (Nisan), 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 signified is clear from the instruction to eat the flesh that night and not let any of it remain to the morning. However, the temple authorities interpreted the phrase to indicate the end of the 14th day. So it happened that, 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 made atonement (Ezek 16:63).

 Abib  Day The Exodus Passion Week
  10  Sun A lamb is taken and kept until Abib 14 Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey.
  13  Wed At the end of the day (= beginning of Abib 14, Jewish reckoning) the lamb is slaughtered and eaten. Jesus celebrates the Passover; he is arrested the same night.
  14  Thu The Israelites leave Egypt. 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 During the night they cross the Red Sea. Around dawn the pursuing Egyptian army is drowned. Jesus rises from the dead just before dawn.

Jesus told his disciples: “Take heart, I have overcome the world.” His followers were not to use force. “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 [doulos], born in the likeness of a man. And having been discovered in the form 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 Jerusalem’s king (Zech 9:9), he entered the occupied city on a donkey, not in the manner of a military conqueror. He defeated man’s greatest enemy by surrendering his life (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 propitiated God’s wrath toward sin, and he earned the right to rule the world and judge every soul that ever lived. 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. He sat for the first time on the throne of God.

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), destined, if we too conquer, to be invested with the same kingly authority (Rev 3:21).

The Exodus of his people from a world of corruption is a major theme in Revelation. God’s wrath comes not simply because hostility to God is the inveterate condition of mankind, but because sin has run its course (Gen 15:16, Matt 23:32) and the gospel has drawn out the hostility (Matt 24:14, John 15:22f). 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 pours out his wrath. But there will still be survivors. His wrath expended, he will return to Jerusalem with the saints to govern the world in righteousness. He will speak peace to the nations.

‘Elder’ is a term of leadership but not hierarchy, first used of the tribal representatives of Israel (Ex 3:16). 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 such (I Pet 5:1, II John 1). Their number 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. The clue to their identity lies in their own words, ‘you purchased us for God from every people and nation.’ They represent the redeemed, keeping their place in anticipation of the day of resurrection (Eph 2:6). The saints whose prayers fill their golden bowls are not seen because that day has not yet occurred. Even the apostles would 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 their authority in the future ‘to reign on earth’; and their number, also symbolic, suggests that they represent the redeemed under the old covenant as well as the new. As actual persons, they are the saints who rose from the dead when Christ rose (Matt 27:52), the assembly of the first-born (Heb 12:23).

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 for ever 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); also 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, then ‘one like a son of man’, who presented himself before the Almighty and was given ‘dominion and glory and a kingdom’. That moment is now approaching.

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 that at the end of the ages would bring God near (Gen 1:26, Col 1:15).

Therefore the angels declare 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 earth belonged to him. All the assembly blessed God and bowed down and worshipped, before God and king alike (I Chr 29:11-22). The angels are the celestial counterpart of that congregation, the Lamb the celestial counterpart of that king. They express the mystery of the faith of Israel, that the son of David would be like Solomon yet greater than Solomon (Ps 72, Isa 11:1-10).
Give the king your judgments, O God,
and your righteousness to the king’s son.
He will judge your people with righteousness
and your poor 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 joyously 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. Who we worship – Satan in human form, or God in human form – will be a critical question.