In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, I was with the exiles at the Chebar River when the heavens opened and I saw visions of God… And inside that were forms of four living creatures… As for the form of their faces: each of the four had a human face, with a lion’s face on the right and a bull’s face on the left, and also an eagle’s face… Above the dome over their heads, there appeared something like lapis lazuli in the form of a throne. Above the throne there was a form that looked like a human being. Above what looked like his waist, I saw something like gleaming amber, something like fire enclosing it all around. Just as a rainbow lights up a cloud on a rainy day, so its brightness shone all around. This was how the form of the LORD’s glory appeared. When I saw it, I fell on my face. I heard the sound of someone speaking (Ezekiel 1:1, 5, 10, 26-28).
The letters to the seven churches end at chapter three of Revelation and the primary apocalyptic vision of John that is the centerpiece of the letter begins here at chapter four. The average reader will easily discover when comparing the first chapter of Ezekiel and the fourth chapter of Revelation that visions of John and Ezekiel share much in common. Many of the descriptions are similar if not the same.
What is also similar is the social location of both visions. Both Ezekiel and John experience the throne room of God while they themselves are in exile. The question people inevitably have to face in exile is the question of control. Who is in control? Is God in charge or will the power that placed us in exile get the final word in our life and in history?
The apocalyptic visions of the prophet Ezekiel and the Apostle John are meant to encourage hope, unmask the present powers, and affirm God’s sovereign authority.
Most biblical scholars argue that John’s throne room vision is to be read theologically and not metaphysically. So the text should be read searching first for its meaning and significance.
1 After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! 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.’
The letter to the church in Laodiea ended with an invitation from Christ to hear his voice and to open the door. The voice invited John to enter through that door and he obeyed.
It is not uncommon for people to think of heaven as somewhere way above the earth. Popular understanidngs of heaven often include clouds and other references to things far above humankind. But more often than not the Scriptural description of heaven is not “way up there” but rather all around but not fully perceived. Heaven is the place where God reigns and that reign surrounds human history at all times, even though people may not want to recognize it.
It helps me to borrow the imagination of C.S. Lewis’ well-known vision of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Narnia – the realm of Aslan’s reign – is not far above but simply on the other side of the wardrobe. In the case of the Revelator, the vision of heaven is not far above but right beyond the open door.
Because heaven is the place where God reigns, it is also the control-room of history. This does not mean that God is determining the course of history from heaven and manipulating people by pulling all of the strings like somekind of puppet master. Rather heaven is the place where ultimate divine authority is at work. God is not treatened by the course of hisotry “on the other side of heaven’s door” because he is drawing all things, through sovereign love, unto himself.
2 At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! 3 And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald.
At the center of heaven is a throne. Like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, John is fascinated with the ultimate throne of power in heaven and with the One seated on that throne. Three out of four occurances of the word throne in the New Testament (47 out of 62) are found in Revelation.
John does not describe the One who is seated on the throne in direct human terms. The One in authority is truly transcendent. He exceeds any human quality or explanation. John’s throne room vision frequently uses the words “seems” or “looks like” to acknowledge that the One seated in heaven surpasses all exact descriptions. Many of the metaphors about God are of light reflected off fine jewels and stones. What John sees is not his exact appearance but his glory radiating in an array of beautiful colors.
The rainbow around the throne is also found in Ezekiel, in both places it may be a reference to the covenant God made with Noah to which God is still remaining faithful.
4 Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads.
There are a multitude of interpretations regarding the twenty-four elders seated on thrones. One popular understanding is that they represent all of the hours in the day. If that is the case, then the signficance would be God’s non-stop authority over every hour of the day.
But the most popular interpretation, and the one that is found in Victorinus – the earliest known commentary on Revelation – is that the twenty-four elders represent the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. In this way the elders are the embodiment of the entire church – old and new. This identification would seem to be confirmed in chapter twenty-four where John describes the gates of the new Jerusalem as inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes, and the foundation walls bear the names of the twelve apostles (21:12, 14).
The twenty-four elders are dressed in the white robes of the baptized saints and they too have crowns on their heads and sit on thrones of authority. It is always theologically significant that the power of the Creator is a form of shared sovereignty. God has invited the church to participate in his redemption and to share in his domionion over creation. The people of the church are not by-standers in God’s work but participants in his reign.
5 Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; 6 and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Around the throne, and 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 a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.’
The thunder and lightning around the throne are reminicent of God self-revelation to Moses at Sinai. They are reminders of God’s authority.
But God is not distant and inactive on the created side of the divide. His complete power – seven torches – and his complete presence – seven spirits – are filling not only all of heaven but all of creation. It is amazing the way John works to describe simultaneously the reality of God’s transendence with the mystery of his immanent presence.
The sea of glass may be taken directly from Ezekiel chapter one where the throne is found directly above the dome described there. But I can’t think of water without thinking about chaos (and the Hebrew words found in Genesis chapter one – Tohu Bohu). The sea which was such a forboding place of fear on earth, is now a sea of crystal and is as calm as glass before the authority and power of God.
The four living creatures are similar to those described by Ezekiel. There are again many theories or interpretations abou them. Some commentators have argued that they represent the four Gospels. But given John’s historical location, that seems somewhat improbable. The most popular and most plausible interpretation is that the four creatures represent the major categories of living things in God’s creation: wild animals, domestic animals, humankind, and flying animals. All that God has created participates in worship back to their Creator. (Think the Doxology: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God Almighty. All thy works shall praise Thy name in earth and sky and sea…”)
9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, 11 ‘You are worthy, 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.’
While John was in exile fearful of the future, he received a glimpse of the heavenly control room. What was taking place – and what is still taking place – is worship. The entire creation finds its purpose when it is centered on the one who sits on the throne.
Several biblical scholars draw attention to the fact that the first words of the hymn in verse eleven are taken from the political language of the day: “You are worthy” greeted the entrance of the emperor in triumphal procession, and “our Lord and God” was introduced into the cult of emperor worship by Emperor Domitian.
For the Christian only the One who sits on the heavenly throne is worthy to receive glory and honor and power. All other claims to ultimate authority are blasphemous. From the perspective of the powers, then, the worship of the true God cannot help but be a profoundly subversive act. The people called “church” are those that refuse to allow the principalities and powers to have the final word in history. Rather, they are those who are already caught up in the worship of the One who was, and is, and is to come.
This vision gives those who are struggling hope. It gives those who are tempted to compromise their exclusive covenant relationship with God encouragement to remain faithful. And to those who live under the illusion that they wield supreme authority, it serves as a warning that, “He who sits in the heavens laughs” (Ps. 2:4).