One of the difficulties we have in reading the book of Revelation is that in this book the word ‘heaven’ is used in a way that’s unfamiliar to us. We tend to think of heaven as a peaceful place where believers go after they die, a place of green fields and love and tranquility and harps and angels. But John, the author of Revelation, means something completely different. We can see this very clearly in chapter 12 where we read the startling words ‘And war broke out in heaven’ (12:1). What? War in heaven? How can that be? Heaven is the place where there is no war, no suffering, no sickness, no evil. How can there be war there?
So what does John mean by the word ‘heaven’? Well, let’s imagine a great battlefield – perhaps one of the great battles of the Second World War in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are involved, on both sides. In the front lines, all is noise and explosions and death and confusion. The ordinary soldiers fighting on the front line have no idea what’s going on. They can’t see the big picture. They assume that somewhere back there behind the lines, the generals know what they’re doing, but they have to take that on faith, because for them, all is terror and noise and smoke. That’s what reality looks like in the trenches.
However, a few miles further back we see a different view of reality. Let’s go into the command centre. There we find a large table, and on that table there is a map – a map of the battlefield. On the map there are movable symbols – this one stands for an infantry regiment, this one stands for a tank division, this one stands for an artillery unit. The generals are in touch by radio with the various units, and they can interpret all the stories they’re getting from the front and translate them into the movement of symbols on the battlefield. The ordinary soldier on the front lines might feel as if it’s hopeless, but the generals see the big picture and they know that in fact it’s going quite well – the objectives are being met, most of the troops are moving forward, and it looks as if, by the end of the day, victory will be won.
Which view of reality is the truth? They’re both true, of course, in different ways. But what we need to understand is that you and I usually live in the soldier’s eye view of reality. We often miss out on the big picture. We see our daily lives with all the struggles we face; we work our jobs, we bring up our kids, we try to do well in school, we deal with the aches and pains of advancing age, and so on. Our immediate problems and joys are the first things on our minds. And it’s natural that it should be so.
But there’s a different view of reality that is also important: it’s the command post view of reality, and that’s what John means by ‘heaven’: the command post, the place where we get a big picture of what’s going on in terms of God’s great plan. In the Book of Revelation John is inviting us to come into the command post and take a bird’s eye view of the whole battlefield. So in the opening verse of chapter four, he says,
After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! 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”. (Revelation 4:1).
John is being invited to step into God’s view of human history. And when he goes through the door of heaven, what’s the first thing he sees? A throne, and one seated on it! John never actually describes the one sitting on the throne, just that he ‘looks like jasper and carnelian’ – that is, precious stones. God is indescribably beautiful.
The scene around the throne is striking. There are twenty-four thrones in a circle around the throne of God, with twenty-four elders seated on them. Remember, this book uses symbols, just like the campaign map we talked about earlier on. So, why are there twenty-four thrones? What do they symbolize? Well, twenty-four is twelve and twelve, the twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament, and the twelve apostles of Jesus in the New Testament. So the twenty four elders refer to the people of God throughout history, Old and New Testament, all the way back to Abraham in Genesis and all the way through to you and me today. And although the people of God may seem insignificant, in God’s view of reality they are the closest to his throne.
There are also four strange-looking living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind – John says that one looks like a lion, one like an ox, one with a human face, one like an eagle. But they don’t look like any ox or lion or eagle I’ve ever seen! They each have six wings, like the seraphs in the vision in Isaiah chapter 6. Some commentators think that these living creatures represent the world of all living things, human and animal.
So we have the heavenly throne room of God, where God is surrounded by his people from the old covenant and the new, and by all living things that he has made. And what are they doing? They are worshipping God. The four living creatures cry out “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (4:8), and the twenty four elders bow down in worship and cast their crowns before the throne and sing,
“You are worthy, 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” (4:11).
So what is this vision in chapter four saying to us today? First, it’s saying that God is on the throne. The soldier on the front line needs to know that someone back there knows what they’re doing! The persecuted Christians in Asia Minor that John was writing to needed to know that God, and not Caesar, was calling the shots. And when we go through our own struggles today – economic crises, health issues, family troubles, or whatever – we need to know that God will work his purposes out and that his plan will not be thwarted by the power of evil. God is on the throne.
Second, the vision is saying that God’s people are in the places of honour around his throne. Again, in Asia Minor they probably felt small and insignificant, little persecuted churches in the mighty Roman Empire. Today in Western Canada we probably feel marginalized and ignored in a secular culture that’s not really interested any more. But heaven has a different view of reality; the twenty four thrones of the elders have the place of honour around the throne of God.
Third, the vision is saying that worship is the true and natural activity of the people of God. What are the people of God doing around the throne? Day and night, without ceasing, they are casting their crowns before God, singing to him and worshipping him. This worship never stops. You and I checked into it for a while when we started our service today, but when we’re done, it won’t stop – it will still be going on. This is when we are most truly the people of God – when we worship him together.
So the centre of the vision in chapter four is the throne and the one who sits on it – God the Almighty. The people of God fall down before him and worship him, saying “You are worthy”. But as we move on to chapter five, a new character will appear, who will share in the honour given to God. This new character is ‘the Lamb that was slaughtered’.
How does John set this up? The chapter starts with him noticing that the one seated on the throne has a scroll in his right hand. Normally a king would hold a sceptre in his right hand, but this is a scroll, written on both sides and sealed with seven seals. We never do find out what’s written on the scroll, but over the next few chapters as the seals are broken, all sorts of mysterious and terrifying events happen in human history. It seems as if the scroll represents God’s purposes in human history, but no one can ‘open it’ – that’s to say, no one can make sense of it, no one can interpret it.
We know how that feels, don’t we? We look at the way human history proceeds, and we think to ourselves, “How can this make sense? How can this be related to the purposes of a loving God? What is God up to here?” Who will help us understand it?
In chapter five, we’re told that no one in all of heaven or earth or under the earth was found worthy to break the seals on the scroll. John weeps because of this, but one of the elders comforts him; he says,
“Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (5:5).
Who is this ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah?” Jesus is of the tribe of Judah, he’s a descendant of David, and he has conquered evil through his death and resurrection. So this is Jesus the mighty conqueror; he’s the only one who can make sense of human history and tell us what it’s really all about.
But then we get a big surprise. When the elder said “the Lion of the tribe of Judah”, we were set up to expect the arrival of a majestic conqueror, but what do we see? Look at verse 6:
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
We’re expecting a mighty warrior, but what do we get? The little slaughtered lamb. This is amazing: the only conquering hero in heaven is a slain lamb. And it is his death that makes it possible for him to open the scroll: his death, not his victory over the armies of his enemies. When he takes the scroll, the twenty-four elders sing a song of worship to him:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God” (5:9-10).
After that, a huge angel choir numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands joins in:
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and mighty and honour and glory and blessing!” (v.12).
And finally every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea joins in:
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever!” (v.13).
Notice how John sees our Lord Jesus Christ: he is worshipped along with God. To Jewish people, that would be shocking: God alone is to be worshipped. But the text is quite clear: ‘To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might’ (v.13). So the Lamb is worshipped along with the one on the throne; he is the key to God’s purposes, and right at the centre of those purposes is his death, by which he has redeemed for God a people taken from every nation and tribe and language on earth.
So, in summary, what are these two chapters saying to us?
First, there is a throne at the centre of the universe, and the one seated on it is not the latest emperor or dictator, but the Lord God Almighty. He has a purpose for his creation and he is working it out, and in the long run, evil will not be able to frustrate his plans. God is in control, and he will have the last word in human history.
Remember this vision when you feel as if your life is out of control, or the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Remember our battlefield image. It’s easy for the soldier on the front line to feel as if things are out of control and there is no plan. But there is a plan. Yes, every battle has surprises and human generals are sometimes overwhelmed by them, but our general is the Lord God the Almighty, and he has a contingency ready for every surprise. We may well go through suffering now, but the final outcome is not in question.
Second, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, is right at the centre of God’s plan for his world. The conquering Lion is a slain Lamb; he carries out God’s will not by slaughtering his enemies, but by allowing them to slaughter him and responding with love and forgiveness instead. By doing that, he has gathered together a new people for God, a people who he has forgiven and set free. We come from every tribe, every nation, every language, but these things no longer divide us, because Jesus Christ is our Lord and we are one people in him.
Remember this vision when you think that Jesus is irrelevant in the history of the world, or when you think that the plans of politicians or economists or multi-millionaire business people are more important in history than the love of Jesus Christ. They are not. Politicians and generals and tycoons come and go, but God’s plans for his world ultimately revolve around his Son Jesus Christ and his life, death, and resurrection. Therefore, the most important thing we can do to make the world a better place is to follow Jesus Christ, to put his teaching and example into practice in our lives, and to spread his message.
Remember this vision also when you are confused by suffering – your own, or someone else’s. Perhaps you think that suffering means that God’s plan is being thwarted somehow. It doesn’t. Remember, the suffering of the Lamb who was slain was right at the centre of God’s purposes to redeem the world. He died because he was faithful to God, not because God had lost control of the world. Suffering is a great mystery and we don’t have all the answers about it. But whatever else it might mean, it definitely does not mean that God’s plan has somehow gone wrong. It may look like that to us, but we’re in the trenches, not the command post. From the point of view of a wise and loving God, things probably look completely different.
First, God is on the throne. Second, Jesus Christ the Lamb of God is at the centre of God’s plan to save his world from evil. Third, we may feel ignored or marginalized in our world, but in God’s view of things, the people of God have the place of honour. Remember the twenty-four elders seated around the throne of God; we are seated close to God, and worship is right at the centre of what we do and who we are. The whole universe worships God, and when we come together to join in, we’re doing what we were created to do.
Remember this when you’re tempted to think that it doesn’t matter whether or not you show up here on Sunday. It does matter. The worship offered by God’s people is the central activity of all creation. John makes it clear that all creation joins in that worship. The four living creatures, representing all living things on earth, worship God and the Lamb. The twenty-four elders, representing the people of God in the old and new covenants, worship God and the Lamb. Myriads of angels worship God and the Lamb. Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea worships God and the Lamb. Are you sensing a theme? This is what we were created to do. This is how we find what it means to be human. This is not a waste of time; this is the central activity of our lives. So let’s do it with all our hearts and do it well, and look forward to the day when we will be doing it together with all God’s people and with every creature God has made. Amen.