Revelation 4-16 gives us eyes to see the conflict between the kingdom of God and world powers with the eyes of God. We see the conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this earth from a heavenly perspective; we see it from the throne room of God. John, “in the Spirit,” is take up into “heaven” in order to overhear and witness the conflict from God’s own perspective.
Where is this “heaven?” The Apocalypse describes it as “up” there rather than down here. But this spatial language is probably metaphorical. Rather than thinking about “heaven” which celestial beings occupy as “over yonder” or somewhere outside of the space-time continuum, or outside the reality of the cosmos, perhaps we should of “heaven” as a dimension that occupies the same space that our own eyes see. We don’t have the eyes to see the heavenly dimensions of this present space. John is given eyes to see the heavenlies and this is represented as an “ascent” (going up) to “heaven.”
Whatever the case may be, John enters the throne room of God, and this is highlighted in several ways. The centrality of the “throne room” is underlined by the use of the Greek term for “throne” fourteen times in this chapter. The chapter is about who reigns and rules over the cosmos. The elaborate description of the throne room (jewels, rainbow, flashes of lightning, etc.) depicts the presence of the Holy One of Israel, the God who indwelt Israel’s temple. The glory of the temple with its own gold and jewels reflected the glory of God’s heavenly dwelling. The lightening, rumblings and thunder echo the presence of God at Sinai (Exodus 19:16). The rainbow reminds us that the God of creation–the God who redeemed Noah–is enthroned here (cf. Ezekiel 1:28; Genesis 9:13). John has entered the Holy of Holies where the angels still sing, as they did in Isaiah 6, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” This is the God who reigns over the whole earth (cf. Ezekiel 1:26-28). John has entered the sanctuary of the one whose temple is the cosmos itself (cf. Isaiah 66:1).
This, however, is a point of contention in the imperial world of first century Rome. The beast, according to Revelation 13:1-2, is given power, authority, and a throne which the whole world worshipped. John’s readers lived daily with the claims and actions of imperial power. For them it looked as if the whole world worshipped the Emperor and Caesar wielded uncontested power over their lives. For Caesar there was only one throne, and it was his.
John’s visionary experience contests Caesar’s claim. This is foundational for the unfolding drama of Revelation 4-16 (the second vision). God sits on the throne, not Caesar, and God remains on the throne despite Caesar’s attempts to unseat the Creator.
Revelation 4 identifies two sets of “celestial” participants around the throne of God. One set–the four living creatures–probably represents angelic figures while the other set–the twenty-four elders–represents human figures. In sum, angelic and human communities are present before the heavenly throne. They surround the throne with their worship, submission, and obedience.
The description of four living creatures before the throne is drawn from Ezekiel 1:4-21 and Isaiah 6:2-4. We may describe them as cherubim (look like Ezekiel) or seraphim (sing like Isaiah) though they are not so identified by John. Rather, as close to the throne, they may represent a kind of angelic hierarchy. Whatever the case, they represent God’s all-seeing (lots of eyes!) activity in the world who are never inactive in God’s cause or mission. They continuously praise the one “who was and is and is to come.”
The Ancient Near Eastern backdrop for these figures are the Babylonian Shedu (human headed winged bulls) or Assyrian Lamassu (human headed winged lions, pictured to the left). These figures are usually positioned at doorways that guard the entrances to temples, palaces, or holy places. Cherubim, we might remember, tower over the ark of the covenant in the Solomonic temple (1 Kings 6:23-35). One of the best examples of such winged variously headed animals are the Megiddo Ivories discovered from pre-Israelite Megiddo in Palestine (ca. 14th century BCE, pictured below). These are pictured below. Sometimes these animals are represented as carrying royal figures. Perhaps the four living creatures that surround the throne in heaven function to set off the throne of God, guard access to it, and serve the mission of the enthroned One.
The twenty-four elders are enthroned humans who are clothed in white and crowned with golden wreaths. Their humanity is indicated by their dress, honors, and number. The number twenty-four represents the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles (as in Revelation 21:12-14). This is the unity of Israel and the Church before the throne–there is one people of God. Their dress is what is promised the faithful saints of Sardis in Revelation 3:5. White garments represent their religious (perhaps priestly) function in the throne room of God. They are holy servants in God’s Holy of Holies. Their golden laurel wreaths are what are promised to faithful saints in Revelation 2:10 and 3:11. These are the victory wreaths given to those who have overcome.
The throne before which these celestial figures worship is sovereign. God rules the cosmos, including the chaos of evil. The “sea of glass, like crystal” before the throne probably alludes to chaos and evil within the creation though before the throne it has been smoothed like glass. The sea in the life of Israel represented the chaotic waters that destroyed and out of which evil arose. Even in creation the waters are only bounded and limited rather than eliminated. The sea is the source of evil in Revelation as the beast arises out of the sea in Revelation 13. This sea, however, is placid and smoothed. As Beal notes (Revelation, 328), “John sees the chaotic powers of the sea as calmed by divine sovereignty.” God rules even the chaos of the creation, and consequently God also rules the beasts of Revelation (that is, the world powers). In the presence of God there is no fear of the chaos; God smooths the chaos and ultimately eliminates it in the new heaven and new earth (“there was no more sea,” Revelation 21:1).
Greg Stevenson, A Slaughtered Lamb, interprets the action present in this setting through the lens of benefaction. Benefactors donated wealth, skills and resources to cities and communities for the common good. They did this with the expectation of reciprocity. The community, in gratitude, would honor the benefactors with inscriptions, preferred status, exemption from taxation, or the best seats at the theater. Often they would be awarded a golden victory wreath (stephanos) to honor their gift.
At the end of this chapter, the four “living creatures given ‘honor and thanks’ ‘to the one on the throne and the twenty-four elders lay their golden wreaths (stephanous) before the throne and then declare God ‘worthy’ to receive ‘honor’.” According to Stevenson, “the message of Revelation 4:9-11 is that God is the ultimate benefactor by virtue of his role as the Creator” (p. 127). There is no other real benefactor; God alone is worthy to be praised as the giver of good gifts and the creator of all that is.
The problem is that within the Imperial world of first century Rome the gods and Emperor were considered the ultimate benefactors. For example, an Egyptian inscription calls Nero the good guardian of the world (agathos daimon tes oikomenes) and the god Neilos the great benefactor (doreas) of Egypt. The Emperor is the empire’s benefactor who gifts the Empire with what it needs. Revelation 4 stands in stark contrast with such claims and allegiance.
Revelation 4 is a worship text. The heavenly celestials worship the one who sits on the throne. They cry “Holy, Holy, Holy” (the old song of Isaiah 6 which affirms that there is nothing holier than God). This is the Holy One of Israel who has “created all things.” God is worshipped because of God’s being (identity=Holy) and action (creation). Yahweh is the enthroned benefactor of creation. Only God deserves “glory and honor and power,” and it is only before this throne that the twenty-four elders lay their golden wreaths.
Imagine for a moment Christians emerging from their humble house church after a Sunday assembly to witness the procession to the temple of the Emperor Domitian in Laodicea. Romans visited the imperial temples (including the worship of the Goddess Roma) to acknowledge their benefactor and affirm their allegiance to Rome’s civil religion. The contrast is stark. The humble worship of a Christian assembly gathered in a home paled in comparison to the extravagance of the Imperial cult. While Romans worshipped their benefactor, Christians envisioned the throne room scene of Revelation 4 as they assembled to worship their Benefactor. While the temples of Rome lie in ruins, the Christian assemblies continue to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” in chorus with the heavenlies.
Let us be warned that Christian assemblies should not mix the worship of the enthroned one with civil religion, whether in Rome or America. We assemble to pledge allegiance to the One who alone is the great benefactor and acknowledge God’s holiness and creative work.
Despite how the world looked to the persecuted Christian communities in the Roman province of Asia, God was still on the throne. The hostile powers have not dethroned God. The enthroned God is worshipped by the heavenly hosts just as the earthly churches continue to worship the Creator of all things.