John wrote as Jesus dictated letters to the Revelation Seven: the churches from Ephesus down to Laodicea. At some point that dictation stopped and John put down his pen. Jesus had more to say, though, and while John’s writing drew to a close Jesus prepared the next part of the vision.
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.” (Revelation 4:1–ESV)
After John finished the task that Jesus had given him John looked up. Another unique thing was before him: an open door and this one in heaven. He not only saw, but heard. Jesus, the one who may speak with intensity, loudness, and a command gave an invitation. “Come up here,” he said.
While man is about his business God prepares the next step
The door that John was to go through was prepared while John finished his letter writing. God made a way and got ready to show it to John when it would be appropriate for John to go through it.
Have you ever wondered what you would do next? Not because you are at wits end, but because you are finishing up a project. What if most of the years of your life are behind you? What if the remodeling project is winding down and you are seeing the fruits of your labors?
God knows where you are and what you need. Keep on keeping on in the tasks that you know are before you. Leave the next thing to God. He will place an door open before you.
Go where God calls you
Jesus did not just show John a door, nor did he just make a way. Jesus told John to come. I don’t know if John could have refused this invitation. I doubt it was a thing he would have considered refusing. It was the next step. God made a way and I expect it was natural for John to obey.
God puts open doors in our lives and what he has opened no man can shut. Doors do not always remain open. We do best when we accept the call of God. There is a place in scripture where God says, “Now is the day of salvation.” Now is the moment of obedience. It was then for John and those times will come for us as well. What is Jesus saying to you right now? What door has he opened before you.
The way God makes will not necessarily be difficult
I doubt that John had any consternation to go through that door God had opened in heaven. Do not construe all acts of obedience as moments of difficulty. The Christian life is not trouble upon trouble. The walk of godliness is not a walk of terribleness. It is a walk of goodness.
Some moments will be challenging, but we need to make sure that our view is not one of obedience = drudgery. Trust God’s goodness letting life unfold before you. He has promised to care for us. Learn the pleasure of obedience and patience. Call upon the Lord and he will help with these lessons.
God knows the future
Jesus called John up to heaven not to do anything, but to see what the future held. John was a piece of history, but God as maker of it chose also to reveal it.
With this chapter commences the final section of the book of Revelation. John had written was he saw. He had written what he heard: what is. John was invited to the heavens where he would see what is to come. That would represent the largest portion of this book.
Pushing off into the great unknown
The tabernacle had great significance in the Jewish nation. Its structure was long gone by the time of John, but its description had been carefully recorded in the books of Moses. In Hebrews 8:5 we see that the earthly tabernacle was a copy or a shadow of the real residence of God in heaven. John was taken to a place where God really resided. He was not shown the tabernacle in chapter 4, but he was shown God.
Think for a moment of how you would describe the following things:
- Sunset, warmth, wind
- Pickup truck
- A rose (what about a red one? or a white one?)
There is a spectrum here from the wordless (the sunset) to the “wordful” (the truck). In between is the rose which crosses between the different extremes and whose color may even impact how you describe this.
As we enter this scene in heaven we see how John faced those tasks in writing. We face those tasks in the reading.
George Kennan versus Paul Nitze
Let me take you to a time of the cold war and see how two men approached the Russians.
I have been reading the latter parts of George F. Kennan: An American Life, the authorized biography written by John Lewis Gaddis. In this book Gaddis speaks of Paul Nitze. Nitze was the Secretary of the Navy from 1963 to 1967 and United States Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1967-1969. During the Jimmy Carter presidency of the late 1970s there had been a massive buildup of conventional and nuclear armaments. The second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) was underway and Paul Nitze was a tour de force opposing this agreement. Having been a banker Nitze wanted facts, calculus, math, formulas and he put together charts and calculations to present his case against SALT II.
George Kennan simply declared Brezhnev a “man of peace” despite these massive buildups. Kennan meant that Brezhnev was not seeking to expand the U.S.S.R. through its military. Brezhnev, Kennan believed, did not want war, but not wanting did not preclude him from taking a military stance against the U.S. Kennan noted that Nitze, having been a banker, had trouble with imponderables preferring precision, numbers, concrete terms.
Turning back to the Bible John described the scene in heaven with imponderables. Meaning can be parsed from them, but color, brightness, intensity, majesty, power, stones, rainbows are not the numbers of Nitze. They are the imponderables of Kennan. God does not tell give us dates and times, but he gives us impressions and qualities. We must access them, and act upon them.
Moving on to the chapters which would best be considered “after this” John will still be writing what he saw. The great difference though will be an admixture of the describable and the indescribable.
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. (Revelation 4:2-3–ESV)
John’s experience shifted to heaven. He was there with his full faculties, but unconstrained by his earthly body. John does not write this as if it were a dream. This passage is not disjointed like one. John was there as a witness to a wider reality. This larger reality went beyond the human experience of earth and into a worship scene in heaven. John did not take part in this service, but rather was there as an observer of it.
Everything that was going on in the place where John arrived was tightly focused. John’s first observation was this focal point, probably being drawn there by the centrality of it all. There was a throne and there was someone on the throne.
The being on the throne was God Almighty, but the description of him and his surroundings was all about majesty, mystery, power, intuition. It was about quality not quantity defying categorization or quantification.
There are many places in scripture which point out this character of God.
- Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. (Deuteronomy 4:12–ESV)
- No one has ever seen God; (John 1:18–ESV)
- And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, (John 5:37–ESV)
- To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:17–ESV)
When Elijah was in the cave and God passed by remember how it is that God put his hand over the mouth of the cave? Only after God had walked by did Elijah get to look.
When John uses stones like Jasper and Carnelian to describe the appearance of God the Father he is pointing out brightness, brilliance. These are features that defy quantification, but instill in us a sense of the imponderable. They speak without specifics into our understanding.
Rainbows do not announce a coming storm; thunder does. As the storm draws closer winds pick up and then large droplets of rain and maybe even the hail may fall. These things precede the squall; they introduce it. Eventually the storm passes by moving on to be a terror to others, but as it goes and the sun begins to show itself again there comes the rainbow. The storm can sometimes be the background for the rainbow making it all the more visible.
God’s majesty and perfection, his holy separation from us is a storm for our souls. No man can see God nor can any human come into his presence. “Woe is me for I am undone,” said Isaiah1 when he came into the presence of God. Isaiah bemoaned his sinfulness knowing sin cannot be in God’s presence.
Around the throne of God the Father John saw an emerald green colored rainbow. This rainbow encircled God the Father’s throne conveying meaning on a deeper level, an intuitive one. We can ponder it, but it is a thing which is not just about facts. It is about impressions. God is unapproachable in his perfection, but we get to see and experience him. We look through at him through the grace of rainbow. Protection is ours by God’s own doing.
Here I am trying to put into words a thing of the imponderable. Blessed is the man who tries to ponder them.
Humanity faces God Almighty
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. (Revelation 4:4–ESV)
These 24 are representatives of humanity before God. Jesus is there, the Holy Spirit is there, angels are there and so are representatives of humanity. Revelation 5 (especially verses 9 and 10) will tell us more about these 24. For now, though, suffice it to say that they represent humanity, they are regal bearing crowns and sitting on thrones. The white garments tell of their purity, and the arrangement of their seats tells of their focus. The rainbow of grace is still there and outside it they sit, but they have a place at the throne of God and it is good.
The presence of God Almighty
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, (Revelation 4:5–ESV)
I have been remodeling our kitchen and one of the biggest tasks has been refinishing cabinets. These lessons I work out over the week leading up to each class, and Thursday’s weather was cloudy and a bit dark. The weather apps suggested thunderstorms and my smartphone kept telling me when the storms were likely to start or finish. While using the 120 grit paper on my orbital sander the first flash of lightning came. It was subtle enough to raise my awareness, but not much more. It could have been the fluorescent lights in my shed flickering. Then, though, cam the report of the thunder. The weather app is one thing, but a peal of thunder is another.
One thing that acts of nature convey is the smallness of man. I was not fearful, but knew I needed a strong house to protect me from a storm.
John’s report of heaven tells of God’s power putting it into a category we can understand. Like his other analogies it is more about the imponderable, the ominous, the dominating features and less about words, exact descriptions. From God there was power, bigness, larger than life type things. It was not words that came from the throne, but something much bigger, something that went beyond words beyond personal.
The entertainment industry has put out movies with names like Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty which seem to be on a spectrum from the sacrilegious to the cute. Take a moment in your own mind to compare these take offs on God to what the Bible says will happen “after this.” There is no flippancy or idle cuteness before that reality.
The sea around the throne
6 and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. (Revelation 4:6a–ESV)
The interpretations given this sea of glass are not uniform across the commentaries, and perhaps this gives each of us some license in considering the sea. We must not forget that so much of what is intended by the scene John here paints is not exactitude, not the calculus of Paul Nitze, but impression, awe, and qualitative. It is the imponderable of Kennan.
Throwing my sense of the sea into the ring of interpretations I propose it is about boundaries. God is God in heaven and while mankind may be in his presence mankind may not approach the throne of God. There is a separateness that will always intervene between creator and his creatures. This distinction is chiefly intended to devolve upon God the Father. The mystery of the trinity must not be left aside in regard to God the Son clearly for he clearly was willing to become one of us toward his goal of our redemption.
The 4 living creatures
6b 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!” (Revelation 4:6b-8–ESV)
Here indeed is a mystery to which many theologians have given an explanation. Some would call these men and other angels. Some would make them out to be symbolic of the God’s government. As I have tended to be following the commentary of Albert Barnes it is to that vantage point that I will direct myself to for the present. Here is the link on BibleHub to a variety of commentaries, Barnes’ among them, where you can study the advocates of a variety of these opinions.
In Barnes’ commentary he indicates that these creatures are emblems or symbols of God’s governance. He connects them to seemingly parallel creatures reported by Ezekiel. Here is how he puts his description:
“In Ezekiel they are either designed as poetic representations of the majesty of God, or of his providential government, showing what sustains his throne; symbols denoting intelligence, vigilance, the rapidity and directness with which the divine commands are executed, and the energy and firmness with which the government of God is administered. The nature of the case, and the similarity to the representation in Ezekiel, would lead us to suppose that the same idea is to be found substantially in John;” (Barnes’ Notes on the Bible).
Connecting the symbolic of the animals to traits of God as Barnes might have arranged it as below:
- Intelligence: man
- Vigilance: lion
- Rapidity: ox
- Directness: eagle
I am not entirely comfortable with these categorizations, but I mainly want to connect the symbolic to traits of God. It seems that this way of taking it is similar enough to the seven torches which represent the Holy Spirit. The Lord God is holy and eternal as put forth by these four creatures.
The elders worship
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 4:9-11–ESV)
The things that God does speak for themselves. His intelligence, vigilance, directness and strength result in glory and honor and thanks to God. When the representatives of humanity see this they are induced to to give similar worship. Thy offer up the rewards they have been given gack to God himself.