Book of Revelatons: Revelation 4-5, Heavenly Worship Analysis

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Table of contents

  1. Revelation 4
  2. Revelation 5
  3. Conclusion

In John’s time, the Church was facing persecution, and, therefore the book of Revelation brings encouragement, by shifting their perspective to the life that is to come and to the person of Jesus Christ. It creates an understanding that there is a bigger reality: Caesar is the emperor, but Jesus is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5) and His kingdom is God’s. The same way, chapters 4 and 5 bring the idea of the heavenly court, which can be contrasted with the imperial Roman court. “By portraying heaven’s court so closely parallel to the emperor’s, John is hinting at something profound: Don’t worry about the court in Rome; focus your attention on the greater court in heaven”.

There is general agreement among scholars that chapters 4 and 5 form one only scene in the court of heaven with both the Father and the Son. Both chapters attempt to bring the reader’s focus to the heavenly worship at the throne-room of God, in order to highlight God’s glory and remark God’s sovereignty, authority and power. John wants both the realities of the Father (chapter 4) and of Christ Jesus (chapter 5) to fill his readers with a sense of awe, making their earthly circumstances look insignificant and temporary.

Revelation 4

In Revelation 4:1, the voice – that commanded John to write in Revelation 1:10 – is at the door in heaven and calls John to enter, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this”. Some important parts need to be addressed. First, the Jewish culture was accustomed to apocalyptic literature and, therefore, what John seems to be narrating is not unknown to them. For example, 1 Enoch 14:8-9 talks about Enoch being in heaven and seeing a crystal wall and tongues of fire. Second, the term “after this” does not necessarily mean that what John was about to see happened after what he saw in chapters 1, 2, and 3, but just refers to the order in which the visions were shown to him: “this is the order in which John saw the visions but not necessarily the historical order of their occurrence as events”.

In verse 2, the spirit of John is taken to the throne-room, just before the throne, and he sees someone sitting on it. About the One, he says, “And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne” (v. 3). The throne of God is also mentioned in both Jewish literature and Old Testament passages, such as 1 Kings 22:19, Ezekiel 1:26, or 1 Enoch 14:18-19. John makes use of a figure of speech, called simile, to attempt to describe God’s appearance. He first compares Him to jasper, a stone that suggests majesty and holiness. It is used in Revelation 21:11 to create an image of the New Jerusalem and in Revelation 21:18-19 is described as the material used for the construction of its walls and 12 foundations. Ruby is a red stone that represents His justice. The throne is described to be in the center of the room, first being encircled by a rainbow “that shone like an emerald” (v. 3). The rainbow recalls God’s covenant with Noah after the great flood, where His mercy overlapped His wrath against the people’s sins. The rainbow is also used to describe His glory in Ezekiel 1:28. The fact that the emerald (green) color was the one emphasized by John points the reader to God’s mercy in His new covenant with His people. John’s description of God brings to the audience a sense of wonder at His splendor and mystery. It shows that no one can grasp His magnificence.

In his vision of the throne-room, John sees the throne surrounded by concentric circles. Coming after the rainbow, the next circle is formed by “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” (v. 4). They are worshipping God by being prostrated before God (v. 10) and by singing hymns of praise (v.11). The first important comment to be made is that the 24 elders remind John’s contemporary readers of Domitian’s 24 lictors in the Roman court, bringing comparison between the two (heavenly and earthly) courts. Second, the identity of these elders is broadly argued by scholars – they could be angels, Old Testament saints, or New Testament saints –, as there are no precise equivalents traced in the Jewish literature. However, in 1 Chronicles 24:4 and 1 Chronicles 25:9-13, one can read about the 24 priestly and Levitical orders, which can lead to the conclusion that the 24 elders are part of an exalted angelic order, being their heavenly counterpart. “Their function is both royal and sacerdotal, and may be judicial as well (cf. 20:4). Their white garments speak of holiness, and their golden crowns of royalty”. Another reason to interpret them as angels, and not humans, is that they carry the prayer of the saints (5:8), and it was common to the Jewish people that chief angels would present the saint’s prayers to God (Tob. 12:15).

Verse 5 reads, “From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God”. Once again, God’s mighty power are shown in John’s imagery. God is not only bright shining light described as jasper and ruby, but from Him comes thunder and might. This revelation of God shown in the fifth verse “reminds the reader of the great theophany of Sinai when God descended in fire and smoke heralded by thunder and lightning (Exodus 19:16ff)”. The seven spirits of God can be seen as a symbol of the sevenfold activity of Holy Spirit. However, it is more likely that they represent the seven angelic beings identified in Revelation 1:4. In verse 6, the idea of a sea of glass is to show “the readers the great glory of the heavenly temple”. It is also a reference to the “sea of bronze” from Solomon’s Temple, which was built to “testify that their deity ruled the entire cosmos”. The “sea of glass” was “clear as crystal” (v. 6) so that God’s glory, described in Revelation 21:11, could shine through it. It is also as a contrast to the type of glass they had in John’s time.

Verse 6 continues by presenting to the reader four creatures, which he describes as “covered with eyes, in front and in back”. They are said to be “in the center, around the throne” (v. 6). According to Mounce, they appear to be immediately before the throne, creating what he calls an “inner circle” and stepping into their position of leaders in worship (v.9). They are also described in verse 7 to be “like a lion”, “like an ox”, “like a man”, “like a flying eagle”. This picture of the creatures reminds the reader of Ezekiel 1, where the four cherubim appear to him. However, each of them has four faces, four wings (Ezekiel 1:6), and the rims of their wheels are full of eyes (Ezekiel 1:18) – in contrast with Revelation 4:8, “Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings”. Verse 8 continues with the creatures singing in praise, with no ceasing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come”. Unceasing worship is a commonly seen in heavenly descriptions of apocalyptic passages, such as 1 Enoch 39:12, where unsleeping angels are before God and exalting Him. This passage can also be related to Isaiah 6:2-3, where the six-winged seraphim sang at the throne “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty”. In his book, Mounce states, “We have here a good example of John’s freedom to transform the images of his sources, blend them, and so create new images”. He adds that the four creatures are “an exalted order of angelic beings”, who are “immediate guardians of the throne” and leaders of the heavenly worship and adoration of the Lord. The fact that they are covered in eyes shows their “alertness and knowledge”. Another important element of this passage is the acknowledgement of God as “holy” – for it separates Him from any other being –, as “almighty” – for it shows He is omnipotent –, and as eternal – “who was and who is and who is to come” (v. 8). Those are important facts to the Church in John’s time, which is suffering and being persecuted. In addition, the fact that Antipas had just been martyred, and that John himself had been exiled, showed that the persecution was about to get worse, and it was necessary to prepare and empower the Christians to faithful endurance.

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In verses 9 and 10, one can see that, whenever the four creatures glorify, honor, and thank the Lord, the worship, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him and worship. First, this passage shows the leading roles of the living creatures in the heavenly worship scenario. Second, the verbs used by John to describe the elder’s adoration were pipto (“to fall down”) and proskuneo (“to worship”, meaning to fall at someone’s feet), creating a repetition that shows how great is their reverence for Him. The elders also lay down their crowns, showing that their authority, power, and honor is the Lord’s, as He is the creator, the preserver and the final cause of all things: “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” (v. 11). One also can note that the elders did not say that they gave Him glory/honor/power, for He is “worthy to receive”, but no one is worthy to give.

Revelation 5

Chapter 5 is unique, for it was very rare that the apocalyptic literature focused on the Messiah, or that any of its protagonists were worshiped with God. However, its main emphasis is on Christ Jesus as the redeemer. It is important to note that John’s contemporaries were facing persecution not only from the Roman Empire, but also from the Jewish people, and so, in this chapter, John encourages them to believe that Jesus is their God and Savior.

It starts with the introduction of a scroll with seven seals (v. 1) and an angel asking who is worthy to open them (v. 2). Sam Storms finds a reference to the scroll in Psalm 139:16, and says that “the scroll contains the content, course, and consummation of history, how things will end for both Christian and non-Christian”. Similar references can be found in the Jewish apocalyptic literature, such as 1 Enoch 81:1-2. The 7 seals remind John’s contemporary reader of the 7 witnesses required by the Roman law to seal certain documents. However, it is more likely that the number 7 “signifies the absolute inviolability of the scroll”. The “mighty angel” (v. 2) loudly (for he challenges the whole creation) asks who can open the scroll and, therefore, bring God’s preordained destiny to its accomplishment. John weeps under the acknowledgement that no one was found in the universe that was capable of such task, and the creation itself was unworthy of achieving its own fate. However, in verse 5, one of the elders say that “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals”. These titles can be seen as allusions of Genesis 49:9-10 and Isaiah 11:1 – both used by the Jewish people as prophecies about the Davidic Messiah –, and are arguments for Christ’s humanity (Christians were and still are being challenged by doctrines that doubt the humanity of Christ, such as Docetism). In verse 6, Jesus appears as a slain Lamb, proving that His death was not an illusion – unlike the docetists were trying to argue –, but also proving that His resurrection was real because the Lamb was both slaughtered and alive. He is in the center of the throne – John is acclaiming Him as the epicenter of all creation –, has seven horns – symbolizing His omnipotence, for “seven” means “perfection” and “horns” mean “power” (Daniel 7:7-24) –, and seven eyes – symbolizing His omniscience (Zechariah 3:9, 4:10). John is showing the readers that He is God.

Inverse 7, He takes the scroll, proving to be the one who is worthy, and showing that the Lion of verse 5 is the Lamb of verse 6. The image of the lion in ancient times meant power and strength, and that is how the Jewish culture expected Jesus to be their champion. Yet, Jesus does not appear as the expected powerful lion, but as a weak lamb. John is capturing the biggest mystery of the Christian faith: Jesus did not conquer victory by using force, but by giving His life. In addition, one can relate this scene to Daniel 7:13-14, where one can read that “someone like a Son of Man was coming…To him dominion was bestowed, along with glory and a kingdom…His dominion is an everlasting dominion…his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed”. By taking the scroll, Jesus was proving to have the dominion and the kingdom.

In verse 8, the four living creatures and the 24 elders fall down before the lamb, the same way they fall for God in chapter 4. This shows that the Christ is worthy of worship and praise, for He is God. They had a harp and held golden bowls with incense – the reader is told that the incense “are the prayers of God’s people” (v. 8), an allusion to Psalms 141:2. This could sound astounding to the Jewish Christians, for the prayers were directed to Jesus, and not to God the Father. Incense was used in the temple to worship God (Apoc. Mos. 33:4), and so here it is seen as a type of heavenly worship, along with the harps (1 Chronicles 15:16).

They sing a “new song” to the Lamb (v. 9). This can be seen as an allusion to both the political background at John’s time and the Jewish tradition. The first one brings a contrast between the songs used to worship the emperor, and his human power, and the “new song” used to worship the one whose kingdom will never end. The second allusion indicates the Jewish perspective: “often worshipers in the time of the first temple offered God a ‘new song’, perhaps implying a freshly inspired song in addition to the repertoire of praises already available”. The same way that Israel praised God’s redemption by singing canticles – in the Passover, in their exodus from Egypt, and for being His chosen people –, now the “new song” is an adoration for Jesus’ worthiness to open the scroll and to redeem “persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” by purchasing them with His blood (v. 9). Just like ancient Israel (Exodus 19:6), they are also transformed in priests and a kingdom to serve God and reign on the earth (v. 10). This passage is the fulfilment of Daniel 7:14.

After that, the worship spreads from the four creatures and 24 elders to “many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand” (v. 11). As “ten thousand” was the biggest number in the Greek language, one can understand from this passage that the number of angels around the throne were uncountable. This image can also be seen in Daniel 7:10. They sang “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (v. 12). First, they do not sing directly to the Lamb because of their position. Second, the first four qualities of Jesus remind the reader of 1 Chronicles 29:10-19, where David praises God for the same virtues. It is important to address that “power, wealth, wisdom, and strength are not benefits that the Lamb is about to receive, but qualities He possesses and for which He is worthy to be praised”. The other three remind the reader of the adoration made to the Lord on chapter 4, and can be understood as a response of the people and the angels in regards to Jesus as God.

Finally, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea” (v. 13) worship God the Father and the Lamb, giving them “praise and honor and glory and power” (v. 13). Mounce says that “it may be that the fourfold ascription corresponds to the fourfold division of creation”. Christ had universally redeemed creation, and so all creation responds to what He has done. This confirms what is written in Philippians 2:10-11, “So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”. The Father and the Son are being worshipped together.

The chapter ends with the four creatures saying “Amen” and the elders falling down in worship after they say it (v. 14). The same way the four creatures begin the heavenly worship, being followed by the 24 elders, they lead its closure, being once again followed by the closure of the 24 elders’ praise.

Conclusion

In John’s time, besides being persecuted by the emperor, the Church was also heavily persecuted by non-Christian Jews. Therefore, chapters 4 and 5 are together an important weapon for those who were suffering and dying in the name of Christ. While one talks about the Creator’s glory, eternality, and omnipotence, the other says that Christ Jesus shares the throne with Him, and is responsible for the destiny of His saints. By grasping the surface of their glory and worth, believers from John’s time, and all the ones that came after them, can hold on to heaven’s reality and use their worship as a weapon against any earthly tragedies. As John says in Revelation 13:10, the saints are called to, in all circumstances, believe that their destinies are in God’s hands and, therefore, there must have patience, endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.

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