JESUS INSTRUCTED THE APOSTLE John to write letters to the seven regional churches in part so they would be prepared at the second coming of Christ. The church at Sardis had a reputation for being alive, but lately it was if they were spiritually dead. Jesus said, “Now wake up! Strengthen what you still have before it dies!” No man knows the day and hour Christ will return. Not even Jesus or the angels know (see Mark 13:32). Matthew Henry addresses the need for being prepared. In his commentary he writes, “Our Lord Jesus, when he ascended on high, left something for all his servants to do. We ought to be always upon our watch in expectation of his return.”(1) We must take great care that, whenever Christ returns, He will not find us “indulging in ease and sloth, mindless of our work and duty.”(2) The degree to which we long for Christ to return says much about our spiritual condition. Wayne Grudem writes, “To be ready for Christ’s return (Matt. 24:44) is to be faithfully obeying him in the present, actively engaged in whatever work he has called us to.”(3)
True Christianity prepares us to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (see Titus 2:12-13), made manifest as an eager or earnest expectation.
The Throne in Heaven
Initially, Jesus instructed John to write letters to the seven churches about the things that are. Now, He reveals to John those things that shall take place. The study of such things is referred to as eschatology, or “the last things.” Chapter four begins with the end of the church age on earth, describing activities in heaven immediately following Christ’s calling up of the church, which is typically called “the Rapture.” John writes, “At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne” (4:2).
“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'” (Rev. 4:1).
John describes Christ as having the appearance of jasper and carnelian—crystal-clear, shining like the many facets of a brilliant diamond. Around the throne was a rainbow of emerald. This description is like the flashing light, blazing fire, and vivid colors in Ezekiel’s vision (see Ezek. 1:4-28). Rather than spending too much time trying to determine the symbolism of this imagery, we should see these archetypal descriptions as representative of God’s transcendent glory.
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. Some biblical scholars have considered the twenty-four to be angelic beings, but they are wearing crowns, and God has never crowned an angel. Moreover, angels do not sit on thrones, nor do they “reign.” Those on the twenty-four thrones are clothed in white, a symbol of God’s righteousness. Christ told the believers at Sardis, “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments” (Rev. 3:5). Accordingly, John MacArthur believes it is best to view the twenty-four as human representatives of the church.(4)
Flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder coming from the throne are symbolic of God’s awesome presence, and of His judgment during the tribulation. We will examine this in greater detail in chapter eight: “The angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” (8:5). John saw seven lamps burning before the throne, representing the seven Spirits of God—the Spirit of the Lord, and the Spirits of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and fear of the LORD (4:5).
John describes the throne room as a “sea of glass” which appears often in visions regarding the throne of God (see Exo. 24:10; Ezek. 1:22; Rev. 15:2). The ESV Study Bible provides a remarkable footnote regarding this: “It is the floor of heaven and the ceiling of the created universe, and its transparent tranquility shows heaven’s peace in contrast to earthly turmoil.”(5) Alan Johnson writes, “The mirrorlike reflecting quality could symbolize the fact that before the sight of God all is revealed, i.e., ‘Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account’ (Heb. 4:13).”(6) Absolutely nothing is hidden from God.
The Four Living Creatures
“And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 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” (Rev. 4:6b-7). The four animals were winged, each with six wings and eyes around and within. They chanted night and day, without ceasing: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come. The Greek word for “living creatures” is zōon which is derived from a word meaning “to engender alive;” a live thing, a beast.” Ezekiel described the four creatures in similar fashion: they had a human likeness, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches, and out of the fire went forth lightning (see Ezek. 1:5, 13). MacArthur suggests the four living creatures are part of “the divine war machine ready to unleash judgment.”(6)
The four sang praises using the threefold repetition holy, holy, holy (in Greek, the trihagion) found also in Isaiah 6:3. This unique vision only happens twice throughout the history of the church—first to the prophet Isaiah, and then to John. God’s utter holiness is hard for us to grasp with the human mind. Any holiness we have is imputed to us through Christ (see 2 Cor. 5:21). The trihagion is meant to showcase God’s infinite holiness. David wrote of God, “Holy and awesome is his name” (Psa. 111:9). It as if this threefold recitation is saying God was, is, and will always be holy.
“And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 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, ‘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'” (4:9-11).
The four living creatures showcase God’s power through creation. God’s word and his work are inseparable. It is for this reason His words “never return void.” The psalmist wrote, “Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Psa. 33:8-9)(emphasis mine). The body of the 33rd psalm honors God as Creator, Sovereign, Judge, King, and Savior. Rejoice as used in the psalm derives from the Hebrew root meaning “shouts of deliverance” and “shout for joy.”
According to MacArthur, the praise of the four living creatures, as they give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, triggers a response from the twenty-four elders, who fall to their knees and lay their crowns on the ground. The elders will again bow before God in Revelation 5:8 and 14; 7:11; 11:16; and 19:4. Their reverence and worship is a threefold tribute to God’s glory, honor, and power. It signifies a “new song” which celebrates God’s redemption through Jesus Christ—the climactic display of their divine worthiness, which we will examine in part six when John sees in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, secured with seven seals. It is to the seals that we turn in part six.
Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theo.
(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 932.
(2) Henry, Ibid.
(3) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1093.
(4) John MacArthur, Because the Time is Near (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007), 111.
(5) Dennis E. Johnson, ESV Study Bible, fn. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2470.
(6) Alan F. Johnson, “Revelation: Commentary,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 13: Hebrews–Revelation (Grand Rapids, IL: Zondervan, 2006), 642.
(7) MacArthur, Ibid., 114.
Unless otherwise specified, all Scripture references are taken from the ESV (English Standard Version).