Art is by Pat Marvenko Smith, copyright 1992. To order art prints visit her “Revelation Illustrated” site, http://www.revelationillustrated.com
An artist’s depiction of the scene in Revelation 4:1-11.
What do you see?
Tim Chester asks, “Turn on the television or open a newspaper and what do you see? . . . . How would you describe what you see in our world?” When believers in those seven churches in Asia looked around them, what did they see? Tim Chester tells us: “this is what they saw: the power and pomp of the Roman Empire. . . . . They heard stories of war and slaughter followed by famine and disease. If they had had eyes to see, they may also have seen injustice and murder. They could “enjoy” the blood of gladiatorial combat. . . . .”
But now, in Revelation 4 Jesus directs those first-century believers’ gaze, and our gaze, to an altogether different vision. He takes us into the courts of heaven, to the very throne-room of Almighty God.
It is in the light of this sublime, magnificent, overwhelming vision that God wanted those first-century believers to see everything else. It is in the light of this vision that He wants us to view everything around us.
A door open in Heaven
After Jesus dictates the messages to the angels of the seven churches, John writes, “I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’” (4:1). John, in the Spirit, saw “a throne . . . in heaven, with one seated on the throne” (4:2). In a vision, Jesus―whose voice it was―summoned John “to the control room at Supreme Headquarters. . . . . ” This is no less than Supreme Headquarters of the Universe. It is the heavenly throne-room of the Lord God Almighty, the “council chamber of the King of Kings”.
Why does Jesus show us this vision here at this point in the book?
As we journey through Revelation, we’ll see great judgments―war, famine and death, demonic oppression, terrifying signs in the heavens, and destruction and disaster on earth. We’ll encounter terrifying beasts, a gaudy, drunken prostitute, and unclean demonic spirits like frogs. Most grievous of all, we see God’s faithful people “who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (Revelation 6:9).
But before we see these things, we see this vision. God wants us to see everything in this book, everything in our troubled world, everything in these unsettled and uncertain times, everything in our own lives, in the light of the fact that God is on the Throne, reigning supreme over Heaven and Earth. One writer comments, “From Revelation 4:1 and following we will be seeing everything from the perspective of the throne.” 
The One seated on the Throne
God is called “one seated on the throne”. This name (with variations) occurs 12 times in Revelation. It’s the name of God most frequently used in this book.
And notice how God’s throne is the focus of everthing that John sees: “round the throne” is a rainbow (4:3); “round the throne” are 24 thrones on which 24 elders sit (4:4); “from the throne” come lightning and thunder (4:5); “before the throne” are seven burning torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God (4:5); “before the throne” is a glassy sea (4:6); “round the throne, on each side of the throne” are four living creatures (4:6). And when these creatures praise God, the elders worship God and cast their crowns “before the throne” (4:10).
John says that God had “the appearance of jasper and carnelian” (4:3). These two stones together reflect God’s radiant, majestic glory.
Around God’s throne, John sees “a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald” (4:3). This rainbow added its own vibrant colour to the vision of God’s throne-room. But this “rainbow” may well recall the rainbow that God appointed to be a sign of His covenant with Noah and his descendants (Genesis 6:18, 9:8-9), and with “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9:16). God said, “I establish my covenant with you, that . . . never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Genesis 9:11). Devastating floods and other natural disasters have continued to this day. But God promised that there would never be another flood that would destroy the entire world. The rainbow was the sign of that covenant promise.
That promise is still in place.
In the chapters that follow, we’ll see God bringing His righteous judgments upon this ungodly world. But in the midst of His judgment, God is merciful. He will not send another flood to destroy the Earth. He will wait as long as He can, to give many, many people opportunity to repent and receive salvation. The apostle Peter wrote, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9).
Echoes of Sinai
In 4:5 we read “From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder”. This recalls the dramatic scenes at Mount Sinai described in Exodus 19:16–24 and 20:18-21. We read this: “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. . . . . Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.” God Himself had come down to earth: the mountain trembled, a storm raged―our holy and all-powerful God was manifesting His presence. The lightning and thunder here in 4:5 depict the awesome power of the presence of our holy God.
Later in Revelation, we’ll see three sets of judgments unleashed―a set initiated by the opening of the seals on the scroll, then a set announced by trumpets, and, thirdly, a set poured out from bowls. Each of these three sets ends with a great storm that mirrors, with increasing intensity, the storm described here in 4:5. And that’s very significant, as we’ll see.
“Seven torches of fire”
In 1:4 we read about “the seven spirits who are before [God’s] throne”. These are later called “the seven spirits of God” (3:1, 4:5, 5:6). This is a name of the Holy Spirit. It can also be translated “the sevenfold Spirit of God”. Here “the seven spirits of God” appear as “seven torches of fire” (4:5) burning before God’s throne. This echoes what Zechariah saw: “a lampstand all of gold, with a bowl on the top of it, and seven lamps on it, . . . ” (Zechariah 4:2). Later, Zechariah is told that “these seven” (presumably the lamps) “are the eyes of the LORD, which range through the whole earth” (Zechariah 4:10). God’s presence ranges through the Earth. And where God is present, He is there to rule. And that’s a key to what we’ll see as we travel through Revelation.
A crystal sea
In front of God’s throne “there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal” (4:6). What does the sea symbolise? One of the things that it can symbolise in the Bible is evil and chaos. Psalm 65:7 tells us that God “stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples” . So this calm, glassy sea may well represent God’s sovereign authority that stills all the forces of evil and chaos. It may also simply depict God’s awesome, transcendent holiness.
Around God’s throne “were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads” (4:4). Who are these elders? There are (as with many things in Revelation!) a number of views. Perhaps the most likely view is that they’re angels who represent God’s people.
Many people think they represent the twelve tribes of Israel together with the twelve apostles. The new Jerusalem is, in fact, inscribed with both the names of the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles, as we shall see. However, one writer comments: “throughout the New Testament, including in Revelation, Jews and Gentiles together form one single, united people of God, not a people in two halves . . . .” So who might these elders be?
The clue seems to be the number 24. And, as so often, we need to go back to the Old Testament to find out more. There we read how King David organised the priests into 24 divisions (1 Chronicles 24:1-19), and the Temple musicians and gatekeepers likewise (1 Chronicles 25:1-31, 26:12-19). And it’s these 24 divisions that seem to supply the background for these 24 elders. These elders seem to act as priests in serving and worshipping God in the heavenly Temple John sees here. And these elders sit on thrones, indicating a royal status. Jesus has “made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (1:6). It may well be that these elders represent us, God’s people, in our priestly and royal roles.
Four living creatures
John sees, right next to the throne, and around it, “four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight” (4:6-7). Each living creature has six wings (4:8).
What are these remarkable creatures? Again, we need to go back to the Old Testament for clues.
►Ezekiel sees creatures like these (1:4-28, 10:1-22). They’re called “living creatures“ in 1:4-28 and “cherubim” in 10:1-22, but Ezekiel tells us that the living creatures are the cherubim (10:15,20). So it seems certain that these ”living creatures” in Revelation are the “cherubim”.
►Cherubim first appear in Genesis 3 ”at the east of the garden of Eden” (Genesis 3:24).
►There were cherubim in the Tabernacle and Temple. For example, they were on the mercy seat in the Most Holy Place (Exodus 25:17-22).
The first two “living creatures” are, respectively, like a lion and an ox; the third has the face of a man, and the fourth is like a flying eagle. One writer comments, “The eagle, the most majestic of birds, is over the air. The lion, the fiercest of wild animals, is over the wilderness. The ox, the strongest of the domesticated animals, is over cultivated land. The man, ruler over the animals, is over creation.” 
What do these living creatures symbolise? Perhaps the most common view is that, together, they represent all of creation. This is supported by the fact there’s four of them―as we’ll see later in this series, the number ‘four’ is the number of the creation. So they may represent all creation―including humans―in the presence of God the Creator. They “never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Revelation 4:8). If these living creatures do represent creation, then they picture humans―specifically, God’s people―leading all creation in praising God.
But there’s another view that seems very possible. Perhaps they represent God’s people, but in a different way from the elders. Why might this be?
►Ezekiel gives us the most detailed description of them. He tells us that “they had a human likeness” (Ezekiel 1:5). This suggests they’re more like humans than like any of the other three animals.
►In every place where we read about them in the Bible, they’re close to God, or to His dwelling place. For example, here in Revelation, they’re “around the throne, on each side of the throne” (4:6)―they’re even closer to the throne than the elders! There can be no doubt that, of all the creatures God has created, God’s people are the ones who enjoy the closest relationship to Him. God indwells His people; they are His temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:19-22).
But why would we be given more than one picture of God’s people? Because there’s so much to see about them! Think of how many pictures of God’s people there are in the New Testament. God piles picture upon picture to reveal the wonder and glory of who we are as God’s people in Christ!
These four creatures are called “living creatures”. That name suggests that they picture God’s people as those who have life―spiritual life, new life in Christ. For example, Paul wrote, “God, . . . even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ . . . .” (Ephesians 2:4–5).
Why are three of these living creatures here in Revelation like animals? Perhaps each of these powerful animals―the majestic lion, the strong, hardworking ox, and the soaring eagle in flight―symbolises an aspect of our new life in Christ. After all, Jesus Himself is called “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (5:5). So it’s no surprise that God might use each of these three animals to show us something about His people.
And the living creatures are “full of eyes” (4:6,8)―perhaps symbolising spiritual sight and understanding.
If the living creatures do indeed picture God’s people as those who have new life in Christ, then the elders complement this picture. They picture God’s people in their ministry as priests and kings.
“Worthy are You . . . to receive glory!”
Day and night, in a glorious, ceaseless symphony of praise, the cherubim say, ”Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (4:8). And whenever these cherubim glorify God, so do the 24 elders. They “fall down before him who is seated on the throne” and worship Him. Casting their crowns before Him, they say, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’” (Revelation 4:9–11). This is the first of seven scenes of heavenly worship in Revelation.
FOOTNOTES  Quoted from Revelation for You by Tim Chester, page 49. Published by The Good Book Company, Epsom, UK, in 2019.  Quoted from The Revelation of St. John the Divine (Black’s New Testament Commentaries) by G.B. Caird, page 60. Published by Hendrickson Publishers Inc. Peabody, Massachusetts; first published by A. and C. Black (Publishers) Ltd., London, England in 1966.  Quoted from The Triumph of the Lamb: a Commentary on Revelation by Dennis E. Johnson, page 97. Published by P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, in 2001.  Quoted from Discipleship on the Edge: an Expository Journey Through the Book of Revelation, by Darrell W. Johnson, page 126.  Quoted from Revelation (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries) , by Ian Paul, page 123. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, and Inter-Varsity Press, London, England, in 2018.  Quoted from Lions, Locusts, and the Lamb: Interpreting Key Images in the Book of Revelation by Michael Kuykendall, page 34. Published by Wipf and Stock, Eugene, Oregon, in 2019.
CREDITS ► Text copyright © 2023 Robert Gordon Betts ► All Scripture citations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.