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Chapter Four The First Vision Of Heaven
As we turn from chapter 3 to chapter 4, the scenes are very different! We are no longer occupied with the professing church in the place of testimony, nor with events on the earth at all. A door is opened in Heaven, and escorted by John we are carried far above the shifting scenes of this poor world. We are permitted to gaze with awe-struck eyes on a scene of indescribable glory and to hear things kept secret from the foundation of the world. The opening verse begins the third great division of this book- the “things which must be hereafter.” It describes the stirring panorama of wonders, both heavenly and earthly, which must take place after the church’s history is ended. From the close of chapter 3, we never see the church on earth again through the rest of this solemn book. We read of “saints,” but they are distinct altogether from the church of the present dispensation. Israel comes into view and a great multitude of Gentiles saved out of the great tribulation; but there is no church, no body of Christ, no bride of the Lamb any more on the earth!
The Throne (Revelation 4:1-3)
I believe that we must understand the rapture of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 as transpiring between Revelation 3:0 and 4. The apostle is the symbol of this rapture. He sees the door opened in Heaven. His attention is turned from earth to glory. He is caught up in spirit, and far above all the mists of this world he sees a throne set in Heaven and someone sitting on it. He cannot even attempt to portray the likeness of this august being. He only tells us he beheld a presence whose glory was like a jasper and a sardius.
The jasper of the Revelation is not the opaque stone we know by that name. It is later described as clear as crystal (21:11). It is probably the diamond, the most brilliant of all the precious jewels. The other stone is blood-red and may really be the ruby. Thus the two together give the idea of glory and of sacrifice. Remembering that many of the first readers of the Revelation were converted Jews, we might ask what these stones would suggest to them. Surely every instructed Hebrew would instantly recall that they were the first and last stones in the breastplate of the high priest (Exodus 28:17-21). These stones were engraved with the names of the tribes of Israel, arranged according to the births of the twelve patriarchs; so the ruby would suggest at once the name Reuben, “Behold a Son,” and the Jasper Benjamin, “Son of my right hand.” It is Christ enthroned, the Son about to reign in power who is before the seer’s vision. Around the throne a rainbow, like an emerald, the stone of Judah (“Praise”) is seen. This suggests the perpetuity of the Noahic covenant and God’s unchanging goodness, despite all man’s failure, folly, and wickedness.
The Elders (Revelation 4:4-5)
The fourth verse brings before us a sight never beheld in Heaven on any previous occasion: twenty-four thrones (not merely “seats”) surrounding the central throne and on them twenty-four elders seated with victors’ crowns (not diadems) on their heads, and clothed in priestly robes of purest white. Who are these favored ones gathered around the glorious central Being? I think their identity is clear if we compare Scripture with Scripture and distrust our own imagination, which can only lead us astray.
In 1 Chronicles 24:0, we read of something very similar; again I would remind you that many of John’s first readers were Hebrews, thoroughly familiar with the Old Testament. Every Jewish believer would remember the twenty-four elders appointed by King David to represent the entire Levitical priesthood. He divided the priests into twenty-four courses, each course to serve for two weeks at a time in the temple which Solomon was to build. The same arrangement was in force when our Lord’s forerunner was announced. Zacharias was “of the course of Abiah,” the eighth in order (Luke 1:5).
The thousands of priests could not all come together at one time; but when the twenty-four elders met in the temple precincts in Jerusalem, the whole priestly house was represented. I submit this is the explanation of the twenty-four elders in Heaven. They represent the whole heavenly priesthood-that is, all the redeemed who have died in the past or who will be living at the Lord’s return. In vision they were not seen as millions of saved worshipers, but just twenty-four elders symbolizing the entire company. The church of the present age and Old Testament saints are both included. All are priests. All worship. There were twelve patriarchs in Israel and twelve apostles introducing the new dispensation. The two together would give the complete twenty-four.
Then, observe that these persons are not angels. They are redeemed men who have overcome in the conflict with Satan and the world. They wear victors’ wreaths on their heads. Angels are never said to be crowned, nor have they known redemption.
There are two kinds of crowns mentioned in this book: the victor’s crown and the ruler’s diadem. The former is the word used here. It refers to the laurel or pine wreath placed on the victor’s head in the Greek games. It is the same word so often used in the New Testament regarding reward for service. Note carefully that no saints will ever be crowned until the apostle Paul receives that crown of righteousness which the Lord revealed to him as his reward. In 2 Timothy 4:8 he says: “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love (or have loved) His appearing.” The expression “at that day” refers to the day of Christ when He will come for His own, and they will all be confirmed before His judgment seat. He says: “Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be” (Revelation 22:12). Surely it follows then that no rewards are given out until He returns for His saints. Therefore there can be no crowned elders in Heaven until after the rapture.
I believe this is a point of great importance today. Many are being troubled by the thought that perhaps the great tribulation, which is the subject of a large a part of the book of Revelation, has already begun. But all such fears are set at rest when the facts I have been emphasizing are kept in mind. I want to dwell a little on this in the next chapter, so I refrain from further comment now. Only I trust it is clear to all that the elders are the heavenly saints surrounding the Lord in glory, God the Son sitting on the central throne.
Lightnings, thunderings, and voices emanating from the throne make it clear that a dreadful storm is about to burst on that world below. As we go on in the study of the book, we will see more alarming conditions added from time to time as the scene becomes increasingly solemn.
Following out the symbolism of the tabernacle, seven lamps of fire are seen burning before the throne, as the seven-branched lampstand burned just outside the veil, before God’s throne on earth-the ark of old. These lamps are said to be “the seven Spirits of God.” As we have already seen (1:4) this figure illustrates not seven distinct Spirits, but the one Holy Spirit in the sevenfold plenitude of His power.
The Adoration (Revelation 4:6-11)
The sea of glass of verse 6 calls to mind the sea of brass in Solomon’s temple, which like the laver, symbolized the Word of God. It contained the water used for priestly cleansing, and we are sanctified and cleansed by “the washing of water by the word.” But the sea in Revelation is not for cleansing, so it is like crystal and later we find the martyred tribulation-saints standing on it. It is the Word of God still, but no longer needed for cleansing because desert experiences are viewed here as forever passed. But the Word abides, stable and sure forevermore-a glassy sea filled with crystal. It is firm and glorious and on it the people of God can stand eternally.
It is well known that instead of four “beasts” surrounding the throne, a better translation would be “four living ones.” They are not beasts. The word is very different than that used in Revelation 13:0. They are not created beings, for they are in the midst of the throne, where only Deity can dwell. They are linked with it round about. They represent the attributes of the living God. The lion is the well-known symbol of divine majesty. The young ox symbolizes the divine strength graciously serving man. The face of a man indicates intelligence and purpose; it tells us that Deity is no mere blind force, nor is He simply the “great first cause” or impersonal law. The eagle suggests swiftness in detecting evil and executing judgment. The living creatures are six-winged and full of eyes suggesting incessant activity and omniscience. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). The creatures cry, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come,” (Revelation 4:8) for all God’s attributes glorify the eternal Son.
The elders bow in worship at this announcement and cast their crowns at the feet of Him that sits on the throne. They adore Him as Creator, saying, “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.” A higher note is struck in chapter five, but the blessed truth is here proclaimed that He who died on the cross is worshiped by all the redeemed in Heaven. There can be no mistake as to the identity of the person on the throne. If John 1:0, Colossians 1:0, and Hebrews 1:0 are all carefully compared with this closing verse, it becomes perfectly clear that it is Christ Jesus, the Son who created all things. Without Him was nothing made. All things are by Him and for Him. So He it is who fills the throne and is the center of the worship here described.
In our day Christ’s glory as the eternal Son is so often denied. His true deity, His virgin birth, His sinless humanity are all alike flouted by apostate teachers as so much traditional lore to be rejected at will. How refreshing to the soul to turn from earth to Heaven and contemplate His glory as displayed there and the unhindered adoration of His own as they prostrate themselves before His throne. If He is not God, then Heaven will be filled with idolaters, for it is written: “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve” (Matthew 4:10).
But we need not for a moment enter such an “if.” He is “God over all, blessed forever,” and He is also man. God the Son in grace was born of the virgin, and it is He who fills the throne above. Nor will He ever abdicate that throne, even though He will soon descend to gather His own to Himself and to reign over all the earth as Son of man, sitting on the throne of His father David. Both thrones are His, for all glory belongs to Him by the Father’s firm decree. Thus all men will eventually honor the Son even as they honor the Father.
I add a further word as to the living creatures. In chapter 4 we see them linked especially with the throne. In chapter 5 they are most particularly linked with the elders. We have suggested that they represent the divine attributes. During the present age and before the Lamb takes the book of judgment these are largely seen in angelic ministry. But “unto the angels hath he not put in subjection the [age] to come” (Hebrews 2:5). In that day God will work through His redeemed ones; hence the living ones join in the new song, voicing the joy of the saints in whom the divine glory will be displayed. The living creatures of Ezekiel’s vision and the cherubim on the mercyseat tell the same story.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Revelation 4". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29