Real Worship! A Study of Revelation 4-5 (Part I)
George Frideric Handel is generally regarded as one of the greatest composers who ever lived. Although born in Germany, he spent most of his adult life in England and eventually was made a citizen of the British empire. His father was a physician and had hoped that George would follow in his steps. But his interest in music was simply too overwhelming. He proceeded to write over 20 oratorios, more than 40 full operas, as well as numerous concertos, cantatas, anthems, and sonatas.
Handel's life, however, was anything but tranquil. He was notoriously hot-tempered, frequently engaging in fights with other musicians. He hit an especially low point in 1741 at the age of 57. He was hopelessly in debt and was suffering from severe depression. One day a young poet named Charles Jennens appeared unannounced at his door. He delivered to Handel a collection of biblical passages under the title of A Sacred Oratorio. Half-heartedly, Handel began to read the manuscript. As he did, the prophetic utterance of Isaiah concerning the coming of Messiah began to lift him from his depression and reverberated in his soul: "Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace!"
As if by divine compulsion, Handel began to compose. He remained in total seclusion for the next twenty-five days, often going without food lest he be interrupted from his work. At times he would leap into the air, waving his hands, and shout "Hallelujah!" When it was done, he said: "I think I did see all heaven before me, and the Great God Himself." What he wrote we know as the Messiah. As one author put it, "Considering the immensity of the work [it filled 260 pages of manuscript], and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of musical composition" (Sir Newman Flower).
It was first performed on April 13th, 1742. The following year it was performed in London for the first time. As the choir began to sing the majestic and now world-famous "Hallelujah Chorus," King George II was so stirred that he rose to his feet. The audience spontaneously followed suit and remained standing until the chorus had ended. This response has been customary ever since.
This chorus is, by universal consensus, the single most inspiring and spiritually charged chorus of praise and worship ever written. One cannot help but wonder, what moved Handel to write it? What inspired him? What had he seen or heard or felt that led him to compose this hymn of praise? The Messiah as a whole and the "Hallelujah Chorus" in particular were inspired by Handel's meditation on the exalted and majestic portrait of God in Revelation 4-5.
This passage of Scripture is a vision of the majesty of a sovereign God in complete control of his creation. From an earthly perspective, it might seem that the enemies of the kingdom of God are winning. Christians are being persecuted, imprisoned, and martyred. Tragedy and trial and turmoil are rampant and the Great Dragon (Satan), the Beast, and the False Prophet appear to have the upper hand. But John's vision reveals that appearances can be deceiving! The course of history is not determined by political intrigue or military might, but by God. What John discovered, what Handel also must have learned, is that there are two worlds, two dimensions of reality. One is earthly and visible, the other is heavenly and invisible. And remarkably, it is the latter which controls and determines the former. It is as if the Holy Spirit says to John (and to us):
"Listen to me. Things are not as they appear. I am about to show you things as they really are. I am about to take you into the throne room, the control room, as it were, of God himself. Things are not running amok. The devil has not won. Evil has not triumphed. Neither fate nor cruel chance governs the universe. He who was and is and is to come has everything well in hand."
[A few have argued that what we read in chapters 4-5 is John’s creative portrait based on the liturgy of worship in the early church. More than likely, the opposite is true. John intends for us to understand the scene in chapters 4-5 as a heavenly pattern according to which worship in the church is to be patterned.]
[One should also note the remarkable parallels between Rev. 4-5 and the portrait of God’s throne in Daniel 7:9ff. Beale observes no fewer than 14 elements from Dan. 7:9ff. that appear in virtually the same order in Rev. 4-5. There also appear to be a number of allusions to the visions of Ezekiel 1-2.]
A. Our Creator - 4:1-11
1. Introduction - v. 1
The voice is that of Jesus Christ (cf. 1:10-11). As John looks, he sees a vision of the Triune God, enthroned, encircled, and extolled.
“After these things,” with which 4:1 opens, does not mean that the events of chps. 4-5 occur after the events of chps. 1-3, as if this were a description of their chronological sequence. Rather, these words only indicate that the vision of chps. 4-5 comes to John after the vision of chps. 1-3. In other words, “this is the order in which John saw the visions but not necessarily the historical order of their occurrence as events” (Beale, 316-17). See also 7:1,9; 15:5; 18:1; 19:1.
2. God Enthroned - vv. 2-3
The emphasis throughout these two chapters is God’s throne. The word appears 17x in Rev. 4-5 and 38x in the entire book. The point of Rev. 4-5 is to highlight the fact that although God is gloriously transcendent, his sovereign rule extends to everything that transpires on the earth.
It is important to note that John places the throne of God at the center of his heavenly vision. Everything in heaven finds its place somewhere in a circular relationship to (“around”) the throne. John thus describes the throne of God as the focus of a series of concentric circles made up of first a rainbow, then a circle of the four living creatures, then a circle of the twenty-four thrones upon which the twenty-four elders sit. According to 5:11 (and again in 7:11), a great host of angels also encircled the throne. The word translated “around” (kuklothen and its derivatives) occurs in Revelation (4:3,4,6,8; 5:11; 7:11).
Jasper is an opaque stone that tends to be red but is also found in yellow, green, and grayish blue. Since jasper is used figuratively for the appearance of God, and suggests the qualities of majesty and holiness, it is used later in Revelation as an image for the overall appearance of the New Jerusalem, which manifests the glory of God (21:11), and is the material from which its walls are constructed (21:18), as well as the first of its twelve foundations (21:19). The sardius suggests wrath, the emerald points to his mercy, and the rainbow reminds us of the faithfulness of God when he first set this sign in the heavens as a pledge to Noah following the great flood. Also found in Ezek. 1:28, the rainbow reminds us that God’s wrath and judgment that are described in the subsequent visions are tempered by his mercy and his promise to Noah never again to totally destroy the earth. In Ezek. 1:28 the rainbow is explicitly said to portray the radiant appearance of God’s glory
Note John's repeated use of the word "like" (a figure of speech called simile). He is not saying that God is a jasper, sardius, etc., but that his appearance was like such precious stones. This is not photographic reproduction but symbolic imagery. He wants to stir our imaginations and inflame our hearts, not fill our heads with facts.
The atmosphere of John's experience and ours as well is one of mystery and wonder. Worship without wonder is lifeless and boring. Many have lost their sense of awe and amazement when it comes to God. They think they already have a grip on all there is to know about God, or at least all that one needs to know. They've reduced God to manageable terms, placed him in a cute little theological box whose dimensions are of their own making, and then pride themselves on being able to describe and define him. They've lost their sense of wonder at the majesty of God. Warren Wiersbe explains:
"We must recognize the fact that true wonder is not a passing emotion or some kind of shallow excitement. It has depth to it. True wonder reaches right into your heart and mind and shakes you up. It not only has depth, it has value; it enriches your life. Wonder is not cheap amusement that brings a smile to your face. It is an encounter with reality – with God – that brings awe to your heart. You are overwhelmed with an emotion that is a mixture of gratitude, adoration, reverence, fear, -- and love. You are not looking for explanations; you are lost in the wonder of God" (44-45).
Our wonder in God's presence, however, is not borne of ignorance but of knowledge. It is because we know something about the majesty of God that we are lost in wonder, love and praise. You can't stand in awe of someone of whom you are ignorant. With each additional degree of understanding of who God is our wonder increases.
In v. 3 we see God in a resplendent blaze of unapproachable light, the jewels refracting the glory and majesty of his luminous beauty. Here is where all worship begins: in the throne room of heaven where God reigns supreme! When we see God as he is, sovereign over all, we will praise him as we should. This is not a pathetic deity wringing his hands over a world catapulting into oblivion. He does not pace the floor of heaven with furrowed brow, uncertain if all will come out well in the end. God reigns!
3. God Encircled - vv. 4-8
a. the twenty-four elders - v. 4
The twenty-four elders play an important role in the heavenly worship of God and are described in the following ways: (1) They wear white garments and golden crowns (4:4). (2) They prostrate themselves before God in worship (4:10; 5:14; 11:16; 19:4) and cast before him their golden crowns (4:10). (3) They sing hymns of praise to God (4:11; 5:9–10; 11:17–18). (4) They have harps and bowls full of incense that are said to represent the prayers of Christians (5:8). (5) Individual elders make comments to John (5:5; 7:13), and on one occasion an elder functions as an interpreter for John, describing the significance of the innumerable multitude. (6) While the twenty-four elders play a central role in Rev. 4–5 (where they are mentioned seven times), they are peripheral in the throne scenes in the rest of the book (7:11, 13; 11:16; 14:3; 19:4).
There are several views as to their identity. I will only mention four.
(1) Some see in them an exalted angelic order, like the cherubim and seraphim. The elders mediate the prayers of the saints to God (5:8), a typical angelic activity. They also are portrayed here as interpreting for John the meaning of the heavenly visions (5:5; 7:13), another standard angelic function in Revelation. They also are described in 4:9-10; 5:8,14; 7:11; and 19:4 as joining with the four living creatures and the rest of the angelic host in typical angelic activity.
(2) Others point out that in several of those texts just cited the 24 Elders are distinguished as a separate group from angels. They also appeal to the fact that nowhere else in the Bible (outside Revelation) are angels called “elders”. Furthermore, “in Revelation angels never wear crowns or white clothing or sit on thrones, but such descriptions are predicated only of saints who are in heaven (7:13-15; 19:7-8,14) or of the saints’ reward after death, as a result of their perseverance (cf. 2:10; 3:4-5; 3:21; 20:4)” (Beale, 324). Thus they believe they are exalted OT saints. In support of this view appeal is made to the fact that David organized the temple servants into twenty-four orders of priests (1 Chron. 24:3-19), twenty-four Levitical gatekeepers (26:17-19), and twenty-four orders of Levites commissioned to prophesy, give thanks, praise God, and sing to the accompaniment of harps and lyres and cymbals (25:6-31). We should also note that faithful ancient Israelites are called presbuteroi or “men of old” (lit. “elders”) in Heb 11:2.
(3) Another possibility is that they are exalted NT saints, in particular, individual Christians who have sealed their faith through martyrdom are now glorified and participating in an exalted heavenly life. The transformation of the righteous into angelic form is mentioned in Luke 20:36. Thrones are sometimes used as a metaphor for the heavenly reward of the righteous. But if they are only NT saints, why the number 24? Could this be a symbol for their continuous, twenty-four-hour worship, day and night?
(4) It is difficult not to see in the number 24 a reference to the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the NT church (they are associated again in 21:12-14). If so, the Elders may be representatives of the entire community of the redeemed from both testaments. But are they human or angelic representatives? Probably the latter insofar as they bring the prayers of the saints before God (5:8) and sing of the redeemed in the third person (5:9-10). Also, the fact that these 24 elders are distinguished from the redeemed multitude in 7:9-17 indicates they are angelic representatives of all the people of God.
What is important, however, isn't who they are but what they do.
b. the seven spirits of God - v. 5
The lightning and thunder are symbolic of God's awesome power and infinite might and remind us of the revelation of God at Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19:16–18; 20:18–20), which became part of OT theophanic imagery generally (see Isa 29:6). Some believe the seven spirits are a heavenly entourage of sorts that has a special ministry in the throne room. More likely, in view of the number "7" which symbolizes divine perfection and completeness, this is the one Holy Spirit represented under the symbolism of a seven-fold or complete manifestation of his being. The seven lamps of fire are an allusion to the menorah of the tabernacle and temple (see Zech 4:1–10).
Michael Wilcock suggests that "seven represents not the entirety of a thing, but the essence of it" (62). This, then, is the true or real Spirit of God.
c. the four living creatures - vv. 6-8
These creatures remind us of the seraphim of Isa. 6 and the cherubim of Ezek. 1:5-25; 10:1-22. Could they be symbolic of the created world itself, all of which is responsible to render praise to God? [This is suggested in view of the fact that the number "4" often points to the totality of the natural order: the four points of the compass, the four corners of the earth, and the four winds of heaven.] Are they angels, or perhaps another “species” of created, supernatural beings?
1) their place - v. 6
They are standing upon something that looks like a sea of glass resembling crystal. Its surface stretches out before the throne to reflect the flashing light that proceeds from the character of God. They appear to stand in front, behind, and on either side of the throne (they are “in the midst” of and “around” the throne in 4:6, and “before” the throne in 5:8; 19:4). Some have suggested that they are seen as supporting the throne. Their focus is entirely on God, not each other or anything or anyone else in heaven.
2) their portrait - v. 7
Perhaps these are designed to suggest qualities in the God they serve: the lion = royal power; the calf/ox = strength; the man = intelligence and spirituality; and the eagle = swiftness of action. Some of the early church fathers saw in the creatures a reference to the four gospels: Matthew = the lion; Luke = the ox; Mark = the man; John = the eagle.
3) their praise - v. 8
Their worship is unending. "Day and night they do not cease to say . . ." Cf. Rev. 14:11. As there is constant and perpetual punishment in hell, so there is constant and perpetual praise in heaven.
a) Holiness (echoing Isa. 6). When Isaiah saw God for who he is, he saw himself as well. Knowledge of God always awakens a knowledge of oneself. God's holiness always exposes our sinfulness. But the holy God is also the gracious God, for the hot applied to Isaiah's lips speaks of forgiveness and cleansing.
b) Sovereignty ("the Almighty"; also note the emphasis on the divine "throne," 14x in this chapter, a symbol of divine authority and dominion and power).
"God is still on the Throne,
and He will remember His own.
Though trials may press us
and burdens distress us,
He never will leave us alone.
God is still on the Throne,
He never forsaketh His own.
His promise is true,
He will not forget you,
God is still on the throne" (Mrs. F. W. Suffield)
c) Eternality ("who was and who is and who is to come"; cf. Ex. 3:14). Although, it must be noted that the phrase “who is to come” points more to the impending return of God in the person of Jesus to consummate his kingdom than to the idea of eternal existence.
4. God Extolled - vv. 9-11
The praise that comes from the four living creatures gives way to that of the twenty-four elders. The word "worship" (proskuneo) means to fall prostrate at someone's feet. Note the repetition: they fall down before him to fall down before him!
This is the first occurrence in Revelation of the paired verbs “to fall down” (pipto) and “to worship” (proskuneo) which are used to describe two stages of a single act of adoration and thus appear to be synonymous (they are also paired in 5:14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:10; 22:8). This combination is also found in Matt 2:11; 4:9; 18:26; Acts 10:25; 1 Cor 14:25.
They cast down their crowns to acknowledge that any and all honor or power or authority that is theirs is ultimately God's. Their praise focuses on God as creator.
What is the meaning of the declaration, “because of Thy will they existed and were created” (literally, “they were and they were created”)? One of the major difficulties of this clause is the apparently illogical order of the verbs “they existed,” i.e., “they were,” and “they were created”; i.e., the “existence” of everything seems to precede creation. Aune suggests that this can perhaps be explained as an instance of the inversion of events, which sometimes occurs in Revelation (see 3:17; 5:2,5; 6:4; 10:4,9), and thus little should be made of it from a theological point of view. Other views are possible. Could this mean, they “first” existed in God’s mind, and then came into being by God’s will? On the other hand, Beale believes “it may be best to view the first verb as referring to the ongoing preservation of the created order and the second to the inception of creation: ‘they continually exist and have come into being’” (335). The reason why preservation is mentioned before creation “is to encourage God’s people to recognize that everything that happens to them throughout history is part of God’s creation purposes” (335).