Read the Passage: Revelation 4
Reminder: The book of Revelation is structured around seven parallel sections, each describing the time between Jesus’ first and second comings. These sections can be delineated into chapters 1–3, 4–7, 8–11, 12–14, 15–16, 17–19, and 20–22.
John’s Vision (4:1)
Beginning in Rev. 4:1 (and ending at Rev. 7:17) John again describes the history of the world from the cross until Jesus’ second coming. Unlike the first cycle of description in Rev. 1–3, here in Rev. 4 John’s description is less earthly and more heavenly. As we work through this chapter, it is important to keep John’s purpose in mind—that is, he is writing to encourage a persecuted church in the midst of their trials. Rev. 4–5 actually present one picture and teaches one main lesson, which is this: God is upon His throne and is sovereign over all things, including our triumphs, trials, and even our tribulations. It is no coincidence that Rev. 4–5, which describes God’s throne and sovereignty, precedes the description of trials and suffering in Rev. 6, for suffering can only be understood in light of God’s sovereignty.
This passage begins with John’s declaration that he saw a door open in heaven, heard a voice calling him, and received an invitation to come. This verse is very similar to John’s description in Rev. 1:10–11. Note that in both cases John hears a voice as of a trumpet, he is in the spirit, and he is told that he will learn what is to come. Observe that the vision John sees in this passage is not just a picture of heaven, but is a symbolic description of the entire universe from a heavenly perspective (cf. Rev. 4:11, 5:13). Note that many of the symbols used in this passage have their origin in the Old Testament. Roughly speaking, this is the picture John describes, in concentric circles: God on a throne at the center (4:2–3), twenty-four thrones with elders (4:4), four living creatures (4:6–8), Jesus (5:6), many angels (5:11), and the rest of the created order (5:13).
God’s Appearance (4:2–5)
John begins to describe the sign he saw upon entering the door he was invited to enter in Rev. 4:1. John describes seeing a throne and One sitting upon it. This idea is central in Rev. 4–5 as the term “throne” occurs 17 times in these chapters. Yet, we are not to understand this as a literal throne, but it is a word-picture and symbol of God’s power, authority, and sovereignty. John describes the throne and God as being like jasper, sardius, and an emerald like rainbow. A similar description was given at Ezek. 1:28. Jasper was a pure clear stone, like a diamond; thus this symbolizes God’s pure holiness. Sardius was a red stone, like a ruby; thus this is a symbol of God’s justice. The rainbow is symbolic of a storm having past; thus God’s children may approach Him. John also sees twenty-four elders, which is symbolic of the twelve patriarchs and twelve apostles—that is, the redeemed from all the ages.
Creatures’ Message (4:6–11)
In John’s continued description he sees a sea of glass around the throne. As with the seven lamps John had mentioned in Rev. 4:5, so the reference here to the sea of glass correlates to Tabernacle and Temple articles. Just as the Temple had seven lights, so John sees seven lamps; just as the Temple had a laver for washing, so John sees a sea of glass. The lights and lamp represent the Holy Spirit, and the laver and sea represent God’s purity. The four creatures John sees may seem grotesque, yet remember that the language is symbolic. Note, too, that John’s description follows that of Ezekiel (cf. Ezek. 1, 10). In Ezek. 10:20 we learn that these creatures are cherubim. In John’s description the lion represents strength, the calf represents service, the human represents rationality, and the eagle represents swiftness. Note that the song of the cherubim is the same as that of the seraphim at Isa. 6:3.
As was noted, the cherubim continually sing the song of the seraphim in praise of God, saying, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:8). Yet, John also notes that the twenty-four elders—that is, the redeemed from all the ages—sing, as well. The song of the church is, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they exist and were created” (Rev. 4:11). This song is significant, as it attributes to God both the creation and the sustenance of all things. This means that God is over all things, both good and evil. This teaching is meant to encourage believers, who are currently in trials, about the truth of God’s sovereignty and providence. Note Paul’s similar teaching at Col. 1:16–17, “For by him all things were created . . . and in him all things hold together.”
- When individuals in the Bible see God in person, in a trance, in a dream, or in a vision, how do they react when seeing Him?
- Many people believe that human suffering proves that God is not all-loving, all-powerful, or both. How would you respond to this critique?
- Why does John constantly speak in symbolism in this book? Why did Jesus speak in parables during his ministry (cf. Matt. 13:10–13; Luke 8:9–10)?
- What things cause you to doubt that God is completely sovereign? Why did God create angels? How do angels relate to mankind (cf. Heb. 1:14)?
- Why do you think there are differences in the song sung by the four creatures (cf. Rev. 4:8) and the song sung by the twenty-four elders (cf. Rev. 4:11)?