Revelation Chapter 4-5
Rev. 4.1 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.”
Seeing a “door standing open in heaven,” John is told to “come up here” (cf. Eze 1:1). He receives a new view of God’s majesty and power (throne) so that he can understand the events on earth that relate to the seven-seal vision (cf. 1Ki 22:19). For the first time in Revelation, the reader is introduced to the frequent interchange between heaven and earth found in the remainder of the book. What happens on earth has its heavenly counterpart.
Chapter 4 focuses on the throne vision that provides the setting for the dramatic action of the slain Lamb in ch. 5. There is a connection between this throne vision and the vision of the glorified Christ in 1:11-16. We are told that John heard the same voice speaking to him that he “had first heard speaking . . . like a trumpet” (cf. 1:10). The words of the messenger relate to what has just transpired: “I will show you what must take place after this”—after the time of the historical churches in Asia (cf. 1:19).
There is no good reason for seeing the invitation for John to come up into the opened heaven as a symbol of the rapture of the church. Some have so interpreted it and have inferred that the absence of the word “church” (GK G1711) from Revelation till 22:16 and the continued references to the “saints” indicate that at this point the church departs from the earth. But the word “church” or “churches” always stands in Revelation for the historic seven churches in Asia and not for the universal body of Christ. Since 4:1-22:15 concerns the believing community as a whole, it would be inappropriate to find the narrower term “church” in this section (cf. 3Jn 6, 9-10).
Finally, it is significant that the visions that continue to the end of the book refer to the throne, the book, the crowns, the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, and the victory of the Lamb. In all this, the central focus appears to be the five hymns of praise that begin in 4:8 and continue through ch. 5.
2 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. 3 And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was la rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.
- Chapter 4 is above all a vision of the royal throne of God. The prophet ascends “in the Spirit” to see the source of all that will happen on earth (cf. 1:10). It will all be an expression of the throne’s purpose; nothing happens in the past, present, or future apart from God’s intention. Whatever authority is given to an angel or to a horseman is given by God. The throne symbolizes God’s majesty and power. Yet his majestic transcendence is fully safeguarded—John does not attempt to describe the “someone sitting on” the throne (cf. 1Ki 22:19; 2Ch 18:18; Ps 47:8; Isa 6:1ff.; Eze 1:26-28).
- The minerals “jasper” and “carnelian” portray the supernatural splendor of God while the “rainbow, resembling an emerald,” conveys the impression of God’s encircling brilliance (cf. Eze 1:27-28). But we need not find symbolism in each element of the vision; it is enough to allow the imagery to create the impression of transcendent glory. Whether John intends God’s judgment to be part of the symbolism of the throne vision (cf. Ps 9:4, 7) is not clear. What is unmistakably clear is that all—whether elders, angels, lamps, sea of glass, or living creatures—centers on the throne and the one who sits on it, “who lives for ever and ever” (v. 9).
- Imitating Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s reserve in describing visions of God’s glory (cf. Isa. 6:1–6; Ezek. 1:26–28), John suggests luminous colors—jasper, carnelian, rainbow, emerald—but avoids precise description of the Almighty’s visible features, perhaps because he knew no language to describe what he saw. The jewels of this book (cf. Rev. 21:19–20) are not meant to be interpreted individually but together signify the splendor and majesty of God.
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.
- Next John sees “twenty-four elders.” It would be helpful if we could ask an interpreting angel, “Who are the elders?” (see also 4:9-11; 5:5-14; 7:11-17; 11:16-18; 12:10-12; 14:3; 19:4).
- There are at least thirteen different views of their identity, ranging from the twenty-four ruling stars (or judges) in the heavens to a simple figure of wholeness and fullness. The elders are always associated with the “four living creatures” (4:6ff.) and engage in acts of worship of God and the Lamb. While not entirely ruling out the elders’ possible representative or symbolic significance, the arguments of those who interpret the elders as a class of heavenly spirit-beings belonging to the general class of angels and living creatures seem more compelling. From this viewpoint, the “angels,” the “twenty-four elders,” and “the four living creatures” all designate actual supernatural beings involved with the purpose of God on earth and his worship in heaven. They are always distinguished from the “saints” (5:8; 11:17-18; 19:1-4).
- In the Bible “twelve” appears to be the number of divine government—twelve months in a lunar year, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles, twelve gates in the New Jerusalem, twelve angels at each gate, twelve foundations, twelve thousand sealed from each tribe, etc. Multiples of twelve—such as twenty-four, etc.—probably have a similar significance. “Thrones” are related to the heavenly powers in Col 1:16. In Revelation “white” clothing generally belongs to the saints but relates to angelic beings elsewhere in the NT (e.g., Jn 20:12). While the “crowns of gold” (cf. 4:10; 9:7; 14:14) are likewise usually related to the redeemed, here they refer to the royal dignity of those so closely associated with the throne of God (cf. 1Ki 22:19; Ps 89:7).
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,
- “Flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder” coming from the throne symbolize God’s awesome presence and the vindication of the saints and occur with slight variation three more times in Revelation (8:5; 11:19; 16:18; cf. Ex 19:16; Eze 1:13; Ps 18:13-15). On the expression “seven blazing lamps,” see comment on 1:4 (cf. Eze 1:13).
6 and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.
And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind:
- The sea of glass appears in prophetic visions of God’s throne room (Ex. 24:10; Ezek. 1:22, 26; Rev. 15:2). It is the “floor” of heaven and the “ceiling” of the created universe, and its transparent tranquility shows heaven’s peace in contrast to earthly turmoil.
7 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.
. Four living creatures exhibit features of cherubim (full of eyes; lion; ox; man; eagle) and seraphim (six wings; “Holy, holy, holy”) glimpsed by previous prophets (Isa. 6:2–3; Ezek. 1:10, 18). Variation and blending of such features is a reminder that in prophetic visions, images symbolize mysterious unseen realities. These close attendants represent and yet transcend the whole of the created order on earth and in heaven as they ceaselessly praise God for his intrinsic attributes: infinite holiness and power, and eternal life (in the repeated description, “who lives forever and ever,” in Rev. 4:9–10). When the Lamb breaks the scroll’s seals, these living creatures will summon four horsemen to bring judgment (6:1–8).
8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”
9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever,
- The “four living creatures” (cf. 5:6, 8, 14; 6:1ff.; 7:11; 14:3; 15:7; 19:4) should be linked with Isaiah’s seraphim and Ezekiel’s cherubim (cf. Isa 6:3; Eze 1:5-25; 10:1-22). They, like the elders and angels, are heavenly creatures of the highest order involved with the worship and government of God. “Covered with eyes” may give the impression of their exceeding knowledge of God, while the faces of a “lion,” “ox,” “man,” and a “flying eagle” suggest qualities that belong to God, such as royal power, strength, spirituality, and swiftness of action. Each of the creatures mentioned is the chief of its species. Together they embody the reflection of God’s nature as the fullness of life and power. Their six wings (cf. Isa 6:2) give the impression of unlimited mobility in fulfilling God’s commands. Their position “in the center, around the throne” suggests that one might be before and one behind the throne with one on either side.
- The four living creatures ceaselessly proclaim the holiness of God in a hymn: “Holy, holy, holy” (GK G41; cf. Isa 6:3). In Hebrew, the double repetition of a word adds emphasis, while the rare threefold repetition designates the superlative and calls attention to the infinite holiness of God—the quality of God felt by creatures in his presence as awesomeness or fearfulness (Ps 111:9). The living creatures celebrate God’s holiness and power as manifested in his past, present, and future activity. Such holiness cannot tolerate the presence of evil (21:27). For the titles of God in the rest of the hymn, see comments on 1:4, 8.
- This hymn is the first not only of the five sung by the heavenly choirs in chs. 4-5 but also of a number of other hymns in Revelation (4:11; 5:9-10, 12, 13; 7:12, 15-17; 11:15, 17-18; 12:10-12; 15:3-4; 16:5-7; 18:2-8; 19:2-6). These hymns relate to the interpretation of the visions and provide a clue to the literary structure of Revelation. In the sequence of chs. 4-5, the first two hymns are addressed to God, the next two to the Lamb, and the last one to both. There is also a gradual enlargement in the size of the choirs. The internal movement builds as the last hymn is sung by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth” to “him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (5:13).
10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
.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.”
- The second hymn is sung by the twenty-four elders. When the living creatures confess the truth of God’s holy deeds, the response of the highest order of God’s heavenly creatures is to relinquish their crowns of honor before the feet of him who alone is “worthy” of “glory and honor and power” because he alone (no man, not even the emperor) is the source and stay of every created thing (Pss 33:6-9; 102:25; 136:5ff.). The expression “by your will they were created and have their being” (v. 11) describes first the fact of their existence and then their origin.
5.1 Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne ha scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals.
- John sees “in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll [GK G1046] with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals.” A problem arises regarding the phrase “with writing on both sides.” In ancient times, papyrus rolls were used for public and private documents. Usually the writing was on one side only—the inside part, arranged in vertical columns. Occasionally a scroll was written on both sides; such double-sided writing was for private, nonsalable use in contrast to the usual scrolls written on only one side, which were sold. In the context of ch. 5, a double-sided scroll would signify a scroll full of words. A scroll could be opened only after all the seals were broken.
- Scrolls, or folded sheets, were sealed with wax blobs impressed with a signet ring to protect the contents or to guarantee the integrity of the writing. Only the owner could open the seals and disclose the contents. Original documents were usually sealed; copies were not. Sealed documents were kept hidden while unsealed copies were made public (Rev 22:10).
- As to the identity and significance of the scroll, there are a number of different views.
- (1) Ancient Roman wills were sealed with six seals, each of which bore a different name of the sealer and could only be opened by him. This has led some to identify the scroll as the testament of God concerning the promise of the inheritance of his future kingdom.
- (2) Others find the scroll containing, like Ezekiel’s scroll, “words of lament and mourning and woe” (Eze 2:9-10) and depicting the future judgment of the world.
- (3) Still others find the significance to be the progressive unfolding of the history of the world. As each successive seal is opened, the further contents of the book are revealed. It is the “title-deed” (cf. Jer 32:10-14) to creation that was forfeited by sin in Genesis. By his redeeming death Christ has won the authority to reclaim the earth.
- (4) A more recent study finds the scroll to be the OT Torah (Law).
- Each of these views has merit and may provide elements of truth for the background of the striking imagery in these chapters. Yet each view is vulnerable to criticism. Only from Revelation itself can the content and nature of the scroll be determined. Since the seals hinder the opening of the scroll until they are all broken, we may assume that the seals are preparatory to the opening of the scroll and the disclosure of its contents. This means that the seals have the effect of hiding the contents of the scroll until all are broken (Isa 29:11).
- The following internal evidence relating to the contents of the scroll may be noted:
- (1) Just prior to the opening of the seventh seal, we read, “For the great day of their [i.e., of the One sitting on the throne and the Lamb] wrath has come, and who can stand?” (6:17).
- (2) When the seventh seal is opened (8:1-5), no immediate events follow on earth—except for the earthquake—as in the first six seals, unless the opening of the seventh seal includes among its events the blowing of the seven trumpets of judgment (8:6-11:15). This appears to be precisely the case.
- (3) The seventh trumpet likewise is not immediately followed by any specific events on earth (11:15ff.), except for an earthquake and a hailstorm (11:19). But just before the sounding of that trumpet, we read, “The second woe has passed; the third woe is coming soon” (11:14). When the seven angels prepare to pour out “the seven last plagues,” symbolized by the bowls, we read that with these bowls “God’s wrath is completed” (15:1, 7). Thus it seems reasonable to identify the content of the seventh trumpet with the seven bowls of judgment (chs. 16-19).
- Furthermore, frequent references to the events of the seals, trumpets, and bowls appear throughout the remaining visions in Revelation (cf. 19:19ff.; 20:4; 21:9), indicating that the content of the seven-sealed scroll ultimately includes the unfolding of the consummation of the mystery of all things, the goal or end of all history, for both the conquerors and the worshipers of the beast. In 10:7 we are told that in the days of the sounding of the seventh trumpet, “the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets.” From this it may be concluded that the scroll contains the unveiling of “the mystery of God” that OT prophets foretold (cf. comment on 10:7). Thus the “seals” conceal the mystery, which only Christ can disclose (Da 12:9; Rev 10:4), of how God’s judgment and his kingdom will come. In 11:15, when the final trumpet sounds, heavenly voices say, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,” indicating that the scroll also contains the announcement of the inheritance of Christ and the saints who will reign with him (5:10).
- In conclusion, then, the scroll is not only about judgment or about the inheritance of the kingdom. Rather, it contains the announcement of the consummation of all history—how things will ultimately end for all people: judgment for the world and the final reward of the saints (11:18). Christ alone, as the Messiah, is the executor of the purposes of God and the heir of the inheritance of the world. He obtained this by his substitutionary and propitiatory death on the cross (5:9).
2 And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3 And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, 4 and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
- The scroll awaited one worthy to open the scroll and break its seals, and no servant of God introduced so far—neither elders nor living creatures nor anyone else in heaven, on earth, or under the earth—had sufficient authority to unveil and implement God’s secret agenda. Sensing that the church’s hope stood in jeopardy, John began to weep loudly.
5 And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
- John’s sorrow is assuaged. One of the elders announces that there is one who has “triumphed” (GK G3771; same word as “overcome” in 2:7; 3:21; et al.) because of his death (v. 9). Two figurative titles are linked together of the one who is worthy: “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” and “the Root of David.” Both are familiar OT messianic titles (Ge 49:9-10; cf. Isa 11:1, 10; Jer 23:5; 33:5; Rev 22:16). Jewish apocalyptic literature used the figure of a lion to designate the conquering Messiah who would destroy Rome. John’s understanding of the role and function of the Messiah is both similar to and different from the Jewish understanding of the Messiah.
6 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
- As John looked to see the mighty Lion (the conquering warrior-Messiah from the Root of David), he saw instead the striking figure of a “Lamb” as if it had been slaughtered, standing in the center of the throne court. This new figure portrays sacrificial death and links the Messiah to the OT passover lamb (Ex 12:5-6; Isa 53:7; Jn 1:29, 36; Ac 8:32; 1Co 5:7; 1Pe 1:19). Here John joins the OT royal Davidic Messiah with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (Isa 42-53). Both prophetic themes come together in Jesus of Nazareth, the true Messiah. “As if it had been slain” (lit., “with its throat cut”; GK G5377) could refer to the “marks of death” that the living Lamb still bore or to his appearance “as if being led to the slaughter,” i.e., “marked out for death.” The “lamb” metaphor dominates John’s thought in the rest of the book (e.g., 6:1ff.; 7:9ff.; 12:11; 13:8; 21:9).
- John notices that the Lamb is also the ruler who bears the signs of the fullness of divine omnipotence, dominion, and omniscience (“seven horns and seven eyes”). The “eyes” are more explicitly identified as the “seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth,” probably a symbolic reference to the divine Holy Spirit who is sent forth by Christ into the world (1:4; 4:5; cf. a similar view of the Spirit in Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:7-15).
7 And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.
- Next the Lamb acts: “He came and took the scroll.” Thus, symbolically, the one on the throne authorizes the slain messianic King to execute his plan for the redemption of the world because in and through him, God is at work in history for the salvation of humanity. This dramatic act of seizing the scroll is not itself the act of victory referred to in v. 6 and later in v. 9. Rather, Christ’s victorious death on the cross is the basis of his authority to redeem the world by taking and opening the seven-sealed scroll.
8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
- The Lamb’s act calls forth three hymns of praise (vv. 9, 12, 13) from the living creatures and elders. John sees them fall down in worship before the Lamb as they had earlier done before the one on the throne (4:10), thus acknowledging the deity of the Lamb. They have “harps,” which are the “lyres” used for the older psalmody (e.g., Pss 33:2; 98:5) but will now be used for the “new song” of praise to the Lamb (v. 9; 15:2-3).
- The “bowls full of incense” represent the “prayers of the saints” (8:3-4). Prayer (GK G4666) in this scene is not praise but petition. Why do the saints on earth petition God? In 6:10 the martyrs are seen as calling to God for his judgment on those who killed them, and in 8:3-4 the prayers of the saints are immediately connected with the trumpets of God’s judgment. These prayers, then, are evidently for God’s vindication of the martyred saints. And since v. 10 refers to the coming kingdom, it may be that the prayers are petitions for God to judge the world and to extend his kingdom throughout the earth (Lk 18:7-8). “Saints” (GK G41) is simply the normal term for the rank and file of Christians, i.e., those set apart for God’s purposes (2Co 1:1; Php 1:1; Rev 11:18; 13:7, 19; 19:8; 22:21).
9 And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
- The three hymns interpret the symbolism of the scroll and the Lamb. The number of singers increases from twenty-eight in v. 8 to every creature in all creation in v. 13. The first two hymns are songs of praise to the Lamb, whereas the last is praise to both the one on the throne and the Lamb (v. 13). The first hymn (vv. 9-10) is called a “new” song because there was never any like it before in heaven (cf. comment on 14:3).
- “You are worthy” (lit., “equal to,” “deserving”; GK G545) refers to the qualifications of this person who alone has won the right to take the scroll and open its seals. His worthiness for this task was won by his loving sacrifice on the cross—a direct reference to the earthly death of the human Jesus of Nazareth. Like other NT writers, John views the death of Jesus as a redeeming death.
- The death of Jesus broke the stranglehold of the “powers and authorities” over the creation and produced a great victory of liberation for humankind (Col 2:15). It is this victory, obtained through suffering and death, that entitles Christ to execute the unfolding of the mystery of God’s consummation of history. The centrality of the Cross and its meaning as a redemptive act comes repeatedly to the fore and should dominate our understanding throughout Revelation (1:5; 5:12; 7:14; 12:11; 13:8; 14:4; 15:3; 19:7, 21:9, 23; 22:3; et al.). Jesus’ death secured a salvation universally applied to all classes and peoples of the earth (cf. 7:9).
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
- The Lamb’s right to open the scroll rests also on his having made the ransomed into a “kingdom” (GK G993) and his making them “priests” (GK G2636) to serve God in praise (cf. Heb 13:15-16). Christians “will reign on the earth” with Christ because they have been given kingly authority through his death (1:6; 20:4-6). While not excluding the present reign of believers, the reference to “the earth” is best taken to refer to the future eschatological kingdom reign of Christ.
11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,
12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
- Now John sees a new feature in the vision: “thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand” angels surrounding the throne (cf. Daniel’s vision of the countless multitude before the Ancient of Days; Da 7:10). The imagery suggests the infinite honor and power of the One who is at the center of it all. The angels shout out their song of praise to the Lamb who was slain (cf. Heb 1:6). Their sevenfold shout rings out like the sound from a huge bell—“power . . . wealth . . . wisdom . . . strength . . . honor . . . glory . . . praise.” All these are intrinsic qualities of Christ, except the last, which is the expression of the creatures’ worship. Elsewhere the same qualities are ascribed to God himself (v. 13; 7:12).
13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
- Finally, far beyond the precincts of the throne, there arises an expression of praise and worth from the whole created universe to the One on the throne and to the Lamb. John beautifully blends the worship of the Father (ch. 4) and the worship of the Son (5:8-12) together. In appropriate response, the living beings utter their “Amen” (cf. comment on 3:14), and the elders fall down in worship.