Behold, A Throne Stood in Heaven
In studying Revelation, we’ve finished Jesus’ messages to the seven churches. In doing so, we encountered numerous obstacles that threaten God’s people. Within some churches, Jesus exposes lovelessness, false teaching, idolatry, deadness to the things of God, attitudes of self-sufficiency. Then from outside the church others force Christians into poverty. They slander them in public. They imprison some and murder others. Satan also sets up his throne on earth—his influence deceives people, corrupts cities, turns powers against Christians.
In the face of these obstacles, you can imagine Christians responding in all sorts of ways. Some would be downcast in spirit, asking, “How can I hold on?” Others would be discouraged, asking, “What about all these problems? Why should I think the church is going to make it?” Others, perhaps now exposed by Jesus in their disobedience, ask, “Why should we repent? Is there really something better?” Others have been diligent, and they’re asking, “Lord, how do we know your promises will come true?”
We can imagine Christians asking those questions because we ask those questions. We look at these obstacles and say, “I don’t know, Lord. It’s looking bad. How can I be sure? How’s the church going to make it? Why should I keep going?” Revelation 4-5 answers all those questions with one message—because God sits enthroned and the Lamb has conquered. That’s why you should hold on. That’s how the church will survive. That’s why you should repent. That’s why God’s promises will come true. God sits enthroned and the Lamb has conquered.
That’s how chapters 4-5 relate backwards to the seven churches; and they are awesome. They stand together as one unit. But we’ll cover only chapter 4 this morning. They’re saturated with the Old Testament, especially the visions given to Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel when the Lord reveals his glory. With that in mind, let’s read from 4:1…
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.” 2 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. 3 And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. 4 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. 5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, 6 and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And around the throne, 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 the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. 8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 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.”
The Lord Opening
The structure of this passage falls into four parts: the Lord opening, the Lord sitting, the Lord encircled, the Lord worshiped. Let’s start with the Lord opening.
In verse 1, John sees “a door standing open in heaven.” He also hears a voice like a trumpet; and we know from 1:10, that’s Jesus’ voice. Jesus says, “‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the Spirit…” Some have taken this to symbolize the rapture of the church. But the event is limited to John. It’s temporary. It happens “in the Spirit” versus bodily. Also, the imagery is like past prophets, especially Ezekiel 1:1, when God opens the heavens to his throne.
So, we’re reading John’s visionary experience. The Lord opens a door not only for John to see his majesty, but also for you to see the Lord’s majesty. In all you’re going through, God wants you to see his present reign. When Jesus shows John “what must take place after this,” he means “after this” within his vision. It’s not a statement limited to future events after the so-called “church age” of chapters 2-3. Rather, chapters 4-5 reveal present realities—how things are right now.
The Lord Sitting
When we follow John through this open door, we see the Lord sitting on his throne—that’s the next part. Verse 2, “Behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.” A throne stands for authority. It’s the place from which a king ruled his domain on earth. God’s throne, however, is in heaven. In the Old Testament, that was an important contrast. Earthly kings would rise and fall. Thrones would be occupied and then emptied. But one throne stood forever—and that’s God’s throne in heaven. It is the place of ultimate rule, of ultimate sovereignty.
For God to sit on his throne, though, is for God to exercise his sovereign power, especially in judgment. Think about it from Old Testament prophets. In 1 Kings 22:19, Micaiah sees the Lord sitting on his throne just before the Lord declares disaster for King Ahab. In Isaiah 6:1, the prophet sees the Lord sitting on his throne just before he judges Israel for their stubborn hearts. In Ezekiel 1:4-28, the prophet sees the Lord enthroned just before removing his glory from Israel.
Daniel 7:9-28 is also relevant, because the prophet beholds a future day when the Lord sits in judgment and replaces all rebel kingdoms with his Son’s kingdom. John now sees the Lord seated on his throne. All earthly kingdoms will soon fall.
But John doesn’t stop with the Lord’s sovereignty and the Lord sitting in judgment. John also sees the Lord’s beauty. Verse 3, “He who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.” Notice, we don’t get a detailed description, as if a sketch artist could draw God. That’s because God is spirit. God is invisible.[i] He dwells in unapproachable light. What, then, does John describe?
He describes the glory God manifests; and the glory is stunning. He’s reaching for earthly language to make sense of God’s radiant splendor. Around his throne was a rainbow—but we can’t think regular rainbow because this rainbow isn’t the result of light particles refracting through water droplets. It’s just there; and it shines like an emerald—a beautiful green jewel. He also mentions jasper and carnelian. Both are reddish jewels; and this would match Ezekiel’s description of the Lord’s bright, fiery brilliance.
But something to add is that all three jewels were present in Eden, in the tabernacle, and will be decorating the New Jerusalem.[ii] In other words, the Lord’s dwelling place has consistently reflected the colors likened to these jewels. More than that, when they describe the King of Tyre’s glory in Ezekiel 28:12-13, it’s paired with these words: “You were…perfect in beauty.” When John says God’s presence was like these jewels, he’s describing the perfection of beauty, unmatched splendor.
The Lord Encircled
Sovereignty, judgment, beauty. Next we see the Lord encircled. Some images we’ve spent time on before—so I won’t belabor them as much. For instance, in verse 5, the lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder recall Mount Sinai. It’s a theophany. This storm imagery will repeat itself at the seventh seal, the seventh trumpet, and the seventh bowl—all of which bring God’s judgments to a close at Jesus’ return. We’ve also looked at “the seven torches before God’s throne, which are the seven spirits of God.” John follows Zechariah 4; where the seven flames on the lampstand represent God’s Spirit.
An image we haven’t seen comes in verse 6: “before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.” Ezekiel saw something similar. He called it “the likeness of an expanse, shining like awe-inspiring crystal” (Ezek 1:22). We don’t see it again until 15:2; and there it appears to symbolize God’s victory over evil. So, I will save any further comments about this glassy sea until then.
Moving out further, John also sees twenty-four thrones encircling God’s throne. “Seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.” Some view these as human figures, perhaps even glorified representatives of God’s people. After all, Jesus did just promise the church crowns, white garments, and a throne.[iii] At the same time, within Revelation, you find these twenty-four elders functioning like a class of angelic beings. They hold the golden bowls of incense in 5:8. They interpret the vision for John in 7:13. They differ from the Lamb’s people in 14:3. So it’s hard to decide whether these are human figures or angelic figures; and you can have fun thinking more about that later.
But a couple of Old Testament passages may offer more clues. Daniel 7:9 speaks of thrones (plural) in addition to God’s ultimate throne; and these thrones represent a heavenly court. Another text is Isaiah 24:23. It’s a picture of God’s world-wide kingdom exalted above all others. It says, “Then the moon will be confounded and the sun ashamed, for the Lord of hosts reigns on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before his elders, glory!” Revelation 4 may be drawing from this passage to show us God reigning from the true Zion. He is glorious before his heavenly court of elders.
Some have also noted from 1 Chronicles 24, that there were twenty-four divisions of Levitical priests under King David. Perhaps we have here a heavenly court of priests under the true David; and they serve the Lord in ways that God’s people on earth should serve him. Whether angels or humans, though, their function within the vision recognizes God’s reign and exemplifies what we ought to be about on earth—that is, centering our lives around the throne, serving and worshiping the Lord.
John also sees four living creatures encircling the throne. He says, they are “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. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within…”
Depending on how you combine the details, these are likely the same creatures of Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1. Throughout Revelation, they assist with God’s judgments on creation. They may seem weird. But it was common for kings to decorate their thrones with creatures. Animals usually symbolized qualities that people admired—like the lion for valiance; the ox for strength; the eagle as lofty and protective of its young.
One throne that I find particularly significant is Solomon’s in 1 Kings 10. He made an ivory throne and overlaid it with gold. “At the back of the throne was a calf’s head…and two lions stood beside the armrests, while twelve lions stood there, one on each end of a step on the six steps.” Then listen to this: “The like of it was never made in any kingdom…Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches…”
Solomon had calf and lion statues before his throne and excelled all the kings of the earth. God has living beings before his throne, and they are no joke. With eyes all around, they are ever vigilant. With six wings, they soar in their service. When they speak later in Revelation, their voice sounds like thunder. If these creatures encircling the throne impress you, how much more should the one who made them, sustains them, and receives their worship! On earth, no king excelled Solomon. In heaven, there’s a King whose glory excels all kings, including Solomon, put together.
The Lord Worshiped
It’s no wonder these creatures worship. Look now at the Lord worshiped. Verse 8, “…day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” This title, “who was and is and is to come”—we’ve looked at it before in 1:4. It speaks not only to God’s eternal existence; it also expresses that he is and will be with his people. For that he is worshiped. He is also worshiped because he is Almighty. He has all power.
But also notice the refrain “Holy, holy, holy.” In Hebrew, you emphasize something by repetition. “Very very” translates to “exceedingly great.” “Black, black” means “really dark.” But a rare find is when something gets repeated three times; and one of them is Isaiah 6: “Holy, holy, holy.” God is utterly holy, in a category by himself. I’ve used these words of David Wells before, but God’s holiness is his “majestic otherness.”[iv] That’s what we see in Isaiah 6; and it’s what we see here. God is high and lifted up above all others. His holiness also includes his “moral otherness.”[v] When Isaiah sees the Lord, how does he respond? “Woe is me…” God’s holiness illumines all. God is majestic and moral otherness. He is set apart from the world in transcendent splendor.
Something else to clarify is this: the point isn’t that God created these creatures to run like a broken record. No, the sheer majesty of God compels their endless praise. That’s what happens when finite creatures stand before an infinitely holy God. There is an eternity of discovery, an eternity of something more you learn that’s beautiful, something more you see that’s majestic, something more you feel is great, such that you’re continuously compelled to worship and then worship more and more!
When these “living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever,” verse 10 says, “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.” God is worthy of worship because he is holy. God is worthy of worship also because he is Creator and Sustainer.
Nothing exists apart from God saying so. Nothing unfolds in the world apart from God holding it together according to his perfect will. No one breathes apart from God making them. Hearts do not beat unless God says so. Everything that is, is a result of God’s creative power and sovereign decree. Therefore, he deserves worship.
The Throne and the Christian Life
The throne will remain a key theme throughout Revelation. Everything revolves around the throne. Everything that unfolds in history is heading towards the worship of God on his throne. That means, for starters, our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever—to borrow the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
One glance at our culture, though, reveals another teaching. In an article titled “Self-Worship Is the World’s Fastest Growing Religion,” Thaddeus Williams observes several so-called “commandments” that shape our culture. One is this: “Your mind is the source and standard of truth, so no matter what, trust yourself.” Here’s another: “Your emotions are authoritative, so never question (or let anyone else question) your feelings.” Another: “You are sovereign, so flex your omnipotence and bend the universe around your dreams and desires.” Another: “You are the…standard of goodness—so don’t let anyone oppress you with the antiquated notion of being a sinner who needs grace.” Another: “You are the Creator, so use that limitless creative power to craft your identity and purpose.”
Given these trending ideas, Williams goes on to show how our culture catechizes us to believe that man’s chief end is to glorify and enjoy himself. It’s a problem as old as Adam, and as near to the church as the last time you wanted someone’s praise, or feared man, or in anger took the Judge’s seat. Our sinful flesh wants the world to revolve around self. Revelation 4 confronts that idea. Revelation 4 shows that the world revolves around the worship of God. From when you read your Bible to when you see a sunset; from when you pray to when you play on the grass he made; from when you clock-in at work to when you lie down for rest—everything in life is about worshiping the one seated on his throne. Our chief end is to glorify and enjoy God.
This vision of the throne also builds into our minds a high view of God that we should never surrender. In his book The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer once wrote, “What comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…Were we able to extract from any [person] a complete answer to the question, ‘What comes into your mind when you think about God?’ we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that [person]…”[vi] Tozer continues, “Perverted notions about God soon rot the religion in which they appear. The long career of Israel demonstrates this clearly enough, and the history of the church confirms it. So necessary to the Church is a lofty concept of God that when that concept in any measure declines, the Church with her worship and her moral standards declines along with it. The first step down for any church is taken when it surrenders its high opinion of God.”[vii]
Revelation 4 keeps our thoughts about God high. Where are you? What comes to your mind when you think about God? Are they thoughts like that of Revelation 4? Or, are your thoughts about God small? Have you so dulled your senses with lesser pleasures, that you’ve grown bored with God? Revelation 4 shows us that God is not boring. The problem is with our hearts that are so easily pleased.
How else should we respond to this vision of God’s throne? Let God’s throne compel repentance and deeper faithfulness. I get this from the way chapter 4 follows Jesus’ message to Laodicea. Remember that their earthly riches duped them into thinking, “I need nothing.” They pushed Jesus out. Yet for those who repent, Jesus holds out the reward of God’s throne (Rev 3:21), and then he shows them the throne in chapter 4. The glories of that throne are meant to compel their repentance. It’s meant to awaken their zeal for God. The throne should have the same effect on us.
It’s hard to give in to sin when you’re beholding God’s throne. That’s what will eventually change us: we shall be like him because we will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). Our problem now is that we’re often far too distracted by lesser pleasures. Ten years ago, a sister named Blaire Linne released a poem called “The Perfection of Beauty.” I want to read it to you, because I think it captures how this vision of God’s beauty relates to our pursuit of holiness. She says…
Beauty is sold in exchange for a “dime”
Nothing to attract us to You, yet we worship Your creation as fine
Captivated by its forbidden fruit
Pleasing our senses, so we suppress the truth
And eat the lie
Media’s fig leaf deadening our soul and mind
Sin blinding us to You
The only objective Beauty that’s truly absolute
Hidden in the symmetry of Your goodness, glory and truth
Each attribute working harmoniously
Justice with patience, wrath with graciousness
Omnipotence with humility, long-suffering with faithfulness
Each a note to a sweet melody
The ultimate hymn entitled “God’s Beauty”
Immutable, no change
Because “dimes” get lost daydreaming in dark gutters
Unable to hear the call to wake up
They, the noose, dripping honeysuckle
Lips pasted on with Mac makeup
If they truly beheld Your beauty
You’d make magazines and Mattell go bankrupt
You sent Your Beloved to be lifted up
On a beautiful, seemingly ugly cross
The visible image of Your hiddenness
Only You are beautiful and yet invisible
True beauty is spiritual
Therefore, sanctify our worldly minds
Your complexion is unappealing to lustful eyes
Besides, apart from new birth in Christ
Sinners beholding Your Holy beauty would die
Therefore, beauty residing in the eye of the beholder is a lie
It is found in the Beautiful One—The Most High
Blaire Linne is right. We need our minds sanctified. We need our eyes opened to what’s truly beautiful; and when we see that true beauty, it compels repentance and deeper faithfulness. Meditate on God’s throne. As you meditate, pray for the Holy Spirit to awaken in you what the Puritans called, the expulsive power of a new affection. Pray for the Spirit to help you love God’s glories, such that you want him over sin.
Something else: when others want your allegiance, let God’s throne liberate you from the fear of man. Within John’s vision, the church can soon anticipate evil powers demanding their allegiance. For example, when the church in Smyrna received this letter, Jesus said, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the Devil is about to throw some of you into prison…” Using Rome like a puppet, Satan was about to imprison Christians. Prison is an intimidating place. It’s disorienting. Prison is the place where torture happens. You don’t see your friends.
When the police say, “Stop talking about Jesus or we’ll finish you,” what enables you to say with the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men.” It’s the vision of God’s majesty. It’s the vision of God enthroned. He is greater than all. Times will come, beloved, when others will intimidate you. Politically, socially, economically, evil people will seek to win your allegiance. They will try to force you to bow to their ways, to their flag, to their cause. The way you stay bold is by remembering God’s throne. The One seated on the throne keeps all other authorities in right perspective.
A fifth point to consider: give thanks that in Christ you have access to this throne. I want to connect this passage to something we learned in Hebrews. During the Advent season, we remember how God sent his only Son. The Son—who had every right to be recognized as this glorious—set aside those rights to take the form of a servant. He gave himself, as 1:5 says, “to free us from our sins by his blood.” Because of that work, Hebrews 4:16 says “we can draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Access to the throne isn’t just a future reality for the redeemed. It’s also a present reality. This One enthroned above all things—he works for your good. Every day we can come to this throne; and, in Christ, this holy, majestic God will receive us, hear us, and help us. In Christ, he is your Father.
One more, but my no means have I exhausted the implications: let God’s throne reassure you that all his promises will come true. At members meeting a while back, I mentioned that a number of you were experiencing weariness. You’ve been burdened by hurtful relationships. You are emotionally drained. You’ve been laboring well but seeing little return. Family is hard, and the holidays are about to make it harder. Your body is ill. The church at large is struggling, and some of the public interactions between Christians have left you discouraged. I know only some of your burdens; the Lord knows all of them. Behold your God enthroned.
Nothing and no one can dethrone him. He rules with perfect power. Our sufferings haven’t surprised him or caused him any strain. He reigns with complete sovereignty; and he will see to it that history reaches its goal in Christ. Don’t lose heart. He’s in control. He will see to it that all his promises to you will come true.
[i] As John says elsewhere, “No one has ever seen God…” (John 1:18).
[ii] Ezek 28:13; Exod 28:17-20; Rev 21:11, 18-21.
[iii] Rev 2:10; 3:5, 21.
[iv] David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 104.
[v] Wells, God in the Whirlwind, 112.
[vi] A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1961), 1-2.
[vii] Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy, 4.