God’s Sovereign Purpose in History (Rev. 4:1-11)

Do you know why the book of Revelation was written?  It wasn’t written to give you a road map for the future.  It wasn’t given to satisfy people’s idle curiosity about the End Times.  To help us see why it was written, we need to remind ourselves to whom this book was first given.  The book of Revelation was written to encourage embattled and beleaguered Christians at the end of the first century in the Roman Empire.  It was written to people who were persecuted and harassed and who were suffering and in some cases being killed.  It was written to people who had little to no political power to wield against their persecutors, and very little material wealth to buy them off or to pad their lives on this earth with comforts and ease.  

Now I’m a futurist overall in my approach to Revelation, so I’m not saying it doesn’t have anything to say about the future.  But I don’t think that Revelation was meant primarily – or even secondarily – to enlighten people about the future by giving them a blow-by-blow, linear program of the events preceding the Second Coming of our Lord to the earth.  It was, beginning in the first century and then in every age after that until the Lord comes, given to help Christians be faithful in the midst of very difficult circumstances.  

How does the Lord provide that help?  How does the book of Revelation function to encourage and give hope to embattled believers?  In some sense it does it the way all the Bible does it.  It does it by pointing our eyes away from a merely earthly perspective to a heavenly one.  It helps us to look at all of life and history through the reality of the sovereignty of God over all things.  

You see, one of our problems is that we tend to think of God as “up there” in heaven, and we’re “down here” on the earth, and never the twain shall meet.  Heaven and God’s throne is in some other realm, and we’re stuck down here just trying to make it to heaven.  We may not say it, but practically speaking sometimes God doesn’t have a lot to do with our lives on a day-to-day basis.

Do you know how you can tell that?  Just look at your prayer life.  Do you pray about things or do you just try to take care of the difficulties of life on your own?  Do you lift them to God in prayer?  Do you regularly come to the throne of grace?  Do you in every circumstance with prayer and supplication make your requests known to God?  And then add this consideration: do you pray with expectation that God is hearing you?  Do you really believe that?  Or are you just praying because you know you’re supposed to?

Another question to ask is this: where is my hope?  Is my hope in God or in something else?  Or have I become so discouraged that I’ve given up on God?  

There are a million ways we can become disconnected from the reality that we live every day and every hour and every moment under the universal Lordship of Christ over all the universe, and that as his people he takes particular interest and concern over us.  We can become hopeless, paralyzed by fear – fear of man, fear of the unknown – and embittered by the suffering of this life.  And it is at least partly due to the fact that we have lost sight of the twin facts that God is good and great, that he is loving and Lord, that he is sufficient and sovereign.  

The book of Revelation helps us to understand God and history in a Biblical way.  It helps us to understand that God is sovereign over history – past, present, and future – and that he is moving history for his own glory and the good of his people.  And that is why the Lord gives John this vision that begins here in chapter 4.  John (and all of us) needs to understand that the future depends ultimately on God.  And so instead of jumping to the events of the future (the “things which must be hereafter,” verse 1), he first brings John into the throne-room of God.

This chapter unfolds roughly in three parts.  First of all, we have God’s appearance in verses 1-3.  Second, we have God’s attendants in verses 4-8a.  Third, we have God’s adoration in verses 8b-11.  All three parts together join in underlining the fact celebrated in verse 11: “Thou art worthy, O Lord.”  In this chapter, we not only meet God, but in meeting him, his audience, and his worship, we see again and again that he alone is worthy of worship and honor and praise.

John sets the stage for this vision of God in verses 1-2: “After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter.  And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.”  This begins the next great vision in the book of Revelation, the vision in heaven (chapters 4-16) which will center around three cycles of judgment (seals, 6:1-8:1; trumpets, 8:2-11:19; vials, 16:1-21).  John is “in the Spirit” indicating that this is a vision given to him by God.  In this vision, he is invited by the Lord Jesus Christ (who was “the first voice I heard,” see 1:10, ff) to come into the very throne room of heaven.  

The purpose of this vision is to “shew thee things which must be hereafter” (4:1).  Now that doesn’t mean that everything that Jesus is going to show John pertains only to the future.  But it does mean that burden of the following visions pertain to the future, a future which, as we will see, culminates in the final destruction of evil on the earth and the final victory of God in a new heaven and new earth.

What I want you to notice, though, is the word must and who is speaking it.  Jesus is saying, “I’m going to show you the future; it’s a future that must come to pass because it’s a future that I will bring to pass.”  In other words, our Lord is reminding John and us that he is sovereign over history.  What we’re going to see in chapters 6 and following is what that history will look like.  But in chapters 4-5, we are going to see why history takes the shape it does.  It takes the shape it does because of the wisdom and power and goodness and justice and holiness of God.  God is in control; that is the point.  The events of the following chapters don’t just happen; they happen because they emanate from the throne of God.

Chapter 4 is about the throne of God.  Chapter 5 is about the Lamb of God.  Chapter 4 tells us that God has a sovereign purpose in history.  Chapter 5 tells us that God has a saving purpose in history.  Today, we want to look at God’s sovereign purpose in history.  

That God’s sovereignty is highlighted here is obvious.  This whole chapter takes place in one room – God’s throne room.  The word throne is used 14 times in just 11 verses (about a third of its use in all the book of Revelation).  Most of these are a reference to God’s throne.  It’s true that there are other thrones here as well, but these other thrones, as exalted as they are, are still subservient to God’s throne.  Those who sit upon these thrones wear crowns, but in verse 10 these crowns are cast before the throne of God, showing that God’s rule is the ultimate rule in the universe.

Let me remind you what it means for God to be sovereign.  It means that God rules over all and exercises ultimate and final authority and power in the universe.  It means that God’s will is supreme.  A sovereign is a king.  But God is not just a king; he is King of kings and Lord of lords.  Or, as the Psalms put it, “But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Ps. 115:3).  Or, “For I know that the Lord is great, and that our Lord is above all gods. Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did he in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places” (Ps. 135:5-6).  Or, as Nebuchadnezzar put it, “And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Dan. 4:35).  It means that from grubs to galaxies, God’s purpose and power is what finally matters.  When we say that God is sovereign, we are not just saying that he has the right to rule: we are saying that he does in fact exercise this rule from top to bottom, from the past to the present to the future.

How is God’s sovereignty displayed?  Well, it is displayed in these three movements of the chapter: God’s appearance, God’s attendants, and God’s adoration.

God’s appearance

Note first God’s appearance.  Now this is the language (that of appearance) that John himself uses here.  It is important to realize that John does not actually describe God’s essence for that is impossible.  Instead, he says that what he saw was “like” something.  Here is what he actually says: “. . . behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald” (Rev. 4:2b-3).  It would be blasphemous to say that this is a description of God’s essence.  No one can see God, who dwells in light inaccessible (1 Tim. 6:16).  But that is not what John is doing.  Rather, he is describing the effulgence of God’s glory as it appeared in the throne room of heaven.  

It’s hard to really visualize what John saw here.  John describes the glory of God in terms of precious stones, and he mentions three here: jasper, sardius, and an emerald.  According to Leon Morris, we can’t be sure exactly what these stones were because of the inexactness of ancient descriptions for the terms used for these stones (TNTC, p. 85).  However, what we can be sure about is that the function these precious stones have in this vision is to emphasize the beauty and the brilliance of the glory of God that John saw.  All three stones appear again as part of the foundation of the New Jerusalem (21:10-20). It’s clear that John was blown away by this amazing display of light shining as it were through these precious stones.  It is meant to help us feel just how awesome and glorious and full of majesty God is.

John’s vision is very much like the vision of God’s glory that Ezekiel had.  Here is the way the prophet described his vision of God: 

And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it. And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about. As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake (Ezek. 1:26-28).

Note again, Ezekiel saw “the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”  But even that was enough to send the prophet collapsing to the ground in awe and terror!

In addition to the description of God’s glory manifested as he sits upon his throne, there are a couple of other additional details about the throne room itself.  One is the rainbow about the throne.  Again, it is hard to know exactly what John saw here.  However, as in Ezekiel’s vision it seems to be, like the precious stones, a medium through which God’s glory shines in the area around the throne.

One other detail that is mentioned is in verse 5: “And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices: and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God.”  We’ve already noted that “the seven Spirits of God” is a reference to the fullness of power and glory that belongs to the Holy Spirit.  But what I want to notice here is the lightening and the thunder and the voices that proceed from the throne.  You see these again at the conclusion of each series of judgments (8:5; 11:19; 16:18).  In other words, this is another reminder that the judgments which take place upon the earth originate in heaven and proceed ultimately from God’s throne.  They are acts of God in the truest sense of the word.

Finally, “before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal” (6).  There are a number of speculations as to what this was meant to signify, but I think it is just another detail that enhances the beauty and brilliance, the glory and greatness, of the throne room of God.

So we have the throne of God and the God who sits upon his throne.  It seems to me that what is prominent in the descriptions throughout this passage is light.  This is the point, I think, of the precious stones that John thinks of when he sees God seated on his throne..  The glory of God is displayed as light refracted through precious stones.  Note how it is put in chapter 21.  Speaking of the New Jerusalem, John writes that it came down out of heaven “having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal” (11).  Furthermore, light is shown in the rainbow around the throne and in the sea before the throne.  

In Scripture, one of the primary ways that God’s glory is manifested is through light.  When Moses came down off Mount Sinai his face shown because he had been in God’s presence.  When our Lord was transfigured, even his garments shone.  Now John is in heaven, and it is in heaven where God most fully manifests his presence to bless.  And so it should not surprise us to find the throne room full of light, brilliant and beautiful, revealing the glory of God in heaven.

Light is incorruptible, and this tells us something about God’s sovereign rule.  It tells us that God’s rule is holy (we will see this declared in verse 8) and it tells us that God’s rule is without defect.  There is no chance that God’s will is going to fall to the ground because there is nothing corruptible in God.  There is no defect in his knowledge, or his wisdom, or his power, or his holiness, or his goodness, or his justice, or his immutability, or his faithfulness, or his eternity.  He is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

So as we work our way through the book of Revelation and the judgments upon God’s enemies and the salvation of God’s people, we need to remind ourselves that the plan of God which is being revealed here will never be in danger of falling to the ground.  No, for it is founded in the eternal decree of the Sovereign Lord, the God who is light and who dwells in unapproachable light.

God’s attendants

It is interesting how much space John devotes to describing God’s attendants, who minister before him.  There is a parallel here to both Isaiah’s vision in Isa. 6 and Ezekiel’s vision in Ezek. 1.  Here, John sees two different types of attendants in the throne room of God.

The first are the twenty-four elders (4, 10).  Who are these guys and what is the significance of the number twenty-four?  One of the questions relating to their identity is whether these are angelic beings or human beings.  Well, I don’t think we can say for sure.  Some might point to 5:9 and argue that they are redeemed (“hast redeemed us to God”), and therefore are human. But they are joined in this praise with the living beasts, who are certainly not human.  In any case, although Jesus did not die for angels as an atonement for their sins, his death does have universal implications for angels as well as men (cf. Col. 1:20; 2:10).  

I think the best way to look at these elders is that, whether they are human or angelic beings, either way they function as representatives of God’s people with priestly functions (for example, they present the prayers of the saints to God in 5:8).  That they are twenty-four in number may then point to the 24 orders of the priests and Levites who ministered in the earthly temple of God and represented God’s people to God.  Even so, these elders minister in the presence of God on behalf of the people of God.

The four elders sit on thrones (called seats in the KJV, but the Greek word is throne), which are arranged around God’s throne.  Though the fact that they sit on thrones and wear crowns of gold and are clothed in white robes is an indication of their importance and authority, the position of their thrones with God’s at the center shows that their power and glory is delegated and derived.  They themselves show this by casting their crowns before God’s throne (10).  

The next of God’s attendants are the four beasts (6-8).  They seem to be immediately round the throne (“in the midst of the throne and round about the throne”).  We can think in concentric circles, with God at the center, immediately surrounded by these living creatures, and surrounding them are the twenty-four elders.

These are like the living creatures of Ezekiel 1 (who are later called cherubim in Ezek. 10).  As in Ezekiel, these creatures are full of eyes.  But there are differences.  First, each beast here only has one face (lion, calf – or ox, man, flying eagle), whereas in Ezekiel each cherub had four faces.  Also, in Ezekiel the cherubim have four wings; here they have six (like the seraphim in Isa. 6).  We must not make too much of these differences.  Some speculate that John is borrowing from these other visions and piecing them together to create his own vision.  I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.  Though I doubt we should be overly literalistic here, there is no doubt in my mind that there are real creatures like this in heaven.  

Why the different faces though?  Well, around AD 300, the Jewish Rabbi Abahu taught, “There are four mighty creatures.  The mightiest among the birds is the eagle, the mightiest among domestic animals is the ox, the mightiest among wild animals is the lion, the mightiest of them all is man; and God has taken all these and secured them to his throne.”   It’s doubtful that he is commenting on a Christian text here; so this is most likely an independent tradition that very likely goes back much earlier.  If that is the case, it could be that the function of each face rand each creature is to represent a part of God’s creation – from the birds, to the domestic animals, to the wild animals, to man.  As they praise the living God, they show that the purpose of all creation is to bring honor and glory to God.

One can tell a lot about the power of a king by looking at those who surround him.  These who surround the throne of God are clearly powerful beings, vested with authority and glory and majesty.  But they are not there to serve themselves. They are there to serve the living God.  They are not there to receive worship but to give it.  These attendants are powerful, but God is supremely powerful.  They are glorious but God is infinitely more glorious.  Theirs is a derived glory; God’s is underived, eternal, and unchanging. There is no sovereign in the universe that can compare with God.  Satan may have his minions, but they are nothing compared to those who serve God.  

God’s adoration

What are the attendants to God doing around his throne?  We are told in verses 8-11. They are worshipping and adoring and honoring the one who sits on the throne.

First, God is worshiped for his holiness: “And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come” (8).  Like the seraphim in Isa. 6, they proclaim a thrice holy God.  Do you remember what it means to say that God is holy?  Of course it means that he is without sin.  But it means much more than that.  Fundamentally, it means that God is utterly distinct and separate from all his creation.  It means that there is nothing and no one like God.  Though it is true that we can be like God in some ways, yet there are ways in which God cannot be imitated in any way.  

For example, we cannot be eternal or immortal like God is (“who only hath immortality,” 1 Tim. 6:16).  We may never stop existing, but it is only because God holds us up in continual exitance.  But God necessarily exists.  He never began to exist.  He will never cease to exist because it is impossible for him to cease to exist.  Thus the living creatures go on to say, “which was, and is, and is to come.”  God is the only being in the universe for whom this can be said.  There is no one like God!  

This aspect of God’s glory and holiness is repeated several times in this chapter alone.  He is called the one “who liveth for ever and ever” (9-10; cf. 5:14; 10:6; 15:7).  God’s life is an undying life.  His life is a necessary life.  This is mind-blowing if you stop and think about it.  We just have no categories for a being that never began to exist.  But that is who God is.

As such, he is truly the “Lord God Almighty.”  He is not just mighty, he is Almighty.  This not only means he is more powerful than anyone else; it also means that his power and dominion extend to the farthest reaches of the earth, and indeed, the universe.  The earth is full of his glory (Isa. 6:3).  He is sovereign over all.  He is not just the God over the Christians.  He is the God over the pagans and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and every other person on the face of the planet.  All will have to give an account to him.  He is their Lord and God.  If you are not serving him today, you are living in rebellion against the one who lives forever and ever, who is holy, who is the Lord God Almighty.  There is therefore no escaping his Lordship.  There is no running from him.  The only logical and right thing to do is to run to him in repentance and faith, asking for his mercy and receiving it by faith in Jesus Christ.

We are told that the living creatures “rest not day or night” in giving praise to God.  I saw a nature documentary the other day that said that the Mayfly literally dances in the air until it dies of exhaustion.  I don’t know what it is in the Mayfly that makes them do that.  But I do know what it is that makes these living creatures continue day and night in praise to God.  It is not some mechanical impulse that makes them do it.  It is not instinct.  Rather, it is the immediate awareness of the glory of God that awakens in them this unbroken worship.  Like the Mayfly, I don’t think they can help it.  But unlike the Mayfly, this is rational, willing praise to their Creator.  They aren’t forced to do it in an unwilling sense; but in another sense I don’t think they can keep from doing it either.

I think we need to reckon with this picture of worship in heaven.  Worship is not forced on those who are in heaven.  Worship is the genuine expression of delight in and reverence for the Lord God Almighty.  I think it’s like when you stand before some natural wonder and your breath is taken away – no one made you do that, it just happened; it was your response to the beauty and wonder of the natural world.  But God is the creator of this world.  He made the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains and the Redwood forests and the oceans.  To be in his presence is going to be more wonderful, more breathtaking, more awesome than anything you’ve ever seen or experienced here on this fallen and sin-cursed planet.  That is what these creatures and these elders were experiencing.

You see this in verses 10-11, “The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”  Do you see what they are saying?  “You are worthy, O Lord.”  You should not think they are saying this because they are supposed to say it!  They are saying it because they feel the reality of it – they see and feel that God and God alone is worthy of worship.  Do you feel that?  Have you tasted and seen that the Lord is good?  Or is worship something that has to be pried out of your heart because you’re really in love with other things rather than God?  

Brothers and sisters, God and God alone ought to be seen as worthy of glory and honor and power.  Nothing else in the world is more glorious or worthy of honor and power than God.  Everything else either has a borrowed glory or a stolen glory.  To replace God as the supreme object of our affection and therefore of our worship is the essence of idolatry and it is wicked.  We ought therefore to pray with all our might that God would more and more increase our love to him, and that we would all of us be keepers of the Great Commandment, to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and minds.

The elders and living creatures end by extolling God as creator and sustainer of all things.  It is according to God’s will (KJV “pleasure”) that all things exist (“they are”) and were created to begin with (“and were created”).  This is the God who reigns.  He is holy and immortal and incomparably glorious.  He is the creator of all things.  It is by his will that they were brought into existence and are kept in existence.

Now the question is, What shall we do with this?  God has given us, with John, a glimpse into the glory of heaven, not to have our idle curiosity tickled but to have our perspective changed.  It is meant to change our perspective from one in which God has little to do with this world to one in which we see and know that God rules not only in the armies of heaven but also among the inhabitants of the earth.  

And we are to see that this sovereign God is worthy of worship.  Our worship!  To turn away from this God to find something else that we think is more worthy is blindness.  But it is not a blindness for which we are not culpable. This is a blameworthy blindness.  It is wicked.  It is idolatry, and we are to repent of such idols and turn with faith and repentance to the living God.

However, none of us have loved and worshiped God the way we should.  Calvin said that our hearts are like idol-factories, and that is true for the most mature and godly Christian.  Idolatry is something we will struggle with until the day we die.  But it is still sin.  So what do we do with this sin?  We don’t ignore it.  Instead, we confess it to God, agree with God about that sin, and then ask to be cleansed by the blood of Jesus Christ from our sin.  And the Bible tells us that if we do so, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all iniquity.  


Popular Posts