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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Revelation 4

A. Introduction to the judgments of the Tribulation chs. 4-5

Chapters 4 and 5 prepared John, and they prepare the reader, for the outpouring of judgments on the earth that follow. They present the place from which these judgments originate and the Person from whom they come. Before revealing the judgments God will send on the earth (chs. 6-18), He gave John a second vision (cf. Revelation 1:10 to Revelation 3:22). This vision revealed what will take place in heaven (chs. 4-5) following the Rapture and the judgment seat of Christ (1 Peter 4:17-18). He did this to enable the readers to view coming earthly events from a heavenly perspective. The theme of overcoming, introduced in chapters 2 and 3, receives further development in chapters 4 and 5.

One writer proposed that God revealed the whole heavenly court scene in chapters 4-5 as a cosmic temple similar to Israel’s Old Testament temple. The court scene describes a divine council in session. In it God decides the worthiness of the Lamb to receive the covenant inheritance, symbolized by the seven-sealed scroll, by a process of investigative judgment. [Note: R. Dean Davis, "The Heavenly Court Scene of Revelation 4-5" (Ph.D. dissertation, Andrews University, 1986).]

"Chapters 4-5 may be viewed as the fulcrum of the Revelation. In relation to what has gone before they provide a fuller understanding of him who dominates the letters to the churches. In relation to the rest of the book they serve the double purpose of initiating the series of judgments which lead to the final advent and descent of the city of God to earth, and of supplying the form for the series of messianic judgments (the seven seals) which immediately follow. In this respect these chapters constitute the pivot of the structure which holds the book together, for the rest of the visions dovetail into this main structure. Yet the vision of chapters 4-5 is also a self-contained whole, serving a highly important function regarding the message of the book. It reveals the ground of assurance that God’s gracious purpose for the universe will come to pass, and so it is dominated by praise and adoration." [Note: Beasley-Murray, p. 108.]

"The pastoral purpose is to assure suffering Christians that God and Jesus are sovereign and that the events that the Christians are facing are part of a sovereign plan that will culminate in their redemption and the vindication of their faith through the punishment of their persecutors." [Note: Beale, p. 311.]

"No part of the Scripture is more calculated to evoke worship than these two chapters of John’s prophecy." [Note: Beasley-Murray, p. 109.]

1. The throne in heaven ch. 4

This chapter focuses on God the Father, the Creator who hands over the seven-sealed scroll. Chapter 5 emphasizes God the Son, the Redeemer who receives and opens the scroll.

Verse 1

Christ’s invitation 4:1

"These things" refers to the revelation of the messages to the seven churches (chs. 2-3; cf. Revelation 1:19). After John had received these messages, he received a vision of heaven in which Jesus Christ invited him (cf. Revelation 1:10; Revelation 1:12-16) to enter heaven to receive a revelation of future events. John had been viewing Christ in authority over the churches and their messengers (Revelation 1:10 to Revelation 3:22), but now he would see a throne-room in heaven. "After these things I looked" is a clause that, with variations, introduces a new vision each time it occurs in Revelation (cf. Revelation 7:1; Revelation 7:9; Revelation 15:5; Revelation 18:1; Revelation 19:1).

What John evidently saw in this vision was a door standing ajar (Gr. eneogmene) in the sky (cf. Ezekiel 1:1). A voice, probably the glorified Christ’s (cf. Revelation 1:10; Exodus 19:20; Exodus 19:24-25), bid him enter through the door into heaven. This is not an invitation for the church to enter heaven at the Rapture but an invitation for John to enter heaven in his vision. From that new vantage point he would receive new revelations (cf. Romans 10:6; 2 Corinthians 12:1-2). "Must" (dei) indicates that the events God was about to reveal will indeed happen. The word indicates divine necessity here as it does frequently in the Gospels, especially Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:49; Luke 4:43; Luke 13:33; Luke 17:25; Luke 19:5; Luke 19:22; Luke 22:37; Luke 24:25-27; Luke 24:44-46; cf. Acts 2:23-24).

Verses 1-5


John recorded the rest of this book to reveal those aspects of the future that God wanted His people to know (cf. Revelation 1:19). He revealed the events in chapters 4-18 to enable the readers to understand events leading up to Jesus Christ’s second coming.

"The closest modern parallel to this mode of communication is the political cartoon, which has gained an established place in the popular press all over the world." [Note: Beasley-Murray, p. 16.]

Scholars have proposed many interpretations of the remaining chapters (4-22), but the ones that make most sense of the text are those that see them as predicting events yet future. This is the futuristic approach. Other approaches are the following. The idealist (or allegorical) approach sees these chapters as containing the story of the conflict between God and Satan in the present age with a symbolic presentation of God’s ultimate victory. The preterist approach sees these chapters as a picture of conflicts that took place in the early history of the church. Some preterist interpreters see these chapters as a symbolic revelation of God’s principles of dealing with humankind throughout history. The historical approach interprets these chapters as a history of the church from Jesus Christ’s first advent to His second advent. A major problem with the approaches just named is that their advocates do not agree with one another on the interpretation of individual passages. Only the futuristic approach has resulted in consistency in the interpretation of the major interpretive problems. [Note: See Carson and Moo, pp. 719-21.] This approach also has the support of Revelation 1:19 that promises a revelation of things yet future.

Whereas chapters 4-18 present events culminating in Jesus Christ’s second coming, there are clues in the text that not everything in these chapters is in chronological order. I will point out these clues in the exposition to follow. There is also evidence in the text that as the time of Christ’s return approaches predicted events will occur more closely together. The revelation of these events becomes correspondingly fuller. Jesus’ second coming is the true climax of this section of the book and the true climax of history on planet earth.

Verse 2

As soon as John heard this invitation, he entered another visionary state (cf. Revelation 1:10). His body remained on the earth, but he saw a throne and someone sitting on it in heaven (cf. Ezekiel 11:1; Ezekiel 11:5). [Note: See J. M. Vogelgesang, "The Interpretation of Ezekiel in the Book of Revelation," (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1985).] "Throne" occurs 45 times in Revelation and only 15 times in the rest of the New Testament. The tense of the Greek verb translated "sitting" (present participle here and in Revelation 4:3) suggests continuous sitting. The person on the throne was undoubtedly God the Father (cf. Revelation 4:5; Revelation 5:5; Revelation 5:7; Revelation 6:16; Revelation 7:10; Revelation 19:4). John apparently saw a very large room with a throne in the center of it and someone sitting on the throne (cf. 1 Kings 22:19; 2 Chronicles 18:18; Psalms 11:4; Psalms 47:8; Isaiah 6:1; Ezekiel 1:26; Daniel 7:9).

"Daniel, the prophet, saw the same glorious sight (Daniel 7): the Ancient of Days enthroned, and ’One like unto a son of man brought near before him’ and given ’dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, and languages should serve him.’" [Note: Newell, p. 84. Daniel 7:13-14; cf. Daniel 7:9; Ezekiel 1.]

This was probably a room in the heavenly temple since later John also saw the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant there (Revelation 8:3; Revelation 11:19).

"The major focus of chapter 4 upon the throne is its symbolism of God’s sovereignty exercised in judgment. From this point of origination proceeds the outworking of God’s wrath described in the body of the Apocalypse (cf. Revelation 6:10; Revelation 6:16-17; Revelation 14:7; Revelation 15:1; Revelation 16:5; Revelation 16:19; Revelation 18:20; Revelation 19:2; Revelation 19:11). Though evil reigns for a time on earth, God will ultimately prevail." [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, pp. 339-40.]

Some pretribulational commentators have seen a representation of the rapture of the church in this verse. They view John entering heaven in his vision as symbolic of Christians entering heaven at the Rapture. [Note: E.g., Ironside, p. 80.] This is probably reading too much into the text since it was John himself who entered heaven, and he entered heaven in a vision, not in reality.

The absence of specific reference to the Rapture in Revelation has led some (posttribulational) interpreters to conclude that it will occur at the Second Coming, following the Tribulation judgments. Yet the differences between the Rapture and the Second Coming, as various Scriptures refer to these events, make this extremely improbable (cf. John 14:1-3, 1 Corinthians 15:50-58, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 with Revelation 19). The unusual absence of reference to the Rapture may be due to God’s purpose in chapters 4-19, namely, to focus on the judgments coming on unbelievers culminating in the Second Coming. There are 20 references to the church in chapters 1-3 but none until Revelation 22:17. This strongly implies that the church is not on earth during the Tribulation. Evidently the Rapture takes place between chapters 3 and 4.

Verses 2-8

The glory of God 4:2-8

Verse 3

In what sense is God like jasper and sardius (carnelian, NIV) stones? The jasper gem that John saw was evidently a diamond (cf. Revelation 21:11), not what we identify as a jasper today. [Note: Charles, 1:114; Beasley-Murray, p. 113; Mounce, p. 134.] The sardius, named for the town of Sardis where it was discovered, is fiery red. These colored gems probably symbolize the holiness and justice of God (cf. Revelation 1:14; Revelation 10:1; Ezekiel 1:4; Ezekiel 1:26-28; Ezekiel 8:2; Daniel 7:9).

"Perhaps it is better to think of this resemblance as denoting His anger as a reaction of His holy nature in view of the prevailing sinfulness of man and in consequence of which He is about to send judgment upon the earth, that ’the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.’" [Note: Smith, A Revelation . . ., p. 103.]

The "rainbow" around the throne was apparently the shape of a rainbow rather than the color of one since this one was green. This bow completely encircled the throne, perhaps resembling a halo. It evidently symbolizes God’s mercy that surrounds His rule (cf. Genesis 9:8-17; Ezekiel 1:28). This rainbow may have been various shades of green suggesting the variegated mercy and grace of God. [Note: Swete, p. 68; Alford, 4:596; Bullinger, p. 217; Homer Hailey, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 168.] Another possibility is that the emerald (Gr. smaragd) was a crystal that served as a prism and so yielded a rainbow of colors. [Note: Beasley-Murray, p. 113.]

"Usually, a rainbow appears after the storm; but here, we see it before the storm." [Note: Wiersbe, 2:582.]

Verse 4

John saw 24 thrones surrounding the main throne in what is obviously a subordinate relationship. The throne is a place of rule. Evidently these elders will have positions of authority under God.

The identity of the 24 elders (Gr. presbyteros) is difficult to determine. There have been two basic views: men and angels. If they are human beings, they may be representatives of Israel, the church, or both groups. [Note: Smith, A Revelation . . ., p. 104; Walvoord, The Revelation . . ., pp. 106-7; Alford, 4:596; J. D. Pentecost, Things to Come, pp. 207-9; John F. McGahey, "The Identity of the Twenty-Four Elders," (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1954); Ironside, p. 82; Barclay, The Revelation . . ., 1:19-25; Tenney, pp. 189-90; Swete, p. 69; Stanton, pp. 200-4; David J. MacLeod, "The Adoration of God the Creator: An Exposition of Revelation 4," Bibliotheca Sacra 164:654 (April-June 2007):207.] If angels, they could be angelic representatives of either of the Old Testament priestly orders (cf. 1 Chronicles 24:4-5; 1 Chronicles 25:9-13), or angelic representatives of the faithful of all ages, or a special group or class of angels. [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 348; Bullinger, p. 219; Lange, p. 152; James Moffatt, "The Revelation of St. John the Divine," in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5:378; Beckwith, pp. 498-99; John Phillips, Exploring Revelation, p. 103; Alexander Reese, The Approaching Advent of Christ, p. 92; Ladd, p. 75; Beasley-Murray, p. 114; Beale, p. 322. See Aune, pp. 287-92, for a helpful summary of the views.]

I think the 24 elders are either 12 human leaders of Israel and 12 human leaders of the church or a special group of 24 angelic leaders who represent the 12 patriarchs of Israel and the 12 apostles of the church. All that John wrote about them fits angels, and some of what he wrote could fit some men. Their song of praise seems to set them apart from those purchased by Christ’s blood (Revelation 5:9-10). However, "elder" is a term used nowhere else in the Bible to describe angels. Their number may relate to the 24 priestly orders in Israel that worshipped and served the Lord (1 Chronicles 23:6; 1 Chronicles 24:7-18). They evidently serve God by executing His will in the universe, but they do so in rank under the four living beings of Revelation 4:6. Perhaps the four living creatures represent the general creation and the 24 elders represent the elect of God’s special creation. [Note: Beale, p. 322.]

White apparel is the characteristic dress of angels (cf. Matthew 28:3; Mark 16:5; John 20:12; Acts 1:10). These elders wore crowns (Gr. stephanous). This Greek word often refers to a victor’s crown (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:11), but John also used it to describe a crown that represents authority (Revelation 6:2; Revelation 9:7; Revelation 12:1; Revelation 14:14).

Verse 5

The lightning and thunder are evidently portents of judgment to come and symbolize God judging (Revelation 8:5; Revelation 11:19; Revelation 16:18; cf. Exodus 19:16).

"In Revelation the symbols of thunder and lightning are always connected with a temple scene and mark an event of unusual import." [Note: Mounce, p. 136.]

The wrath of God proceeds from this throne. The seven burning lamps (or torches, Gr. lampades, cf. lychniai, "lampstands," Revelation 1:12; Revelation 1:20) probably picture divine preparedness for battle against wickedness (cf. Judges 7:16; Judges 7:20; Nahum 2:3-4; Isaiah 4:4; Zechariah 4:2-3; Zechariah 4:6; Zechariah 4:10; Malachi 4:1). [Note: Seiss, p. 103.] The seven spirits of God (perhaps the seven principal angels of God, cf. Revelation 1:4; Revelation 3:1) will carry out this judgment. The picture is of these torches ready to go from God’s presence to the earth where they will consume wickedness during the Tribulation.

Verse 6

The clear glass-like sea before the throne may represent the need for cleansing before approaching God. The laver (called a "sea" in the Old Testament, e.g., 1 Kings 7:23, et al.) served the need for cleansing in the Israelite tabernacle and temple. Perhaps the fact that this sea is solid indicates that those who can approach God’s throne have attained a fixed state of holiness by God’s grace. [Note: Strauss, p. 134.] Perhaps the sea represents the forces opposed to God’s will and His people. This is what the sea symbolized in the ancient Near East. John now saw these forces under God’s sovereign control (cf. Exodus 24:10; Ezekiel 1:22; Ezekiel 1:26). [Note: Johnson, p. 463] The best explanation seems to be that this sea pictures some type of firmament that separates God in his holiness and purity from all of His sinful creation (cf. Genesis 1:7; Exodus 24:10-11; 1 Kings 7:23; Psalms 104:3; Ezekiel 1:22; Ezekiel 1:26). [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 353.]

The four living "creatures" seem to be angelic beings that reflect the attributes of God. They form an inner circle and surround the throne and God (cf. Ezekiel 1:12), so they must constitute an exalted order of angelic beings. They appear similar to the seraphim (Isaiah 6:2) and even more like the cherubim (Ezekiel 1:4-14; Ezekiel 9:3; Ezekiel 10), though because of their differences they seem to be in a class by themselves. They appear to have a judicial function (cf. Revelation 6:1; Revelation 6:3; Revelation 6:5; Revelation 6:7) and to have some connection with animate creation (cf. Revelation 4:9-11; Revelation 15:7). Their many eyes evidently symbolize their penetrating intelligence that makes them immediately aware of whatever is happening that affects their judicial responsibility (cf. Ezekiel 1:18; Ezekiel 10:12). [Note: Ibid., pp. 358-59.]

Verse 7

The four creatures probably represent four classes of created beings: wild beasts, domesticated animals, human beings, and flying creatures. Together they may picture all creation praising God, or God’s sovereign control over all aspects of His creation, or both.

Each creature also seems to possess different qualities that are appropriate in their service of God. John described these as the outstanding qualities of animals that everyone can identify. Lions are strong (cf. Psalms 103:20), oxen are servants (cf. Hebrews 1:14), men have intelligence (cf. Luke 15:10), and eagles are swift (cf. Daniel 9:21). Each animal listed is the head of its species.

"The four forms suggest whatever is noblest, strongest, wisest, and swiftest in animate nature." [Note: Swete, p. 71.]

Some of the early church fathers compared these creatures to the four Gospels, but they had different opinions about which beings represented which Gospels. Some commentators have taken this further and have suggested that each creature represents a different aspect of Christ in each Gospel. Others take the beings as symbolizing attributes of God. Still others connect them with the four chief signs of the zodiac. Some believe they represent Israel, because there is some connection with the pictures on the standards of Israel’s tribes (cf. Numbers 2:2; Numbers 2:10; Numbers 2:18; Numbers 2:25). Others see them as representing four outstanding apostles or other glorified men.

Verse 8

These creatures seem similar to the seraphim (lit. burning ones) of Isaiah 6:2-3 in that they each have six wings. Their many eyes suggest alertness, comprehensive knowledge, and constant vigilance (cf. Ezekiel 10:12). "Around and within" probably means that they had eyes even on the undersides of their wings so they could move their wings without interrupting their vision. Their movements did not detract from their constant vigilance. They ascribe holiness to God day and night, namely, constantly, though not necessarily without stopping (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:8). [Note: See David Seal, "Shouting in the Apocalypse: The Influence of First-Century Acclamations on the Praise Utterances in Revelation 4:8 and 11," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 51:2 (June 2008):339-52.]

"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-the quality of God felt by creatures in his presence as awesomeness or fearfulness (Psalms 111:9: ’Holy and awesome is his name.’)" [Note: Johnson, p. 463.]

The focus of their worship is on God’s holiness, His omnipotence, and His eternality.

"This continual song from the four living beings underscores the central role of the one sitting upon the throne in the present setting. As the absolutely holy one, He is thoroughly entitled and has ample might to initiate stringent measures against His own creation in order to return it to its original holy state." [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 363.]

Verse 9

Whenever it is appropriate and possible the four living creatures give praise to eternal God. They glorify and honor Him for His perfections, and they thank Him for His great works, especially His creation (Revelation 4:11).

Verses 9-11

The worship of God 4:9-11

Verse 10

The 24 elders likewise fall down before Him out of reverence. When the crowned elders prostrate themselves before God and cast their crowns at His feet, these rulers humbly acknowledge His sovereignty and His right to receive worship. Casting their crowns at His feet symbolizes the willing subjection of their power to His superior authority.

When a victorious athlete returned home from the games and participated in a final celebration, he would ceremoniously offer the wreath or crown that he had earned to his deity. [Note: Ibid., p. 349.] The Apostle Paul said he wanted to make sure he did nothing that would result in his losing his reward (1 Corinthians 9:27). He also used rewards as a motivation to urge Christians to serve Jesus Christ faithfully (1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10; et al.), as Jesus did (Matthew 6:19-21). These factors have created problems for some believers. Is it not selfish to want to gain a reward? Is this not an unworthy motive for living the Christian life? I believe the answer lies in this verse. Here the 24 elders cast their crowns at the feet of the Father in worship. If a crown is something we will give back to the Lord in worship, the desire for a crown need not be a selfish motivation. Indeed the desire to present one’s life work of faithful service as a gift to the Savior is a very unselfish and God-honoring motive.

A victor’s crown is symbolic of the fact that the judge has declared the athlete victorious. Anyone can go out and buy a trophy in a store, but a trophy received as a reward for victory in competition has much greater value because of what it represents. Christians will receive crowns for finishing the race set before us faithfully, not first (i.e., before others). We do not compete against fellow believers, but we compete to overcome our spiritual enemies, namely, the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Verse 11

The elders’ song is similar to that of the four living beings, but it focuses more on the wonders of God’s creation as the evidence of his glory and power. [Note: William Milligan, The Book of Revelation, vol. 25 of The Expositor’s Bible, pp. 74-75.] It is also directed to God directly. [Note: Mounce, p. 140.] "Worthy art thou" and "our Lord and God" were phrases that pagans used to worship the emperor in John’s day. [Note: Hanns Lilje, The Last Book of the Bible, p. 108.] "Because of Thy will" directs praise to God for the ultimate cause of creation. [Note: Stott, p. 167.] Probably "they existed, and were created" simply credits God for the existence of all things and then stresses the fact that He brought them into existence. [Note: Thomas, Revelation 1-7, p. 368.]

The total impression that this highly symbolic vision presents seems clear even though the interpretation of some of the symbols may not be as obvious. The angelic creatures closest to God will bow before God and give Him the honor He so rightly deserves. [Note: See Mazie Nakhro, "The Manner of Worship according to the Book of Revelation," Bibliotheca Sacra 158:630 (April-June 2001):165-80, which identifies the reasons for worship and the manner of worship in Revelation.] We need to see all that follows in this revelation (chs. 5-22) in the light of the character of God manifested in this vision. God is perfectly holy, just, gracious, righteous, pure, omnipotent, eternal, and sovereign. This should help us accept the coming revelation of all that He will do, including judging huge segments of humanity in the future.

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Revelation 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.