Wednesday, August 11, 2021

24: The Revelation: Around the Throne of God (Revelation 4:3-8)



"...and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance. 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." (Rev. 4:3b–4)

Moving away from his description of the throne to describe what was around it, John first noted that there was a rainbow around it. That John described it as being “like an emerald in appearance” reveals that green was the dominant color. This again is introduced to show the many-splendored glory of God (Ezekiel 1:28). The rainbow provides a comforting balance to the fiery flashings of judgment earlier seen from God’s throne. According to Genesis 9:13–17, a rainbow symbolizes God’s covenant faithfulness, mercy, and grace. God’s attributes always operate in perfect harmony. His wrath never operates at the expense of His faithfulness.

John also saw around the throne twenty-four elders sitting upon twenty-four other thrones, “clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads.” The identity of the twenty-four elders has been much debated. While some see them as an order of angelic beings, it seems best to view them as human representatives of the church. Why? First, the reference to the twenty-four thrones they sit upon indicates that they reign with Christ. Nowhere in Scripture do angels sit on thrones, nor are they pictured as reigning. The church, on the other hand, is repeatedly promised to rule with Christ (2:26–27; 3:21; 5:10; 20:4; Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30; 1 Corinthians 6:2–3; 2 Timothy 2:12).

The Greek word translated “elders” is never used in Scripture to refer to angels, but always to men. It is used to speak of older men in general, and the rulers of both Israel and the church. There is also no clear use of this word outside of Revelation to refer to angels. Further, “elder” would be an inappropriate term to describe angels, who do not age.

While angels do appear in white (John 20:12; Acts 1:10), white garments more commonly are the dress of believers. That is particularly true in the immediate context of Revelation. Christ promised the believers at Sardis that they would “be clothed in white garments” (3:5). He advised the Laodiceans to “buy from Me … white garments so that you may clothe yourself” (3:18). At the marriage supper of the Lamb, His bride will “clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean” (19:8). White garments symbolize Christ’s righteousness imputed to believers at salvation.

That the elders wore golden crowns on their heads provides further evidence that they were humans. Crowns are never promised to angels in the Bible, nor are angels ever seen wearing them. This crown in Greek refers to the victor’s crown, worn by those who successfully competed and won the victory. Christ promised this crown to the loyal believers at Smyrna (2:10; cf.1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Timothy 4:8; James 1:12).

If the twenty-four elders are humans, who do they represent? In the Bible, the number twenty-four is used in Scripture to speak of completion and representation. There were twenty-four officers of the sanctuary representing the twenty-four courses of the Levitical priests (1 Chronicles 24:4–5, 7–18), as well as twenty-four divisions of singers in the temple (1 Chronicles 25). Whoever the twenty-four elders are, then, they likely represent a larger group.

Some believe the elders represent Israel. But while individual Jews have been and will continue to be redeemed throughout history, at the time of this vision the nation as a whole had not yet been redeemed. The elders also cannot be tribulation saints, since they too had not yet been converted. Others split the twenty-four elders into two groups of twelve, one representing the church and the other Israel. Yet in all their appearances in Revelation, they appear as a unified group of twenty-four, never as two groups of twelve.

The most likely option is that they represent the raptured church, which sings the song of redemption (5:8–10). They have their crowns and live in the place prepared for them, where they have gone to be with Jesus (John 14:1–4).


"Out from the throne come flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder..." (Rev. 4:5a)

“Flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder” are associated with God’s presence in Exodus 19:16 and Ezekiel 1:13. They are also associated with God’s judgment during the tribulation. In Revelation 8:5, “The angel took the censer and filled it with the fire of the altar, and threw it to the earth; and there followed peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning” (11:19; 16:18).

Thus John saw a preview of the divine wrath that will be poured out on the earth, described in chapters 6–19.


"And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God; and before the throne there was, something like, a sea of glass like crystal..." (Rev. 4:5b–6a)

John saw two things before the throne. First were “seven lamps of fire.” Unlike the lampstands mentioned in 1:12–13, these were outdoor torches, giving off the fierce, blazing light of a fiery torch. John identifies them as “the seven Spirits of God.” This phrase describes the Holy Spirit in all His fullness (Isaiah 11:2; Zechariah 4:1–10). Torches are associated with war in Judges 7:16, 20 and Nahum 2:3–4. John’s vision depicts God as ready to make war on sinful, rebellious humanity and the Holy Spirit as His war torch. The Comforter of those who love Christ will be the Consumer of those who reject Him.

Second, he saw “something like, a sea of glass like crystal.” That sea is metaphorical, since there is no sea in heaven (21:1). What John saw at the base of the throne was a vast pavement of glass, shining brilliantly like crystal. Exodus 24:10 records a similar scene when Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel saw the God of Israel. Heaven is a world of brilliant light, refracting and shining as through jewels and crystal in a manner beyond our ability to describe or imagine (cf. Revelation 21:10–11, 18).


"...and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind. 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. And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within..." (Rev. 4:6b–8a)

This passage introduces the four living creatures who will play a significant role in the events of Revelation. That they are said to be both “in the center and around the throne” means that their station is in the inner circle nearest the throne. Ezekiel 1:12, 17 suggests they are in constant motion about it. The translation “living creatures” is somewhat misleading, since these are not animals. The phrase derives from a single word in the Greek text that can mean “living ones.”

Ezekiel gives a detailed description of these incredible beings and of the glorious magnificence of heaven and God’s throne in Ezekiel 1:4–25. Both Ezekiel’s description and that in Revelation 4 describe what could be called the divine war machine ready to unleash judgment.

Ezekiel 10:15 specifically identifies them: “Then the cherubim rose up. They are the living beings that I saw by the river Chebar.” The four living creatures are cherubim, an exalted order of angels frequently associated in Scripture with God’s holy power.

John said the living creatures were “full of eyes in front and behind,” symbolizing their awareness, alertness, and comprehensive knowledge. Nothing pertaining to their duties escapes their scrutiny.

Ezekiel’s description of these angels notes that each one possessed all four facial features (Ezekiel 1:6). From John’s point of view, the first was like a lion, the second like a calf, the third had a face like that of a man, and the fourth was like a flying eagle. Those descriptions view the four cherubim in relation to the created world. The lion represents wild creatures, the calf domestic animals, the eagle flying creatures, and man the pinnacle of creation. It is also significant that the twelve tribes of Israel camped under these four banners; some with Reuben (symbolized by a man), others with Dan (symbolized by an eagle), others with Ephraim (symbolized by the calf, or ox), and the rest with Judah (symbolized by a lion).

Their six wings denote that their supreme responsibility and privilege is to constantly worship God. From Isaiah’s vision, we learn that the seraphim used their six wings in the following manner: “with two [they] covered [their faces], and with two [they] covered [their] feet, and with two [they] flew” (Isaiah 6:2). Four of their six wings related to worship. Worship is their privilege and permanent occupation.