Revelation 4:1-11


Revelation 4-5 are the heart of the book. Many readers miss the importance of this passage. Seeking to learn “what must take place after this” (4:1), they quickly move to the seven seals in chapter 6, where the portents of disaster loom large. When John sees “what must take place after this,” however, the first vision consists not of disaster, but of worship.

We begin this morning a cycle which takes us through chapter 7 because this section begins and ends with worship in the heavenly throne room.

As the previous cycle concluded, Christ stood knocking at the door, waiting for the Christian community to open to him (3:20); but before readers can respond, a new cycle begins as John is shown a door that already stands open (4:1). The contrast is provocative: as Christ asks the community to open their door to him, he opens heaven’s door to them through John’s prose. Moreover, having heard that those who conquered would sit with Christ on the throne, just as Christ conquered and sat down on God’s throne (3:21), readers are now given a glimpse of the fulfillment of Christ’s promise. They are shown a vision of God’s throne (4:2) and a vision of Christ, who conquered through faithful suffering (5:5-6).


1.    The opening of the door of heaven.


       a.    You don’t storm into heaven – you cannot force your way in.


       b.    The door is opened for you – a passive idea.


       c.    The Rapture.


              i.     Many who believe in a pre-tribulation rapture, place the event at this location, but the discussioni of a “rapture of the church” lies outside John’s frame of reference. John does not talk about believers being delivered from great tribulation. He talks about believers overcoming through great tribulation, some of whom will seal their testimony with their deaths.


              ii.    John hears a trumpet in one other place (1:10), hears the invitation, “Come” in two places (17:1; 21:9), and writes “after these things” in six other places (7:9; 9:12; 15:5; 18:1; 19:1; 20:3).


              iii.   The voice which invites him to “Come ... after these things” in 4:1 simply implies that after John heard from Jesus the seven letters to the churches, he heard a voice calling him to a heavenly vision. That is, it applies to the sequence of John’s seeing, not to the sequence of historical events.


2.    Heaven is dominated by a throne.


       a.    A throne connotes a ruler, and this throne is occupied.


       b.    John draws on powerful OT imagery from Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1 in communicating what he saw, and his readers would have been familiar with those passages.


       c.    God is central to this vision. His presence is the radiant point around which the galaxy of other heavenly beings revolves, yet his appearance eludes direct description. John attempts to describe the Undescribable.


       d.    Precious stones are used to describe the transcendence of God.


              i.     His holy otherness.


              ii.    He is holy, we are unholy.


              iii.   He is pure, we are impure.


              iv.   He is eternal, we are finite.


       e.    Many explanations are offered for the sea of glass, but in the Bible the sea is generally an image of destruction and chaos. If that is true of John’s use of it, he is telling his readers that they are in the presence of a merciful God who saves from all the forces of chaos.


3.    The throne of God is surrounded by an emerald rainbow.


       a.    On the face of it, this is just one more trapping of magnificence, but its significance goes deeper than that. The rainbow was the sign of God’s covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:13-17), his promise never again to destroy the inhabitants of the earth. As such, it was the symbol of the mercy of God. If we try to visualize the picture John paints, we see God seated on a throne set against the backdrop not of his power, or his wrath or his judgment, but his mercy.


       b.    In all that follows, with the accounts of the dreadful judgment of God, we must keep this symbol in our minds. God is acting not out of a desire for vengeance or a delight in destruction, but in mercy. This rainbow is second in importance only to the throne. It tells us that there is to be no triumph for God's sovereignty at the expense of his mercy, and it warns us not to interpret the visions of disaster that follow as though God had forgotten his promise to Noah.


4.    God is on the throne ruling, far removed from a pagan empire, far removed from the suffering of his people.


       a.    For John’s readers, Domitian is on the throne, but in Revelation, God is on the throne. Indeed, the first words of the hymn in verse 8 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 Domitian. For the Christian only the One who sits on the heavenly throne is worthy: the claims of all others are blasphemous.


       b.    There is no indication that God is worried, no indication that God is discomforted by what is going on in the world.


       c.    The pastoral purpose of Revelation 4-5 is to assure suffering Christians that God and Jesus are sovereign and that the events that the Christians are facing are part of a sovereign plan that will culminate in their redemption and the vindication of their faith through the punishment of their persecutors.


5.    24 Elders.


       a.    Represents the unity of God’s people – 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles of the Church.


       b.    The continuity of God’s working with Israel and God’s working with the church is important to Revelation.


       c.    God has not closed down Plan A and gone to Plan B.


       d.    The continuity between Abraham and Jesus and the Church is important to maintain theologically.


       e.    The whole people of God that God saves.


       f.     They are praising and glorifying God.


              i.     If the twenty-four elders symbolize the church (and probably even if they do not), the total nature of their worship invites us to similar praise.


              ii.    They offer God not only their words but their own glory, casting their crowns before the throne (4:10, cf. 21:24), because they recognize God as the author and purpose of existence (4:11 ).


       g.    Ancient listeners hearing the living creatures crying out, “Holy! Holy! Holy!” and would think first of Isaiah 6.


              i.     In Isaiah, a holy priest in the holy sanctuary among the holiest of peoples in one of the purer periods in their history cries out in utter dismay, “I am a man of unclean lips, and 1 live among a people of unclean lips” (6:5).


                     (1)  He recognizes his uncleanness not because he compares himself with others but because he stands before the holy God, before whom no mortal creature is adequate (6:3), he is confronted with his uncleanness once his eyes see “the King, the LORD Almighty” (6:5).


                     (2)  Nothing banishes pride of mortal flesh or human competition and agendas better than a taste of God’s infinite greatness.


                     (3)  God is holy, almighty, and eternal (4:8), in contrast to the pretense of the mortal human frame, so easily reduced to dust.


                            (a)  Imperial choirs throughout Asia were hailing the mighty emperor as god in their own hymns.


                            (b)  Before John’s portrait of the most majestic throne room of all, however, the emperor’s claims fade into absurdity, and worshiping Christians find strength to withstand the falsehood of the emperor’s claims.


              ii.    Worthy are you our Lord and our God.


                     (1)  This is the exact phrase Domitian adopted.


                     (2)  John is making fun of him – Domitian thinks he is our Lord and our God, but here is our true Lord and God.


              iii.   He is worthy to receive glory because he has created all things by his will and by his permission.


6.    The heavenly creatures.


       a.    We need not spend too much time puzzling over a question to which John himself may not have known the answer. The elders are here in this vision of heaven solely in order that they may lay their crowns before the throne of the King of kings. They are but pointers to the central majesty. The same may be said of these even more mysterious creatures.


       b.    Their purpose is to praise God day and night forever and ever.


       c.    Because he is worthy.


              i.     You don’t worship God out of duty.


              ii.    You don’t worship God to get something.


              iii.   You worship God because he is God and you are not.


       d.    The content of their praise – he alone is worthy.


7.    The God on the throne is not moved by what is going on on the earth.


       a.    What does this God have to do with me?


       b.    John’s vision encourages Christians in Roman Asia that the worship in the imperial cult is merely a farce, a pale imitation of the true worship in the heavenly court.


       c.    And as late first-century Christians gained courage to declare that the emperor had no clothes, we must declare the same for the idols of our generation.


       d.    Caesar did not create (4:11) and is not eternal (4:8), nor did he redeem us by his blood (5:9); he had no control over ultimate hope.


       e.    Only in the depths of worship, as we stand in awe of God’s majestic glory, do all other competing claims for affection and attention recede into their rightful place.


       f.     God alone is God, and he alone merits first place – beyond every other love, every other anxiety, every other fear that consumes us.


       g.    If God’s grandeur dwarfs the emperor’s majesty, it also challenges in a different way the numbing triteness of modern Western culture.


       h.    God’s greatness summons our attention: Who are we to be overwhelmed by the mortal emperor or our present trials?


       i.     That God is Lord of history and has everything under control helps us view everything else in life the way we should.


       j.     Praise puts persecution, poverty, and plagues into perspective, God is sovereignly bringing about his purposes, and this world’s pains are merely the birth pangs of a new world (Rev. 21-22).