Thursday, February 20, 2014



            The first three chapters have prepared us to some extent for Revelation 4.  However, the descriptions in this chapter exceed the previous material in their amazing and startling images.  Chapter 1, after introductory material, presented us with a vision of Jesus in His glorious state.  He was pictured as a dazzling person with regal and priestly adornment.  He walked among the lampstands that represent the churches and held the “angels” of the churches in His hand.  He commanded John to write to the churches whatever he saw in his visions.  Chapters 2 and 3 are letters to the seven churches to which the entire book was addressed.  Jesus dictated letters to each of the churches.  These letters were assessments of the spiritual condition of the churches.  The first challenge to the churches was to respond to these assessments and deal with their individual issues.  As they did that, they would be prepared to receive the information and challenge in the remainder of the book.  In chapter 4, John begins to relate the further visions that he experienced. 


ABREVIATIONS:  ESVSB = English Standard Version Study Bible; NIVSB = New International Version Study Bible


Verse 1:  John begins by writing:  “After this…”  Literally, this is:  “After these things…”  We can infer “these things” are all that John has experienced in chapters 1-3—the vision that begins with an “auditory vision” of the trumpet-like voice, which was followed by the vision of Christ among the lampstands, which was followed, in turn, by the dictation to John of the seven letters to the churches.  After all of those experiences, his visions continued.

He saw a door opened in heaven.  The first voice that he heard now spoke to him again and told him to “come up here.”  Obviously, John could not obey that command on his own strength, but the solution was given (in the next verse).  The purpose for his coming was because the speaker was going to show him “what must take place after this.”  The “must” is a common verb that can mean “it is necessary.”  Often it implies the necessity comes because the divine will makes it necessary. 

Verse 2:  John then says “I was in the Spirit…”  He used this same expression in 1:10 to describe his state when he began to experience his visions.  Now, his ecstatic condition permitted him to see heavenly things.  John saw an open door and heard a command to come to heaven, but only through the Spirit was he able to get there. 

Whereas John has been dealing with the present, now he will begin to deal with the future.  However, it is reasonable to ask exactly how the future is to be portrayed.  I shall contrast two ways of interpreting the material that begins in chapter 4 and continues through at least 8:5.

The Dispensationalists interpret this material, beginning at 4:2, to be a projection of John into the future.  They base this partly on the command in 1:19.  This is the beginning of the things “that are to take place after this.”  Therefore, all of the material beginning at 4:2 must be in the future.  One could set the scene as follows:  John heard the trumpet-like voice as he was standing on the Isle of Patmos.  He immediately went into the ecstatic state of being in the Spirit.  In this state, he was projected into the future at the very beginning of the Tribulation period.  The rapture has just taken place.  He is—as a prophetic observer or seer—observing the scene in heaven on “day 1” of the Tribulation period. The material of chapters 4 and 5 explain what is going on in heaven, and then, as the seals are opened, chapter 6 relates what happens on earth.

The following quotations from Walvoord confirm that my rendition of the Dispensationalist interpretation is reasonable:

One of the important conclusions in prophecy is the concept that the church composed of the saved of the present age will be in heaven while the great events of the tribulation and of the end time take place. This is exactly what is described in Revelation 4–5.  (Walvoord, 526)

…but from the context in which the event is placed in the book of Revelation, it is reasonable to conclude that the rapture has taken place and that what John is seeing is a setting for events in heaven that will take place in heaven and on earth in the period after the rapture.  (Walvoord, 527)

Another way of understanding this material, I believe, is reasonable and natural.  John heard the trumpet-like voice as he was standing on the Isle of Patmos.  He immediately went into the ecstatic state of being in the Spirit.  He observed activity in heaven that was going on in his day (and continues to go on) (4:2-11).  Then, he saw the scroll with seven seals (5:1), the Lamb (5:6), and the opening of the seals (6:1ff).  The opening of the seals allows the future to begin to unfold before John’s eyes.  The fact that the voice in 4:1 stated that John would be shown things that would take place later, does not necessitate that all the material beginning at verse 2 is a projection into the future. 

Suppose someone tells you:  “Get into my car and I will show you my home.”  You get into the person’s car, and the person drives you to his home.  You get out of the car and get “the grand tour” of the person’s home.  Your entering the person’s car did not project you immediately to the person’s home.  There were additional steps—namely driving to the home and getting out of the car—before you could actually tour the person’s home.  Nevertheless, the person’s promise to show you his home was fulfilled in a very natural way. 

In the same way, the Lord promised to show John things to come when he entered heaven.  However, to see those things to come, the seals had to be broken.  That required, first that we be introduced to the One sitting on the throne, to the Lamb, and to the scroll with seven seals.  Once that preliminary information was revealed, the future could unfold.  Moreover, the preliminary information (chapters 4 and 5) provides us with some important background and context for all that follows. 

I think that there is descriptive material in chapter 4 that confirm my interpretation.  I shall point those elements out as we encounter them.

Another issue that should be discussed at this point is whether John’s experience was “a Rapture” or not.  Walvoord deals with this issue.  Some Dispensationalists consider that, when the trumpet-like voice said “come up here” and John did so through the Spirit, this was a symbolic depiction of the rapture (Ladd, 71-72).  Although Walvoord considers that the passage is depicting events that will take place after the Rapture, he does not consider John’s personal experience to be a rapture and he does not consider that it symbolizes the rapture.  (Walvoord, 527)  In fact, he believes that John’s body remained on the Isle of Patmos while he was “in the Spirit.”  This is probably a reasonable understanding.

            The first thing that John saw in heaven was a throne and the One who was sitting on the throne (4:2).  In a sense, this vision is the key to the entire book.  All that takes place is understood to play out before the One who is sitting on the throne.  The phrase “sits on the throne”—or an equivalent—in reference to God is used in 4:9, 4:10, 5:1, 5:13, 6:16, 7:10, 7:15, 19:4, and 21:5 (at least).  We are introduced to the One who sits on the throne in this scene (4:2ff), and then we hear from this same One who sits on the throne in 21:5 in the final consummation.  At that time, He will say:  “Behold, I am making all things new.”  In all the references I cited that have “the One who sits on the throne,” the construction is a present participle.  Although the exact translation may vary by the translator’s choice and may be influenced by the tense of the main verb in the context, all of these could be translated “the One who is sitting on the throne.”  That is, they are all in continuous present.  God is always on the throne.  No matter how the heathen may rage, God is on the throne and will have the last laugh (Psalm 2). 

Verse 3:  The description of this Person is beyond our imagination.  Ladd (72) points out that there is no anthropomorphism in this depiction.  John seems to want to convey brightness, color, beauty, splendor, and wealth.  Precious stones and gems are the paints on his palette.  How a person can look like precious stones is not clear; nor is it clear how a rainbow can look like an emerald.  Somehow, we get the idea of the glory of God that John saw.

Verse 4:  John saw 24 “elders” sitting on thrones around the throne of God.  The term “elder” in Greek, as in English, is an adjective in the comparative degree that is often used as a noun.  So, it literally could be translated “a relatively older man.”  However, the common usage designated a person as an “elder” as one who exercised authority, in the village, the Jewish synagogue, or the church.  These heavenly elders were dressed in white and had golden crowns.  The crowns were the “stephanos” type of crown or wreath that was often given to symbolize a victory.
            Dispensationalists, including Walvoord (207-208), believe that these elders were humans who had been resurrected or raptured with the church at the beginning of the Tribulation.  Their strongest argument of all is that the elders were wearing crowns of victory (Pentecost, 208).  Pentecost (207-209) argues that the description of the elders is not appropriate for angels.  He claims that their white robes indicate that they have been judged (at the Judgment Seat of Christ)—inappropriate for angels.  He claims that angels would not have the “royal dignity” of thrones.  He also mentions a “priestly act” in 5:8.  This, I assume, refers to the elders’ holding bowls of incense representing the prayers of the saints.  This, Pentecost says, “is never said of angels” (Pentecost, 209).

            There are rebuttals to most of Pentecost’s claims.  First, the reason the elders were wearing white robes is not given in the text.  In fact, angels are often described as having white clothing (see Acts 1:10).  Second, I know of no Scripture passage that says angels cannot sit on thrones.  Michael, the archangel, is designated a “prince” in Daniel 11:1 and 12:1. 

Third, the use of “stephanos” does not necessarily designate a crown of victory.  It is true that the elders wore a “stephanos” kind of crown rather than a “diadema” kind of crown.  The diadema is called the “real headdress of the ruler” (Arndt and Gingrich in entry for “stephanos”).  And, often the stephanos is a reward for a victory. For example, it was the wreath that was given in athletic contests.  However, there are a number of cases where stephanos is a symbol of royalty or authority or dignity or pride.  For example, the Septuagint uses this word for such a crown in II Samuel 12:30, I Chronicles 20:2, Song of Solomon 3:11.  Revelation uses stephanos in this sense in 6:2, 9:7, and 12:1.  Paul describes two churches as his “joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1) and “crown of boasting” (I Thessalonians 2:19)—expressions that Arndt and Gingrich describe as “adornments” or “pride.”  So, the use of “stephanos” in chapter 4 does not necessarily designate the elders as saints of the church who have received their reward.

            Fourth, at least one other reference depicts an angel in a priestly role.  The elders are depicted in 5:8 holding bowls of incense “which are the prayers of the saints.”  This is the priestly act that Pentecost refers to and says that it is not appropriate for angels.  However, in 8:3 an angel offers incense mixed with the prayers of the saints on the altar—a very similar “priestly act.”  This would refute Pentecost’s claim.

In the King James Version, verse 5:9 says that the elders sang a new song “…for thou…hast redeemed us…” However, Ladd (74-75) points out that the Greek manuscripts that most other versions are based on do not have the Greek for “us.”  No object of the verb is given, but the object is inferred from the prepositional phrase that modifies it.  The object is inferred to be “men” or “people.”  So, ESV has it:  “…you redeemed people for God from every tribe and language…”  Thus, the presbyters do not necessarily include themselves among the redeemed.

            For additional arguments, one may consult Ladd (73-75).

Verse 5a:  There were sights and sounds coming from the throne:   “flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder…”  ESVSB notes that “rumblings” can be translated “sounds” or “voices.”  This description causes one to imagine a very scary scene.  But one also should note carefully this expression, because it shows up other times in Revelation.  There are three series of seven in the book—seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls of wrath.  When the seventh seal is opened, the seventh trumpet is blown, and the seventh bowl is emptied, the three phenomena—lightning, voices, and thunder—take place.  In addition there is an earthquake and, in one case, hail.  See 8:5, 11:19, and 16:18.  I think these phenomena signify two things.  First, they remind us of the first encounter we have with the lightning, voices, and thunder.  That encounter in chapter 4 is when John saw the throne of God.  So, these phenomena remind us that God is on the throne and all things are under His ultimate Lordship.  Second, the fact that we seem to wind up with the same phenomena may signify that all of the series end up at the same time.  They may start at different times, but they seem to end at the same endpoint.  This is a little theory of mine that may or may not hold up.

Verse 5b:  John also saw seven torches burning.  These are called the “seven spirits of God.”  The seven spirits were mentioned also in verse 1:4.  Ladd (76) interprets the “seven spirits of God” as an expression for the “fullness of God’s Spirit.”  Morris (48) says the “seven” in 1:4 may refer to the perfection of the Spirit.

Verse 6a:  In front of the throne was a sea that appeared to be made of crystalline glass.  Two opinions are given in ESVSB and NIVSB.   One is that this is the “expanse” that Ezekiel and others saw when they saw the throne of God (Ezekiel 1:22).  That is, it looked like roof of the sky from below and like the floor of heaven.  The other opinion is that this is the heavenly “sea” that was represented by the bronze basin that was in the courtyard of the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:17ff) and the “sea,” which was fifteen feet in diameter, that was in the Temple courtyard (I Kings 7:23ff).  Since the sea is described to be before the throne and not under it, I tend to reject the idea that is the same as the “expanse” that was seen by Ezekiel.  The other mention of a sea of glass—one assumes it is the same one as in 4:6—is in Revelation 15:2.  That sea of glass is “mingled with fire.”  In neither 4:6 nor 15:2 do we find the significance of this sea.  It strikes me that sometimes there are things in Scripture that are just there.  Movies and novels sometimes have something that is “local color.”  So, I might just throw out that the Lord knows the significance of the sea of glass that is mingled with fire, and we don’t, but we know it is in heaven.

Verses 6b-8a:  John then described four heavenly creatures.  These are called “living creatures” by most translations; however, the word could be translated “animals.”  King James Version does use “beasts.”  These would not be animals in the zoological sense, but they are so different from most angelic beings, “living creature” is about the best one can do.  The description of these creatures resembles some other sightings of heavenly creatures associated with the throne of God.  The table below gives some of the descriptive features from the four passages—Revelation 4, Isaiah 6, and Ezekiel 1 and 10.


Revelation 4
Isaiah 6
Ezekiel 1 and 10
Living creatures
Full of eyes
Six wings
Six wings
Four wings
Each had a
Each had 4 faces
1.      Lion
1.      Human
2.      Ox
2.      Lion
3.      Man
3.       Ox
4.      Eagle
4.      Eagle
Say “holy…”
Say “holy…”
Had hands
Feet like calves feet
Had wheels


These descriptions seem bizarre and almost shocking.  We have romanticized images of angels in our minds.  We are not prepared to learn that God is not limited to making cute, chubby little 4-year olds with wings and rosy cheeks.  These descriptions break us free.  C. S. Lewis somewhere said that the truth is surprising.  So, John’s vision is surprising.

Verse 8b:  The visions of John were consistently auditory as well as visual.  The four creatures are constantly saying one refrain.  It is important to note that the entire description employs present tense verbs and participles including verse 4:8b.  The present tense generally expresses continuous action; so this is a description of what is continually going on in heaven:  “[And] day and night they [the four living creatures] never cease to say…” (4:8b) Their refrain expresses the holiness of God and His eternity.  John’s description of continuous praise implies that what he is describing is not something that will only take place in the Tribulation period, but is something that was going on in John’s day and continues to take place today.

Verse 9-10:  The 24 elders respond to the praise that is given by the four living creatures.  The living creatures’ praise is characterized in a full way as “glory and honor and thanks.”  One would not characterize in this way the two-line refrain that John quotes from the living creatures.  It may be that this is one of a number of praise hymns that the living creatures recite.  The verbs that describe the response of the 24 elders are in the future tense.  Although Brooks and Winbery (98) do not include this passage, I believe this fits their description of the “gnomic future,” which they say “states what will always happen, if the proper conditions are present…”  (Brooks and Winbery, 98)  In this case, the conditions are that the four living creatures give their praise, and then what always happens is that the 24 elders respond.  Their response is to fall down, throw their crowns before the throne, and make their declaration of the Lord’s worthiness.  Again, this description of the response of the 24 elders seems to be a description of on-going heavenly activity that was going on in John’s day and continues to this day.

Verse 11:  The Lord is worthy, say the elders, to receive glory because He is the Creator.  This jars us a little, because we are very used to creation.  Therefore, all merit, in our viewpoint, comes through accomplishments within the created order.  But God, who had no created order, created one for Himself, and therefore He is worthy.  The other part of this declaration from the elders is that, by implication, the Lord is absolute owner of all things.  Again, in our finite minds, we cannot understand that fact.  We work hard, save a down payment, and buy…whatever, a car, a house, etc.  It is ours.  And yet we do not recognize it is a gift from God.  He is worthy to receive our thanks and our praise.  He is also, say the elders, worthy to receive power.  What does that mean?  Obviously, the Lord already has all power.  However, the elders are stating that it is appropriate that the Lord use His power in His own creation.  One might say that the Lord is “worthy to take up power.”  In so speaking, the elders are saying that they relinquish their own power.  They will not use their own power except under the direction of the Lord.  All power is to be used by the Lord for His purposes in His creation.  We observe that the Lord God is forever sitting on His throne, and that this is the backdrop to the book of Revelation.  We also observe that the heavenly beings—and all on earth who walk according to the Lord’s ways—recognize that the Lord will rightfully exercise power in the universe, especially on earth.  The lightning, voices, and thunder from the throne remind us of the God who rules legitimately with awesome power over all of history.

Conclusion:  John’s vision of heaven, the throne, the four living creatures, the 24 elders, the sea of glass, and the ongoing praise around the throne give us an insight into the heavenly perspective.  In heaven, everyone knows that God is on the throne.  Everyone is in agreement that the Lord rightfully exercises power in history.  All that we shall see in the remainder of the book will be in the context of the reign of the omnipotent God who owns all of creation.


Arndt, William F. and F. Wilbur Gingrich.  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and

            Other Early Christian Literature.  (from Walter Bauer)  Chicago:  The University of

            Chicago Press, 1957.

Brooks, James A. and Carlton L. Winbery.  Syntax of New Testament Greek. Lanham, MD: 

            University Press of America, 1979.

Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible.  Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Ladd, G. Eldon.  A Commentary on the Revelation of John.  Grand Rapids:  William B.

            Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972.

Morris, Leon.  The Revelation of St. John.  Tyndale Bible Commentaries. Vol. 20.  R. V. G. Tasker,

            Gen. Ed. Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1980.

Walvoord, John F. (2011-09-01). Every Prophecy of the Bible: Clear Explanations for Uncertain

            Times. David C Cook. Kindle Edition.  

Zondervan NIV Study Bible.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publ., 2002


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