Revelation Commentary Chapter 4
The seven churches in Revelation (representative of all churches) were within the geographical and political boundaries of an empire that saw itself as the ultimate power and authority and imposed its rule at great cost to those within its grasp.
Within this mass of humanity the vast majority remained unknown to a leadership that exercised ‘Pax Romana’ without genuine regard to the well-being of all but the elite. The only way many people knew anything about their emperor was through edicts, statues or temples, sometimes built in the emperor’s name and for his purposes alone. These men-who-would-be-gods were the unapproachable, unseen ones who demanded obedience to their way of life regardless of the consequences. Yet they did not hold ultimate power over the world for the world was never theirs in the first place. It belongs to someone else – someone so holy (Isaiah 6:3, 40:25-6; Rev 4:8) and so far removed from this world (1 Kings 8:27) that there is nothing that can adequately describe His greatness (1 Tim 6:16). However this someone is not unknown for He has graciously revealed Himself through a language we can understand (Ps 68:5-6, John 1:1, 6:35,48, 10:11, 15:5) and amazing acts of grace (Mt 8:13, Lk 19:1-9, 23:43), mercy (Ps 5:7;6:9 Lk 1:50, Heb 4:16) and loving-kindness. He is the Creator of the heavens and earth and His Son Jesus is Immanuel, God with us (Is 7:14, Mt 1:23, John 1:14); the One who has approached us with the offer of life (John 10:10; 20:31, 1 John 5:12).
God is the One who approached a fallen couple in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:8-9) and who brought His people out from under the illegitimate rule of Egypt (Ex 7:16). He is the one who fashioned His wayward people on the anvil of Babylon and whose son submitted Himself to a cross at Calvary so that we could find life - eternal life. By way of transcendence (1 Kings 8:27, 1 Tim 6:15-16) He is the furthest person from us right now yet; by way of immanence, He is the closest person to us (Ps 139:7-14, Rom 8:9-11, 2 Cor 3:18).
“To encounter Christ is to touch reality and experience transcendence. He gives us a sense of self-worth or personal significance, because he assures us of God’s love for us. He sets us free from guilt because he died for us, from the prison of our own self-centredness by the power of his resurrection, and from paralysing fear because he reigns, all the principalities and powers of evil having been put under his feet…He promises us that history is neither meaningless nor endless, for one day he will return to terminate it, to destroy death and to usher in the new universe of righteousness and peace.”
Dr John Stott in, Between Two Worlds, page 154
Every knee will bow.
One day every Roman ruler that has ever lived will bow the knee to Him, as will the Stalin’s, Lenin’s Pol Pots’, Chairman Mao’s and leaders of all religions. They will bow and confess that He is Lord of all with Paul underlining this truth in quoting Isaiah 45:23 in Romans:
“It is written: "'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'"
The door of heaven is open.
“He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” Ephesians 2:17-18
In Revelation we are brought face to face with the true ruler of the heavens and earth as John is shown a vision of an open door and told to come and see what musts happen after this.
Unlike the door to the Senate in Rome, the door to heaven is open to the church for, in Christ, heaven and earth embrace and we can approach the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16).
“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” Ephesians 3:10-11.
In all that John is going to speak of we clearly see that we don’t have a picture of good versus evil or truth verses error as if they were some sort of abstract concept or power. This world is not dualistic in nature for evil has a beginning and an end and this Universe has an owner.
The fact that John is going to be shown what is going to be happening shows God’s desire for us to see the bigger picture, to have hope in hopeless situations and to be reminded of all that He has done, is doing and will do. In His world, untainted by sin, every man, woman and child has great value in God’s eyes and the greatest need we have is to see and know Him.
Through Jesus’ life-empowering work we have received the Spirit of adoption (Rom 8:15-17). What this means is that our past has been completely forgiven and we now have the position of being a child of God for whom there is “no condemnation” (Rom 8:1).
We come to God in and through His work and in the power of the Holy Spirit (Eph 2:18) and can approach with freedom and confidence (Heb 4:16). This confidence is only possible because everything is ours through Jesus. We come as those rooted and established in His work and not our own. He is always the ‘all-giving One’ and, insofar as we are open to Him, we can always be the ‘receiving ones.’
“Your heavenly Father never intended for you to dwell in the earthly realm, constantly looking at and dwelling on your problems. You were birthed for the heavenlies. In fact, you are the only creature of earth that was birthed for the heavenlies. Everything else in the earthly realm must stay in this realm. You don’t belong down here, so shake off those earthly chains.”
T. Tenney in, ‘Experiencing His Presence,’ page 107
The door of heaven is open with the language used being reminiscent of Isaiah 6:1-4 and Ezekiel chapter one, where we find an exiled priest on the banks of a river in an empire that seemed unstoppable. The word of God came to Ezekiel and the hand of the Lord was upon him (Ezek 1:3). An immense cloud appeared with flashing lightning surrounded by brilliant light. In the fire, which looked like glowing metal, Ezekiel saw four living creatures whose appearance was in the form of a man (Ezek 1:1-5). Ezekiel then says:
“I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell face down, and I heard the voice of one speaking.” Ezek 1:27-28
Ezekiel lived in an Empire with a landscape dominated with temples to false gods yet here before him was an image of the One who dwarfs all earthly power with His presence. In Revelation John is approached, and the language of an open door and visions of the throne room underline the truth: The God who is in charge is the same One who approached Adam, Isaiah, Moses and Israel and is the ruler of all. He is the Creator who knows each star by name (Psalm 147:4-5), and the One who said to Job:
“Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone — while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy? “Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place, when I said, 'This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt'? "Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it? The earth takes shape like clay under a seal; its features stand out like those of a garment.” Job 38:4-14
In all that is revealed to John we, along with the churches he writes to, are reminded that it is not the oppressor that has ultimate control of life. We are also reminded that there is a heavenly court which will exercise justice from the one true seat of power. This seat of power is unlike the powers of Egypt, Babylon, Rome or any other empire that will ever raise itself from the dust of the ground for it is the power of the Eternal One.
“The kingdom of God is announced as a rule that overturns and reverses the priorities of the kingdoms of man. It is a kingdom based on self-giving love and true justice between human beings rather than on the quest for power and self-aggrandizement, which characterises the kingdoms of this world.”
R. Resnik in, ‘Divine Reversal’ page 5
We live in a day and age when there is so much that can cause us to withdraw, put up our barriers, and reward ourselves or condemn ourselves the result of both being inactivity and self-imprisonment. Yet we still have this tendency to hold on to our lives with our own strength, to shape it and move ourselves along with the things we think should happen or with how we think God should bless us. We find ourselves filling our minds with dreams and moulding ourselves to feel comfortable. But, as one man said, “Life is not a dress-rehearsal”
I need to learn again and again that the way to keep my life is to give it over to Him on a daily basis and the way to remain stable and hopeful is to meditate on what He has done and fill my mind and heart with stories that speak of Him in all areas of life in breath-taking ways.
“The goal of religion is not primarily to help us to express ourselves, but to bring us closer to god. Empathy rather than expression is the way of piety…The most important fact is that God speaks. And he who knows that God speaks cannot regard his own need for speaking and self-expression as being of supreme concern. The supreme concern is how to understand God’s speech, God’s expression.”
Dr. A.J. Heschel in, ‘Man’s Quest for God’ page 135.
“As the Word of God the Son is both the reveller of the divine mind and also the agent of the divine will. Since the word of God never fails to effect what it decrees (Cf. Is 55:11), it is through him who is the Eternal Word that the will of God is brought to pass not only in creation but also in re-creation (2 Cor 4:6) and in judgement (Acts 17:31)”.
P.E. Hughes in, ‘The Book of the Revelation’ p 204.
In the Hebrew mind-set the word ‘God’ speaks of the One who is the true Judge. A Judge has all power and authority and God’s justice speaks of bringing all that is out of place back into order as evil is removed and life is released in all its fullness (Ps 9:8, 11:7 The true Judge will one day bring everything into shalom-harmony with the ways of the kingdom of heaven.
“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you. Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O Lord.” Psalm 89:14-15
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.” Rom 14:17-18
One amazing story of a man who stood for justice in the midst of difficulty and hardship was Bishop Kirill.
Bishop Kirill was a well-known Bishop in the city of Plovdiv in Bulgaria. In 1941 Bulgaria allied itself to Germany and in 1943 the government of Sophia signed an agreement with the Nazis to deport 20,000 Jews. On 10th March of that year boxcars were loaded with 8,500 Jews including 1,500 from Bishop Kirill’s city. Along with three hundred members of his church Bishop Kirill turned up at the station and pushed through the S.S. officers guarding the area. According to some accounts as he was doing so he shouted a text from the book of Ruth that said, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16). SS. Officers then tried to stop him so he walked to the front of the train and said he would lie on the tracks if the train started to move. He had the backing of Bishop Stephan of Sophia who was the highest ranking Church officer in Bulgaria at that time. News of what he was doing quickly went through to the government and over forty members of Parliament rebelled against the government. Leaders of all political parties protested to the government and the king and the next day the Jews were freed and allowed to return to their homes.
On April 15th King Boris tried to persuade the church to join the anti- Jewish policy and deportation plans and in May Sofia’s Jews received deportation orders The Jewish community sought the help of both Kirill and Stephan who began sheltering them. Stefan also sent messages to the King saying “Do not persecute so that you yourself will not be persecuted. The measure you give will be the measure returned to you. I know, Boris, that God in heaven is keeping a watch over your actions. The sudden death of King Boris in September 1943 stopped the deportation events once and for all.
The Jewish population in Bulgaria at the beginning of World War Two was 48,000 and at the end it was over 50,000 with Bulgaria being the only country under Nazi rule to end the war with more Jews than at the beginning.
Because of God’s salvation-creating activity you and I belong to another world and to a father whose rule and reign of restorative love and justice is breaking through right this very minute.
"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Our life-journey has an eternal destination with God, who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8). Through Jesus’ work we really are the ‘brought home’ and ‘being brought home’ ones (Eph 2:6) and time no longer has to be viewed as that which limits or imprisons us. Instead, it is part of an incredible journey with the very One who seeks to redeem time. Every moment is important and every moment is in His hands; the hands of the One who sees and knows all things.
“Wherever God guides He provides. And where God calls, He appoints and anoints to do the work. Lay hold of those persistent directions in your life, and tap into the power of God’s will for you.”
J. Mason in, ‘An Enemy Called Average’ page 96
A heavenly picture.
John sees the one sitting on the throne as having the appearance of jasper and carnelian. In John’s day jasper was the collective name for opaque stones and can refer to a clear transparent diamond. Carnelian is ruby-red in colour and together they speak of the sheer perfection of the true Judge.
The mention of precious stones reminds us of the High Priests breastplate adorned with twelve precious stones representing the twelve tribes called to be a light to the world. This breastplate of precious stones was also known as the breastplate of judgement (Ex 28:15-21).
God is the One who will judge the heavens and the earth and His Son is the true High Priest (Heb 9:11) representing people before God (1 Tim 2:5; Heb 9:15).
After reading of the appearance of the one on the throne, John then moves on to say that there was a rainbow resembling an emerald encircling the throne (Rev 4:3). The beauty of a green emerald speaking of life that comes from God (Ps 23:2, Is 30:23, Ezek 34:13) and the opposite of drought and famine when the ground dries up and plant life and trees die.
In the appearance of the rainbow we have a reminder of the covenant that God made with creation (Gen 9:12-16). A covenant is the deepest form of binding agreement in the universe and, biblically speaking, is God’s way of reaching out to those who deserve nothing, with the offer of life. The purpose of Covenant is so that God’s Spirit could dwell with man so that man could come into fellowship and a place of safety in the Lord. In this reminder of His covenant with creation (the rainbow) God reveals that He will not give up on our world and will bring it to the conclusion He wants to. Nothing can break His covenant with creation (Jer 33:20). He is the author and the only one who sustains all life (hence an emerald rainbow) whose purpose through judgement is to remove all evil and restore righteousness as the kingdom of God is brought to fully bear on the created order.
The Elders around the throne.
In legal hearings the Roman Emperor would be seated and surrounded by the senate and other high-ranking advisors. In the heavenly court we have the One true Judge of all surrounded by twenty four elders who were seated on thrones, dressed in white and with crowns of gold on their heads (Rev 4:4).
In the Old Testament, elders were often representatives of their communities and here the twenty-four elders remind us of the twenty-four orders of priests spoken of in 1 Chronicles 24-25 and to both the tribes of Israel and apostles called to serve God.
A priest, as already mentioned in our comments on Revelation chapter one, is someone who receives blessing from God and returns that blessing to God in the circle of life. We are all called to receive and we are all called to give and all believers are part of a royal priesthood – his royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).
“Each person is to exercise a God-like combination of “dominion” and “service” that enables all that is entrusted to them to attain its maximum potential. At the corporate level, this commission is realised in the covenantal summons to become “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6).”
Prof S.Balentine, The Torah’s Vision of Worship, p 237
The twenty-four elders were clothed in white, reminding us that all true believers are clothed in the work of Christ (Gal 3:27). We are covered in His grace and mercy and empowered and uplifted by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The thrones of the elders surround God’s throne, underlining yet again that He is to be our focus and is the centre of all history and the reason there is a history at all.
Earlier in Revelation, Jesus promised the faithful that they would be given crowns, yet the position of authority that the crowns represent does not belong to those who wear them. The elders in and of themselves do not possess any inherent authority: it is bestowed, as is the case with all believers (1 Cor 4:7) hence the crowns are cast before God in recognition that all is of Him. He alone has all power and authority.
The power of God.
“God’s Spirit is the power that brings to fulfilment God’s purpose and design in creation (Gen 1:2; Job 26:13; Ps 33:6; Isaiah 40:13), but He is also the power that sustains creation from moment to moment (Ps 104:27-30). This is especially true of human life (Num 16:22; Job 27:3; Ezek 37:1-14). What kind of power is behind the universe? The Bible answers that it is the power of the God who is personal, spiritual, good and almighty. Because of the Spirit’s effecting work, the universe is orderly, life has meaning, and history presses toward its God-intended goal.”
Prof B. Hunt in, ‘Redeemed’, p 38.
God does not just have power and authority; He is all power and authority and is the only One to whom all power and authority belongs. He is the One true God of whom David writes, “The God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples.” (Psalm 77:14).
“History is not our story – it is not the story of the progress of humankind. Rather, history is the narrative of God at work in bringing creation to a divinely intended goal. And the unity of history lies ultimately in the activity of the one God.” Dr S Grenz in Created For Community page 257
As already mentioned, the elders, representing the priesthood of believers, speak of those who rule in the strength and ability of another. Ultimately we only begin to rule insofar as we submit to God.
Authority is never earned but is bestowed on those who seek to serve God and in doing so serve others using the talents and resources that they have been given. For example, in the parable of the Nobleman and his servants (Luke 19) we see that those who served were given authority over many cities.
An expanding picture.
The vison that John is given is like an ever-expanding circle from the centre of the Universe, which is not a place but a person. John also sees the work of the Holy Spirit depicted through the seven blazing lamps and number seven (holiness and perfection) and then sees a sea of glass before the throne.
The seat of glass reminds me of the time when Moses and the elders of Israel ate the covenant meal before the Lord (Ex 24:10). Underneath them was a pavement made of sapphire which was as clear as the sky itself. The background for the image of the sea comes from Ezekiel 1:22 and speaks of the floor of God’s heavenly throne room.
Our God is a covenant keeping God. He is the One who brings peace, security and harmony and the sea of glass is a total contrast to the view that the ancient world had of the sea as a symbol of evil and the troubled lives of the unrighteous (Jude 13). The sea is like crystal (Rev 4:6) and mingled with fire (Rev 15:2) speaking of God’s purity and holiness.
The four creatures.
John then goes on to speak of four creatures which are symbolic representatives of the whole created order. Each of the creatures was covered in eyes and had wings.
“The mightiest of birds is the eagle, the mightiest among the domestic animals the ox, the mightiest among wild animals is the lion, and the mightiest of all these is a human being. God has taken all these and secured them to his throne.”
G.R. Beasley-Murray in, ‘The Book of Revelation’ page 117.
The eyes that are all around each creature may speak of seeing and understanding perfectly what is required of them as beings who know themselves and their calling in the Lord. The wings are reminiscent of other winged beings (Is 6:3; Ezek 10:5) and can speak of supernatural empowerment by God and a readiness to do His will. The creatures perform the function that the whole of creation is meant to fulfil in bringing praise and glory to God
All four beings and the twenty-four elders worship the Lord with the elders throwing down their crowns in recognition that all honour, power and glory belongs to God alone. This continual worship recognises God really is (Rev 4:8) and that He is totally trustworthy and the only One worthy of all praise in a turbulent world of difficulty and hardship.
The whole chapter points out very clearly that it is not the Caesar’s of the world who should be worshipped but God. In the words spoken in worship there is the recognition that God is the master of time, who created all things and the clear recognition that, without Him, nothing could exist.
"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."
Let us worship.
Pagan worship was often about placating the gods, seeking to get them on your side and persuading them to do things for you as you served them. Examples of this are the Baal worshippers on Carmel (1 Kings 18:26ff) who worked themselves into a frenzy and the followers of the goddess Artemis at Ephesus where twenty-five thousand people chanted “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians for over two hours (Acts 19:34).
In complete contrast to this we worship the One who made our sin His personal responsibility and who freely gives of His riches so that we may live as sons and daughters in His kingdom. He is the One we worship in Spirit and truth (John 4:24) and if worship does not focus out thought and transform our lives then it is not worship.
“Christians worship with a conviction that they are in the presence of God. Worship is an act of attention to the living God who rules, speaks and reveals, creates and redeems, orders and blesses….(it is) an actual meeting called to order at God’s initiative in which persons of faith are blessed by his presence and respond to his salvation.”
E. Peterson in, ‘Reversed Thunder’ page 59
In coming to worship God we approach Him from the positon of unconditional surrender and a total reliance on the work of His Son Jesus. All glory, honour and praise is due to Him alone (Psalm 29:2).
“Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise — the fruit of lips that confess his name.”
When we enter His presence we look to the One who gives strength to His people and blesses His people with peace (Psalm 29:11, John 14:27, Eph 2:14-17). This peace is not the absence of trouble but the presence of the One who reconciles us to the Father (Col 1:21-22). As we focus on the Lord and allow Him to draw us closer in heart and mind (Heb 7:19, 10:22) we remember all that He has done for us. The distance between our lives and His was a million times more than the distance between us and the worst person we know, yet still Jesus came and reached into every facet of life.
“… Jesus was not merely present in the world, but far, far more. He was intensely active, he taught extensively, he healed countless people from all sorts of sickness and disease, he delivered from the domination of evil spirits, he drove out moneychangers from the temple, he raised people from the dead, he confronted hypocrisy, and he set his face toward Jerusalem and his active choice to die.” Like him, then. We must not only be present but active, and so dedicated to the world yet so dead to the world to which we are dedicated, that in some small way we too may strike a critical tension with the world that will be the source of the culture-sharing power that only the church can exhibit.
Prof Os Guiness in, ‘Renaissance’ page 87
In coming together in worship we remember all that God has done for us as we focus on who He is: the author of life; the holy One. We also recognise afresh that that His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3) as we seek first His kingdom (1 Cor 4:20). In doing so we remind ourselves that true worship occurs in a historical context as we remember that we part of His plan – a plan that stretches from the before the beginning of the world and on into eternity.
In standing together in worship we stand with all who worship God from every imaginable background from across this world and beyond. We also acknowledge that we are His workmanship (Eph 2:10) as we continue to move away from what is often little more than our small-minded mentality, to embrace life in all its fullness through Jesus.
“To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.”
Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944).