David Guzik's Commentary on the Bible
Revelation 4 - BEFORE THE THRONE OF GOD
A. The transition to Revelation chapter four.
1. Taking Revelation 1:19 as an outline of the book, chapter four begins the third section: the things which shall take place after this.
a. The phrase after this (meta tauta in ancient Greek) in Revelation 1:19 is repeated twice in Revelation 4:1. Certainly this is a marking point for beginning the third division of Revelation 1:19.
2. Chapter four begins a heavenly perspective, looking down on the earth.
a. The Bible has other important references to heaven, in passages such as Isaiah 6:1-8, Ezekiel 1, and in passages describing the Tabernacle, which symbolically describes heaven (Exodus 25-32, 35-40).
b. In the description of heavenly things, John will use symbols. However, not everything is symbolic. “As in the parables of Jesus, many of the details are merely descriptive and not intended to carry a special significance of their own.” (Morris)
i. Also, we should keep in mind the nature of symbolism: the symbol is always less than the reality. The reality of heaven is even greater than the description we have of it.
ii. “It is very little that we can know of the future state, but we may be quite sure that we know as much as is good for us. We ought to be as content with that which is not revealed as with that which is. If God wills us not to know, we ought to be satisfied not to know. Depend on it, he has told us all about heaven that is necessary to bring us there; and if he had revealed more, it would have served rather for the gratification of our curiosity than for the increase of our grace.” (Spurgeon)
3. From Revelation 4 through 19 we have a section mainly concerned with God’s judgment upon the world preceding Jesus’ earthly reign, the period known as the “Messianic Woes” or the “Great Tribulation.”
a. God’s judgments are announced by a seven-sealed scroll, seven trumpets, seven signs, and seven bowls that pour out God’s wrath.
b. Revelation four introduces us to the place judgment comes from: God’s throne in heaven.
B. John enters heaven.
1. (Revelation 4:1) John is called up into heaven.
After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.”
a. After these things: Revelation chapters 2 and 3 spoke to the churches, and the seven churches comprehended all churches. After Jesus is finished speaking to the churches, after these things, John experienced the vision of Revelation 4.
b. And the first voice which I heard: The first voice that spoke to John in Revelation 1:10 speaks to him again here - the voice of Jesus. Jesus calls John up to heaven, through a door standing open in heaven.
i. Like a trumpet: The voice spoke loud and clear to John. It was like the trumpet that gathered the congregation of Israel together, or gathered an army for battle.
c. Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this: John will be shown things that concern the future (which must take place after this), not John’s present day.
i. Some like to interpret what John saw up through Revelation 19 as fulfilled in what took place before John’s day - notably, in the Roman invasion and destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus clearly tells John that He will show him things which must take place after this.
ii. “From which it appears, that God did not here show his prophet the destruction of Jerusalem, for that was already past, in the time of Titus Vespasian the Roman emperor, about the year 69 or 70, after the incarnation; this (as all confess) was in Domitian’s time, about the 11th or 12th year of his reign, about twenty-six or twenty-seven years after that was past.” (Poole)
iii. Some like to interpret what John saw up through Revelation 19 as fulfilled in history after John’s day but before our present day. But these events have yet to be fulfilled in any sort of literal sense; they can only be said to have been fulfilled by making them wildly symbolic. Therefore, we regard what Jesus will show John in the following chapters of Revelation as belonging to the future, and as proceeding the coming reign of Jesus on earth.
d. Like a trumpet . . . Come up here: Many see John’s “going up” to heaven as a symbol of the rapture of the church. John is called up to heaven by a voice that sounds like a trumpet, just as the church will be as described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17.
i. The pattern is significant. Jesus is finished speaking to and dealing with the churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, and all churches are comprehended in the seven. Now, after dealing with the church, Jesus calls John up to heaven, “catching him away” with a voice that sounds like a trumpet. All this happens before the great wrath that will be described beginning at Revelation 6. As that great judgment on the earth unfolds, John - a representative of the church - is in heaven, looking down on earth.
ii. Significantly, the word “church” never occurs in the chapters describing this period of judgment on earth, no where in Revelation chapters 4 through 19.
2. (Revelation 4:2 a) John goes up, in the Spirit.
Immediately I was in the Spirit;
a. Immediately I was in the Spirit: John already said he was in the Spirit at Revelation 1:10. This is yet a different experience, as John comes to heaven and a heavenly perspective.
b. In the Spirit: Where was his body? Was John’s body in heaven also, or was it just his spirit? This is impossible to know. Paul, when he had his heavenly experience, didn’t know if he was “in the body” or not (2 Corinthians 12:1-4).
C. John’s description of heaven.
1. (Revelation 4:2 b) The point of focus: a throne set in heaven.
And behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne.
a. And behold, a throne: This throne is what first strikes John, and it is the centerpiece of this vision. John is fixated on the occupied throne, and everything else is described in relation to this throne.
i. The bottom line of atheism or materialism is that there is no throne, there is no seat of authority or power that the entire universe must answer to. The bottom line of humanism is that there is a throne, but man sits upon it.
ii. Essentially, man cannot live without the concept of a throne, a supreme ruler. So if man de-thrones God, he will inescapably place himself or some other man upon the throne, perhaps a political leader, as was the case with Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.
b. And One sat on the throne: The throne is not empty. There is some One who sits on this great heavenly throne. The throne is a powerful declaration of not merely God’s presence, but of His sovereign, rightful reign, and His prerogative to judge.
i. We can’t think rightly about much of anything until we settle in our mind that there is an occupied throne in heaven, and the God of the Bible rules from the throne. “While there may be many differing interpretations, the fundamental truths are self-evident. At the center of everything is an occupied throne.” (Morgan)
2. (Revelation 4:3) What John saw at the heavenly throne.
And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald.
a. And He who sat there was like: As John describes the occupant of the throne, he does not describe a distinct figure. “There is here no description of the Divine Being, so as to point out any similitude, shape, or dimensions. The description rather aims to point out the surrounding glory and effulgence than the person of the almighty King.” (Clarke)
b. Like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance: Instead of describing a specific form or figure, John describes emanations of glistening light in two colors: white (jasper may mean “diamond”) and red (sardius).
i. Perhaps these two colors are meant to communicate the glory of the empty tomb (white, Matthew 28:1-3) and the sacrificial love of Calvary (red, indicating blood). Or, perhaps they should be linked with the first and last gems in the high priest’s breastplate (Exodus 39:8-13).
c. And there was a rainbow around the throne: The throne is surrounded by a green-hued rainbow (in appearance like an emerald). The rainbow is a reminder of God’s commitment to His covenant with man (Genesis 9:11-17).
i. Around this setting of all sovereignty, power, authority and glory - this setting of the throne of God - God has placed a reminder of His own promise to never destroy the earth again with water, a promise that directs His sovereignty, so that it is not capricious or against His promises.
ii. A throne says, “I can do whatever I want, because I rule.” A promise says, “I will fulfill this word to you, and I cannot do otherwise.” A rainbow around the throne is a remarkable thing, showing that God will always limit Himself by His own promises.
iii. Trapp on the rainbow: “Which is signum gratiae et foederis, a sign of grace and the covenant of mercy, which is always fresh and green about Christ’s throne of grace.”
iv. The believer glories in the sovereignty of God, because he knows that God’s sovereignty is on his side. It means that no good purpose of God relating to the believer will ever be left undone.
v. “Oh! Child of God! Thy heavenly Father in his sovereignty, has a right to do with you, his child, as he pleases, but he will never let that sovereignty get out of the limit of the covenant. As a sovereign, he might cast you away, but he has promised that he never will, and never will he. As a sovereign, he might leave you to perish, but he has said, ‘I will not leave thee nor forsake thee.’ As a sovereign, he might suffer you to be tempted beyond your strength, but he has promised that no temptation shall happen to you, but such as is common to man, and he will with the temptation make a way of escape.” (Spurgeon)
3. (Revelation 4:4) What John saw around the throne: the twenty-four elders.
Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads.
a. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones: Before the elders catch John’s eye, he noticed the twenty-four thrones they sat on. These twenty-four elders sit on lesser thrones, around the throne. Later we will hear their song of worship (Revelation 4:10-11).
b. On the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting: Who are these twenty-four elders? Commentators debate whether they are glorified human beings or angelic beings. On balance, the certainly seem to represent God’s people.
i. Elders represented the people of God, especially in the Old Testament. The 24 courses of the priesthood represented all the priests (1 Chronicles 24), and the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles represent all the faithful.
ii. In Revelation 5:9-10, the twenty-four elders sing a song of praise to Jesus, and they cry out: For You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood, out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation. In that passage, the twenty-four elders are clearly speaking as representatives of all God’s people, of the great company of the redeemed.
c. Clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads: The white robes and crowns of the elders seem to indicate that they are indeed human beings - in glory, of course.
i. Angels are sometimes presented in white robes or garments (Mark 16:5; John 20:12; Acts 1:10), but saints also have white robes (Revelation 6:11; Rev_7:9; Rev_7:13-14) as a picture of their imputed righteousness (Isaiah 61:10, Revelation 3:5-18). However, we never see angels crowned, but believers are and will be (1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Timothy 4:8; 1 Peter 5:4).
i. Therefore, redeemed, glorified man sits enthroned with Jesus. On lesser thrones, to be sure, but thrones none the less. We are joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), and we will reign with Him (2 Timothy 2:12).
4. (Revelation 4:5) Impressive and fearful sights at the throne of God.
And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.
a. And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices: The lightning, thunder, voices and fire are reminiscent of God’s fearful presence at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19 and Exodus 20:18-19). They communicate the awe associated with the throne of God.
b. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne: The Holy Spirit (the seven Spirits of God, as previously referred to in Revelation 1:4 and Isaiah 11:2) is represented by seven burning lamps. In other passages, He is represented by a dove (Matthew 3:16) or a flame of fire (Acts 2:3).
i. The lamps of fire are important, because the Holy Spirit is not ordinarily visible. To be made visible, He represents Himself in a physical form, like a dove or a tongue of fire.
5. (Revelation 4:6 a) The sea of glass before the throne.
Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal.
a. A sea of glass: Is this sea really made of glass, or does it just look like it? Commentators are divided on this point. For example, Robertson says “appearance, not material” and Alford says “material, not appearance.” Whether it looks like glass, or is actually made of glass, it is the finest glass, like crystal.
b. A sea: This body of water before the throne is reminiscent of the laver in the Tabernacle, and our washing of the water of the word (Ephesians 5:26).
i. “The word is to us a crystal glass, giving us a clear sight of God and of ourselves, 2 Corinthians 3:18; James 1:23.” (Trapp)
6. (Revelation 4:6-8 a) The four living creatures all around the throne.
And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within.
a. Four living creatures full of eyes: From comparison with Ezekiel 1:4-14; Eze_10:20-22, we understand these creatures to be cherubim, the spectacular angelic beings who surround the throne of God. Satan was once one of these high angelic beings, according to Ezekiel 28:14.
i. Cherubim were also prominent in design of the tabernacle, particularly in the Most Holy Place (Exodus 25:17-22 and Exodus 26:1; Exodus 26:31). The Scriptures show us that the tabernacle is a model of the throne of God, in some manner (Exodus 25:8-9).
b. Full of eyes in front and in back . . . full of eyes around and within: Their multitude of eyes indicates these living creatures (not “beasts” as in the KJV) are not blind instruments or robots. They know and understand, and have greater insight and perception than any man.
i. These beings of incredible intelligence and understanding live their existence to worship God. All failure to truly worship is rooted in a lack of seeing and understanding.
ii. The way these super-intelligent beings worship God reminds us that our worship must be intelligent. “Our service must not be rash but reasonable, Romans 12:1, such as wherefore we can render a reason. God hates a blind sacrifice, a Samaritan’s service, when men worship they know not what nor why, John 4:22.” (Trapp)
iii. “The word beast is very improperly used here and elsewhere in this description. Wiclif first used it, and translators in general have followed him in this uncouth rendering.” (Clarke)
c. Like a lion . . . like a calf . . . a face like a man . . . like a flying eagle: John describes four cherubim, each with a different face. From comparison with Ezekiel 1:6-10, we can see that each of the cherubim have four faces, and at the moment, John sees each one of the four different faces pointed in his direction. The significance of these four faces has been interpreted in many ways.
i. The four faces have been said to represent the elements, the cardinal virtues, the faculties and powers of the human soul, the patriarchal churches, the great apostles, the orders of churchmen, the principle angels, and so forth.
ii. Some commentators say these four creatures speak of the ensigns of the lead tribe as Israel was encamped in four groups around the tabernacle in the wilderness. Numbers 2:3; Num_2:10; Num_2:18, and Numbers 2:25 mention this organization of the tribes under these four heads, but does not assign “mascots” to tribal banners. Seiss, Clarke, and Poole each mention this approach, and cite “Jewish writers” (Seiss), “ the Talmudists” (Clarke), and “the learned Mede . . . from the Rabbins” (Poole). Poole explains: “That these were the four creatures whose portraitures were in the four ensigns of the Israelites as they were marshalled into four companies, allotting the men of three tribes to each company. Judah’s standard had a lion in its colours, according to Jacob’s prophecy of that tribe, Genesis 49:9, Ephraim had an ox, Reuben had a man, Dan an eagle. This the learned Mede proves from the Rabbins, who, though fabulous enough, yet in such a thing may be credited.”
iii. The four different faces of the cherubim are often taken as symbols of Jesus as represented in each gospel. In classical church architecture, these four “characters” are repeated often as a motif that signifies both heaven and the four gospels.
iv. Most have seen Matthew as the “Lion” gospel, showing Jesus as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Mark is seen as the “Ox” gospel, showing Jesus as a humble servant, a worker. Luke is seen as the “Man” gospel, showing Jesus as the perfect man, the second Adam. John is seen as the “Eagle” gospel, showing Jesus as the man from heaven, the sky. But this approach also has other interpretations.
v. Perhaps it is safest to say that the four faces are important because they represent all of animate creation, in its utmost excellence. The lion is the mightiest of wild animals, the ox strongest of domesticated animals, the eagle king of all birds, and man is highest of all creation. “In Shemoth Rabba, sec. 23, fol. 122, 4, Rabbi Abin says: ‘There are four which have principality in this world: among intellectual creatures, MAN among birds, the EAGLE among cattle, the OX and among wild beasts, the LION: each of these has a kingdom and a certain magnificence, and they are placed under the throne of glory, Ezekiel 1:10, to show that no creature is to exalt itself in this world, and that the kingdom of God is over all.’ These creatures may be considered the representatives of the whole creation.” (Clarke) These cherubim are “Qualified with all necessary endowments, for the discharge of their duties, being bold as lions, painful as oxen, prudent as men, delighted in high flying as eagles.” (Trapp)
vi. As well, it is significant to see that the Bible associates a face with the idea of person (1 Chronicles 12:8; 2 Chronicles 29:6; Isaiah 3:15; Isa_13:8). Here we have singular beings with four faces. Apparently, there are beings that can be more than one person - as our God is One God in three Persons.
vii. Poole says that these four faces illustrate the different personalities God’s ministers have: “By them is signified the various gifts with which God blesseth his ministers, giving to some more courage and fortitude, that they are like lions; to others more mildness and meekness, that they are like oxen or calves; others have more wisdom and prudence, which most adorn a man; others a more piercing insight into the mysteries of God’s kindgom, rendering them like eagles.”
D. John describes what happens at the throne of God.
1. (Revelation 4:8 b) The living creatures constantly worship God.
And they do not rest day or night, saying: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!”
a. They do not rest day or night, saying, “Holy, holy, holy.” The cherubim constantly repeat the phrase holy, holy, holy. God’s holy nature and character is declared, and emphasized with a three-time repetition.
i. “In Hebrew, the double repetition of a word adds emphasis, while the rare threefold repetition designates the superlative and calls attention to the infinite holiness of God.” (Johnson)
ii. They do not rest: “They have no rest, and yet they have no unrest neither, the sweet content they take in their continual employment is fitter to be believed than possible to be discoursed.” (Trapp)
b. Lord God Almighty: The cherubim declare that the Lord God is Almighty. As in Revelation 1:8, the ancient Greek word is pantokrator, with the idea of “the one who has His hand on everything.”
c. Who was and is and is to come: This repeats another idea from Revelation 1:8, and refers to God’s eternal Being. It translates the thought behind the meaning of the name “Yahweh.”
2. (Revelation 4:9-11) The twenty-four elders worship the enthroned God.
Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created.”
a. Whenever the living creatures give glory . . . the twenty-four elders fall down before Him: The worship of the twenty-four elders is prompted by the cherubim. Since the cherubim worship God day and night, so do the elders.
i. Knowing angels should worship God should prompt our worship also. Do we have any less to praise Him or thank Him for? “Do we sing as much as the birds do? Yet what have birds to sing about, compared with us? Do we sing as much as the angels do? Yet they were never redeemed by the blood of Christ. Birds of the air, shall you excel me? Angels, shall you exceed me? You have done so, but I intend to emulate you, and day by day, and night by night, pour forth my soul in sacred song.” (Spurgeon, Holy Song from Happy Saints)
ii. “If we would have our souls set as a pearl in the fair ring of heavenly courtiers that compass the Lamb’s throne, let us praise God as they do.” (Trapp)
b. The twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him: The twenty-four elders worship (which means to credit worth or worthiness to) God. The elders credit God for their own work and reward, and they do this as they cast their crowns before the throne. They recognize that the worth, the worthiness belongs to God, not to themselves.
i. Casting the crowns simply acts out their declaration, You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power. If God is worthy of the glory and honor and power, then He should get the crown.
ii. There is also an allusion made to a practice known in the Roman Empire. The Emperor of Rome ruled over many lesser kings, and these kings were at time commanded to come before the Emperor and lay their crowns down before him in homage. Then he would give them back, as a demonstration that their crowns, their right to rule, their victory, came from him. “This is an allusion to the custom of prostrations in the east, and to the homage of petty kings acknowledging the supremacy of the emperor.” (Clarke)
iii. The crowns mentioned in Revelation 4:10 are the stephanos crowns, the crowns of victory, not royalty. These are the crowns of achievement that a winning athlete would receive at the ancient Olympian Games. The twenty-four elders - representing all the redeemed of God - throw every achievement reward they have back to God, because they know and proclaim that He is worthy . . . to receive glory and honor and power.
iv. “Our text says they all cast their crowns before the throne. There are no divided opinions in heaven, no sects and parties, no schisms there. They are all in perfect harmony and sweet accord. What one does, all do. They cast their crowns, without exception, before the throne. Let us begin to practice that unanimity here. As fellow Christians, let us get rid of everything that would divide us from each other, or separate us from our Lord. I do not read that there was a single elder who envied his brother’s crown, and said, ‘Ah, I wish I were such an one as he is, and had his crown.’ I do not read that one of them began to find fault with his brother’s crown, and said, ‘Ah, his jewels may be bright, but mine have a peculiar tint in them, and are of greater excellence.’ I do not read ought of dissension; they were all unanimous in casting their crowns at Jesus’ feet. They were all unanimous in glorifying God.” (Spurgeon)
c. For You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created: The twenty-four elders worship God because of His creative power and glory. The fact that God is Creator gives Him all right and every claim over everything - even as a potter has all rights and claims over the clay (Romans 9:21).
i. God’s right over us as Creator is a fact that can be accepted and enjoyed, or rejected, leading to frustration. There is tremendous value in our recognizing our “creatureliness” before God.
ii. “God’s power put forth in the creation and administration of the world is twice here mentioned; as that which can never be sufficiently admired and adored.” (Trapp)
iii. We confess a fondness for the King James Version translation of Revelation 4:11 : Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. The wonderful phrase and for thy pleasure they are and were created reminds us that we each exist to give glory and pleasure to God. Until we do that, we don’t fulfill our created purpose.
d. Because they represent all the people of God, the worship, the crown, the robes, the heart of these twenty-four elders belongs to us also. “There is a throne in heaven that no one can occupy but you, and there is a crown in heaven that no other head can wear but yours, and there is a part in the eternal song that no voice can ever compass but yours, and there is a glory to God that would be wanting if you did not come to render it, and there is a part of infinite majesty and glory that would never be reflected unless you should be there to reflect it!” (Spurgeon)
i. But it also means that we should be planning ahead for that great day. “If you and I should walk into some great cathedral where they were singing, and ask to be allowed to sing in the choir, they would ask whether we had ever learnt the tune, and they would not let us join unless we had. Nor can we expect that untrained voices should be admitted into the choirs above. Now, dear brothers and sisters, have you learnt to cast your crowns at the Savior’s feet already?” (Spurgeon)
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