Chapters 4 and 5 are a ‘webcam’ into heaven itself, showing the Great Throne of God (notice that God the Father is unseen and undescribed) and the powerful divine worship that continues day and night. “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is and is to come”.
“Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this” (v1). This was a similar call to the one Moses received, commanding him to climb up Mount Sinai to receive the Law. The Spirit of God then transports John to a vivid, sharp awareness of heaven, rather like Stephen must have had just before he was martyred, or the prophet Ezekiel had (in Ezekiel 1:1). Much of what we read about in Revelation is ‘picture language’, symbolic scripture; this is a vision and not a photograph! The symbols mean something very significant, rather than actually describing exactly what heaven is like.
John no longer sees and hears with his biological organs, but rather with his spirit – as the Holy Spirit enables him. The key point to take from the whole chapter is that the Father on the throne is sovereign – he rules over everything and is the centre of everything. “The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits above the cherubim; let the earth be moved!” (Psalm 99:1). We live in a ‘theocentric’ universe, governed from God’s throne in heaven (the word ‘throne’ occurs 17 times in chapters 4 and 5).
On that throne is a description of the majesty of Almighty God; not a photographic image, but a pictorial poem, representing his nature, character, and power. Absolute holiness is represented by the pure crystal glass and the whiteness of His appearance. The seven lamps of fire, the lightening and the thunder symbolise his wrath against sin and rebellion. The translucent green rainbow speaks of covenant faithfulness of the Father towards his redeemed children – for them, the storm is over and the sun shines!
Around that throne are 24 smaller thrones, seating 24 ‘elders’ possibly representing the Old and New Covenant church (see Rev. 21:12-14): 12 patriarchs and 12 apostles, ruling and reigning with him. These elders spend their time worshiping the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (perhaps symbolised by the lamps of fire, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-active). In front is the ‘sea’ of crystal glass – just as the earthly temple had a ‘sea’ of water for the priests to purify themselves in – symbolising sanctifying power and the cleansing blood of the Lamb.
Then, in the middle, closest of all, are the four ‘living creatures’ covered with eyes all around them. They have four different faces: Lion, Ox, Man, Eagle, and each has six wings. Each worships the Lord perpetually. They are similar to the ones in Ezekiel 1 and 10 – almost identical, in fact – and Ezekiel 10 tells us that these are ‘cherubim’, one of the highest orders of angels, guarding the holiness of God and singing to him in worship. Some commentators have also drawn comparisons with the four gospels (Matthew = Lion, King of the Jews; Mark = Ox, the servant; Luke = Man, humanity of Christ; John = Eagle, flying towards the sun).
Every creature, however great and mighty, when faced with the greater throne of God, bows down, and worships the Holy One, who was and is and is to come – the Eternal One. Then we hear the song of the Elders, as they yield their own reward-crowns to the ultimate crown, singing:
“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power. For you created all things and by your will they were created and have their being” (v11). Three great attributes spoken (glory, honour, power) and creation described in three different ways, perhaps echoing the roles of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the world’s birth and sustenance.