Revelation 4:1-8 – a visual description of God’s throne room.

This is an article in the series on the vision of the book with the seven seals (Rev 4:1-8:1).

Summary

Jesus calls John up to heaven.

John hears a voice “like the sound of a trumpet” calling him up to heaven (Rev 4:1). This is Jesus’ voice (Rev 1:10; 1:13). His voice also sounds like “many waters” (Rev 1:15). These are two descriptions of the same voice. Jesus is not explicitly mentioned in Revelation 4 but it is Him who leads John in vision.

LampstandIn the first three chapters of Revelation, John saw Jesus standing between “seven golden lampstands,” symbolizing “the seven churches” (Rev 1:12, 1:20). This is followed by Jesus dictating letters to the churches (cf. Rev 1:19). The focus, therefore, of these chapters, was on earth. But in chapter four, since John is called up to heaven, the focus shifts to heaven.

The purpose of inviting John up to heaven is to reveal to him what will happen in the future (Rev 4:1).

After hearing Jesus speaking, John was immediately “in the Spirit” (Rev 4:2). In other words, John did not literally enter heaven and he did not see a real place. He only saw a symbolic representation of the invisible reality through a vision of his mind.

The Throne

The first thing that John saw was God’s throne (Rev 4:2). “Throne” is the main word in chapter 4. Everything in this chapter happens in and around the throne.

The person who sits on a throne has the legal authority to rule. Revelation 4 is a vision of the governing center of the universe. Therefore, the throne symbolizes God’s authority over all things. That authority is grounded in creation (Rev 4:11): God is counted worthy to sit on the throne and govern the universe because He created all things.

John saw the throne “was standing” (Rev 4:2). He did not see the throne being put in place like in Daniel 7:9. The throne “was standing” BEFORE John saw it. This implies that John did not view one specific event but received a TIMELESS description of God’s throne room.

One Sitting on the Throne

John saw “One sitting on the throne” (Rev 4:2). This Person is not named but Revelation distinguishes between “Him who sits on the throne” and Jesus Christ (e.g., Rev 5:13; Rev 6:16). The “One sitting on the throne,” therefore, is the Father. Since He sits on the throne, He has ultimate authority.

John describes the Father rather vaguely (Rev 4:3). Other throne visions describe God in human terms (e.g., Ezek 1:26-27), but these could have been descriptions of the unique Son of God for, before He became a human being, He “existed in the form of God” and had “equality with God” (Phil 2:6).

God’s appearance is vague because He cannot be seen (John 1:18). He “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16). He has created all things that can be seen but He Himself exists outside space, time, and matter. Therefore, the substance of His Being can never be defined in terms of physical things. He may appear in a theophany (an appearance of God), but a theophany is only a faint reflection of His real full Being.

The 24 elders are people.

Next, John saw 24 elders sitting on 24 thrones around God’s throne. In human meetings, the audience normally sits in front of the speaker but the twenty-four thrones encircle the throne. The following identifies them as people:

    • Their number (24), which is a doubling 12 (cf. Rev 12:1; 21:12, 14, 17; 7:4-8).
    • The title “elder,”
    • Their “white garments” (cf. Rev 3:4-5; 3:18; 6:11; 7:9; 7:14)
    • Their “golden (stephanos) crowns” (cf. Rev 2:10; 3:11),
    • That they sit on thrones (cf. Rev 3:21; 20:4).

Angels are never described as having such things. For a further discussion, see – The 24 elders.

Their thrones indicate that the elders share in God’s rule of the universe. As prime examples of God’s people, they love their fellow human beings as they love themselves. It is wonderful to think that such human beings represent humanity in the control room of the universe.

The elders are from both Israel and the Church.

The 24 elders represent God’s people from BOTH the time before AND after Christ. In other words, from both Israel and the church. This is firstly implied by the number 24, which equals 12 + 12. This is secondly indicated by the fact that Revelation merges God’s people from Israel and the church. For example:

      • The “seven lampstands” in the Jewish temple become a symbol for the church (Rev 1:20).
      • The woman of Revelation 12 first symbolizes Israel but then also the Church.
      • The people who overcome the beast sing the song of both Moses and the Lamb (Rev 15:3).
      • Jerusalem becomes the bride of Christ (Rev 21:2; cf. Rev 19:7; 21:27).
      • The names of BOTH “the twelve tribes … of Israel” and “of the twelve apostles” are written on the New Jerusalem—the eternal city of God’s people (Rev 21:12, 14).

For a further discussion, see – Revelation merges the church into Israel.

Seven Spirits of God

John saw “seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God” (Rev 4:5). This recalls the Hebrew sanctuary, in which seven lamps of fire were always burning (Exo 25:37).

God does not literally have seven Spirits. The number seven has to do with time and should be understood as the completion or perfection of time—the full period. For this reason, and due to the connection to the lamps in the temple that was ALWAYS burning, the seven Spirits of God can be understood to mean that God’s Spirit is ALWAYS present. 

The seven Spirits of God” is here located before the throne of God; apparently subordinate to the “One sitting on the throne” (Rev 4:2).

Four Living Creatures

John also saw “four living creatures” “in the center and around the throne” (Rev 4:6). They represent the angelic portion of God’s kingdom. Since they are always near the throne (Rev 4:6; 5:6; 7:11; 14:3), it could also mean that they are between the circle of elders and the throne. They seem to be intermediaries between God and humanity, represented by the 24 elders.

They were “full of eyes in front and behind” (Rev 4:6), symbolizing knowledge of everything. Since the number four represents ‘the whole earth’ (cf. Rev 7:1; 14:6), the four living creatures know everything that happens on earth.

Their faces were like the faces of a lion, a calf, a man, and a flying eagle (Rev 4:7). These features indicate endurance, perseverance, strength, and speed. Relative to the animals, the “face like a man” suggests intelligence.

The throne vision of Ezekiel 1 also has four living creatures with faces like a lion, ox, man, and eagle/vulture, and that are full of eyes (Ezek 1:5; 1:10; 1:18; cf. Rev 4:6-7). And each of the seraphim of Isaiah 6 also had six wings (Isa 6:2) and constantly say, “holy, holy, holy” (Isa 6:3; cf. Rev 4:8). The description of the four living creatures, therefore, combines features drawn from both the cherubim in Ezekiel and the seraphim of Isaiah 6.

– End of Summary –  

This is the end of the summary. If you would like to skip the detailed discussion below, the next article in this series is – The 24 elders in God’s throne room. Alternatively, see the list of the articles in the series on the sealed book.


Revelation 4:1

After these things

This phrase often introduces a new vision (e.g., Rev 7:1, 9).

Here, “these things” refer to the seven letters to the seven churches, as contained in chapters two and three (cf. Rev 1:19). 

… I looked and behold

John did not look with his literal eyes, but in a vision.

… a door standing open in heaven

In his mind, John is no longer on Patmos, but at the gates of heaven.

… and the first voice which I had heard, like the sound of a trumpet speaking with me

This is Jesus’ voice which John previously heard as a loud voice; “like the sound of a trumpet” (Rev 1:10). When John turned to see who was speaking, he saw a vision of the Son of man among the seven candlesticks (Rev 1:12-18).

Jesus’ voice sounds both like a trumpet and like many waters (Rev 1:15). These are two descriptions of the same voice.

It is, therefore, Jesus who speaks in this verse. Jesus is not one of the actors in this chapter but it is still Him who leads John in vision.

… said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things

This is the second time that the phrase “after these things” appears in this verse. “These things” refer to chapters two and three, reflecting John’s time. “What must take place after these things” are events that are largely in his future.

The words, “come up here” invites John into heaven. In the first three chapters, John met Jesus ON EARTH, for Jesus was standing between the candlesticks symbolizing the seven churches (Rev 1:20). The seven letters in chapters 2 and 3 were also addressed to seven churches ON EARTH. But the scene changes in chapter four from earth to heaven.

Revelation 4:2

Immediately I was in the Spirit

John does not enter heaven physically; he is carried in vision by the Spirit into the heavenly places.

In Revelation, John goes “in the Spirit” four times. The first was in Revelation 1:10, where he encountered the glorified Jesus. The second is here. The third and fourth are in Revelation 17:3 and 21:10. Of the four, the current one is the only one that calls John into heaven. The others call him to different places ON EARTH where something special happens.

… and behold, a throne was standing in heaven

The main word in chapter 4 is “throne.” This word appears fourteen times in the eleven verses of the chapter. Everything in this chapter happens in and around the throne. In addition to God who sits “on” the throne (Rev 4:2, 4, 6, 9, 10), we read about things:

        • In the midst of the throne (Rev 4:6),
        • Before the throne (Rev 4:5, 6, 10),
        • All around the throne (Rev 4:3, 4, 6), and
        • Coming out from the throne (Rev 4:5),

The term “throne” is drawn from the governmental language of the time. The person who sits on a throne has the legal authority to rule over some territory or a nation. Revelation 4 depicts the governing center of the universe, and the throne is the symbol of God’s authority to rule the universe.

That authority is grounded in creation for God is counted worthy to sit on the throne and govern the universe because He created all things (Rev 4:11).

There are four major throne scenes in the Old Testament. Revelation 4 strongly alludes to the throne scene of Ezekiel 1. But the description of the four living creatures (Rev 4:6-7) and the “holy, holy, holy” (Rev 4:8) refer to the throne vision in Isaiah 6. We find another major throne scene in Daniel 7.

The throne “was standing” in heaven. It means that the throne “was standing” BEFORE John saw it. This confirms that John is not viewing one specific event, in contrast to Daniel 7:9, where the throne was placed for a special event.

… and One sitting on the throne

The One sitting on the throne is not named but Revelation distinguishes “Him who sits on the throne” from Jesus Christ (cf. Rev 5:5-7, 5:9, 5:13; 6:16). The “One sitting on the throne,” therefore, is God the Father. Since He sits on the throne, He has the ultimate authority.

Revelation 4:3

And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance

Revelation 1 describes Jesus in much detail (Rev 1:13-18) but there is a vagueness in this description of God. Other throne visions are more specific:

        • In Ezekiel 1:26-27, the one sitting on the throne has a human appearance. From the waist up, He looks like glowing metal and, from the waist down, like fire.
        • Daniel 7:9 describes “the Ancient of Days” (God). “His vesture was like white snow and the hair of His head like pure wool.”

These visions describe God in human terms but God cannot be seen (John 1:18). He “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16). He has created everything that can be seen and cannot be described in terms of things that can be seen. God does not exist somewhere in the universe. The universe exists somewhere within God. He exists outside space, time, and matter. He may appear in a theophany, which is an appearance of God, but a theophany is only a faint reflection of His real full Being. Since space, time, and matter exist somewhere within God, the substance of His Being can never be defined in terms of physical things.

… and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance.

It is not clear whether the rainbow was horizontally around the throne or a half-circle vertically arched above the throne, as rainbows are on earth.

While a rainbow normally exhibits multiple colors from purple to red, the primary color of this rainbow is green; the color of an emerald.

In the flood story of Genesis, the rainbow was a symbol of God’s covenant with Noah (Gen 9:12-17), an assurance that He is faithful in keeping his promises.

Revelation 4:4

Around the throne were twenty-four thrones;
and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting,
clothed in white garments,
and golden crowns on their heads.

Like the rainbow in the previous verse, the 24 elders are “around the throne,” which should be taken in a horizontal sense. If the rainbow is like a halo horizontally around the area, the 24 elders could be understood as sitting in or under it.

In human meetings, the audience normally sits in front of the speaker but the twenty-four thrones encircle the throne. 

The elders are people.

The article on the 24 elders identifies them as human representatives of God’s people on earth. This is based on the following:

1) “Elders” is a familiar Biblical title for humans but angels are never called elders.

2) They sit on thrones and Revelation promises that the overcomers will sit on thrones (Rev 3:21; 20:4). Angels are never described as sitting on thrones.

3) They are “clothed in white garments” (Rev 4:4) and Revelation promises white robes to God’s people (Rev 3:4-5; cf. Rev 3:18; 6:11; 7:9, 14).

4) The 24 elders have victory crowns (stephanos) which is the reward for the overcomers (Rev 2:10; 3:11) and symbolizes eternal life (Rev 2:10; cf. 2 Tim 4:8).

5) The number 24 is a doubling of the number 12 and Revelation associates the number 12 with God’s people (Rev 12:1; 21:12, 14, 17; 7:4-8).

Their thrones indicate that the elders share in God’s rule of the universe. It is wonderful to think that human beings, that love their fellow human beings like themselves, represent humanity in the control room of the universe.

The elders are from both Israel and the Church.

The article on the 24 elders also shows that the 24 elders represent God’s people from BOTH the time before AND after Christ. In other words, from both Israel and the church. The 24 elders are one example of how Revelation merges God’s people from Israel and the church. The following are further examples:

      • The names of BOTH “the twelve tribes … of Israel” and “of the twelve apostles” are written on the New Jerusalem—the city of God’s people in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21:12, 14).
      • The woman of Revelation 12 represents both Israel and the church. (See, Who are the woman, the dragon, the child?)
      • The “seven lampstands” in the Jewish temple become a symbol for the church (Rev 1:20).
      • The people who overcome the beast sing the song of both Moses and the Lamb (Rev 15:3) – the key figures of the Old and New Testaments.
      • Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city, becomes the bride of Christ (Rev 21:2; cf. Rev 19:7; 21:27).

Revelation 4:5

Out from the throne come flashes of lightning
and sounds and peals of thunder.

This language builds on Old Testament ‘theophanies’:

        • The original theophany was on Mount Sinai (Exo 19:16-20).
        • In the first chapter of Ezekiel, the appearance of God also included lightning and loud noises (Ezek 1:13, 24).  

This series of words (lightning – sounds – thunder) is repeated three more times in Revelation:

        • The next two instances add “earthquake” to the previous three (Rev 8:5; 16:18).
        • The fifth instance adds both “earthquake” and “great hail” (Rev 11:19)

Since the “lightning and sounds and peals of thunder” are things that happen in the air in a thunderstorm, and since they come out of the throne, they probably represent God’s utterances. The “earthquake” and “great hail,” on the other hand, are things that happen on earth and, therefore, probably represent the earthly consequences of God’s decrees.

And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God;

The Greek words translated “lamps” in this verse, symbolizing the Spirit of God, are different from the word translated “lampstands” in Revelation 1:12-13, representing the seven churches (Rev 1:20). Nevertheless, the concept of “seven lamps of fire” in this verse still recalls the Hebrew sanctuary, in which seven lamps of fire were CONSTANTLY burning (Exo 25:37).

The seven Spirits of God” is here located before the throne of God; apparently subordinate to the “One sitting on the throne” (Rev 4:2).

God does not literally have seven Spirits. The number seven must be interpreted symbolically. It is mentioned many (56) times in Revelation and is based on the seven days of the week. The number seven in Revelation is different from the other numbers in Revelation in the sense that the seven elements stand in chronological sequence to each other—the second follows after the first—the third after the second, and so forth, with the seventh as the last or end. The same cannot be said of the other important numbers in Revelation, such as 4, 10, and 12. The number seven, therefore, has to do with time and should be understood as the completion or perfection of time—the full period.

For this reason, and due to the connection between the Spirits and the lamps in the temple that were ALWAYS burning, the seven Spirits of God can be understood to mean that God’s Spirit is ALWAYS present.

Revelation 4:6

and before the throne there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal;

It is not a real sea of glass; it is “something LIKE a sea of glass.”  John is doing his best to describe his vision of heavenly in human terms.

Glass and glass-blowing were known to the ancients but the ancient glass was often coarse and semi-opaque. In contrast, the reference to crystal emphasizes the transparent clarity of this sea of glass.

The “sea of glass” appears again in Revelation, but then it is mingled with fire (Rev 15:2).

and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind.

It is a bit difficult to understand what “in the center and around the throne” means:

It could mean that the four living creatures move around.

Since they are always near the throne (Rev 4:6; 5:6; 7:11; 14:3), it could also mean that they are in the center of the circle of elders; between the circle of elders and the throne. They seem to be intermediaries between God and the human race, represented by the 24 elders.

The Four Living Creatures of Ezekiel 1

There are also four living creatures in the throne vision of Ezekiel 1. There are multiple similarities. Both Revelation 4 and Ezekiel 1 have:

      • Four living creatures (Ezek 1:5; Rev 4:6);
      • With faces like a lion, ox, man, and eagle/vulture (Ezek 1:10; Rev 4:7);
      • Full of eyes (Ezek 1:18; Rev 4:6); and
      • A rainbow surrounding the throne (Ezek 1:28; Rev 4:3).

In both, the four living creatures are especially close to God. In Ezekiel, they are the bearers of God’s throne chariot. There are also some interesting differences. For example:

Ezekiel 1 Revelation 4
Each of the four living creatures has FOUR faces, one each of man, lion, ox, and eagle (Ezek 1:10). Each living creature had a face like only one of the four beings (Rev 4:7).
Each of the four living creatures has four wings (Ezek 1:11). Each has six wings (Rev 4:8).
The WHEELS are full of eyes all around (Ezek 1:16-18). The living creatures themselves are covered with eyes front and back (Rev 4:6).
The four living creatures are under the throne (Ezek 1:26) and are the means by which the throne moves (Ezek 1:12; 15-21). The throne seems stationary (Rev 4:2).

These prophets did not physically see God’s throne room. These were visions in the minds of the prophets. What detail God gave to them may be different from time to time, depending on the purpose of the revelation.

Living Creatures in other sources

1 Enoch 40:2 (Ethiopic Enoch) – a Jewish book known in New Testament times – mentions four archangels named Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. If they are the same as the four living creatures, they are the leaders of the angels. In that case, in Revelation, the first circle around the throne consists of angels, and the second circle consists of human beings; represented by the 24 elders.

Ezekiel 10:20 refers to four living beings as cherubim. This term occurs over 90 times in the Hebrew Bible but only once in the New Testament (Heb 9:4-5), where they are “above” the ark of the covenant.

Similar to the four living creatures of Revelation, the seraphim in Isaiah 6 also have six wings and constantly say, “holy, holy, holy” (Isa 6:2-3; Rev 4:8). Revelation 4, therefore, combines features drawn from both the cherubim in Ezekiel and the seraphim of Isaiah 6.

Who are the Four Living Creatures?

The King James Version describes the four living creatures as “beasts,” but that is not a good translation. The word for beast represents the animal kingdom and is reserved for the forces of evil in Revelation (Rev 11:7; 13:1; 13:11, etc.). “Living creature,” on the other hand, is a broader term that can represent also angels, birds, and humans.

The four living creatures are full of eyes in front and back. This is not to be taken literally. Their eyes probably represent the omniscience of God, who knows everything that can be known. The number four represents ‘the whole earth’ (cf. Rev 7:1; 14:6). The four living creatures, therefore, know everything that happens on earth.

In conclusion, the four living creatures are the primary connection between God and creation. They might correspond to the four archangels of Jewish tradition; the leaders of the angels. As such, the four living creatures represent the angelic portion of God’s kingdom, while the twenty-four elders represent the human race before God.

Revelation 4:7

The first creature was like a lion,
and the second creature like a calf,
and the third creature had a face like that of a man,
and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle.

These features indicate endurance, perseverance, strength, and speed. Relative to the animals, the “face like a man” implies intelligence.

Revelation 4:8

And the four living creatures,
each one of them having six wings

Since the living creatures of Ezekiel 1 had four wings each, the six wings recall the six-winged cherubim of Isaiah 6; two wings were used to cover their faces, two wings to cover their feet and two were used to fly (Isaiah 6:2).

are full of eyes around and within

In verse 6, four living creatures were “full of eyes in front and behind.” In the current verse, the eyes are “around and within,” which is difficult to visualize. Nevertheless, the meaning is that the vision of the living creatures is not impeded in any way. They were created by God with the highest possible alertness, perception, and knowledge.


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