by Roger McCay
18 July 2021
Sermon Passage: Revelation 4:1-6
Link to Audio Version
A recent Gallup Poll indicates that only 12% of Americans have confidence in the U.S. Congress. Twelve-percent. And from what I’ve seen and read, such low confidence when it comes to politicians is generally consistent in America, these days.
It doesn’t help their case, and it is a simple thing to dig around for examples on the internet, when the political rulers in America blatantly lie about things, calling lies truth, spinning things in deceitful ways in order to prop up their own agendas, power, and positions rather than own-up and acknowledge the actual truth of reality, while working towards the good of American citizens. And it doesn’t help their case when they do stupid political stunts, like shirk their duties and seek to undermine the very system they are sworn to serve, like those elected representatives who recently fled Texas in order to halt the workings of democracy in their state.
Rulers or politicians who are terrible, in a bad way, are not a new thing, by any means. But we should always keep in mind that not all politicians are self-serving liars. There are certainly some honorable politicians, who work for the benefit of the people diligently, and with integrity. There are Christian politicians who work for the glory of God, knowingly under the authority of God. We should not overlook these faithful men and women who serve in the government sphere.
A number of years ago, a retired general officer reminded me of this fact, while I was attending an ethics training conference, at West-Point. The West Point code of conduct states that “A cadet will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do.” And this code carries its way through the services, generally held by soldiers and officers. In the course of the ethics discussions we were having, I posed the question as to why we in the military are held to such a high standard, when the politicians are not—evidenced by their regular lies, seemingly without consequence. Well, this retired general, who was leading the discussion at the time, reminded me that not all of them are that way, giving some anecdotals of honest politicians she knew. Her point was well made.
But my point was not wrong, only brushed aside, unanswered. And, apparently, most Americans agree. The same Gallup poll, which reports that only 12% of Americans have confidence in the U.S. Congress, also reports they have a 69% confidence rate in the American military.
As it is, and the Bible and history support this observation, human rulers are often terrible, in a bad way. In the mid-60s AD, when Revelation was written, the Christians of the seven churches in Asia were painfully feeling the truth of this reality in a rather extreme sense. The emperor, at the time, was Nero, the madman known as a “beast,” and he was vigorously persecuting Christians in the empire. The Romans held power with an iron grip and were ruthless in maintaining it. The apostle John, himself, had been banished to a prison island—Patmos. And this was around the time that the emperor had both Peter and Paul executed. From a human point of view, in contrast, it might have seemed like the fledgling church, insignificant in power, was to soon be crushed.
But, as we launch into ch. 4 of Revelation, and as the book continues, we are shown that such was not the case at all. Indeed, we are immediately faced with the very throne and throne-room of the Lord God, in heaven. It is an extremely powerful image, which, by contrast, makes all the glory of Caesar seem less than an insignificant shadow. John paints a picture of the eternal throne of the Creator, Sustainer and Ruler over all creation, the entire universe, over all that is visible and invisible, over earth and heaven, over all nations and peoples, over all who inhabit the heavenly realities, and over all events of history (past, present and future). It is the throne of the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the King of the Kingdom of God, who is the Lord and Savior of the Christians. And while Caesar is long dust, his throne rubble, and his kingdom gone, the Lord God Almighty continues to reign with all power in perfect glory. Earthly rulers take note.
In v. 1 John tells us:
After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”
Rev. 4:1 marks the beginning of a new aspect of the Lord’s revelation to John, but what follows is not separate from what has already been revealed. As we see, themes and structures set in place in chs. 1-3 of this epistle continue and are repeated, expounded upon, and illustrated with Apocalyptic imagery, as the prophecy cycles on.
Having dictated the letters to the seven churches, the Lord, who had stepped from heaven into John’s place of worship at Patmos, then opens the door back up and invites John to come with him to the place of worship in heaven. Jesus invites him to “Come up here,” promising to “show” John what “must take place after this.” This is in accord with Jesus’ command in Rev. 1:19 to “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” John is going to be shown and is to write what he sees: God’s revelation of the divine reality for God’s people—truths grounded in the now (from his perspective) and truths for what will be. And note the divine imperative. “What must take place” will absolutely take place. What God has decreed to come to pass in history, by his sovereign power, will come to pass.
So, once John went through the door, what did he see? Well, the first thing John saw, “in the Spirit,” was an occupied throne. Verse 2: “A throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.” In the power of the Spirit of God, John was brought right into the throne-room of God, in heaven, and was enabled to see. And what John sees first is not something peripheral to the main. God seated on his throne (the throne being a symbol of sovereign majesty) immediately captures his attention. And, as we’ll see, the throne-room of God remains “at the center of the imagery” of John’s entire revelation. From the center flows everything.
Now, as we move along, John’s description of God’s throne and throne-room should sound familiar, for those of you who study God’s Word. It’s been seen and described before, from the perspectives of different men. The prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah have described it, from their perspective, and glimpses of it and its related realities are given in various places in Scripture, like in Daniel and Job. John is not springing something new on us, here. And, like the door imagery with Philadelphia and Laodicea, Jesus had already prepared for the throne imagery in the book of Revelation. The Lord’s throne, first mentioned in 1:4, is set in contrast to Satan’s throne, which he mentions in Rev. 2:13. And Jesus had, in the verses immediately prior to this verse (Rev. 3:21) promised to the one who conquers, “I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.” The throne that Jesus promises to share with his faithful people, is now at the center of the picture.
The initial imagery John gives is full of color linked with what was, in his mind, “the appearance of” certain precious jewels. John gives symbolic approximations of what he saw, as he gazed upon the one on the throne. He tells us in v. 3,
3 And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.
John’s description is that of concentric circles: the throne and the one on the throne, then what is around the throne. God is often described as “light” in the Scriptures (e.g. clothed with “light as a garment” in Ps. 104:2; dwelling in “unapproachable light” in 1 Tim. 6:16; with John saying, “God is light” in 1 John 1:5). With that in mind, he now describes the Lord’s appearance in the terms of translucent stones. God’s light, his glory, is radiating outward, as through that of a “jasper stone.” Yet the stone referred to does not seem to have been what we think of as jasper now. As Leon Morris points out, “some hold that it was green jade or green quartz …, or even diamond on the grounds that elsewhere it is said to be ‘clear as crystal.’” Whatever the case the stone, as Grant Osborne observes, “is in a sense a stone that summarizes the other jewels of the book, since it also makes up the wall of the city of God (21:18) and heads the list of the twelve foundation stones of 21:19–20.” And, if the light radiating, was like a diamond, well, have you seen light shining through a diamond? Then John describes the carnelian, likely a ruby, its brilliant red burning outward from the Lord’s presence. So, there is all this light emanating from the Lord, prisming into a rainbow like a halo all around, described by John as having the appearance of an emerald (so, towards the blue/yellow end of the spectrum). Helping us “get the picture,” Ezekiel described the light radiating off the Lord in Ezek. 1:28 as being “Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around.” Thus John’s description gives us a picture of brilliance of light and color, across the spectrum of light, which is God’s glory shining forth from him and all around him (Rev. 21:11).
Considering the symbolism in the image, my thought is that the pure clarity of the jasper and the brilliant red of the carnelian bring to mind God’s holiness and justice. The rainbow imagery then indicates the sign of the covenant given to Noah (Gen. 9:16), where God promised mercy and grace to not destroy the world with water ever again. So, we have a picture of the Lord’s holiness, his justice and judgment tempered with grace and mercy—God’s glory radiating from God’s throne. A comforting picture considering the judgments to follow in the book.
And, like the rainbow encircling the throne, there were beings. Verse 4:
4 Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.
There have been many suggestions as to who these twenty-four elders might be (with their thrones, white garments, and crowns). We are not really told for sure, indicating that our knowing exactly who they are is not critical to the imagery John is putting forward. As David Aune points out, “the literary function of the twenty-four elders within Revelation is far more important than any speculation regarding their supposed identity (an identity that the author was simply not concerned to specify more closely).” But a faithful student of the Word, of course, still wants to know. So, suggestions as to their identity are debated among scholars, boiling down to two categories: human or angelic beings. There are good arguments for each identification. At times, I have felt swayed one way; at other times, the other way. In light of my recent studies, however, I’ve come to lean more towards the understanding that (rather than these being human representatives of the entirety of God’s people, whichever way you splice that theory) … I’ve come to think that these are a higher order of angelic beings. Like Morris summarizes what he describes as the “best view:” “the elders are angelic beings … who are ‘the heavenly representatives of the whole body of the faithful.’”
How so? Well, in the OT, an “angelic order” (a “heavenly court”) is referred to in various instances. As Aune explains, “such beings are variously called “Seraphim” (Isa 6:2), “spirits” (1 Kgs 22:21), “sons of God” (Job 1:6), and “elders” (Isa 24:23). And, as Ps. 89:1 puts it, God sits in the “council of his holy ones.” So the elders surrounding the throne of God fits with an existing understanding of the heavenly court expressed in the Scriptures. When John enters the throne-room, he is looking upon that court.
Considering the functions of these elders, as described in Revelation, they seem to fit with “the heavenly counterpart to the twenty-four priestly and twenty-four Levitical orders (1 Chron 24:4; 25:9–13),” as explained by Robert Mounce. Such is consistent with elements of earthly worship of the Lord being expressions of the heavenly reality, perhaps like the earthly tabernacle being a representation of the heavenly tabernacle (Heb. 8:5).
As for their thrones, angelic beings are called “thrones or powers or rulers or authorities” in Col. 1:16. In questions about their rule, we have an example in the archangel Michael, in Daniel 12:1, who is described as “the great prince who protects your people.” Then as for their garb, angels are described as wearing white in Matt. 28:3; John 20:12; and Acts 1:10.
In their function in Revelation, they engage in worship and praise, and they also serve as intermediaries and interpreters. Further, they are distinguished from humans in several ways. Grant Osborne sums up the differentiations:
In 5:8 they hold golden bowls that contain the prayers of the saints; in 7:13–14 one of them explains who the victorious saints are; in 11:18 they thank God for rewarding the saints; in 14:3 the 144,000 sing “a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders;” and in 19:4 they join the heavenly chorus.
Also, “The elders are seated on thrones (4:4; 11:16), while the saints stand before the throne (7:9).” And “since ‘all the angels’ also stand before the throne (7:11),” the 24 elders who sit on thrones are then differentiated from the other angels. So, like Osborne suggests, all this indicates is that they “must be celestial beings with a ruling function.”
As they are, the elders white garments signify purity and holiness, their thrones and crowns signify their rule, and their priestly duties and representation of God’s people fit their worship and presenting the saints’ prayers to God. Thus are the 24 elders, the heavenly court of God.
So, vv. 5-6a.
5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God,
The structure of Rev. 4 puts emphasis on the central importance of vv. 5-6a. The first part of v. 5, “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder,” is a distinctive phrase describing the presence of God, given in the context of his covenant, his worship, and his judgment. When God came down on Sinai, so that the Jews might believe the words of Moses, and he personally gave them the 10 Commandments, the Lord’s appearance in 19:16 was with “thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast,” which terrified the Jews. The description then occurs at critical junctions of the book of Revelation. In Rev. 4:5, here, it appears in the context of worship. Then it occurs in contexts of judgment in 8:5 (the seventh seal); 11:19 (the seventh trumpet); and also in 16:18 (the seventh bowl). It is a manifestation of God’s awesome majesty and power that is constantly active and ready to be unleashed.
Then “before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God.” Like we saw before, in Rev. 1:4, the seven spirits of God symbolize the Holy Spirit. The Spirit and fire are linked in various places in Scripture. The image of “the burning torches” in relation to the Spirit brings to mind the flame of the lampstand in Zech 4:2, thus the flames of the lampstands of the churches (Rev. 1:12, 20). Perhaps John alludes also to the torch imagery in Ezekiel 1:13. Then, you may remember the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, when the Spirit manifested as tongues of fire on the heads of those in the upper room. And as John the Baptist announced in Matt. 3:11, Jesus came baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire. Helping to tie this all together, Stephen Smalley points out, “Fire and flame were associated … with divinity, and were regarded with awe as an expression of divine holiness and purity.”
So, as we’ve seen, John, in Rev. 4:1-5 (with 3:21 in mind) … John highlights, in the throne room of God, the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God, three persons.
Now, take a look at the first part of v. 6: “before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.” It comes as no surprise that there is quite a bit of speculation as to what that might be. It seems to be a reference to the expanse, upon which God’s throne rested, that Ezekiel saw in Ezek. 1:22-26, which seems to build upon Gen. 1:7, which speaks of the “expanse” or firmament that separated the waters. There is too, a possible reference to the sea, in Solomon’s temple, which the priests used to wash—which had to do with purification. Considering these images, the “sea of glass” seems to symbolize, as Osborne explains, “God’s awesome vastness, transcendence and his holiness that separate [God] from his creation (like the firmament separated the waters)…. In one sense it is like glass, reflecting the magnificence and kaleidoscopic colors of the throne-room. In another sense it is transparent, crystal clear, radiating his awesome holiness.”
We’ll see the glassy sea again, as we journey through Revelation, where, in 15:2, “the ‘sea of glass’ is ‘mingled with fire,’ pointing to divine judgment.” Then, in 21:1, we find “there was no longer any sea.” Lord willing, we’ll deal with those references when we get there in our study.
As part of our personal growth in Christ, the imagery of the Lord’s throne-room is one that should be ingested and become a part of us. In our thoughts on God, it should be a constant. It gives us a visual of God’s glory, majesty, and power; his sovereign rule over all history; his eternality; his holiness; his centrality to all existence; his justice and judgment; his mercy and grace; his covenant with his people; his Trinitarian aspects. It is a picture of why we fear God, but also a picture of why we love God. Rather than letting us be ignorant to him, dead in our sins and his enemy, this incomprehensible God condescended to reveal himself to us and save us. He has proven his love for us, by Jesus on the cross. If you are his, he’s got you in the palm of his hand. In his shelter you are utterly secure. And I’m sure I could go on and on in that vein for a long, long time.
Friends, brethren, God reigns on his throne. We should find great comfort in this. As we witness the craziness and instability of politics and some of the ridiculous and dismaying words and activities of many of our political rulers, let us keep in mind the one who is the sovereign ruler over all. Let the truth of God’s reign on his thrown in heaven comfort you. While the world is blown by the wind like shifting sands, while thrashing around in confusion in rebellion against God, the Lord remains faithful and true. He is perfectly just and merciful. Nothing can hide from his light. No one can steal away his love. He is holy and he remains sovereignly in charge. Stay rooted in him. Keep your eyes on Jesus. Whatever the world sends our way, be it suffering or persecution or lies claiming to be truth; whether our economy, or even our country remains stable or falls; whether we face war, famine, plague, pestilence or death … whatever may come, God is on his throne. He is in charge. He is stable. And, if you are one of his people, we exist securely in his unwavering reign.
Jennie Lee Riddle wrote a song called the “Revelation Song,” which is performed by various artists and is one of my favorites. Perhaps you’ve heard it, or sung it. One verse has always stuck in my mind:
Clothed in rainbows, of living color
Flashes of lightning, rolls of thunder
Blessing and honor, strength and
Glory and power be
To You the Only Wise King,
Since the Lord reigns on his throne over all, we should find comfort in his rule.
 Megan Brennan, Americans’ Confidence in Major U.S. Institutions Dips, Gallup, posted 14 July 2021, https://news.gallup.com/poll/352316/americans-confidence-major-institutions-dips.aspx.
 We know how that turned out of course. The Roman empire is long-gone, and the Lord Jesus’ church continues on with tremendous growth throughout the whole earth. Indeed, rather than the Roman church destroying the church, quite a number of historians point to the Christians as being the reason the Roman empire eventually fell. But that’s a story for another time.
 Cf. Isaiah 6; Ezekiel 1, 10; Daniel 7; Job 1-2.
 Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 88.
 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 226–227.
 David E. Aune, Revelation 1–5, vol. 52A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1997), 288.
 Morris, 90.
 Aune, 290.
 Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 121–122.
 Rev. 5:14; 11:16; 19:4.
 Rev. 4:11; 5:9–10; 11:17–18; 14:3; 19:4.
 Rev. 5:5; 7:13–17.
 Osborne, 229.
 Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (London: SPCK, 2005), 119.
 Osborne, 231–232.