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Bible Commentaries
Revelation 4

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

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Revelation 4:1—8:1)

At this point in Revelation there begin the visions, in which are shown, under figures, the forces by which the life of the church is affected. "She is shown God and the Lamb, the devil, the beast, the false prophet, and the apostate city. Then she is shown the victory of Christ, and the eternal defeat of the powers of evil." However, Revelation 4 and Revelation 5 are introductory, forming a composite vision of the throne of God and of the Lamb (one throne, not two). "Actual predictions of future events do not begin until Revelation 6."(F1)

The student is quickly aware that some of the terminology of Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1, as well as of passages in Daniel, is used in this chapter, and throughout Revelation. But despite many of the striking symbols being employed, the vision here is distinctly different. This chapter, however, "is as much adapted to impress the mind as any of the others."(F2) The terminology John used here in describing what God revealed to him, although found in the Old Testament, is used in an independent manner. "We do not find even a single Old Testament quotation, but only adaptations and nothing more."(F3)

The sense of impending persecution which dominates the letters to the churches might well have tended to unnerve them; what better way to comfort them, therefore, than to point out the eternal glory of the throne of God and Christ. The throne of imperial Roman authority had become their enemy, but there was a higher authority. After all, the universe itself is under the control of God.

The most important thing that anyone can know about the universe is that there is a control center. It does not exist like some robot machine that has been wound up and left to run itself out. The throne of God and of Christ is the final and conclusive denial of the "chance theory," regarding either creation or the continuity of the material universe.

Even more significantly, the enthroned authority is personal. The most important single fact that can be known about God lies right here. God is a person; and associated with him, indeed identified with him, is the Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour, also personal, and identified both with the Father and with mankind. It is lack of belief in a personal God that has devastated and destroyed religious faith to a great extent in the current era. William Buckley, many years editor of the National Review, and a personal friend of this writer, once published an article in his paper regarding the "Three `R’s of Religion," identifying these as Revelation, Regeneration, and Responsibility, and relating all of these absolutely to belief in a personal God.

If one does not believe that God is personal, there can be no valid conception of regeneration. One cannot be born of some cosmic law; a person cannot be born of that which is impersonal; and, if God is not a person, there is no such thing as the new birth. No wonder it has dropped out of a lot of modernistic preaching by those who no longer believe in a personal God.

If one does not believe in a personal God, it is folly to speak of revelation. That is why so many do not believe the Bible to be God’s word. If there is no one, no person beyond our present life, then no one has spoken to anybody! Belief in a personal God underlies the basic conception of divine revelation.

If one does not believe in a personal God, there is, logically, no such thing as responsibility. If God is personal, one who knows the deeds of men, and who will require of every man ever born an account of his stewardship, then man is responsible for his actions and will inevitably suffer the penalty of disobeying divine law; but, if there is no personal God, then there is not anything in this universe any higher than a man. Once such a conception as that is received, it makes every man his own god. Whatever social pressures or governmental sanctions may be exercised in an attempt to restrain his unbridled impulses, he will have no regard for them whatever, except in the degree of intimidation they may have; but he will have no respect for them. He will proceed to do his own thing without regard either for God, whom he does not believe exists, or for man, who, as equal in every way to himself, he is not inclined to fear. If social scientists want to know what is happening to "the good life" in our times, the trouble lies right here. People no longer believe (at least in a great many cases) in a personal God.

The result of this exceedingly important break-down of faith in its most vital aspect will inevitably be the total destruction of any society stupid enough to encourage it. If people will not heed the lessons of Inspiration, at least they should pay some attention to the lessons of history:

The natural ethic is too weak to withstand the savagery that lurks under civilization, and emerges in our dreams, crimes, and wars … There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.(F4)

This observation was made by the greatest historian of this century; and while Durant himself professed not to believe in a personal and intelligent supreme Being, the admission cited in the above quotation is without meaning apart from the conception of a personal God. In fact, no real religion is possible without it.

Verse 1

And after these things I saw, and behold, a door opened in heaven, and the first voice that I heard, a voice as of a trumpet speaking with me, one saying, Come up hither, and I will show unto thee things which must come to pass hereafter.

After these things … This means, "after the visions of the preceding chapters." John is not here speaking of "after the fulfillment of previous visions," but of "after his having seen them." The ancient myth of the whole world balanced on Atlas’ shoulder is no more preposterous than the proposition that everything in Revelation from this point to the end will not even commence to be fulfilled until after the so-called "rapture" at the coming of Christ — all of which is allegedly derived from this little adverbial phrase! "There is no justification for assigning what follows to a time after this world."(F5)

I saw, and behold a door opened in heaven … As Earle stated it, "He saw the door standing open; he did not see it opened."(F6) John’s use of the same figure for different purposes is apparent in this. The "open door" stands for opportunity, or the sinner’s entrance into heaven (Revelation 3:8), the door of the human heart (Revelation 3:20), and the gateway of heaven of itself, here.

And the first voice that I heard … This is usually understood as a reference to the voice of Christ himself (Revelation 1:10 ff). "This does not refer to the first of a successive series, but is a plain reference to the voice of the Lord already heard."(F7) There the voice was heard on earth, but here it is heard from heaven. Some of the implications in these remarkable visions are difficult to conceive. For example, "Can Christ be conceived of as inviting the prophet to ascend and see him in heaven? Why not? Revelation will suggest that such questions should not be asked."(F8) We have just noted the multiple employment of "open door" as an expression of diverse realities, and there are countless other examples of the same thing throughout. Does the Lamb of God have seven horns (Revelation 5:6)? The great scarlet-colored beast has ten horns (Revelation 17:3)! As Beasley-Murray observed:

One who adapts Biblical images as freely as he has in this chapter should not be expected to preserve an undeviating consistency in his pictures. They are for kindling the imagination, not for transference to the drawing board.(F9)

Consistency has been described as the vice of small minds, and there was certainly nothing small about the mind which lies behind Revelation. One very important key to understanding Revelation is in this. The interpretation of a figure in one passage does not necessarily bind the interpretation in another. "He makes no attempt at sustained metaphor or allegory."(F10) Revelation is simply not that kind of book.

Scholars have often complained about the grammar of Revelation. For example, "The word for voice in this passage is used first as feminine, and then as masculine."(F11) The inspired writer rose above the ordinary rules of grammar, because there was no other way of conveying the exact sense. His proper observance of grammatical rules elsewhere shows clearly that he knew them and understood them, thus his deviation here was meaningful and purposeful. This example is cited here as one of many in the book; and what is said here applies to the others. "The change to the masculine is simply because this befits the Person, one saying. To speak of grammatical irregularity is rather pedantic."(F12)

The things which must come to pass hereafter … Among the things to be "shown" in the following chapters are the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgment of the living and the dead. It is a critical mistake, therefore, to understand this prophecy as already having been fulfilled in its entirety. Moreover, there is an overwhelming impression that a certain progression of events in the direction of that final assize, and culminating it, was surely intended to be revealed by the prophet. Thus it is wrong to understand Revelation as merely an abstraction of principles operative in history. "The close connection of the judgments (seals, trumpets, and bowls) with the earth and what goes on in it compels a more concrete explanation of them than an abstract idealism will afford."(F13)

Verse 2

Straightway I was in the Spirit: and behold, there was a throne set in heaven, and one sitting upon the throne;

Straightway I was in the Spirit … This seems to be out of place in the eyes of some, since John was already "in the Spirit" when he heard the voice out of heaven; but there were definite reasons for the statement here. The words "come up hither" in Revelation 4:1 have often been interpreted as a reference to "the rapture," in which all of the redeemed of earth (at the time) are caught up to heaven. Addressing himself to this misconception, Nee pointed out that all the theories of the "rapture" posit the resurrection of their bodies:

The rapture of the church is a bodily rapture, yet here it is in the Spirit (Revelation 4:2). And thus this verse cannot be interpreted as referring to the rapture of the church.(F14)

Thus, it is not hard to see why some object to the book as the sacred author composed it. After pointing out that "many commentators place the `rapture’ of the church between Revelation 3 and Revelation 4," entailing the inconsistency that John had somehow missed it and had to be called up in Revelation 4:1, Wilbur M. Smith stated that, "Inasmuch as the text itself is silent on such a subject, one questions the wisdom of even discussing it here."(F15)

And behold, there was a throne set in heaven … See chapter heading for further discussion of "The Throne of God." From first to last, John’s vision is dominated by this symbol of divine sovereignty (the throne)."(F16) It stands here at the head of all that John would reveal concerning the future; and, at last, when all is concluded, the throne alone will be all that is standing. Heaven and earth shall have disappeared, but the throne and its holy occupant are eternal. The word "throne" is used ten times in the eleven verses of this chapter, and "over forty times"(F17) in Revelation.

There was set … This means, "There was situated in heaven a throne. There is no action of setting up or placing."(F18) God’s throne must not be understood as some kind of moveable headquarters, now appearing in one place, then in another. "The throne was not there for this vision only; it was set, established as the throne of heaven (Psalms 103:19; Psalms 119:89)."(F19) "And one sitting upon the throne …" Again, reference is made to the discussion at the head of this chapter. The personality of the supreme and universal Authority is gloriously affirmed by this. And this is exceedingly important! Interpretations of details in this chapter can hardly be affirmed with any dogmatic certainty, but the great and overwhelming message of the throne with the Person of God himself upon it is impossible to miss. Being sure of this, one may well afford to hold judgment in abeyance concerning some of the details. As Lenski said:

Do not stress our conceptions of space and time in order to draw deductions from them, for they would be picayunely, childishly false … Symbols can only show the ineffable realities in a degree for beings that are still on earth.(F20)

Verse 3

and he that sat was to look upon like a jasper stone and a sardius: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, like an emerald to look upon.

There is little that can be known positively about these symbols. Note that, "There is here no description of the Divine Being, so as to point out any similitude, shape, or dimensions."(F21) If there had been, people would probably have made idols of it and worshipped it. Regarding the stones here mentioned, we do not know exactly what they were, nor their color with any certainty.

The whole subject of the relation of precious stones named in the New Testament to those in the Old Testament, to those of classical antiquity, and of modern mineralogy is one of great obscurity.(F22)

The jasper … Phillips’ New Testament translates this "diamond," and many accept this.

The sardius … The New English Bible (1961) translates this carnelian, which Ladd identified as "a fiery red stone."(F23) Some suppose that the rainbow encircled the throne horizontally and that it derived from the prismatic character of the rock crystal (the glassy sea on which the throne reposed)(F24) But what kind of rainbow could be described as "like an emerald to look upon"? This teases the imagination beyond reality. At any rate, taking the above as a good guess, we have the diamond, the ruby and the rainbow like an emerald, which three colors are supposed to represent God’s purity (the diamond), God’s wrath in judgment (the ruby), and God’s mercy (the rainbow like an emerald). At best, such interpretations are fanciful and rest upon inadequate foundations. It is true, of course, that the rainbow (Genesis 9:12 ff) is indeed a symbol of God’s mercy and of his covenant with Noah that the earth would not again be destroyed by a flood, and that seed time and harvest, day and night, etc., would thenceforth continue as long as the earth stands. The fact of a rainbow encircling the throne of God recalls this, but the description of it injects a new element. Our comment here embraces references to such things because of the usual emphasis given to them in current, and even ancient, writings.

While admitting that, "It is doubtful if any symbolical meaning is intended by the choice of these stones,"(F25) Ladd went on to point out that they were in different positions on the high priest’s breastplate (Exodus 28:17 ff), and that they are numbered among the foundations of the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:19 ff).

Verse 4

And round about the throne were four and twenty thrones: and upon the thrones I saw four and twenty elders sitting, arrayed in white garments; and on their heads crowns of gold.

There are almost as many explanations of this as there are commentators. Who are these elders? They have been variously identified as symbolical of: (1) the "raptured" church which allegedly had already happened;(F26) (2) the twenty-four star gods of the Babylonian pantheon;(F27) (3) in the Targum the elders are interpreted as leaders of the Jewish people; (4) the twenty-four priestly orders enumerated in 1 Chronicles 24:4 ff;(F28) (5) a special order of angels, an interpretation rejected by Lenski on the grounds that angels are nowhere symbolized in Revelation;(F29) (6) an order of angel princes called thrones in Colossians 1:16;(F30) etc. The interpretation received here is stated thus by Carpenter:

They are described as twenty-four in number; they are the twelve tribes of Israel doubled, to signify the union of the Gentile with the Jewish church; they are two sets of twelve, to represent the New Testament and Old Testament; they are the twelve patriarchs conjoined with the twelve apostles — These interpretations (alleged by many) are all different forms of the same thought, that the twenty- four elders represent the complete church of God in the past and in the future, in the Jewish and Gentile worlds; and, as such, the true spiritual successors, as priests to God, of those twenty-four courses (1 Chronicles 26:1 ff).(F31)

The great majority of the commentators we have consulted on this question, including Barnes, Earle, Hinds, Scott, and Wallace, accept the view advanced in the quotation above. Some have objected to it on the grounds of what they call "difficulties" in such an interpretation; and others merely avoid trying to answer the question: "One really needs no theory of their presence. They are heavenly creatures and are part of the heavenly scene."(F32) The views of Lenski are of particular interest. He objected to our interpretation on the grounds that "elders are not representative of the church."(F33) He referred them to "the ministry of the Word," which he believed to be the reality symbolized by the twenty-four elders. It appears to us, however, that this is a distinction without a difference. Since the church is entrusted with the ministry of the word of God in this entire dispensation, his interpretation still refers it to the church.

There are, however, more considerable objections to this interpretation which have given some scholars hesitancy in accepting it. Some of these are: (1) one of the elders performs an angelic function in Revelation 7:13-14, and is addressed by John as "Sir." If the twelve apostles were typified, John himself must have been included; (2) they seem to be grouped apart from the redeemed in Revelation 19:4; (3) these elders appear to be participating in the executive function of the throne of God itself; etc. It must be admitted that such things reflect against the interpretation we have chosen; but we simply set aside such alleged "inconsistencies" on the grounds that similar "inconsistencies" may be leveled against any interpretation. For example, how could human figures represent supernatural beings? There are compelling reasons that underlie the fact of the majority of scholars, especially the older ones, adopting the view presented here. They are:

(1) The number twenty-four cannot be interpreted at all, apart from the view here. (2) The very word "presbyters" connects with nothing else in heaven or on earth except the Jewish and Christian dispensations. (3) The elders’ having crowns suggests Matthew 19:28. (4) They say that they reign on the earth (Revelation 5:10). (5) The KJV in Revelation 5:9 identifies them with the redeemed of earth; and despite this verse’s having been changed in subsequent versions, Seiss emphatically insists that the KJV is correct, since "the Sinaiticus manuscript contains it."(F34)

Verse 5

And out of the throne proceed lightnings and voices and thunders. And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God;

Thunder and lightning, etc. … "These announce the presence of God, as at Sinai (Exodus 19:16), and the seven burning lamps refer to the Holy Spirit."(F35) The combined symbols of this verse convey no meaning except that of "God’s omnipotent power."(F36) Subsequent versions use "torches" here instead of lamps, and perhaps that is better. Carpenter found a suggestion in this of the "torch" that moved between the parted sacrifice in the account of the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 15:17), indicating that both of God’s covenants with Noah and with Abraham were symbolized in this chapter.

Verse 6

and before the throne as it were a sea of glass like unto crystal; and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, four living creatures full of eyes before and behind.

A sea of glass … If the sea represents populations of the earth, as in late chapters, the calmness of it here would indicate the tranquillity and peacefulness of souls in the service of God, and how his eyes can penetrate to the very bottom. The purpose of the crystal sea might have been simply the creation of an emphatic distance between the beholder and the throne itself. There is also the possibility that it is an inert factor in the vision, as are certain ingredients in the parables of the Master.

The four living creatures … The many eyes "before and behind" in these creatures have a suggestion of something approaching omniscience, yet their being "creatures" limits this. The visions in Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6 are so similar to this that we feel justified in accepting what is revealed there as having the same application here. For some time, it appears, Ezekiel wondered what the living creatures were; but a later vision (Ezekiel 10) gave him the clue to the mystery. Then he said:

This is the living creature that I saw under the God of Israel by the river Chebar; and I knew they were cherubim (Ezekiel 10:20).

We may safely set aside, therefore, the ancient interpretations that interpret these as the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, or the symbols of the four divisions of Israel’s marching formation in the wilderness,(F37) "the countless living earthly agencies of God’s providence,"(F38) "the entire animate creation,"(F39) or "the four chief signs of the Zodiac,"(F40) etc. There is practically nothing that can be fully known about these living beings in God’s presence. John’s description of what he saw in this vision of God’s throne is not a photographic depiction, but an impressionistic view.

Verse 7

And the first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had a face as of a man, and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle.

Of course, everyone is familiar with the adoption of these figures in church architecture to stand for the Four Gospels, but this has no foundation in the Bible. Roberts did not hesitate to identify these with the "seraphim" in Isaiah 6:2, and the "cherubim" of Ezekiel 10:20.(F41)

Verse 8

And the four living creatures, having each one of them six wings, are full of eyes round about and within: and they have no rest day and night, saying: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.

Six wings … The use of these, as indicated in Isaiah 6, was: two covered the face (reverence), two covered the feet (humility), and "with twain did he fly." No such employment of the wings is mentioned here.

It would appear that the big point of this was properly ascertained by Barnes:

All these creatures pay ceaseless homage to God, whose throne they are represented as supporting; emblematic of the fact that all the operations of the divine government do, in fact, promote his glory, and, as it were, render him praise.(F42)

Holy, holy, holy … In commentaries, now and then, one finds this referred to as the Trisagion; but the designation is not accurate.

The Trysagion is the hymn which is sung, according to the rite of Constantinople, in connection with the Little Entrance …. In the Roman liturgy, it is sung on only one day of the year, Good Friday, in the special office called the Reproaches.(F43)

Who was and who is and who is to come … On this reference to Exodus 3:14, see comment on similar words in Revelation 1:4; Revelation 1:8.

Verses 9-10

And when the living creatures shall give glory and honor and thanks to him that sitteth on the throne, to him that liveth for ever and ever, the four and twenty elders shall fall down before him that sitteth on the throne, and shall worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and shall cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

Now the big thing in view here would seem to be the counterpart of that cited by Barnes above on Revelation 4:8. Seeing that celestial and supernatural beings spend their time in the worship and adoration of God, there could not possibly be any better activity for mortals. This could well be the significance of the "when" standing at the head of these two verses, also translated "whenever." It is only a quibble to inquire, "If these spontaneous outbursts of praise contradict the continuous worship of Revelation 4:8"!(F44) Such an attitude reminds this writer of the occasion when a concert artist gave a harp solo at a meeting of the Rotary Club. It took four men to bring in the harp; and Willie Weinberger, owner of a local ladies’ store, said, "If we’re all going to have to carry around harps in heaven, I don’t want to go!" What one gets out of Revelation depends to a great deal upon the attitude which he brings into the study of it.

Cast their crowns before the throne … The twenty-four elders enjoy kingly authority, but it is due entirely to their relation to God, all of their authority being derived from him. This is beautifully symbolized by the action here.

Verse 11

Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God, to receive the glory and the honor and the power: for thyself didst create all things, and because of thy will they were, and were created.

Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God … "These are the words that greeted the emperor in triumphal procession; and `our Lord and our God’ was introduced into the cult of emperor worship by Domitian,"(F45) the exact words of this passage being used. With characteristic `wisdom’ the scholars immediately proclaim that John borrowed this expression from Domitian! Indeed, indeed! Our book says that John heard the heavenly chorus "saying" this; are we to suppose that they copied it from Domitian? It is evident that Domitian borrowed this from the Christians,’ not the other way around.

Thyself didst create all things … Repeatedly, the broadest and most fundamental doctrines of Christianity are given dramatic and powerful emphasis in this prophecy. This chapter is full of this. Note the description of God in Revelation 4:3, where the likeness of God is mentioned. "In the author’s refusal to describe God in anthropomorphic terms, he declares that "God is Spirit,’"(F46) exactly as the author does in John 4:24. The Christian doctrine of Creation is explicit here.

Because of thy will, they were, and were created … God only is exalted upon the throne. The universe and everything in it came into being because of his will. "This is a conception basic to Jewish-Christian monotheism."(F47) Since the world, with all of its marvelous complexity, was made by God, and made according to his will, it follows that much must be right with it. As Caird expressed it:

We shall be misled by the cumulative visions of destruction that follow unless we do full justice to this opening affirmation that the world is God’s world and fundamentally good.(F48)

Of course, there are also terrible things wrong with it; but God has addressed himself to that problem also. The great redemptive plan of the Father for the salvation of his human creatures appears in the person of the Lamb in the very next chapter; and it is most appropriate that, in view of the epic destructions about to take place, that this initial emphasis upon the merciful God and his plan of human forgiveness should be made.

Great and wonderful and terrible as the throne of God appears in this chapter, the really good news is in Revelation 5. Without the vision of what is revealed there, despair would wipe out every human hope.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Revelation 4". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/revelation-4.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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