“The Eternal Throne”
April 18, 2010
Is the holy one on the throne at the center of your worship.
I. The Open Door (Revelation 4:1)
II. The Throne (Revelation 4:2-3)
III. Surrounding the Throne (Revelation 4:4-8)
IV. Worship at the Throne (Revelation 4:8-11)
What’s the most awesome thing you’ve ever seen? I’m sure we could give many answers. Some might say it was a starry night in a dark place with the Milky Way spread across the heavens. Some might say a view of the mountains, rising in majesty. Some might draw closer to home and say ‘it was my wedding’ or ‘the birth of my first child.’ I’d be tempted by all of those: moments where the awesomeness of my circumstances invade my soul.
Jim Dutton, in an on-orbit interview with ABC, was asked a similar question. “what surprised you the most? What’s the thing you were not prepared for?
Well for me, Diane, it was just the beauty of the earth. I was actually looking forward to that the most of everything, but it still stunned me how beautiful it is to look back on the earth, to see the curvature, the colors, the sunrise. The very first sunrise we saw in space was on our launch, at about mach 7 as we were going uphill to space all the sudden these brilliant colors appeared on the horizon and Dex called for me to look out his window and see it and then as we rolled the heads up that horizon just spun in front of us with all of those colors. It was amazing. We’ve done a number of passes over all of the different continents and it is just stunning to see it from this vantage point.
God’s creation is tremendously awesome. But what if you were given a high-def glimpse into heaven itself, the presence of the sovereign, omnipotent God? That’s the privilege given to John, author of Revelation. In chapters 4 and 5 he takes us with him into the throne room of God, using human language to describe things beyond description. As we join him, we have to remind ourselves that though the vision of a holy God on his throne of worship is rarely reported in Scripture, it depicts what is real and eternal. And we need to ask ourselves if the Holy One on the throne is at the center of our worship.
Before we get to the text, I want to think about this thing we call worship. Some people might think worship is the music part of a Sunday morning service, and in a very limited way that’s true. But even a basic dictionary definition is a larger than that. Miriam Webster says: reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power; also an act of expressing such reverence. Or, as I told the children, it’s recognizing God’s worth. The Old English is worthship, where ‘ship’ indicates a state of being. So worship is a state of being in which we recognize God’s worth, that God is worthy. Worthy of what? Well certainly praise, certainly music, certainly reverence, awe and wonder.
But Scripture takes this a step further. In Romans 12 Paul says “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship.” Worship is not just giving God some attention on Sunday morning, nor even giving him reverence and awe. True worship is giving him all of yourself as a holy and pleasing offering, in response to his great mercy. All of life is God’s. All of life is worship, to be lived in reverence and awe and in obedience to the Holy One who is at the center of the throne.
So we read this text with the understanding that it reveals the God who is worthy of being at the center of our whole lives. Revelation 4:1-11 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."
2At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. 3And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. 4Surrounding 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. 5From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God.
6Also before 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. 7The 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. 8Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come."
9Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10the 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."
I. The Open Door (Revelation 4:1)
This awesome vision naturally follows the letters to the seven churches Jesus has made great promises to the overcomers in these churches. Now he begins to unfold the fulfillment of those promises. To do so he opens a door into heaven itself. In the same way Ezekiel says “The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” This throne room scene resembles Ezekiel’s vision and several other Old Testament scenes of God’s presence.
Next the voice, which in chapter 1 commanded John to write, bids him to come to or through the door of heaven. John is about to see “what must take place after this,” so he can obey the command to write “what will take place later.”
As we think about making God the center of our worship, and our lives, we need to remember he’s the one who has opened the door to his presence, especially through Jesus. As Paul says in Ephesians, through Jesus we have access to the Father. Hebrews teaches that through Jesus’ blood we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place, to draw near to God with full assurance of faith.
John is caught up into God’s presence by the Holy Spirit. Some dispensationalists will tell you this is the moment when the rapture, the taking up of the church occurs, the one described in 1st Thessalonians. And this kind of pre-tribulational rapture is plausible, but it’s not happening in this verse. Even John Walvoord, the strongest proponent of the dispensational position, says “it is clear from the context that this is not an explicit reference to the rapture of the church,” though he’d say it does occur before any judgment starts.
II. The Throne (Revelation 4:2-3)
Having been caught up, John experiences the throne room of heaven. The word throne is used more than forty times in Revelation. It symbolizes the absolute sovereignty of God, the authority he has and sometimes delegates. The throne of God s often referred to in Scripture. The Psalmist says, ‘God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne.” He is the center of our worship because he is “the great king over all the earth.”
John sees someone sitting on the throne: “And the one sitting there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne.” Notice that John is careful not to try to depict the one seated upon the throne of heaven in any sort of human form. Rather, God is portrayed as the brilliance of light reflected from precious stones.
John’s description is more restrained than Ezekiel’s vision in Ezekiel 1. “Above the expanse was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. 27I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him.
28 Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell facedown.”
Identification of the three stones, jasper, carnelian, and emerald is harder than you’d expect; people didn’t write textbooks about such things in Biblical times. As a result, it’s very difficult to reconcile the properties of the modern minerals with the descriptions of this chapter.
In the same way the symbolic meanings of the stones is disputed. Jasper has been associated with such qualifies as majesty, holiness, or purity. Carnelian has been interpreted in connection with wrath or judgment, and emerald with mercy. But I suspect John didn’t mentally assign specific meanings to the stones; he included them to give a verbal description of something he couldn’t even fully understand with his eyes. They describe in symbolic form the majesty of God, resplendent and clothed in unapproachable light.
III. Surrounding the Throne (Revelation 4:4-8)
Surrounding God’s throne are twenty-four thrones occupied by elders in white, wearing crowns of gold. Throughout the book they are pictured as falling before God in worship, with adoration and praise continually on their lips. The identity of the elders has been disputed. Some liberal commentators think they are a Jewish counterpart to Babylonian star gods. Others interpret them as symbolic of the twenty-four divisions of Jewish priests who now render perfect worship to God in heaven, rather than at the temple on earth.
But I agree with the many writers who see the twenty-four elders as representatives of the redeemed, specifically the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles. In Revelation 21 we find the names of the twelve tribes of Israel inscribed on the gates of the New Jerusalem and the names of the twelve apostles on its foundations. It’s true they sing about those Christ purchased in the third person rather than the first, but that could just be a formal way of speaking.
Verse 5: “From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God.” These lightnings and thunders are symbolic of the awesome power and majesty of God. They remind the reader of Mt. Sinai when God descended in fire and smoke, thunder and lightning. In Revelation thunders and lightning mark an events of unusual import. In 8:5 they follow the breaking of the seventh seal, in 11:19, the blowing of the seventh trumpet, and in 16:18, the pouring out of the seventh bowl of wrath.
Verse 6: “Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.” Some commentators connect this with the Jewish idea of a celestial sea. Psalm 104:3 speaks of God laying the beams of his chambers on the upper or heavenly waters. But John’s intent is probably more general: this sea of glass is part of the awesome splendor of the throne-room scene; its crystal surface stretches around the throne, reflecting the colors of light.
Finally, verses 6-8: “In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7The 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. 8Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings.”
The four creatures are closest to, maybe even under the throne. Like the twenty-four elders, the four living creatures have been variously interpreted. One commentator records 21 different opinions. But it seems obvious they are some kind of angelic beings. We might as well call them cherubim, who lead the heavenly hosts in worship and adoration of God. It’s possible that they also represent the entire animate creation; they appear in the form of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Perhaps they represent what is noblest, strongest, wisest, and swiftest in living creation; the strength of a lion, the usefulness of an ox, the intelligence of a man and the swiftness of an eagle.
Each of these four living creatures has six wings. The wings suggest swiftness to do God’s will. In Psalm 18:10 God is pictured as riding upon a cherub, and the parallel clause adds, “He soared on the wings of the wind.” In Ezekiel 10 the chariot-throne of God is carried by cherubim, who “spread their wings to rise from the ground.” The description of the eyes, “all around, even under his wings” is probably meant to indicate expansive vision and knowledge.
IV. Worship at the Throne (Revelation 4:8-11)
So far we’ve focused on the visual image of the throne room: God described by unfathomable light and color, the elders of his kingdom, the living creatures who praise and serve him. So far it might have been a static picture. But now worship begins. Verse 8: “Day and night they never stop saying: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come."
This is, of course, exactly the same truth seen in Isaiah 6, which we’ve mentioned several times but have not yet read. Let’s do so, Isaiah 6:1-8 “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.
3And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." 4At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
5"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty." 6Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for." 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"
Clearly Isaiah and John describing a similar scene, the throne room of God. Isaiah calls the heavenly beings seraphs, fiery ones, which may an alternate description of cherubim, the living creatures we’ve just described and that appear in several other places in Scripture. Like the living creatures, Isaiah’s seraphs continually have on their lips the phrase ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.’
To acknowledge God as holy is to declare his complete separateness from all created beings, his uniqueness, his worthiness, his absolute purity. He is not just powerful, but good, and not just good, but pure. This is why he’s worshiped with all of our lives. You’ve got to catch the vision of God as both greater and gooder before you will be willing to worship or obey him.
In Isaiah this holiness leads the prophet to recognize his own sinfulness: I’m a man of sinful lips and I dwell among a people of sinful lips, and to look upon the absolute purity and goodness of the Lord is devastating. But God graciously cleanses Isaiah not only for worship in the throne room, but for worship with all of his life: Whom shall I send? Send me. Isaiah models the right response to the holy majesty of God: first we need to find cleansing through faith in Jesus and second we need to make God the center of all of our lives. First we worship in the throne room, then we serve among the nations.
Now there are differences between these two visions. In Isaiah the cherubim go on to speak of the glory of God that fills the whole earth. But in Revelation God is worshiped by the living creatures for his power and eternity. “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty who was and is and is to come.” God the Father is all mighty: nothing lies beyond his control. Furthermore, his holiness and omnipotence stretch from eternity to eternity: he was; he is; he is to come. That truth that reflects God’s personal name, “I am who I am,” and is repeated in the following verses, where God is twice designated the one “who lives forever and ever.”
Verse 9: “Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives forever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives forever and ever.” Though all we heard them say was ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ John tells us that they are giving glory, honor, and thanks to him who sits on the throne. The Holy One at the center of the throne is worthy of our honor and thanks. Do we live with an attitude of falling down, complete sub-mission to the majesty of God? Do we want to magnify his worth, not ours?
Verse 11: They lay their crowns before the throne and say: "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." In casting their crowns before the throne the elders acknowledge that their authority comes from God. The honor they have received is freely returned to the One who alone is truly worthy of being honored. So whatever crown we have received, we must give back for his use – our skills, giftedness, possessions, positions, even our relationships and loved ones, our time, our energy, our very being. The one at the center of the throne is to be the center of our lives.
Notice that the praise of the elders differs from that of the living creatures in that it is addressed directly to God: you are worthy – you are to be worshipped – you are to receive from your creation glory and honor and power. In a very real way worship consists of the creature recognizing the truth about God: God is glorious – be glorified, O Lord. God is majestic – be honored O Lord. God is powerful – reign, O Lord God. This is worship.
And why is he worthy? Because he is the sovereign creator: “you created all things and by your will they were created and exist.” Nothing we see, hear, feel, touch, smell, experience, know, love, would be, at all, without the one who is on the throne. Every molecule of your body, every breath, every thought is a gift from your creator. He’s worthy to be at the center of your life, because he made your life and everything that your life touches from nothing.
Even in our own culture we acknowledge the rights of a creator – to be paid for his work, to not have it copied, to keep, give or even destroy his work at his own whim, to be recognized for it. We make heroes of a Steve Jobs, a Bill Gates, a George Lucas or a Steven Spielberg, even though they are creating using materials and principles created by another. How much more should we make a hero of the God who can create the vastness and beauty of the universe, the complexity and wonder of DNA? Furthermore, He is not only worthy but he has a call on your life because he is your creator. You owe him your very existence, and so your existence should revolve around him.
What have we seen? Jesus begins unfolding thee future by taking the beleaguered churches of chapters 2 and 3 into the throne room of the eternal God. But no picture of God was given. Rather, John described the awesome splendor and majesty that surround him, words intensely evocative of God’s greatness and sovereignty; his holiness and majesty. The only proper response, as one finds in heaven itself, is worship and obedience. He is reminding his readers that God is nonetheless sovereign Lord of the universe, who is to be the center of their lives no matter what happens.
And that is our response as well: not just worship on Sunday morning, though we’re praying that especially our worship of Jesus next week in Chapter 5 will be tremendously meaningful, but worshiping God with all our lives, as living sacrifices that put him first and not ourselves in every decision, in every relationship, in every use of our time and energy. The Holy One on the throne should be the center of your ‘all of life’ worship.