by Roger McCay
25 July 2021
Sermon Passage: Revelation 4:6-11
Link to Audio Version
Nero Claudius Caesar was set up for failure early on. From the time of Augustus, emperors were proclaimed as deities in Rome, and the emperor cult had made its way through the empire. As a child, Nero was encouraged and convinced by his tutor, Seneca, that he would become “the very revelation of the divine Augustus and of the god Apollo.” Later, once he was crowned emperor, Nero was proclaimed a god, over time compared with Apollo and Jupiter. The senate raised a huge statue of him the size of Mars’ image in Mars’ own temple (about 110 to 120 feet tall). He was deified by the Greeks as “Zeus, Our Liberator.” At Ephesus, there are inscriptions declaring him as “Almighty God” and “Savior.” At Salamis, Cyprus he is hailed as “God and Savior.” And his image was printed upon various coins in the realm emphasizing his deity.
Dio Cassius, the Roman Historian, records several incidents concerning worship of Nero in the empire, including one case where a Roman Senator was executed for refusing to worship him. Another incident the historian relates is particularly disturbing. In AD 66, around the time of John’s writing Revelation, Tiridates, the King of Armenia, came to Nero to show his devout worship. Dio Cassius writes,
Indeed, the proceedings of the conference were not limited to mere conversations, but a lofty platform had been erected on which were set images of Nero, and in the presence of the Armenians, Parthians, and Romans Tiridates approached and paid them reverence; then, after sacrificing to them and calling them by laudatory names, he took off the diadem from his head and set it upon them.
Continuing the account, Dio Cassius says,
Tiridates publicly fell before Nero seated upon the rostra in the Forum: “Master, I am the descendant of Arsaces, brother of the kings Vologaesus and Pacorus, and thy slave. And I have come to thee, my god, to worship thee as I do Mithras. The destiny thou spinnest for me shall be mine; for thou art my Fortune and my Fate.”
At odds with such worshipful professions was Nero’s character. He was a cruel tyrant, and a monstrous madman well-known for his evil. Kenneth Gentry gives some examples:
He killed his own mother, brother, aunt, and wife – as well as many prominent citizens of Rome. He was known to tie slaves to stakes, dress in a lion skin, and attack and molest them. He was feared and hated by his own people. A perusal of the ancient literature demonstrates that Nero “was of a cruel and unrestrained brutality. … In the first century, Apollonius of Tyana even calls Nero a “beast.”
In AD 68, only two years after Tiridates worshipped this beast, Nero committed suicide. So much for that god. He was proved unworthy.
Now, while Nero was uniquely him, there are all sorts of people and things that draw the worship of the masses, tempting even Christians. Idols are all around us, seeking our devotion. But whatever the idols of our day that hunger for our worship, they are not worthy. They cannot be worthy. There is only one who is worthy: the triune Lord God Almighty, Yahweh; the one who reveals himself through his creation and by his Word and Spirit. Who or what can compare to him? The worship of anyone or anything else is ludicrous and foolish. Like the worship of Nero, it is an abomination, robbing the Lord God of worship that belongs to him alone.
But why is the Lord God alone worthy of worship? The Bible tells us through and through. Our meditations on his Word through God’s Spirit reveal the answer to us. In our faith, we come to grasp the truth, knowing there is so much more reason, all which we cannot grasp even after a lifetime of following Jesus. Yet the triune God, the Lord, condescends to give us some clear, distinct reasons, which can only be applied to him and are found in our passage today. He is holy, eternal, all-powerful, the creator of all things, and Lord of all things, who sovereignly reigns on his throne over all things, in glory.
Last week we looked at the description of the throne-room of God with God’s glory and presence (full of thunder and lightning and brilliant lights across the spectrum of the rainbow, surrounding the throne) then at the 24 elders, the heavenly court of God, who sit on thrones around the throne of God.
In our passage today, John speaks to the four living creatures, who are “in the midst of the throne and around the throne” of God (as literally translated). John describes them, in vv. 6-8, as being “full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight…. each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within.” Their description is pretty jarring, particularly with all the eyes all over them. But this imagery is not new, and it hearkens to two particular passages in the OT that describe both the cherubim and the seraphim: Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6. There are some differences in their descriptions. For example the cherubim have four wings and the seraphim have six. And the cherubim each have four faces with “eyes all around” and so forth. But neither image of these beings in Ezekiel or Isaiah is exactly like John’s description, and it seems that John combined some of their traits.
Unsurprisingly, there are a few ways that folks have tried to parse out what these beings are. My thought is that they are, perhaps, seraphim, as Isaiah’s description is not as detailed as Ezekiel’s, as to their appearance, and so what he describes fits (the six wings and their singing Holy, Holy, Holy). And what is left out of their description, in Isaiah, may be filled in by John. That there are similarities to the cherubim is no hurdle.
Further, when it comes to the creatures’ appearance, particularly the eyes and the faces, there are quite a few ideas towards what their aspects symbolize. Symbolism, by definition, points to something else. Sometimes the symbol is explained, like when Jesus said “the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20). But, the symbolism of the creatures is not laid out for us in such a way. So, we have to think of what (with our Biblical lens of understanding) … what comes to mind when we read or hear the description.
Perhaps, as there are four of them, this may symbolize the “four corners of the earth” (Rev. 7:1), symbolizing the whole of creation, or, more specifically, symbolizing “the four corners of the land” (e.g. Ezek. 7:2, referring to “the land of Israel”). Then, concerning their eyes all around, such signifies, like Grant Osborne suggests, “unceasing vigilance. As in a sense the “eyes” of God, they might even be extensions of his omniscience as they watch over his creation. Nothing can be withheld from these beings as they oversee God’s affairs.”  Then, with the four different appearances of their faces, it may be that they “represent the whole of animate creation …, perhaps detailing what is noblest, strongest, wisest, and swiftest in God’s creation.”
We are not told exactly, and leaving it as a mystery is okay. What we get from the descriptions, though, is a sense of “this is beyond what we know on this earth,” and the impression that these beings are of the highest order. It is beyond us, for now. And such contributes to the sense of awe that the whole picture John describes, in the throne room … the sense of awe that gives to those of us who contemplate it. Furthermore, these creatures, along with the elders, serve to help move the book of Revelation along.
Now, when it comes to the four living creatures, with their close proximity to the throne and taking the lead in unceasing, worshipful praise, it seems that they may be the leaders of the Lord’s court. We see them also, later in Revelation, calling for judgment with the four horsemen and the bowls of God’s wrath (Rev. 6:1-8; 15:7). Here, though, the emphasis is on their leading the heavenly worship, with the 24 elders responding. Their unceasing chorus, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” reminds us of the chorus in Isaiah 6, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts (the “Lord Sabaoth”); the whole earth is full of his glory!” But, as you’ll notice, the only exact repetition is “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.”
In the present chorus in Rev. 4, they focus on the Lord’s holiness and his sovereign power, while highlighting his eternality, all of which are important emphases in which to understand the themes of Revelation. As the Lord is perfectly holy (three times emphasized as Holy, Holy, Holy—in other words, exceedingly, exceedingly holy—of which can be said of none other) … as the perfectly holy Lord, God is separate from all created beings—utterly unique and perfect in his being and attributes. That he is Lord God Almighty, his power is irresistible over all creation and history. Then, as “the one who was and is and is to come,” the Lord is eternal. And his eternality is highlighted three times in this passage, not only in the hymn, but in vv. 9 and 10 where he is twice called him “who lives forever and ever.”
The force of emphasis that we come away with from the chorus of the four living creatures is that the Lord is utterly substantial and the ultimate force of being in power and perfection. No power can resist his almighty power. Nothing and no one else was always before, is now, and always will be. His eternal existence is unique, as he is not a created being. All of history is his and unfolds according to his will. His judgments are perfect and there is no one who can challenge him. In contrast to earthly powers, be it the Jews or the Romans (who bring down persecutions upon the Christians), they are nothing before him. What is any nation or ruler or people in comparison to his sovereign and all-powerful reign? What was Nero in comparison to the Lord God Almighty? Like Isaiah proclaimed, in Isa. 40:17, “All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.”
“Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
Now, to the church going through tribulation, at the time of John’s writing (Rev. 1:9), this reminder as to the thrice holy, all-powerful, and eternal Lord God (the one who loves them, claims them as his, and keeps them) … the praise in this passage was a solid comfort, fuel to strengthen their faith. Likewise, to the church of all times and places, its truths remain our hope and joy. Like the first century church, we see rampant evil all around us, evil that is constantly bombarding us in one way or another. In our limited scope evil may seem all powerful, but we know better than to despair. The Lord has revealed the truth of himself. The Lord God’s “power and eternal being ensure that his holiness will triumph over all evil.” Do you believe that? Do you find hope, joy, and comfort in God’s holiness, power, and eternality?
And so we come to the 24 elders’ response to the chorus of the four living beings. Verse 10 describes them coming off their thrones and falling down before the throne of the Lord God, worshipping him, and casting their crowns before the throne. While they all are powerful rulers at the highest order of creation, they all fall prostrate in worship before the one God. In the casting of their crowns they signify that their glory (which must be awesome) is nothing compared to the Creator. Any glory that is theirs is ultimately the Lords. All glory in creation flows to the throne of God, and the source of all glory is the one upon the throne.
So, falling humbly before the Lord, glorifying him, the 24 elders respond to the chorus, singing (v. 11):
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
Why is God worshipped? It is because he alone is worthy. Why is he worthy? Because he created all things, and by his will the created order came into being and is preserved, continually existing. He is the creator and sustainer of all that exists. What is outside his creation? Only him. Thus, he alone is worthy. The 24 elders, while powerful, honorable, and glorious beings, are that way because God created them to be that way, gifting them. Therefore, they devote it all back to God, as it was his in the first place, and remains his in truth.
Thus God is worthy of worship because of his holy, almighty, eternal being and his work as the creator Lord, which is all-encompassing. All of creation, everything and everyone are his to do with as he pleases (Daniel 4:35-37). All that we are, how we are worked into God’s tapestry of redemptive history, everything that happens to us is all part of his ongoing creation. And what he has done, what he does, and what he will do is wondrous.
Knowing this gives us firm assurance that whatever happens to us, whatever may come, be it suffering or bliss, we can rest assured that God is working whatever it is that is going on in our life and the world according to his sovereign purposes and will. This is why Paul could confidently say in Romans 8:28, “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
As we move on from here, consider the words of N.T. Wright concerning Rev. 4:
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.
And so, as what has already come (from our perspective) and what will come unfolds for us, as we journey through the Apocalypse, John will reveal his vision of the Lord God at work. We will see God put things right through the blessings and curses of his covenant faithfulness. His justice will be shown in his judgment and wrath upon his enemies, and his mercy and grace will be shown in the vindication of his people. And, throughout the book, worship remains a constant. For the Lord God is worthy.
Now, the 24 elders worship, with the casting of their crowns, makes me think of (and you’ve probably seen this) athletes or musicians who point upward when they are being cheered or applauded after a significant feat or performance. Such is an extremely appropriate gesture.
My friends, there are a great many things for which we are able to bask in glory, whether it is for ourselves or for others. For example, there’s nothing like a great hard-won win at sports, perhaps a championship or a gold medal. The cheering and excitement, its wonderful! We seek it out—to give it and receive it. Whether in sports or something else, we strive to achieve glory, with accomplishments and performance, or we strive to partake of it through the experience of others. We also find glory in the beauty of creation all around us, in a song or landscape, the beauty of a flower, in the dawn of a new day or a glorious sunset. Psalm 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Glory is something we desire, that we long for. But remember that in our experience of glory in God’s creation, from whatever source, we are only glimpsing a reflection of the Lord’s glory. That desire for glory, that yearning we feel is ultimately a desire for the true source of all glory. Remember. Stay humble.
Thus, when we recognize or experience glory, we are given an opportunity to worship. What will we worship? Will we worship God’s creation, in whatever form, where we find glory—be it in nature or athletes or artists or a beautiful person or politicians or whatever or whoever—perhaps even as self-worship, if that glory is ours? I hope not. Don’t spoil a good thing with idolatry.
That glory you sense (that joy and excitement, that appreciation for something wonderful), it’s the pull of God’s glory upon you, turning your face towards him, to worship him. Remember that. Praise what is laudable, but don’t give your worship to the unworthy; that or who’s glory could only ever be a reflection. Worship the source: the holy, eternal Lord God Almighty, the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. He is worthy of glory and honor and power and thanks. Worship him. Because the Lord God alone is worthy of worship, Christians should focus all our worship on him.
 Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., The Beast of Revelation, Second Edition. (Fountain Inn, SC: Victorious Hope Publishing, 2002), 80.
 Ibid., 83, quoting Arthur Weigall, Nero: Emperor of Rome (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1933), 276.
 Ibid., 81, referencing James J. L. Ratton, The Apocalypse of St. John (London: R. and T. Washbourne, 1912), 48.
 Ibid., 82, quoting Dio Cassius, Roman History. 62:26:3.
 Ibid., 82, quoting Dio Cassius, Roman History 62:5:2.
 Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Book of Revelation Made Easy (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2019), 63.
 Gk. – Καὶ ἐν μέσῳ τοῦ θρόνου καὶ κύκλῳ τοῦ θρόνου
 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 233.
 Ibid., 234.
 Leon Morris, Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 92.
 Tom Wright, Revelation for Everyone, For Everyone Bible Study Guides (London; Louisville, KY: SPCK; Westminster John Knox, 2011), 49.