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

SUMMARY

Elders cast their crowns before God.

This article is a verse by verse discussion of the visual description of God’s throne room which we find in Revelation 4:1-8. The remainder of Revelation 4 describes the sounds of worship in the throne room.

The first three chapters of Revelation contain the vision of the exalted Jesus Christ, followed by the letters to the seven churches. All of that was ON EARTH. In 4:1, Jesus, with a voice like a trumpet, calls John up into heaven. Chapter 4, therefore, shifts the focus from earth to heaven.

John does not literally enter heaven; he sees heaven in a vision of his mind. This article argues that John is not seeing a real place, but a symbolic representation of the reality of heaven.

There are indications in Revelation 4 that this vision is timeless; a general description of what heaven is like; not one specific time or event:

      • The throne was there before the vision began (Rev 4:2).
      • The four living creatures praise God day and night (4:8).
      • Whenever the four living creatures praise God, the 24 elders join them in worship (4:9).

THRONE

The first thing that John sees, is God’s throne. “Throne” is the main word in chapter 4. Everything in this chapter happens in and around the throne.

The term “throne” is drawn from the governmental language of the time and implies the right to rule. Revelation 4 shows us the governing center of the universe, and the throne is the symbol of God’s right to rule the universe. According to 4:11, God has the right to rule BECAUSE He willed and created all things. In other parts of the Bible we learn that God created all things through His Son, but it still is the Father who created it all.

GOD

Next, John sees God Himself. Revelation reserves the title “God” only for the Father. The “One sitting on the throne” is God the Father. Since He sits on the throne, He has the ultimate authority over the universe.

GOD WILLED AND CREATED ALL.

Revelation 4 describes God rather vaguely. God cannot be seen (John 1:18) because He exists outside space, time, and matter. He certainly appears in different forms to creatures, but since space, time, and matter exist somewhere within God, the created matter can never define the substance of His Being.

24 ELDERS

John then sees “a rainbow” and “twenty-four elders sitting” on twenty-four thrones. Both the rainbow and the elders are “around the throne.” It is possible that the rainbow might be horizontally around the throne with the 24 elders sitting in or under it.

These elders are human beings; human representatives of God’s people. This identification is based on the following:

      • Elders” is a familiar Biblical title for human beings.
      • They sit on thrones, are “clothed in white garments” and wear victory crowns (stephanos). Revelation promises all of these things to those who overcome (3:21, 4-5; 2:10).
      • The number 24 is a doubling of the number 12 and Revelation associates the number 12 with the people of God.

Their thrones indicate that the 24 elders share in God’s rule over creation. 

REVELATION MERGES THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS.

The 24 elders symbolize God’s people from both the time of the Old Testament and the church. This conclusion is derived from 21:12-14, where 24 names are written on the New Jerusalem, namely the names of the 12 apostles and the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. 

Revelation 12 depicts the New Jerusalem as a pure woman. In that chapter, she also represents both Israel and the church. These are two of several examples of how Revelation merges the Old and New Testaments by applying Old Testament imaginary to the church.

Revelation 4 symbolizes:

      • God’s judgments, as “lightning, sounds and thunder coming out from the throne.
      • The Spirit of God, as seven lamps of fire burning before the throne.
      • God’s omniscience, as “four living creatures full of eyes.

The 24 elders represent redeemed humanity. Their thrones symbolize the role they will have to rule over God’s creation, subject to God. The four living creatures represent the angelic portion of God’s kingdom. They are the primary connection between God and creation.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE SEALS

The first part of Revelation 4 gives a VISUAL description of God’s throne room. The last part of that chapter describes the SOUNDS; how the beings in heaven worship God. Revelation 4 does not describe one specific event, but general aspects of God’s throne room. Revelation 5 begins with a book that is sealed with seven seals, and nobody is able to open the book. This causes much sorrow. This sorrow part of Revelation 5 may be regarded as part of the general description of Revelation 4. 

By, as from 5:5, the atmosphere in heaven changes from sorrow to joy, for Jesus “has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals.” The remainder of Revelation 5 focuses on this specific event, namely when the Lamb is declared worthy to take the book and break its seals.

In Revelation 6, Jesus breaks the seals. Each time that He breaks a seal, things happen on earth. The sixth seal, at the end of Revelation 6, is the Return of Christ. The first part of Revelation 7 (7:1-8) jumps back in time to describe the sealing of the 144000, which happens before the Return of Christ. But then, as from 7:9, Revelation continues to describe what happens AFTER Jesus returns. The last and seventh seal is only a single verse (8:1), saying that all the worship and sounds of heaven, which we read about in Revelation 4, turn to silence for about half an hour.

The four chapters from Revelation 4 to 8:1, therefore, are the seven seals. Chapters 4 and 5 set the stage for the events of Revelation 6 and 7.

TIME OF THE VISION

In Revelation 5, Jesus appears as a slain lamb (5:6). Another article argues that Revelation 5 is Christ’s enthronement after His ascension. That may mean that Revelation 4 is the time BEFORE Christ. In that case, Revelation 4 depicts a time in the prophet’s past.

On the other hand, Jesus told John, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.” That may be understood in two ways:

      • That John will be shown things that will HAPPEN AFTER the things in Revelation 2 and 3, which is the time of John and the seven churches. That would mean that Revelation 4 presents events in the prophet’s future.
      • Alternatively, “after these things” may be understood as things that will be SHOWED to John after the things SHOWED to John in the previous chapters. In that case, there is no specific chronological sequence. In support of this view, there are many indications in Revelation 4 that it is timeless—a general description of what heaven is like; not one specific time or event.

4:1

After these things
This phrase often introduces a new vision (as in Rev 7:1, 9). In this verse, “these things” refer to the seven letters to the seven churches, as contained in chapters two and three (cf. 1:19). 

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

… and behold, a door standing open in heaven
This “door” refers metaphorically to an opening in the sky that enabled John to look into heaven. In his mind, he 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 refers back to 1:10 where John heard a loud voice, “like the sound of a trumpet,” behind him. When he turned to see where the voice was coming from, he saw a vision of the Son of man among the seven candlesticks (1:12-18). 

The voice is not a trumpet, but only sounds “like” a trumpet. In 1:15, Christ’s voice sounds like many waters. That does not mean that this is the voice of a different person. These are two descriptions of the same voice.  It is, therefore, Jesus who speaks to John in 4:1. Jesus is absent from chapter four of Revelation but it is Him who leads John, in vision, through these visions.

In the first three chapters, John met Jesus ON EARTH, for Jesus was standing between the candlesticks which symbolize the seven churches (1:20). For that reason, Jesus was “behind” John, not above him. The seven letters in chapters 2 and 3 were also addressed to seven churches ON EARTH. But in chapter four, the scene changes from the earthly to the heavenly.

… 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. From this verse forward, John will be seeing visions of events that are largely in his future. However, past events will also be mentioned to provide context.

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. John becomes “in the Spirit” four times in the book of Revelation. The first was in 1:10, where he encountered the glorified Jesus. The second is here. The third and fourth are in 17:3 and 21:10. Of the four, this is the only one that calls John into heaven. The others call him to different vantage points 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 relation to 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 (4:6),
      • Before the throne (4:5, 6, 10),
      • All around the throne (4:3, 4, 6),
      • Above the throne, and
      • Coming out from the throne (4:5),

The term “throne” is drawn from the governmental language of the time. The person who sits on a throne has the legal right to rule over some territory or over a nation. Revelation 4 depicts the governing center of the universe, and the throne is the symbol of God’s right to rule the universe. That authority is grounded in creation (4:11). God is counted worthy to sit on the throne and govern the universe because He created all things.

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

The throne “was standing” in heaven. It means that the throne in Revelation 4 “was standing” for a long time before John saw it. This confirms that John is not viewing one specific event but a general description of God’s throne room. This may be contrasted with 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 5:13 and 6:16 contrast “To Him who sits on the throne” with Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is introduced in this vision in distinction to the One sitting on the throne (5:5-7, 9, 13). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit is represented as “the seven Spirits who are before His throne” (1:4; 4:5).  The “One sitting on the throne,” therefore, is God the Father. Since He sits on the throne, He has the ultimate authority to rule the universe.

4:3

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

Jasper is translucent and not normally sparkling but, in 21:11, the glory of God is likened to a clear-as-crystal jasper stone. So, there is uncertainty as to exactly what the ancients meant by jasper. The sardius is a reddish, semi-transparent, precious stone.

There is a vagueness in this description. It is also interesting to compare this verse with the description of the one sitting on the throne in Ezekiel 1:26-27, which is more specific. There the divine figure has a human appearance. From the waist up the figure 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.” Revelation 5:1 refers to God’s “right hand.” This describes God in human terms. None of these visionary descriptions of God are clear enough that an artist could create a picture of the divine. God cannot be seen (John 1:18) because He exists outside space, time, and matter. But He is able to appear in a theophany, which is an appearance of God. A theophany is not His real full Being but only a faint reflection of Him. Since space, time, and matter exist somewhere within God, the substance of His Being cannot be defined in terms of physical things.

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

Does that mean that the rainbow was horizontally around the throne? Or was the rainbow 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 the green 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.

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.

Similar to the rainbow in 4:3, the 24 elders also 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 normal human meetings, the audience sits in front of the speaker but the twenty-four thrones encircle the throne, for God has no backside. 

The word “were” is added by the translators for there is no verb in the Greek. “Were” again indicates that Revelation 4 is a general description of a continuous reality and not a point in time.

THE ELDERS ARE HUMAN BEINGS

In a separate article, the 24 elders are identified as human representatives of God’s people on earth.  This is based on the following:

      • Elders” is a familiar Biblical title for human beings.
      • The elders sit on thrones and Revelation promises that THOSE WHO OVERCOME will one day sit on thrones (3:21; 20:4).
      • They are “clothed in white garments” (4:4). Revelation promises white robes to the PEOPLE OF GOD (3:4-5; cf. 3:18; 6:11; 7:9, 14).
      • The 24 elders have victory crowns (stephanos) which is the reward for the OVERCOMERS (2:10; 3:11) and symbolizes eternal life (2:10; cf. 2 Tim 4:8).
      • The number 24 is a doubling of the number 12 and Revelation associates the number 12 with the PEOPLE OF GOD (12:1; 21:12, 14, 17; 7:4-8).

THEY ARE FROM ALL DISPENSATIONS

The article on the 24 elders continues and shows that the 24 elders are from both the time of the Old Testament and the church. This is one example of how Revelation merges the Old and New Testaments by applying Old Testament imaginary to the church.  Other examples are:

      • The Jewish “seven lampstands” become a symbol for the church (1:20).
      • The key figures of the Old and New Testaments are combined in the song of Moses and of the Lamb (15:3).
      • The woman of Revelation 12 represents both Israel and the church.
      • Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city, becomes the bride of Christ (21:2; cf. 19:7; 21:27).

Their thrones indicate that the elders share in God’s rule of the universe. It is wonderful to think that human beings, that love God with their whole heart and their fellow human beings like themselves, reign with God and take part in the activities of the control room of the universe.

4:5

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

As stated, everything in Revelation 4 centers on the throne. Both the rainbow and the 24 elders and their thrones are “around” the throne (4:3-4). In the current verse, the lightning, sounds, and thunder come “out from” the throne.

The language here builds on Old Testament ‘theophanies’.  The original theophany was on Mount Sinai (Exod 19:16-20). In the first chapter of Ezekiel, the appearance of God also included lightning and loud noises (Ezek 1:13, 24).  

The word for “noises” (Greek: phonai) can mean sounds in general or it can mean voices, as in 10:3.

This series of words (lightning – sounds – thunder) is repeated three more times in Revelation:
Revelation 8:5 and 16:18 add “earthquake” to the list.
 – Revelation 11:19 adds “earthquake” and “great hail.”

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 represent God’s decisions. The “earthquake” and “great hail,” on the other hand, are things that happen on earth and probably represents the earthly consequences of God’s decisions.

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 is different from the word translated “lampstands” in 1:12-13. Whereas the seven lampstands in chapter one represented the seven churches (1:20), the seven lamps here represent the Spirit of God. Nevertheless, the concept of “seven lamps of fire” still recalls the Hebrew sanctuary, in which seven lamps of fire were constantly burning (Exod 25:37).

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

As discussed elsewhere, the number 7 symbolizes fullness in terms of time. The seven Spirits mean that God’s Spirit is ALWAYS with us.

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 heavenly things in human language.

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 15:2. There it is mingled with fire.

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 (cf. 6:1-8; 15:7). It could also mean that they are in the center of the circle of elders; between the elders and the cross. The four living creatures are always in close proximity to the throne (Rev 4:6; 5:6; 7:11; 14:3), which would place them between God and the circle of elders. They seem to be intermediaries between God and the human race, represented by the 24 elders.

EZEKIEL 1

There are also four living creatures in the throne vision of Ezekiel 1. There are multiple similarities between the four living creatures in Ezekiel 1 and in Revelation 4. 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),
      • 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 between Revelation 4 and Ezekiel 1. For example:

      • In Ezekiel, EACH of the four living creatures has four faces, one each of man, lion, ox and eagle (1:10). In Revelation 4, each living creature was like only one of the four (4:7).
      • In Ezekiel, each of the four living creatures has four wings (1:11), but in Revelation, each has six (4:8).
      • In Ezekiel, the wheels are full of eyes all around (1:16-18). In Revelation 4, it is the living creatures themselves that are covered with eyes front and back (4:6).
      • In Ezekiel, 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). In Revelation, the throne seems stationary (4:2).

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

OTHER SOURCES

1 Enoch (Ethiopic Enoch) 40:2—a Jewish book known in New Testament times—mentions four archangels named Michael, Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael. If this is reliable, the four living creatures represent the leaders of the angels. In that case, 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 the four living as cherubim. This term occurs over 90 times in the Hebrew Bible but only once in the New Testament (Heb 9:5), where they are located “above” the ark of the covenant (Heb 9:4-5).

The four living creatures of Revelation have six wings each. This points to Isaiah 6, where angels, called seraphim, have six wings each (Is. 6:2) and, just like the four living creatures of Revelation 4, constantly say, “holy, holy, holy” (Is. 6:3; cf. Rev. 4:8). Revelation 4, therefore, combines features drawn from both the cherubim in Ezekiel and seraphim of Isaiah 6.

INTERPRETATION OF 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 6:7; 11:7; 13:1, 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 in 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’. The four living creatures, therefore, know all things that happen on earth.

In sum, 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.

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. The “face like a man” implies intelligence, relative to the animal kingdom.

4:8

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

Since the living creature 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 are entirely “full of eyes.” The four beings were created by God with the highest possible alertness, perception and knowledge.

FINAL CONCLUSIONS

      • God, the Father, has the ultimate authority over creation because He willed and created all things.
      • Symbolizes by 24 elders sitting on thrones around God, God’s people share in His rule over creation.
      • By applying Old Testament imaginary to the church, Revelation merges the Old and New Testaments. Consequently, God only has one group of people from all dispensations.
      • The angels are the primary connection between God and creation.

AVAILABLE ARTICLES ON REVELATION

INTRODUCTORY
   Why is the title of this website Revelation BY Jesus Christ?
   Are events described in chronological sequence? 
   Is a consistently literal interpretation appropriate?
   Does Revelation present Jesus as God?
   God’s throne – the center of the universe.
SEVEN SEALS
   Introduction to the Seven Seals – What book is this?
   Revelation 4:1-8 – Verse-by-verseCurrent article
   The 24 elders are human beings that rule under God’s.
   Revelation 5 is Christ’s enthronement after His ascension.
   The Sixth Seal concludes with Christ’s Return.
   Does the seventh seal include the seven trumpets?
   Seven seals explained
BABYLON
   Babylon; the mother of harlots – main article
   Babylon’s merchants are her false prophets.
   Babylon is not the reconstructed ancient city of Babylon.
   Babylon is the driving force behind the beast.
SEVEN-HEADED BEASTS
   The Seven-Headed Beasts of Revelation identified
   The three beasts are three of the seven heads.
   The Seven Heads identified
REVELATION 13
    13:1-2 – The Beast relates to Daniel 7.
   13:3-4 – The fatal wound
   The beast of Revelation is the Mainstream Church of Christendom.
SEVEN PLAGUES
   The Plagues of Revelation – 16 articles

For further reading, Jon Paulien’s commentary is recommended. For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.

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