After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. 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.” 2 At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. 3 And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. 4 Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. 5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. 6 Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
“‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come.”
9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
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 were created and have their being.”
We are in week three of our sermon series “Redeeming Revelation,” which has been my attempt to show a different perspective on the book of Revelation from what you may have previously heard. I overheard one of the best words of affirmation on this series last Sunday in the foyer as church was letting out when someone said that she remembers her parents’ generation hashing this book out, arguing about the meaning of Revelation when she was growing up. She saw churches split and families divided. And she said that many in her generation has chosen to not enter into those arguments and have perhaps unintentionally chosen to ignore this book altogether instead. And she thanked me for opening up these scriptures to her once again, but in a new light. I’ll admit, I have spent a lot of time avoiding Revelation myself. But like the person reflecting on her coming-up years, I am glad that we can tackle this book without fear and without factions arising. And as I have said each week, it is okay to disagree with me on this. I joked last week that when we die and go to heaven Jesus will not meet us at the Pearly Gates and ask us, “What is the meaning of the light-green horseman!?” Our salvation is not contingent on your interpretation of Revelation, but that is not to say that it is unimportant. Our last sermon in this series will try to give some practical teaching on why and how this may affect how we live as followers of Jesus. So I hope that the ultra-practical people here can wait a few more weeks to get to that place.
With recent scholarship it is becoming more and more accepted to look at Revelation not as a book entirely of events that will occur with the end of the world, but instead to read it as a letter intended to be circulated among Christian churches in the first century during the intense persecution of Christians by various Caesars about issues pertinent to their time and place. And the main point of Revelation seems to be to encourage the church to continue to worship the King of kings, Lord of lords in the midst of this persecution. I would encourage anyone who has missed an earlier sermon to find the pervious sermons in this series at http://mennochurch.net/sermons/sermons14.htm where both audio and full-text versions are available.
The last two weeks have been a little intense, I know. It would be appropriate to use the metaphor of drinking from a fire hose to describe the way the information has been coming your way. This was probably a little overwhelming to many of you, particularly if this information was brand new to you. But today we are going to slow down a bit and focus on the counter narrative, the solution to the problem of beastly worship that we addressed last week, and that solution is heavenly worship.
Last week we looked at Revelation chapter 13, so it may seem a little bit funny to turn back nine chapters today to address chapter 4. But it is important to remember that Revelation is not a linear book. Yes, there is a beginning and there is an end, but the stuff in the middle does not appear to be in a specific order. Regardless of how you interpret Revelation, it is clear that John touches on one subject, moves on to another, and then comes back to the first. And each time he does, he intensifies the subject. For instance, we find three main cycles repeating in the discussion of the seven seals, seven bowls, and seven trumpets. So if I jump around a bit, don’t be surprised. But it is okay, because it is biblical.
Let’s pick up with Revelation 4:2-3: “At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne.” Even in our 21st century democracy, we know what this image is about. There is a throne and the one sitting on the throne shines like fine jewels. Thrones and jewels are the signs of a king.
Verse 4: “Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.” Throughout Revelation we will find a few numbers that are repeated, or we will find factors or exponents of these numbers repeated. The twenty four elders sitting on twenty four thrones appear to represent a coming together of the Old Testament and the New Testament. A major motif in the Old Testament is the 12 Tribes of Israel, the descendants of Jacob. In the New Testament we find Jesus surrounding himself with 12 Apostles. 12 Tribes of Israel plus 12 Apostles equals 24 elders on 24 thrones. Now we should not assume that just because they have thrones that these individuals are kings in the same way as God is. Instead, they are coheirs to the kingdom. But notice that in verse 10 these 24 elders, wearing 24 crowns, sitting on 24 thrones recognize that anything that they have is only because of God. So they don’t stay on their thrones, wearing their crowns in the midst of God as equals to God. No, they show their reverence for God by getting down from their thrones and lying face down on the ground at God’s feet, placing their crowns on the ground before God.
This is a way of showing who the true king is. They are humbling themselves before God and worshipping him.
Now here is where things start to get a little bit strange, and I think that a good rule of thumb is to remember that the stranger the images get, the more willing we have to be to admit that our interpretations may be wrong. John’s vision reveals that “around the throne are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind” (verse 6b).
Let’s just start right there with only minimal weirdness. The other day my son decided to play his favorite game while I was trying to hurry out the door to get to an appointment. His favorite game: hide and go seek. I didn’t have a lot of time to play around, and instead walked right into the living room and said, “You are under the coffee table. Come on, let’s go!”
He was surprised because usually his hiding places provide refuge for 30-45 minutes at a time when dad isn’t in a hurry. So he asked, “How did you find me?”
My response: “I have eyes in the back of my head.”
We then spent the next five minutes with him running his fingers through the hair on the back of my head, searching for additional eyeballs. So much for getting out of the house on time.
These creatures are covered with eyes in the front and back, and John notes this twice. The eyes represent wisdom and knowledge. There isn’t anything that goes on that they miss.
One creature looks like a lion, another like an ox, the third has the face of a human, and the fourth looks like an eagle. These creatures may represent all of creation. The number of creatures is significant, as four is another of those often-repeated numbers in Revelation. Four seems to represent the “four corners of the earth.” Today we know that the earth is round and has no corners, but the phrase “four corners of the earth” was a way of speaking of something as comprehensive. Someone might say, “I’ve searched the four corners of the earth for my car keys, yet I just can’t seem to find them.” The point that they are making is that they have made a thorough and comprehensive search for their keys.
So the fact that there are four creatures covered with eyes suggests that these creatures represent worshippers the whole-world over.
The lion is the king of the jungle, the most powerful of all wild beasts. The ox is among the greatest and most powerful of all domesticated animals (with a close second place going to kitty cats and lap dogs). The eagle is one of the greatest of all beasts of the air. And the human, well, in spite of all of humanity’s faults and failures, human beings are still God’s greatest creation.
Together, the greatest beasts of the jungle, field, air, and home bow down to praise God. Creation from the four corners of the world comes together to worship their Creator.
The throne room has been described by Jean-Pierre Prevost as “a symphony of Old Testament theophanies.” A theophany is the fancy word we give to an event where God reveals himself to human beings. So again, we must read these images as a 1st century Jewish Christian under extreme persecution would have. To the Roman soldier who intercepted this letter this would have sounded a lot like mythology or outright gobily gook. But these images would have drawn the Christian who was familiar with the Hebrew Bible back to the texts where God revealed himself to his people. There are reminders of the stories of Moses and the burning bush and receiving the Law at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 3; 19-24). We find stories of God sitting on a literal throne (1 Kings 22:19; Isaiah 6:1; Ezekiel 1:26). God appears in white (Daniel 7:9) and is surrounded by beauty (Ezekiel 1:18, 26-28). The presence of the sea draws us to Ezekiel 1:22 and Daniel 7:2-3. Fire, smoke, and lightning are themes from Exodus 3:2-3; 19:16, 18; Isaiah 6:4; Ezekiel 1:4, 13-14; and Daniel 7:9-10. The angelic beings draw us to 1 Kings 22:19; Exodus 3:2; and Daniel 7:10. And those strange beasts covered in eyes are straight out of Ezekiel 1:5-25; 10:15-22; and Daniel 7:3-7 (see Gorman).
The point becomes clear: you can choose to follow the beast, to worship the emperor and his empire, or you can choose to follow, serve, and worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The same God that brought the Israelites out of Egypt and through Babylon is still with the people today.
We do not live in an empire like the Roman Empire of the 1st century, and we do not worship our president as a god. But we humans do have the tendency to put things before God. And the Bible has a name for that: idolatry.
We will have no problem naming the things that we as Americans tend to put before our God. Money, sex, cars, electronics. And on this Memorial Day, it is good to remember that we can put our nation on a pedestal as an idol as well. Anytime we allow ourselves to blindly follow a particular leader, especially when that leader is calling us to do something that is absolutely opposite of what Jesus called us to do, that is idolatry.
But let’s not get that intense today. Instead I want to tell you about my friend Dave. Dave is the Athletic Director at Eastern Mennonite University, which means he is heavily involved in sports culture. He makes a living in the sports culture. If America loses interest in athletics, Dave is out a good job.
Dave has been commissioned and licensed by Virginia Mennonite Conference to go to churches to speak on what he believes is the idolatry of youth sports and how many families allow youth sports to come before their church life. He is pretty critical of things like traveling soccer teams that play on Sunday and keep families from attending church on a regular basis.
I could say something like that, but I would be arguing for more church involvement as one who stands to benefit from you being more involved in church. Dave, however, benefits from the current culture of athletic idolatry and he stands to lose something by speaking out against it. And that is one reason why I respect the heck out of that man.
No, youth soccer is not the same thing as worshipping the beast or Revelation 13. But if we allow our children’s athletics to come before our worship, it is an idol.
The words found in the second part of verse four seem to be extremely significant to me: “Day and night they never stop saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.’”
In modern language we have something that we call “superlatives.” Superlatives are used to denote degrees of something. For instance, imagine I ask three people to stand up front on a Sunday morning. The first person stands about 6’2” tall. We would probably all say that person is tall. But then the next person who stands up is 6’5” tall. The 6’5” person is also tall, but they are not the same height, so we say that the 6’2” person is tall and the 6’5” person is taller. Finally, a 6’8” person stands up between the 6’2” person and the 6’5” person. The guy who measures in at 6’8” tall we would say is the tallest.
We have this pattern in the English language where when we add “er” to the end of an adverb or adjective we understand that thing to be more of whatever the word is that it is describing. And by adding “est” to the end of the word, we are showing that this one has the most of that quality. So people are tall, taller, and tallest or short, shorter, and shortest. Slower, slower, and slowest, or fast, faster, and fastest.
We find a lot of superlatives for God in the Bible, but rarely do we find the normal “er,” “est” construct that we are so used to. Instead, we find phrases like God being called, “The one true God,” “all powerful,” “all knowing,” and “over all things.” Sure, I tell my kids that our God is the biggest god and the bestest god in the world, but ancient Hebrew and Greek did not have this standard superlative construct that we are so used to.
This is why the scene from the throne room has the heavenly beings saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty.” In English we would say that the Lord God is the holiest, and to capture that same idea Hebrew and Greek repeat words, each time showing a greater amount or degree of intensity. Holy is the Lord, holier than all others, holiest of all.
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God’s guidance of the people through exile in Babylon draws us to chapter 17 and 18 where the great nation know as Babylon falls. By the time Revelation was written, the Babylonian Empire was long gone. But it still held a significant place in the story of the Jewish and Christian people.
The super power, Babylon, marched through the Promised Land, taking every town, city, and nation along the way as their own. Jerusalem eventually fell and the Israelites were taken into captivity. While in captivity the Israelites were forced to conform to the patterns of the Babylonians, even forced to worship Babylonian deities, including the king (remember Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego).
It isn’t much of a leap to imagine that when John writes about Babylon, he is using this as a code to refer to the Roman Empire.
In chapter 17 we come across this character that is lovingly called the “whore of Babylon.” Again, the Christian well versed in the Hebrew Bible is going to know this reference. A prostitute is commonly used as a symbol of unfaithfulness in the Hebrew Bible.
I think particularly of the story of Hosea, who God instructed to marry a prostitute and have children with her. Let’s just say that Hosea was a committed person! But Israel was not. The marriage between Hosea and Gomer the prostitute was symbolic of God’s relationship to Israel. God was faithful, is faithful, and would be faithful, even though Israel was cheating on God with other gods.
The whore of Babylon is a reference to those who choose to worship, follow, and serve the false deity of Rome and her emperors. But like the story of Hosea, the same God who promised to love Israel unconditionally still waits for us to return into his faithful arms.