Revelation 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Throne and Its Surroundings
As he looks up into the sky, John sees there before me . . . a door standing open in heaven (v. 1). If the sky was like an open window to Jesus at his baptism (Mk 1:10-11), it is like an open door to John, for a voice, the same trumpetlike voice he heard once before, beckons him to pass through the door: Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this (v. 1). John stops short of narrating a full-blown heavenly journey like the journeys of such characters as Enoch in Jewish literature (see, for example, 1 Enoch 14:8-25) or even like the journey of Paul, who was "caught up to the third heaven" and "heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell" (2 Cor 12:2, 4). All John will say is, At once I was in the Spirit (v. 2), just as in the introductory vision on Patmos (1:10). There he was "in the Spirit" first and then heard the voice; here it is the other way around. Nowhere have we been told when or under what circumstances John stopped being "in the Spirit," but now we are told that he is in the Spirit once more. This time he is indeed caught up to heaven, for he sees before him a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it (v. 2). But in this chapter and in those to follow we will again look in vain for any clear signal as to when John stops being "in the Spirit" or when he "comes down" from heaven. Only to a limited degree can we attain in our reading of the Revelation "a sense of where we are."
John's description of what he saw in heaven is, like the rest of the New Testament, true to the classic Jewish principle that "no one has ever seen God" (Jn 1:18; 1 Jn 4:12; compare Ex 33:20). In many ways it recalls Ezekiel's introductory vision (Ezek 1:4-28), except that John is, if anything, even more reticent than Ezekiel about naming or describing God directly. What John sees is both a throne room and at the same time (because it is God's throne room) a place of worship, specifically a temple. Ezekiel in his day saw "a throne of sapphire" and on it "a figure like that of a man" (Ezek 1:26), which he identified as "the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord" (1:28). John, by contrast, speaks only of a throne in heaven and someone seated on the throne (v. 2). This someone has no name or title, but for the moment at least is simply the one who sat there, with the appearance of jasper and carnelian (v. 3).
To John the throne represents the power and majesty of the one sitting on it, and everything else he sees is described in relation to this central throne. Encircling it he saw a rainbow, resembling an emerald. Surrounding it in a wider circle were twenty-four other thrones, on which were seated twenty-four elders in white, wearing gold crowns (v. 4). From it came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder (v. 5). Before, or in front of it, seven lamps were blazing, which John identifies for us as the seven spirits of God (v. 5). In front of it too he saw what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal (v. 6). Finally, in the center, around the throne John saw four living creatures, with eyes on every side and six wings, who continually said, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come" (v. 8).
What started as a heavenly tableau unfolding step by step before John's eyes now becomes a scene of active worship and proclamation. The use of verbs in the present tense, beginning in verse 5, and the phrase day and night in verse 8 give the impression that this is no longer something John saw once in a vision, but a ritual in heaven repeating itself over and over again without rest or interruption. The throne is suddenly alive with living creatures hailing the anonymous someone seated on it as the Lord God Almighty (compare 1:8). In reply, the twenty-four elders continually fall down to worship this one who lives for ever and ever (v. 9), laying their crowns in front of the throne (v. 10) and saying, "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being" (v. 11). The elders' song celebrates creation and God the creator, probably as a reference point for the new creation to come. Although John in his vision does not claim to experience the passage of time, he manages to convey a sense that what he saw is something still going on in heaven even as we read his prophecy today.