CDPCKL · What is Now (Revelation 4:1-11)

What is Now (Revelation 4:1-11)

Adam and Eve began their lives in a garden that contained everything they needed: stars to mark the planting and harvest seasons, soil rich with precious stones to delight the senses, trees to eat from, water to drink, animals to feed and train, with themselves as the gardeners. 

But it is equally clear, right from the beginning, that this garden was not just a garden, it was also an organic temple complete with lights in the ceiling, floors lined with precious stones, trees like pillars to hold up the roof, water for ritual washing, animals as a worshiping congregation, and mankind as a nation of priests to lead the whole thing into worship. 

But one day Adam and Eve decided to stop listening to their Father’s instructions. They listened to an enemy instead, who persuaded them to use the garden for their own selfish purposes. And in this way they became a threat to the garden and to one another. 

And in the horrified silence that followed, most of our modern translations tell us that the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day. 

But this translation does not begin to capture the terror of this moment. Because what they really heard was the sound of a tremendous wind rushing at them through the garden, the sound of their Creator arriving upon a chariot of storm and cloud, earthquake and flame, accompanied by an innumerable army of angelic warriors. 

And so, quite naturally, they hid among the trees of the garden. No doubt, if they could have, they would have tried to dig into the earth, they would have tried to hide in a cave, they would called upon the mountains to fall and cover them and bring an end to their terror. 

But God did not allow them to hide. He brought them out, into the light, to stand before his throne — 

And I think most of us know what happened after that: there was justice, and there was mercy. 

Well, in the next book of the bible, the Book of Exodus, history repeated itself: once again God descended in an earthquake of cloud and flame, surrounded by his heavenly army, to rescue his children from themselves and from their enemies. And at one point in that process a man named Moses was told to choose 70 elders to represent the people and lead them into the storm so that they could see God as he really is. And what they saw was some kind of figure standing upon a floor made of some kind of crystal as bright blue as the sky. 

And later on Moses admitted that — just like Adam — he had been overcome with terror during those moments in God’s presence. 

Then, much later in the Old Testament, God’s children refused to listen to their Father’s instructions yet again. And so, eventually, a man named Isaiah was also caught up into God’s temple. He found himself standing before a throne surrounded by an army of angels, a throne accompanied by earthquakes and smoke and terror. 

And we talked about this moment last week: how God purified Isaiah with fire, and then commissioned him to preach repentance to people who were not going to listen. 

About 150 years after Isaiah’s vision, a man named Ezekiel had a similar experience. This is how he described it: “I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north — an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light…” And as this storm swoops down upon him, Ezekiel sees at its center a war chariot of cloud and flame that fills the sky — a sky made out of some kind of blue crystal — carried by four heavenly beings. And Ezekiel sees that the chariot wheels are covered with eyes, and that it contains a throne, and seated on the throne is a figure made of light: like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. 

And just like Isaiah, Ezekiel was also lifted up and commissioned to preach repentance to people who were not going to listen. 

A few years later, a man named Daniel also received a vision of God enthroned upon a war chariot made of fire, accompanied by a countless army of angels. And he was also commissioned to write down what he saw, but to seal up what he wrote until the time of the end, because the people of his generation — and many generations to come — were not going to listen anyway. 

And then, about 80 years after Daniel’s vision, a man named Zechariah had a series of visions in which he saw angels mounted on war horses, angels riding in war chariots, ready to be released for battle. He also saw seven lamps set up to shine upon a precious stone at the center of God’s temple, a precious stone with seven facets, seven faces, seven “eyes” that reflected light back out into the world. And he is told that these are the seven eyes of the LORD that roam constantly throughout the earth. And later on Zechariah heard God’s trumpet blast out the call to war, he saw the arrows of God fill the skies like lightning, and he watched the armies of the Sovereign LORD march forth in the storms of the south. 

Each one of these Old Testament prophets — Adam, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah — was given a glimpse of the deeper realities that lie behind and beneath our reality. But they only got to see pieces of the whole picture. And for a long time that is all God’s people really had: just snapshots of eternity. 

For instance, when we click on the Old Testament file, the first thing we find is a huge library of low-resolution thumbnails, which give us a general impression of God’s reality, but no real details. Then, when we scroll down, we begin to find a few super high-definition close-ups of certain elements: a lamp; floor tiles made of blue crystal, or are those supposed to be ceiling tiles? a wheel of God’s chariot with eyes on it — but these give us details without the larger context. 

When we open another folder we find some panoramic shots of God’s throne room — but they are a bit over-exposed by the light, a bit blurry because of the perpetual earthquakes, and the angels were always moving around apparently because some of them look very odd: missing body parts or with extra ones attached, you know how that happens. There are a lot of selfies of the prophets pointing over their shoulders; a lot of snapchats of them going “OMG!!!” 

And then there is also a large collection of five to ten-second video clips of monsters and seas, meadows and sunshine, mountains collapsing, children playing, armies surging forward in the darkness — clips just long enough that we can tell what is happening in those moments, but not long enough for us to be able to piece them all together into one coherent story… 

Well, that all changed in the New Testament. Jesus himself brought a lot of these elements into proper focus, and he commissioned his disciples to continue the process. 

And it is here, today, in the Book of Revelation — written about 600 years after Zechariah’s visions — that the apostle John is finally given permission to take a slow, careful, panoramic shot of God’s throne room, God’s reality. 

So let’s take a look at that now: 

[1] 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.” 

[2] At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. 

Now, let me pause here to review what was happening just before this moment: 

If you recall, the Book of Revelation began with John in exile on the island of Patmos. It was a Sunday. John says he was “in the Spirit”, which means that, while he engaged in his Sunday worship, his eyes and ears were suddenly opened by a special movement of the Holy Spirit. He turned around and he found himself looking into the outer room of God’s heavenly temple, where he saw seven golden lampstands and a heavenly being dressed as a High Priest, taking care of the lamps, feeding them and trimming them and making sure they burned bright and clear. 

That High Priest turned out to be Jesus himself, and the golden lamps turned out to be heavenly place-holders for Jesus’ Church on earth. Jesus commissioned John to write down in a book everything he is seeing now, and everything he is about to see, and then send that book to the earthly churches so that they will also be able to see reality as it really is. 

Then, as Jesus continued to talk, John discovered that his book — this Book of Revelation — was itself going to be one of the tools Jesus would use to care for the lamps of his churches. 

Every lamp, as it burns, gets a bit dirty; every wick, as it burns, turns to ash which breaks off and falls into the oil and then the oil itself does not burn so cleanly. 

Churches operate the same way: they need constant cleaning and trimming. And John found out that his Book of Revelation will be one of the trimmers, designed to separate true believers from false. 

True believers, as they read through John’s terrifying visions of reality, will turn to Christ for explanation and comfort; their terror will be purified as their eyes are turned to the light of God’s glory…and so they will receive a blessing. False believers, as they read, will see nothing but storm and cloud and darkness made visible by flame…and they will flee from God’s reality, they will dig into the earth for their comfort, they will go away and try to hide their terror in caves and among the rocks of the mountains — and so the churches will be cleansed. The wicks will be trimmed. The flames of God’s Spirit will burn clearly. 

So, if we think of the Book of Revelation as a movie, Chapter 1 was the introductory setting, with John in the outer room of God’s heavenly temple. 

Well, these verses here signal a shift to the second major setting of the book: once again, John tells us, he found himself in the Spirit; he looked, and now here he is, suddenly standing in the doorway of the inner room of God’s heavenly temple, looking in. 

And the first thing he sees is a throne with someone sitting in it. [3] And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. 

Okay. So far it is pretty easy to interpret what John is seeing: this must surely be the same Ancient of Days that Daniel saw. This must surely be the same massive figure made of light that Ezekiel saw. 

And the fact that, in the whole bible, a rainbow is mentioned in only three places — here in Revelation, then further back in Ezekiel, then even further back in the story of Noah — tells us that this figure here at the end of the bible is the same God who was introduced at the very beginning: the great Judge who also made a covenant — a promise — to show mercy to the earth. 

That much is clear. 

But, [4] surrounding 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. 

So, apparently, God is not the only king in heaven — there are at least 24 others, each one ruling from a throne of their own! And these kings are also…ancient, in their own way: they are elders. They also possess the wisdom and authority that comes from long experience. 

But who are these elders? Are they related somehow to the 70 elders who followed Moses into God’s presence way back in the Book of Exodus? If so, why are there only 24 of them now? 

Mmm. Already we are running into some confusion about how to interpret what John is seeing… 

But let’s go on and see if the panorama gets any clearer: 

[5] From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. 

Okay. That is consistent with everything the Old Testament prophets described: God does tend to manifest himself in the midst of a thunderstorm. 

In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing 

Oh! These are the churches of God, right? 

We first saw them in the outer room of God’s temple, back in Chapter 1. Well, here, in Chapter 4, they have already been moved directly into God’s presence in the inner room. 

And that is great news! Because when we read through Chapters 2 and 3 last week we were a little worried that one or two of these churches would not make it to the finish line. But here they are! 

…oh. But wait. This next sentence says: 

These lamps are the seven spirits of God. 


In Chapter 1 we were told these lamps represent the seven churches of God. Now, in Chapter 4, they are the seven spirits of God? Which one is it? Besides, since when does God have seven spirits? I thought God was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not Holy Spirits? 

…but, then again, Zechariah talked about seeing seven lamps in God’s temple, and he talked about how God has seven eyes that are constantly roaming throughout the earth. Could these seven spirits be related somehow to those seven eyes? And if so, what is the connection between the seven lamps, the seven eyes, the seven spirits, and the seven churches? 

Let’s keep going and see if this is explained later: 

[6] Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal. 

Hmmm. God’s temple in Jerusalem did contain a large basin filled with water that the ancient Jews called a “sea”. The priests were supposed to wash their hands and feet with water from that “sea” before they approached God inside his temple. So it makes sense that, in God’s heavenly temple, there would also be a “sea” full of water for washing — except that this “sea” is a real sea: a giant lake or ocean or something. 

But John is careful to say that this is a sea of glass, clear as crystal. Which tells us two things: first, despite the thunderstorm coming from the throne, somehow there is a great calm upon these waters. Which is strange. Second, there is some kind of connection between this sea and the floor of blue crystal that Moses saw. And, apparently, there is also some kind of connection between this sea and the sky of crystal that Ezekiel saw… 

Let’s keep reading: 

In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. [7] The 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. [8] Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. 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 some truly bizarre imagery. 

Now, we are not completely surprised by it, because Isaiah saw angels with six wings that surrounded God’s throne singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy”; Ezekiel saw heavenly beings — ”four living creatures” — with four faces, one each like a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle, that guided the wheels of God’s throne wherever it needed to go, wheels that were covered with eyes. 

So it seems that John is now seeing in full what Isaiah and Ezekiel only saw in part. 

But even recognizing those Old Testament connections does not really help us understand what these things are. If they are angels, why are they called “living creatures”? Is there some significance to these four particular animals: the lion, the ox, the man, the eagle? And why are they covered with eyes? 

Those are some good questions! 

Moving on: 

[9] Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, then [10] the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and they also 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.” 


So right here, at the end, we finally find out what is going on in this reality: 

First the four living creatures worship God for his holiness and his eternity. Then, in response to the living creatures’ worship, the elders also worship. But their worship has a slightly different focus: they worship God because he is the Creator. 


That’s great. 

Still confused though. 

But that is okay. It is okay to be confused. Because last week Jesus told us that, whenever we get confused by the parables and symbols and metaphors in this book, we can just come and ask him for an explanation. So let’s do that now: 

Jesus, help us! The panoramic shot here is very clear, and we are seeing the connections between this and things the prophets experienced in the Old Testament…but we still do not understand what all these details add up to. What is the overall significance of this scene? How is this supposed to change our lives? 

And as we listen carefully for our Saviour’s explanation, we remember from last week that he speaks to us primarily through his Father’s Word, through the ancient scriptures of the Old and the New Testament. 

But we also remember, from Chapter 1, that he does not leave us alone to do this: he has promised a blessing upon all those who read God’s Word aloud in their worshiping community. Because, as we read and hear and discuss and take to heart what is written, the Spirit moves among us and helps us help each other gain insights that we could not gain on our own. 

In other words: our collective wisdom as a community gathered around God’s Word is infinitely greater than the wisdom of any single individual. 

But even more importantly, we must remember that our community is not just us. When we gather as a community around God’s Word, we are actually being joined together with God’s people all throughout the earth and all throughout history. 

And here is the thing about God’s people throughout history: they may be gone into our Father’s presence — some of them have been dead for thousands of years! — but we can still discuss God’s Word with them. Because they also, in their time, read these scriptures aloud in their communities, and discussed them, and gained insights through the Spirit from one another…and then wrote down those insights. 

So even as we turn back to the Old Testament now, looking for Jesus’ to explain the meaning behind these details, we can know that we are not alone. We do not have to rely on our own insights — in fact, we had better not do that! Nothing gets a church into trouble faster than ignoring the past and trying to figure things out in isolation. The Holy Spirit has given us a wealth of ancient wisdom, and we are going to use it. 

So let’s start asking our unanswered questions from this passage, and conversing with our ancient brothers and sisters about the answers. 

First question: if this is God’s throne room, why are there 24 extra kings sitting around on thrones of their own? Who are these elders, and what is their connection to the 70 elders in Moses’ time? 

Well, our ancient brothers and sisters realized very early on that elders are a bit like priests, and a bit like kings: shepherds who guide God’s people into lives of worship, leading by example. They also realized that the 70 elders in Moses’ time entered God’s presence in order to represent God’s people on earth. In the same way, these 24 elders in God’s presence also represent God’s people on earth. 

But why are there only 24 instead of 70? Two reasons: 

First, because, in the Old Testament, the priestly worship team roster was split up into 24 distinct worship teams. In the same way, these 24 elders are priests and worship leaders in God’s heavenly temple. 

Second, 24 is 2×12. Why is that significant? Because, in the Old Testament, there were 12 tribes in ancient political Israel, 12 tribes descended from 12 fathers. Then, in the New Testament, Jesus chose 12 disciples to act as fathers for 12 new tribes in a new spiritual Israel. 

We are supposed to understand that these 24 elders somehow represent the 12 sons of Jacob, and the 12 disciples of Jesus, the 24 fathers of the complete Church of God. And their eternal job is to represent their people in heaven and on earth before the throne of the Creator. 


Second question: what about these seven lamps: are they the seven churches of God or are they the seven spirits of God? 

Again, our ancient brothers and sisters realized very early on that the seven lamps and seven spirits of God here are related to the seven lamps and seven eyes of God found in Zechariah’s vision. In Zechariah’s prophecy, the seven lamps of God shine upon the seven eyes of a precious stone at the center of God’s temple in heaven — seven eyes which then roam throughout the earth, witnessing everything that takes place, and counting down the time until the Messiah will finally appear and complete God’s eternal temple on earth…which we now know is the Spirit-filled Church of God’s people from the Old Testament and the New. 

We are supposed to understand that these seven lamps are the seven churches of God — the complete Church of God — living in God’s eternal presence. But they are the complete Church only because they are filled with the seven spirits of God — the complete Holy Spirit of God. But, at the same time, the Holy Spirit of God also serves as the seven eyes of God — the complete searching knowledge of God. And the seven eyes of God have been sent out into all the earth to serve as God’s witnesses: to watch everything that goes on, and to rejoice when the Messiah finally appears. 

So, yes, these seven lamps are the seven churches and the seven spirits of God which shine before God’s throne in heaven while at the same time they have also been sent out into all the earth. 

In other words: Jesus’ Church exists in heaven and on earth at the same time. Confusing? Yes. But this will be explained more fully in the chapters to come. 


Next question: what about this “sea of glass”…is this really just a wash basin for priests before they enter God’s presence? If so, then why is it so calm: is no one using it? And why did Moses see it as a floor made of glass, while Ezekiel described it as a sky? 

Well, here, again, the ancient wisdom of the Church helps us realize that Moses saw God’s throne room from above, from the perspective of heaven, while Ezekiel saw God’s throne room from below, from a perspective on earth. John, like Moses, is also seeing God’s throne from the perspective of heaven. So, quite naturally then, what Moses and John would see as a floor made of glass, Ezekiel would see as sky made of glass. 

And this is where we realize that this “sea of glass” is actually our sky, a sky that — in the minds of our Old Testament brothers and sisters — is actually a sea, the vast cosmic ocean that makes up our universe. And this realization is meant to bring us back to the first moments of creation, when God’s Spirit hovered over the surface of the waters, and breathed upon it, and brought it to perfect crystalline stillness, ready to serve as the womb for his next great movement of creation. 

We are supposed to understand that, in front of God’s throne, there is a basin filled with water which is actually the cosmic ocean of our entire physical reality. In other words: our entire physical universe is just one piece of furniture in the vast reality God inhabits! — and not even a very impressive piece of furniture either: our universe really is nothing more than a water-feature in God’s temple, a bowl for worshipers to wash in before they approach God. Which means we are nothing more than tiny creatures that live in the bottom of that bowl, looking up through the water at glories too great for us to even begin to comprehend. 

And yet, there is a stillness to this water that allows us to see more clearly than we have ever seen before, a stillness that suggests that God is merely setting the stage now for yet another great movement of creation… 


Last question: what do these four living creatures represent? If they are angels, why do they look like animals? Why these particular animals: lion, ox, man, eagle? And why are they covered with eyes? 

Just like we did, our brothers and sisters in the past also noticed the connections between these creatures and the ones Isaiah and Ezekiel saw: the wings, the animals, the eyes, a relationship with God’s throne, the same song being sung… 

But they also noticed a deeper connection, going right back to the very first pages of scripture. In Genesis, Chapter 1, God created four main “kinds” of land-based animals: wild animals; domesticated animals, human beings, and birds. 

We are supposed to understand that these four living creatures in God’s presence somehow represent the four ”kinds“ of living creatures on earth, just as the 24 elders represent God’s people on earth. This lion is the king and the elder over all wild animals; the ox over domesticated animals; the eagle over birds; the one with a face like a man represents the entire human race. And just as “eyes” often represent “spirits”, these four living creatures are covered with eyes because they are the representatives of an uncountable multitude of living creatures — all of which are also witnesses and expressions of God’s glory throughout the earth! just like the seven spirits of God, though, obviously, in a much more limited way. 

And this limitation is even expressed in the way these four living creatures worship in comparison to the 24 elders: the creatures glorify God simply because he is holy and he exists, which is the simplest possible kind of worship. They worship God the way my dogs worship me: “Hey! It’s you! That’s great!” 

The elders, however, practice a more reflective kind of worship: they glorify God not just for the mere fact of his existence, but also for what he has done in the past. 

In other words: the elders in this scene have a sense of history and causality that the four living creatures apparently do not. They possess a higher form of consciousness. And this is an exact reflection of conditions on earth, where all animals and all human beings glorify God unconsciously simply by existing — while God’s people alone possess the Spirit of God that enables them to glorify God consciously, with all of their heart and soul and strength. 


So what do all these details add up to, now? What is the overall significance of this scene? How is this supposed to change our lives? 

This is what these details add up to: John is standing in God’s heavenly temple. But this temple is not just a temple, it is also a garden complete with lights, precious stones, trees, water, animals, and a royal priesthood. 

This is the overall significance of this scene: the garden of Eden in the beginning was really just an earthly reflection of God’s heavenly garden. It was an outpost, an extension of God’s heavenly garden: it was God’s garden planted as a seed in the soil of the earth. It was meant to grow up and fill creation with the knowledge of God, so that the plants and the animals — and even the precious stones of the earth! — would learn to sing as their heavenly representatives do. 

What this scene reveals is that, even though the garden of Eden is gone, the original garden still exists. It is still in operation. And the fact that the seven spirits of the seven churches are there in that garden even now, blazing before the reflective brilliance of God’s throne, means that God’s great redemption project has not been abandoned. The fact that these 24 elders are there, worshiping, representing the 24 tribes of God’s united people, means that there are still people to represent here on earth! 

Which means that, even though the garden of Eden no longer exists in its original form, it has actually been reborn: it is still here, still in operation, still expanding, still growing up to fill creation with the knowledge of God. 

Jesus’ Church is the garden of God on earth. This is the outpost, the extension of eternity. We are the nation of priests destined to rule and to guide all of God’s creation into worship. 

Basically, what this scene is teaching us is that, as long as there is a nation of priests in heaven, there will be a nation of priests on earth. As long as there is worship in heaven, there will be worship on earth. As long as there is a garden-temple in heaven, there will be a garden-temple on earth. 

And this is all meant to change our lives by giving us hope. Our eyes have been opened now to see reality as it really is: our earth, our universe, is nothing more than a water feature in the eternal garden of God. Now, apparently some elements in our water feature are misbehaving, rebelling, trying to create a new reality, trying to overflow and flood God’s garden. Apparently, even we — God’s covenant children — have a tendency to misbehave and rebel and try to remake reality in our own image. But after seeing what we have seen today, do we think God is really worried about whether the very limited water feature before his throne is going to somehow flood eternity? 

We could think of our universe as God’s koi pond. But we are not the koi. We are the ikan bilis. We are the little prawns at the bottom. Scripture tells us that we are very small creatures in a very large pond that is full of creature far bigger and scarier and more beautiful than we are. However, God still cares about us. He sees that we are bullied sometimes by the bigger fish, he sees the green slime growing on the sides of our tank. He is going to get rid of the slime, he is going to deal with the bullies. And one day, when we are ready, we are going to be transformed into the biggest and most beautiful creatures of all, creatures that will rule over all the others without bullying them as we were once bullied. 

This is our Father’s promise, and our hope. And now that we have seen the true shape of reality, we know that he cannot fail to do what he has promised. 


In closing, here: this passage began with a change of setting. John found himself in the Spirit, caught up to see all of reality from heaven’s perspective. By reading this, we also have been caught up with John in the Spirit to see reality from heaven’s perspective. And so now we know that we have nothing really to worry about. We have hope now because it is very obvious, from this perspective, that our Father is in complete control. 

And John is going to continue to see all of reality from this perspective for most of the Book of Revelation. According to John’s own testimony, he finds himself in the Spirit only two more times, and this is the phrase he uses to signal a change of setting. The next time he is in the Spirit, near the end, he is returned to the earth, to watch history play out from this perspective. The fourth and last time he is in the Spirit, he is transported to a place…a place that does not exist yet. 

And the rest of the Book of Revelation is really the story of how that place comes into being. Back in Chapter 1, Jesus promised to show John “what is now and what will take place later.” This passage is the beginning of the “what is now” part of the book. This scene is actually a picture of the way things really are, and always are, and always will be. This is a vision of the eternal Now. The rest of the book is going to reveal how the eternal Now turns into the eternal Later. 

Jesus once said to his disciples, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” That is our application for this week: let’s take heart. 

Next week, we will find out how he overcame the world. So make sure to come back for that. 

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