This is our fourth week in Revelation, but I have to say that we’ve gotten through the easier part. These strange things are going to become stranger things. It’s going to get weird. But, as we’ve been urging from the beginning of this series, stay with us. John’s vivid imagination can shake the rust off of our narrow understanding and awaken us to deeper realities.
If you were to ask me what my favorite chapters from scripture were, I’d probably go with the Sermon on the Mount or the end of 1 Corinthians where Paul writes beautifully about love and the resurrection. Certainly, Revelation 4 wouldn’t have come to mind.
But perhaps I need to make an adjustment to my list, because this passage is mind-blowing. Last week, Pastor Kristine urged us to work on memorizing Revelation 3:20. Let’s keep at that right now. Here are Jesus’ words: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me.” So Jesus knocks at our door, waiting for us to open the door to share a communion meal with him—a fitting word for today!
Only three verses later our passage begins with another door. “After this I looked and there was a door that had been opened in heaven.” Now, I think we tend to read Revelation as a vision for things that are to come, but that’s a mistake—at least in Revelation 4—because John’s vision is a glimpse into heaven at the moment! Like other prophets, most notably Isaiah, John is invited behind the scenes to encounter God in the present reality.
Our vision and understanding are limited. As wonderful as our eyes are, they only have three photoreceptors that process red, green, and blue. Dogs only have two—green and blue—I wonder what we actually look like to them. But the mantis shrimp has 16 types of photoreceptors. They see the world in a completely different manner than we do. Our vision is limited. Or consider again the images recently returned from the Webb Telescope, that amazing technology that allows us to see beyond what we can see with our eyes alone.
We are human, and we are limited. Yet, part of what John is revealing to the church is that heaven is present and active at the moment, even if our eyes do not see it. But Jesus invites John to glimpse behind the scenes, viewing what is happening in heaven simultaneously to what is happening to John in exile and to the seven churches under siege from Rome.
What does John see? A lot. I am not an artist, but I took a few minutes to do my version of this. You can see it’s far from adequate to the task! (With the children staying in worship today, I hope that’s exactly what they’re doing!) You’ll actually notice that John use the words “like” or “as” a lot. He’s doing his best to put what he sees into language, but even then he has to resort to similes. It’s too much to behold or speak of in clear language.
To trace the passage, John hears the voice of Jesus invite him to see what’s going on. In the vision, he sees “someone seated on a throne.” It’s God, but John can’t even bring himself to offer a name. His appearance? Like precious jewels. There are many varieties of jasper, but John is likely thinking of a translucent type, which when polished sparkles—a reference to the holiness and glory of God. Then there’s carnelian. It’s usually a deep red and appears like fire. This can be an image for God’s wrath burning against sin. There’s a rainbow that looks like an emerald around the throne. This could be a reference to the rainbow after the flood in Genesis, but it can also be a halo, another pointer towards holiness and completion.
Surrounding this one throne are 24 other thrones with 24 elders seated on them. This has been commonly interpreted as a combination of the old and the new—the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles there worshipping. These are “the embodied perfection of the people of God, sharing now in the rule of God over the world.” They have crowns, a sign of glory and white robes, a sign of purity and victory. This scene is clamorous; lightning flashes from the throne, accompanied by thunder; there is singing too. Lightning and thunder will show up at significant moments throughout Revelation, a sign of God’s presence, just as they signified the same when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.
Something that looks like a sea is in front of the throne. This is an interesting detail because it has a lot of reference points. In the Old Testament water is often portrayed as a source of chaos, but it is also something that God can overcome, like the parting of the Red Sea. But water is also useful for cleansing, so there’s an element of baptism here too. Solomon’s Temple had a large bronze bowl filled with water, used in worship. Taken together, “All this seems to indicate that the ‘sea’ within the throne room is a kind of symbolic representation of the fact that, within God’s world as it currently is, evil is present, and dangerous. But it is contained within God’s sovereign purposes, and it will eventually be overthrown.”
In addition to the 25 thrones, there are four living creatures. They resemble a lion, an ox, a human, and an eagle. These symbolize the noblest, strongest, wisest, and swiftest in all creation. John reports that they are “covered with eyes on front and back.” That is, they see all, keeping watch over the entire creation. Nothing can escape their notice. These four living creatures will show up fourteen times in Revelation. They are like choir directors, leading all of heaven in constant worship of God.
When John goes behind the scenes to see heaven as it is, what does he find? Worship. That’s the thought I want to leave us with today. You and I are made to worship. Behind the scenes of reality right now—if we could somehow open a door to peer into the throne room of heaven—we would encounter worship. It’s worship embodied by all of creation, the connection to the four living creatures. It’s worship embodied in the church, connected to the 24 elders.
“This scene remains the foundation for everything that follows in the rest of this powerful and disturbing book. All that is to come flows from the fact that the whole creation is called to worship the one true God as its creator. The profound problems within that creation mean that the creator must act decisively to put things right, not because creation is bad and he’s angry with it but because it’s good and he’s angry with the forces that have corrupted and defaced it, and which threaten to destroy it.”
“Christians worship with a conviction that they are in the presence of God,” writes Eugene Peterson. “Worship is an act of attention to the living God who rules, speaks and reveals, creates and redeems, orders and blesses.” Just like the mantis shrimp and the Webb Telescope can see in ways that our eyes cannot typically see, so faith is believing that our worship reveals what is happening on earth as it is in heaven.
God made us for worship—both in these set apart times in the sanctuary and with every moment of our lives. The worship we do gathered around the waters of baptism and the meal that Jesus’ has prepared is essential to sustaining all the other hours of our lives. Do we live in such a way that this truth is revealed in our lives? Do we give sufficient weight to praising God as the creator of all things? Do we view creation itself as a theater of praise and live with appropriate awe?
Worship is not just something we do from time to time when we feel like it. Worship is participating in the deepest purposes of creation. It is restoring a right order to our lives and world. We’ve glimpsed behind the scenes to see the extravagance of worship in heaven. Let’s translate that into how we worship in this sanctuary and in the sanctuary of all of creation.