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The Lord God Almighty
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 22, 2018
By Dr. Hal Brady
Spring Quarter: Acknowledging God
Unit 2: All Glory and Honor
Lesson Scripture: Revelation 4:1-6, 8-11
- Describe the content of John’s vision in Revelation 4.
- Explain the worship reality behind the text’s symbols.
There are numerous theories as to how Revelation should be interpreted. Scholars point out that some believe it is prophetic of future events, primarily those of the end times. Others believe it presents a panorama of church history. Some believe Revelation is symbolically speaking of people and events from the first century, mainly those linked to the Roman Empire. Still others think that Revelation is entirely symbolic, a story that portrays the timeless struggle of good versus evil.
But whatever our understanding of Revelation, there are several important details that we should keep in mind concerning our study of it. There is the historical setting of the book. The apostle John was exiled on the barren island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea because of his unwavering loyalty to Jesus (Revelation 1:9). Patmos was situated about 50 miles southwest of Ephesus, off the coast of modern Turkey. And Ephesus was likely the city from which John was exiled.
According to scholars, the most probable time of writing is AD 90-96. It is astounding that this elderly man was seen as such a threat to the Roman Empire that he was banished in his 80s or 90s! John must have been some kind of a preacher.
Another key insight is to remember that the book of Revelation is narrative, a story told by a narrator. Now, this doesn’t mean it is a fiction story. Much factual history is written in narrative style. John tells what he experiences: marvelous divine visions given to him in exile by Christ. Therefore, we are told that the best way to read Revelation is as a story with various scenes in which the content is connected. The primary overall message of the book is that despite how intense the opposition to God’s people may be, in the end they triumph and evil is vanquished for eternity.
Today’s lesson pictures Heaven in terms of a royal throne room. The one seated on the throne is the King of Heaven and earth. To be sure, John’s vision of this scene is overwhelming for him – almost indescribable. Yet he does his best to explain what he sees, and we are blessed when we consider his words.
Vision of Heaven (Revelation 4:1, 2)
John begins by saying that he saw a door standing open in heaven and heard a trumpet-like voice saying, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this” (4:1). On hearing the trumpet-like voice (the risen Christ), John at once sensed that he “was in the spirit,” an awareness that continued his experience referred to in Revelation 1:10, “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day.” The voice then beckons John to join the speaker in Heaven. So passing through the door, John gazes on the majestic spectacle of a throne and of the Lord God Almighty seated on the throne (4:2).
It is true that most people today don’t think of thrones as possessing much significance. They are mostly in museums, appearing as rather ornate and impractical chairs, much inferior to our modern-day recliners. But in Bible times, we are informed that thrones were more than expensive chairs for kings. Palaces had elaborate throne rooms that served as audience halls. The king would enter with pomp and ceremony (Acts 25:23). Essentially, the throne was the king’s seat of authority, recognized as such by all. The throne was synonymous with royal power, with significant judgments issued from it that were absolute. This is the situation here.
Repeating, the throne John sees is occupied, indicating that the royal court of Heaven is in session, and the King has taken his seat. Something profound is about to happen, and we can only imagine John’s anticipation and excitement at his opportunity to witness it.
Arrangement of Heaven (Revelation 4:3-6a)
In what follows, John attempts to describe the transcendent glory and grandeur of God from the heavenly throne room. But as we know, the finite languages of earth are incapable of defining the realities John sees in heaven. Therefore, John has to use earthly analogies that can never adequately measure up to the majestic heavenly realities that are before him.
So John is caught up into the heavenly throne room, where he sees One seated on the throne. Although no description is given of the figure on the throne, the setting is described in detail.
John begins by saying that the One seated on the throne “looks like jasper and carnelian” (4:3). These are two kinds of precious stones. Jasper is a red stone that can be polished highly and is prized for its beauty. A ruby is also red in appearance. The imagery of John uses to capture the radiance of God is that of precious stones in all their brilliance.
Next, John notices “a rainbow, resembling an emerald encircling the throne” (4:3) For the Jews, the rainbow was the sign of the covenant of God’s mercy. According to the book of Genesis, after the flood God declared to Noah that though humankind might again fall into grievous sin, “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” As a pledge of mercy God declared “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis (9:11,13). So when John saw that rainbow arching over and around the throne of God, he is suggesting that God is merciful in all that he does.
Then John sees that surrounding the throne there are 24 other thrones, and seated on them are 24 elders. They are dressed in white and have crowns of gold on their heads” (John 4:4). At this point, we are approaching one of the difficult passages for which the Revelation is widely known. Who are these “24 elders?” According to many scholars, there is much conjecture here. But these elders may represent the 12 patriarchs of the Old Testament and the 12 apostles of the New Testament, symbolizing the two covenants of the people of God. The 24 elders are not named nor is their function explained. However, they do have an unforgettable role a few verses later. Their thrones and white garments suggest that they are kingly priests, which their crowns represent the idea of reigning.
At this time, John’s vision is enlarged by “flashes of lightening and sounds of thunder that emanates from the throne (4:5). This brings to mind similar visible and audible manifestations of God’s presence on Sinai prior to giving the law to Moses (see Exodus 19:16-19). Scholars tell us that in Hebrew poetry thunderstorms suggest God’s presence and majesty (1 Samuel 2:10). These details add to the splendor of the throne and the One seated upon it.
We read in verse 5, “Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God.” A more orderly type of lighting is set in the area in front of the throne. According to scholars, “Seven” is another important number in Revelation. It signifies completeness or perfection. For example, the seven churches of Revelation indicate congregations known to John, but also symbolize the entirety of the church on earth.
Here, John helps us with the symbolism. The reference to “seven spirits” does not require us to understand divisions or multiplicity in the Holy Spirit, but gives the sense of perfection and wholeness (as in Revelation 1:4). In essence, we see evidence and activity of the Holy Spirit on earth among the people of the church, but in Heaven is the fullness of the Holy Spirit found.
Now John’s eyes move beyond the seven lamps to what looks like a large body of water. Between John and the throne is flat pavement-like surface, “like a sea of glass, like crystal” (4:6). The God of Israel had once seemed to stand on “something like a pavement of sapphire stone” (Exodus 24:10). Scholars state that John is probably alluding to this passage in Exodus and wishes to stress the magnificence of the throne and the distance between him and the throne. John could have been looking at the Aegean Sea on a calm day from his view on Patmos. The picture, however, is one of great distance and serenity.
Action in Heaven (Revelation 4:6b, 8-11)
Scholars inform us that John’s description of the four living creatures on each side of the throne has a literary background that derives from the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel. “Creatures” is a generic description that implies that while they may have human or angelic characteristics, they are not quite humans or angels. At any rate, these four living creatures represent the Cherubim (unearthly beings who directly attend to God). According to John, they also have some of the features of the Seraphim (a type of celestial being) from Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple (Isaiah 6:2). We are informed that these four living creatures appear to be God’s strong agents, representing power over all of the created world.
John further describes the four living creatures as “full of eyes in front and behind” (4:6), and each has six wings, “full of eyes all around and inside” (4:8). The repeated phrase “full of eyes” suggests unsleeping watchfulness, as the creatures perceive everything in every direction. Nothing on earth is hidden from them, with the implication, “How much less from God himself?”
That the four living creatures never rest from worship (4:8) suggests both divine empowerment for worship and the worthiness of God. More about this later!
Like the six-winged Seraphim of Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6:2), the creatures here declare God’s holiness. But it is not enough to say God is holy; he is “holy, holy, holy” (6:3) – absolutely pure. We simply cannot emphasize God’s holiness too much; there is always more to this than we can ever imagine.
God is Almighty! The people to whom Revelation is written are under the threat of the Roman Empire. They are under the threat of a power from which no person or nation has ever successfully withstood. Think of what it must have meant to them to be sure that behind them stood no less, and no other, than the Almighty. The very giving of that name to God affirms the ultimate triumph and present safety of the Christian. Now, this is not a safety release from trouble, but a safety of a Christian in life and death.
God is also praised for his everlastingness, “who was, and is, and is to come” (4:8). Empires may rise and empires may fall, but God lasts forever. He endures, unchanging, and outlasts all the opposition and rebellion of humankind.
Scholars declare that the function of the four living creatures, who are mentioned 14 times in the book, is to act as “choirmasters,” leading all the pubic worship in heaven constantly praising God, who is enthroned in majesty. And “whenever the four living creatures give glory and honor and thanks” to the eternal one (4:9), the 24 elders prostrate themselves before the throne. This is the first of several times those elders will do so (Revelation 5:8, 14; 7:11; 11:16, 19:4).
The elders engage in an additional act of reverence as they lay their crowns at the foot of the throne. This has to be one of the most unforgettable scenes in the Bible and should challenge us to lay ourselves in service before the Lord. It also points out a central teaching in Revelation that worship is for God alone and none other (Rev. 22:8,9).
Now the continuous worship of the four living creatures (4:8) does not imply that this worship is their sole activity, but rather that it is their constant disposition—their every action is an expression of adoration.
We are then told that the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures join together to give voice to two songs, probably examples of early congregational praise. One of the hymns, beginning “Holy, holy, holy” (4:8) celebrates the otherness of God, that is, the distinction between the Infinite and all other finite beings. God alone is the holiest, most powerful everlasting one.
The second hymn praises God as Creator of all things, “You are worthy our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (4:11). We rightly praise God is Redeemer, but we should never forget that before he was a Redeemer, he was Creator. As we are reminded, when we begin to grasp the omniscience, the holiness, the eternality, and the omnipotence of God, worship is the only reasonable response.
Throughout the Bible, we see the consistent teaching of the immeasurable distance between God and human beings. God is all-knowing (omniscient) for nothing is hidden from him (Jeremiah 23:24). God is eternal, living and reigning forever (Psalm 146:10). God is holy, unstained by any unrighteousness or blemish of sin (Habakkuk 1:13). God is Almighty (Omnipotent), the all-powerful one, far above any human authority or spiritual power (1 Timothy 6:15,16).
We can all learn much from Revelation about worship and the nature of God. And the more we know about God, the more meaningful our worship and lives will become.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- Ask class members to specify ways that they can enhance their own approaches to worship!
- What stands out in your understanding of God in Revelation Chapter 4? Why is that important to you?