A Vision of Heaven

Revelation 4:1-11

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
March 2012

For the last couple months, we have been studying the letters of Jesus to the seven churches. I enjoyed those letters so much that I have to confess that I was not looking forward to studying the fourth chapter of the book. It did not seem as exciting or interesting. I was dead wrong. This chapter is amazing. Part of it will seem beyond belief. This evening, we begin the second section of the Book of Revelation.

This section of the book deals with future events. It goes from chapter 4-22. It covers the topics of the Tribulation, the Battle of Armageddon, the Second Coming of Christ, the Millennium, the Great White Throne Judgment, Heaven and Hell (called in Revelation “the lake of fire”). It is the second vision that John received.

His first vision was a vision of Jesus walking among the seven lampstands. His second vision is a vision of heaven. It is a classic passage in the NT on heaven. What will heaven be like? This is one picture of heaven. The last two chapters of the book give a more detailed description of heaven.

As the chapter begins, John looks into the sky and he sees an entrance or opening into heaven itself. The heavens are only opened two times in the book. The first time in the book that heaven is opened is in Revelation 4:1.

“After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”

The second time the heavens are opened is at the Second Coming when John writes, “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True” (19:11).

John looks up in the sky and sees a door open in heaven. That is interesting. Revelation 4 mentions a door. Revelation 3 mentioned two other doors. The Letter to the Church of Laodicea mentioned Jesus knocking on the door of individual people (3:20), the door of people’s hearts.

The Letter to the Church of Philadelphia mentioned God opening and closing another door (3:8), a door of ministry. In chapter 4, it mentions a door to heaven. The door is wide open and John is invited to come on up and to observe what is going on in heaven.

Jesus wasn’t inviting John simply to see heaven. He invited him up to heaven to see the future -“what must take place after this” (4:1). John was invited to heaven, not to see the state of the churches but to see future events on earth.

Revelation 4:1 and the Rapture

John sees an open door in heaven and someone says, “come on up”, so he goes up straight into heaven. Most dispensationalists who read this think it refers to the rapture of the church (cf. I Thessalonians 4:13-17)? It is a very common interpretation. Is it valid? There are some similarities to the rapture but there are also some important differences.

1. Both passages mention a voice but I Thessalonians 4:16 mentions the voice of an angel.

Whose voice does John hear in Revelation 4? It was the same voice that he heard speak to him like a trumpet (4:1). In chapter one of the book, John heard a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches” and when he turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me, he saw Jesus (1:10-13).

2. Both passages mention a trumpet but John hears something LIKE a trumpet (4:1).      At the rapture, a real trumpet will be sounded (I Thessalonians 4:16).

3. Both passages mention a rapture but Revelation 4:1 only describes John being caught up to heaven.  It describes the rapture of John, not the rapture of the whole church.

The concept of the rapture is biblical. There will be a rapture of the church but Revelation 4:1 does not describe it. The Apostle Paul said that the church would be raptured but that passage does not describe it at all.

Now we can say that John is a type or a picture of the church (John was raptured and the church will be raptured) but we do not want to read too much into types.

So John is taken into heaven and what does he see? What John saw was hard to describe and hard for some of us to even imagine, although one artist has attempted to depict it.

The Throne of God

John saw several things. First, he saw the throne of God (4:2). The focus of the whole chapter is on the throne. It is a central theme of the chapter. It is also a key word in the book. The word “throne” occurs forty times in the Book of Revelation and only fifty-six times in the whole NT. Revelation 4 uses the word “throne” 13 times, the most in the whole book. If Revelation is the throne book, then Revelation 4 is the throne chapter of the NT (used 13 times in only 11 verses).

Revelation 4 gives us a picture of the throne room of God. A throne is a symbol of power and authority. Kings sit on a throne (throne of David). There are thrones on earth and there are thrones in heaven. This throne is ABOVE all thrones.

This is the throne of the universe. God is the supreme ruler of the universe. God reigns on his throne (Psalm 47:8). He is in complete control of everything that happens on earth. That does not mean that he approves of everything that happens. John saw someone God sitting on his throne.

At this point it is worth noting that God is not a physical being like we are. Many people think that God is a physical being. Mormons believe that. They claim that God the Father has a “body of flesh and bones.

Now the Bible does say that we are created in his image. We look like him and we have physical bodies. He is referred to in the masculine gender. When the Bible talks about God, it calls him a “He” (not a “she” or an “it”). The Bible also speaks of God having various body parts (arms, feet, hands) but this is figurative language. The Bible says that God is invisible (Colossians 1:15; I Timothy 1:17; 6:15-16).

It also says that God is a spirit (John 4:24) and spirits are immaterial beings (Luke 24:39). They do not have a body and are sexless. God is neither male, nor female. God is a spirit. God can manifest himself in a physical form (called a theophany). Keep that in mind as we study these visions of God.

John saw the throne of God and the one who sat on it. Who was the one who was sitting on the throne? Who did John see? He saw God the Father. He is called The Lord God Almighty (4:8). Jesus is clearly distinguished from the one who sits on the throne (cf. 5:1, 6-7, 13; 6:16; 7:10).

The focus in Revelation 4 is on God the Father. The focus in Revelation 5 will be on the God the Son, although we do not want to make too much of this distinction. The Father shares His rule with the Son (cf. 3:21). The one who sits on the throne is praised for creating all things and we know that the Bible teaches that Jesus was the one who created all things (Colossians 1:16-17).

Second, he saw two groups of beings around the throne – twenty-four elders and the four living creatures. One group had wings and the other had golden crowns on their head. Let’s look briefly at these two groups of beings.

The Twenty-Four Elders

The second group of beings near the throne is the twenty-four elders. Who are they? John doesn’t say who they are. There is a lot of debate about this group. Not everyone agrees who they are. There are two main views on the twenty-four elders. I will present both views and let you make up your own mind which has the stronger argument.

Some very good scholars hold the view that the 24 elders are angels, not just any angels but a special class of ruling angels. Ordinary angels stand before the throne (7:11) but these are seated. That is the view of D.A. Carson and Grant Osborne. What are some arguments that these might be angels?

Are the Twenty-Four Elders Angels?

1) The twenty-four elders are always associated with the four living creatures in Revelation (5:8; 7:9-11, 13-14; 11:16-18; 14:1-3; 19:1-4).  You never see them by themselves. The four living creatures are clearly angels.

2) Angels are called “thrones” (Colossians 1:16).   If they are called thrones, they may sit on thrones, have some authority and possibly wear crowns. They are distinguished from ordinary angels (5:11; 7:11) but they could still refer to a group of ruling angels. The four living creatures are also distinguished from ordinary angels and they are angelic beings.

3) Revelation 14:3 says, “And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders. No one could learn the song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth”.  

In this passage the elders are clearly distinguished from those who had been redeemed from the earth. The twenty-four elders could not learn this song. The four living creatures could not learn this song. Only the redeemed could learn it.

4) In 5:8 the elders hold golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. It seems a little strange to have saints who have died offering up prayers to God. They have almost a priestly role. That was a function of angels later on in the book (8:3). Yet the elders seem to function as intermediaries in Revelation.

5) We know from the OT that God has a heavenly court of angels that surround him (cf. I Kings 22).

Others believe that the twenty-four elders represent redeemed people. What are some indications that they refer to people?

Are the Twenty-Four Elders People?

1. Nowhere in the Bible are angels called “elders”

There were elders in Israel and elders in the church. In fact, it is the name of an office in the church. This term would most naturally refer to people. In fact, since angels do not age, it is hard to call them elders.

2. Everything they have was promised to believers

Jesus promised faithful believers a crown (2:10; 3:11), white raiment (3:4, 18; 6:11; 7:9, 13; 19:14), the opportunity to sit on thrones (3:21) and ability to rule (2:26-27), so it would make perfect sense for this group to refer to people. Crowns never promised to angels but they are promised to believers. Nowhere else in the Bible do we see any angel wearing a crown.

The real question is, Which group of people do the twenty-four elders represent? Some say that they are the church but I do not know why the church would be represented by twenty-four elders. Seven would make sense (based on chapters 2-3) or twelve (based on the number of apostles) but not twenty-four.

Another possible view is that they represent redeemed people (OT and NT saints), not just church saints. This is based on the number twenty-four. Twelve elders would represent Israel (twelve tribes of Israel and twelve elders would represent the church (twelve apostles). Both groups of twelve will be remembered in the New Jerusalem (21:12-14).

What did the twenty-four elders do? They did two things:

1) They worshiped God.

In Revelation, they fall on their knees and worship God (4:10; 5:8; 7:11; 11:16-18; 19:4). In the next chapter, we will see them singing (5:8). What do they praise God for in chapter 4?

They praised him for being the creator of all things (4:11). Notice the change in person. The living beings sang about God (third person) but the twenty-four elders sang directly to God (second person) and they praised him for creation. It is evidence of incredible power, wisdom and beauty (Jeremiah 32:17). The Psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (19:1).

Creation is an incredible display of infinite power. The four living creatures said that God is worthy to receive “glory, honor and thanks” (4:9). The twenty-four elders say that he is worthy to receive “glory, honor and power”. Job 26:7 says that God “spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing”.

God not only created the world, He did it supernaturally without any tools or materials. He didn’t just make the world like we make something; He created the world out of nothing. He also did it without any help and He did it right the first time.

He did not make any mistakes. Everything that he did was “good” (Genesis 1:10, 18, 25). The universe is not a product of random chance. Everything in the universe came into existence by the will of God (4:11).

2) They cast their crowns.

Why did they do this? Why did they do that? Some might have liked having a gold crown on their head. The twenty-four elders were given a valuable reward by God. They took the reward they received and gave it right back as an act of worship. God is the only one worthy to receive it. This is a case of the twenty-four elders giving back to God.

The Four Living Creatures

We see this group of creatures in 4:6-8. It is a rather ugly group of beings full of eyes in front and in back. Three of them look like animals (lion, ox, eagle) and one looks like a man. Who are they? What are they? The KJV translates it “four beasts”.

That sounds like my four boys but that is actually not a good translation of the Greek word (ζωον). The word “beasts” means animals but only three of them look like animals. One looks like a man. Some women say that all men are beasts but the word “beast” has a bad connotation. The Antichrist is called a beast later on in the book (13:5) but that is a different Greek word (θηρίον). It is better translated “living creatures”.

Who are these living creatures? They are a group of angels that most likely are seraphim, although they have some similarities to the cherubim in Ezekiel 1 . Angels are organized in a hierarchy. Some have more rank and authority.

While we cannot be completely sure, these look like a group of angels in the Bible called the seraphim. The seraphim are the angels in Isaiah 6 who said, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (6:3). They said the same things as the angels in that John saw in Revelation 4 and they both had six wings (4:8; Isaiah 6:2). They do not use their wings in Revelation 4 but in Isaiah they flew.

Why did the four living creatures praise God? They praised him for three things all in the same verse (4:8). God is omnipotent (Almighty). God is eternal (the one who was, who is and is to come) and God is holy. What aspect of God impressed these creatures the most? His holiness.

Day and night they praised him for being holy (4:8). They did not praise him day and night for being loving or being forgiving or for being wise but for being holy. In fact, they did not just say, “Holy is the Lord God Almighty”. They said, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty”. Why did they say it three times? They said it three times for emphasis. When we want to emphasize something we might underline or italicize it or put it in bold.

The Jews used repetition. That is why Jesus said, “Verily, verily I say unto you”. It was a common Hebrew idiom (Isaiah 21:9 – “Babylon is fallen, is fallen” or Ezekiel 21:27 – “ A ruin! A ruin! I will make it a ruin! It will not be restored until he comes to whom it rightfully belongs; to him I will give it.

Or Jeremiah 7:4 – Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!”). To emphasize that God is absolutely holy the angels said this three times.

No other attribute of God is said three times. We never hear them say, “love, love, love”, “mercy, mercy, mercy” or “justice, justice, justice.” Many believe that this is the supreme attribute of God.

What does it mean that God is holy? It means two things – absolute moral purity (moral perfection) and complete separation from sinners. The word “holy” means “set apart”. Why do you think that people do not understand the holiness of God? They have two problems.

They do not know how wicked they are and they do not know how great God is. People today do not understand their own sinfulness. They do not understand total depravity and they think of God like their buddy or friend, rather than as their Creator. We put God on our level.

What do they four living creatures do? They also execute judgment on the earth. They are the ones who open the seals of judgment on the earth (6:1, 7; 15:7). They worship God. People that are closest to God are full of worship. These are the angels that are closest to the throne of God.

They seem to have a unique relationship to the throne (guardians of the throne). These angels not only worship God, they lead others in worship. Throughout the book they function as the worship leaders in heaven (4:8-9; 5:8-10, 14; 19:4). The elders fall down and worship when the living creatures give the signal.

OT Visions of God

The Apostle John was not the first to see the throne of God. Several other people in the Bible also had a vision of the throne of God. The prophet Micaiah saw God sitting on his throne in heaven with tons of angels standing around him (I Kings 22:19).

The prophet Isaiah saw God sitting on his throne high and lifted up. Above him were angels that flew around saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:1-4).

The prophet Ezekiel saw God sitting on a sapphire throne . He said that the person who sat on the throne looked like a man. Brilliant light surrounded him and he was full of fire. He also saw some funny looking creatures flying around the throne (Ezekiel 1:1, 26-28; 10:1).

Ezekiel also mentions seeing a rainbow, which is mentioned in Revelation. The prophet Daniel also had a vision of God sitting on his throne. He called God “the Ancient of Days”. His clothes were white and his head was white. His throne was full of fire and was full of thousands and thousands of angels (Daniel 7:9-10).

Summary

1. It was exalted and majestic

Isaiah described this throne as “high and lifted up”.  It is located in heaven, although eventually, it will come to earth (22:3). Right now it is in heaven. It is great and white (20:11).

Glory surrounds this throne. It was very bright.  It is described in terms of precious stones that are translucent, like jasper and ruby (4:3). It had fire connected to it. It also describes seven blazing lamps in front of the throne (4:5). From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder (4:5). Rainbows in the Bible are a symbol of mercy. God used a rainbow as a sign that he would never again destroy the world with a flood of water (Genesis 9:12-17).

It was a sign of mercy in the midst of judgment. There will be a lot of judgment in Revelation during the Tribulation but there will also be signs of God’s mercy during that period. The rainbow in Revelation 4 is a little unusual because rainbows today are not green. Rainbows today consist of different shades of seven colors. This one was bright green. God’s throne is not just a throne of judgment, it is a throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16).

2. It was surrounded by angels

We saw this in the OT (I Kings 22:19) see that in the Book of Revelation (5:11). Some of these angels are rather funny looking (full of eyes on the front and back with the face of different kinds of animals)

3. Worship takes place around this throne

Revelation is not just a book about prophecy, it is a book about worship. All kinds of worship takes place in this book. All of the heavenly beings around the throne worship the one who sits on it. In fact, our passage says that they worship God “day and night” (4:8). The four-living creatures worship him and the twenty-four elders worship him.

4 Responses to A Vision of Heaven

  1. Bonnie Campbell says:

    This was very enlightening to me. I do read the scriptures and pray for God to give me understanding. I want to show it to my pastor and others, especially the confused and lost.

  2. Stephanie Rivera says:

    Who is the artist of this beautiful picture

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