The Heavenly Courts
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This magnificent chapter describes John entering the throne-room in the Spirit and he sees God himself, seated on the throne with a rainbow of emerald encircling.
He describes the enigmatic twenty-four elders, the seven blazing lamps and a sea of glass leading up to the throne.
John then describes the living creatures who worship the Lord God Almighty. They represent the whole of creation. Day and night they never stop crying out: holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.
John finishes by describing the elders falling on their knees in worship and placing their gold crowns before the throne.
This whole chapter perfectly illustrates the animated diversity of the heavenly community, the magnificence of God seated on His throne and the endless praise and worship that He is worthy to receive.
The Door Standing Open
Revelation 4:1 ‘After this I looked and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.’
Having been through the searching challenges and the encouraging promises of chapters two and three, we are now ushered into the very throne-room of God. John has a profound spiritual experience reminiscent of Paul’s description when he was ‘caught up to the third heaven’.
2 Corinthians 12:2 ‘I know a man in Christ who, fourteen years ago, was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know – God knows.’
Revelation 4:1 ‘And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this.’
Jesus is speaking to his faithful servant John. He invites John to catch a glimpse of future world events from a heavenly perspective. God wants us to know what lies ahead.
Revelation 4:2 ‘At once I was in the Spirit.’
The point is worth making that, although we may be earth-bound citizens, nevertheless we may be prophetically taken up into the heavens and catch just a glimpse of the glory of God.
Although this side of glory we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror, there are the cherished moments when heaven draws close. For some this may be an extreme experience and for others, such as myself, this is a quiet yet deeply profound moment, All we can do is prepare our hearts, quieten our souls and wait in eager anticipation.
Revelation 4:2 ‘and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it.’
I come from a contemplative background and so this verse is music to my ears. Clearly it is God himself seated on the throne but yet John paints his portrait with sparse yet deft brush-strokes. God is beyond us in every way. He transcends the confines of our earthly thoughts. Our logic and reason cannot hold him. He confounds our descriptions.
God mercifully comes to us as the heavenly Father and this is a beautiful way of relating to him. He is the perfect Father. We are His children. I believe it was CS Lewis who once said that no-one ever died from imagining that God is an old man with a long white beard. But yet God dwells beyond our concepts and we must be careful not to try to reduce God or attempt to frame Him in our limited thoughts. God transcends our anthropomorphic descriptions.
Revelation 4:3 ‘And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian.‘
A rich variety of comment is available here. Certainly these are both costly stones. The jasper holds different colours and possibly speaks of the all-encompassing nature of God’s grace and the carnelian is red which possibly speaks of the justice of God.
Some commentators point out that carnelian, which is often called sardis, and jasper, were the first and last of the twelve precious stones in the high priest’s breastplate. Each stone was inscribed with the name of one of the tribes of Israel, as described in Exodus 28:17-21. The jasper would have stood for Reuben, the eldest of Jacob’s twelve sons, and the carnelian for Benjamin, the youngest son.
Jasper also features in Revelation 20:11 where we read:
Revelation 21:10 ‘And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. It shone with the glory of God and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, as clear as crystal.’
Walvoord adds that jasper, being described above as being as clear as crystal, may be what we would call today a diamond. 1
John then sees a magnificent rainbow:
Revelation 4:3 ‘A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne.’
The rainbow points towards the covenant that God established in the days of Noah in Genesis 9:13.
Genesis 9:13 ‘I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.’
The idea of a green emerald encircling the throne might well confound the imagination!
Every gardener knows that the colour green holds the whole garden together, with it’s refreshing and reviving nature. Here, the rainbow of covenant peace encircles the throne and holds the universe in its warm embrace.
The Twenty-four Elders
John’s vision of the heavenly courts opens out further.
Revelation 4:4 ‘Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones and seated on them were twenty-four elders.’
Although the Lord God Almighty is seated above all else, nevertheless He is not seated in isolation but rather He dwells in a dynamic and vibrant community.
Psalm 107:32 ‘Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people and praise him in the council of the elders.’
But who are these enigmatic twenty-four elders?
Some commentators suggest that these are angels of a superior order but many disagree with this suggestion. Angels are rarely described as sitting down, let alone sitting on thrones. Moreover, in Revelation 5:8-12 the twenty-four elders and the angels are seen as two distinct groups.
Many commentators would contend that the twenty-four elders represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Church, and therefore they represent the redeemed of all time.
This would agree with Revelation 21:12 that describes the Holy City. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and on the foundations were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
Matthew Henry, as ever, captures it masterfully: ‘He saw four-and-twenty seats round about the throne, not empty, but filled with four-and-twenty elders, presbyters, representing very probably, the whole church of God, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament state, not the ministers of the church but rather the representatives of the people’. 2
We then read:
Revelation 4:4 ‘They were dressed in white and had gold crowns on their heads.’
Matthew Henry continues: ‘Their sitting denotes their honour, rest, and satisfaction; their sitting about the throne signifies their relation to God, their nearness to him, the sight and enjoyment they have of him. They are clothed in white raiment, the righteousness of the saints, both imputed or inherent, they had on their heads crowns of gold signifying the honour and authority given them of God, and the glory they have with him.’3
I have suggested that the twenty-four elders represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Lamb. Therefore they represent the redeemed of all time.
The intriguing question is often asked that if twelve of the elders are the apostles of the early church then John would be seeing himself seated on one of the thrones but he does not mention this!
It has been noted that the Old Testament priesthood was divided into twenty-four orders. Therefore the twenty-four elders could represent the Temple priesthood and I find this an appealing option. I have a sneaking suspicion that the culture of the heavenly courts may be far more Hebraic than we imagine. We will have to wait and see!
Revelation 4:5 ‘From the throne came flashes of lightening, rumblings and peals of thunder.’
This Old Testament description adds to the drama of the moment and speaks of the awesome power and glory of the presence of God.
Exodus 19:16 records: ‘On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled’.
We will see this description of flashes of lightning and thunder throughout Revelation, and especially in the next two verses:
Revelation 8:5 ‘Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth, and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.’
Revelation 16:17 ‘The seventh angel poured out his bowl in the air and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying: “It is done”. Then there came flashes of lightening, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake.’
God’s omnipotent and mighty presence saturates the chapters and pages of this magnificent book.
Before the Throne
Revelation 4:5 ‘Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God.’
We came across this expression in Revelation 1:4 and it is best understood as the complete expression of the Holy Spirit. The term ‘blazing’ denotes the liveliness and dynamic activity of the Holy Spirit. The lamps bring illumination and revelation and they light the path to the throne of God.
Revelation 4:6 ‘Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.’
Legend has it that when the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon she thought that a pavement of clear glass that he had set before his throne was water, and she lifted up her skirt to pass through.
One could compare the tranquility of this sea of glass before the throne with the troubled waters of humanity from which will arise the beast of Revelation 13:1.
There was also the great vessel of brass in the temple filled with water from which the priests would wash to cleanse themselves before ministering before the Lord so the sea of glass may speak of cleansing and sanctification.
I would offer, perhaps more poetically than exegetically, that the sea of glass represents transparency. When we approach and stand before God, all our masks and illusions fall away before He who knows us so intimately.
We will see this verse again in Revelation 15:2 and in Revelation 22:1.
Revelation 22:1 ‘Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing down the middle of the great street of the city.’
And also in Exodus:
Exodus 24:9 ‘Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself.’
The translucent nature of the sea or sky portrays the complete transparency of the nature of God who holds no darkness or shadows and we are called to be the same as we approach His holy throne.
When we approach and stand before God, all our masks and illusions fall away!
The Four Living Creatures
Revelation 4:6 ‘In the centre, around the throne were four living creatures…’
Many scholars would consider these four creatures to be cherubim as described in Ezekiel 10:2&20. There are some differences though. This would certainly put to rest the idea that cherubim are cuddly babies blowing bubbles!
Mounce comments sagely: ‘Here, as elsewhere, we are dealing with visions that were meant to stir the imagination, not yield to the drawing board.’ 4
Many consider these four creatures to represent the very essence of nature. The natural world came under the curse through Adam’s sin but will be redeemed when Christ Jesus returns in power and glory.
Romans 8:22 ‘The whole of creation groans under the expectation of the redemption of this world as in the pains of childbirth.’
The presence of the four living creatures beside the throne shows the great wonder and importance that God holds for His natural creation.
Revelation 4:6 ‘and they were covered with eyes in front and behind.’
This rather bizarre description of their eyes denotes sagacity, vigilance and circumspection.
Revelation 4:7 ‘The first living creature was like a lion, the second like an ox, the third had the face of a man and the fourth was like a flying eagle.’
One could say that these descriptions capture the very best qualities of God’s creation: the courage and nobility of the lion; the diligence and loyalty of the ox and the clear vision and soaring height of the eagle.
Some suggest they are linked with the gospels thus: The lion represents the gospel of Matthew who writes of Jesus the King, the Lion of Judah. The ox represents the gospel of Mark who writes of Jesus the perfect sacrifice. The man represents the gospel of Mark who writes of the humanity of Jesus. The eagle represents the gospel of John who writes of the deity of Jesus.
Make of that what you will…
Chuck Missler and others point out that camped around the tabernacle were the tribe of Judah, with the ensign of a lion; the tribe of Reuben with the ensign of a man; the tribe of Ephraim with the ensign of an ox and the tribe of Dan with the ensign of an eagle.
The vision continues:
Revelation 4:8 ‘Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings.’
I dare say that books have been written just on this one verse but for me it speaks once again of the vibrancy and awareness of these creatures. They are in the centre, around the throne and this tells us how precious they are in the sight of God.
Incidentally, the Greek word used here is ‘zoa’ from which we would get ‘zoology’, that is, the study of life forms and from which we get the word ‘zoo’.
When we step back and gaze at the splendour of God’s creation, in all its richness and diversity we cannot help but be amazed by God’s glory.
Psalm 8:3 ‘When I consider your heavens the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place…’
Romans 1:12 ‘For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.’
The natural world came under the curse through Adam’s sin but will be redeemed when Christ Jesus returns.’
God’s creation is somewhat strange at times…think hippopotamus…think duck-billed platypus…think homo sapiens, but the ‘eyes‘ imply that creation has a collective awareness, at some level, of the fallen state and future redemption of man and the world that he is supposed to be governing.
Roman’s 8:20 ‘For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.’
When Christ Jesus returns in power and glory, the natural world will be redeemed to its former Garden of Eden glory.
Isaiah 35:1 ‘The desert and the parched land will be glad, the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. like the crocus it will burst into bloom, it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.’
Holy, Holy, Holy!
The courts of heaven are simply ringing with praise and worship!
Revelation 4:8 ‘Day and night they never stop saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty who was and is and is to come.’
Such a gracious verse! Such a blessed communion and meditation! There comes a time when the things of this world fall away, when time seems to stand still and the whole of our universe is filled with praise.
Psalm 95:6 ‘Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.’
Revelation 4:9 ‘Whenever the living creatures give glory, honour and thanks to him who sits on the throne and 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.’
How wonderful to see the living creatures and the elders worshiping God together. This should be a reminder to us all that despite our differences and diversities we should all be joined in worship. God unites us all in Christ. The whole of creation worships God.
Dr Paige Patterson comments: ‘When the saints assemble, the worship of every church ought always to be nothing less than a rehearsal for the day when we enter the heavenly worship described here.5
Revelation 4:10 ‘They lay their crowns before the throne and say…’
I love this verse. God may bless us with anointing and crowns of glory but yet we owe it all to him. At the end of the day we are as nothing without him. Rather than pose before men with our self-proclaimed stature we bow before the throne and give God the glory. Our glory is to glorify God.
Revelation 4:11 ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God to receive glory and honour and power for you created all things and by your will they were created and have their being.’
Fallen man prides himself on his independence but the redeemed bow before their creator.
Paul writes that: ‘From one man he made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.’ Acts 17:26
The arrogant spirit claims that the universe is the expression of his own magnificent intellect but the humble man knows that every breath that he breathes comes from his Father, who gives life in abundance and graciously sustains us every moment of every day.
The arrogant mind has divorced himself from God and lies flapping helplessly on the shore. The humble mind has surrendered to the ocean of God’s presence and is embraced by His warmth, His love and His compassion. This is where we dwell, and this is where we belong…
Paul concludes: ‘For in him we live and move and have our being’. Acts 17:28.
Every breath that we take comes from God!
1 John F Walvoord Revelation location 1587
2 &3 Matthew Henry Commentary on Revelation location 734
4 Robert Mounce Revelation location 3049
5 Dr Paige Patterson New American Commentary location 4139
1 Regarding the emerald rainbow encircling the throne in verse 3a: every gardener knows that in a garden we have the sumptuous reds and brilliant blues but it is the colour green, in all its hues and shades that provide the background and holds the garden together. Here we see God holding the very fabric of creation in His sovereign hands.
2 There are at least two very good understandings of the identity of the twenty-four elders. The dogmatic among us will insist that it must be one or the other. However, the study of Revelation will keep us humble and we may never know for sure which answer is the correct one, until we reach the pearly gates! We will have to learn how to hold both answers in the palm of our hand and know that whichever one turns out to be correct will be perfect. We must be less dogmatic and more humble.
3 Revelation 4:1 ‘And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this’. This verse is often quoted as symbolizing the Pre-Tribulation rapture of the church. It is suggested, wrongly, that the calling of John to leave the earth and ascend to the heavens symbolizes Jesus calling out the church before the times of tribulation. With great respect it has to be noted that John does not actually leave the earth. He was certainly transported temporarily to the heavens but he remained very much on the island of Patmos. For this reason, this verse is certainly not proof of a Pre-tribulational rapture.