1 After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” 2 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. 3 And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. 4 Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. 5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, 6 and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.
And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”
9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.” – Revelation 4:1-11 ESV
When reading the book of Revelation, it is easy to become so enamored with all the fantastic imagery that we lose sight of the real message being communicated. The book becomes little more than a giant puzzle to be put together, full of countless riddles to be solved and complicated metaphors to be deciphered. As we will see in this chapter, John is going to struggle describING what he sees. He is being given a glimpse into the distant future and into the heavenly realm, where he sees things never-before-seen by the eyes of men. In many cases he will be attempting to describe the indescribable and will find himself hampered by the inadequacies of human language in his efforts. He will repeatedly use the word “like” in an attempt to describe what he is seeing.
…the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet… – vs 1
the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. – vs 8
As John is transported by the Spirit into heaven, he is given the incredible privilege of seeing God Himself, seated on His throne. He immediately begins the difficult task of trying to put into words the indescribable nature of what he is seeing.
And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. – vs 3
Even the sounds he hears prove difficult to describe. He is surrounded by the supernatural and the sights and sounds he encounters are like nothing he has ever experienced before. He describes hearing a voice speaking to him like a trumpet, but he clearly hearS the words, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this” (Revelation 4:1 ESV). Perhaps John used the description of a trumpet in order to convey the sheer power of the voice that he heard, but the important point is that John was being invited into the heavenly throne room. He is being given a one-OF-a-kind privilege to experience a vision of God in all His indescribable glory. And it leaves John struggling to communicate the remarkable nature of it all. He is mesmerized by the many colors he sees. John mentions seeing two stones, one being like jasper and the other like carnelian. One is white and the other is red. Perhaps these two stone represent God’s holiness and wrath, His righteousness and judgment. That would seem to fit the scene that John is witnessing, because He is viewing God as seated upon His throne, representing His sovereignty over all things. And the rest of the book will reiterate this image of the throne 45 times. God is about to reveal to John “what must take place.” He is going to show John all that is going to happen in the future, regarding the earth and its inhabitants. And God appears seated on His throne, revealing His rule and reign over all the world and all that it contains.
John sees something encircling the throne of God that appears to be like a rainbow, but it is green in color, like an emerald. We are not told the meaning behind this vision, but it could be that the rainbow represents the mercy of God, much as it did when God gave it as a sign to Noah immediately after the flood that destroyed the world. God’s holiness and judgment are always accompanied by His mercy. But it is interesting to note that this rainbow appears before the coming storm of God’s judgment, not after it.
John also sees 24 thrones positioned around the throne of God, on which are seated 24 elders. We are not told who these individuals are. And there has been much speculation over the years as to their identity. Some have determined them to be angels, while others have described them to be men. They are clothed in white, a symbol of purity, and they are wearing golden crowns on their heads. The Greek word John uses for “crown” is stephanos and it usually referred to a kind of wreath that was used to reward those who were victors in battle or in an athletic competition. While it is not clear who these individuals are, it seems obvious that they are intended to be representative of something. It is likely that they are meant to stand for the entire body of Christ, much as the Old Testament priesthood had 24 orders, each represented by a single priest.
John describes hearing the sounds of thunder and seeing flashes of lightning emanating from the throne. Once again, this imagery suggests the power and sovereignty of God. It is reminiscent of the scene on top of Mount Sinai, when God appeared before the people of Israel.
16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. – Exodus 19:16-20 ESV
In front of the throne, John sees seven torches of fire, which he describes as the seven spirits of God. He also sees what appears to be a sea of glass, like crystal in appearance. Once again, there is much debate as to the exact meaning of these images. But we have heard him mention the seven spirits of God before. In chapter one, John addressed his letter as having come from “him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness” (Revelation 1:4-5 ESV). Based on this context, it appears that the seven spirits are a reference to the Spirit of God, with the number seven representing His perfection and completeness.
The sea extends before God’s throne and may represent a kind of barrier that separates the holy, transcendent God from sinful mankind. It is crystal clear, a representation of His holiness and purity. Everything John sees is symbolic, and while we may not know the exact meaning behind each item, it is clear that John is trying to describe the remarkable holiness of God. This entire scene shouts of God’s holiness. In fact, John describes seeing “four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Revelation 4:8 ESV). It would be easy to spend all our time attempting to determine what these beasts represent, and neglect to notice what it is that they do. They are worshiping God, night and day. Yes, they are fantastic in nature. They are “full of eyes in front and behind” (Revelation 4:6 ESV). It is hard not to notice that one looks like a lion, another like an ox, the third like a man, and the final one like an eagle. But before we get too absorbed into trying to decipher who they are or what they represent, let’s take notice of what it is they are doing, night and day. They are worshiping God, by giving Him glory, honor and thanks. And when they do, the “twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever” (Revelation 4:10 ESV). And the 24 elders take off their crowns and cast them at the feet of God, exclaiming, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 4:11 ESV).
Who are these four beasts? We don’t know. Perhaps they symbolize all of God’s creation, with the lion representing the wild beasts, the ox standing in for domesticated animals, the eagle symbolizing all flying creatures, and the man representing humanity. And they are all giving God glory. Why? Because He created all things, and it is by His will that they exist. God is sovereign over all His creation. And the rest of the book of Revelation is going to reveal the extent of that sovereignty as God reveals those things “that are to take place after this” (Revelation 1:19 ESV). Remember, John was invited into the throne room of God in order that He might see “what must take place after this” (Revelation 4:1 ESV). The incredible scene John witnessed in the throne room of heaven was the prequel to the main event. It simply set the stage for what was to come. By transporting John into the presence of God, he was given a stark reminder that all that he was about to see was the work of God. The incredible nature of all that was going to take place in the future was going to be the handiwork of a holy and righteous God who reigns in power from His heavenly throne room. Chapter four is a transitional chapter, moving us from what is, the current church age which will culminate with the rapture of the church, to the future judgment of God coming upon the world. It is essential that the rest of this book be viewed through the lens of God’s holiness and righteousness. As difficult and disturbing as the content of the rest of the book may be, we must never lose sight of God’s holiness and sovereign right to rule over His creation as He sees fit. He is holy, holy, holy.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.