A Place for Everything: Rev. 4:1-5, 14
THE DILEMMA facing the reader at the end of the ‘Letters to the Churches’ in Rev 2-3 is how this messy church can fulfil the mandate of Rev 1, to be a kingdom of priests, faithfully awaiting the Lord’s return in the midst of a hostile world. The beginnings of an answer are found in the next two chapters, where John’s vision returns to the ‘heavenly realm’. Bearing in mind, however, that this is a vision, not a video, we must all the time look for the significance of what John reports.
As he is taken up in the Spirit, he at first sees simply a throne (2:3). Yet this immediately tells us that the answer to the question of who reigns is the key to how the Church will survive. And as John sees and reports more, we discover that the ‘one seated on the throne’ is the God of Israel (4:3, cf. Ex 24:10). But this figure is not alone – he is surrounded by ‘twenty-four elders’ who also reign, since they wear golden crowns (4:4). We soon learn (4:9-11) that these elders derive their rule from God. Therefore, given their number and their role we may conclude that they represent the whole church of God, under both the Old and New Covenants (cf. Psa 8:3-8; Rev 21:12,14).
Before the throne is a symbol of the (sevenfold) Spirit of God who is distributed throughout the world (4:5; 5:6, but cf. 22:17, where there is one Spirit as there is one Bride). And immediately around the throne are four terrifying creatures, whose appearance reminds us of the Cherubim seen by Ezekiel (Ezek 1:5-11). They also remind us of the Temple decorations described in 1 Kings 7:29. Thus since the Temple is the place from which God exercises his rule (cf. Psa 99), we have here a picture of God reigning over the whole of Creation and being praised and honoured by the representatives of his people (Rev 4:8-11).
However, this picture is spoilt by what John sees next. In the right hand of God is a sealed scroll which, from its Old Testament parallels, clearly represents God’s judgement on sin (5:1, cf. Ezek 2:9-10; Zech 5:1-3). No wonder John weeps when it appears no-one can deal with the problem this scroll presents (5:4). But of course there is an answer! The Lion of Judah has conquered and can open the scroll (5:5). Yet when John turns to see this figure he sees not a Lion but ‘a Lamb, standing as though it had been slain’ (5:6). Thus, as ever, God’s strength is displayed in weakness (cf. 1 Cor 1:25).
Not surprisingly, the Lamb is the object of a fresh outburst of praise on behalf of the four creatures and the twenty-four elders, which restates the terms of the gospel (5:9-10). And the voices of praise are now joined by myriads of angels, and finally ‘every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein’ (5:13).
Thus with the problem of sin dealt with by the Lamb of God, we finally see a Universe where there is ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. (Hence the answer to the question, ‘Do dogs (amongst other things) go to heaven?’ is ‘Yes – provided you understand what heaven is’.) In God’s redeemed Creation every creature find its proper relationship – God ruling at the centre, the Church sharing his reign and, between him and the Church, the Lamb acting as Mediator (5:6), then the angels who are our servants (Matt 4:6), and finally everything else.
This vision should encourage every Christian to persevere. But what is seen has not yet been achieved, because God’s final judgement has not yet come. And next in John’s vision we begin to see the impact of this judgement on the world in which we live.
John Richardson is Anglican Chaplain to the University of East London and author of Revelation Unwrapped (St Matthias Press 1996)