Part 3. Adoration in the court of heaven (4:1—5:14)
3.1. Worship of God as Creator (4:1-11)
3.2. Worship of the Lamb (5:1-14)
† PICTURE: A gigantic door leading to heaven suddenly appears before John. He ascends into the great court of heaven. It is a court of tremendous size, extended as far as the eye can see. In the centre is the great throne of God, surrounded by a sea of crystal. A rainbow encircles the throne. Around the throne are 24 elders on 24 thrones, 7 lamps (7 spirits), and 4 living creatures.
4:1 John is now swept up in the Spirit to the very door of heaven. He beholds a vision of a sovereign God in full command of the course of human history. The next two chapters describe the great throne-room vision. This offers encouragement to the church for their present and future struggle with the Roman Empire and reminds them that they are under God’s sovereignty. This scene refers to a time yet future.
Most commentators note that “After this I looked” introduces a new division of special importance (4:1; 7:1,9; 15:5; 18:1; 19:1).
John uses the singular for heaven (the abode of God, Gr. ouranos) some 50 times in Revelation (only in 12:12 is the word in plural). John’s view of a single heaven is in contrast with the fairly widespread concept in antiquiy of a plurality of heaven.
The vision begins with John seeing a door standing open in the vault of heaven. He hears the same voice (Christ) that commanded John to write at the beginning of the book in 1:10. Christ bids John to come and see the events in the future that will certainly take place.
Pretribulationalists believes that this verse describes the rapture of the church which is represented by John. Such interpretation is forced and overextended and with little evidence. John knows nothing of a rapture.
4:2 John was again in an ecstatic state (see comments for 1:10). It would appear that John had returned to a normal state of consciousness, saw a new vision, and entered a fresh wave of ecstasy.
The first thing John sees in heaven is a throne (appearing more than 40 times in Revelation). It symbolizes the absolute sovereignty of God (Isa 6:1). This scene is said to be the inspiration for Handel’s Messiah, particularly the last song with the same words.
4:3 God, the one who sits on the throne, is not specifically described apart from the splendour that surrounds Him. Paul described God as dwelling “in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (1Ti 6:16). Ezekiel described the throne like sapphire surrounded by a rainbow (Eze 1:26-28).
3 stones: [a] Jasper: modern jasper is opaque but the ancient stone is said to be clear as crystal (21:11) so this was a translucent rock crystal perhaps a diamond. [b] Carnelia (Gr. sardius): it was a blood-red stone named after Sardis, near where it was found. [c] Emerald: it is usually pictured as green but it can be a colourless crystal that refracts a rainbow of prismatic colours. These 3 stones held an honourable place in antiquity and are mentioned by Plato as representative of precious stones. They are also among the 12 precious stones that adorned the breastplate of the high priest (Ex 28:17-20).
Jasper has been associated with such qualities as majesty, holiness, or purity. Carnelian has been interpreted to link with wrath or judgment, and emerald with mercy. The rainbow reminds us of God’s covenant with Noah (Gen 9:16-17). However, it is better to take them as part of the overall portrayal of the majesty of God, resplendent and clothed in unapproachable light. As John uses the only language at his command, it should be remembered that the heavenly reality far surpasses the earthly symbols in magnificence and beauty.
4:4 Around the throne of God are 24 thrones occupied by 24 elders dressed in white and wearing crowns of gold. They are always pictured as falling down before God in worship (5:14; 11:16; 19:4). Different suggestions for their identity include: [a] 24 courses of Aaronic priests (1Ch 24:5) rendering perfect worship; [b] the church in totality—a combination of the 12 patriarchs of Israel and 12 apostles (as in 21:12-14, the names of the 12 tribes of Israel are inscribed on the 12 gates of the New Jerusalem and the names of the 12 apostles on the 12 foundation) but their song of priest (5:9-10) is not about being purchased by the blood of Christ; [c] an exalted angelic order who serve and adore God as the heavenly counterpart to the 24 priestly and 24 Levitical orders (1 Ch 24:4; 25:9-13).
Their white garments speak of holiness, and their golden crowns of loyalty.
4:5 The lightnings, rumblings, and thunders that proceed out of the throne are symbolic of the awesome power and majesty of God. In the OT, God disclosed Himself in the dramatic activity of nature. Thunder and lightning always mark an important event: breaking of the 7th seal (8:5), blowing of the 7th trumpet (11:19), pouring out of the 7th bowl of wrath (16:18).
The 7 lamps burning before the throne are interpreted as the 7 spirits of God. The identity is unknow (see comments on 1:4).
4:6 Before the throne is the sea of clear crystal (unlike the semi-opaque glass of antiquity). Its appearance adds to the awesome splendour of the throne-room. It probably heightens the sense of God’s separateness from His creatures.
The 4 living creatures around the throne serve as worship leaders. They are similar to the cherubim of Eze 1, although there are several differences. In Eze 1, each cherubim has 4 faces, 4 wings, and the rims of the wheels with which they are associated are full of eyes. Here, each living creature has 1 face, 6 wings, and their bodies are full of eyes. They also suggest the seraphim of Isa 6:2-3. Apparently, there are different kinds of angels with distinct appearance.
The identity of the creatures is unknown. They may be another exalted order of angelic beings who, as the immediate guardians of the throne, lead the heavenly hosts in worship and adoration of God. It is also possible that they represent the entire animate creation.
Eyes all around their bodies are difficult to imagine; yet, they perhaps suggest alertness, wisdom and knowledge. Nothing escapes their notice.
4:7 While each of Ezekiel’s cherubim had 4 faces (lion on the right, ox on the left, man in front, and eagle behind, Eze 1:6,10), the 4 creatures here appear in 4 different forms. It is also possible that the description is just for the head, not the whole creature. Therefore, the 4 creaures may have a similar body form with different heads.
Interpretations of the different forms: [a] The 4 forms or faces suggest whatever is noblest (lion), strongest (ox), wisest (man) and swiftest (eagle) in animate nature. [b] They are 4 representatives of animate creation: the strength of a lion, the ability to serve of an ox, the intelligence of a man, and the swiftness of an eagle. [c] Irenaeus (AD 170) thinks that they represent the 4 gospels (John the lion, Luke the calf, Matthew the man, and Mark the eagle). Modern commentators suggest a more meaningful fit: the lion of Matthew in which Jesus was described as a king from David’s line, the ox of Mark in which Jesus was described as a servant, the man of Luke in which Jesus was emphasized as the Son of Man, the eagle of John in which Jesus was emphasized as the God.
4:8 The wings may suggest swiftness to carry out the will of God. The 4 creatures adore continuously day and night, directing to those attributes of God that are central to the Apocalypse—his holiness, eternity, and power.
To acknowledge God as holy is to declare His complete separateness from all created beings. Praise of His power is an affirmation of His omnipotence: He is the Almighty. His holiness and his omnipotence stretch from eternity to eternity (“who was, and is, and is to come”—past, present, future). The assurance of the sovereign God will bring strength and encouragement to those being persecuted.
4:9 The 4 living creatures lead the worship by giving glory, honour, and thanks to God.
4:10 The 24 elders follow by prostrating down before God as an act of reverence and respect (common custom in the East). In casting down their crowns, they acknowledge that their authority is a delegated authority. The description points to the worship taking place at repeated intervals.
4:11 While the praise from the living creatures is based on God’s divine attributes, the praise from the elders is based on God’s work in creation and addresses directly to God.
“You are worthy” was used at the Roman times to greet the entrance of the emperor in triumphant procession, suggesting the moral excellence of the emperor. For the Christians, only the One who sits on the heavenly throne is worthy: the claims of all others are blasphemous.
The elders replace “thanks” with “power”. God is worthy because in accordance with His will all things were created and have their being. The literal translation is: “they were and they were created.” It means that all things existed first in the eternal will of God and through His will came into actual being at His appointed time.
5:1 The worship of God for His role in creation gives way to the worship of the Lamb for His work of redemption. He alone is worthy to open the scroll of destiny.
The scroll is filled with words to overflowing as it contains the extensive and comprehensive account of what God in His sovereign will has determined (His decrees) as the destiny of the world. It is sealed with 7 seals to insure the secrecy of its decrees. The content may be: [a] the future course of history (Ps 139:16); [b] all the judicial acts that unfold from ch.6 onward; [c] the Lamb’s book of life (3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12,15; 21:27).
The scroll is arranged in an unusual way so that its content is put into action as each seal is broken.
5:2 The challenge to open the scroll is sent out to the far reaches of creation. The mighty and gigantic angelic herald appears again in 10:1 where he stands astride the sea and in 18:21 where he casts a boulder into the sea.
The call is for someone who is worthy to perform the supreme service of bringing history to its foreordained consummation.
5:3 The verse stresses the universality of the proclamation.
5:4 John wept at the prospect of an indefinite postponement of God’s final and decisive action.
5:5 The titles ascribed to Jesus are taken from the Jewish names for the Messiah: Lion of Judah (Gen 49:9-10) and David’s root (Isa 11:1)
The One who has triumphed is worthy to break the seals in order to reveal and to put God’s plan for history into effect. By His sacrificial death, the Lamb has taken control of the course of history and guarateed its future. Note that the scroll is never actually read; it is simply enacted.
5:6 The conquerer is not a Lion, but a Lamb! He conquered by an act of total self-sacrifice. This is the central theme of NT revelation—victory through sacrifice. The Lamb’s 7 horns speak of perfect power (see Dt 33:17) and His 7 eyes of unlimited wisdom and penetrating insight. John’s visions were symbolic, not to be visualized in a physical sense. [In Hebrew tradition, Moses is portrayed to have two horns. This stems from a confusion between the Hebrew qaran (to shine) and qeren (horn).]
The 7 eyes are further identified as “the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth”. In 4:5, the 7 spirits of God were 7 lamps before the throne. They have a mission to carry out on earth.
The Greek perfects (“having taken His stand” and “having been slain”) emphasize the lasting benefits of His sacrificial death.
5:7 He came (aorist) and now He has taken (perfect) the scroll dramatize the action of the Lamb.
5:8 Here begins the greatest scene of universal adoration anywhere recorded. It is assumed that He has taken His place upon the throne of God.
Since the function of the living creatures is not priestly, perhaps the harps and the bowls are held only by the elders. The harp (lyre) was the traditional instrument used in the singing of the Psalms (Ps 33:2). Despised on earth, the age-long prayers of the saints are now brought before God in golden bowls. The use of incense was a normal feature in Hebrew ritual (Dt 33:10) and here it is symbolic of the prayers.
5:9 Every new act of mercy by God calls forth a new song of gratitude and praise. The song to the Lamb is a new song because the covenant established through His death is a new covenant. It is both new in point of time, and new and distinctive in quality.
The Lamb is worthy to open the book for 3 reasons: [a] He was slain (a historical fact), [b] He purchased people for God (the interpretation of that fact), and [c] He made them to be a kingdom and priests (the result of the fact). His sacrificial death was the means whereby He purchased people for God.
The song of the elders is not for themselves but for those purchased by the blood of the Lamb. The universal nature of the church is stressed, recognizing no national, political, cultural, or racial boundaries.
5:10 Corporately, believers are a kingdom (erroreously translated “citizen” in Chinese), and individually, they are priests to God. This motif occurs 3 times in Revelation (1:6; 5:10; 20:6) suggesting that it may have been derived from a primitive hymn. As a kingdom, they will reign, and as priests, they serve. The promise is that the church is to share in the eschatological reign of Christ.
5:11 The number here (“thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand”) is not to be taken arithmetically but simply a symbol for a countless multitude. The adoration of the angels may be more of a chanted response than a hymn.
5:12 Power, wealth, wisdom, and strength are NOT benefits that the Lamb is about to receive but qualities He possess and for which He is worthy to be praised. Honour, glory, and praise are related to the response of people and angels. This verse is used in the last chorus of Handel’s Messiah.
The increase from 3 attributes in 4:9-11 to 4 attributes in 5:13 and to 7 attributes in 5:12 and 7:12 reflects the tendency of the Apocalypse toward progressive expansion. That all 7 are governed by one article indicates that they are to be taken together as a unit.
5:13 Praise by the 4 living creatures and 24 elders in vv.9-10 is followed by the praise by the host of angels in vv.11-12. The climax is reached in v.13 where all creation gives praise, honour, glory, and power to God and to the Lamb. It is the adoration of the entire created world. The added phrase “and all that is in them” stresses that no living creature failed to join in the great and final hymn of praise (Php 2:9-11). Just like Ps 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
5:14 The verb “said” is possibly an iterative imperfect, then the 4 living creatures cry “Amen” after each of the 7 attributes in v.12 and the four in v.13, and the elders fall down in worship every time.
† The magnificent scene in heaven reflects how infinitely great and glorious God is and how insignificant and unworthy we are in comparison. Yet God remembers and knows us individually. No wonder the psalmist asks, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Ps 8:4)
† Even more, God sacrificed His son to purchase us (Rev 5:9). We are even given the honour to serve as God’s priests and to rule as God’s kingdom (5:10). All these abundant grace of God deserves our daily remembrance and gratitude.